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Lent 2019 Foreword
In her book review for this Lenten issue of the JP, Agnes Norﬂeet writes: “Since Trump was elected, my preacher friends and I have experienced the left-leaning folks telling us at the narthex door that we are not being prophetic enough while the right-leaning parishioners say they are tired of our sermons being too political.” Perhaps you are hearing something similar at your church door. So what is required for faithful preaching in this violent and divisive Era of Trump? What is the substance and message of the gospel as it is addressed to people listening to the nightly news on MSNBC or Fox News? Or what good news is to be announced to those seeking silence and the illusions of isolation.
In the face of the rising strength of the Nazis and the embrace of its ideology by many German Christians, Karl Barth insisted in 1932 that the church must trust the truth of the Word of God and its demonstration of itself. “The proclamation of the church,” he wrote, “is by nature political in so far as it has to ask the pagan polis to remedy its state of disorder and make justice a reality. This proclamation is good when it presents the speciﬁc commandment of God, and not good when it puts forward the abstract truth of a political ideology.”* This issue of the JP is intended to help preachers ask our pagan polis, our pagan America, to remedy its state of disorder and make justice a reality—i.e. to preach in a way that is deeply political as it seeks to make justice a reality. And it is intended to do that not by sounding like MSNBC or Fox News but by presenting “the speciﬁc command of God”—in this case the beatitudes.
Mary Hinkle Shore, Lutheran pastor in North Carolina and New Testament scholar, introduces the theme: “Preaching the Beatitudes in the Age of Trump.” Here is the starting point for a series of Lenten sermons, 2019, on the beatitudes. She notes the rage that seethes on all sides and the fears that fuel it. And she points to good news—the beatitudes take us in a different direction. Will Willimon follows by showing us how different and startling that direction is—“Blessed are the poor in spirit”—the blessedness of spiritual impoverishment. Shannon Kershner’s sermon “Stronger and More Tender” takes her Chicago congregation into a hunger and thirst for righteousness. She illumines this strange path by pointing to a successful college basketball coach taking his whole team on a pilgrimage to Auschwitz and its gas ovens. Don Shriver, president emeritus of Union Theological Seminary in NY, recalls experiences as a pastor in his essay “Blessed are the merciful.” The mercy we need, he says, “is both a gift and a power to imitate it. It is the blessed reciprocity of mercy truly given and truly received.” In “Suffered Under Stormy Daniels: Purity of Heart in the Age of Donald Trump,” Tom Long helps us see, amidst the corruption and debaucheries of this age, that to be “pure in heart” is not a moral achievement. Rather it is “a direction toward which we are traveling, toward which we guide our ‘true selves.’” To be “pure in heart,” says Long, “is not what we are; it is what is happening to us when we give ourselves to the Spirit of God who seeks to claim and reshape us.” In his sermon “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” Sam Wells uses the history and life of his London congregation to name a congregational identity—a community of peacemakers.
Three sermons follow that speak of the life of those who are seeking to follow Jesus, the One who taught and embodied the beatitudes: Beth Johnson, “Hospitality to Strangers”; Stanley Hauerwas, “Repentance:A Lenten Meditation”; and Nibs Stroupe, “By Grace We Have Been Saved.” These bring us back to Agnes Norﬂeet’s review of the book We Were Eight Years in Power, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. She concludes that Coates is “an important conversation partner for any contemporary preacher seeking to sort out the racist mess of our reality, but we still need to count more on the scriptures for hope.”
May we be given the grace to trust the truth of the Word of God, the truth of the beatitudes, and to proclaim that truth in our preaching.
*Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976: 216