Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Politics from the Pulpit

When I finished seminary, I began my career as a deacon and priest working for a man who had a gift for teaching a young, high-strung clergyman without making him feel patronized. When he heard or saw something that concerned him, he waited for an opportunity to tell me a story about his own struggles, providing an example from which I might take advice. Sometimes he had to tell me the same story six or seven times before I took it to heart. That I finished five years under his mentorship without ever detecting his pedagogical method is a credit both to his skill and to my arrogance.

I do not remember what I did or said to invite this particular story, but, early in my time there, Robert told me about a challenge he encountered over the Prayers of the People when he was the rector of a parish in South Carolina. During the first Gulf War, a parishioner approached him about adding Saddam Hussein’s name to the prayer list, citing Jesus’ commandment that we pray for our enemies. Robert knew that would be risky, but he could not find a good reason to ignore the parishioner’s request, so he added to the prayers a line about God turning the heart of Saddam Hussein. “People got up and walked out,” he recalled for me, not ever telling me directly that I should be careful about what I said in church but hoping that I would get the point. Eventually, that lesson—combined with a strong instinct for self-preservation—molded me into a minister who generally prefers to avoid political subject-matter in church.

Lately, however, I have preached some uncomfortably pointed sermons—uncomfortable for some in the congregation and uncomfortable for me as well. Although I may be wrestling with a subconscious desire to shake things up, I try to avoid controversy in the pulpit, but, for three weeks in a row, Luke has given us a gospel lesson that urges us to evaluate the collision of what we believe and how we live our lives. How can anyone read the Parable of the Good Samaritan without hearing Jesus ask whether we are serving God “not only with our lips but in our lives?” Remember that Luke is the gospel writer who gives us not only the Good Samaritan but also the Magnificat, the song in which Mary sings of the Lord’s reordering of society by scattering the proud and exalting the humble, by filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty (1:46-55). Remember also that Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, unlike that of Matthew, is augmented to include four woes: “Woe to you who are rich…who are well fed now…who laugh now…when everyone speaks well of you…” (6:24-26). Is it any surprise, then, that as we journey through Year C of the lectionary, which focuses primarily on the third gospel account, that the sermons have become a little more practical—even political?

At the same time, we have witnessed and tried to process one tragedy after another—Orlando, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas, all of which came on the heels of shootings in San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, and Charleston, and those only begin to scratch the surface. This Sunday, a woman came out of church and shook my hand and said simply, “This is one of those weeks when we need to be in church.” I thanked her for her sentiment and told her that I felt the same way. This is a difficult time. Many of us turn to our church for comfort and direction and hope. Above all, church should be a safe place to share our sadness, acknowledge our vulnerability, and search for hope. Regardless of our political persuasion, church should be a place where we can have a constructive, charitable conversation about the issues we face, but that does not mean that churches and pastors and congregations should pretend that the voice of the gospel should remain silent on political issues.

Churches that wish to maintain their 501(c)(3) status and the preachers who presume to speak for those churches are rightly prohibited from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office” (see IRS regulations). There is no place for that in church, and personally I find religious leaders who flirt with that boundary distasteful. Endorsements like those not only risk a church’s tax-exempt status, but, more importantly, they undermine a congregation’s ability to welcome anyone and everyone in the name of Jesus.

But politics—the process of ordering a society—are not only fair game; they are the very heart of the gospel. What do you think we mean when we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” As Christians, our hope lies in the reign of God. As followers of Jesus, we live into that kingdom, and we look for and work towards the day when God’s kingdom will be established unmistakably here on earth. If you think churches should stay out of politics, how would you describe Jesus’ relationship with the political leaders of his day?

You will never hear me endorse a political candidate in church, but I hope that you will hear me call for an end to gun violence. You will never hear me take sides in a political contest in a sermon, but I hope that you will hear me say that Jesus demands that we love everyone. You will never hear me use my position to support a particular political party, but I hope you will hear me ask whether, as baptized members of the Body of Christ, you are willing to seek and serve Christ in all persons, love your neighbor as yourself, strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being.
I hope you have figured out by now that I do not like to stir the pot for controversy’s sake, but I pray that my voice will be used by God for the building up of his kingdom here on earth. We do not have to agree on political issues to worship together, break bread together, and love each other. Our politics do not need to align in order for us to follow the same Lord. Together, open to the teaching of the Holy Spirit, we can be used by God to do amazing things. In this difficult time, may we stand together in the name of Jesus Christ.

This post originally appeared in The View, the parish newsletter for St. John's Episcopal Church in Decatur, AL. To read the rest of the newsletter and learn about our parish, click here.

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