Convocation and Opening Chapel - Wesley Theological Seminary
August 27, 2019
Sermon by Wesley President David McAllister-Wilson
For such a time as this. A few days before Donald Trump was inaugurated, I called a friend of mine, an adviser to Republican presidents. I asked him, “Wesley’s had good relations with the White House under both parties. What should I do in this case?" And he said, “Dave, the last four presidents have known your name. Make sure this one never does. A good tweet from him will be as bad for you as a bad tweet.” I’m not sure the first part of that was true, but I took the advice seriously. And I’ve resisted the almost daily opportunities ever since to spit into the ill wind blowing out of 1600 Pennsylvania.
I’ve been guided by the wise counsel of another friend, Wesley professor Mike McCurry, an adviser to Democratic presidents. His vision is Wesley should engage in the public square by fostering civil dialogue. Like Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” I still agree with that. But there comes a time.
I’ve been comparing myself to Queen Esther. She finds herself in a position of influence in the halls of national power and is persuaded it is time for her to speak and risk her life in the process. Mordecai tells her, “Who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this.”
I don’t think anyone outside this campus cares what is said at 4500 Massachusetts. And I’m in no danger of a tweet. But Wesley was placed in Washington so those who prepare for ministry here may be fully both pastors of thriving congregations and prophets in the public square. The Word today is offered in contemplation of that mission.
Let me take you to another inauguration: Abraham Lincoln’s first. He said,“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” The better angels of our nature. I’ll come back to them.
The rest of the speech was an awful failure. Trying to preserve the Union, he was willing to tolerate slavery. I understand that presidential instinct. I want to hold lots of differences together here at Wesley. Pastors often avoid conflict because they see themselves as “pastors of the whole congregation” or “bishops of the whole church.” But that didn’t work for Lincoln. Instead, the nation went mad. Michael Shaara, in his novel about the Battle of Gettysburg, remembered Lincoln’s “better angels.” And he described the battlefield as being driven by “killer angels.”
It’s possible for leaders to do that: to either invoke the better angels of our nature or let loose the killer angels. I think, in fact, it’s the essence of leadership. Because the Bible is right about people. We are like sheep. That’s true of a country and a political party, as well as a congregation. Is Donald Trump a racist? I don’t know. I don’t know him; I’ve never met him. But I think Donald Trump is a racist. And, I think he is mentally ill and spiritually lost and needs professional help.
But that’s not what is important. What matters is he is calling forth the killer angels of our national being. It’s not just a question of “style.” He is stoking fear and hate and inciting to violence. American Christians have a responsibility to resist these spirits. And I mean politically. And as an institution in this city which prepares leaders of the Christian flock, Wesley has a special responsibility and opportunity. For such a time as this.
Some say the role of pastors is to avoid politics and care for the members of our congregation and that our business is the proclamation of the good news of salvation. Often, they appeal to the words of Jesus in our Gospel passage: “Render unto Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” Such is the source of this idea we should separate “spiritual” from “worldly” matters.
Well, one problem with that interpretation is Jesus was probably smirking as he held that coin. But more to the point, Caesar did not see himself as responsible for the welfare of the people. So, for God’s will to be done, there was no point in counting on him. Jesus’ mission, the good news he proclaimed, is of another kingdom, another authority. When we confess, “Jesus is Lord,” we are also saying, “and Caesar is not.” Now, we are Caesar. That’s what “government of the people, by the people and for the people” is about. On our coins is the picture of people who were elected and could also have been voted out or impeached. We are Caesar and the one who said just last week he was the “chosen one;” the “King of the Jews” is not.
Christians hold dual citizenship, in both the United States and the Kingdom of God. So, how should this affect our politics? Let’s take it straight from Jesus’ mouth. We are commanded to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick and welcome the stranger. Jesus says that is central to the good news and what it takes to get into heaven. We consider these truths to be self-evident.
We not only can be spiritual and political, pastoral and prophetic. We must be. Because Christianity is spirituality with an attitude and an agenda. If we read about the Kingdom of God, sing about it and pray for its coming on earth as it is in heaven every Sunday, and then we do nothing to make that happen, we are among those whom Jesus condemned as “hypocrites.”
I know it’s easy to thunder from the pulpit on the great injustices of the day. Or, at least, to imagine yourself doing it. I don’t sing in the shower, I prophesy. I get up, go through my emails, watch the news and get jacked up. Then I jump in the shower and let lose (in my head). What is harder, especially in our time, is to maintain vital congregations. What is much harder is to lead them into the public square.
Why is it so hard? I have an old Roman coin on my desk that offers a clue. Not the one Jesus held. That one had Augustus’ picture. This one has the emperor Constantine. He’s significant because, beginning with his acceptance of Christians in the empire, the church spread not from the persecuted edge of society but from the privileged center. This means, in many places for the next 1,600 years or so, we became a domesticated church with a domesticated clergy. And like domesticated dogs, we didn’t bark, and we didn’t bite – except at other Christians.
Denominations in America used to brag how many members of Congress went to their churches. In turn, clergy willingly blessed public events and acted like there was a synergy between what was said on Sunday and the moral improvement of the culture. But now, like that naïve little boy in the fairytale who pointed out the emperor has no clothes, let’s see it truly. It’s just not working anymore, especially for Mainline churches. Nobody listens to what we say on the big issues of the day and mostly, we don’t say anything. For fear we will lose even more members.
It is time for us to think about our dual citizenship differently. Some have always had to. African-American people have what W. E. B. Du Bois called “double consciousness,” aware of being both black and American. Indeed, I perceive Christian African-Americans must now wrestle with a triple consciousness. As do Asian-American, Latino-American and LGBTQ Christians. While many straight white church-goers, like myself, still must figure out the difference between being white in America and being Christian.
How do we manage this dual citizenship as we approach the public square? Some have decided to go narrow, focusing on a few issues of personal sexual morality and becoming more theologically restrictive. And they look upon Caesar as a necessary evil to achieve their limited ends. They call it “orthodoxy.” I’m for the path Brian McLaren calls a “generous orthodoxy.” Where once we may have gone shallow so as not to offend anyone, now we must stay wide but go deep by welcoming all those Jesus embraces and moving toward the center. Not the “center” in the sense of being middle of the road. Instead, deeply centered in the realm Jesus Christ calls us to occupy and represent.
Results matter. So, we are non-partisan but not disinterested. This is not a choice between capitalism and socialism, conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat. Christians should be a special interest group on behalf of the abundant life in the Kingdom of God, however that is achieved.
Most of the issues we face, from racism to the environment to inter-generational poverty, are deep and long-term. So, character also matters because, in the long run, political motivations matter. For instance, in truth, nothing can be done to stop the next mass shooting. What is achievable in the public square is to reduce gun-related violence over the next decade. This will require a number of legislative actions and a national change of heart. This same sustained political will is necessary for faith to make a difference in the public square.
And words matter. I think of the words of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, even as the battle raged. His plea was for “malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right as god gives us to see the right.” Dr. Greg Prince, member of the Wesley Board of Governors, reminded me we each have some number of cancer cells, which the body’s immune system usually keeps in check. The words of this president are a cancer on the body politic and the silence of his party - and our own reluctance to speak - have weakened the immune system of civil society. Our resistance is down.
Christians should be good at building this resistance. Because we take the really long view. That’s how we may foster the better angels of our nature both in our congregations and in the public square.
I pray Wesley Seminary prepares our students for this leadership. And that what you gain most from this community are “wisdom” and “courage.” Maybe that’s the names of those better angels. Wisdom is the ability to tell the difference between the way things are now and the way we are meant to live in the Kingdom of God. And courage is the ability to lead from one to the other. In the words of the old hymn, “God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power. Crown thine ancient church’s story, bring her bud to glorious flower. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour.”