Pastors always get feedback on sermons. Most, like myself, welcome the feedback, especially when it is negative. If there is something that I am doing that might be pushing a person away from the community, I want to know about it. Most of the feedback is general–“Great word, Pastor!” or “Lovely service”–and often contradictory–“Went a little long on the sermon this week, Pastor,” followed by “Oh, I wish you had said more about…”
The one that haunts me, as I have heard it from the time of my seminary internship, is: “You were too political in the sermon, Pastor.”
I have gone through many different stages of receiving this criticism. Defensiveness was the go-to: seeking to defend or explain myself, and often angry that I had to do so. Following closely behind was hurt feelings, first my own but then quickly the fact that my words had caused hurt to someone else. After the first time it happened when the senior pastor was away on leave and a member ended up no longer attending the church (at least when I was preaching), I vowed to “never be political again.”
I imagine the preachers in the audience are chuckling right now. Yeah, no. The Gospel is political. If you’re afraid of politics you are afraid of the gospel, and we can’t have preachers that are afraid of the gospel. Because then we start taking the comfortable way out; the easy road; we become a fair weather friend, and the gospel calls for disciples not diplomats. There are some things that we just cannot compromise on. And it ain’t gay marriage, abortion, or gun rights: it is oppression, injustice, and the dangers of Mammon.
Every time I read an article or click on a news website, I see something else happening in our country and I think, this is a gospel issue.
Then the inevitable question: How the hell do I preach truth to power without running off the congregation?
It is important to have clear lines. I will never (again; see above about that first instance of trouble) say the name of a sitting or serving political figure from the pulpit; when it has been necessary to state a position on guns I have adhered to the decisions made by the congregation before I arrived, the official positions of the denomination which I serve, and what I believe the gospel says about armed violence. I admit that a particular interpretation of scripture guides me–and I understand others can read the same scriptures in very different ways–but I am not some political ideologue. Pastors cannot be expected to exist as neutral observers of life, only there to give a comforting word on Sunday and baptize, marry, and bury as needed. When we are doing it right, we have an intimate relationship with the scriptures we preach each week, seek out the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and call upon our vast, if hurried educations to preach something to the congregation that helps them see God in their lives, to feeling the divine quickening within them and energizing them to face another week in an uncertain world.
We can’t preach the heavy, political, call-to-arms sermon every Sunday. At least, I can’t; I know that I will lose the congregation, and that has major repercussions, the most important to me being that people would not feel safe or affirmed in a sacred space. But I also know that I can preach the hard word as long as I am willing to hear the concerns, and that we’ll to speak to one another honestly. I can say from experience that this is difficult, but I also think that it strengthens relationships. It gives the opportunity to see if we really mean that we want to be a society in which we can co-exist with differences, and that co-existence does not mean that one side shuts up so the other side feels better. We can’t preach barnburners all the time because people do come to church burdened by the world, both the micro and the macro, and worship should be a time in which one feels the weight lifted from them, not added to; there is a lot of heavy, crazy, mind-boggling shit going on and I’ll admit that I am wondering if the Constitution is actually a thing anymore. Part of me wants to preach on that tomorrow. But I’m not going to. Why? Because I believe God has given me another word. And that the congregation deserves an uplifting word on Gaudete Sunday.
However, we Christians need to have some talks. Laity and clergy. We need to talk to one another about what we’re gonna do to survive and support one another in the coming days. I’m feeling pretty good about where I’m at, but that’s because there have been a lot of difficult conversations and some are still awaiting. I think the congregation also knows that I am guided by the gospel pretty consistently. Aaron the person would love to take 20 minutes tomorrow and hold forth about what’s going on in the country, but Pastor Aaron knows that is wholly inappropriate. God has a word for us from Isaiah 61, and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go to the text together and see what God will wrought.
But congregations cannot expect their pastors to be feel good every week, especially if the preacher is pointing out how the gospel applies to a contemporary situation. Sometimes being in a religious community means that the person charged with spiritual care and education has to point out some unpleasantness. It will make pew sitters uncomfortable. Often it does us as well. I don’t know any of my prophetic preaching friends who say, “Oh, I’m so excited to preach a word that is going to make everyone uncomfortable and will guarantee that the next three days are filled with talks about the sermon!” We do it because we believe that Christ has spoken clearly on how we are to follow him in the world.
Pastors are going to be overwhelmed with events each week that seem to be spoken to directly by the lectionary text; congregants are going to be exhausted from a week in the same world, and will come to worship for some peace and comfort. Those two will have to co-exist, and frankly I think this is how the Church is going to prove if it really is what it claims to be. If we are guided by the Gospel, always understanding that Jesus’ fundamental requirement is that we love one another, not conditionally or with an expiration date, we should be able to work through honest disagreements about how to interpret concepts such as grace, mercy, or even justice.
This last one is hard. Equivocating on standards of justice is why a good many marginalized persons do not trust majority culture allies. We can discuss justice as though it is only the nuances that must be worked out, whereas other members of the population literally cannot remember the last time a police officer was convicted and sentenced for murdering a citizen of their color. Or gender identity. Or…too many blanks to fill in. Primarily white churches need to be certain they don’t prioritize “making everyone feel welcome here” if doing so directly places in danger persons from oppressed populations who are sitting in the pews regularly. Hell, even if doing so could harm a potential visitor, those ideas and realities need to be exposed. That’s hard. That’s hard to hear and that’s hard to do. And some of us pastors who do this work could find ourselves being accused of creating a litmus test for who is allowed in; those kinds of charges are very difficult to answer, as there is a fine line between following the gospel and being exclusionary.
But if we accept racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, or any of the other odiums that are popping up like so many whackamoles, we have equivocated on the gospel. If we stop using terms like white supremacy or white privilege; if we say, “Blue Lives Matter” is attempting to achieve the same things as “Black Lives Matter,” or a whole host of other examples we will find ourselves in a situation in which the gospel cannot work because it is not being preached. It is not being practiced. It is not being honored.
After my spiritual revelation but before my official conversion, a non-denominational pastor and a Jesuit priest, in a class on Modern Catholic Social Teaching, asked me: “Why aren’t you a Christian?” I answered: “Because it is too hard.”
Sometimes you want to go home from church but your mom is still talking. Sometimes what you want to do is not what God needs you to do. My prayer is that congregations and pastors discover this together, and in so doing we can help affect some real transformation in this country. And I’ll keep my pulpit out of politics as long as politics doesn’t pull in my pulpit.
Have gospel, will travel.