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Sunday, October 6, 2019 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Lift Up Your Voice: Our Public Witness
Part of the sermon series:
“Remembering Our Past, Inspiring Our Future”
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Luke 4:16–20, 28–30
It is indeed a comfort to us to know that we may even in this time work in open cooperation with other Christian churches for the coming of the kingdom of God that is our common purpose.
The Committee of the Church of Christ of Japanese in Chicago, 1942
Written by the Japanese congregation that worshiped
at Fourth Church
during World War II
I would be withholding the whole truth from you if I did not say that preaching in these days can feel a bit tiring. Trying to balance the chaos of our larger culture with the need to hear a Word from the Living God feels particularly challenging right now, for what might the Spirit need to tell us through the words of ancient scripture about an impeachment inquiry, or yet another mass shooting in a bar, or the sentencing of the off-duty police officer who killed Botham Jean and the very different ways that black folks and white folks are responding to the courtroom hug, the killing of the star witness in that case just last night in Dallas, or the possible impending strike of Chicago Public School teachers?
Now I know already that the fact I merely mentioned those very hot-off-the-press news stories has made some of you uncomfortable, and I might get more emails telling me to stop bringing politics into the pulpit. “Just preach on more universal biblical themes,” the emails will say. “Everything is already so partisan and polarized these days. I don’t want to hear the same things at church.”
I completely understand those feelings. I empathize with them. Honestly, I often don’t want to deal with these things either. It can become laborious for a preacher to constantly have to ask herself “Now, am I viewing the gospel through the lens of my politics, or am I trying to view my politics through the lens of the gospel?” hoping it’s the latter, knowing that on some Sundays I get it right, while on other Sundays I miss the mark.
And yet, this struggle, this wrestling match, this tiring high-wire balancing act to figure out where and when the chaotic news of our world is intersecting with the liberating good news of Jesus Christ—it is who we are. I call it our public witness, and being a public witness as a light in the city, recognizing that this Fourth Church pulpit is a public pulpit with a wider reach than most, trusting that God still has something for us to say to a world that is cynical, challenged, and exhausted—it is a part of who we have always been and it is a part of who we are called to continue to be.
Today is the second Sunday in our sermon series “Remembering Our Past, Inspiring Our Future.” Last week we focused on our decision to build here on this corner and the way our physical location functions as a literal witness of God’s deep care for the city. Today, though, we are looking at the ways the congregation of Fourth Presbyterian Church and its leaders have always been drawn to speak and to act as faithfully as we can regarding the very complicated and often contentious “real world” in which we live out our faith. “What is our public witness to be in this time and in this place?” is a theme that has run throughout our history, particularly in the last 100 years.
This call to be a public witness has required your preachers to always enter into this august pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, to use a well-worn phrase. As Jim Wellman wrote, the pastors of Fourth Church have “always [lived in] the tension between the prophetic call of Christ and the comforting role of the priest” (Jim Wellman, The Gold Coast and the Ghetto, p. 15). In other words, any tension that you feel in your stomach whenever I mention things like our national politics or the work for racial equity or the potential CPS strike is not a new tension for us. While it might feel more heightened since 2015, holding this tension is in our DNA as a faith community, because it is in our DNA as followers of Jesus, especially since we do so from within the Presbyterian Reformed tradition, a tradition committed to engaging the world.
Jesus knew that tension in ways that we will never know. The Roman Empire killed him because he refused to just keep discipleship from only being about “spiritual things.” The leaders of that day executed him because he proclaimed an end to all systems and structures that oppressed any of God’s children, paying particular attention to the poor and the marginalized. He openly and regularly critiqued both religious and secular leaders alike whom he saw as exploiting “the least of these.”
We see how he provoked the faithful, beginning with his very first sermon. This is the context of our scripture reading today from Luke. Jesus had just been baptized, been driven out into the wilderness by the Spirit of God, and come face-to-face with temptation as to how he would be God’s Love Made Flesh. And then, after forty days, he comes home to Nazareth to preach his very first sermon.
So Jesus arrives and goes straight to the synagogue. The service begins, and Jesus stands up to do the reading for that Sabbath day. The portion Jesus read is from Isaiah 61, a prophetic text that gets very political, meaning it speaks directly to the structures and systems that ordered their communal life: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaims, “because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. The Lord has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” which meant the Jubilee year, when all debts were to be erased and everyone given a fresh start. And we think that tax reform is complicated.
Then, with every eye in the synagogue on him, he sits back down for the rest of his sermon, and through some well-known stories, Jesus tells them he knows that they, his hometown friends and family, fully expect he has come home to be their rabbi, their teacher, their healer. Yet Jesus wants them to understand God has given him a much larger mission than only them.
As a matter of fact, he indicates he is going take the good news he has been given and the power he has to both heal and restore first to the outsiders, first to those his hometown folk might rather ignore, first to all those who inhabit the borderlands of power and privilege. Jesus tells them he is purposefully skipping over them, the insiders, to get to the others, the outsiders. Talk about creating tension in the room! Jesus’ first sermon so enrages all those who heard it that instead of just sending testy emails, they try and throw him off the cliff! Let me be clear: if that is my choice, I’d rather get the emails.
In all seriousness, it is precisely what we see in the life and ministry of Jesus that drives us to immerse ourselves into the complexities of our world rather than avoid them. We believe that discipleship, following Jesus, requires us to wrestle with how to live faithfully in a highly polarized, partisan national culture without mirroring it in the church. We believe that discipleship, following Jesus, means that we, as a church, cannot stop speaking about race, because there is still so much work to do and privileging whiteness continues to do real damage. We believe that discipleship, following Jesus, necessitates that we learn to develop a spiritual resilience of sorts, a resilience we do not currently see much in our larger world.
But if we could build that kind of spiritual resilience, then that could mean that when you are in worship or in another gathering or conversation and one of the preachers or one of your fellow congregation members makes a comment that causes your stomach to get tied up in knots, or makes your face flush with anger, or just increases this sense of tension in your soul, because you know you do not agree with what was just said—with this developed spiritual resilience, you could still be fully present in that service or gathering or conversation. With that kind of spiritual resilience, even in your disagreement, you could still honestly try to listen deeply for what they really mean, without needing to prove you are right or trying to throw them off the cliff. We need to develop this kind of resilience for each other sooner rather than later, because, friends, we are called to lift up our voice. We are called to be a public witness. We are called to live with and in this tension. The issues and the struggles will change but not the call. It is who we have always been.
Here is how the Session minutes from May 1953 put our call to live in that tension:
It [the church] can accept the role many would assign to it that the sole responsibility of the church is to get souls from earth to heaven. The church becomes merely a heavenly elevator and is not concerned with the world in which it was instructed by its Lord to be light and salt. Our Lord taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Or, by lawful means and in a respectful manner the church can speak out as the conscience of the city and for the welfare of the city. The second choice is in line with the prophets of the Old Testament and the Apostles of the early church. It is in keeping with our historic Reformed faith. To do any other than this is for the church to betray her Lord. To be silent is for the church to betray the city.
This powerful Session statement emerged from a public struggle between Fourth Church pastor Harrison Ray Anderson and those occupying City Hall. As a historian writes, “police corruption and the influence of organized crime were simply a part of Chicago politics throughout this era.” And after the Kohn report came out in 1953, a report that detailed the political corruption of our city and its police, Dr. Anderson felt convicted that he could not let that corruption stand unchallenged. So he regularly spoke out against it in the pulpit and in other public arenas, increasing the ire of city political leaders.
It makes you wonder: if email had existed back then, who knows how many messages Dr. Anderson might have received from church members gravely concerned with politics taking over the pulpit. I promise you not everyone appreciated such public stands from the leaders of Fourth Presbyterian Church. Yet again it was who we were, and it is who we have continued to be.
A few other examples: That same pastor, Harrison Ray Anderson, ten years before led the Session into the decision to fully welcome Japanese American Christians into Stone Chapel for worship, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when they were forbidden by the national government to gather in groups. And then he informed the FBI, the police department, and other city leadership about what this church planned on doing, and he personally stood outside to make sure the Japanese American worshipers felt safe.
In 1966, pastor Elam Davies established a special Session committee, which reported that God called Christians to “speak up collectively on such political, social and economic issues as civil rights, dishonesty in government, morals and social customs, economic and spiritual poverty, and irresponsible labor practices.” He brought people of all races and all socioeconomic classes here to the church’s property for ministry, rather than just going out into the neighborhoods. As a result, Dr. Davies received death threats from business owners about letting “those people” come into this neighborhood.
In 1995, my predecessor John Buchanan led this church’s leadership into a deeper exploration of human sexuality and the life of faith by putting together a task force on homosexuality. That task force concluded and reported that the “litmus test of the biblically ethical relationship, be it heterosexual or homosexual, is the presence of the commitment of love and care for each other as human beings made in the image of God and for whom Christ died.” That was twenty years before the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in our country.
Those are just a few examples of what our public witness, the lifting up of our collective voice, has looked like over the last seventy years—and I could have picked numerous other examples. Being a congregation that intentionally plunges headfirst into the complexities of our world has been a part of the fabric of our particular call as Fourth Presbyterian Church for a very long time.
We do it not because we think we have all the answers, because we often don’t. And we do it not because we think we will all agree, because we know we won’t. But we regularly try to hear and speak a word from the Lord about the hard and messy pieces of our collective life, asking big questions about how our faith needs to shape our responses to these complexities, these systems and structures, because of what we know of God through Jesus Christ. We do it because Jesus’ entire ministry was about what was going on in this world, not just the next. We do it because Jesus was born into this world, worked to transform this world, died for this world, and defeated death forever for this world. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us in this very world, in our time and in our history.
So friends, as we continue moving forward in these rather chaotic days, my prayer is that we will each work on building up our spiritual resilience so that we won’t end up like that hometown crowd in Nazareth, trying to throw Jesus off the cliff because we thought he got too political for our taste, for did you notice what happened next? Jesus left them behind and moved on, never to return. May that not happen to us. Amen.