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.

 

The People of the City on a Hill: Sermon for October 9, 2016

Note: this is the second in a three part sermon series on “Prayerful Citizenship”. To read the first sermon, please click here: https://emilycheath.com/2016/10/02/when-all-is-not-well-where-you-live-sermon-for-october-2-2016/

In 1630, John Winthrop stood aboard the ship Arbella and addressed the people of the ships that would become known as the Winthrop Fleet. They were Puritans, arriving ten years after the Pilgrims of the Plymouth Colony, to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Before they went ashore, Winthrop preached a sermon to them about what they were about to do. He told them that the new community they would form would be a like a City on a Hill, one that would be looked at by the whole world. He saidpablo that because of that they needed to be careful that the whole experiment not end in what he called a “shipwreck”.

Today we would say “train wreck”, but they didn’t have trains back then, but you get the idea. In other words, “don’t mess this up because everyone is looking at us”.

No pressure.

Nearly 400 years later Americans talk about how we are called to be a shining city on the hill, or an example of what a good society can look like. And 400 years is a long time for an idea to live. But it’s not even a quarter as long as the idea of the “City on a Hill” has been around. For that you have to go all the way back to Jesus Christ himself.

And so, as we begin this second week in our sermon series on “Faithful Citizenship”, that’s where we are heading. Jesus was giving what became known as his Sermon on the Mount, and he had just finished teaching the Beatitudes: Blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you who are persecuted, and so on.

He immediately tells the people, “you are the salt of the earth”. Salt was rare and highly valued in those days, so this was high praise. Then he tells them, “you are the light of the world and a city built on a hill cannot be hidden”. Just like that old song we sing sometimes, “this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”, he tells them that they cannot but a basket over their light and hide it. They have to let their light shine, not so that they would be praised, but so God will be praised.

This is the passage that John Winthrop was talking about when he preached that sermon. They were about to go ashore, not so far from here, and build a city that the whole world would be watching. And so, using Jesus words, he told them “don’t hide your light”; make sure that this place we are going to build together will shine so brightly that people can’t help but see it.

All these centuries later, in an era of global 24 hour news and the internet, the country that grew from that City on a Hill cannot help but be noticed. We live in one of only a handful of countries that is consistently on the global radar, perhaps more than any other. We are watched, and analyzed, and both loved and hated. And at our best, we are a country that shines our light for good. We are a place of hope and freedom. One that still draws immigrants to our shores because of those promises.

But that doesn’t mean that our light is always shining. This country has had times when that light has been obscured by the baskets that we ourselves have put over it. Baskets like hatred, inequality, violence, systemic poverty, and more. In our worst moments, we are a shining example of what not to do. That’s what we talked about last week, when we admitted that sometimes not all is well where we live. We have to tell the truth about that before anything can change.

The good news, though, is that by telling that truth, we have a chance to kick over the baskets that hide the light, to change the story, and to make this City on the Hill shine as it never has before.

But that starts with us. Because that City on the Hill must be filled with People on the Hill. And the city will only be as good as the people who build it. And so, like Jesus said, we need to become like the salt of the earth. And for those of us who are Christians, that means we need to draw upon our best values, the ones given to us by our faith, and use those things to inform the way we will be citizens in our country.

John Winthrop himself had an idea of where to look for those values. In his sermon that day he quoted an Old Testament prophet, Micah, whose words we read before the sermon. Speaking to a city in distress, one that had lost its way and was trying to get back on track, Micah asked rhetorically, “What does God require of you?” And the answer wasn’t burnt offerings or sacrifices or anything like that. Instead if was just these three things: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.

csp_zhgwiaepitiDo justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly. It almost sounds too simple. But it is harder than it looks.

Because what would it look like if we all demanded those three things of ourselves in our daily lives? How would we do justice? Would we seek to be more fair to the people we deal with in our businesses? Would we look at people who weren’t treated as equals and advocate for them? Would we speak up when we hear someone use words that demean others?

And what about kindness? This same word is sometimes also translated as “mercy”, so would we be kind and merciful? Would we hold the door open? Would we let that person merge in traffic? Or, more seriously, would we stop withholding words that would heal? Would we look at those who suffer, and choose mercy over words of blame?

And what about humility? By this I mean real humility, which is understanding that none of us is any more or less beloved by God’s than others. If we walked through the world with that kind of humility, how would it change us? Would we be less judgmental of differences? Would we be more apt to value character over celebrity? Would we be more aware about what was good for all, and not just good for us?

Micah gave us a prescription for what ails us. He told us clearly how to get better. But as much as those three things sound as simple as an episode of Mr. Rogers, that is hard medicine. Justice, kindness, and humility are wonderful things…and they all take work. Every day we have to recommit to them. And every day we have to use them to kick aside the baskets that cover our light.

But more than that, if we want to be a City on the Hill, it is not enough that we ourselves commit to these things. We must also demand them from our leaders. “Christian values” is a phrase that gets tossed around a lot in election years. It often comes to mean a very specific set of beliefs and priorities, one with which only some Christians agree. But what would our national political stage look like if we took this bedrock of our faith, these real Christian values, and demanded them of our leaders? What would happen if we refused anything less than real justice, real kindness, and real humility?

That may sound naive, especially in a year like this, but if enough of us demanded it, things would start to change. And so would our leaders.

I’ll close with this. I’ve talked a lot about John Winthrop in this sermon. He would go on to be the Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and a very powerful man. He would also become one who didn’t always live up to Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humility. Because of that, real people’s lives were affected for the worse.

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Rev. John Wheelwright, who was not beloved by John Winthrop

One of those people was a Rev. John Wheelwright. You may have heard of him, because in 1638 he founded our church and the town of Exeter. He had crossed Governor Winthrop, and he was banished from Massachusetts into what was then the frontier of New Hampshire. (His sister in law, Ann Hutchinson, was banished to what would become Rhode Island, by the way.) We’re here today, in a real way, because John Winthrop got it wrong.

A lot of our leaders get it wrong sometimes. And in the face of that, it is easy to feel powerless. I’m sure that John Wheelwright did. But we are not powerless. We have the ability to continue to build up our City on the Hill, and to transform it for good. We have the ability to become the servant leaders who make sure that light shines, even when others would obscure it. To be a Christian and a citizen is to never be without hope, and to never be without responsibility.

When I think of the man who founded this church, and this town, I remember that. 378 years later, I hope when people look at us as a church and as a town they see light. And I hope that we, as Christians and as citizens, will only do the things that would help that light to shine, here in our city, and far beyond. Amen?

Marching Orders: Where Citizenship Meets Discipleship

The following was originally preached as a sermon at the Congregational Church in Exeter on July 3, 2016.

I’ve talked before about how much I love genealogy. I also really love American history, and for me researching my family tree is a way of finding where my family’s story intersects with the larger American story.

And so this week I was reading the stories of two men from here in Rockingham County; Isaac Hills and Edward Stevens. Isaac and Edward were from Chester and Brentwood respectively, and they were my 5th great-grandfathers. And I was reading about a document that they had both signed 240 years ago, in 1776. It read:

[Provincial and state papers]“In Consequence of the above Resolution of the Hon. Continental Congress, and to shew our Determination in joining our American Brethren in defending the Lives, Liberties and Property of the inhabitants of the United Colonies : We, the Subscribers, do hereby solemnly engage and promise, that we will, to the utmost in our Power, at the Risque of our Lives and Fortunes, with Arms, oppose the Hostile Proceedings of the British Fleets and Armies against the United American Colonies.”

Unique to New Hampshire, in the days after the Declaration of Independence had made its way here, every man of voting age was asked to sign on to this statement, which was called an Association Test. The idea was to figure out, in the face of a revolution that could cost everything, who was in and who was out.

I take pride in the fact that my family signed. But about now, you might be wondering why I’m talking about it on a Sunday morning, when I’m supposed to be preaching about Jesus, and his commission to the disciples. Jesus told them to go out into the world, two by two, and do the work of spreading his Gospel. He tells them that they will go out with tremendous power, and they will have the power to change the world and proclaim a new way. This passage is essentially Jesus giving his disciples their marching orders.

So, what does text about an entirely different context, long before America was even an idea, have to do with the founding of this country?

It’s a good question. I always hesitate to equate the Gospel with patriotism. I get queasy when I preach around big patriotic holidays. That’s not because I don’t love this country. I grew up in a family with a lot of patriotic spirit and generations of veterans and public servants. But as a Christian, I’m called to remember that God’s creation, and God’s salvation, are far bigger than this country.

That’s one reason why we have to continually emphasize that our ultimate loyalty is to God. We cannot fall into the trap of idolatry and worship anything in the place of God. That’s why we respect the American flag, but do not put it in our sanctuary. It’s why we remember days like the Fourth of July or Veteran’s Day, but we do not make them the focus of our worship. Our ultimate faith is in Christ. Not country.
And yet, this is where we live. It’s part of who we are. And, while the Gospel is not about America, we would not be faithful to the Gospel if we did not try to make this place better. And we would not be Christians if we did not try to improve the lives of our neighbors.

And that’s where citizenship matters. Because while we must never confuse our American citizenship as superior to our citizenship in God’s kingdom, we must also never leave our higher values out of our understanding of what it means to live in this country. We are called by our faith to citizenship.

Let me pause there to say this is not just a Christian calling. This is a pluralistic country and our faith gives us no greater claim on the American name than those any other faith, or those of no faith at all. But, it does influence how we are called to live here.

In fact, John Calvin, the founder of the Reformed tradition from which we descended, went so far as to say that the highest calling a Christian can aspire to was not preaching the Gospel or any other religious pursuit. Instead, it was government service. Our highest calling is to make where we live better.

We are called to citizenship. But, just as Jesus said in this passage, the harvest is plentiful, workers are few.

I often bristle when I see politicians talking about Christian faith. Usually the Christian faith they are talking about seems to have little to do with Christ’s teachings. Especially in election years. And I’m not talking about politics here in the sense of telling you how to vote. There are good Christians in this congregation voting for every candidate who is running.

But I am saying that as Christians, we can change the story. Our faith can make us better citizens, and make better decisions. It can help us change the dialogue. And in a time when talking heads debate “Christian values”, it can help to shift the national conversation away from sound bites, and towards real Christian values.

What would it be like if we held up Jesus’ commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves as a baseline of how we treated one another? What if we looked at our candidates and held them up against those fruits of the Spirit we talked about last week? What if we looked for those things: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. What if we demanded better of our country, our leaders, and ourselves?

I think that is possible. But I don’t think it’s possible to do it alone.

Jesus knew what he was talking about when he sent his disciples out two by two. He knew they were going to face resistance. He knew they needed one another. And he knew that they would preach a Gospel that would cause them to be rejected.
That’s true even today. And that’s true where we live. In a time where polarization has led those who disagree with one another to the point of outright violence, we need a return to thoughtful citizenship. And in a time where fear is too often defining our dialogue, we have to choose another way.

And sometimes, that is going to mean speaking a hard truth about hatred, or oppression, or evil. Even when we find ourselves speaking that truth to hostile ears.

Jesus said to his disciples that they would be rejected, and that sometimes they would have to shake the dust of the places that rejected him off of their feet. Often Christians live in times and places where people get it wrong. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in the Second World War, lived in one of those places. A German, he decided instead to follow Christ, and he shook the dust of Nazi hatred off of his feet, even as he lost his own life. We hold his story up as an example of choosing the harder right against an easy wrong.

But we would be wrong to think that this is something only those in other countries face. Because sometimes the most faithful thing you can do as a Christian, and the most patriotic thing you can do as an American, is to shake the dust of sinful policies and practices off of your feet.

When Dr. King clashed with law enforcement to walk across the Selma bridge, he was shaking the dust of racism off his feet. When Susan B. Anthony cast a ballot in the presidential election of 1872, and was arrested, she was shaking the dust of second-class citizenship for women off of hers. And when the conductors on the Underground Railroad stashed those escaping slavery in their barns and basements, they were shaking the dust of a country that condoned enslaving others from theirs.

Even as they broke the law of the land, they upheld a higher law. They upheld God’s law, and they upheld Christ’s call. And every one of them was condemned in their own time by those who called them un-Christian, and un-American. But they did it anyway.

Christ calls us to nothing less. This is not a perfect country. We have a long way to go. It never has been perfect, though. I think of 1776, and that document my 5th great-grandfathers signed for instance. They were banding together to say there was a better way. But even then, I can’t help but notice that no one cared much what my 5th great-grandmothers thought about it.

But the thing about this country is that things change. And things change because good people refuse to lapse into nihilism but instead work together to get them changed. That’s why seven generations later, I can vote in this country. And I can get married in this country. And I can stand in this pulpit in this church and preach this sermon.

Jesus sent his followers out into the world, and he sent us together. And some of ended up here.
As Christians, we are called to make it better, not just for ourselves, but for others. But we can’t do it alone. And so, won’t you come with me. Let us shake the dust of whatever is holding us back off of our feet, and let us transform this little part of God’s creation where we live into a more perfect union. Amen?