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The Only Sermon Left?

The church is full of self-righteous hypocrites, corrupt leaders greedy for power, morally bankrupt abusers of the weak and vulnerable. Its pews are populated by miserable -ists and -obes and transgressors of every other sort. The church should shut its mouth until it can make at least something resembling moral progress. The broader culture isn’t interested in any of its sermonizing words in the absence of meaningful action. Let your actions do the talking for once. We’ve all had more than enough of your endless words.

I’m guessing the preceding paragraph expresses something that you may have heard or felt or said yourself. I could list all the reasons for why the church is said to have forfeited any kind of moral authority or even legitimacy in our time and place but do I really have to? Residential schools, clergy abuse scandals, sex, power, ignorance, carelessness, anti-all the socially approved things, pro-all the socially disapproved things, etc, etc. You know the score by now, surely. It’s a rather lopsided one and the church is usually thought to be on the losing end of it.

Richard Beck even chimed in today in his ongoing “Despairing for the Church” series. Citing wartime German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s advocating of “religionless Christianity” in the aftermath of the church’s pitiful acquiescence to the Third Reich, its abject failure to be faithful to the gospel in the face of monstrous evil, Beck suggests that a similar approach might be appropriate in our time and place:

I think that is a good word for the church today. Given all the abuses and scandals, perhaps it is time for the church to go silent. Trust with the world needs to be reestablished. After a season where the world observes our faithful care and love for them it might ask what we think about this or that issue. Until then, no sermons. No propaganda. No words. Just silent righteous action.

I read that paragraph and I thought, “This feels like the kind of thing that I should probably say that I agree with, the kind of thing I almost certainly would have agreed with at one point in my life and ministry.” Actions speak louder than words, right? Isn’t this the point of the book of James? Doesn’t this reflect the clear teaching of Jesus? God knows we could use more concrete action in the world instead of words untethered to anything real. Preach the gospel at all times; use words when necessary (you know, that thing that people love to imagine that St. Francis said but probably didn’t?). Silent, righteous action in place of noisy, hypocritical words. Who could argue with this?

Well, me, I guess. As it turns out. Huh, who would have thought?

First, the obligatory caveat: It should go without saying that a symmetry between words and deeds is the preferred ideal. It shouldn’t be one or the other, but both. And there will of course be times and places where one is emphasized more than the other. But silence? No, I’m sorry. I don’t often disagree with Richard Beck, but I do here.

I could cite all kinds of verses pointing to the importance of preaching the gospel at all times, but I’ve never been much for slinging around bible verses to win arguments. “My bible verse pile is higher than yours” has never seemed to me a persuasive or compelling approach to any issue. It’s not hard to make the bible say what you want it to. And I’m well aware there are plenty of verses that would seem to prioritize actions over words as well.

For me, the first and most obvious reason that the church must not stop speaking is precisely because the church is full of self-righteous hypocrites, corrupt leaders greedy for power, morally bankrupt abusers of the weak and the vulnerable, because its pews are populated by -ists and -obes and transgressors of every other sort. The church is full of sinners and sinners need to hear of the judgment and mercy of Christ and his gospel.

Additionally, this idea that the church should stop speaking until it gets its act together begs a rather obvious question. When, exactly, will the church have its act together? It’s been a few millennia and we’re still exhibiting a rather mixed performance. To require purity as a prerequisite for proclamation seems a dead end to me. This is as true for the church as it is for the broader culture which is rapidly becoming as morally puritanical as anything the church ever dreamt up. Turning “who gets to speak” into a purity arms race is a dead end road, whether we’re talking about the church or the university campus or social media or anywhere else we seem to delight in dividing the clean from the unclean.

A few other reasons that the church must not stop speaking (a by no means exhaustive list).

  • The church has the only anthropology on offer that actually makes sense of our conflicted selves and our inability to live up to our best ideals. The Christian narrative bestows us both with the glorious dignity of bearing the image of God and the (to my mind blindingly obvious) truth that we all fall short of what we were made to be and to do. Our cultural moment needs few things more desperately than a coherent anthropology that can make sense of the gap between words and deeds (inside and outside the church). We must speak of this.
  • The church offers meaning and dignity in cultural context where there is an almost debilitating lack of meaning, particularly among the young. People need to hear that they are loved, that they are called, that they have been gifted and summoned to love and mercy in the world. We must speak of this.
  • Biblical illiteracy or any kind of fluency with the Christian narrative and the theology that underwrites it is rampant in the broader culture and within the church. We must speak about what we believe or we will forget it or reduce it to something much smaller and more self-serving than it is.
  • We need to preserve the language of confession and absolution. God, how we need this in a culture gorging itself on merciless judgment and self-righteousness. The church must boldly speak of the truth that we are all sinners and that God, in Christ, is the Great Forgiver.

Silent righteous action can accomplish great good in our world. It can be a soothing balm in the aftermath of cheap and destructive words. Actions sometimes really do speak louder than words. But there are things that even silent righteous action cannot accomplish. It can’t do any of the things described above. And these things are necessary at all times—when the church is performing ok, when it’s making a mockery of its Lord and Saviour, and at all points in between. The church declares that there is good news for sinners of all kinds at all times and in all places. If there is really is to be only one sermon left, let this be it.

8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris #

    “…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” (Ecc 3.7) But it doesn’t prescribe an equal amount of time for each. Ten parts silence to one part speech would be a good ratio.

    It’s astonishing that anyone thinks they have moral authority. “No one living is righteous before you.” (Ps 143.2)

    October 11, 2022
    • Yeah, the ratios would obviously vary. It could well be 10:1 in certain contexts. But I don’t think it’s ever zero.

      October 12, 2022
  2. Rick #

    I very much appreciate your words, Ryan. In addition to the kind of action that Beck talks about, speaking from a posture of humility and a deep sense of our failures and brokenness is probably the only way we (the church) can speak with any integrity. Not to mention that we are entrusted to proclaim good news by a God who knew in advance of all our brokenness.

    October 11, 2022
    • Not to mention that we are entrusted to proclaim good news by a God who knew in advance of all our brokenness.

      Indeed! Thanks, Rick.

      October 12, 2022
  3. Institutional capture, corruption and hypocrisy is pervasive. ALL our institutions have succumbed. If I extend Beck’s argument outward, then all voices are silenced.

    October 12, 2022
  4. Chris #

    This is thoughtful and well-written, as all your posts are. I feel it deserves better than my snarky, snippy little comment above. On the whole, I agree that the church should keep speaking the general truths of the gospel and human life. I think this happens best, though, in a decentralized way, pulpit by pulpit by pulpit, individual preachers who take time to look at the Bible and look at life and the intersection between the Bible and life and who somehow find something valuable to say about it all week by week. I have great respect for those who do this and do it well, as you do. Your congregation is fortunate to have you as one who brings a timely word to them each week.

    October 14, 2022
    • I didn’t interpret your comment as snippy or snarky, Chris! But I very much appreciate your kind words here. Thank you. And, yes, I agree. Pulpit by pulpit, community by community, relationship by relationship. Good proclamation always requires trust, in my view, and trust is most often a local and smaller-scale thing.

      October 15, 2022

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