Here are some of my reflections on the widespread condemnation of Rev. Jeremiah Wright based on video clips of a few of his sermons. I will share this with our church this Sunday as a part of my sermon based on Jesus’ parable of the two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) …
Actions speak louder than words. It is so important for us to remember that, because we live in a time when our words may be used as weapons against us, when just a few words may be used to judge or dismiss or denounce an entire career, an entire life.
That is just what has happened to one of my colleagues, a member of our church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, recently retired pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.
You have undoubtedly heard the news stories or seen some of the video clips: Jeremiah Wright standing in the pulpit saying, “God damn America!” For those few words and for a few others that have been excerpted from thirty-six years worth of sermons, he has been judged and vilified and denounced as unpatriotic and a hatemonger.
It is surely unfair to lift a single phrase or a few short paragraphs from their broader context. If you were to listen to the entire sermon from which those words came, you might better appreciate what Rev. Wright was trying to say about our country and what he was not trying to say. You might not, but you might.
And it is surely uncharitable to ignore the cultural context from which and to which he speaks, a context very different from our own. We don’t know what life looks like from the underside. We who are white cannot begin to understand what it is like to be a person of color in America. And the style and substance and heritage of African-American worship is probably like a foreign language to most of us.
But even taking his words at face value, out of context, we have to remember: actions speak louder.
The man we deem unpatriotic heard John Kennedy’s famous words in 1961: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” … and he did. He gave up his student deferment and joined the Marines where he completed a two-year tour of duty. At the end of the two years, he became a Navy corpsman, serving his country another four years, while earning numerous distinctions and commendations.
Jeremiah Wright then completed his college and seminary education and went on to assume pastoral duties at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, a church then of eighty-seven members.
That same church now has over 8,000 members. It is a most wealthy and most successful church, but has intentionally remained rooted in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago. Its website lists fifty-nine different ministries of the church, including support for cancer survivors, career development, counseling ministries, dance ministries, ministry for victims of domestic violence, drug and alcohol recovery programs, grief ministry, girl scouts, work with individuals and familes impacted by HIV/AIDS, support for married couples seeking to build and maintain Christian homes, tutoring programs in math and reading, a elementary school mentoring program, a prison ministry, and forty-six more ministries!
Actions speak louder!
The congregation holds education in high esteem and has sixty members currently enrolled in seminaries, earning masters degrees and preparing for Christian ministry, while their tuition costs are fully paid by the church.
John Thomas, president and general minister of the United Church of Christ says of the church:
While the worship is always inspiring, the welcome extravagant, and the preaching biblically based and prophetically challenging, I have been especially moved by the way Trinity ministers to its young people, nurturing them to claim their Christian faith, to celebrate their African-American heritage, and to pursue higher education to prepare themselves for leadership in church and society.
I was able to witness that for myself three years ago when I attended the Festival of Homiletics held that year in Chicago. On Thursday night, Rev. Wright preached to the nine hundred ministers attending the conference, while a choir of probably sixty to eighty voices provided worship music and two dozen young dancers added a stunning visual layer to our worship.
It was for me a most moving worship experience. The passion and energy and joy and hope and faith of these young folk were palpably visible and highly contagious! I thought to myself: here is a ministry that really does reach young people and give them something to believe in and live for and take pride in, a ministry that crowns them with dignity and honor and purpose.
Actions speak louder!
Does this sound like a church, a pastor, that foments hate? Does this sound like a church, a pastor, that despises America? This is a church, this is a pastor, that are deeply invested in ministries of compassion and hope, that are deeply committed to transforming neighborhood and nation and world through the gospel of Jesus Christ. As political commentator David Gergen said of Jeremiah Wright:
It’s not a lack of patriotism. It is a different form of patriotism. Actually, Reverend Wright may love this country more than any of us but feel we’ve fallen short of what we preach and believe.