Note: Your author is a member of the United Church of Christ.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, United Church of Christ general minister and president, released a statement on March 17 on the rhetoric of preaching, in light of recent news coverage of Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., and Chicago's Trinity UCC. His statement, entitled "What Kind of Prophet?", does a good job of outlining the prophetic tradition in preaching which runs through American sermons like those of John Winthrop and Thomas Hooker, all the way back to the ancient Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah and Amos.
Many commentators have been "shocked, shocked" that a pastor like Rev. Wright would dare to discuss the social sins of our nation. As Rev. Thomas says:
Maybe they prefer the false prophets with their happy homilies in Jeremiah who say to the people: “You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you true peace in this place.” To which God responds, “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. . . . By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed,” (Jeremiah 14.14-15).
Jesus, too, condemned the sins of society during his ministry even more than he condemned personal sins. As Thomas notes:
The gospel narrative of Palm Sunday’s entrance into Jerusalem concludes with the overturning of the money changers’ tables in the Temple courtyard. Here wealth and power and greed were challenged for the way the poor were oppressed to the point of exclusion from a share in the religious practices of the Temple. Today we watch as the gap between the obscenely wealthy and the obscenely poor widens. More and more of our neighbors are relegated to minimal health care or to no health care at all. Foreclosures destroy families while unscrupulous lenders seek bailouts from regulators who turned a blind eye to the impending crisis. Should the preacher today respond to this with only a whisper and a sigh?
The problem we have in the church today is one which the German minister and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." By that Bonhoeffer meant "justification of sin without the justification of the sinner." Grace that allowed the Christian to "live like the rest of the world. . . ."
In politics, cheap grace is matched with "cheap citizenship" whereby we are told that we can fulfill our responsibilities as citizens to each other and our world without having to sacrifice our self-satisfying lifestyles or deny ourselves any form of instant gratification. Witness the call of the current administration which told Americans that the most patriotic thing they could do in response to the "War on Terror" was "go out and shop."
Truly, we need heed the prophets of our day as much as ancient Israel needed to listen to the prophets of their day.
Here is a link to Rev. Thomas' entire message.
Rev. John H. Thomas: "What Kind of Prophet?"