This past Thursday, our President signed an Executive Order giving churches broader flexibility in regard to speaking out about political candidates. Called “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” the order asks the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion” over the regulation known as the Johnson Amendment, which applies to churches and non-profits, restricting them from speaking out on behalf of specific political candidates, something previously prohibited by the IRS; though such political speech was prohibited, it was rarely, if ever, enforced. In only one instance has a church lost its tax exempt status due to overt campaigning against a political candidate. As for the President’s actions Thursday, it appears as if the order was largely ceremonial, offering no real substantive change from the current laws of the land.[1]

Truthfully, this is a relief to me, and to most pastors. Nearly 90% of Evangelical leaders don’t think pastors should endorse from the pulpit, according to a recent survey.[2] The thought of actively promoting or denigrating specific candidates for political office just doesn’t feel right. Already during campaign season we are endlessly bombarded by political advertising on television, online, in our mailboxes, or anywhere else a candidate can advertise. The thought of churches becoming clearinghouses for political contributions in favor of specific candidates just seems antithetical to what we’re supposed to be about. Our country is politicized enough as it is, we don’t need churches to become political entities. Imagine if I started preaching out in favor of specific Republican candidates—Democrats and Independents would feel unwanted and unwelcome. So much for extending God’s love and welcome to all people!

I’ve been at churches on both sides of the ideological spectrum. I’ve been at one church where a church leader preached a message about the importance of electing the right candidate so that candidate could elect conservative Supreme Court Justices. I’ve been at another church where during joys and concerns, a congregant expressed as a praise that a local sporting goods store would no longer be stocking a certain type of rifle, which elicited a mild applause from the congregation.  In both instances, I personally felt a bit uncomfortable as I wondered about the people in the church who might feel differently and whether they would feel unwelcome.  Christianity isn’t just for Republicans, it isn’t only for Democrats, it’s for all people, no matter one’s political persuasion, and one of the best things about our church and affiliation with the United Church of Christ is that we are a church where we can be united, not divided, by our faith.

Yet while I’m relieved our church won’t have to be speaking out for or against political candidates any time soon, church shouldn’t be a place that is devoid of politics altogether. The Bible has much to say about how we treat one another and how we live together in community, both of which are at the foundation of our system of governance in the United States. Throughout the Old Testament and New, there are countless scriptures which speak to the importance of being a good neighbor, caring for the poor and needy, taking care of the sick, protecting the young and vulnerable among us, and principles of good leadership. The Bible is a guide to living our entire lives, including how we live our political lives. So, while churches cannot specifically encourage or discourage its congregants to vote for specific candidates, churches can and should encourage its people to consider how they can live out the values of their faith in all areas of their life, including the voting booth.

In our reading from John today, Jesus talks about being the gate that protects the sheep, and later in the chapter, tells that he is also the “Good Shepherd.”  This speech we read from Jesus is a portion of a long argument Jesus is having with the religious leaders of Jerusalem.  Can you remember the story of Jesus healing the blind man after sticking mud on his eyes? Those religious leaders were upset with the way Jesus was doing things and Jesus accused them of being spiritually blind. Even worse, here in chapter 10, Jesus questions their leadership qualifications, implying that they were illegitimate and unrecognized, nothing more than thieves and robbers looking to harm the people! While there was no such thing as the Johnson Amendment or the IRS back in the time of Jesus, there was the Roman government who authorized the religious rulers, and the price Jesus paid for speaking out against these political candidates wasn’t just threats or fines, it was his very life.

Yet while Jesus speaks out strongly against the religious rulers, he was much kinder in his treatment of the “sheep,” or the commoners of the land. In our time, I’ve heard the word “sheep” used derisively as an insult against someone who is perceived to be a blind follower, someone who goes along with the status quo without questioning things. Jesus seemed far more respectful in his metaphor, he implies that the sheep are intelligent, aware, and brave—they won’t just follow anybody. In fact, Jesus said that understanding and appreciating the sheep was a good characteristic of a shepherd, and ultimately, of a leader. For, though we may not recognize it as such, in the time of Jesus a shepherd was a symbol for leadership.[3]

Jesus was making a bold statement regarding the qualities of these religious leaders. First, he implied that they are thieves and robbers who have come to power illegitimately. Then he said that thieves and robbers only come to steal and kill and destroy. These are powerful people to which Jesus is talking, and he’s telling them, and everyone listening, that these religious leaders are going to steal from them and take their resources. Jesus said that these religious leaders are going to kill or more accurately, to sacrifice the good of the people to help themselves. And Jesus said that ultimately, these religious leaders are going to destroy the people! Very strong words indeed. And truthfully, this is what was happening. The religious leaders had aligned themselves with the ruling Roman authorities so as to maintain their own standing—but in so doing had sold out the common people through higher taxes, oppressive policies, and unfair treatment, all the while enriching themselves.

He contrasts this style of leadership to the kind of guidance he is offering, whereby people find protection, sustenance, and ultimately, abundant life. He said “whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture…I have come that they may have life, and have it to the fullest.” Other Bibles translate this as “abundant life.” Whether we call it full life or abundant life, it sounds pretty wonderful. If you were to stop and think for a moment about a time in which you could describe your life as being “full” or “abundant,” I wonder what comes to mind? Perhaps it’s a memory of a gathering with family and friends for a birthday or celebration. Maybe it’s a time you were able to do something whether through your job or through volunteering where you were able to make a lasting difference in someone’s life. It could be that just the presence of the person sitting next to you for all those years tells you that you’ve had a full and abundant life.  This is the kind of life Jesus offers, one in which we find meaning, community, and relationship[4]—and these are the same values we must seek to extend to others through our own individual actions and through the actions of our church.

Truthfully, we see the terrible leadership of the religious leaders in Jesus time on display in our own. And, here I believe, following the way of Jesus sometimes means refusing to support leaders which utilize their positions of power to enrich themselves and their family by taking resources from those who need it most. Just as in the time of Jesus, we should not sacrifice the poor and vulnerable among us so as to enrich a few. Ultimately, such selfish, self-centered actions of leadership will destroy a community or a nation, just as Jerusalem itself was ultimately destroyed. The way of Jesus means demanding of our leaders a more just and biblical approach in caring for the people of our communities.

And while following the way of Jesus means holding our leaders to a higher standard, it also means, I believe, working to bring to all people that abundant life of which Jesus spoke; meaningful work, supportive community, and nourishing relationships. Christians and their leaders should be about helping people find good jobs that pay enough for people to support their families, we should be about helping friends and neighbors come together and form true and lasting cooperation with one another, and we should be about helping people create and sustain deep and meaningful relationships by supporting couples, strengthening families, and caring for our seniors. This is the abundant life of which Jesus spoke!

Following the way of Jesus doesn’t automatically make one a Republican or a Democrat, but it should make us all care about politics, about how we treat one another in a society and the expectation we place on our leadership. We should hold leaders accountable to act in our best interest and to sacrifice of themselves to advance the common good, in order that we might live full and complete lives. No matter Amendments or Executive Orders, we as followers of Jesus should strive to live our lives in accordance with the ways he taught, and the examples we see throughout the scriptures. Jesus has come the each and every person might have life—and life in abundance! Let us be about sharing the abundance of Jesus with all people.

 

[1] Camila Demonoske, “On Religious Liberty, Trump’s Executive Order Doesn’t Match Rhetoric,” NPR.org <http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/04/526853555/in-name-of-religious-liberty-trump-targets-a-rarely-enforced-irs-provision> (accessed May 5, 2017).

[2] “Pastors Shouldn’t Endorse Politicians,” NAE.net <https://www.nae.net/pastors-shouldnt-endorse-politicians/> (accessed May 5, 2017).

[3] Donald Senior, “Exegetical Perspective: John 10:1-10” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 445.

[4] Molly T. Marshall, “Theological Perspective: John 10:1-10” in Feasting on the Word, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year A Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 446.

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