Here's the sermon I preached tonight for Missional Preaching class. I still don't feel like it's really finished, and I didn't preach it exactly like this. I added a little, finessed a little; I think it flowed a little better on my feet. Really it's part manuscript, part outline. But here's the gist of it. More than maybe any other time I've preached, this time I was really overwhelmed with all there was to say and work with, and therefore it ended up on the short side. And yes, you've already heard the opening this week. Anyway....
When I lived in Germany, one of the things that I got asked about was the pledge of allegiance. The Germans didn't understand, in the wake of World War II, how we could require American schoolchildren to stand and pledge blind allegiance, not even to the country but to a symbol thereof. They’d seen how easily that path leads to destruction.
This week my friend Nicole blogged a reminder that it happens every day, that we set ourselves at the head of that path. Nicole is an ESL teacher in Minnesota, whose kids mostly don’t understand the English texts they’re speaking and reading in school. So she spends a fair amount of time working them toward that kind of comprehension. Here’s what she related about teaching them the pledge:
“…even though students are required to say the pledge of allegiance every morning in their classrooms, a teacher can get in trouble for presuming help them to read the words…. Apparently, saying "under God" in school is okay, but discussing why you're saying it or what it means is not…. So essentially, the importance of the pledge, it's [sic] actual relevance to America, is completely superficial- the act of repeating it without comprehension is the purpose, I see now…. I really can't understand why those words are still there, spoken enthusiastically by students who have no idea what they're saying, every single school day.”
Don’t worry your pretty little head about what it means; just fall in line behind the flag.
Sound familiar? “Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the cross; lift high the royal banner, it must not suffer loss.” The royal banner must not suffer loss. Of course, it’s supposed to represent the gospel and Jesus, but the focus is the banner. Also it’s questionable what we mean by the gospel not suffering loss – isn’t suffering loss a part of the Christian life – certainly a part of Jesus’ life? But – what are we doing? Are we reducing the gospel to one more banner behind which we’re supposed to line up?
No wonder the Christian mainstream and secular leftists have so little patience for the idea of “standing up for Jesus.” There’s a particular kind of conservative Christians who have coopted the idea – the ones who look around at distress among nations and tend to say, “that’s good! that means Jesus will come back faster! let’s help the distress along!”
Now, it’s not that the rest of us don’t see the distress. We’ve certainly got distress among nations in our day. I’m not sure any day has been without it. But mainstream and lefty types are usually appalled - I think rightly - by the attitude that our response to distress should be one either of coerced acceptance of the gospel or of fueling distress in order to bring about the second coming. That kind of response isn’t compassionate, and it’s not biblical. It’s not the way God’s people respond to disaster throughout Scripture. But we in the mainstream and to its left usually want to hide under the bed, theologically speaking. Yes, we want to fix the earthly mess, but when it comes to making theology of it, we hide and say nothing instead of giving an appropriate alternative to the ultraconservative response. And we’re pretty good at letting ourselves off the hook about it.
Too bad the gospel doesn’t.
Admittedly, this particular gospel reading’s been tainted by centuries of royal banners whose own importance comes to overshadow that for which they stand, but the gospel tells us nevertheless, “Stand up.” “Stand up and raise your heads.” Not “stand up and cheer and then go back to fueling more distress.” Not “fix what you can and ignore the theological ramifications.” Stand up and raise your heads. Look around.
Don’t pretend the distress isn’t there. Don’t stop responding to it. We still need earthly compassion.
But take a minute to stand up and look around for the Kingdom of God breaking in among distress – because Luke’s Jesus tells us that the distress is a surefire sign that the Kingdom is around somewhere.
So, in other words, go ahead and “stand up, stand up for Jesus.” If we know what we’re about when we stand up, we can raise our heads unashamed of the gospel.