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.

 

Journey Through Advent – Day 19

IMG_0211Today I’m working mostly at home. I’m writing the liturgies for Christmas eve, finalizing details for the service, and doing other things that don’t require me to be either at the church, or on the road. This means I’m sitting by the Christmas tree, listening to carols, and getting to enjoy the season.

As an added bonus, my wife is baking cookies behind me in the kitchen. So far she’s made sugar cookies and chocolate crinkles. Gingerbread, peppermint meringues, and peanut butter blossoms are on deck for later. Which means that as I write, the wonderful smell of Christmas cookies is all around me.

This time of year, we have reminders of Christmas joy and cheer all around us. The lights, the trees, the cards, and, yes, the cookies, are all little reminders of joy. And just as the smell of cookies are a reminder of what is to come, the joy of the Christmas season is a reminder of the world that God wants us to be.

But the reality is that right now, this world is not the world that God wants for us. The last week has reminded us of that in the most horrific of ways. God wants a world where all of God’s children are loved and respected and live in peace. We’re not there. No where close.

But every so often we get a foretaste of what it could look like. And it is good. Last week, in the aftermath of the greatest trauma, the clergy of Newtown came together to pray for their community. Priests, ministers, a rabbi, and an imam, all offered their prayers. And as I watched, I couldn’t help but think that this is what God wants for us. In the midst of unshakeable grief, we are coming from our respective traditions, and offering comfort in the best ways we know how.

By contrast, some religious leaders are using this tragedy as a way to push their own agendas. Instead of comforting the afflicted, they are further afflicting them. They blame the shooting on everyone from gay couples to those who advocate religious freedom to divorced couples. And their words, far from glorifying God, lead us away from the world that God wants for us.

This Advent season, test the voices that you hear that claim to be speaking for God. Are they voices of comfort? Of hope? Are they pointing you to God’s love, and giving you a small taste of the world that God wants for us? Or are they sowing division, and pain, and hatred?

In our hearts, we know the voices to follow. They’re the ones that, even when they are at the center of tragedy, still find a way to speak with compassion and peace. We heard them in Newtown. They are the religious equivalents of all the things that remind us God’s love in this holiday season. They are a sign of a better world to come. And they deserve our attention.

“Here I Stand” – Sermon for March 11, 2012

John 2:13-22
2:13 The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

2:14 In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.

2:15 Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.

2:16 He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

2:17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

2:18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”

2:19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

2:20 The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?”

2:21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body.

2:22 After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

When most of us think about Jesus we have this certain image. We picture a loving, non-violent, peaceful man who is kind to everyone. We don’t picture someone who is angry. We don’t picture someone who knocks over tables and yells. We think that’s the exact opposite of who Jesus really is. But then we have passages like this, and we’re often not really sure what to make of them. And we have to ask ourselves, what in the world could have made Jesus so enraged? The answer is in the story.

Jesus went to Jerusalem. It was almost the Passover, and he went, along with many other people, to the Temple. The holiest site in Jerusalem. The physical center of the faith. The people who came to the Temple did two things: they made sacrifices and they paid their taxes. Giving to the Temple was not optional. It wasn’t like a Sunday morning offering. It was something you had to do to go in.

And in order to make sure all the mandatory religious activities were able to happen, this industry sprang out in the Temple. There were people who sold sheep and cows and doves for the sacrifices. And there were money changers who would convert Roman currency to Hebrew money, sometimes at rates as high as 300%. It was usury at its worst, but they had the market cornered. Every observant person would not risk not paying the rates. This is how religion had been done for a long time in Jerusalem, and no one could really question it.

Which is why they were so shaken when Jesus came and, literally, turned everything upside down. Throws animals out. Takes the tables and knocks them over. Money was probably going everywhere. And the religious leaders came to him and said, “What gives you the right to do this?”

He tells them, “you can destroy this Temple, and in 3 days I’ll raise it up again.” They think he’s crazy because the temple has been being rebuilt for years. But Jesus was talking about himself and how he knew they were about kill him, and how he would rise up again. He was telling them, though they didn’t know it, that everything was about to change, and business as usual was over.

They killed him not long after. The religious leaders knew he was a threat. If he would overturn tables and cause a scene in their Temple, what would he do next? They thought they could overturn him just as easily as he overturned those tables. Who did this son of a carpenter from some backwoods town think he was?

But he rose again. And in the new movement he started there was no room for animal sacrifices or money changers. At least not for a while.

Fast forward 15 centuries. To Germany. And to a monk named Martin. The church was trying to build a new temple, this time in Rome. It was called St. Peter’s. And they had a fundraising problem. So they started to sell these indulgences. Pay a little and your sins will be forgiven. Pay a lot and the soul of your dear departed mother or spouse will be sprung from purgatory and released to heaven.

These were poor believers paying this money. As poor as the Jewish people who journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem and paid three times what they should have to change their money. But they were good people, willing to pay the price to be faithful. Willing to pay into this corrupt system because they didn’t think there was any other way.

And so the young monk wrote a list of things he thought were wrong. And he posted them in a town called Wittenberg. And Christian faith would never be the same. We Protestants are spiritual descendants from Martin Luther. But his reforms shaped even what the Catholic Church has since become. Because Luther, like Christ, had the courage to stand up to the ones who had corrupted the faith, to turn their world upside down, and to reclaim what was good in the name of God.

They didn’t kill Luther, though they tried. But he paid heavily. He was excommunicated and thrown out of the faith. But when he was asked to recant, he couldn’t. He said only, “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

Jesus and Luther were cut from the same cloth. And the people around them thought they were heretics. Thought they were anti-faith. Thought they were misguided at best, and downright sinful at worst. And yet, in the end, they ushered in new faith, and new life. We wouldn’t be Christians without Christ, of course. But we also wouldn’t be the Christians we are without Luther.

But being an alternative religious voice doesn’t always make you popular. That doesn’t always mean that you have the most people who agree with you. It often makes you a bit of a target. Churches that stand up against what they see as being against the true message of Christ often incur the wrath of others who say they’re not really Christian. They’re getting it all wrong. They’re out in left field.

But they’ve said that in the past about others. And they’ve been wrong.

I’ve been thinking about what the church has become, especially in our North American context. I’ve been thinking about what people think being a Christian means in America. As the division and rhetoric picks up in this country, the dominant images of Christianity are often becoming less and less flattering. The voices that speak the loudest, the ones who stand in front of the Temple changing money and demanding payment, are often not kind ones or compassionate ones or ones that tell you much at all about the love of Christ.

They may not speak for us, but they’re what people think of when they think of what it means to be Christian. And whether we realize it or not, they’re the ones who may be stopping people from feeling like they’d ever have a place in our temple.

One Sunday about five years ago I was preaching down South at a church that was a lot like ours. It was a welcoming place. Warm, ready to embrace the stranger, slow to judge. The service ended and I processed out into the narthex. And there was a young woman, about 18 or 19, sitting there waiting to talk to me.

She was a student at a very fundamentalist Bible college down the road. Her father was a preacher, but that brand of Christianity wasn’t working for her anymore. The faith she was a member of was so strict that she could have been thrown out for drinking a beer. And if the people at her college had found out who she really was deep down, she would have been thrown out for that too.

She had been so wounded by the faith. So wounded by those who sat at the doors of the Temple and told her the price she would have to pay to enter, a price that would mean denying who she was, that when she came to this church that would have totally welcomed her, she sat out in the narthex. Because she didn’t know she had a place in the sanctuary. It broke my heart.

But the saddest thing is, she came a lot further than a lot of people do. I wonder if there were good Jewish people in Jesus day who were never able to go to the Temple and worship because they just couldn’t pay the price. I wonder how many good Catholics in Luther’s day lay awake at night afraid because they couldn’t buy their way into heaven. And I wonder how many of our neighbors want to walk through the doors of a place that would love them as they are?

We say we will welcome everyone who walks into our doors. And I believe that’s true. But how will we welcome the ones who would never dare to do that on their own. How do we welcome those who have grown accustomed to a representation of Christianity that has come to be defined not so much by the face of Christ, but by the faces of modern day moneychangers at the front of the Temple? The ones who would distort Christ’s message of love for something so different?

We are a welcoming place, that is for sure. But when I meet people in this area, and they find out I’m the pastor, I still get all sorts of questions . And they’re not because you have been doing anything wrong. They’re because the voices of faith they have heard the loudest in our culture cause them to have to wonder. Here are some real questions I’ve heard about us:

Would I be welcome in your church if I drink alcohol? If f I believe women are not inferior to men? If I think maybe the world was not created in six 24 hour days? Would I be welcome if I like to read Harry Potter? If my kids can’t sit quietly for an hour? Would I be welcome if my daughter is gay? If I’m a recovering alcoholic? If on some days, I doubt?

You and I hear these questions and we think “of course”. Of course you would. But they don’t know that. And their questions are reflective of just how far some have to come to walk through the doors of our church.

You might say, “We’re not that kind of church!” And we’re not. But here’s the thing. They think we’re that kind of church. Not because of anything you’ve been doing wrong, but because they think every church is that kind of church.

Because if all they’ve ever seen standing in front of the Temple, standing between them and God, are the faces of the moneychangers and the sacrifice sellers, the faces of the ones who twist faith into something different than it is, the ones who go on the evening news preaching hatred instead of Christ, can you blame them?

So what is at the front of your temple? Because if we are all members of Christ’s body, then we are all part of his temple. When people come to know you at the most sacred places, what do they see first? Do they see a religion as they’ve always seen it done before? Or do they see grace, and a Christ who would sweep away what doesn’t matter and replace it with a new creation?

There are people outside of these doors who belong here. Who would be loved here. Who would be welcome. And we know that. But they don’t. So when you go back into the world this week, how can you tell them about the Christ you know? How can you lead them into the temple, past what doesn’t matter, and into what does? Don’t take for granted that they know what kind of Christian you are. Show them.

We who are the “frozen chosen”, we don’t like to talk about our faith or our religion much. I get that. But when we aren’t talking, others still are. And they’re the voices your neighbors, who may love to be here, are hearing. So this week, think of one way you can represent the Christ you know in your life to those who might need to know there’s a place for them here. I’m not saying go door to door handing out Bibles. I’m saying a simple word of welcome may mean as much to someone who needs it as Jesus turning over tables may have meant to those who had been standing outside the temple, waiting for a new day to come.

And so, this Lent, decide where you are going to stand. Will it be idly by as Jesus turns over the tables of religion at its worst? Or will it be with Christ, who is turning us into something new? I know where I’m going to stand. I hope you will stand with me. As Martin Luther said better, “Here I stand. I can do none other.” Amen.