I had just started as pastor of a large church when a key leader took me aside and said I was free to preach about anything I wanted, except homosexuality.
He didn’t want to hear any sermons addressing the issue then dominating many conversations among Christians. Keep the topic in the closet.
Sixteen years before, in a town once governed by the Klan, a leader told me not to preach about race. Too many people remembered signs saying, “Negroes must be out of town by sundown.”
Many clergy have been told, in terms ranging from kindly counsel to peremptory demand, to “keep politics out of the pulpit.”
Many a mainline pastor will attest: The one topic that Jesus addressed more than any other — wealth and power — was declared off-limits in congregations that hoped to attract wealthy constituents and their budget-saving pledges.
Many churches gave up their ethical voice in exchange for money, the very trade Jesus warned us against. The issue wasn’t partisan campaigning or endorsing specific candidates — a clear violation — but any mention at all of race, sexuality, warfare or economic injustice.
As a reader recently wrote me: “I hear enough about blacks on TV.”
So it is that Christmas becomes a sweet story and a centerpiece for family love. Lost are the Incarnation’s most critical elements: the context of oppression, the harsh conditions facing Joseph and Mary, the callous greeting at an inn, the humble submission by Eastern rulers, Herod’s rage, the massacre of the innocents, the Holy Family’s exile to Egypt.
As told by Luke and Matthew, the birth of Jesus isn’t a sweet story. It is God intervening in human depravity and sorrow, offering hope to the hopeless, light to those walking in darkness.
Jesus is God’s answer to Caesar and Herod and their allies in the religious establishment, not God’s invitation to an annual festival of lights and gift giving.
I understand why my reader wants her religious reading to take a break from “I can’t breathe” protests. It is awful to think that our society has lost its way so thoroughly that repression of blacks is considered good policing strategy.
But reality is what it is. And if we can’t bear to see reality, what relationship can we possibly have with God? Seeking numbness in one arena will mean sinking into numbness in all arenas. Asking God to be a source of “happy news” makes God unattainable for any news. What’s the use of prayer if we can’t put everything on the table?
The parallels between the biblical story and current reality are clear: an atmosphere of surveillance, repression and, we now know, torture; forced migration of peoples fleeing terrorists, warlords and poverty; harsh conditions for a growing portion of humanity.
Even more: God showing light to the weak and not to the wealthy, people changing their life-course while the powerful erupt in rage and demand political, economic and, increasingly, violent slaughter of innocents.
If that doesn’t preach on Christmas 2014, truly we have nothing to say.
Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant, and Episcopal priest based in New York. Via RNS.
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