Thursday, October 16, 2014

Subpoenas and Sermons

The netrage is out there, about everything, about anything, and one rage-meme that's been popping a whole bunch in my feeds lately has to do with the subpoenas issued to five Texas area pastors for copies of their sermons.

The reason has to do with a fight over a Houston ordinance protecting the rights of transgendered persons.  A coalition of conservative megachurch pastors actively opposed it, using the same odd tactic that's been attempted in my region.  They also used their large congregations as their political base in their attempt to overturn the law.  After a petition attempt to put the issue on the next ballot as a referendum failed, the coalition filed a lawsuit to stop the ordinance.

So the lawyers for the city, acting in defense of the municipality against the lawsuit filed by the churches, chose to subpoena the sermons of five representative communities.

This has created the netrage, as the pastors now stand firmly on the principle of the separation of church and state.  It has nothing to do with the LGBT community!  This is about the Constitution!  This is about religious liberty!

Of course, this is also coming from pastors who are using their pulpits and their congregations how?   To engage in political endeavor.  Complaining about the separation of church and state when you've actively used your congregation to mobilize politically is...well...mildly ironic.

Two particular things seem problematic about this carefully cultivated outrage.

Thing number one: why would you ever need to subpoena a sermon?  If a congregation and/or their pastor is doing their job, a sermon is not a secret.  This isn't a closed business meeting.  It's something you share, not just with the true believing Pureblood Christians, but with anyone and everyone.  It's not "inside the silo" speech.  It's a message to the whole world.  Anyone can hear it.  You should never, ever, need a subpoena to shake loose a sermon, any more than you'd need to subpoena the front page of the Washington Post or the Houston Chronicle.

Sermons are public speech, and speech you should be willing to have out there in the world in front of everyone.

I post the full text of every single sermon I preach online.  Thanks to the good work of folks at my church, the audio is also available...on iTunes, streamable, and downloadable.  Every single one of those sermons is there, my weekly efforts to interpret these ancient sacred texts with as much accuracy and grace as I can. Why?

Because what I preach is intended to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That's the whole point of preaching, isn't it?  Not to affirm what my congregation already believes as we whisper to each other in secret, but to challenge anyone who hears me to be more loving, more merciful, more compassionate, and more gracious.  If I'm doing my job right, it's a message of grace to anyone...the stranger, the visitor, anyone.

If one so chose, you could keyword search through my sermons, looking for anything and everything.  Go ahead.  I stand by those words.  They represent my best effort to articulate the grace of the Gospel of Jesus Christ into the world.

So if anyone ever says to me, I demand a copy of your sermons?  Sure.  Here's the link.  Go to town, buckaroo.

Which gets me to thing number two:  It's an effort to shame us, the pastors argue, and to tar us as anti-LGBT bigots.  We're being bullied by those mean government folks, just because we've used our pulpits in an effort to overturn a law that prevents discrimination against a tiny minority of Americans.  We will never turn over our sermons, they cry.  They're just trying to shame us with our own words!  We'd rather go to jail than turn over our preaching to these shamey bullies!  Because...liberty!  Because...Constitution!

From a libertarian/anarchist perspective, I can sort of see that.  We don't like being told what to do, not by anyone, for any reason.  It's an affront to my sovereign individuality to force me to do anything.

But from a Gospel perspective, a servant-of-Jesus-Christ perspective, this is completely insane.  If those messages contain the Gospel, then they're nothing to be ashamed of.  I want you to hear them.  I want you to read them, whoever you are, wherever you are.

If what they are would appear hateful in the sight of a neutral, objective third party, then they're not the Gospel.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Rome, laid that out pretty clearly.  What we do and say, if we are acting and speaking as Christians, must be noble in the sight of all.  Following Jesus is self-evidently loving, self-evidently merciful, self-evidently just.

As preaching should be, if it is really and truly the preaching of the Gospel.