Had I been able to preach at my church’s Easter services this past Resurrection Sunday, I can assure you that the message I delivered would have in no way, shape, or form been comparable to the one that Rev. Luis León delivered at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. And, even if President Obama and his family had attended worship at Bethel Baptist Alamogordo (which, of course, they are always welcome to when in this part of the country on the Lord’s Day), he would have heard a far different message than what he was treated to on Sunday, including this politically charged portion:
“It’s in there. People will do what they want with it,” said Leon, referring to the sermon in which he said it drives him “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.” (here)
There’s no question that the content of the sermon, at least in the opinion of many, was ill-suited to the occasion of Resurrection Sunday. I would agree with Dr. Ed Stetzer, President of Lifeway Research, who said of Rev. León’s Easter message:
“I’m a bit surprised to hear a pastor use an Easter sermon to attack anyone, when the focus should be on Jesus and his resurrection — the act that we believe defeats death and eventually brings all together,” said the Rev. Ed Stetzer, a Southern Baptist minister and president of LifeWay Research, in an email. “Yet, we all know that there are lots of dumb things said by a lot of religious leaders, right and left.” (here)
I would quibble with Dr. Stetzer on one small point. I am not the least bit surprised that an Episcopal priest, even on Easter Sunday, would use the pulpit to “attack” political opponents rather than use the pulpit to actually focus on the message of Easter, which, of course, is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, when your denomination has, rather whole-sale, abandoned the truth of God’s Word on a host of issues, we should not be surprised when one of that denomination’s pastors — even in front of the First Family — uses his sermon as an exercise in missing the point of the Gospel message on arguably the most important day of the Christian calendar.
Do I believe that pastors, like Rev. León, who politicize their pulpits are wrong? Absolutely. But, in the recent Presidential elections, you could find prominent conservative churches that sullied their pulpits by allowing candidates to speak from behind them or pastors who endorsed candidates for office behind the sacred desk. How did that work out? Not too well. Where were all the conservative complaints when this was happening among Evangelical Churches? Nary a peep.
Now there are many conservatives who are complaining about Rev. León’s “political” Easter sermon. These are some of the same conservatives who come with “unclean hands,” having vocally defended “political” sermons and/or speeches during the run-up to the Presidential Election last November or who were overjoyed at Dr. Ben Carson’s injection of politics into his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast. To now protest Rev. León’s sermon is the height of hypocrisy. It makes me think of pots and kettles and the color black.
Was what Rev. León said on Easter Sunday dumb? Probably, although I wasn’t in the congregation at St. John’s and therefore did not hear the entire sermon. I’m quite certain that there were even a few gold nuggets (“God addresses us in the now”) among the fool’s gold that was Rev. León’s message that day. And, here is where I would defend this pastor — or any pastor’s — right to say “dumb things” from the pulpit. I might vehemently disagree with Rev. León’s theology. I would most likely not agree with his theological and/or political views on a whole host of issues, including gay rights, women’s rights, immigration, and, most importantly, the meaning of the Gospel itself.
But, Rev. León must have the right to say wrong things. Why? Because the First Amendment’s “Free Exercise” clause gives Rev. León, myself, and all pastors, priests, rabbis and imams the right to say things in our sermons — on Easter, Passover, or on any other day — that others would consider dumb or just plain wrong. Criticize the message if you must, but make sure in your criticism that you do not directly or indirectly attack the right of the messenger to be able to proclaim the message, even if you think the message is wrong or stupid or even intolerant. It maybe a small thing, but when we begin to shout down — or allow others to shout down — messages with which we disagree, we should not be surprised when we are on the receiving end of those shouts one day. And, that day maybe here sooner than we think!