I rarely critique colleagues' sermons. And this evaluation will be de-identified. I hope it is instructional for us all, including any tempted to answer their friends’ frustrations with “God is in control”.
I visited a church shortly after the election, and the sermon was “fine” but unsatisfying. It began well; it was affirming to hear the preacher’s acknowledgment of people’s collective angst after the election. If, at this point, you are uncertain why there might be angst, put a pin in this article while I redirect you here, here, here, here, here, here and here, so you can get some idea of a perspective and experience that might be different from yours. Yet the sermon landed with the traditional, "God is in charge so don't worry". I believe in God's power absolutely and definitively. And while that is true, simply leaving it there is incomplete.
First of all, if you are filled with fear, you may be among those who are instantaneously relieved with reminders that God is in control and that God has not given us a spirit of fear. If hearing these platitudes alone gives you overwhelming comfort, then that is great for you! However, for millions of others, when they divulge their anxieties and they are met with what sounds like a prefabbed reply, they feel dismissed and unheard. If that is your first/only response, you may do more emotional harm than good. This is the case regardless of the situation. If someone has just lost a house, job, or child, or if feels afraid, threatened, or violated, and is crying on your shoulder, “there, there, remember the story of Job” is not the best reply to give to most humans. I fully recognize that there may be some who are immediately palliated by such sentiments. But in my experience counseling people in their darkest hours, that is not what most folks need. Now to the credit of the aforementioned preacher, the sermon addressed the emotional climate, and that was validating.
Of course, recognizing the power of God is essential. But as is often stated in research, necessary does not mean sufficient. In other words, there is something else that has to be added. Leaving the message at simply restating how God is in control often gives people permission to lay down and accept whatever happens. This month I've heard so many variations of "these things must happen according to Revelation anyway, so we may as well resign ourselves to inaction" (I’ll save addressing that "interpretation” of Scripture for another day). Particularly among Adventists and other faiths with prophetic leanings, there seems to be an echo of a “que sera sera” attitude because of end times. That is a cop out. Nowhere does the Word endorse complacency. Quite the opposite. Admittedly, I do not think the preacher was advocating that. But when we merely end with, "Don't worry; it'll be what it is," we give tacit permission for that mindset.
Now, during our conversation at lunch, my preacher friend talked about Martin Luther King, Jr. and community action and the great need for God-guided leadership in these times. I wished that had made it into the sermon. And if you pastor a congregation that predominantly comprises minorities who are anxious about the near future, your message needs to be one of action and involvement, not resignation and defeatism. In this article I am not endorsing violence or riots or anything else that a bunch of “galvanized ethnic folks” are often accused of …. I'm advocating civil engagement. That is not partisan: everyone should be challenged to increase his/her civic involvement. Especially if people are afraid of increased intimidation by emboldened bigots or the establishment of an unrestrained, unjust, regime that is centered on the disenfranchisement of various groups, then they have to be encouraged and instructed how to intentionally position themselves in places to prevent it.
As for pastors of predominantly white congregations, you are challenged to impress upon your parishioners the importance of understanding where their fellow citizens are coming from. Regardless of anyone's political leanings, no Christian should take joy in another's distress nor should it be met with indifference. Even if you may not fully experience it, try to understand it (see paragraph #2!). Encourage your members to speak out against injustice. Even if they still cannot fully comprehend why others feel threatened, your congregants should commit themselves to be prepared to take action if and when those threats against others do come to fruition. They should be resolved to use their influence to fight against oppression and intimidation head on. That is a Biblical mandate that transcends political affiliation. Sadly, the credibility of White Christianity has taken a hit as many leaders turned a blind eye to racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric. Some even excused it. That is not acceptable for followers of Christ! Kudos to those preachers who raised their voices. It was a blessing to read and hear messages that emphasized the Christian commitment to stand with the marginalized and to refuse to tolerate injustice. More of them need to be heard, now more than ever.
Yes, remind people that God is in control. And also remind them that we are the Body of Christ, the hands and feet that are chosen by God to actively engage in the world. If we want healing, it requires our action.
Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? "Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, 'Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday -Isaiah 58:6-10
Courtney Ray is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.