Yesterday I was at a training for pastors in their first call. The focus was on preaching in difficult times – times when the nation is very divided politically, and in a number of other ways. We see this play out within congregations too.
How does a preacher proclaim Good News in an era when some people start with suspicion. Some people start with an assumption that what they are about to hear is more the advancement of a partisan political party’s agenda, rather than the Gospel.
I understand this concern. There are many pastors out there who seem to be more devoted to their political ideology than their theology. Someones a person is left wondering if the pastor preaching is confused as to whether they are a pastor proclaiming the Good News of Jesus, or a political activist proclaiming the Good News of political party.
At the training, we had great conversation and the sharing of wisdom of how to handle these times. For one thing, it is remembering that this isn’t new. Preachers in Germany lived through the Nazis – and some died. Preachers in the US lived through the Civil War – exploring Scripture for support or opposition to slavery. There have been other greatly divided situations throughout history. And there will be more. Anxiety and division aren’t new and they aren’t going away.
Two of the most important things that came out of the discussion was the importance of listening and relationship. Listening for the sake of listening and understanding – not to figure out how to respond. But we listen this way because of the relationship we have with a person. If we care about a person, and care for a person, we listen to them. We hear them out. We listen to learn and understand. We may not always come away with full understanding, but really, all that means is that understanding takes time – an investment of time. There’s no hacking this. There is only investing the time.
How do we preach across the divide? Is the question any different from how do we live across the divide? I think there are a few things – we listen and build relationships. That’s two essentials. But there are more. In our American culture, we seem to oriented towards seeing things in pairs – there are only two options. So often Americans and American culture only make room for two options. In politics it is Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative. In religion, it is atheist and Christian believer, or mainline and evangelical, or Muslim and Christian. In sports it is either my team or your team. In food it is either healthy food or bad food. Etc.
Yet, what happens when a person doesn’t fit into the nice, neat two options? Our culture doesn’t know what to do with that person, except try to force them to pick sides.
I think one of the things we preachers can do (and really anyone can do), is break out of the forced division of two options. I think the Gospel lends itself well to this. The Gospel, and especially Jesus never really fit well into the choice of two things. That’s because of something called Grace. Yes, I know there are examples of Jesus saying things that push people into an either/or choice. But that’s not the majority of the time – not even close.
Often Jesus is given a choice between two bad options and he often reframes the situation to allow for a third option. Jesus doesn’t buy into the idea that we have to pick between two bad options. There is grace. There’s always grace.
How do we preach in divided times? We show the division for what it is and we offer an alternative way. A way that moves us past the either/or to an alternative that is graceful to all involved. There doesn’t have to be winners and losers for everything. God sees children of God – not winner and losers. And so should we.