Preaching in a Political Season

November 7th, 2016

Several years ago, while I was serving a large suburban congregation, I preached a sermon on how the healing stories in the Gospels undergird a Christian understanding that healthcare should be available to everyone not just those who can pay for it. The next week a church member chided me for preaching a “political” sermon. She had not attended church that particular Sunday, so I invited her to listen to the sermon online and find in it one political statement. I had explored Jesus’s approach to healing and the church’s long tradition of caring for the sick through the founding of hospitals and clinics, and I encouraged us as Christians to continue following the example of Jesus and our tradition by caring for people’s health: body, mind, and spirit. Simply because I had suggested health care for everyone, my friend assumed that I was being “political.”

Today every season seems to be a political season, especially during a presidential election year. Should a pastor take a stand on issues that the culture defines as political, especially when there’s an election on the horizon? Is anything off-limits for preaching? One thing I consider off-limits is to endorse a particular candidate for a local, state, or national election, even if the candidate is a member of the congregation I serve.

During the summer before the presidential election in 2008, I preached a sermon series on topics suggested by the congregation. One sermon that addressed war included an outline of the requirements for a “just war.” I admitted that I couldn’t support either our invasion of Iraq or Afghanistan, because in my view neither met the criteria of a just war. Some church members took this as criticism of the current president, George W. Bush. Following the election that November one church member asked if I would be happier now that Barack Obama had been elected. I assured him that as a Christian and a pastor I stood at a distance from all elected officials and administrations and commented on their policies not based on their party but on their conformity to the life and teachings of Jesus, which is how I would evaluate my own leadership in a congregation.

Over the years I have developed a few simple questions to guide my preaching on issues that might be considered political.

1. “Is this a Jesus Issue?” Just because our present culture calls something “political” doesn’t mean it’s not a Jesus issue. Clearly feeding the hungry, making sure that people have clean water to drink, providing clothing and shelter for those who otherwise would be without them, and seeing that prisoners and the sick are cared for are distinctly Jesus issues. Loving those our culture defines as enemies, blessing those who curse us, even those from other countries and religions, as well as praying for those who persecute us are all Jesus issues. These do not even begin to exhaust all the Jesus issues that should be addressed in preaching. Anything related to how Jesus treated people and taught us as disciples to treat others is appropriate for preaching.

2. “Does my preaching reflect my primary loyalty to Jesus or to a particular ideology or political party?” Some preachers proclaim that you cannot be a Democrat and be a Christian. They are wrong. Other preachers may tell you that a Republican can’t be a Christian. They, too, are wrong. Unless our loyalty to Jesus transcends party affiliation or ideological commitment, we aren’t grounding our preaching in the gospel of Jesus Christ but in an all too human construction. No party or ideology has a corner on Jesus.

3. “Does this sermon make me feel superior to those who will be hearing it?” It feels good to make the pronouncement, “Thus saith the Lord . . .” and present our best understanding as the unadulterated word of God. I always remind myself that I am not “the Lord” and that my understanding ought to be open to correction. I don’t have the final answer. All preaching is grounded on a relationship of trust between a preacher and the congregation. Talking down to people rarely opens dialogue; instead it shuts down conversation. Jesus did not come so we could feel superior to others. A little humility goes a long way in maintaining the relationships upon which all preaching is grounded.

In short, any subject that enhances or restricts our ability to love God and our neighbors as ourselves is fair game for preaching.

Michael E. Williams serves as senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. His most recent book is a volume of poems, Take Nothing for Your Journey (Finishing Line Press, 2016).

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