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"Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon." Politics and the Pulpit, Part I

This past Sunday, I did a rare thing for me (preaching-wise), which was to refer to current events.

There is so much going on in the world that is overwhelming – Ebola; the so-called “Islamic State” fascists on the march; children fleeing across the U.S. border; Palestine-Israel; Russia. You turn on the television or read the paper, and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed.

Yet each week we hear the preacher read and preach on the Gospel. And “Gospel” means “good news.”

So amidst all the suffering and need, what’s the good news?

Preaching or writing about current geo-political events is unusual for me. Ordinarily I try to follow Karl Barth’s preaching advice, which is that “preachers should aim their guns beyond the hills of relevance.” I agree with preaching expert David Buttrick, who finds “nervous, topical preaching based on ever-changing headlines” deplorable. (Not to mention boring.)

In fact, over the past twenty years of parish ministry, I have stayed out of preaching specific politics from the pulpit. That’s partly because my work prior to seminary and ordained ministry was either on Capitol Hill or in presidential or state politics. And one thing I learned from that time is that almost every issue is far more complex and has far more sides to the story than most of us realize.

That’s not to argue we should leave politics to the experts: In a democracy, we’re all supposed to participate. And it’s not to say that preachers and church resolutions shouldn’t try to increase our understanding of or even stir us to action on current events – understandings and actions that will have political implications as they play themselves out.

But when that preaching or those church resolutions presume to offer specific solutions – “if you care about homelessness, or gun violence, or immigration or Gaza, then you should support ABC and oppose XYZ” -- I find that most of the time, that preaching and those resolutions are na├»ve, overly-simplistic, and overly narrow. (Not to mention shrill.)

To me, good preaching and a good resolution stirs everyone – conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, liberals, non-partisans, and the apathetic – to go out and do what, from their conscience and perspective, needs to be done. We Episcopalians give a lot of lip service to “celebrating diversity,” but to me, a truly diverse church is also politically diverse: one that has a mix of “___________ for President” bumper stickers in its parking lot.

For my ministry, there’s an operative scene in the film Casablanca, where Mr. Rick abruptly leaves a conversation just as SS officers start cross-examining him on his past: “You’ll excuse me, gentlemen. Your business is politics, mine is running a saloon.”

Part of the reason I like that scene is that ironically, Mr. Rick is, all along, actively involved,  behind the scenes (and then when it is necessary overtly), in the Resistance.     

And it’s that concept – that we Christians are called to a modern-day Resistance Movement – that I plan to explore a bit more over the next few weeks.

For now, let me plant this seed in your minds: I think a major shift we need to make in our own heads and hearts is in what we regard as the "given" and as the "variable" when it comes to peace, prosperity, and health.

I think most of us North Americans living in the past 50 to 75 years assume peace and prosperity and health are the given. So we are shocked and horrified when we encounter the "variable" of violence and poverty and sickness.

Throughout human history, however, and in much of the world today, the "given" is violence and poverty and sickness. People kill each other. The rich exploit the poor. Disease runs rampant. THAT is the given. The variable is, how do we human beings respond to it, and whose side is God on when we do? -- on the side of the murderers, exploiters, and illness, or on the side of peace-makers, the poor and oppressed (and their allies) struggling to break free, and the healers?

The radical claim of Judeo-Christianity, so wonderfully encapsulated in the Magificat, is who God sides with. Who God intervenes for.

More about that in the following weeks.


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