Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans

Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans

Back in March, I interviewed local clergy about the impact our polarized political culture was having on the way they approached preaching to congregations that most likely reflected those divides.

Three months later, the picture has, to all appearances, only grown bleaker.

But as I checked back with a few pastors and reached out to several new ones, I found they hadn’t changed course. While the culture wars outside the sanctuary doors continue to rage, they strive to remain focused on the Scriptures that, they say, continue to be both challenging and relevant.

Reached the day before her installation as rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, the Rev. Jennifer Mattson said she is still charting the same course as in the early spring, “given that this is a new call for me, and I’m still getting to know my congregation. I’m still trying to faithfully interpret the Gospel.”

The Rev. Craig Ross, pastor at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Manheim Township, said he’s not doing anything “dramatically different” than before. “We try to shape a culture away from politics.” he said. “We can still be the people of God together.”

Riffing on a verse in the New Testament book of Revelation, Ross added: “I’m the lukewarm guy getting spit out of God’s mouth. I’m always in the middle.”

At Lancaster Moravian, the Rev. Dean Easton said that while he might highlight concerns about current events in prayers, he’s “focused directly on what affects our congregation. We keep out of politics. We have a broad range of political understanding in the congregation, (and) they are intelligent people who can decide for themselves.”

As pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Lancaster and dean of the Lancaster Conference of the Lower Susquehanna Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the Rev. Stephen Verkouw hears the concerns of both the people in his congregation and the clergy when they gather for mutual support and conversation.

Describing his congregation as a mix of moderate conservative Republicans, some Trump fans and liberals, Verkouw said he generally refrains from either saying things that could be gratuitously hurtful or ignorant. (For example, he said he isn’t going to address the Paris climate accord until and unless he knows more about the details and what exactly is at stake.)

“My purpose isn’t to unify people politically. We are unified in Christ and in the (Holy) Spirit.”

That doesn’t mean that Verkouw won’t tackle an issue he has studied. Last year, for instance, he and some of his colleagues in the deanery read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” and discussed how that might affect their preaching.

“It’s good to be challenged by the world,” said Verkouw, quoting the maxim attributed to Karl Barth: Preachers need to have the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.

“I have had some of our clergy talk with me about how to approach the task of preaching in these times when we find some of our congregations divided across political lines. My advice has been to remind them that the most important thing for any preacher is to proclaim the Good News of the Gospel,” Audrey Scanlan, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central Pennsylvania, wrote in an email message.

“Jesus’ message to us of justice, peace and mercy is timeless, and our call as Christians is to follow Jesus, carrying his truth into the world in word and action. That has been the case for more than 2,000 years and has not changed, regardless of who is in political office.”

Her reflections are in the same vein as those of Roman Catholic priest Jim McDermott, who pondered the delicate balance of respecting the demands of the Gospel message, which draw clergy outward, and the pastoral needs of an already divided flock.

Surveying a landscape that was already rent by partisan conflict this past February, he wrote this in a commentary for the Catholic media outlet America: “If parish priests and other Catholics in the United States cannot stand up in this important moment for the very people Jesus stood with — the marginalized and needy that Pope Francis keeps calling our attention to; the meek, the mourning, the poor in spirit and the hungry for righteousness described as ‘blessed’ by Jesus in the Gospel reading the Sunday after the Trump administration’s travel ban was announced — we might as well pack up our Mass kits, turn out the church lights and permanently relocate to the beach.”

On the other hand, wrote McDermott: “It is never going to be the right choice to mention President Donald J. Trump or any other politician in a homily, even if you admire them. For all but the deftest of us, it is probably almost never going to be the right choice to mention most hot-button policies either, or at least not in the two- and three-word hyperbolic slogans by which they are batted around.

“Political references are like off-ramps; they invite listeners to drive away. And once they do, it can take a long time for them to come back.”

n Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans is a freelance writer and nonparochial Episcopalian priest.