Mayfield: What our preachers say
Vail, CO Colorado
A long-dead local newspaper may have accelerated its demise by publishing a weekly column written by yours truly. Certainly accounts differ as to the actual cause of death. In my own defense, I should like to point out that the editor of that now distant periodical would add the following postscript to each of my entries: “Please note: The opinions and ideas expressed in this column do not necessarily represent the position of this paper.” I suppose the addendum was included to satisfy both the occasional complaint of a valued advertiser and the subsequent security of my editor’s job. Eventually, both concerns were rendered moot not long after an upstart daily (and free!) newspaper began publishing up here in the High Country.
During my tenure with the now-dead paper, I managed to keep my day job as pastor of a local congregation. On one Sunday morning, having just preached a sermon that seemed, at least to me, to be of particular profundity, I stood at the door to the church to receive, what I was certain to be, the exuberant expressions of a grateful flock. One of the first people to meet me at the door was a faithful member who had weathered many a storm in the life of the congregation. Wise beyond his 40-some years, he shook my hand, but before he let it go, he looked me in the eye and said: “The opinions and ideas expressed in this sermon do not necessarily represent the position of this congregation.”
I remembered that little confrontation with reality this week while following the enormously overwrought expressions of outrage induced by the preachings of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. By now, we all have heard one outrageous sound bite or another that sought to shock us into rejecting the retired reverend as a racist demagogue, wild-eyed fanatic or ungrateful traitor. Obama’s carefully crafted speech was a brilliant response to the outcry that, I suspect, resonated especially with congregational folk who know all about putting up with the often hyperbolic homilies of their pastors, priests, imams or rabbis.
Despite what some might think or even wish for, the sermon has a long history of causing controversy and concern among its listeners. The Hebrew Scriptures tell of the prophet Hosea who illustrated one of his sermons on the unfaithfulness of the people by going out and marrying a prostitute. You can be sure that caused a stir among the pews. Amos, another prophet from that sacred collection, shook the foundations of Israel with loud condemnations of his congregation’s failing to care for the poor and oppressed. Among Christians, John the Baptist is remembered for calling his own religious leaders “a brood of vipers.” Now there was a sermon that not only set the people chattering but brought enough outside attention to have the preacher’s head served up on a silver platter.
I suppose it depends on your perspective, but folk who have the good fortune to have a provocative preacher (a “good” and “my perspective”) rather that someone who just dishes up pious platitudes week after week (a “not-so-good” and “another’s perspective”), are bound to be burned on occasion by bellicosity, belligerence or even bull****. The religious fervor generated between a preacher in the pulpit and the people in the pews can reach a point where carefully crafted sermons give way to plain spiritual exuberance ” and anything can happen.
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Pastor Wright is well-known in Chicago and beyond for being a leader in the fight against poverty and injustice. He has a long history of siding with the underprivileged and underrepresented. He has been respected and revered by community leaders of all colors for decades. A few outtakes of some admittedly outrageous preaching pyrotechnics are not an accurate summary of this man’s life and work. His congregation knows it. Barack Obama knows it. It is time for the rest of us to know it as well.
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to email@example.com.