Friday, March 28, 2008

Preachers: Prophets or Pets?

Ok, let me see - - - since November of 2007, other than the appointed clergy and staff, who else has stood in the Saint John's pulpit?

Jeremiah Wright and James Cone.

Hmmm, do I have the best gig in the Conference, or what?!?

There's much to be said about the politicization of sound bites - including the "guilty by association" tactics of who one's preacher is - but there is something else at play here.

It has long been said that Sunday morning is the most segregated time in America. That is true. The indignation of most of us white folks is that we don't know or see the form of worship that takes place in African American congregations across the country.

And that is part of our discomfort. The country is not merely reacting out of what they thought they heard Rev'd Wright say. They also fear what my friend Frank Thomas alludes to as the "public performance of black rage" that white folks just don't know what to do with.

"Why be mad at me? I didn't do anything to you. I just love everybody," we white Christian folks say.

Now you might delude yourself into thinking that myopic view excuses "you" (which it doesn't). But this self-centered perspective misses the larger truth - - it ignores the reality that elements of our "land of the free and home of the brave," have different access points to America's dream as do others.

And a preacher bringing a message of God's justice can't ignore that.

Preaching in the African American tradition is an artform unto itself. And Jeremiah Wright is a master at it. It is deeply rooted in the Bible. It employs scripture and appropriates it into the current setting in life without fear or hesitation. The best of black preaching has a working litany of history that can be recalled on demand. The best of black preaching stands in the manner of Old Testament prophets who, if the moment requires, acts as Nathan looking King David in the eye and proclaims "you are the man."

Enter onto the stage of my life the writings of James Cone and the point is well made. My first year at Vandy was quite an awakening. Now, I'm not King David, but because of my gender, sexual identity and color I have access points that others do not. You do not have to believe it - but rest assured, it's true. And black preaching doesn't let us forget that.

Preaching in this form is extraordinarily sophisticated and far more erudite than most folks unfamiliar to the form would ever suspect, which perpetuates the notion that the unfamiliar is somehow "less than." And I'm here to tell you, it just ain't so.

The other side of the equation is that the events of recent days is a hit job on a guy who is a noted preacher and theologian, who, by the by, served his country in the Marine Corps and US Navy, by people who mastered in perpetual deferrals the last time we had a conflict in which we were fighting an idea not an enemy. This whole YouTube revelation of Rev'd Wright is done not for the sake of calling into question anything he said, but to make value judgments of those who would sit there and listen to it, or be a member of that church.

Trinity UCC is a powerhouse church in Chicago. And they don't deserve the crap they've been getting.

The very notion that any of us should choose our pastor because they say what we want to hear and not what we need to hear is laughable. No, it's an abomination. If you want something to do what you want, when you want, and make you feel good about you - get a pet.

Or, better yet, go to Joel Osteen's Church.

The role of the preacher is prophetic at times, to be sure - as well as priestly. The key, though is that the preacher is primarily the pastor. She or he has walked life's journey with folks, marrying, baptizing and burying them. The pastor has the opportunity to speak truth to power in the face of a congregation who will receive it, because they know who he or she is, and they know that the preacher's care is real whether the word is uplifting or among the hard sayings.

And that's the point. None of these crackpot commentators know who Jeremiah Wright is. Neither have they cracked open one of James Cone's books. And neither do they care. All they crave is fuel for the political fire. All they know is the implication of who a certain parishioner is based upon something his preacher said.

Or, did he?

The soundbytes we've all seen that contain Rev'd Wright's likeness and voice is not the whole story. Thankfully, context is now given. I'm embedding a couple of clips of the sermons preached the Sunday after 9/11/01.

What he says may still disturb - and frankly, it should. It was meant to. There are times when the Word of God offers comfort, solace and guidance. And then, there are times it is meant to make us squirm. But at least you have to live with it beyond the 10 seconds we've been force-fed.

Watch these protracted clips of these sermons. See it for what it is, not for what it has been made into.

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