At the risk of sounding more cynical than I want to sound, I can sum up the message of most political speeches in two sentences. Ready?
“You guys are great. It’s those other people who are the problem.”
Not every speech is like that, and even some that are like that may have some worthwhile things to say. But all too often, this is the pattern for the ambitious politician. You praise the audience, sympathize with them, identify with them and their values — then you blame someone else for their troubles. Preferably a small group, the better to let you sing the virtues of The People as a whole. Blame “special interests.” Blame “extremists.” Blame “the politicians.” (Pretend you’re not one.) Blame whomever. Just don’t criticize the people you’re talking to.
Now contrast this with a sermon.
A pastor, like a politician or any other speaker, may sympathize or identify with his audience: That’s just good communication. But if he’s doing his job, he won’t flatter them. He won’t encourage them to look for sin chiefly in other people. He loves them too much to do them such a disservice. Instead, he’ll preach God’s Law and apply it to the people right in front of him. He’ll strip away any illusions that they’re measuring up to it. Then he’ll direct their eyes to Christ and how they live in the forgiveness that was won by Him.
This doesn’t mean that the pastor lets the rest of the world off the hook. His sermon may include calling on his listeners to stand for righteousness (he won’t be embarrassed to use words like that) in a culture that’s rebelling against it. At the same time, though, he’ll warn them against the temptations of that culture. He’ll make it clear that sin isn’t just “out there.” It’s in here.
To contrast politics and preaching is not to say that Christians should be indifferent to politics. If anything, we should inject some aspects of preaching into politics. Imagine a prominent politician saying what a few not-so-prominent ones have said: that our country is deeply in debt because we (not “they”) have spent far more than we could afford and that we need to make painful cutbacks in our own favorite programs — not just in other people’s or in nebulous categories like “waste, fraud and abuse.” Imagine him loving us enough to tell the truths we don’t want to hear, at risk to his own career.
By the same token, we should avoid injecting certain aspects of politics into preaching. I don’t mean the issues, at least not the fundamentally moral ones: Things like the sanctity of life, the nature of marriage and the meaning of sexuality have a place in sermons. But flattery and blame-shifting and promises to fix all our problems (in this world) — these things don’t have a place there. If that’s what your pastor is giving you, he’s not doing his job. And if that’s what you’re seeking from him, you’re not doing yours.
Copyright 2012 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved.