“Have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other,” implored theologian Karl Barth. The first time I heard the gospel preached that way wasn’t in church, it was in my parents’ family room; it wasn’t from a pulpit, but a record player. It was Simon and Garfunkel’s “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night.”
If you’re of a certain age, you’ll remember it too - that gentle Christmas carol, in simple harmonies over acoustic guitar. Then gradually, another sound begins to interfere. On top of “Silent Night,” a reading of the nightly news grows louder and louder, unstoppably persistent, until it overwhelms the carol. “All is calm; all is bright” drowned out by “demonstrators forcibly evicted from hearings at a special subcommittee of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.” “Sleep in heavenly peace” swallowed by the warning “that unless there is a substantial increase in the effort in Viet Nam, the U.S. should look forward to five more years of war.… That’s the 7 o’clock edition of the news. Good night.”
I’ve been thinking about that song again, and about Barth’s words - about the tension between the Bible’s vision and the world’s news. And as I contemplated today’s Scripture, I thought about some of the headlines in the news of this last year:
The Bible: “No more shall there be the sound of weeping, or the cry of distress.”
The newspaper: “An Incalculable Loss: America has reached a grim milestone in the coronavirus outbreak.” [https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/24/us/us-coronavirus-deaths-100000.html]
The Bible: “They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.”
The newspaper: “Political Battle Erupts Over Homeless Encampment on Venice Boardwalk.” [https://deadline.com/2021/06/homeless-camp-tents-venice-beach-boardwalk-mike-bonin-villanueva-1234771457/]
The Bible: “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”
The newspaper: “Collateral damage of COVID-19: Rising rates of domestic and social violence” [https://theconversation.com/collateral-damage-of-covid-19-rising-rates-of-domestic-and-social-violence-143345]
What do we do with that juxtaposition between “real life” and the words of Scripture? What do we do with God’s promises of peace in a world where violence prevails?
For those outside the church, the answer’s easy: ignore the Bible - which much of the world does. For Christians, the answer is more complicated.
We could take an eschatological approach looking to the end time for God’s vision to be fulfilled. The news is all we see now, but a different reality will dawn someday. This comforts us - what we see is not the last word. But we miss the point if shrug and say, “No worries. God’s got this. No need to get involved in homelessness, or immigration, or climate change; one day that’ll all disappear.”
Another option is to focus on our personal salvation - cherishing our relationship with Jesus Christ. But we miss the point again is we stop there, if we think only of ourselves and not the world that God so loves.
But there’s a third way - a way that lifts up God’s end game vision and at the same time, opens our hearts to let Christ make a difference now. That’s the prophetic way, the Gospel way - where God’s reign can be real, even now. Where peace is not a pipedream, where God assures that none of his beloved sheep goes hungry.
Maybe that’s ridiculous idealism. Plenty of smart people, Christians included, will tell you this vision of the Peaceable Kingdom isn’t just naïve, but dangerous - that violence and terror are here to stay, and our all-too-real enemies gleefully imagine our destruction. Maybe they’re right. But whatever your politics, the day we abandon our hope for a different vision of the world is the day we stoop to the devil’s level. And I for one am not willing to do that.
So, what will move our hearts? What will convince us that Christ’s calling is real, that God’s vision of peace is possible, not just for us but for all? “Without a vision, the people perish.”
For professor Fred Craddock it happened just before a lecture he was about to give. The student who was offering the opening devotion carried her yellow legal pad to the podium and he noticed that it had a lot of writing on it. Fred thought, we’ll be here a long time.
The student spoke softly, first in one foreign language, then another, and another - one sentence repeated over fifty times in different tongues. It was only when she got to German and Spanish and French that Fred began to understand what she was saying. She ended in English: “Mommy, I’m hungry.” And then she sat down. [John M. Buchanan, “Faith is something you do,” 9/7/03, citing Craddock’s “Cherry Log” sermons, in a sermon preached at Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago.]
In whatever language we can hear, Jesus is saying to us, right here, right now: “Do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
It was at the end of World War II when theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned: “Despair is the fate of realists who know something about sin, but nothing about redemption.” [Cited by Jon M. Walton, 10/7/84, in a sermon preached at Setauket Presbyterian Church, Setauket, NY.] I might say it this way: cynicism is the fate of realists who see clearly the present, but see nothing of God’s vision for the way the world could really be. That vision is before us now: where wolves and lambs can feed together; where all of God’s hungry world is fed at the table of grace.
Today, Christians across the globe are celebrating World Communion Sunday. A day when we are urged to embrace the biblical vision of unity and peace. Not as a far-off dream but as Christ’s calling to us right now.
Today, God invites us to imagine becoming a people who work diligently for peace in our homes, in our country, in our world.
Today, God invites us to imagine being a people consumed with care for the earth not only for ourselves but for generations still to come.
Today. Today, God invites us to imagine being a people who ensure that every single one of God’s hungry children is fed. Fed with bread, with security, with welcome, with love.