The perils of preaching

Text: Acts 2:14-41 (Peter preaches in Jerusalem)

If someone says you’re being preachy, that’s not a complement. If they say you tend to sermonize, that’s a complaint.

Preaching used to be held in high esteem. Preachers were wise elders to whom the community turned for guidance.

Now, we are often put in the same category as used car salespeople. Preachers are criticized for being moralistic, judgmental, and meddlesome. We may claim that we preach Good News, but many people say that we peddle ideas that are either nonsensical, toxic, or both!

As a preacher, I find these attitudes daunting. When I meet someone new, I hesitate to let them know my profession.

To be frank, I share some of the popular disdain for preaching. This may be one reason I became a minister. I wanted to craft worship experiences that would feed me. I don’t always succeed in this ambition, of course. But if I don’t like a Sunday gathering, a funeral, or a wedding, I only have myself to blame!

Last Thursday evening, a group of us talked about the perils of preaching at the “Hot Topics” group. We were discussing an article from the March 31 issue of the Globe and Mail. Titled “Cross Purposes: the battle for Christianity in Canada” and written by well-known Christian commentator Michael Coren, it focused on the efforts of right-wing Catholics and Evangelicals in Canada to reverse legislative progress on issues like reproductive rights and gay marriage.

Coren mentioned a recent worship service in a huge mega-church in Toronto at which the pastor introduced Ontario Conservative leader Doug Ford and praised him as God’s instrument that would bring Ontario back to holiness. The support for Ford by this pastor is reminiscent of Christians in the United States who enthusiastically support the current President despite of – or is it because of?– his sexism, racism, and disordered personal life.

In the last 50 years, the United Church has largely discarded the use of the word evangelism. We have ceded the word — which means spreading Good News — to the right-wing churches that dominate public discussion on moral matters.

The United Church used to be the pre-eminent evangelical voice in Canada. We were the largest Protestant church, and our Board of Evangelism and Social Service was a leading opponent of alcohol, gambling and other so-called symptoms of moral decay. From 1938 until 1962 it was led by the Rev. James Mutchmor, who was then elected Moderator. If Canada had a leader equivalent to the U.S. evangelist Billy Graham in those years it was Muthcmor.

The evangelism that informed the United Church at its founding in 1925 had two sides. One focused on personal holiness. The other focused on social reforms. People like Muthcmor opposed drinking not just because it was considered to be a moral failing, but because it led to poverty and violence towards women.

Since 1960, the United Church has abandoned much of its moralism and put greater emphasis on social reform. We were founded to support The British Empire and to uphold holiness. Since 1960, we have evolved to become a denomination that is critical of imperialism, that works to heal the wounds caused by colonialism, and that fights for justice and equality regardless of sex, gender, or race.

We are also much smaller than we were 50 years ago; and some say this decline is because of our social liberalism. But a similar or greater decline has effected all mainline denominations in Canada – Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and so on – even though many of them remain quite conservative.

Given how upset many of us are by so-called Christian leaders who preach hellfire for those who don’t adopt ancient belief systems and behavioural norms, perhaps we should abandon not just the word “evangelical,” but also the word “Christian.” One person suggested this idea on Thursday.

I imagine that Michael Coren would not agree. Coren was a prominent conservative evangelical who converted to what he calls Christian socialism in 2015 because of a change of heart on the issue of homosexuality. Today, Coren criticizes right-wing Christians for ignoring Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and marginal. He says the Good News is much closer to a United Church view than to those churches who don’t support equality for women, who condemn gay people, and who support Western military power.

But as radical as moving beyond both the words evangelism and Christianity sounds, I can see how it might fit with the Way of Jesus. This Way of the Cross is inherently radical. For the first followers of Jesus, such as those who gathered around Peter in today’s reading, this Way led beyond worship of YHWH in the Temple to more inclusive communities centered on love.

Now, almost 2,000 years after Jews in Jerusalem struggled to cope with the destruction of YHWH’s Temple, we too have difficulty in worshipping in old ways. This is true for all religious denominations – whether Anglican, Catholic, or United; Sunni, Shia, or Sufi; Hindu, Sikh, or Buddhist. All denominations find themselves in an intercultural world that puts its faith in science, humanism, and the social production of knowledge.

Fundamentalists in all these denominations call for a return to ancient morality and tribal loyalties. But doing so leads to discrimination against women and to violent clashes between competing tribal priorities.

Instead of fundamentalist reaction, I prefer following the Way of the Cross beyond our tribal roots.

In the United Church, our message is always going to involve the stories of Jesus and his Jewish tradition. But because Jesus leads us a path of death and resurrection, our communities are also called to evolve.

When Kim and I drove to Calgary on Easter Sunday, we passed a church whose lawn sign read that it was a church based in the Moravian tradition. I took this as an attempt by this congregation to break free of its tribal roots.

For centuries, it made sense for Czech Protestants who first organized in the province of Moravia to identify themselves as Moravian. But in Canada today, such an identity seems irrelevant. The same is probably true for the rest of us as well.

Reactionary religious leaders preach that the answers to personal and public questions are found in the traditions of their tribal heritage, whether that is Fourth Century Rome, Eighth Century Arabia, or Eleventh Century India.

I disagree. The Way of the Cross comes to us from the ancient past, but it leads us beyond that past to create communities that are relevant and loving in today’s intercultural world.

When I returned to church in 2001, it made sense that it was to my childhood roots in the United Church of Canada. However, I would not have been willing to return if the United Church hadn’t abandoned much of what leaders like Mutchmor preached back then.

Today as we sustain a community of faith, hope and love in Mill Woods, I pray that we will be freed by the Way of the Cross to continue to leave more of the past behind and to move towards new expressions of justice and love. May we do so as a United Church reaching for the future even if that future is post-denominational.

The Good News is that faith, hope and love still preach, especially when they are un-linked from those parts of our tribal past that are harmful or hateful.

As evangelists of the Way of the Cross, we have a powerful messages of sacrificial love, of sober realism, and of ecstatic mystery. Preaching these messages and following the radical path of Jesus has already taken us well beyond our Jewish, Catholic, and Presbyterian roots.

Many voices in conservative churches, mosques, and temples preach against new revelations of Love. My prayer is that the United Church will continue to be open to social change and not get stuck in tribal orthodoxies that prevent us from growing in Love.

May it be so. Amen.