The image of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz haunts me today. “What makes a king out of a slave?” he asks his traveling companions, “Courage! What makes the flag on a mast to wave? Courage! What makes an elephant charge his tusk, in the misty mist or the dusky dusk? What makes a muskrat guard his musk? Courage! What makes the sphinx the Seventh Wonder? Courage! What makes the dawn come up like THUNDER? Courage! What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot? What have they got that I ain’t got?”
In unison, Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Man reply, “Courage.” Without thinking, the Cowardly Lion replies, “You can say that again!” Truth.
I am a depressed preacher today. I know what’s coming from many of our white, mainline, Christian pulpits. I know it because I know how in all likelihood I would be preaching today. In response to the violent invasion of the nation’s capitol by white, neofascist, pseudo-Christian nationalists, I would soft-pedal, equivocate, hint, and self-censor. I would do this in response to my fear of the potential institutional violence I would suffer as a result of honest and direct preaching.
I never experienced any physical threats in response to my preaching in nearly 40 years of such work. That simply means that I never made anyone uncomfortable enough to prompt such a response. I knew the horror stories from colleagues, from friends of friends of friends, and from the subtle cues given by judicatory staff. I knew that preachers sometimes suffered harassment, public censure, and loss of jobs and homes when they went “too far” in their preaching. I knew that the only preaching rule besides “don’t talk about money too much” was “don’t talk about politics at all.”
I am a depressed preacher today. And I am ashamed. I was never in danger of having my head bashed in. I was never in danger of being attacked by dogs. I was never in danger of having a bomb planted in my house. I was never in danger of having my sanctuary shot up – at least not because my preaching was offensive. The worst that would have happened is that some people wouldn’t like me, I’d have some difficult meetings, I would probably need to update my resume, and my family would need to move (again).
I would have probably taken a new and somewhat less lucrative call. I might have been labelled as incompetent and/or a troublemaker. Synod staff might have regarded me as a lot of work and a pastor of poor judgment. Even those who had supported my views and position would have been quiet in their protests. After all, I could leave. Most of them were going to stay. I might have suffered a bit and lived through some hard conversations at home. I might have felt like a failure (well, what’s new), but then I would move on.
I understand that I’m a whining, privileged, white man with every advantage. And still I took the softer, safer path far, far too often. So, I know how it’s going to go in lots of pulpits today. I am still depressed and ashamed. And complicit.
The truth is that I could preach ninety-nine boring, milquetoast, complicit sermons with minimal consequences. People who treasure the truth would drift away in disappointment, despair, and disgust. But it only takes one honest and confrontational sermon for the knives to sharpened and the calls of outrage to show up in church council voice mail inboxes. Parish ministry is joyful in manifold ways. It is also often a hostage situation where the preacher is both captive and negotiator.
So, I am not surprised by the dark online humor about which preaching strategy we will choose to dissect the dilemma and live to preach another week. I laughed out loud at the “Purple Church Post-Insurrection Sermon Bingo” meme on social media. Some of the preaching choices included “Not who we are as a country,” and “Describing but not mentioning Trump by name.” There were the spaces labelled “I’m just preaching the lectionary” and “Don’t look to earthly rulers.”
I noted that one popular option was not listed on the game – “Get sick and find a guest preacher.” It would be a good Sunday to be stricken with laryngitis or the twenty-four-hour version of the bubonic plague. That might be preferable to disingenuous quotes from MLK, and Mr. Rogers, while subtly communicating that there were fine people on all sides. Lest you think that’s an exaggeration, I have certainly been there, done that, taken a selfie, and gotten the t-shirt.
And the self-deceiving rationalizations…am I going to hurt and offend and alienate people I know and love (some of whom are really trying hard, after all)? Or am I going to kick to the curb yet again that nameless mass of oppressed humanity who do not pay my salary and benefits, provide my housing, and have my cell number on speed dial? The choice is really pretty clear and simple. It’s the clergy version of the Stockholm Syndrome. After decades of practice, it starts to look like actual reality.
The judicatory will be of little help, and I don’t blame them for that. That’s just kicking the can one rung up the ladder (to mash up metaphors). Preach challenging messages, they say. But don’t generate complaints to the head office, they imply. We’ll have your back, they say. Or at least we’ll help you find another position when the complaining gets too loud, they imply. Don’t do it again, they think. And who can blame them? I don’t. Speaking hard truths and holding the institutional church together are mutually contradictory tasks.
I’m a depressed, ashamed, sad, white, male, retired, privileged preacher today. And I have some hope as well. Even in our cautious churches, we have voices of truth. So, I share words from Bishop Yehiel Curry of our ELCA Metropolitan Chicago Synod, in his pastoral letter to the members of his flock. Even as I regret years of complicity, I cling to the courage of others who call me to do better.
“For me, Epiphany, January, the New Year, is a time of vision boards and new beginnings. Hope for something new greets us as we gaze at the child cradled in Mary’s arms,” Bishop Curry writes. “But the events of this past Wednesday were nothing to look forward to. Indeed, these events once again highlighted the disparities that exist in our nation, reminding us again that the pursuit of peace, justice, and equity must never cease.”
“As we search for an alternative future, the future of God envisioned in Jesus’ teachings about God’s Reign of Love,” he continues, “I’d ask that you recommit with me to the work of dismantling white supremacy in our hearts and in the world. Will you do this? I ask also that you’d pray with me for all those who are currently living with renewed fear and resurfaced trauma and pain”.
“Of our leaders, I ask that you take this moment as an opportunity to have courageous conversations with your family, neighbors, and community. We trust that when we gather in Christ, God might instigate change in even the most hardened of hearts and that God, indeed, is with us as we work toward a church and a world where nobody has to say, ‘If it was us, we would have been shot.’”
Confession is a good thing. Repentance for the forgiveness of sins is necessary before moving on, as we read today in Mark 1. The proper next response to for me, for you, for all of us who want a different world, to keep making new and courageous choices. I know, it’s easy for me to say. But it’s better than another addition to the Post-Insurrection Sermon Bingo library.
The path of discipleship is not the Yellow Brick Road. The Holy Spirit is not the Great and Powerful Oz. There is no fraud behind the curtain pulling levers and turning wheels. I pray for some of the courage of which the good Bishop speaks. And I trust that it will come if I am open to it.”
So, pray for your preachers and support them as they seek to speak the truth. Let them know that you are with them in their efforts to be brave and honest. Share their risks and burdens if you can. Perhaps together we can do something constructive with our shame.