Especially now, when our political identities seem so very partisan and so very prominent, how does a preacher preach to a congregation whose membership is not primarily red or blue, but purple?
Before delving into the circumstances of St. Francis, in particular, we would like to preface this answer with some remarks about our own approach to the preaching moment. We believe the preacher needs to remember a few things before addressing any congregation. The first thing to prayerfully consider is the congregation being addressed. Who are they? What is God asking the preacher to make clear to them or explore with them? What are the concerns with which they are wrestling? What are they able to hear? How can we address and proclaim the Good News? This is not salesmanship it is pastoral understanding. Just as St. Paul addressed each of his letters to a particular audience, culture, and set of circumstances, contemporary preachers speak to a particular people in a particular place and time.
The second thing we remember is that very special part of each congregation’s and each person’s identity. Once baptized, our true identity is in Christ. Sometimes, and not always at the same time, the preacher and congregation can forget this. This way of identifying ourselves is scriptural and part of the Book of Common Prayer (see Baptism, beginning page 299), so it is really important to proclamation. In the Bible, a narrative form of this understanding is pronounced by Jesus in his final discourse in the Gospel of John:
“The glory that you (God) have given me (Jesus) I have given them (the disciples), so that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, as we are one, so that they may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23, NRSV)
The apostle Paul is more declarative in addressing the identity of Christians. Here are just a few samples of Paul’s take:
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you? (I Corinthians 3:16, NRSV)
But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. (I Corinthians 6:17, NRSV)
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (I Corinthians 12:27, NRSV)
[A]nd it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20, NRSV)
This is only a small sampling of scripture concerning the identity of the congregation in total and individually. But it is clear that in addressing the life within the community of Jesus, and in the political life of our broader community, church members and preachers need to approach one another as if approaching Christ. That means a modicum of respect and love need to be a part of the preaching moment. We do not try to see red, blue, or even purple, rather we look to see fellow Christians.
Remembering the composition of the congregation culturally, socially, economically, and, even politically, combined with remembering that the congregation has an identity in Christ, individually and corporately, is important to preaching, especially preaching in this time in the United States. Christians may support or vote Democrat or Republican, and for a lot of complex reasons, but in the end, it is their identity in Christ which should drive the preacher.
That does not mean that we should avoid hard subjects, or subjects that may make Franciscans uncomfortable, it means that we have to do so in love.
In these coming months, it is likely we will see more that will remind us of human frailty and sin. Being in Christ does not mean we are able to replace him; rather, we are called on to be like him, model him, and love like him. No person or congregation will be able to do this perfectly, but we are called to try. So being in Christ will mean that we must look into the places where we have not met God’s standard. In the United States that will mean looking at economic disparities, social inequities, racial injustices, and more. We will not go looking for these issues, instead, they will be presented to us.
This congregation of St. Francis Great Falls is one of the most politically intertwined congregations in the diocese. There are Republicans and there are Democrats; so, we are truly a purple congregation. As we address the issues among us, we will attempt to do so in love, knowing that we the preachers need to hear God’s word too, that we deliver it with humility, compassion, patience, and concern for our relationship with the congregation, the individual hearers, and with God. The particular people to whom we preach are those with whom we have prayed and conversed, and we have heard the cries of their distress, and we have heard the exclamations of their hopes.
So, we offer a promise and a request for these coming months. We promise that we will not avoid the hard topics and at the same time we will not preach partisan stances from the pulpit. The Gospel, actually the entire Bible, is inherently political. Many hot button issues these days were issues of Biblical ethics long before they became political issues in our particular time and place. But Jesus was not partisan; he never advocated for one particular human institution over another, and neither will we.
But, if you should hear something in our words that give you pause, we ask that you reach out to us to initiate a conversation. This is our open invitation to you, of Christ’s body. If you disagree, if you question, if you feel hurt by the preaching, please talk to us. We are here to walk with you. Conversations offer opportunities for apologies and clarifications. Conversations are the medium through which healing and understanding arise. The walk we have together and the walk we have with God is the most important thing we do in our lives. The vulnerability required for this walk can be frightening. We need companions who love and respect us as we continue the journey. In the end, our journey is for union with God and each other and there is hope embedded in our lives together.
Peace and blessings,