At some point during the height of the political turmoil in Wisconsin during 2011 and 2012, a parishioner told me after the early service one Sunday, “I’m so glad you don’t preach political sermons.” After the 10:00 service that day, another parishioner enthused, “That was a wonderful political sermon.” The two people heard the very same sermon (I almost always preach from a manuscript) but they heard it very differently
I was reminded of that day when I heard of the hullabaloo over the Rev. Luis Leon’s Easter sermon at St. John’s, Lafayette Square. In the presence of President Obama and his family, the Washington Post reports that Leon said the following:
Quoting from John 20:1-18, Leon said in the same way Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to hold onto him, it is time for conservatives to stop holding on to what he considers outdated stances on race, gender equality, homosexuals and immigrants.
“It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling us back … for blacks to be back in the back of the bus … for women to be back in the kitchen … for immigrants to be back on their side of the border,” Leon said.
Leon said people instead should use “Easter vision” to allow them to see the world in a different, more “wonderful” way.
This aroused the ire of political conservatives who accused Fr. Leon of “politicizing” Easter.
I make the following observations. First, President Obama’s attendance at the service was a political act. It was a photo-op to demonstrate his personal piety in the context of continued claims that he’s a Muslim.
St. John’s very presence opposite the White House is also a political statement. Perhaps less meaningful now than in previous centuries, its proximity to the White House is a symbol of the close ties between the Episcopal Church and the United States government. It prides itself on the fact that over the decades many presidents have worshiped there. Any sermon preached from its pulpit to a president sitting in one of its pews is a political act. The president’s presence at services offers legitimacy to St. John’s and St. John’s offers religious legitimacy to President Obama.
I would also point out to those who criticize Fr. Leon’s “politicization” of the Easter message that he was targeting a particular religious position. In the summary provided by the Post, he did not mention the GOP, he referred to the Religious Right. Those who complain that he was being political at this point overlook the fact that he is actually debating doctrine. For what is at stake in the issues he raises are different understandings of human nature, of Jesus Christ, indeed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. From those different doctrinal positions proceed different political perspectives. Easter has always been a day when preachers have debated doctrine, offering their own perspective on the nature and meaning of resurrection and criticizing those preachers and theologians with whom they disagree.
I’ve not taken the time to listen to the podcast of the sermon but from what the Post reports, I find what Fr. Leon said rather innocuous. I would have hoped an Episcopal priest would have taken the opportunity to offer a prophetic message reminding all of those in attendance, including the president, where they have fallen short of using “Easter vision” to see the world in a new way, rather than taking potshots at others.
I’ve written before about the problematic relationship between the Episcopal Church and the US government, most recently in connection with Obama’s inauguration in January here and here. I’m glad I’m not the Rector of St. John’s Lafayette Square; I find negotiating the difficult terrain of Christianity and politics difficult enough from my vantage point on Madison’s Capitol Square.
And, of course, Grace Church’s very presence opposite the Wisconsin State Capitol is no less a political statement than St. John’s presence opposite the White House. Which is one of the reasons I like being a member of Grace. The personal is political, and the spiritual is political. When we’re fully engaged, it’s all of a piece. We can and should separate church and state, but we can’t separate the spiritual and the political from the rest of life, and we shouldn’t try to.