Largely Agreeing, Totally Offended
Two weeks ago I watched a sermon online delivered in a church I occasionally attend, not my home church but a very welcoming congregation all the same. I was not planning to listen in on this sermon as the pastor I tune into, online or in person, was not preaching that day. However, after seeing some comments on social media I was curious. I wish my curiosity had not got the better of me.
The Gospel text was Luke 9: 51-62. The preacher made some excellent comments about this text and shed some light on it, as any good preacher will do. Then down came the hammer. The preacher launched into a discourse on why the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade was so awful. Included was a thumbnail sketch of the liberal argument about the damaging effects on women of such a ban and how this was a violation of their rights.
It is not as though the preacher went off on a tangent without any expectation. The pastor in charge of this church knew about the topic, and the viewpoint and approved of the sermon. In short, the sermon had the full authority of this congregation. Some may think it had the full authority of the church.
Therein lies my problem. The topic in no way should have been presented from the pulpit. The preacher broke what I think is the cardinal rule of preaching; no one should know the preacher’s politics from the pulpit. I have made this point before, but it bears repeating again.
Before I detail why this type of “preaching” is so damaging I wish to clarify. My problem is not that I was in complete disagreement with this preacher. I am not using this space to parse out a position on abortion. I am, however, stating that by any political metric, I would be considered pro-choice. This is perhaps the most difficult issue before us as a society. So difficult that I can see little good coming from heavy handed state involvement. I found many of the points the preacher made about the harmful effects of a blanket prohibition to be accurate and on point. I only go this far down the substance of the abortion debate to short-circuit the inevitable cry of “you just don’t want to hear another point of view”. No, I do not even want my political philosophy preached from the pulpit. It is divisive and dangerous to the mission of His church.
The Lack of Grace in a Political Sermon
The essential thing about Christianity is our belief in our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is the Gospel (which literally means Good News). Our belief in this good news is the faith that saves us. Our Risen Lord obliterates all that stands between us and an eternal relationship with the Father. On this essential matter than can be no disagreement among Christians. If you don’t believe this, you simply aren’t a Christian. When we go into Sanctuary to worship and praise our Risen Lord and Savior there is not an inch of daylight separating us as Christians. The only real question is how to respond to this Good News and God’s gift of grace upon grace.
The answer to that question is what I would call “Applied Gospel”. This is broken into two stages. The first stage is the nuts and bolts of daily living for the faithful. How do we put into practice what Jesus taught us about living a fully human life. Much of this is intuitive. Treating people with courtesy and respect, being kind and gracious and hospitable. We, for the most part, know in our hearts what we are to do in any given moment.
The difficulty in understanding the Applied Gospel is not over these everyday interpersonal interactions (it is difficult to do but not to understand). No, the difficulty is in the second stage of Applied Gospel, the broader social questions regarding politics and policy, and make no mistake, Jesus’s ministry was a social and political one. For instance, we can agree that we are to be stewards of God’s creation, but it is how we best do this that bedevils us. Of course, these are important issues. They are the institutional means by which we treat one another, and God has everything to say about that.
It is in this realm, however, that we will always face differences and disagreements. People of various backgrounds and experiences will bring vastly different perspectives to these issues and will reach vastly different conclusions about what policy is most compatible with the Gospel. The thing we must remember is that differing conclusions do not mean that the person holding those policy prescriptions are evil or unchristian. People of good faith and conscience can and will disagree.
The real threat to the Christian faith is not that people differ on matters of importance; the threat arises when people conflate the important with the essential. When people assume that important differences are essential, they risk shattering the faith. Indeed, much of the often sad, violent history of the church is driven by just this impulse. It is a path we must not tread.
This sermon put on display all the reasons why this is a bad idea. First, the preacher laid out a view of the anti-abortion contingent that is all too common; they are systematically and intentionally stripping away the rights of women. The usual refrain is that these folks are advancing a misogynistic, “Handmaidens Tale” dystopian vision. This is of course nonsense. Equally nonsensical is the anti-abortion argument that pro-choicers are “baby killing monsters”. This preacher joined the all too common (and heathen I would add) technique of demonizing the other side. This strips them of their humanity to defeat them, rather than trying to reach them. This is profoundly dispiriting.
In doing this the preacher used the all too common (and heathen I would add) technique of oversimplifying an intensely complicated issue to score cheap applause for peppy one-liners. This too is dispiriting.
A Reminder of Why This Sucks
The true reason why this sucks is that wrapping your political ideology in the authority of the pulpit is to conflate the important with the essential. In so doing you might just turn people off to the Good News of Jesus Christ. The reason I do not want my ideology preached from the pulpit is that it would turn my soul inside out to think that someone was dissuaded from a relationship with God because they thought you had to think politically like I do.
To do this is to forget that we are not to judge (Matt 7:1-3), or that anyone proclaiming Jesus as Lord is not to be disparaged (Mark 9:38-41). Augustine had it right: “In fide, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas” (In faith unity, in doubtful matters liberty and in all things charity). All of this, and perhaps a person’s faith goes by the boards when someone politicizes the pulpit.
Political disagreement is healthy and can be productive in the learning process. Productive that is, if we show enough respect to talk to one another rather than at one another. These conversations are extremely important to the life of the faith community. But we must recognize that they will bring disagreement. This does not mean that it will bring disunity. If we can remember what is essential and treat each other the way we know in our heart we are supposed to, then we can have a vibrant and useful conversation about these important issues. First and foremost in all of this is knowing the proper time and place for such a conversation and it is NOT from the pulpit.
The thing that most irritates me is that all this type of “preaching”, whether from the right or left is that it is just “works righteousness”. That is the hoary notion that there are things we must “do” to get God to love us. All these types are doing is offering a list of boxes to check off to be “in”. Check the correct right- or left-wing policy positions and voila, you are righteous! The only problem is that this produces so many people turned off from Christianity. They’re very clear that there is little Good News in being told that if you don’t check the correct boxes you’re just shit and unworthy of God. What we should realize is that there is precious little grace in any of this approach.
How about we tell people the actual Good News; that God loves you unconditionally and without reservation. From there we can move to how we respond to this and have adult conversations rooted in love and respect for those of differing ideas. A grace filled life, lived in response to God’s gifts will see sermons focus on including, not excluding and relegate the important to the correct time and place. That is not an easy cross to bear for humans, I know. However, the one thing we should all realize is that Grace is not cheap and that accepting God’s Grace means we sacrifice our ego and our ideology to something greater than ourselves when we stand in the pulpit. This is what we must insist upon, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ.
Praise Be to God