He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Should preachers stay away from politics?
Welcome to this week's edition of "How do we live in these days?" If you missed the first post last week about justice, kindness and humility you can read it here.
Unless a preacher finds themselves in a politically homogenous congregation (do these really exist?) OR in a congregation with their heads stuck in the sand, the pressure is intense to tow a fine political line.
If we thought the election cycle would be the end of our drama, it's not.
We all talk about politics.
We fight about politics especially on Facebook.
We bring our political convictions with us to church.
Our airports, our county courthouses or in the case of my town, Pennsylvania Ave is crowded with protests and will be for a long time.
So on Saturday nights across America, preachers are facing a new struggle. How do they both stay relevant to what everyone is talking about throughout the week? And if so, how do they not lose their jobs by Monday morning for sounding "too political" in the pulpit?
One of the major arguments that is used to stop preachers from mixing politics and religion practice is separation of church and state.
Just last week someone asked me: "Isn't it wrong for pulpits to speak endorsements for one person over another?"
According to the Johnson Amendment (which our current President is trying to repeal): All 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations are opposed from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Most churches in America are considered 501(c)(3) either through tax status acquired directly or via their larger denominational body.
So, legally hear me say: it is wrong for pulpits to be used to endorse one candidate or political party over another (unless they want to be in danger of losing their non-profit status under current law).
And as a minister raised in the Baptist tradition, an American tradition built on the dissent of founders such as Roger Williams, I am a whole-hearted believer in the separation of church and state.
Separation of church and state is so important to our democracy because it holds in check one of the basic tenants of our democracy: freedom of religion.
This freedom gives us the choice to be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and so on OR nothing at all if that's our wishes without fear of persecution.
And without separation of church and state our government could set up a state-run church and fund it with our tax dollars. And remember from history this is why many of the first colonists settled in America. They wanted to be free from the Church of England telling them how to worship.
But, separation of church and state doesn't mean that our churches and their pulpits need to live in vacuums.
One of the great tasks of any preacher is to bring good news. And good news is not good news without a context. We need our preachers to talk about what our lawmakers and governing bodies are doing and how their actions fall in line (or not) with the teachings of Jesus.
No one political party gets a free pass or is always in the right or wrong.
And not only this, but it is the job of any preacher to speak truth to power.
Jesus had a lot to say about this. Sure, he spoke of "giving Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" teaching us to respect our government's rules. But he also wasn't afraid to challenge the powers when he felt like they implemented unjust laws, practices or actions. He told those trying to stone the woman caught in adultery, "Who here is without sin? Let him cast the first stone?" He overturned tables in the temple courts when he saw faith weighed down in consumerism. He spoke boldly of his Lordship even to the Roman ruler, Pilate even when it led to his execution.
So as a preacher ordained to live out and help others live out the teachings of Jesus . . .
Teachings like "loving my neighbor as myself" (Luke 10:28)
Teachings "going into all the world and preaching the gospel." (Mark 16:15)
Teachings like "welcoming the stranger." (Matthew 25)
I must speak out when our nation makes laws or our President makes statements that go against my faith.
I'm just doing my job. And my colleagues are too!
Welcome to a new series of posts here at Preacher on the Plaza at the beginning of every week from now until who knows when . . Wresting with how do we live in these days? These very hard days as people of faith. How do we live in these days of discrimination? Of Hate? Of fears realized?
If these aren't questions you resonate with, feel free to stop reading. But for those of us deeply concerned about the tone of our country, our relationships with our muslim brothers and sisters, our inclusion of our brothers and sisters of color and our brothers and sisters who are LGBTQ, and most of all with our relations as an American people with the rest of the world, check back here every Monday for some encouragement. We're in this together. And I want to keep having conversations that matter right now.
Yesterday, I heard a sermon from the Old Testament lectionary text, Micah 6:1-8-- one of my favorite scriptures which contains these words.
"He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?"
The sermon challenged us to consider what our religious practice looked like. Is our religion for the sake of doing religion? Or is our religion living out what the Lord requires of us?
Afterwards, I couldn't help but let my mind keep wondering over these verses again and again. I've certainly preached on them many times myself. It's a text that helped form my essays to seminary-- why I felt called to ministry. I even have a re-usable grocery bag with Micah 6:8 on it (A great conversation starter at the grocery bagging table).
But for the first time yesterday, I considered the relationship between the three key words in the verse.
Justice is such a hot button word in Christian communities these days, isn't it?
Church folk speak of "justice" as the reason why their faith seems all the more political.
Justice is what led hundred of thousands to protest a week ago last Saturday at women's marches all over the country. Justice is what moved thousands of people on Saturday to drop everything they were doing and protest at airports all around the country chanting "No hate. No fear. All people are welcome here." Justice is what is leading thousands today to jam up the lines of their Congressional representatives and fill their Senator's boxes with "I need to share with you my concerns . . . " mail.
I am a fan of justice. We need to keep making our voice heard as people who believe that God loves and welcomes us all the same (though America's policies do not right now).
But, next comes kindness. Micah says the Lord asks us to "love kindness."
Some translations of this text insert the word "mercy" instead of kindness. I like mercy too. For living a life of mercy means in acting in compassion or forgiveness toward others. It means looking beyond what a person deserves and loving him or her as a beloved child of God, just the same as you want to be treated.
When I was at the Women's March in DC, this sign was one of my favorites.
Because on a day full of calling our country toward more just policies and relationships-- here was a woman with her heels firmly planted in the ground of kindness. She wants her country to be kind again.
There's a reason I believe that we're called to kindness after our call to justice.
For if we want our messages to have any chance of shining through to hearts who need to hear them, we always must remember to be kind.
Kindness can look like stopping to have a conversation with someone who thinks differently than you in the airport or in a pew at church. It can look like smiling. Opening doors for strangers. Going out of your way to lift someone up who is discouraged. Most of listening (and not posting too quickly on Facebook).
I picture justice and kindness are social activism twins. We can't have one without the other and be effective.
And lastly we are asked to "walk humbly with our God."
In a journey of faith, humility is an essential virtue, we're reminded.
Because after all, God is God and we are not.
And if this is true, sometimes we're going to be wrong. Sometimes we're going to miss the mark. We're going to speak to soon or not soon enough. We're going to make a mountain out of a molehill and cause more damage than the goodness we bring.
So, if our justice wrapped in kindness work is truly going to be what God wants from us-- we've got to walk humbly.
We've got to stay connected to our life-source. We've got to take times out to pray, to think and to re-focus. We've got to move in the spirit of Thomas Merton's famous prayer: "The fact that I think I am following your will doesn't mean that I am actually doing so."
My friends for today: where and how is God calling you to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?
We've got work to do.
Oh Lord, we're stunned.
Even several days later, we still wonder how in America could verdicts like "not guilty" come down when a life was clearly taken.
We wonder how a mother, a father, an entire family can go on after all they've lived through.
We wonder how boys of color can walk on streets of our cities and mothers who wait for them without being overcome by fear.
We wonder how long, O Lord, will we hear talk about race in conversations with words of "us" and "them" because many do not know each other in any other way.
We wonder how long will people of faith will cower to the conversation table. As wrong as color= privilege in our world, and we can only move to change when we start with the truth.
We wonder how long will we lie to each other: "No, our nation does not have a race problem."
We wonder how long those with prophetic pulpits will ignore their greatest opportunity on Sunday morning to begin such a dialogue.
We wonder how long O Lord, will all of us suffer simply because injustice happens and happens again and truth is not simply brought to the light? For the great preacher, Martin Luther King once said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And it is true.
So, we wonder.
And we wait.
We wait for what you alone can bring to our nation.
Justice. Hope. Mercy. Understanding. Longsuffering. Peace.
Help us know how to wait together. Help us have swift feet to move toward righteousness together. Help our swift feet know what direction to move in together.
When most preachers sit with Matthew 20:1-16, as was the gospel reading for this morning, or at least as I was taught this passage as a child, it all went back to getting into heaven on practical terms. All you had to do, I learned, was to pray a salvation prayer and you were in the "I'm Christian and going to heaven club." For, even if you prayed the sinners prayer on your death-bed on the last hour or if you prayed the prayer as young child, it was all the same to God. God was ready to receive you no matter when you came home.
And, while this is all well and good, I think such an interpretation can easily lead to shallow faith. I think the Christian life is more than a call to get saved, and so I was eager to find other gems in this text. And, the theme of "grace" kept coming back to me.
I had questions like: how might this passage want to teach us about something altogether different about life in God's kingdom? How might grace come in and in its unhurried way mess everything we've come to know about "The American Dream?" Might the idea of the "American Dream" have to die if we are to live in the kingdom of heaven?
What most caught my attention about this text is that at the end of the day, each worker is given the same wage, a denarius, which was known at the time as a fair wage for what each worker needed to live on. More than minimum wage, a denarius was a living wage. It's a passage that calls our attention to justice: in the household of God, we can't mistreat those who are "late to the game" so that we get ahead. And we can't take more than we need if we want others to simply live.
But whether you want to apply this passage to economics (which seems appropriate to do these days as our national leaders debate cutting spending to help the poor in an effort to give the rich more) or not the message of grace is all the same.
Grace in God's eyes is giving us exactly what we need, even when we didn't work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it and especially when we didn't work hard to get it, earn it, or deserve it. For, the message of grace works both ways-- to those of us who began laboring in the fields in the morning and those who got to the vineyard late in the afternoon. In grace, God asks both of us to lift up our heads and receive our provisions
for each day, trusting that it will be enough.
The statements that you and I often make like: "Look at me, I'm so good: I did this today. I earned my promotion. I signed up on E-harmony and through my hard work of submitting to the process I found Mrs. Right. After studying for three years and sacrificing the needs of my family, I earned my master's degree" doesn't seem to line up at all with the gospel's idea of grace.
I don't know if you are like me, but when I think of grace, I often think of examples of the "big" stuff in life. Grace, as being in the right place at the right time to meet the right someone. Grace, as not getting hurt in a car accident when I could have been killed. Grace, as deserving to get a ticket for speeding down I-66 but the cop pulling over the guy behind me.
Grace exists then as the classic definition of unmerited favor, but often goes back to "all about me." What about those people who don't show up at the right place at the right time and meet that special someone? About those persons who have almost identical car accidents to us and are tragically killed instead of sparred? What about the unlucky guy who get the speeding ticket?
But there is something about this passage that helps us get away from grace as what we most like to view it as-- getting saved from unfavorable results that we would not want, to understanding grace as being given ENOUGH for what we need along with everyone else.
If you think about it, there is a lot of energy you and I spend hoping we've done just the right things, hoping to have enough money for retirement, hoping that our contributions to the world are enough to be agreeable with the man upstairs when we get upstairs, but what centered more of our energy in grace? What would our church look like if grace came first? How might we as long-term members of our faith communities respond differently to newcomers who make no promises of sticking around for a long time, giving a tithe or volunteering to teach something? How might we love differently?
But the thing is about grace is that it truly frees us. It frees us from rushing to and from what is next. It frees us from feeling guilty all the time because of our bad choices. It frees us from feeling anxious about our good choices hoping they got us enough heavenly brownie points. And, I think as a church, grace might free us to love more extravagantly just as God has loved us-- loving others expecting nothing in return other than the love to simply be received.
One pastor puts it like this, "When we are working for a reward (to get up the ladder), we are always wondering if we are good enough, looking for clues to see if God accepts us, looking for human approval and praise when we can't hear from God. We are perpetually trapped. . . . Why climb the stairway to heaven when God takes us right to the top floor in an elevator?"
As an aside, I know we, at Washington Plaza, don't have that actual elevator at the church that we are all dreaming about and might not for a while-- grace is in no hurry on this project it seems-- but I do know we serve a God who has promised and will in abundant grace give us as individuals and as a congregation ENOUGH of what we need for this day.
So, if we are willing to be on such a journey, there is one thing I know for sure, and that is, that the ladders we've constructed and seemingly need from God to feel secure are going to have to fall away. Instead, the invitation is to simply hold out our hands and receive while we stand shoulder to shoulder to those in whom we least expect are receiving just the same.
Now doesn't this sound different now: "Amazing grace, how sweet, the sound that saved a wretch like me . . .?"