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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I received an email today from a member of the congregation that heard me preach last Sunday, expressing distress that I had "brought politics into" the sermon and that I did so "in a manner that was disparaging of others."

I promptly responded with thanks to the congregant (preachers really do appreciate negative feedback. Really). I told the person that I was going to look at my manuscript again to see exactly where that charge arises from, but that I don't like the notion that anything I might have said was disparaging. "I don't believe a sermon should ever do that," I said, "and if mine did on Sunday then I will chalk it up to less-than-careful thought about the subject beforehand and resolve to not make the same mistake again."

Here's what the manuscript says:
"The question about paying taxes [the text was Matthew 22's story where the Pharisees and Herodians plot to entrap Jesus with a question about paying taxes to the emperor] is a slippery political football having next-to-nothing to do with money. Witness our newest American everyman celebrity, Joe the Plumber. For Joe, the question is hardly about tax codes and income brackets and W-4's. Rather, if you've seen his exchange with the candidate caught on tape, you know that it's about him. 'I'm a hard working guy,' he says. 'I've worked hard all my life.' For Joe (and, I imagine, all of us), it becomes about our hard work, the things we've sweated and toiled to achieve for ourselves and our families. It becomes about us, who we perceive ourselves to be, who we aspire to be, and who we allow a say in those aspirations.

It is when we're dealing with those aspirations and high ideals, though, that we are most likely to contradict ourselves. It didn't take reporters very long to discover that Joe the Plumber hasn't paid his income taxes in quite some time. Our most lofty convictions are undermined by our most routine habits. We can be, I'm afraid, the worst enemy of our most cherished causes. Like the vocal supporter of 'tough on crime' legislation with his own criminal record or the 'protect marriage' advocate who hasn't said 'I love you' to her spouse in weeks, we can betray our aspirations without even knowing it. And it's never worse than when it has to do with money."
The verdict I have to reach when I read that back is that both charges (bringing politics into the sermon and disparaging people) are true. The latter bothers me. The former doesn't. That a preacher would bring politics into any given sermon is right and good, especially when it serves to put politics into conversation with the gospel. Preachers ought not be partisans in the pulpit, mind, but ought to afford congregants an opportunity to see the political in the routine and the petty in the political. Preaching itself is a political act.

To disparage, though, seems somehow un-Godly. The mistake in the text quoted above lies not in the mentioning of political situations like campaigns, crime legislation, and the fight over marriage, bur rather a one-sided use of those situations to illustrate a larger point. Surely an illustration could have been drawn from, say, and environmental advocate who contradicts his lofty cause in his routine habits. Taken separately, the illustrations about the tough on crime proponent and the defend marriage advocate are not disparaging; collectively they are.

And the point about Joe the Plumber's income taxes kind of fails, in retrospect, to illustrate the point it's supposed to illustrate. That's sloppiness, which, to my mind, is a less pardonable homiletical offense.

Talking money and politics in church is dangerous business. The good news here, I believe, is that when we make a misstep the worst thing that comes is an email. And the chance to reexamine your work, which never hurts.

I plead guilty.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 2:33 PM


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