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The gospel according to the IRS
IRS probes tax status of California church after sermon criticizes government


1/1/2006
Message to the IRS: Come to church, but don’t preach
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“In many ways I am grateful that the IRS has come to church at All Saints because both people of faith and people who do not profess a belief are coming together to hold up something essential in a democracy -- the separation of church and state. There is something bigger at stake here than All Saints.
 
“What is at stake is that precious, holy freedom from intimidation when religious leaders enter that sacred place called a pulpit.  The only voice a preacher needs to be heeding when she or he is in the pulpit is the voice of God's Spirit speaking to the human conscience and heart.

“In order for that mystical transaction to take place freely, there must be no fear of incrimination that a value-filled sermon will be subjectively deemed to be a partisan-filled endorsement.  I am grateful that the IRS has come to church at All Saints so that we can express before the world without fear the principles of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.  The IRS agents are welcome in our pews.  They are not welcome in our pulpit.”


Editor’s note:  In early November All Saints Episcopal Church, Pasadena, Calif., learned that it might lose its tax-exempt status because of an IRS probe. A sermon the former rector, the Rev. George Regas, preached just before the presidential election in 2004 triggered the investigation. The IRS said the sermon might have violated the ban on campaign intervention. Titled If Jesus debated Sen. Kerry and President Bush, the sermon criticized the administration’s conduct of the war in Iraq and its treatment of the poor.  An excerpt is printed below. When news of the IRS investigation surfaced, Regas sent a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, saying: “An IRS audit will not diminish the prophetic ministry of All Saints Church. Peace and the alleviation of poverty are core values of the congregation. If we were to allow the IRS to silence us, we would lose our integrity and the very soul of our ministry. That will not happen.”


If Jesus debated President Bush and Senator Kerry, he would say to them: “Why is so little mentioned about the poor?”

Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth saying, “I have come to preach the good news to the poor and liberation to those who are oppressed.” Poverty is a religious issue. The gap between rich and poor is greater than it has been in 50 years. The poor are getting poorer, the health-care crisis is getting worse, the income of the typical household is stagnating, the average weekly wages have fallen, and the safety net for the unemployed and casualties of the American system has been shredded. And in the midst of all that, President Bush asks and gets income-tax reductions where 50 percent of the tax savings goes to the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans, those averaging $1,200,000 a year.

All of that would break Jesus’ heart.

For one ordained to preach God’s word – my challenge to all this is not class warfare. Prophetic Christianity has lost its voice. The Religious Right has drowned out everyone else. Now the faith of Jesus has come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American.

Bill Moyers says these Religious Right advocates have hijacked Jesus. “The very Jesus who stood at Nazareth and proclaimed, ‘The Lord has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor.’ The very Jesus who told 5,000 hungry people that all of you will be fed, not just some of you. The very Jesus who offered kindness and mercy to the prostitute and hospitality to the outcast. This very Jesus who drove the money changers from the temple. This Jesus has been hijacked and turned into the guardian of privilege instead of a champion of the dispossessed.”

But Jesus enters the debate and says to President Bush and Senator Kerry: “Poverty is a central issue in this political campaign. Your times cry out for a new politics of justice. This is not a partisan issue. But your failure and the failure of so many political leaders to help uplift those in poverty here and around the world – this will be judged a moral failure.”

Some time ago, the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned the world that we are so preoccupied with terrorism and the weapons of mass destruction that we continue to ignore the real threats facing humankind.

“The fears that stalk most people,” he said, “are those of poverty, starvation, unemployment and deadly diseases – not nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.” Jesus would say with absolute clarity to Senator Kerry and President Bush: “There is something decadent about a nation that denies human solidarity, that’s more interested in private wealth than public wealth. There is something corrupting about the assumption that a few have the right to good health, dignified jobs, fine education and decent housing – while others live in misery.

To respond to this commentary, write to Episcopal Life or e-mail commentary@episcopal-life.org. We welcome your own commentary.