The Intemperate Rev
The Intemperate Rev. Wright
This morning's (04/29/2008) New York Times carried a front page story on Barack Obama's pastor. I chuckled with self-satisfaction as I read this phrase in the second paragraph of the article: "the Obama campaign... has expressed distress over Mr. Wright's timing and intemperance."
I feel positively prescient. On April 17, 2006, The Rev. Jeremiah Wright preached on Easter Monday in a Hartford Church. He was touted in pulpit and bulletin as one of the greatest preachers of our age. Naturally, I had to find out for myself. So I went surfing on the Internet and came across an audio of one of his sermons. I listened. Critical Christian that I am, I formed the judgment, based on what I heard, that, if some might consider Mr. Wright prophetic, I thought him "intemperate." And I reported that verdict in advance of the sermon in Hartford to a couple of friends whom I knew would be attending. Suffice it to say, I was right. It's nice to know the Obama campaign and the Times confirm my opinion.
Having listened to sound bites and read excerpts from his recent media blitz, I would also take issue with Pastor Wright, pastor to pastor, with an assumption he seems to be making about the role of the preacher, that since he, the preacher, is accountable only to God, he, the preacher, can say just about anything he thinks himself moved to say. Let's hear a loud "Amen" from those in the pew who relish a good scolding from the pulpit every now and then, as refreshing for the soul.
Once in ancient personal history, when the Cold War raged, I was accused of cowardice because I failed to join a march against the testing of the atomic bomb. A clerical colleague in the community said, "Bob, you know it's right; you just lack courage." Well, I wasn't sure and I wasn't cowardly. Congregants (and bishops) across fifty years will testify about Bob Howard that when he gets a bee in his bonnet, watch out.
The pulpit is not a soap-box. The preacher is under orders (as in ordination). The job isn't to offer heartfelt opinions on Sunday morning. The pulpit's job is to bring the Gospel to light and life. Sure, that endeavor entails very human judgments about what to say and how to say it; and, to borrow the title of a book recently read, should be approached with fear and trembling. But the preacher's sermon is necessarily derivative. Someone Else is calling the shots. Someone Else is listening in. Someone Else's approval is sought. Someone Else, that is, other than the pulpit or the pew. The preacher's focus belongs on the Scripture and the explanation thereof of its intent for the people in its hearing.
The temptation to do otherwise is overwhelming. Congregants want their preacher to touch their souls deeply. They forgive us all manner of shortcomings and stupidity. They respond heartily to our enthusiasms, like it when we get exercised in the pulpit, flash outrage, raise our voices, and let a hint of a sob make us quaver. And we preachers for our part excuse our pandering to this encouragement of the flock, justifying it in the name of really connecting with the pew.
I know. I've been there and done that... and felt lousy all Sunday afternoon. Because it's false, it's cheap, it's... well... intemperate.
A large part of The Rev. Wright's problem is his theological bent. He believes that African-American Christians are better able than Christians of other ethnicities to understand the Bible, because that Book was written by, for, and about persecuted people. Which may explain a lot of the spiritual arrogance to which TV viewers have been treated in these last several days with the Bill Moyers interview and the speech to the NAACP. Not much "fear and trembling" there.
The complaint Roman Catholics in the past leveled at Protestants is that they would make every believer a pope. I'll embrace that charge, if with some presently unlisted nuances, as appropriate. And I'll go a step further, that every pope, but especially the ones occupying pulpits, should distinguish between pronouncements, as the Pope does, which are ex cathedra and which are personal. Even the Apostle Paul makes this distinction when writing to the Christians at Corinth. He admits in his discussion on marriage, considering the imminence of the end of the world and whether the unmarried should marry, "I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion."
Which brings us back to Jeremiah. No not that one, the one in old Israel, the fellow whose dour pronouncements coined the word "jeremiad," who preached doom and disappeared. He told the truth, and God made him do it. The modern Jeremiah, who has stung modern America with his truth about racism, seems to forget in his public pronouncements that he is not just a prophetic voice but, in the footsteps of Jesus and according to his ordination, an agent of grace.
Tempering truth with grace (and, sometimes, grace with truth!): that is the essence of the job of a pastor in the pulpit.