Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Faith Works 6-17-17

Faith Works 6-17-17

Jeff Gill


From the eternal to the immediate



Preachers and teachers in almost any faith tradition, and certainly in my own Protestant Christian church family, wrestle with the balance of timely material versus the timeless teachings that are at the heart of our gatherings.


One school of thought says that our task should be focused on heaven and the here-after, with current events and local concerns having little or nothing to do with our sermons on Sunday. The opposite position stands on the need to bring the assembly into a better context for those teachings by tying together our matters of the here-and-now to the ancient and the eternal.


Sometimes this tension is seen, at least in modern times, as between the social gospel movement and those affirming the fundamentals. A sort of liberal-conservative split between models for being church and teaching the faith.


It was the very Biblically oriented Karl Barth who popularized half a century ago the idea of preaching being the practice of walking into the pulpit with the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other: the sermon bringing the two into contact, and showing how the scriptures can interpret our world to the faithful.


I'd agree with Dr. Barth that you have to find a balance in such matters of teaching and interpretation. There is an ongoing, ever-lasting temptation to make of public worship a community event, not primarily a gathering for divine values: this is where, if it's confused or worried you, clergy get nervous and even resistant to calls to increase how we honor fathers around Father's Day, or put patriotism front and center in the service for Fourth of July weekend, and so on.


Those are what we call "contingent" matters. I have to admit that when I'm thinking about suggestions or even my own ideas for adding to the worship service, I ask myself if my friends and colleagues whose circumstances I know something about, who serve in ministry in Africa, in Central America: how would this fit into their service? And truth be told, if it would make no sense or even bring confusion into the worship space there, I'm going to hesitate here.


But when it comes to preaching, I do struggle with just how closely and contemporaneously I should be speaking to events in my hearer's world. And there's a question of balance both in the teaching of faith versus relevancy, and also in my ability to speak clearly and usefully to matters outside of my competence.


Ask me to speak about the role of religious belief and practice in first century Capernaum, and I can go on for hours, with a fair amount of confidence. Ask me to speak about public policy and court protective orders and how they should be managed, and I stutter. I stammer. I know some things, as a pastor; I know families who have had to ask for them, I know all too well how little they solve problems for those families, and I know some persons who have had them taken out on them.


The Gospel, the good news I preach, is meant to bring safety and security to those who seek it; I do believe that the gospel when taught starts to bring together community, and that community has a witness and something to share with the wider community around us. We serve in mission and ministry in ways that are most often practical and direct; can we address wider social questions such as why so many hundreds of CPO's are needed in our county, even among our own? Is there a way the wider community, even the Christian community, can co-operate and serve together to help make the pressures which bring those orders into being less conflict-ridden, less confrontational? And with people on either side of these issues in our membership, in our pews, how does faith speak to these matters?


And I don't even want to get started on child support.


Would Barth nod his head if I said a preacher should enter the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the jail inmate list in the other? The Bible in one hand and the recent indictments list in the other? The Bible in one hand and a print-out of squad runs and opiate overdoses in the other?


Let us pray over these questions for sure, and pray for preachers seeking wisdom on how to preach to them.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him about sermons that you've heard which moved you at or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.