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Pandemics, Elections and Preachers

In my wee book on preaching God Be In My Mouth, I have a section called ‘Finding The Year’ where I talk about the times in which we read. With the bible (as arguably with most ‘classic’ literature – Shakespeare etc.) we are never done reading; and more so with the bible because of our convictions of God the Holy Spirit speaking afresh through the Word. A passage in Lectionary Year A which we read in 2016-17 may have looked very different in 2013-14 (as we entered the year of IndyRef I here in Scotland) than it now looks in these last weeks of the liturgical year 2019-20.

We are on reading week in the College this week, so there is no College Worship, but I am preaching this Sunday and so have been mulling over the texts for ‘Proper 26’. I will acknowledge All Saints in my own modest Presbyterian way, but this year I felt the texts for ‘26’ were more compelling.

The COVID 19 pandemic has thrown up huge issues of trust in political leaders and scientific experts as well as concerns about a storm of misinformation on social media. In such febrile times, many people seem to become easy prey for conspiracy theorists, conscience free grifters and cynical propagandists. I have been doing some work this year on the relationship between what is being called ‘the affective turn’ within the academy – a murmuration of interest across many disciplines in questions of emotion and affect – and the concerns of Christian theology. Many people are pointing out that responses to the pandemic, to Brexit before it, to support for indy in Scotland, to meals for hungry kids in England and to next week’s US elections – all of these need to be understood in the light of their affective dimensions and the emotional responses and reactions they generate.

I am fond of quoting in worship classes on leading congregational prayer, the injunction in the Westminster Confession that the one leading should pray in such a way as ‘to stir up suitable affections’ in the congregation. If we reversed that it would give us a neat definition of the stock in trade of populist manipulators and charlatans, hatemongers and propagandists – ‘to stir up unsuitable affections’; affections which suit their unsuitable ends of promoting conflict, resentment, racism etc.

We arrive at this Sunday in 2020, therefore, surrounded by ‘trust issues’ on every side. The church is of course not immune. The recent report on abuse within the Church of England has been shocking and painful, with fierce exchanges still ongoing about whether the hierarchy have truly learned the lessons and responded properly to the concerns of victims/survivors.

All of this gives us a ‘reading/hermeneutical context’, a socio-historical context, we could even say a ‘prophetic’ context for reading the scriptures set for this Sunday.

Reading Micah3:5-12, we meet a God who pays attention to the words of those who claim or are given the mantle of ‘prophet’; a God who calls out their corruption as profit-seeking prophets, selling their voices and their word of ‘Peace’ to the highest bidder. For them (and for the people who follow them) God says there is only night and thick darkness in which no vision is possible, no revelation available. The sun sinks down on them and the night descends

– dis/gracing them and putting them to shame. They will need to ‘cover their lips’ – hush/hide their mouths – because God is tight-lipped before them.

By contrast, Micah’s anointing is a rush of power, filled with the Spirit of God, with justice and strength he is ready to declare to the people of God where things have gone wrong, where they have gone wrong.

He starts at the top. With the leaders and rulers. With the chiefs and the chief execs…. who hate justice and pervert fairness, who ‘build Zion with blood and Jerusalem with wrong’. They are ‘cabs for hire’, they sell judicial rulings for bribes. The priests too are for sale, they will tailor their message to the preaching fee. The prophets no better, slip them a bung and they will provide you with a reassuring message from the Almighty, that God is on your side and will make sure you never come to harm.

But there is another kind of price to be paid for this. Social and economic ruin and collapse. Zion will be ploughed like a field. Jerusalem will be rubble. The holy place will be left neglected and overgrown.

And there our reading stops – as all lections have to stop somewhere. Micah has more to say and words of hope to follow. But this week, this year, preachers are offered these and it is hard to say that they are not at very first hearing, deeply resonant, deeply convicting, deeply troubling words. If you have ears to hear…hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

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