This past Thursday I attended Fresh Start: a monthly gathering of clergy new to the diocese, or to a new position in the diocese. Father Paul was there, as he has just started a position as Priest-in-Charge in El Centro and Brawley. Some newly ordained priests and transitional deacons were there too. It’s a collegial group, whose purpose is to gather and discuss issues pertinent to our unique calling to the ordained ministry.
On the docket this month was a somewhat provocative question: How should we preach about politics, especially in light of the upcoming election and recent feelings of increased polarization?
It’s a good question to consider. The election is less than three weeks away. Which leaves me only today and two more Sundays to address it. Should I name the political elephant in the room? Or, on the other hand, should the church be the one haven in our world where we can still find a vestige of refuge from the political circus all around us?
Of course, different preachers take different approaches.
You may or may not know that in 2004 the Rev. George Regas preached a sermon in All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, which led to an investigation by the IRS. Regas explicitly stated he was not endorsing one candidate over another. Yet in his sermon—an imagined conversation between Jesus, John Kerry, and George W. Bush—he very much advocated for issues supported by Kerry and opposed by Bush. And thus, yes, despite him saying he did not endorse one candidate over another, it sure seemed otherwise—to the IRS anyway!
And the IRS matters!
For, according to IRS code, if a preacher tells his congregation how to vote, that preacher’s church can lose tax-exempt status. To be sure, if I were to stand up here this morning and tell you why you should or shouldn’t for one candidate or another, the IRS would consider St. Paul’s in violation of church and state laws: we could lose our tax-exempt status.
In fact, in recent months our own bishop raised some eyebrows in a diocesan letter in which he named Donald Trump and argued why we shouldn’t vote for him. Concern was raised over whether the entire Episcopal Diocese of San Diego might fall under the IRS’s scrutiny, and what that would mean for congregations in the diocese (including St. Paul’s).
Preachers in favor of naming names in letters or sermons, including the bishop, rightly argue that as ministers of the Gospel we need the liberty to preach the full Gospel of Christ.
To which other preachers, including me, say, yes, we do need such liberty; but can’t we have it without naming names? Without endorsing or opposing a specific candidate?
To muddle the waters just a little more, during his earthly ministry even Jesus himself named a political figure, Herod; and called him a fox!
Anyway, such was our clergy discussion on Thursday. And thus we come to today’s Gospel: a thoroughly political text.
For, in the first place, I can’t help but associate at least one of the major candidates of this presidential race with the Pharisee.
Two men went up to the temple to pray. One, a Pharisee, said (essentially), “Dear God, thank you that I’m better than everyone else.”
I mean, doesn’t this sound similar to the political debates?
Just for fun, what if the moderator of the final debate, Chris Wallace, would have asked, “Candidates, as this debate begins, I’d like you each to offer an opening prayer.” What would that prayer have been?
It’s not hard to imagine the words of the Pharisee: “Dear God, I thank you that I’m not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like that [other candidate], right over there.”
It doesn’t matter which candidate you happen to favor. It’s the same for both sides. One prays, “Thanks that I’m not a thief, like her”; whereas the other prays, “Thanks that I’m not an adulterer, like him.”
And, if you’re like me, you’re left scratching your head wondering when anyone’s going to give a reasonable answer to any of the issues at hand.
But we don’t really identify too closely with the Pharisee anyway. Or at least we don’t want to. Isn’t he the real reason the system is so messed up in the first place?
He’s a leader in society, in the established system. But what is his position of leadership but to enforce the rules and regulations established by the system in the first place!
The Roman Empire’s really messed up when you sit down and think about it. There are masses of people led by smaller and smaller groups of leaders until finally you reach the top of the pyramid: the emperor. The Jewish leaders are really just one layer, about halfway up the strata, orchestrated ultimately by the system in order to keep the masses in check.
The Pharisee’s in a position to do something about it. So why doesn’t he? He’s a community leader. Why doesn’t he then lead his community out of the oppressive system that enslaves them? Why does he instead keep the system in place, perpetuating the bondage?
At any rate, that’s not us. We really can’t identify with him.
Instead, we really just want to associate with the tax collector. After all, he’s the one who said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and beat his breast and repented and went home justified by God.
So can’t we just focus on him today? Can’t we just come to church and forget about the political circus? Can’t we just gather with others, pray and sing together, listen to a normal sermon (for once!), gather at the Lord’s Table, and just go home justified by God? Can’t we? Please?
Oh, I wish it were so simple!
But here’s what happens when we come to church and focus just on the tax collector. We meet, pray, sing, and commune; and we go home justified by God; and we turn on the news or open our computers or look at our phones; and all of a sudden we’re thinking, “Dear God, thank you that I am not like these ridiculous presidential candidates. Thank you that at least I have the discipline to go to church. Thank you that I pray and give. Thank you that. . . .”
And we end up proud. We end up justifying ourselves. We become the Pharisee. And we forget the point of this parable: “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”
And yet, even so—even if we focus just on the tax collector—I’m sorry to say, here too, in the second place, we can’t avoid politics. For the tax collector is part of this oppressive Roman system too: tax collectors were employed by the powers-that-be to control people economically.
Think of the modern credit card economy we live with.
Do you ever feel enslaved to it? Do you ever feel as if the powers-that-be calculate interest rates to be just the right amount—just enough to keep you in debt but not so much to bankrupt you?
That’s how the masses felt towards the tax collector. Except it wasn’t a big company to be mad at, like Chase or Capital One or the Emperor’s 1st Bank, but at an individual person.
So this made the tax collector wealthy, sure; but also very alone, a kind of middle-manager outcast. You can almost imagine him waking up one day and asking himself, “How did I get here? Back when I was going to college and decided to major in finance, I never dreamed I’d end up here. Yeah, college! Those were the days! Back then I lived on $600 a month. Now, what with two kids in college and ever-increasing medical costs, I can’t even make ends meet with six figures! I’m trapped forever in middle management!”
No wonder he leaves the temple humbled instead of proud!
The Pharisee is more like an executive, a more active player in perpetuating the system that’s in place, a system of rules and regulations; a system of boundaries which keep people in their place.
Either way, though, the present system has both the Pharisee and the tax collector in a kind of bondage!
Maybe you relate more to the tax collector. How did you get here? Now that you’re here, what can you do about it, if anything? You feel trapped.
Or maybe you find yourself more able to relate to the Pharisee. You’re a leader of society, a public figure. Everywhere you go you’ve got to mind your Ps and Qs—lest some sort of Yuma scandal break out! From time to time you wonder about issues of social justice and whether you can do anything to change injustice or maybe if in fact you’re part of the injustice. You feel trapped too.
Either way it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t really matter who we are or what we do—whether we’re presidential candidates or parishioners in a pew; whether we identify more with the Pharisee or the tax collector.
God is after a broken spirit and a contrite heart.
God justifies the humble Pharisee just as much as the humble tax collector. On the other hand, God humbles both the proud presidential candidate and the proud parishioner in the pew.
God calls us to be humble. We learn this from the tax collector who teaches us to focus on individual humility: he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner”; and went home justified by God as an individual.
But there’s more to it than just individual humility. This we learn from the Pharisee. He turns our thoughts outward, to society. He’s not just an individual working within an oppressive system (like the tax collector), but a representative of the system.
And thus, turning our thoughts outward, a question confronts us: What about our systems? Is God humbling us not just as individuals but also as a society?
Think about our immediate system, the Church.
We lament over the Church’s decline of the last four decades. Attendance has been steadily falling. Budgets have been continuously shrinking. Many congregations around the country and the world are finding that they can no longer sustain their programs and buildings.
Is this decline God’s doing? Is God humbling the Church’s pride?
Whatever the case, this so-called decline, which so many people see as negative, has a positive side: the Church is asking important questions that have needed to be asked for a very long time—questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority.
In essence, the Church is looking around and saying, “How did we end up here? Back in the early days we lived on $600 a month. Now we can’t even seem to make ends meet on six figures! God, be merciful to us sinners!”
We see a corporate humility.
Nevertheless—I don’t have to tell you—much pride remains in the Church. All too often, the word bishop is interchangeable with ego.
How much more humbling needs to take place?
Now, let’s look at the bigger system: What about our nation?
With this election cycle, American democracy seems to have changed fundamentally.
Is this God’s doing? Is God humbling our nation?
As a nation, we’ve begun to ask the right questions; questions that have needed to be asked for a long time; questions about gender, sexuality, race, and authority. Attempts are made at righting past wrongs. Strategies are developed to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. Thoughts are turning toward the common good. These are all signs of national humility.
Nevertheless, there’s quite a lot of ego floating around. And I don’t just mean in the presidential race! Our whole country is wound tight around pride and self-justification—around ego!
How much more humbling needs to take place?
I won’t tell you how to vote. But, when you vote, please, consider this very important question.