Carol at Tribal Church and I are having a conversation about the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Most recently, I asked Carol: How do you approach a sermon with which you deeply disagree? If you don’t agree with it, does that mean it’s not God’s word, or not God’s word for you?
You know, I like to see our presidents to go to church. I wouldn’t ever vote against someone for not attending, but it does make me feel a little better knowing that the most powerful man in the world can take an hour to seek guidance from someone other than the political and military experts. It’s good when a leader is a part of that complicated community that seeks to know God, that listens for God’s word.
Bill Clinton didn’t miss too many Sundays. George W. Bush talks a lot about his faith, but he doesn’t darken the door of any church on a regular basis.
Barack Obama was an active church-goer, of a UCC congregation. He donated his gifts and money for decades. Which would normally help him in the running, but not this time. His pastor, widely known as a great religious mind, said things in the pulpit… things that are difficult to hear.
Of course, we know that Republicans have been supported by religious men like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson, who regularly said things that horrify us. They pepper their broadcasts with vitriol against gays, lesbians, women, and even the poor. Michael Gerson addressed this recently:
Didn’t George Bush and other Republican politicians accept the support of Jerry Falwell, who spouted hate of his own? Yes, but they didn’t financially support his ministry and sit directly under his teaching for decades.
Okay, so Gerson only addresses Falwell, who is conveniently dead. Gerson’s explaining that religious right candidates have received the abundant money, the votes, the grass-roots organization, but they would never subject themselves to any sort of guidance from these men.
I wonder…how does that make the religious right feel? Do they feel played with this stark admission from one of Bush’s former speechwriters? Gerson outlines the harsh reality of the conservative/religious/political stew. It is not a quid pro quo, something for something. It is something for nothing. There is no relationship here.
Gerson says Obama’s case was different. Obama didn’t just have a supporter, he had a pastor. Obama was not receiving money from Wright’s organization. He was giving money to a church. And when the words came out of Wright’s mouth, Obama did not leave.
Why didn’t he leave?
As Barack Obama explained in his speech, the church was more than a place where he could garner support for his promising political career. Obama was part of a relationship, a community, a family. The words of his pastor made him cringe. But he learned something very important there. He learned to listen to the generations who came before him. And through those words, he learned who he was and who he was not. Obama is not casting Wright off as a batty old uncle (as Gerson proclaims), Obama is explaining that sacred, intergenerational understanding that forms in our spiritual communities.
In the Reformed tradition, Karl Barth writes that the Word of God refers three things: Jesus Christ (the Word made flesh), the Scriptures (as they point to Jesus Christ), and the Word proclaimed (which means our preaching. Gulp.).
I don’t think that everything that comes out of my mouth on a Sunday morning during my 12 minute time slot is the Word of God, but I will say that there is something about that relationship between the words and the congregation that is significant. There is something about how those sermons are held in a community, how the syllables sink into our bellies and then come out through our hands and feet, in the amazing work of reconciliation and peace. There is something about how the stories are understood from generation to generation that make them the Word of God.
But that is not the complete answer to Adam’s question. Because there are those dark times when slavery and oppression have been condoned from our pulpits. When racism, segregation, misogyny, and abuse has spewed from the mouths of preachers. And, at those times, I have to say, that has nothing to do with the Word of God.
So how would you answer Adam’s question? How would you approach a sermon with which you deeply disagree? Is it the Word of God?
And my question for Adam:
When a member leaves a church, it’s always difficult. And watching this pastoral relationship dissolve in such a public way has been particularly painful. What are you learning, as in intern and seminarian, about the relationship between pastors and members?
photo’s by babasteve