Much has been made recently of the need for Obama to renounce or disown his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Rev. Wright has been quoted extensively for sermons that are racially charged or attack America. Yesterday, Obama took on this controversy and explained why he will not disown his pastor. You can read his remarks online or in any of today’s newspapers.
As a preacher, I find this controversy an interesting commentary on what the media and many in the public think preaching should and should not be. I have only heard a couple of 10 second sound bytes from the Rev. Wright’s sermons. Context is important in conversation and especially in preaching. Wright could have been in the midst of illustration or expounding upon a point. As my dear mother-in law said: “we shouldn’t judge a preacher by one snippet of one sermon.”
But for the sake of argument, let’s say that these snippets do speak to Rev. Wright’s preaching and furthermore, his beliefs. Throughout our Jewish-Christian heritage there have been those who have religious or moral reasons stood against the rising tide of power or nationalism. The Old Testament of the Bible recounts stories of how Isaiah and many others were tortured for speaking/preaching unpopular sentiments. Even in our recent history, Martin Luther King and Dietrich Bonhoffer died as a result of speaking an unpopular Truth. I am not prepared to say that Rev. Wright is in that line of preachers and prophets, but he does speak from the tradition of those who have come before. The prophetic voice challenges us to consider who we are and how we treat one another as God’s children.
Preaching itself has many functions. There are times we are comforted and encouraged by God’s word. But if our preaching is only comforting and encouraging, if it always agrees with our politics and opinions on life, then we miss the totality of God’s word. Good preaching should make us think and reflect on what we believe and why we believe it in light of God’s word. It should encourage us to denounce our lost pathways and instead follow the ways of God through Christ (for those of us who are Christian). Preaching should challenge us to look at the idols we all follow and call us to follow God’s way, truth and life. If Obama embraced everything his preacher said I would be troubled. As a preacher, I don’t think I would be fulfilling my call if there were people who agreed with everything I preached all the time (even Mamma Deacon). If preaching truly challenges, we all will be made uncomfortable from time to time.
I fear that Rev. Wright’s sermons have struck a nerve with many not because they are political ammunition, but because we as a nation and as individuals are uncomfortable with the secret, shameful thought that he may be right. His voice troubles the calm waters about what we believe in this country about power, race, justice, and nationalism. Comfort, security, power and wealth serve as idols with far too many in this country. The truth is there are those beyond our circles of life who are poor, ignorant, uncomfortable, unhealthy, and unworthy because too many in our nation need to hold onto the secure, comfortable, profitable status quo.
So perhaps Rev. Wright’s sermons could be summarized in another way:
Which do we love more God or our country? Our way of life or the way of Christ?
Thus endeth the sermon.