Cowardly Lions and Depressed Preachers — Proclaiming the Gospel after the Insurrection

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.

Photo by Inzmam Khan on

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.

What I Want to Hear on Sunday

Where do we find God? We love to find God in “the rocks and trees, the skies and seas,” as Alli Rogers wrote in “This is My Father’s World.” We long to find God in the beauties of nature, the awesome scope of Creation, the giggles of an infant in the crib, or during other Hallmark moments. There certainly is room for that in the Christian gospel – especially in Matthew. Jesus calls us to look at the lilies of the field and the birds of the air as examples of worry-resilient faith.

But for every stunning sunset there is a terrifying tornado. The purple mountains’ majesty can contain a violent volcano. The majestic roar of the tiger often comes after the beast has made a fresh kill. Even the gurgling infant can soon grow into a troubled adult. Looking for God is a confusing and challenging exercise that rarely results in clarity of vision. We hear that confusion in the words of the “sheep” and the “goats” in the Parable of the Great Judgement.

Neither group realizes who they have met as they went about their daily lives. David Lose writes, “they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out. No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need.”

Lord, when did we see you?” each group asks. The word “see” can have the sense of “notice” or “pay attention to,” Perhaps the point is not so much that each group was equally blind in some way, but that they didn’t notice the deeper import of what they were doing. In that way the sheep and the goats are the same. But they differ in their attention to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The sheep noticed the needy. The goats did not.

“The afflicted have no need of anything else in this world,” wrote Simone Weil, “except someone capable of paying attention to them.” Weil believed that attention is the profoundest expression of love for the neighbor. “The fullness of love for neighbor, she wrote, “is simply the capacity to ask the question, ‘What is your agony?’” The sheep appear to have asked that question and responded to the answer. The goats appear not to have asked.

Lord, make me a sheep.

The sheep feed those who are hungry. The sheep give drink to those who are thirsty. The sheep welcome those who are the strangers. The sheep clothe those who are naked. The sheep take care of those who are sick. The sheep visit those who are imprisoned. The sheep may not have seen Jesus in the vulnerable, but they saw the vulnerable. The goats saw neither.

This text can become the most burdensome expression of the Law if that is our only focus. As preachers we sometimes must fill in the good news context to be faithful to a text. In The Freedom of a Christian Luther describes his version of the “Golden Rule.” That rule, in short, is “Do to your neighbor as Christ has done to you.” The good news is that we are on the receiving end of this unconditional love first. Christ is present in us in faith so we can be present to our neighbor in love.

“Therefore,” Luther writes, “I will give myself as a kind of Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me. I will do nothing in this life except what I see will be necessary, advantageous, and salutary for my neighbor, because through faith I am overflowing with all good things in Christ.” (my emphasis). Our loving response to the neighbor is rooted in, energized by and reflective of the work of Christ for us and the presence of Christ in us.

Our works of love are a joyous outflow of the love which the Holy Spirit has placed in our hearts through Christ. “Without a doubt we are named after Christ – not absent from us but dwelling in us,” Luther writes, “in other words: provided that we believe in him and that, in turn and mutually, we are a second Christ to one another, doing for our neighbors as Christ does for us.”

Who can do those things? Generally it’s not those who struggle with hunger and thirst, who are lost and naked, those who sick and imprisoned. The ones who can do all this good work are those who are better off! The behavior the Lord commends here is the work of solidarity with the vulnerable. The behavior the Lord condemns is the failure to do that work.

Lord, make me a sheep.

We live in a representative democracy. We can certainly respond to those who are hungry and thirsty, those who are lost and naked, those who are sick and imprisoned on our own. Personal acts of lovingkindness are part of the discipleship life. We, however, have far more power than that. We can work together for policies and practices that put in place public responses to the needs of the vulnerable.

There is no discussion in the parable of whether the vulnerable are worthy or unworthy. For Jesus followers that is not part of the conversation. We know that theologically if we understand the grace of God in Christ. No one is worthy — not even one. If worthiness were part of the equation, we’d all be screwed.

If that’s God’s standard for us, why should we apply a different standard to those God loves? Look, serving with the vulnerable is going to draw us into policies and politics whether we like it or not. Only the privileged oblivious get to avoid such concerns.

I’ve worked with those in prison. It took me about ten minutes of that work to start wondering about our corrections policies and practices. If you’ve volunteered to feed the hungry, it’s probably taken you about that long to wonder about our food policies. If you’ve had chronically ill friends or family, you’ve struggled to understand our medical system and health insurance practices.

In my experience, trying to live as one of the “sheep” has always pulled me into politics and policy issues. The only way to stay out of those issues is to look the other way. But that is “goat” behavior.

Friends, this is not just about “those people over there.” This is about us. Most of us are about one medical catastrophe from bankruptcy. Most of us are about one lay-off from disaster. Most of us are only a couple of paychecks from going hungry. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who worry about food has gone from 40 million to 80 million. Chances are that one in every four people you know is worried about whether they will run out of food before they run out of month. Maybe you are one of those folks. And many of those folks wonder if they will have a roof over their heads at the end of that month.

So this Sunday (and every Sunday) I want to hear politics from the pulpit. When we keep politics out of the pulpit, we’ve made a political decision. We’ve decided to support the people who benefit from the way things are. Those folks generally are not among the hungry and thirsty, the naked and strangers, the sick and imprisoned. Those folks are generally not much like you and me.

These days the truth is that a disproportionate number of the vulnerable are black and brown people in the United States. Race and racial conflict are tools used to keep people in their economic and social places. But lots of white people are among the vulnerable as well. Advocating for the least of these is a form of multi-racial politics that will make life better for all of us. When we are Christ to the neighbor, race, class, ethnicity, gender — they are all real, but they are not barriers to loving community.

Christ is with us always – in us through faith and in our neighbors through love. The Holy Spirit equips us to pay attention to our neighbor in need because we have no need to pay attention to ourselves. “Therefore, we conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor,” Luther writes, “or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.”

Lord, make me a sheep. Amen.

Text Study for Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

In the Parable of the Great Judgment in Matthew 25, Jesus is the King of the Universe. He is also managing sheep and goats. Thus, he serves as the Cosmic Shepherd. The image of “shepherd” is an Old Testament trope used to meditate on the nature of kingship, both divine and human. That is the case here in Ezekiel 34.

This text creates an important backstop for understanding the Parable of the Divine Judgment. The Divine Shepherd in Ezekiel 34 is the Good Shepherd who cares for the sheep. We need to keep that image in our minds as we read and reflect on the gospel text for this day. It is easy to lose track of the character of the king and the nature of the shepherd if we focus exclusively on the judgment aspect of the parable.

James Limburg titles the run-up to this section of Ezekiel, “The Failure of the Politicians.” That should get our attention immediately. “Put succinctly,” Limburg writes in his commentary, “Ezekiel the pastor to those in exile says to the political leaders of his time, ‘You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep.’ These leaders ought to be caring for the sheep, not exploiting them, and fattening their own lives. In these times that are a-changing, both world and church need politicians and pastors who will care for their people responsibly.”

If one of the roles of Christians in a polity is to maintain a critical distance and hold leaders accountable for doing justice (and it is), then this text is a real eye-popper. I know that most preachers won’t hold up any political leaders to this text and find them wanting. But that is exactly what this text encourages. You shepherds have fed yourselves and have not fed my sheep. The shepherds Ezekiel describes were likely collaborators with the Babylonian oppressors, lining their own pockets at the expense of the other exiles.

“Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29). I think the outgoing presidential administration fits this description somewhat securely.

Here’s the thing. Anyone who thinks that politics don’t belong in the pulpit simply has not read the whole Bible. The prophets are plumb full of political critique. The fact that we think we can keep that critique out of our preaching and out of our communities is simply a sign of our (mostly white, male, classist) political privilege. And, I would suggest, this reticence is a sign that we are much more in the tribe of the goats than that of the sheep in Matthew 25.

One of the privileges of retirement is the freedom to say things that would have gotten me in hot water with my “employers” in my previous life.

Carolyn Sharp speaks this element of the text clearly in her comments.

Justice means that God holds bullies accountable. The “shepherd” metaphor takes an ironic turn in verses 20-22: God’s judgment will fall on those sheep that harm the weaker sheep. Here Ezekiel satirizes any complacency on the part of “sheep” who might have dared to become overconfident in the images of God’s loving care. God will tend these sheep, all right! Those who belong to God are those who do the will of God (Matthew 12:50, Mark 3:35), and it is never God’s will that believers injure one another, jockey for advantage, or exploit resources that should be for all.

Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” (Revelation 2:29).

Our own call to care for the vulnerable reflects the nature of the Good Shepherd, who seeks the lost, brings back the strayed, binds up the injured and strengthens the weak (verse 16). These actions are more than individual altruism, however. They are the actions of the King – again whether divine or human. The punchline of Ezekiel’s text is the final verse in our reading: “I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Justice is always a political category.

Margaret Odell puts it this way in her comments. “Justice and care belong together because the shepherd metaphor was always first and foremost a political metaphor. To be a king was to be a shepherd,” she continues, “viewed from that perspective the more surprising element of the shepherd metaphor may be the way it shapes perceptions about the proper exercise of power.”

Leadership and the exercise of power – these are pretty contemporary issues, I’d say. For Ezekiel, the appropriate exercise of power is always power for the sake of the vulnerable and power with those who care for the vulnerable. It is not the power over others – the predominant secular model of power in both the ancient and contemporary worlds. Power comes from God for the sake of loving the neighbor. When power is used for any other purpose, we engage in idolatry because we worship power for its own sake.

Odell concludes with these thoughts.

The church is gathered from the nations, where power is exercised in any number of ways, and not necessarily for the sake of human well-being. It is worth asking,” she notes, “how this exercise of power has fragmented the human community, isolating us from one another, leaving us scattered, injured, and alone. As Christians continue to heed Christ’s call to care for these fragmented and injured individuals, may we also find to address the root causes of the world’s pain.

I think we are witnessing some very disordered theology of power and freedom in our culture at this moment. The power that is often celebrated is the power over others that secures my certainty, security, and comfort. The freedom that is often celebrated is the freedom from the needs and demands of others – the freedom that puts me first and, in the center, and at the top. That is not Christian freedom (as, for example, Luther would have described it).

If we are made God’s royal and priestly people by virtue of our baptisms, then we have royal and priestly responsibilities. It would appear that those responsibilities include attending to the “least” of our sisters and brothers and to do so for their sake alone.

How does this impact our pandemic behavior as individuals and churches? Is my freedom to go maskless really of greater importance than the safety of those around me?

How does this inform our continued involvement in anti-racism efforts and causes? For example, are we working to remedy the horrific inequities in educational systems based on self-segregated housing schemes and the property tax injustices that result?

How does this inform our work in climate justice, which disproportionately affects the “least of these”?

Please see my post for November 16 for the resources for this Sunday’s texts.