Why your church (and pastor) can’t be partisan.

Recently a person unknown to me posted his “resistance” oriented event on the Facebook wall of my church. It wasn’t clear what the event entailed and it seemed that it might cross the line into partisan territory. The poster’s profile picture advocated a specific political party, and the language was ambiguous.

I wrote him back and assured him that while I personally was supportive, the church was non-partisan, and I’d have to delete the post. I hoped he understood.

I received back this response: “We are nonpartisan, So the congregational church (sic) does not support civil rights, good to know.”

First, I’ve been given nothing that helps me determine whether the non-partisan part of that statement is true. But, second, I was stunned by the writer’s quick conclusion. This church I serve was an early moral force for abolition. A former pastor marched with Dr. King. They now have an openly gay senior pastor who they sent to Orlando last summer to provide emergency pastoral care for LGBTQ people. This is a church full of people who love their neighbors, near and far. And we are a part of a denomination that has consistently been early to every major Civil Rights challenge of our time.

But this is not a partisan church. It belongs to Jesus Christ, not any candidate or party. We follow the Gospel, and not a party platform. We get it wrong sometimes, but we really do try to get it right. Recently, though, I’ve heard a lot of folks wondering why churches aren’t doing more to confront the current political situation in our country.

I am writing this post as Emily C. Heath, private citizen. I am not writing this post as Emily C. Heath, pastor of a local congregation. I say that, but I can’t deny that the two people are one and the same. The same person writing these words on my personal blog a weekday will use this same (personal) computer to write a sermon for when I get up into the pulpit on Sunday morning.

I get how that can be confusing. And I think that sometimes that’s particularly confusing for people who know me outside of the church.

I have been interested in and involved with politics for over 20 years. The summer I graduated from high school I went off to Washington, DC to serve as a Democratic Congressional intern. I have campaigned for Democratic candidates on the ground. And I currently serve as a delegate to the state convention for my town’s Democratic committee. On my own time, I engage in partisan political activism.

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Phone banking on election day.

I’ve also been involved in the civil rights movements since that time. I came out in 1994 and started marching in Pride parades long before our safety was assured. I remember standing outside a bombed-out gay nightclub in Atlanta in 1997. And I remember traveling to Orlando last summer after the Pulse shootings.

When I wrote a blog post several years ago asking white folks to look at our privilege, I received messages calling me names I can’t print here, and one threat to burn down my church. I’ve been afraid for my personal safety because of my advocacy.

I don’t think I have to prove my progressive bona fides to anyone.

Except apparently I do. And that’s because sometimes well-meaning progressive folks don’t understand that clergy have to remain non-partisan while at church, in the pulpit, or serving in any way as a pastor.

That’s true for two very important reasons: first, the religious reason and, second, the civic reason.

pexels-photo-27633My faith teaches me that my ultimate allegiance is not to any political party, or even to any country. It’s to Christ. That means that when I’m in the pulpit, I’m talking about Christ. And, try as they might, I’ve yet to meet a politician who measures up to Christ.

My faith does shape my political beliefs. Whenever I go in the voting booth and close the curtain, I’m thinking about the Gospels. It was hearing the Gospels for the first time as a high school student that changed my own political thinking. My faith teaches me to care about the “least of these” and one way I do that is by thinking about them when I am voting.

But, I know good Christians who do not vote the way I do. Some of them are in my church, and I’m their pastor too. My sermons on Sunday should challenge them sometimes, just as they should challenge everyone. They should make them think hard about what they believe, and how they will act out their faith in the world. They should make clear that working for justice for all God’s people is not optional. 

This is political in the classic sense in that it concerns the polis, the city or community, and all of God’s people. Pastors must be concerned with their community, state, nation, and world.

But they should never, ever, tell their church for whom or for what party to vote on Election Day. That’s an abuse of power and that’s pastoral malpractice.

The second reason is the civic one. Our separation of church and state is mutually beneficial to both. The church does not get to impose a theocracy, and the state does not get to use the church for its own ends. This is healthy, especially in a society with religious diversity.

I get upset when I see conservative churches flaunting this rule. I don’t like the idea of “voter guides” stuffed in Sunday bulletins, or of pastors in the pulpits stating who they think God wants you to vote for because, as I said, it’s an abuse of power. I’ve heard some progressive pastors saying we should start bending the rules too. I disagree.

Our job as pastors is to teach the faith. It’s to present the Gospel in an honest and relevant manner. And, yes, that means sometimes the Gospel will be political, in the best sense of the word. It will require us to work for justice. It will mean that we speak out about non-discrimination, or climate change, or peace. We do not need to remain silent about those things in church. In fact, we cannot remain silent about those things in church.

But on the other hand, political does not mean partisan. As soon as we start to equate the reign of God with a particular candidate or party, we have committed idolatry, and we have crossed both a moral and civil line.

In a time of deep moral crisis, which I believe our country is now facing, it might feel like that’s not enough. I know there are people who want to hear me denounce specific politicians from the pulpit. They want their church to assure them that their voting record would match Jesus’.

But as your pastor, it’s not my job to give you assurance that God loves your candidate more. (Believe me…I’d love that comfort too.) It’s my job to remind you of your own responsibility, and of the fact that our faith requires our own action in the world. On Sundays you can find encouragement, support, and comfort in the Gospel. You can find the values that will inform your own choices. And, ideally, you should find a message that compels you to go out into the world on Monday mornings bent on shaking up the status-quo.

But if a church is telling you who to vote for, left or right, your church has more than a constitutional problem on your hands. You have a faith problem and you, and the Gospel, deserve better than that. 

Besides, in this time of moral crisis, putting our ultimate faith in the radical love and grace of Christ is the most powerful political and partisan action we can ever take.

 If you resonated with this article, you might enjoy Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity.

 

Walking the Path Together: A sermon for the competitive Christian – September 23, 2012

Mark 9:30-37
9:30 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;

9:31 for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.”

9:32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

9:33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”

9:34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.

9:35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

9:36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them,

9:37 “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It’s good to know our character defects. Maybe even to laugh at them a little. One of mine has always been that I can get a little too competitive. Some of my more competitive friends and I would compete at everything growing up. It didn’t matter what it was: golf, grades, anything. When we were in grade school one of my friends and I got so competitive about Monopoly that his mother staged an intervention before we stopped being friends altogether. I think I’m better as an adult, but I still see signs of it every now and then.

That’s why when I read today’s text, I couldn’t judge the disciples too harshly. It turns out that they were pretty competitive too. In today’s text they were walking with Jesus, and Jesus is telling them some disturbing things. He’s telling them that he is going to be betrayed, he is going to be killed, and then he will rise again. But the disciples don’t understand what he is saying and instead they start arguing amongst themselves.

When they get to their destination Jesus asks them, “What were you fighting about when we were walking?” I’m sure the subtext was “did you not hear what I was talking about”. And the disciples are ashamed and don’t want to say anything, probably because they didn’t realize Jesus had heard them. On the way they were fighting about which of the twelve of them was the greatest.

The irony is not lost. They are too busy arguing about who is Jesus’ favorite that they fail to understand that Jesus is telling them he is about to die. At this point you might expect Jesus to call them out, or say “right now none of you are”. But instead he does something unexpected. He takes a small child, and holds it in his arms and tells them “if you want to be first, you have to be last…you have to be a servant…and you have to welcome even the children…that’s how you welcome me.”

Now, you have to remember here that 2000 years ago, Jesus was not living in a child-centered society. There weren’t soccer leagues and speciality stores and school bonds for kids. They weren’t seen as the hope or the future, and they certainly didn’t rank as priorities for families or religious leaders. Children had no rights, and were preferred to remain in the background, along with women and slaves.

So Jesus picking one up and telling his disciples to welcome the children is more than unexpected. It’s shocking. This is not just Jesus reminding us present day folks to be concerned about kids, though that’s a good message too. This is Jesus turning his attention to a whole segment of society that never got any. And for the disciples who had spent the trip arguing about who was Jesus’ favorite, it’s a real reality check. Jesus is more concerned about the kid than their own egos.

You would hope that the disciples would get it after this. The message from Jesus is clear: this is not about you. And yet time and again we see the disciples jockeying for position, trying to prove they are his favorite. It happens all the way to the death of Jesus, and then it happens again after his resurrection. In the Scripture you can see that disciples like Peter and John formed their own little communities in the years after the resurrection, and their disciples believed they were the greatest. And when Paul, who didn’t even know Jesus, comes into the picture, there is plenty of tension all the way around.

Now, we can kind of laugh at it today. We can say, “those disciples could be so clueless and dense sometimes”. We can talk about how they missed the point. But the reality is that a lot of the time, we are a lot like they are. Competitive. Focused on ourselves. So distracted by our own insecurities that we miss the point. More concerned with being the greatest than we are with following the greatest.

I’m pretty sure that had I been on that road with Jesus, I might have joined in. I might have told John and Peter and the rest that they had no idea what they were talking about, and that they clearly weren’t Jesus’ favorite. I think many, if not most, people would have.

But the thing that’s important not to forget is that while we might not be on that same path back 2,000 years ago headed out of Galilee, in a way we are on the same path as the disciples. We are walking that same journey, trying to follow Jesus to the cross and to resurrection. We are back there, a few feet behind him, while he is telling us what really matters. And we are wanting to listen, and we are wanting to do the right thing, but more often than not we are getting distracted by the other folks on the road, and we are vying for position instead of paying attention.

Have you ever felt like you were in an endless competition? Have you ever felt like you had to keep up with the neighbors, or your college classmates, or the guy in the next office over? Have you ever argued that you were the greatest, not so much with words, but with the bigger house, or the nicer car, or the more perfect family complete with 2.5 kids?

Maybe from time to time, when things looked up for you, it felt good. At least for a few minutes. But then someone else pulled ahead for a little while, and you were off to the races again.

I get that. I sometimes look at my high school and college friends who are purchasing not just homes, but second homes, and I think “I am so far behind”. Or I see “vice president” come up beside one of their corporate profiles, and I think, “wow…they must not want for anything.”

But really, they probably do. Because we all do. All of us on this path find that after a while arguing amongst ourselves about who is the greatest ends up bringing us nothing but more need for argument. And in the end competition gets old.

And that’s when Jesus, and the child, become not a symbol of humiliating conviction for the arguing disciples. They become a promise of something better.

Now, I’m not one for saying that children have it easy or that we are only truly happy as children. The reality is that many children go through much more than they ever should have to. Jesus wasn’t holding up that child to say, “remember when you were a kid? How much easier it was? Don’t you wish things were like that again?”

I think Jesus was holding that child up as an example because he was trying to show them that greatness comes not in our own deeds, or competitions, or claims of greatness. We do not become faithful disciples by proclaiming, Muhammed Ali like, that “I am the greatest”. Rather, we become faithful Christians by coming to Christ the way the child did. We don’t come arguing our greatness. We come delighting in just being with him. And we become disciples by welcoming the others who are like us.

In a way, it’s a release. We don’t have to argue our greatness anymore. We don’t have to try to acquire more and more. We just have to follow the Christ who unexpectedly picks us up, and places us in the center of his attention, and open our hearts to his love and grace.

Now, I want to be realistic for a second. It sounds good on paper, and maybe from the pulpit, but the reality is that most of us will stumble on this road a little. Personally, I’ll probably get about a mile down the road before I slip back into old habits. But the good news is that Jesus knows that about me. And he knows that about you. And he knows that about us all. That’s why we don’t have to walk this road alone.

One of the blessings about being a part of a community is that we walk the road together. We aren’t alone, on our own private paths, following Jesus. We are doing it as a group, and we are there for one another when we get distracted or when we veer off. We are there to welcome one another back the way that Jesus welcomed that child. Even if the child is sometimes a little too competitive during Monopoly games. We are here to see their value, and help them as they walk the path with us. Because one day they will return the favor.

I’ll close with this. Yesterday we had our first community lunch here at the church. Were we packed? No. Not yet. But we served our community, and we welcomed our neighbors. And six months from now I think we will be packed. But what is more important is what we did together. You baked, you made soup, you washed dishes, you talked with our guests, and you pulled off a free community meal. And next month we will do the same. And the month after.

We are not doing it for the admiration. We are not doing it because we want to be the greatest. We are doing it because that’s what those of us who walk this path with Jesus do.

And for those who couldn’t be there yesterday, or on some other day at some other activity, you might be feeling bad or like you’re not doing enough. To you I say, you are. Christian fellowship is not a competition. We do what we can do when we can do it. Your being a part of this fellowship is enough. And we are grateful for all who are walking with us on this path.

As we walk this path together, let us continue to support each other, wherever we can, however we can. God needs all of us on this journey, and we are in good company. Amen.

Sheep, Goats, and the Rest of Us – Sermon for the installation of the Rev. Joe Amico

When Joe asked me to preach this afternoon I asked him what his favorite text for ministry was. He responded by sending me that text I just read to you. The one about the sheep and the goats, and Jesus separating them from one another. The one about the sheep going to inherit the kingdom of God, and the goats going to a not very nice place at all.

 

I was a little worried.

 

Whenever I hear about people being judged by God, I start to get nervous. Mostly because I’m not really sure which way it’s going to go for me. I have my sheep moments, and I have my goat moments, and most of the time I’m somewhere in the middle. And I’d guess it’s like that for a lot of us.

 

But when I asked Joe to tell me more about why he picked this passage, I started to look at it in a new way. I started to think about it less about the life that is to come, one, by the way, where I believe Christ’s grace will shine brighter than any judgement, but the life that we live now.

 

Christ tells us that this is how he will know we are his:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

And Christ tells us that we’ll ask, “when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison”? And that’s when he’ll tell us, “if you did it for any of my brothers and sisters, even the least among them, you did it for me.”

Christ’s words say so much about how we should judge the life we are already living, both as individuals and the church. Because they tell us exactly what Christ expects of us in this life. But more importantly, they tell us why we should do these things. And it’s not because we want to inherit the kingdom in the next life. It’s because can love Christ enough to create the kingdom in this one.

 

But this isn’t just about you and I or any other person. This is about who we are as the church. And it’s about whether we want to be a church of goats. Or a church of sheep. It’s about whether we want to be the kind of church that Christ would come to and already know us, or the sort of place where Jesus would look around and say, “Who are you people? I’ve never seen you before in my life.”

 

And that’s where Joe comes into the picture. Because I know Joe knows Jesus. I know that because I know Joe has been trying to live his life by this verse for a long time now.

 

I found something about about Joe last night that I didn’t know before. I found out that when he was a young man in high school, he marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. Now when you think about it, a young, white, teenager from Massachusetts might have said, “this isn’t my fight” and had every reason not to get involved in the Civil Rights movement. Except, for Joe, he couldn’t look at the faces of those who were being denied their rights as children of God and do nothing. Because for him, looking into their faces was like looking into the face of Christ.

 

I know Joe started going into prisons to do ministry around the same time, and I know he kept reaching out to the people society has called “the least of these” through the years after that. I know that every day in his other calling, and it is a calling, of working with people in recovery he sees the face of Christ. And I know that he sees it when he looks in the faces of all of you.

 

That’s how I know Joe knows Jesus. But that doesn’t make Joe a saint. That makes him a Christian. And that’s good news for you. Because Joe is your pastor now.

 

Now, there’s something that I think is always important to note when a new pastor is installed. We have a tendency to say, “that church hired a new pastor”. But I want you to remember, you didn’t hire Joe. You called him. You prayed and talked and discerned that Joe was the person God had already prepared to be your pastor.

 

That’s good news for you. It’s good news because it means you are already listening for God’s word in your life together. And it means that together you felt that God was asking you to call this man. This pastor who believes ministry is defined by how well you love Christ by loving your neighbor. It means that you already have some idea of what you want this pastorate to look like, and what kind of a church you want to be. You want to be the kind of church that Christ could come into on a Sunday morning and feel right at home.

 

And that’s huge. Because you have probably heard the talk about churches. You have probably heard people say that churches are dying. You’ve heard that we have less people in the pews, less money in the plates, less of a place at the public table than ever before.

 

But all those things have nothing to do with whether or not the church, the body of Christ, is living. None of those things matter one way or another if you don’t go back to this passage and use this as yardstick against which you judge the life of your church. Are you feeding the hungry? Giving drink to the thirsty? Visiting the prisoner? Clothing the naked? Housing the homeless? Maybe even comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? That’s the measure of your life as a church. And that’s the clearest indication of who you can be.

 

I know Joe is ready to meet Jesus with you. I know he’s ready to meet Jesus when he comes through the doors of this church. And I know he’s ready to meet him when you go outside into the community. You might not recognize him when you see him, but rest assured…Jesus lives in Brattleboro. And he’s waiting to see you all.

 

In the coming weeks and months and years, remember the reasons you called Joe here. Remember what God was calling you to do. And hold Joe to the passage just as much as he holds you to it. Because as much as I believe anything about the church, I believe this: the church that tries to see Christ in everyone they meet is the one that will be the most blessed by Christ in all they do.

 

But don’t take my word for it. Don’t even take Joe’s. Take Christ’s. Because he’s ready to show the kingdom to sheep, goats, and the rest of us. Amen.