McMickle: ‘We have confused patriotism with the gospel of Christ’

Column by Mary Lee Talbot.

“What is interesting about the English language is that some words are not fully comprehended until they are put in context. Take the word ‘bear.’ It can mean a warm, furry animal walking around the woods or it can mean to carry a burden,” said the Rev. Marvin McMickle at Monday’s 9:15 a.m. Devotional Hour. McMickle’s text was Amos 7:10-14 and Acts 7:51-58, and his title was “Does Our Gospel Still Offend?”

“The word ‘offensive’ is another one. It can mean that you have not brushed your teeth and I don’t want to sit too close. It can mean an attitude of aggression to score points to win a game. Or it can be something said that cuts to the quick and is politically, morally and theologically offensive to those around you,” McMickle said. “I remember what Pete Rose did 40 years ago. He was on first base, and the ball was hit, and he started to run, and he just kept running. He rounded second and kept running, and the third-base coach signaled him to stop, and he just kept running. He ran right at the catcher who had the ball, and he just ran him over. All because he was offensive?”

When we apply the word offensive to the life of faith, to be offensive is to be aggressive in sharing what we know and what we believe. Is our message so politically and socially offensive that we offend people in power?

“Are we like Amos and Stephen who were determined to be heard even if it offended the people with power?” he said. “Are we so evangelically offensive that everyone has the chance to hear our message? But what kind of message is it? The smiley-faced, power-of-positive-thinking popularity contest we see today, or do we learn a lesson from Amos and Stephen and make truth-to-power statements that they will not hear unless the people of God say them? When was the last time you said or did anything to turn the world upside down?”

The prophet Amos was looking at his own nation and holding it accountable to its own ideals, McMickle said. Amos was told to get out of Israel by Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, because “the land is not able to bear all his words. I have been preaching for 40 years, and I have never said anything sufficiently offensive to be sent out of town.” Stephen, in Acts, was preaching, and his words made the people cover their ears, and they stoned him to death.

“And yet Joel Osteen draws 42,000 every Sunday, and people go out with the secret to wealth,” McMickle said. “Does your Gospel still offend? Do you allow your pastor to say what ears cannot bear to hear? We have a mandate first to be offensive in the telling of the gospel, and second, we have a mandate to be offensive in the content of the gospel,” he said.

McMickle’s book, Where Have all the Prophets Gone?: Reclaiming Prophetic Preaching in America, tried to answer some of those questions. First, he said, our sense of justice has become too narrow. He described a group of churches who had two social justice Sundays. They dealt with abortion the first Sunday and human sexuality on the second.

“They believed that the battle had been fought. But would the Kingdom of God have come the next day on those issues?” he asked.

Would there be no more overcrowded prisons if we dealt with abortion? Would we fix our crumbling infrastructure if we dealt with human sexuality?

“If the Kingdom did not come, then our definition of justice is too narrow. Amos said let justice roll down like waters and let righteousness like an ever-rolling stream,” he said.

There are things that we should just do — feed the hungry, clothe the naked.

“We just ought to do it. When was the last time the State Patrol stopped you to thank you for going the speed limit?” he asked. “While our cities crumble and war rages, are we going to be offensive, or are we going to be passive preachers with an inoffensive message?’

The second reason that we have fewer prophets is that we are so intent on praise and worship that we are not intent on engaging in the community’s hard work.

Another reason is that “we have confused patriotism with the gospel of Christ. ‘God Bless America’ is into Christian theology. It is not in the Bible. I can sometimes sing ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,’ but I can’t find in the text where he loves one nation more than another,” he said.

McMickle joked that we think President Barack Obama is the first black president, but that the first black president was Chris Rock in the movie “Head of State.” His vice president was Bernie Mac, and McMickle said he would like to spend one day in that country. Rock’s character was running against another candidate whose only slogan was “God Bless America — and No One Else.” We can love our country, McMickle said, but can’t we see that God loves all of us, and that we are not called to dominate, but to transform.

“If we try to make everyone happy, we can win friends, but we will lose our walk with the Lord,” he said.

Anniversaries are important in black churches, especially the annual pastoral anniversary.

“And every five years, they throw out the stops. I was serving in Montclair, N.J., and you know, these are not your everyday black people; they are upscale black people,” McMickle said. “So they gave a fifth anniversary party in the seventh year. It was not in the church basement, but on the campus of the university in South Orange. There was no fried chicken; we had capons. There were no collard greens; we had a mixed vegetable medley. We did not drink red Baptist punch; we had a frappé of red punch with ice cream. There was no monetary gift, but a purse.”

After the party, a deacon of the church stopped McMickle and said, “I know you are happy now.” McMickle asked him why the deacon thought he was happy. The deacon mentioned the capon, the mixed vegetables, the frappé and the purse.

“I sat him down and said, ‘When you called me at 4 in the morning because your son was in jail, do you think I got up and went to help him so that one day, by the grace of God, I might get some capon? I am not serving God because I want trinkets or a wall plaque or a gold watch.’

“No church could ever provide what it takes to live in this world. So when the time comes to an end and I am in the land of God, I hope Jesus will say of me ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You may have offended some, but you certainly pleased me.’ ”

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, director of the Department of Religion, presided. The Rev. J. Paul Womack, pastor of the Hurlbut Memorial Church at Chautauqua, read the scripture. The Motet Choir sang “Hosanna in Excelsis Deo” by Charles Gounod. Jared Jacobsen, organist and worship and sacred music coordinator, directed the choir.