Friday, September 22, 2006

Why I Don't Title My Sermons

Ever since I was a seminary student, preaching quarterly at my "teaching parishes," I've avoided titling my sermons. I had to do it for a church I preached at twice while on internship--they were insistent. I think it's fine if people want to do it, but I'm part of the generation of preachers trained in more inductive methods, and sermon titles seem to work at cross purposes to inductive preaching. You don't tell 'em what you're going to tell 'em until you've told 'em.

This morning's Kansas City Star offers some reinforcement for this decision. As many of you likely have, I've been watching with interest the unfolding story of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which is under IRS scrutiny for what has been described as an "anti-war, anti-poverty" sermon preached two days before the 2004 election. The IRS is considering revoking All Saints' tax exempt status, for "implicit endorsement."

There are numerous troubling details in this case. First, the sermon was preached by a guest preacher, not someone on staff at All Saints. That may or may not be relevant. Allowing someone the pulpit does imply a certain level of endorsement of the message, inasmuch as you can know what the message will be. Second, by all previous accounts, the preacher spoke about issues which should be important to voters, but specifically refrained from endorsing a candidate or a party. Those are the lines one cannot cross--you can't endorse a candidate or a party. The tax code is unspecific on talking about war or poverty. Indeed, I'd hope it would be difficult to preach if these subjects were off the table.

*Okay, I have to tell this only-semi-related story: I was at an event last night called "Walking the Talk of Welcome," sponsored by a group with which I'm involved here in KC. The former moderator of a local UCC church was speaking about the process their church went through to become Open and Affirming. She talked about the effects of their decision, noting that a few people had left during the process, but only one had left after the vote to become ONA (yes, really, that's how it's abbreviated). The former moderator didn't think, however, that the person left because of the vote, because he or she, upon leaving, declared "We just keep talking all the time about the poor." Egads.

Back to the matter at hand. I've been firmly on the side of All Saints, and certain that they were getting railroaded. I'm still on their side, but I did gasp just a little upon reading in today's Kansas City Star that the title of the precipitating sermon was "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush." Specifically stated in the sermon was the (surely true) opinion of the preacher that Jesus would be firmly against the Iraq war and President Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war.

I would love to hear how others receive this information. Did the preacher go too far? Where is the "endorsement line?" What is kosher, if you will, and what is not?

This is a very complicated situation, and there are no easy answers. The preacher was apparently critical of both candidates, but I'm just not sure I would have named them in a sermon title. This is a moot point, of course, since I don't do sermon titles. If I did do sermon titles, though, I hope I would consider the human tendency toward binary thinking and the proximity of the election, and not use the words "Kerry," "Bush," and "debate" in my sermon title. It just seems like you're setting them up to hear you endorse someone, and even if you want that someone to be Jesus, some will take away a different message.

I do preach political sermons. I preached about the war, and continue to do so. I know I cross lines that many of my colleagues would never cross. But I think preaching is essentially the practice of placing scripture in the context of our lives, and I don't know how to do that without crossing over into subjects that can be considered political. It seems to me that Jesus talked a lot about subjects which cross over into the political. Questions of wealth and poverty, discrimination and inclusion, power and powerlessness are at their essence political questions. I'm not sure how to preach to the context of my congregation without addressing these things.

The situation with All Saints is also, quite clearly, a political one. There is a line which cannot be crossed, and it is possible that All Saints crossed it. I don't happen to think so, but that's obviously debatable. But the politics in this go beyond the situation at hand.

I'd like to hear a little debate on the role conservative churches play in electing candidates, and why All Saints is under scrutiny while they apparently are not. It would appear that the mistake All Saints made was not blowing with the right wind.

Recently someone leaked a memo from Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline, who is running for re-election. The subject line of the four page email was "church efforts," and it contained instructions from Kline to his staff on how to "get him into pulpits" and raise money at as many churches as possible between now and election day.

I'm not putting too fine a point on it. Here are a couple of quotes from the memo:

"Get the pastor to invite 5 'money people,' whom he knows can help."

"Goal is to walk away with contact information, money and volunteers and a committee in each church."

The plan is to have Kline preach, then get the "money people" to host receptions, off of church property, to raise money.

Perhaps the off-site fundraisers get these churches and pastors off the hook. I know that we would draw the line at inviting a candidate to preach who was running for election. As I've already said, allowing someone the pulpit does constitute an implicit endorsement. I can't even imagine the prospect of helping the candidate "walk away with contact information, money and volunteers, and a committee" in our church. . Apparently the IRS has a different opinion, because I haven't heard that they were going to be investigating any of the churches implicated in this memo. And there were specific churches implicated. More churches will be implicated as this strategy comes to fruition.

It's messy business, the mixing of religion and politics. There are a lot of things I would like to say in the pulpit which I feel I cannot say. There are things I feel I should say, things I think Jesus would say, which I do not say in the pulpit. And there are a lot of things I have the freedom to say because I'm in a really great congregation which allows me more of that freedom than many would.

Ultimately, we have to do our best to be true to the gospel and keep out of trouble with the government. And that may be easier said than done.


Andy B. said...

Lots to think about with this case, I know. But I'd like to take up the notion of invitation being equivalent of endorsement. When speaking of guest preachers, I don't think the mere invitation is what implies endorsement, one would have to do more than that, I think. Like say, "I endorse you." It is different with the politician running for office, though - that's pretty much a no-no. (Although our men's club is having Trent Skaggs speak at their breakfast next month. But then, he is running unopposed so the point is kind of moot there, too.)

revabi said...

Well written for us to think about. I read where that law was made with President Johnson was in office, and someone preached a sermon against him. It seems kind of out of place and atiquated. But the law is clear as you point out, and we as preachers know that.

But think where this country would be if the preachers had not preached some of what they preached in the early days, of course some preached the other way too.
Thanks for posting this.

Donna said...

Thanks to you both for your comments. I have to say, Andy, that I went back and forth on the question of whether the invitation to preach is a sort of endorsement. I don't think it is in the legal sense. You're right, you would have to do more than just invite someone. I do think there is a difference, as you point out, between endorsing a person and endorsing a message. The latter is a lot less clear, at least legally. But we have to bear some responsibility for the invitation as well, don't we? The extreme example I keep coming back to is that I can't just invite Fred Phelps to preach at my church and then say "I didn't know what he was going to say."

But, of course, most people aren't Fred Phelps. One would be expected to know that Fred will say something crazy (or "illegal"), and that is not necessarily the case with the average guest preacher. And it would suck to feel like you have to pre-read the sermon of someone just to cover your behind.

This is just sticky stuff. I'm playing devil's advocate, in a way, because I agree with revabi that a lot of the good things which have happened in this country have been the result of some fine preaching. I sure don't want us to lose any freedom in our pulpits.

What's frustrating is not having clarity on the lines. I mean, which preachers can I torture and which ones are protected by the Geneva Conventions? Oh wait, that's something else...

Seriously, it seems pretty arbitrary, who gets in trouble and who doesn't. Or maybe it's not arbitrary and that's why I don't like it. If we're going to start coming after churches because the sermons preached there offend the current administration, I'd better start boning up on my bartending skills.