Regarding the Times – Pastor’s Reflection (February 12, 2017)
A perennial question asks how preachers should behave when society struggles with issues. Obviously it’s time to entertain the question again. From my vantage point social and political issues have riveted our collective attention as at no time in my recent memory. How should the Gospel intersect with all of the tumult?
I suppose the most obvious, and convenient, answer would be that the priest should stick to talking about God and let society wrestle with its politics and culture. This idea harmonizes with our received notions of the separation of church and state, and at a deeper level it preserves a clear distinction between what is secular and what is sacred. Finally, it guarantees that going to Mass will provide relief from the relentless commentary people receive through our ever-multiplying media. Jesus himself seemed to make no comment on the political issues of his day: for example, the Gospels do not record His take on the morality of the Roman occupation of Hhis country, or of the Jewish insurgency against it.
But He did give the Sermon on the Mount, and therein, per last Sunday’s Gospel, He referred to us as the “Salt of the Earth,” and the “Light of the World.” The “Similies of Salt and Light” mandate us to engage comprehensively with society. Interacting with the culture and politics of our times comprises a vital part of being Christian. We buy and sell, go to restaurants and movies, and take political action as Christians, not in spite of our religion, nor compartmentalized from it. “A city set on a hill” (the assembly of Christians) is still a city, and its citizens must have commerce with each other, and with those of other cities. We hope the Church illumines the world around her not by avoiding the square and the market, but by entering them with the ethics and insights given by her Master. Indeed, when he says that we should render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar He is telling us to pay taxes and so makes public duties moral acts.
But does the social comprehensiveness of the Gospel make the Minister of the Gospel authoritative in the social sphere, qualified, ex officio, to weigh in definitively on current issues? If we accept this, relevance begins to outweigh other values and the line between preacher and “talking head” begins to blur.
How do we strike the right balance in such live times?
Perhaps it lies within the teaching itself. The Sermon on the Mount issues a call to conversion that touches each aspect of life and works steadily against any compartmentalization of life. The truth of the Christian me undermines the walls protecting the non-Christian me. Quite naturally, I resist, but in the end, the Spirit persuades more eloquently than my contrary inclinations. But there is no way for me to change that does not in the end affect my engagement with you. In this way the Gospel quietly disrupts social patterns, challenging patterns of doing business, and of course meddles in romance.
It follows that if the preacher has the task of articulating a call to growth, he must address all the ways in which his hearers interact with the world. One of our jobs in the pulpit is to show people the deep significance of ordinary life. Indeed, part of the beauty of each Christian life is the impact it has on the life around it. At the same time his work must respect the singular quality of each life. I try not to tell people what to do: rather I seek to show them the tools the Gospel gives for reaching a conclusion that is genuinely their own. I have found that people receive preaching and apply it in ways helpful to them, that never occurred to me. If I keep this in mind then what I do remains truly a ministry, a service.
In the case of culture and politics this often means coming at an issue “sideways.” The work here is to show people the Gospel’s surprising take on life which often shows the points in common that lie beneath so many disputes and the human sameness behind so much apparent disparity. Indeed, what Jesus offers us in his teaching and sacraments is a new way of seeing events and people. For this reason, we cannot insulate ourselves from our times, for studying them gives the raw material grace uses to train us in the ways of challenge, in the ways of mercy, and in the ways of contemplation.