April 5, 2013

Was León’s Sermon Inappropriate?

“My friend Jane was telling me the other day what a travesty it was that The Rev. Dr. Luis León, Rector of St. John’s Church, Lafayette Square, gave such a political sermon on Easter Sunday. St. John’s, of course, is the Episcopal church across from the White House that was attended by the Obama family on Sunday. (Jane is an Episcopalian who watches much too much of Fox News.)

I had not heard about the sermon and suggested that the Republican right was just looking for something to complain about. Over the past few days, however, in part to deal fairly with my friend, I have looked into the matter.

The controversy over the sermon seems to have taken its energy from the story in The Washington Post by pool reporter Hamil R. Harris. In part, Harris wrote
“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.
Many on the right took umbrage at this. For example, a post on Breitbart titled “Obama’s Easter Service: Pastor Attacks ‘Captains of the Religious Right,’” cites the Washington Post story and ends with
President Obama left his own church in 2008 amidst controversy over his pastor’s incendiary remarks.
thereby seeming to equate León with Jeremiah Wright.

I was somewhat reassured that León had not delivered a political tirade on Easter Sunday by a post by Republican blogger Brian Schoeneman. His essay, “What really happened at St. John’s Church on Easter Sunday,” was a defense of the sermon by a parishioner. He wrote
But it was in this discussion of the dangers of nostalgia that he made the comments that created all the conservative hate on Easter.  He made the point that he is frustrated when “captains of the religious right” want to call us back to times they say were better, but that those times were also times when blacks had to sit in the back of the bus, when women were kept in the kitchen and immigrants on their side of the border. The point was simple and one I’ve said to many people myself—those of us who pine for the “good old days” need to keep in mind that those good old days weren’t always that great for everybody else.
In other words, the “captains of the religious right”—I must admit that I have never encountered this phrase before—want to return to an earlier time, but they are oblivious to the fact that that time was not so good for everyone.

I pointed this essay out to Jane, and, in the ensuing discussion, we decided to look for a transcript of the sermon itself on the Web. (My University of Chicago education always stressed going to original sources.) I did not find a transcript, but I did find a recording of the sermon, which, at least for some purposes, is even better.

We both found the sermon to be well constructed. It is about how we should live as Christians. It is not really about politics. My purpose here, however, is not a religious one. I want to point out just what was said at St. John’s on Easter Sunday. Here is my own transcript of the “controversial” passage. I believe it is correct, but you can listen for yourself. (The passage occurs in about the middle of the sermon.)
I hear all the time the expression “the good old days.” Well, the good old days, we forget, may have been good for some, but they weren’t good for everybody. You can’t go back. You can’t live in the past.

It drives me crazy when the captains of the religious right are always calling people back, never forward, forgetting that we are called to be a pilgrim people who have agreed never to arrive—that’s true to our faith. The captains of the religious right are always calling us back, back, back—for blacks to be back in the back of the bus, for women to be back in the kitchen, for gays to be in the closet, and for immigrants to be back on their side of the border.
So, was León the innocent victim of an unprincipled attack? Well, not quite. Did he attack the religious right? Yes, I think so, but only in passing. The attack, such as it was, was used to illustrate his point that, as Christians, we must move forward. It illustrated what he was trying to say; it was not the theme of the sermon.

Remember that St. John’s Church is in the heart of political America. Probably most parishioners and visitors are involved directly or indirectly in politics. To illustrate a point, it is natural for the preacher to offer a political example, as that would speak most directly to the congregation. León’s charge is hardly remarkable. I suspect that most moderates and progressives would agree. In fact, I suspect that most conservatives—in their heart of hearts, anyway—would agree that León’s characterization of the “captains of the religious right” is on target.

I invite you to listen to the sermon for yourself. You’ve nothing to lose. Whether or not you think the Rev. Dr. León’s comments were out-of-line, you will, at the very least, hear a great sermon.


  1. Some people may have noticed that this essay was posted twice. While correcting two typographical errors, a second copy was created. I think this was the result of a Blogger glitch, but I’m not sure. Anyway, I apologize for any confusion the duplication may have created.

  2. I agree that most of the sermon was very good, though not quite the rejoicing I prefer on Easter. I think the word "attack" comes into play because it was the only specific example given. Almost everyone feels nostalgia for something, or says "If only.." as Leon mentioned, but only conservatives were singled out, and the example went a bit too far. Do ALL conservatives want blacks in the back, etc.? I know he mentioned leaders, but TEC is mostly liberal, so do ALL members of TEC deny a physical resurrection like Bishops Budde and Spong? Easter being a day for all Christians to unite and rejoice in the resurrection, to conservatives it came across as them not having a right to rejoice, or to be included as Christians on one of the two holiest days of the year(many conservatives I know think Easter is The Holiest day), especially when the priest giving the sermon belongs to a church that often denies the resurrection. Are they reading too much into it, perhaps, but it was an unfortunate choice on the holiday. Having the President present made it national news, so more people heard about it; on any other Sunday it wouldn't have been noticed.

    1. I don’t really know anything about León’s theological views. I suspect, however, that all preachers are torn between saying the usual things in an Easter sermon and looking for something new and surprising to say. I found the sermon refreshing, as it offered an insight that was new to me. I agree that one can question whether it was a good Easter sermon.

    2. "deny a physical resurrection like Bishops Budde"

      That's a rather incendiary line throw out there, w/o a citation, Chris H.

  3. Chris H.'s word "deny" might be slightly strong, but Bishop Budde does write:

    "Someone once asked me if I thought the resurrection was necessary. He meant it in the most sincere way, as a person of both faith and doubt who wondered if we needed to be bound by so unreasonable a proposition that Jesus’ tomb was, in fact, empty on that first Easter morning.

    I hesitated in answering, because there seemed to be layers of argument behind the question. My answer was yes, resurrection is the foundation of Christian faith, but probably not in the way he meant it.

    To say that resurrection is essential doesn’t mean that if someone were to discover a tomb with Jesus’ remains in it that the entire enterprise would come crashing down. The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Jesus after his death . . . ."

    Posted on her blog:


    A conversation with her on the topic would at some point need to reference I Corinthians 15, I suppose.

    "Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is empty, and your faith also is empty. Moreover we are even found to be false witnesses of God, because we witnessed against God that He raised Christ, whom He did not raise, if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep."

    Eastertide blessings,

    Bruce Robison

    1. Thanks for putting all that down, Bruce. That is what I was referring to; I just didn't want to have to type it all into what was already a rather long comment and I haven't figured out how to include links in my comments yet. I've also come to assume that that is the standard answer for TEC bishops and clergy these days. Several other bishops, including my own, play similar word games when it comes up. Comments by other bloggers like Elizabeth Kaeton imply that it's the standard for clergy as well. On her blog she refers to a meeting of clergy and says,"At one point I asked, "So, am I to assume that no one in this group believes in the 'bodily resurrection'?"
      There were giggles around the room. The obvious answer was 'no' - not unusual for a group of Episcopal clergy.
      Perhaps, however, the not-so-obvious answer was that, even if someone DID believe in the bodily resurrection, no one was going to admit it. Not in that group." "The Obvious Answer" November 4,2011. And I wasn't surprised when I read it; it certainly seems the norm for TEC around here. I wasn't expecting to be called out for accusing the bishops of not believing it; I was expecting to be called out for being close-minded enough TO believe it myself. It's rather reassuring that that it isn't the standard everywhere in TEC.

    2. Chris H.,

      Including links in your comments is easy. One possibility is simply to insert the URL. It won’t be shown as a live link, but readers can always copy it and paste it into the address box of their browser. Here’s an example:


      To create a standard link, use the following form:

      <a name="URL">text</a>

      Here, URL is the address of the page to which you want to link, and text is what you want to see displayed. For example, to link to the home page of my Web site, Lionel Deimel’s Farrago, for which the URL is http://deimel.org, simply type:

      <a name="http://deimel.org">Lionel Deimel’s Farrago</a>

      It will be displayed as follows:

      Lionel Deimel’s Farrago

      Give it a try.


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