Wednesday, February 16, 2011

An Excerpt, with Commentary

A Sermon about Sermons that Get Preachers into Trouble, which Got Its Preacher into Trouble.

No, not me, but it certainly got me thinking. This is excerpted from a sermon included in the fascinating book (long out of print) Agony at Galloway. If you are from Jackson, you will know that Galloway is the title of the large, socially-prominent United Methodist church in the center of our fair city. You may know too that, perhaps more than any other, Galloway tore itself apart during the Civil Rights Era. Her long-time minister, the legendary Dr. W. B. Selah, resigned his 18 year pastorate. Why? Because Galloway, like white churches throughout the South, decided to station guards at its doors to bar African-Americans from coming to worship.

His successor, W. Jeff Cunningham, wrote the book, and sacrificed his career, like many of his fellow Methodists, during that sad time.

I note from the top this is not an evangelical sermon. It doesn't have a whiff of evangel about it. It is not, in that way, the sort of sermon we should preach. Sad to say, in Cunningham's day, evangelicals were on the wrong side of this issue. It is, however, a heroic sermon about sermons, and thus merits our excerpting:

If We Sound No Trumpet: A Sermon Preached in the Crisis
Eze. 33:1-7

To look at these words in their historic setting, Ezekiel is in Babylon along with the flower of the Jewish people, carried there into exile by a military conqueror who had crushed his country and would leave Jerusalem the haunt of jackals...Here the Jewish people are surrounded by the allurements of the magnificent civilization that is Babylon, the world's capital, a pagan culture made glorious by everything wealth and military power can bestow....With all the freedom to come and go as they please, they are expected to become absorbed in the culture of Babylon, to forget the ideals of their own race and religion, to join in the worship of the gods of Babylon, and to increase the prosperity of the realm. The strong temptation every Jew feels in Babylon is to go native. And some go native with a vengeance. They forget their own country, they forsake their former faith and loyalties and lose themselves in the exotic culture of this luxurious land.

It was in this critical time that Ezekiel spoke the word of God and became one of the towering figures of all time...With the nation facing the threat of moral decline, the Lord says a watchman will be set up..."if this watchman sees danger coming and blows the trumpet and warns the people; then if any one hears the trumpet, but will not heed the warning, when he is destroyed, his blood shall be on his own head..."But if the watchman sees danger coming, and does not blow the trumpet, so that no warning is given, and the danger comes and destroys, then, says the Lord, "his blood I shall require at the watchman's hand."

Now if we take these words out of their setting in ancient Babylon, they have meaning that walks right up to the doorsill of our own consciences here in Jackson..He commands us to blow the trumpet and warn the people when there is danger.

One thing that makes this particularly important to consider this morning is the charge that the church ought to stay out of politics. "The church ought to stay out of economic and social questions," it is said. "The church has no business making pronouncements on this temporal matter or that."

But listen. The church cannot stay out of anything God wants in on. And God wants in on everything that concerns people --their moral habits, their social customs, their business practices, their handicaps, their day-by-day relationships...God has an absorbing concern for everything that affects the lives of people, whether it is politics or business or sport or education or any other human enterprise. And the church must be concerned with anything that concerns God.

Those who say the church ought to stay out of politics do not know their Bible, or have forgotten it...Amos is a collection of sermons by that fiery man who spoke for God to the people about the things they were doing. He was critical of the government. He talked about people who got drunk. he talked about social climbers. He talked about merchants who were dishonest in their business, using false scales in their buying and selling. He talked about people who lived in luxury while others around them were hungry. All this didn't go over very well.

The people glorified their religion in ornate observances. The priests wore gorgeous robes, the choir sang lovely anthems, and their altars were laden with choice offerings. But they did not want their religions questioned at the point of its moral quality. They did not like to be told of the relationship between religion and their daily practices in politics and business and society...They said to him, "Prophesy to us of pleasant things"...Men inveterately like to hear smooth things said to them, how right their attitudes are, how genteel their inherited traditions are; and if all this can be said in the name of God, so much the better...

When someone says preachers ought to stick to the Bible that's exactly what most preacher, I believe, want to do; but when they stick to the Bible, see what they find. They find prophets majoring in politics and measuring every exercise in government by the will of God....In the Bible we see a long line of prophets standing before kings and denouncing their policies because those policies were not righteous...These are men who sounded a trumpet, warning of danger, critical of monarchs for their unrighteousness in the affairs of state, and demanding that they order their affairs in line with God's purpose.

[relating a story of a minister in another city, supported by his board when under fire] "We stand for a free pulpit in a free church. We do not expect or desire a minister simply to echo the opinions of the congregation..." When we claim to be a church, a trumpet is placed in our hands. We are to sound this trumpet to warn the people when we see danger --and by danger is meant anything in our attitudes and practices which Christ cannot approve. If they do not heed the trumpet and die, their blood is on them. But if we see the danger and sound no trumpet and they die, then their blood is upon us...

...The church is not supposed to echo the opinions of the status quo. The church is supposed to stand above the status quo to challenge it, to hold before it a standard, to demand that every order of society conform to the ideas in the Sermon on the Mount. We are not supposed as Christians to bring in ideas from the outside and try to make the church conform to the ideas we have brought in from the outside; we are supposed to take the ideas of the Sermon on the Mount out of the church and into the organizations we belong to and measure those organizations by the way they obey Jesus' moral demands.

The preacher in the pulpit is not supposed to reflect the majority opinions in the pew and no good layman expects him to --he is supposed to hear the voice of God and make that voice heard in all the affairs of men whether it makes them comfortable and contented or not....

We Christians are not supposed to make religion over into what we want it to be until it fits our lives. We are supposed to change these lives of ours until they fit into Christ's way of love and service which He lived so beautifully and so simply.

...Some have said the church ought to stay out of controversial fields. But the church that never handles controversy never handles Christ. If the church tries to keep her hands clean, she will stand before the Lord with her hands empty. Id the church never expresses a conviction except where a unanimous vote has already been given, the church will never have a word for needy and dying men. If the church chooses her words so carefully that no one can object, she has missed the spirit of the prophets who were stoned because they spoke so clearly for God and the spirit of Jesus, whose truth led him to a cross.

I can hear objection to what I am saying, that in all this I am overlooking the gospel of personal religion, that religion is an affair between the individual soul and God...It is the root of religion, but it is just is not the fruit. The fruit is seen in the way we practice our religion out in the world where we live....

The end of the sermon. Jeff Cunningham lost his job over this sermon. As he was leaving, Galloway rescinded its all-white policy, and opened its doors. He was sacrificed and the truth triumphed. Would that ministers today would be so bold.


  1. I missed this last week--wow, that's courage! But I'm curious why you say this isn't an evangelical sermon? Maybe I just don't understand what an evangelical is, but I wouldn't find this sermon out of place in the fundamentalist milieu that I grew up in (although, as you note above, not on the topic of racism . . .)

  2. No gospel in it. The general rule is, if a rabbi could preach it, it's not a Christian sermon.

    In short, it's what we would call "Law" --would's, should's and ought's. Yet, Paul tells us the Law is powerless to bring about in us what it requires. That requires gospel, and the work of the Spirit.

    So, when we preach on something of this nature, and call people to repentance, we have to highlight how the gospel and the work of the Spirit free us to change, and forgive us for our past failures. You see an example of this in Ephesians, where Paul talks about it being Christ that brought about the removal of the distinction between Jew and Gentile.

    I think this was the weakness of many of the opponents of segregation, and opened them to the charge of not preaching the gospel. It's almost like two different halves of the church had two halves of the message, and nobody really brought them together.