Handle with care

Saturday, March 22, 2008

It seems every time I turn the TV to one of the cable news channels lately, I hear a sermon. Or at least an excerpt from a sermon. Safe to say, this is not de rigueur for electronic journalism. A pastor's message usually commands little attention in secular media. Yet the snippets of homiletical discourse by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of the church of which presidential candidate Barack Obama is a member, are served up again and again for a national feasting.

When was the last time the whole country paid attention to what somebody said in a sermon? Sure, we all watched in nauseated fascination when Jimmy Swaggart cried his way through a message after certain trysts of his were brought to light 20 years ago. In the main, when a pastor gets widespread notice, it is his/her personal failings that are spotlighted. Rev. Wright's comments are not being probed for any disconnect between his words and his personal life. Indeed, any fair person should agree that Wright's own history stands up well when scrutinized.

He is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. He has written several books. He teaches often in seminaries as an adjunct professor. Mainly, though, he pastors a church in inner city Chicago that has grown from 87 members to more than 8,000. When he retired this winter as senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, it was the largest congregation in the denomination. That's an incredible accomplishment, fed and sustained by the Holy Spirit. God has blessed Wright's ministry.

As already indicated, the glare of national attention is not about Rev. Wright's personal life. Nor is there any question of professional malfeasance, which is what makes this situation so different. When it comes to preachers who get the media spotlight, unless you are Billy Graham, you generally only receive such coverage if you did something wrong. This story is not about this clergyman's conduct; it's about his words. You've heard them or read them. There is no need for them to be restated in this column.

A preacher's chief duty is to remind a congregation of two things: first, Christ's great love for humanity, demonstrated in his Good Friday sacrifice of himself; and second, God's promise that death doesn't win, shown in the resurrection on Easter morning. A preacher, then, is to remind congregants about love and hope. These reminders are not done wearing rose-colored glasses. There is much in life that seeks to frustrate God's love; there are many examples of chokeholds being put on hope. But love and hope, despite all efforts, always rise to the top. Love and hope are what Easter weekend is about, and they are seen in the enduring story of Jesus' passion on the cross and his glorification in the resurrection. Most preachers also use sermons to reflect on the biblical text to try to get at the perennial question: "Knowing all this, how should we then live?"

When we handle the biblical text, when we touch Scripture, we ought to do so as if we were handling a fragile package. Hold on now; the Bible is tough, you say. It has withstood many attacks and insinuations. True. But when the Bible is in the preacher's hands, he/she can hold the package firmly and tenderly or he/she can throw it in the air and shatter all the glass that is inside.

This is what I fear Rev. Wright may have done with the biblical text in at least some of the sermon excerpts running over and over on YouTube and elsewhere. You see, glass shards make deep cuts. They hurt. They have no beneficial use.

Bibles don't come with the following words stamped inside of them, but they should: Handle With Care.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent.

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