Faith matters: prophetic or profane?
Being a pastor in the Heights (Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian), I have followed the recent brouhaha concerning presidential candidate Barak Obama’s relationship to his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, with great interest. For I too have said things from the pulpit that many disagreed with. I too have been caught up in rhetorical flourishes to make a point that later I wished I might have toned down. But then again, the role of a preacher, particularly one who claims the mantle of the prophets, is not to preach an easy, comfortable, or socially acceptable sermon. The role of a prophetic preacher is to agitate, confront, and disturb.
Whether or not Rev. Wright can be called a prophet of our time is open for debate. However, his style, rhetoric and message have much in common with the historic prophets of Israel of almost 3,000 years ago.
The primary role of the prophet was to hold the secular authority accountable to the justice of God. Amos, one of the first prophets to make his mark, said this: “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan who are on Mount Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy…” (Amos 4:1). Amos’ words were directed against the political leaders of his day.
The harsh language of the prophets made them outcasts. The original Jeremiah was thrown into a pit by the king because his words did not support the government’s foreign policy. Hosea declared: “For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.” (Hosea 8:7) This is another way of saying that the “chickens are coming home to roost.”
Certainly one does not have to agree with Rev. Wright. But his language and style is as old as faith. The role of the pastor in her or his preaching is to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted” and to speak truth to power. This is not an easy role to play. But for those of us who climb into the pulpit the discomforting word is often the word that must be preached.
The pastor’s role model is not only the prophets but Jesus himself. It should be remembered that the “Prince of Peace” was perceived as a political firebrand and therefore executed. The Romans did not crucify him because he wanted his followers only to pay attention to the lilies of the field. Jesus’ first sermon was about God’s priority for the poor and release for the captives. His own hometown, after hearing that sermon, almost lynched him. Furthermore, in Jesus’ sermon on the plain (Luke 6:17-25) Jesus contrasts the blessedness of the poor (v.20) with the rich (v. 24 “Woe to you who are rich for you have received your consolation.”) These words of Jesus are difficult to hear in a nation that IS both rich and powerful. They are still “good news” to many who suffer below the poverty line.
So, here is the rub. Faith will speak to power. The tremor of prophetic images and language will burst forth from pulpits again and again as it should. Most of the time, we will not like it. But, the purpose of prophetic preaching is NOT to tell us what we want to hear, or make us feel good, or support the government. Rather, it is to challenge us to live according to the words of the prophet Micah – doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly before God. (6:8)
Before Rev. Wright’s words are dismissed as hurtful or un-American, it is important to remember the first prophets and what they spoke out against, what language they used, and whom they were accountable to. And, if in the end, Rev. Wright’s rhetoric forces us as a community and as a nation to look again into the issue of racism, then it may indeed turn out to be a blessing.
Rev. John C. Lentz, Jr.
Pastor, Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian