This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Kriss: Pastoring in polarities

Many who preach regularly are finding it a tough navigation in the pulpit in the United States. Our highly politicized environment means it’s difficult to find ways to speak that are both relevant and respectful of the broad swath of people who might be in our congregations.

Stephen Kriss

The first Sunday I preached after the election, someone approached me after I stepped outside the meetinghouse, proclaimed gladness that Trump had been elected and seemed to take issue with something I had said in the sermon. At the same time, our dominantly immigrant congregations in Philadelphia asked to be reassured of care and consideration on the Sunday after the election. Both are the constituency I serve.

In these politicized days, even the choice of Scripture texts can be seen as a political statement. I’ve found myself drawn toward prophetic language more than usual. However, I recognize that, depending on your situation, the text resonates differently. I’ve been relying on the words of Jesus and the words of Scripture to speak even when they make us uncomfortable.

I am also trying to ask more questions. What about the text makes us uncomfortable? I believe Scripture is given both for comfort and discomfort. Neither Scripture nor sermons should always rest easily upon us.

However, I am noticing a trend: a lack of curiosity about others’ experiences and a desire to speak of my own reality. This is a manifestation of self-centeredness. Whether I’m traditional or progressive, I have increasing difficulty getting beyond my own standpoint to actually listen to another person’s perspective. It becomes easy to polarize when we become more declarative than interrogative.

Polarities often arise from fear. Fear keeps us from being curious, empathic or compassionate. Fear rarely helps us make the best decisions. I have continued to reiterate the scriptural invitation to move from fear toward love.

At the same time, I recognize Jesus was not always meek and mild. He did not hedge when religious leaders were hypocritical or when market forces inhibited worship. He called one of his most intimate friends the devil. Clarity and boldness aren’t necessarily antithetical to curiosity.

I intend to doggedly search the Scriptures and model my life in the path of Jesus. I will invite others to join in that two-millennia movement regardless of their political persuasion. This means I will need to cultivate a sense of boldness in the midst of my curiosity and rootedness in the biblical story.

Jesus’ words are difficult for Democrats, Republicans, independents and nonvoters. Jesus told his zealot friend to put away the sword and stay focused on God’s unfolding plan for redemption when he acted in a way that suggested the movement somehow was aligned with politics and force.

At the same time, the yoking of church and state — not by law in the United States but by culture — makes it difficult for me to ignore how we are implicated in the actions of our government. The church remains a prominent player in U.S. politics. I will rely on Scripture to invite political leaders to live into their own declared Christian convictions.

The task of pastors — and all Christians — on Sundays and beyond is to proclaim and embody the Good News. The Good News wasn’t always welcome to those who had much to lose. At its best, it’s still foolishness to those who don’t recognize or allow its transformative power. But the message is healing our disconnect both with the divine and with each other (1 Cor. 1:18).

Stephen Kriss is a teacher, writer, pastor and follower of Jesus living in Philadelphia.

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