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Sunday, February 5, 2017 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Politics and the Pulpit
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
In an extended season of Epiphany,
the later scripture readings turn to the ways of discipleship.
Piety and personal spiritual discipline and what we would call
social justice and responsibility . . . cannot be separated.
If they are, then both become meaningless
and not part of the worship of God.
“I come to worship God, not to hear about politics. I have to hear about politics in every other area of my life. So when I come to church, I want to experience space for peace, a sanctuary away from everything else that is going on.”
Over the course of this past fall and this current winter, I have heard some of you say something similar, either as you are leaving worship or in the emails and conversations that follow. Usually those honest and earnest concerns are expressed after a sermon has elicited spontaneous applause by folks in the congregation, what we in our Presbyterian tradition call “enacted prayer.” (If we were comfortable in saying “Amen,” that is probably what would happen. But many of us are not, so when we are moved, we clap. It is our response to a holy nudge.)
Yet for those in our midst who are not moved by the sermon or who might be struggling with the word that has just been preached, that enacted prayer of clapping can reinforce their sense that they sit alone or that their struggles are not welcome here, consequences I know none of us ever intend. Nevertheless, in our extremely polarized national culture these days, even enacted prayer like clapping or sermons based on the prophets or Jesus’ own words can come across as partisan or as exclusive. So why, then, do we keep bringing these kinds of things up here in this pulpit? Why can we not just leave it all—all of that political conflict and controversy—alone?
Honestly, I get those questions. I have recently had several weeks when I just wanted to bury my head in the sand and not say a word on a Sunday morning about anything going on outside of this sanctuary. But I can’t. I can’t just leave it alone. One reason I can’t is because of our very own mission statement—a statement that encapsulates who we feel God has called us to be as a church. The first two paragraphs of the mission statement of Fourth Presbyterian Church make these claims: “We are a light in the city reflecting the inclusive love of God. Comforted and challenged by the gospel of Christ, we strive to be a welcoming, serving community. At the intersection of faith and life, we share God’s grace through worship, preaching, education, and ministries of healing, reconciliation, and justice.”
It is that central phrase “at the intersection of faith and life” that informs so much of how I, how we as clergy staff and Session, try to lead this congregation. For it is a strong component of this church’s lifeblood to proactively pursue the way our faith, what we believe, intersects with the entire rest of our lives—both as a community and as individuals. Furthermore, all preachers who enter into this pulpit space, space you entrust to us and whose trust we take seriously, have always been encouraged to walk up these stairs with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Paying attention to that intersection of faith and life has defined who this church has been for generations. Thus, our identity as Fourth Presbyterian Church—a congregation in which we expect both comfort and challenge from the gospel, a spiritual community in which we intentionally try to live at the intersection of faith and life, or faith and action—is one reason why I often cannot leave the messiness of our larger political, national life alone as I preach with you.
But the even more critical and foundational reason why we do not leave the realm of politics alone is because scripture does not leave the realm of politics alone. Now, I am not talking about partisanship or what the Johnson amendment enforces. Rather, I am talking about politics as the use of power and how that use of power shapes our social fabric and our communal life. How that use of power affects the most vulnerable in our society. How that use of power does or does not reflect God’s hope of shalom, peace and wholeness, for all people and for creation. The topic of politics runs throughout both the Old and the New Testaments.
Furthermore, the gospel itself, defined as the good news of Jesus Christ, is political. If Jesus had not been political, he probably would not have been crucified by the Roman Empire. One of the unjust charges brought against him was the charge of sedition. Jesus constantly challenged the political ethos of his own day—the ethos of empire and exploitation, how the Roman government oppressed the people with unjust taxes and laws, the increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor, the way even the religious leaders sometimes tried to gain power at the expense of the most vulnerable.
As we preached the Sunday after the election, Jesus’ very first sermon in Nazareth, his hometown, was a political sermon, based on the prophet Isaiah, about doing justice and letting the oppressed go free. Jesus’ primary message that the kingdom of God had arrived through him was and is a political message because it demands his followers regularly choose whom they will ultimately worship—Caesar or the Creator. Is it nation first or God first?
That is a question all throughout scripture. Whose politics, whose use of power and interest, are you going to serve: God’s, as most fully defined and revealed to us who are Christians through Jesus Christ, or something or someone else? “To whom is your primary allegiance and how do you live that out?” the gospel regularly asks us. It is a question that drips with politics, because it calls us to examine the way we use our power and for whom. As Bill Coffin once preached, “Are we as the faithful being faithful to others so that all are blessed by the mighty waters of God’s mercy, justice, and righteousness?”
All of this means, siblings in Christ, that it will be just about impossible for your preachers to walk up into this pulpit and leave the current political messiness of our world at the bottom of the stairs. That does not mean you will hear a social justice sermon every Sunday, but it does mean if things like the refugee ban are happening in our world, we have to address them with each other or we are not being faithful to our call, faithful to what God calls us to do and who God calls us to be.
After one of my preacher friends received feedback about his church members’ desire for him to keep politics out of the pulpit, he commented that he thinks a primary tension is that so many of us are viewing the gospel through our political lens, rather than viewing our politics through a gospel lens.
Let me say that one more time: In these days of heightened polarization, we are inclined to see the message of the gospel through our already determined political lens, rather than viewing our politics and policies through our gospel lens. That viewpoint tends to encourage us, then, to walk into this sanctuary space already prepped and loaded to pick out words or phrases in worship or in the sermon that we have already defined through the lens of our partisan perspective for good or for bad rather than leave this sanctuary at the end of worship ready and willing to look at our policies and what our government is doing through the lens of what God shows us and tells us through Jesus Christ.
I found his reflection quite insightful, and the challenge is not a partisan one. We all do it—progressives, independents, and conservatives alike, preachers and congregation members. None of us is immune. If we are not conscious of it, we often hear what we expect to hear, unless we are intentionally trying to shift our lens.
Yet for those of us in the Reformed theological tradition, we believe that our gospel lens ought to be our primary lens, not just for the way in which we view our political decisions, but in the way we view all of our decisions, the way we view our world and its future, the way we see each other and our own reflection in the mirror. As I have said before, this is why our sermons typically focus so much on scripture: so that we can be so fully immersed in God’s perspective revealed through the Bible that our faith informs all of our living and our being. So let’s get to scripture.
Immersing the people in God’s perspective is what Isaiah was trying to do in our lesson for today. Now, I know that at least 100 of you have recently wrapped up an adult education class focused on Second Isaiah co-taught by our pastor emeritus, John Buchanan. So you know Second Isaiah is thought to have been primarily composed when God’s people Israel were in exile in Babylon. Scholars believe that Third Isaiah, however, where our scripture comes from today, was primarily composed after those exiles returned home—something they had desired for generations. Yet as we see when we read it, all was not well when that homecoming finally took place. The exiles returned from Babylon to a city in ruins, a place devastated by war and capture, and they felt impoverished and disillusioned. After all, they had just wanted a new start and for life to finally get back to the old normal again.
From what the prophet declares in this fifty-eighth chapter, I think some of that worshiping community—partly in response to the messiness all around them—longed to be able to just set aside their cultural ethos of devastation and stress in order to come into their space of worship and only sense God’s presence and peace. Those beleaguered people probably wanted what many of us want: to find sanctuary and to have a chance to forget about all the pain and division outside the temple’s walls.
But to their chagrin, what happened? The prophet preached a political sermon: “Is not this the fast that I choose,” Isaiah proclaimed on God’s behalf, “to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” The prophet proclaimed to his own beleaguered people that unless their worship was tied to their politics, to the way they used their power and on behalf of whom, to moral transformation in every area of their life, not just in the area of their religious life, then their worship was inadequate and God might not even pay attention.
I don’t know how you feel, but those words from the prophet feel harsh to me. It wasn’t that the people were unreligious. They were good people. As a commentator on this text writes, being unreligious “would be easy to condemn. No, they are hyper-correct in their religious observances and delighted to exhibit their piety, but in their very exercise of religion, they miss the essential point” (Paul D. Hanson, Interpretation: Isaiah 40–66, p. 204). They miss God’s desire that worship be inseparable from a life of justice and compassion (Hanson, p. 206). Or, as we might say using our framework from today, their desire to not see their politics through the lens of their faith, thus reordering the way they lived and interacted with their larger community and world, missed the mark of God’s hope. Only when they began to again view their politics—the way they used their power and for whom—through the lens of their faith rather than the other way around, thereby affecting the ways they lived their lives and made their communal decisions, would they be able to be the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in, God’s light in the world. It was all tied together.
Look, I know that we are all living in very unsettled times. I know that we come into this space sometimes on edge, sometimes exhausted, sometimes confused, sometimes just ready to leave all of that out there and to finally find some breathing space for our soul. I resonate with all of that. But a life of discipleship, following God in the way of Jesus, will always be marked by both comfort and challenge, depending on the season. A life of discipleship, following God in the way of Jesus, will always be a mixture of inhaling God’s grace for ourselves and exhaling that grace out into our world. A life of discipleship, following God in the way of Jesus, will demand that all of us, not just we preachers, daily take our scripture in one hand and the newspaper in the other and do our best to discern how God is calling us to respond in the messy political realm of our lives.
Our challenge will be to get our lens right. As a people who worship God, who claim Christian first, the gospel is the primary lens through which we view our world, our politics, ourselves. We must resist doing it the other way around. So as we keep coming together, living at the intersection of faith and life, knowing we will be both comforted and challenged by the good, hard, and often political news of the gospel, may we do so with patience and love and compassion for one another, trusting that above all we all belong to God, as does this messy and broken yet always being transformed world. Amen.