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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Matthew 21:23-32

Says You, Preacher!

Presidential Election

With the election less than 40 days from now, the presidential campaign is nearly a virtual draw. Senator Obama once enjoyed a small lead but Senator McCain has slowly worked his way up in the polls. However, since over 7% of the electorate remains undecided and public opinion polls have at least a 4% margin of error, this year's election is truly a toss up at this point. I do not believe that this is due to the similarities of the candidates. There are significant differences on the issues and their approach to national and global problems.

This Sunday several preachers have decided to clarify the issues for their congregations in their sermons. These pastors have agreed to defy the IRS Tax Code and officially endorse a presidential candidate. The joint effort is called the Pulpit Initiative. The goal of the movement is to restore the right of pastors to speak freely from the pulpit, in support of or against a political candidate office without fear of censorship by the government or worrying about jeopardizing their church’s tax exempt status. These pastors have named September 28 “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” Should the IRS choose to conduct an investigation of their churches, they will be represented by the Alliance Defense Fund. They are prepared to pursue their lawsuit to the US Supreme Court.

Our nation has always had a strange mixture of religion and politics. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life writes:

The United States has a long tradition of separating church from state, yet a powerful inclination to mix religion and politics. Throughout our nation's history, great political and social movements – from abolition to women's suffrage to civil rights to today's struggles over abortion and gay marriage – have drawn upon religious institutions for moral authority, inspirational leadership and organizational muscle. In recent years, religion has been woven more deeply into the fabric of partisan politics than ever before.

The Pulpit Initiative movement, however, does present a major shift in the role of religion in American politics. Since 1954 the American public has considered pulpit politicking out of bounds. In 1960 a significant portion of the American public voted against then Senator John Kennedy because he was Catholic. They did not want an Italian pope influencing American politics. Billy Graham has deeply regretted the one and only time he ever endorsed by association a political candidate. Ironically, the theological group that most strongly opposed the Kennedy's candidacy over his possible connection to the Pope, now wants their own pastors to have the freedom to endorse a political candidate.

Responsibility of the Pastor

I am a strong advocate for the separation of church and state as originally framed by the founding fathers of our country. They did not want political power to be used to promote one religion and suppress others. They, especially, did not want any citizens to be excluded from the political process because of their profession of faith. This is a fundamental principle. However, political views cannot be isolated from religious beliefs. Religious values must shape our political opinion and behavior. Our participation in the political arena should be considered an expression of our discipleship and consistent with our theology. However, political preaching pastors in mainline denominations have often received the same treatment that the Pharisees delivered to Jesus.

In our Scripture passage today they angrily demanded “Who gives you the authority to say these things?” His teaching had threatened their traditions. He denounced their personal piety as legalistic nonsense. He accused them of having a dead spirituality. And most importantly, Jesus poised a danger to their political control and economic livelihood. The religious leaders wanted to know what right he had to say and do these things that would create social and religious upheaval.

Congregations have often asked their preachers the same question. During the turbulent 60's, preachers called upon their congregation to join the march for Civil Rights and demand an end to the War in Vietnam. While many members responded to their pastors preaching, others either walked out of church and never returned or found a church whose pastor agreed with their political position. However, this Sunday will see a very different response from the congregation.

The membership in most churches has a high degree of unanimity. They lack the political diversity of the 60's. Pastors who tell their congregation to support Sen John McCain because of his stand on abortion already know that their members are basically pro-life or strongly conservative on other social and economic issues. The preachers who will announce that they are voting for Sen Barack Obama already know that their congregation already believes that we need to increase domestic spending to care for the most needy of our society and want to see a speedy end to the War in Iraq. You could say that both groups of preachers are preaching to the choir.

The role of the pastor is to teach what the Scriptures say and how to apply that teaching to daily life. This requires the pastor to study theology, current events and the literature that relates to both. This is no small task especially when Scripture is silent on a particular subject. Stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, global warming, and nuclear warfare were non issues at the time that the various books were written. The Scriptures may not specifically address these issues but they do offer guidance through inference.

In a heated discussion a lay person responded, “You pastors can make the Scripture say anything you want it to say.” Unfortunately he was right. I have heard two different preachers give two completely different application to the same passage of Scripture. Both used the passage to support their own preconceived ideas. That is sad when that happens and highlights why pastors must engage in thorough study and preparation and resist twisting Scripture to support their personal beliefs.

The book of Genesis clearly designates our responsibility to be wise stewards of God's creation. This would imply that we are to care for the environment which has implications for how we deal with global warming. While the Bible does not offer specific solutions on how we should care for planet earth, this does not prohibit me from using our responsibilities as God's stewards to offer suggestions for better utilizing our resources and criticizing parts of our suburban lifestyle that are wasteful and harmful to the environment. However, I must be knowledgeable on the subject by reading the latest scientific articles and journals.

Pastor's are obligated to teach from God's Word. They should not hesitate to offer guidance to their members in hopes of shaping their values, beliefs and behavior. This teaching should eventually influence the congregation's voting habits, but to announce that anyone who calls him/herself a Christian will vote for this one particular candidate strikes me as manipulative and controlling.

Responsibility of the Congregation

If the pastor is bound to teach the Scriptures, the congregation is obligated to give their full consideration to the message. However, in the American church, people resist listening to a preacher with whom they strongly disagree.

I was hiking in the mountains with another pastor and we were lamenting the trials of ministry. Sandy was pastoring a large Methodist congregation that was going through growing pains. His dynamic preaching style attracted a rather large number of new members. He also wanted to develop a contemporary style of worship that required remodeling the sanctuary. Sandy was also much more liberal on social issues than his conservative congregation. I was struggling with many of the same issues although on a much smaller scale. After several minutes of comparing notes I said to Sandy, “You know, sometimes I think that the people just want us to reinforce their prejudices and affirm their biases.” Sandy gave an immediate affirmation.

We have lost the ability to dialog when we have areas of disagreement. This is a serious problem. What is the value of singing They will know that we are Christians by our Love if we are friends only with people who share similar views on social issues? How can we grow if we are only talking with people who share the same views on how Congress and the President should solve the financial crises. I have heard people say to me, “I cannot understand how a person can believe that the Bible says such and so?” Often times we do not understand because we never sit down and talk to anyone who strongly disagrees with us. Or, we are not willing to listen to a preacher explain why our views on a certain matters are contrary to Scripture.

What would you do if I preached a sermon that was directly contrary to your views? Would you just ignore me and start doodling on your bulletin? Would you get up and go to the bathroom? Would you ask to talk with me? Would you ask someone that disagrees with you to join you in studying the subject and reflecting on passages from the Bible?

I wonder what would happen if a group of people who shared different viewpoints met to study and to discuss the issue of abortion. Their study could include articles- one the social implications of raising a child in an unhealthy or unwanted environment. They might also read articles written by women who have had both positive and negative experiences. A review of the costs that society must incur if that child has behavioral or medical problems would be important. Then at some point they would need to reflect on Scripture. While the Bible does not specifically prohibit the medical procedure, it does make certain statements that relate to the life of the unborn. The psalmist tells us that God knows us in our mother's womb and Jeremiah was called to be a prophet before he was even born. The prophet Isaiah gave a scathing attack upon the nation for sacrificing their children. These Scriptures imply but do not teach that life begins at conception and that the killing of the unborn and infanticide is prohibited. I wonder if a group of pro-life and pro-choice proponents could meet and conduct such a study and have a meaningful and ongoing dialog.

When Jesus preached about the kingdom of God he startled the common people because they had never heard that God loved them and wanted to heal the wounds of sin and guilt. His message shocked the religious leaders because it threatened their power base and political control. The religious leaders questioned his right to say such things by challenging his authority. They did not want to listen and consider his message. They did not want to change. Are we willing to listen to uncomfortable messages or do we just want to hear things with which we already agree? Are we willing to be shocked or do we just want messages that comfort and sooth?

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Crossroads Presbyterian Church
1445 Welch Rd
Walled Lake MI 48390

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