"Preachers and Sunday school teachers are pulling their punches these days regarding morality. Our nation needs ethical and religious instruction in the basics: honesty, fidelity, humility, sharing wealth, sharing power and sacrifice. Yet those are the last topics one is likely to hear in churches. Instead, for more than a decade, preachers have been grandstanding about such secondary issues as sexuality, Christmas greetings and institution-building.
Consider the day in 2004 when former Enron Corp. chief Ken Lay appeared in federal court to answer an 11-count indictment for fraud, conspiracy and false statements. (Lay is on trial in Houston.) On the way to court, he stopped by Houston's prominent First United Methodist Church to pray. His pastor accompanied him when he turned himself in to authorities. Good gestures, to be sure, but how had Lay, a regular worshiper and lay leader, gotten so ethically challenged? Some ethical guidance clearly had gone unheard or unspoken. His church encourages "disciplines of faithful living," but current Sunday classes sound the bell for self-improvement, not sacrificial giving or courageous honesty in a world growing accustomed to deceit.
When WorldCom chief Bernard Ebbers began to feel the heat of scandal, he stood before his friends at Easthaven Baptist Church, in Brookhaven, Miss., and declared, "I just want you to know you aren't going to church with a crook." A federal jury disagreed and convicted him of fraud. How could a dedicated Sunday school teacher have gotten so off track? His church's mission statement is about the institution's growth potential, not about living decent lives.
Attending church surely doesn't make one immune to ungodly deeds? we are all sinners, after all? But churchgoers should be able to get guidance on how to lead a responsible life, not reminders of church politics, from the pulpit. Jesus devoted roughly two-thirds of his teachings to our need to give away wealth and to value humility and servanthood more than power. Paul condemned "love of money." Hebrew prophets spoke forcefully against greed, bribery and injustice. The Law of Moses is concerned with basic ethics? Respect for persons and property, truth-telling, generosity and mercy.
Yet, in the typical congregation, it is safer to preach about someone else's sexual behavior than about wise and faithful use of money, or on economic dislocation, corporate ethics or widening gaps in the distribution of wealth. That's my conclusion based on a survey of several dozen websites and posted sermons, as well as my experience both as a preacher and listener.
One winning formula goes after themes that are minor in Scripture but big in the culture wars. Consider Tom DeLay, often identified as a born-again Christian, whose indictment for money laundering forced him to resign as Republican leader in the House of Representatives. A recent sermon series at a church with which he used to be associated condemned homosexuality, abortion and gambling. But it ignored Scripture's more basic theme of honesty and mercy as hallmarks of truth, and leadership as requiring people "who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain."
With rare exceptions, preachers of all stripes seem to avoid what Jesus said about wealth and power. Instead, they preach about church politics, upcoming festivals and personal improvement. Despite cascading corporate and political scandals, a widening gap between rich and poor and mounting arrogance in public life, I read hardly a word about honesty, integrity, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, kindness or humility.
I know how dangerous it is to venture into the nuts and bolts of Christian ethics. People will endure sermons about esoterica such as stem cell research or same-sex marriage, but they'll squirm when talk turns to personal priorities, time spent away from family, wealth accumulation, casual adultery or truth-telling. It is safer to lambaste gays than to tout Jesus' model of embracing diversity. It is more profitable to back one political party than to call all leaders to account for their behavior. A dull preacher will be tolerated; an intrusive one will be fired.
Our nation needs better from us. We don't need extremist politics masquerading as Christian morality. We need solid and consistent instruction in the basics of godly living. We can't hold churches accountable for what parishioners refuse to hear. But we can hold them accountable for what they shrink from saying.
Tom Ehrich is an Episcopal pastor, author, teacher andI remember years ago visiting a fairly conservative church (I won't mention the denomination or city less it contribute to unfair stereotyping). But within this straight-laced congregation, there was only one thing that the pastor said during his 45-minute sermon that got the parishioners off their feet with thunderous applause. Was it when he talked about Jesus being born? No. Was it when he talked about Jesus conquering sin and death by rising from the dead? Not really. Surely it was when he reminded us that though we were depraved sinners, Christ shed His blood so that our sins could be forgiven. Nope. It was when he boldly and defiantly and almost with anger shouted, "Homosexuality is a sin and that's all there is to it." This statement brought the house down.
writer in Durham, N.C.
Why is it that talk of other people's sin gets a rise out of us, but when someone addresses our own wickedness we want them to just shut up? Don't get me wrong here, part of the church's role is to speak out against wickedness in society and work for justice for those wronged. But why do we speak out so much more about issues outside our congregation, then the sin that is within? Members of our congregations (including yours truly) have more than our fair share of pride, selfishness, greed, lust, prejudice, gluttony and a bevy of other sins. I think Jesus' words from the Sermon on the Mount suffice:
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."Jesus just always has a way of putting it, doesn't He?