Lately I’ve felt a little paralyzed in my preaching. All of the news out of Egypt and Syria has, for some reason, left me feeling rather empty and powerless when I step into the pulpit. I’d like to blame Karl Barth for this particular feeling of existential angst, but I’ve recently learned that it may not be (entirely) his fault.
Like many good seminary students, I was thoroughly steeped in the idea that one should preach with “the Bible in one hand, and a newspaper in the other.” For a while (confession: until this past week, so my entire preaching career…) I thought this idea implied that I should exegete current events to my congregation with the same competency and care that I apply to scripture. I thought Barth was telling me I needed to be both a scholar of the scriptures and a policy wonk, as devoted to The Economist as I am to my Hebrew lexicon.
For a while, I was able to sustain this in my preaching. Through a tricky combination of picking the right current event, the right Bible story, and ending every sermon with “Jesus says love everyone. So, love one another,” I was able to make this work. For a time. A lot of current events can be safely responded to with a little bit of “Jesus loves you! And you! And you! And you!” It’s almost Oprah-ish: “Everybody gets a car! You get a car! You get a car! And you, you get a car!” Guns in schools? Easy. Jesus loves people, don’t shoot them. Divisive election? Simple. Jesus loves all of us, no matter how we vote. It’s not deep, but it works. Kind of.
And then this week I came up short. Syria, it turns out, is a little too complicated for my simple equation. Sure, Jesus loves everyone. But what does that mean? What does that mean when we’re talking about a country with a dictator actively slaughtering his own people? What does it mean when ousting the leader might lead to the full-scale genocide of his supporters? What does it mean when chemical weapons are in play? Against children? What does it mean when there are over two million (million!) refuges, and they’re only the “officially reported” refuges? What does it mean when the US is considering targeted attacks, but France is the only other international ally in support? What does it mean when Christians support Bashar al Assad? What does it mean to say Jesus loves everyone?
I was coming up short, and so I did what any good, reformation-brewed Protestant would do. I went back to the sources. I used the Google machine to search out where good, old Karl had said we should preach with a newspaper and a Bible. Because I wanted to know what he really meant, in context. And you know what? Something funny happened. According to the Barth Studies Center at Princeton Theological Seminary, Barth never said this exact quote. He danced around this idea on a number of occasions, but he never actually said it. I thought that was interesting, and it started to make me think, maybe I had gotten something wrong in my desire to be both a preacher and a politico. So, I did a little digging. And what I found, well, it challenged me.
Although I couldn’t find the original quote, I did find something else Barth once said, in the 1963 cover article from Time magazine:
Barth recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.” Newspapers, he says, are so important that “I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church – in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him – either East or West. He should make his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there is peace on earth is implicit. Have we forgotten the Christmas message?”
In all of my frantic desire to preach the “right” message about current events, to say something substantive about Syria or Egypt or whatever, to be both preacher and politician, I had glossed over a very important message. Christ came for all people. Christ sat at a table and broke bread with women and men, children and the elderly, prostitutes, tax collectors, Pharisees, and fishermen. Christ sits at a table today with my congregation, spread with our Green paraments and pale blue pottery. Christ sits at a table with the refugees, spread with their rationed bread and black market wine. Christ sits at a table with Bashar, spread with I don’t know what, but Christ is there.
It calms this preacher’s heart to look back at my dear, thoughtful Karl and realize he was never asking me to be an expert on both Syria and the Sacraments. Karl was reminding himself and each of us to stay connected to this world we are in, because in the end, we need to know the stories of our context, but our job is not to offer solutions. Our job is to proclaim. It’s not my job (praise the Lord!) to solve the civil war in Syria. It is my job to stand up and proclaim. Proclaim the peace of God, peace on earth, the “Christmas Message” that God has come to us in the form of a tiny, humble baby. A baby who was a refugee in Egypt, a poor carpenter in Nazareth, an itinerant teacher throughout Judea, a friend of dirty sinners and uncouth workers. A man who was executed for political crimes, a God who triumphed over death, a friend who sits at the table with us, still.
So, yes. This week, I think I will keep my Bible in one hand and my newspaper (laptop) in the other. But I think I’ll hold the two, not because I feel called to answer all the questions, but because I feel called to remind my people (and myself) that we believe in a God of peace. A God of reconciliation. A God who resurrects life out of the darkest and most hopeless corners of our world. Because that resurrection is a message I need to hear. Again and again and again.