Drawing the Sheep for the Flock: An Approach to Politics in the Pulpit

I interrupt this regularly scheduled Lenten reflection to offer something a little different. For those loyal blog readers, you will know that this Lent I have been reflecting intentionally about homecoming, grace, and welcome using the words of two of my favorite theologians and fellow mystics – Howard Thurman and Henri Nouwen. I promise to resume that reflection if for no other reason than externally processing my thoughts through the process of writing has helped me to become a lot more clear about who I am, whose I am, and where I am going. I might also add that Richard Rohr has some wonderful reflections on union, theosis, and salvation that might be helpful for you (as they certainly have been for me).

I am pressing the pause button on that series for a couple of reasons:

Reason 1: Anyone not living under a rock for the past few months will note the increasingly rancorous electoral process we have been subjected to. I have spoken to many people who have had to unplug from social media for prolonged periods of time because the conversations have become so (almost instantaneously) baffling and exhausting – and I am not just talking about Republican candidates not-so-subtly discussing penis sizes on international platforms. It just seems like we are witnesses a breakdown in an ability to talk to one another about issues that really matter. That’s all politics is. A dear friend who is a lot more diplomatic on these things than I, has suggested that all politics is is “the allocation of our collective values.” Lately it seems like we are unable to collectively value anything as we are all so busy hoarding power in our tiny fiefdoms.

Reason 2: I have just finished a bit of pastoral engagement with several parishioners who had questions about a sermon I gave a few weeks ago. I say this not as an indictment against my parishioners, but as a challenge to all clergy. It is very easy to mount the pulpit on Sunday mornings and make deep, profound, salient, and prolific statements. But the “sermon process” does not end after 15 minutes. The “sermon process,” the process wherein we hear, rehear, and overhear the Gospel in ways that over long periods of time can turn hearts to G-d, continues through intentional relationship with those to whom we are call to shepherd, and even a willingness to be changed ourselves.

Reason 3: I recently ran across a book that I had heard about for years but never once took the opportunity to read, The Little Prince. As a so-called “professionally religious” person, a priest, I have a tendency to view everything through a theological framework. So picking up this book at this stage in my life was quite an interesting encounter.

So let me begin with The Little Prince. Towards the beginning of the story, the narrator recounts his crash landing in the middle of the desert and his initial encounter with the diminutive royal. The first thing the Little Prince requests of him is simple, seemingly at least. “Draw me a sheep,” he says. The narrator draws a sheep only to find that this sheep is not sufficient for the Little Prince. He draws another, and another, and another, all three inadequate. Finally in his frustration, and also realizing that he needs to be more concerned with weightier matters such as finding water and fixing his plane, the narrator draws a box. “It’s just a crate,” he says, “the sheep you want is inside.” Imagine his surprise when the Little Prince responded, “That’s just the kind I wanted! Do you think the sheep will need a lot of grass?” I was struck by both the sheer absurdity of this exchange and the depth therein. The narrator, albeit in his frustration, had provided the space the Little Prince needed to find what he was looking for. He asked for a sheep, but what he was really looking for was imagination, space, mystery, and an opportunity to be invited into the creative process.

A few weeks ago I had the esteemed privilege of presenting to a shared bible study class. For those who do not know, my parish has partnered with a Missionary Baptist congregation across the city in order to tear down racial, class, and denominational divisions. The bible study was part of a series wherein our two congregations came together to better understand both the role that religion, namely American Christianity, had played in propping up racism and the role religion, namely post-Christendom Christianity, can play in tearing down walls of division. I wanted to share about G-d as mystery, how and why diverse images and voices matter, how we so often have the tendency to collapse divine mystery into something too small because mystery scares the hell out of us. We have a tendency of drawing sheep or, in the case of Moses, renaming and redefining G-d (Adonai instead of YHWH) to remake G-d in our own, safe, manageable image. Instead, what the scriptures, the historic creeds, and the tradition of the Church invite us into is a framework for our journey into the mystery of G-d. At least that’s how I look at them. They are roadmaps pointing out the pitfalls, scenic outlooks, rest stations, and points of interest that draw us into our own journey with G-d.

So when it comes to politics in the pulpit, I am clear about one thing: politics has a place in the pulpit, but not the way it is so often deployed. Christianity is concerned with far more than individual salvation and personal morality. The Christian pulpit is powerless if we cannot find ways of articulating the magnitude and urgency of the Kingdom of G-d over and against the forces of empire. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman asks a searching question, “The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them?” As it turns out, Jesus had a lot to say to them, and to us in a varying levels of marginality. He unfurled a political agenda that sought to critique the prevailing politics of Roman imperialism. Jesus himself was a highly political figure. He was called “Lord” thereby subverting the hegemonic appropriation of this title by Caesar. He referred to the reality of the Kingdom of G-d/Heaven which stood over-and-against the Roman Empire; moreover, he constantly undermined the authority the Roman government had taken to itself over the people. William R. Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech frames many of the parables that we hear as coded, narrative protest against Roman rule. And if you want definitive proof of Jesus’s political activism, just look to the cross. Crucifixion was a form of execution reserved for the crime of sedition against the Roman State. Substitutionary atonement theory aside, according to the letter of the law, Jesus deserved to die because the love of G-d made manifest in him put him up against the most powerful empire the world had ever know. He was crucified, not because he loved people so much or because G-d mandated it be so, but because Roman (temporal) law demanded it. He died because systemic oppression would suffer no one to resist total control and complete obedience. Jesus dared to dream of a world where G-d ruled, and he was gaining a following that threatened the tentative peace in Judea.

But politics in the pulpit has taken an ugly turn of late. Instead of articulating the bigness of the Reign of G-d over against temporal powers, so many of us (myself included) have opted to take the easy way out, preaching pet issues and a Gospel too small for many to find themselves inside of. Rather than bear witness to the inbreaking of the Reign of G-d, we become mired in policy discussions and divisive language. Instead of preaching the truth of G-d, we have allowed the Church’s voice to become co-opted by left- and right-wing politicians, liberal and conservative voices who could not possibly care any less about the Church outside of its ability to move people’s hearts. We have allowed the desecrating sacrilege into our sacred spaces, giving what is holy to the dogs in exchange for momentary glimpses of temporal relevance. Instead of engaging in the partisan, politicized rancor of the moment, we have to find ways of countering the all-too-often-too-small narrative of our politics with the bigness of G-d. That’s what I heard when I sat down with so many faithful Christians who had questions about my sermon. It would have been easy to dismiss them as cultural Christians uninterested in the true “cost of discipleship.” I was tempted to do so. Sure, there were some who just needed something to complain about and it was my week on the rota. But the other side of me saw an opportunity to hear the counternarrative to what I was trying to say.

Through my experiences and reflection I have discovered that the architecture of the traditional pulpit is a lie. Sure, lofted, ornately-cared pulpits are beautiful, but that convey an absolutism that the preacher simply does not have. Nothing we say is absolute. The only absolute Word of G-d is he who is born of Mary. All we can ever hope to do is to point in the general direction of Jesus and hope that we’re somewhere in the ballpark. The Gospel we preach is imperfect because we are imperfect vessels trying desperately to speak about a perfect G-d. Anyone telling you otherwise is lying to you. Anyone offering you easy answer might be denying the depth of the Gospel. I am haunted by Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians “…so if you think you are standing, be careful that you do not fall.” Many a pastor’s ministry has been undone by the pride of thinking s/he was standing when indeed they were falling headlong into an abyss. The Gospel must strike the heart of the preacher as hard, if not harder, than that of the parishioner in the pew.

Instead of drawing sheep for those who come to us seeking the words of life, I wonder if we are called instead to draw the crate. We are called to trust that is the Holy Spirit, not these imperfect lips of clay, who guides the faithful into all truth. We are merely called to articulate the framework of the Church – the creeds and scriptures that name our communal story and the traditions that hold us amidst so much change. We are called always to point up to the bigness of the Reign of G-d, to the wideness of G-d’s mercy, to the bottomlessness of G-d’s compassion. The politics we engage via the pulpit is a politics that supersedes the tribalism of the moment and engages the eternity of G-d in such a way that any wayfaring stranger can find themselves in G-d’s story and be encouraged to take up their cross and follow G-d into the way of love.

Blame it on my context. I do not serve a congregation that is of one mind on any issue, but that does not mean that my job is the bludgeon them with my definition of the Gospel. My job is the point to an endlessly compassionate G-d, to press just enough that they are pushed beyond boundaries of surety, and to lovingly point them in the general direction of G-d ever expansive love, welcome, and compassion.

So maybe this isn’t a break from Henri and Howard, but a slight detour. As Henri reflects on the Older Son, he talks a lot about a G-d who doesn’t pit the two sons against each other, but meets them both where they are, honors their experiences, and invites them into the celebration. There is no competition, just endless wells of compassion. Each of us, no matter how near to or far from the heart of G-d, is lost and wholly unable to save ourselves. We are simply called to respond with gratitude to the mystery of being found by G-d.

How do we address politics in the pulpit? We draw the crate and trust the Holy Spirit to provide the “ram in the bush” or, as in the case of this illustration, the sheep in the crate. We frame the discussion. We dare to name the magnitude of what the Church holds to be true: that G-d created us in love, that G-d is concerned about each of us individually, and that G-d’s compassion stretches far beyond what our eyes might be able to see. We talk about politics like Jesus did, with wide language rooted and grounded in the context of our communities, yet always pointing just beyond them, just beyond the issue of the moment, to a G-d who makes all things, all hearts, new. We talk about politics because we must, because to pretend as if we live in an apolitical world would be theological malpractice, because G-d is certainly concerned with how we live our common lives together; but, we talk about politics through the lens of a G-d whose reign both matters in the moment and also supersedes the moment to extend far beyond the cosmos.

The people are coming in search of something beyond themselves. Our job is not to give it to them, but to teach them how to see it for themselves. “The most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or touched,” says the fox who tutors the Little Prince in the art of deep seeing, “they are felt with the heart.” We are called to train hearts to see beauty in this world, beauty to pulls our hearts in the light of G-d’s love. As Nouwen says, “In the light of God I can finally see my neighbor as my brother, as one who belongs as much to God as I do.” Seeing our connectivity matters, because if we can experience the connection of the human heart that G-d desires, we can act on in ways, both big and small, that reveal the inbreaking of the Reign of G-d.

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