“Jeremiah was a bullfrog. He was a good friend of mine,” so sang “Three Dog Night.” Well Rev. Jeremiah Wright isn’t a bullfrog, but he was a good friend of Senator Baraak Obamba. Keep reading; this isn’t a political screed but a diatribe on the relationship of pastor and people.
The brouhaha over what Senator Obamba’s pastor said and whether the senator was there to hear it is instructive. It speaks not so much to whom you should vote for but to how you should listen to your pastor.
Senator Obama outlines the new paradigm. My pastor is speaking his opinions from the pulpit. I am free to agree or disagree with him. Friends do that with each other don’t they? They have pro/con arguments all the time. They can differ about everything from politics to sports. That’s true, but religion is neither politics nor sports. It’s heaven and hell, and if your pastor isn’t speaking a “thus says the Lord to you” about both, why listen to him speak at all?
You probably were outraged by some of things Rev. Wright said and wonder, if Senator Obamba heard them why didn’t he walk out? Because if he heard them he didn’t hear them as “thus says the Lord” but as “this is what I think.” His friend has some nutty opinions, so what? Most people have friends like this. People sit in confessional Lutheran pews and think they’re hearing nutty opinions like abortion is murder, gay marriages are neither, and that living together is living in sin. That’s just what he thinks; I can think differently.
You can only do this if you think of me as a friend, not a pastor, not an authority figure (overseer, bishop, father), not one who speaks for God on earth. Don’t get me wrong; lots of pastors want to be your friend. With the death of Mister Rogers someone had to take his place in the neighborhood. So no more Pastor Smith, Jones or Harris. Now we have Pastor Pete, Pastor Kevin, Pastor Paul. Now doesn’t that sound friendlier? But not even Mister Rogers went by Fred.
This “pastor as friend” attitude is carried into the pulpit – more accurately out of it. Rather than being behind the pulpit as a judge is behind the bench, it’s much more friendly to stroll about in front of the people. Talk to them as you would a friend rather than preach to them as you are commanded to by God Almighty. Given the paucity and vacuity of their words versus the amount of walking about they do, they must be getting paid by the mile not the word.
Ah but not only are they out from behind that horrible authority figure of the pulpit strolling among the hoi polloi, they are dressing like them. Though the Baptist have always done it this way in modern times, Lutherans act like they’re casting off their robes for their people’s sake as some modern day Lady Godiva. Nope, the robes helped make it about Someone or even thing other than you. When you stroll about in your suit, polo shirt, or “clergy” shirt embroidered with a cross, dove, or church name, it’s about you. That’s why people say, isn’t it? “I like it when YOU do that.”
Pastors want to be friends, speak as friends, teach as friends, so why shouldn’t people be free to slough off our words as they would a friend’s? And why at funerals, if we are speaking as friends of the deceased, can’t everyone and anyone get up their and share stories about their friend? I’ll tell you why. Then when the pastor says, “This sheep is in heaven,” it’s no more than an opinion. Like, “He was good at carpentry.” “She liked to garden.”
If you go away from church singing with James or Carole, “You Gotta Friend,” you’ve lost something greater than you gained: the authoritative voice of God speaking on earth. Jesus said to the first pastors, the 70 not the 12, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16). As Luther says somewhere, this passage doesn’t establish the authority of the preacher but the authority of hearers. They are authorized to believe that when they hear their pastor baptize, absolve, or commune them they are hearing God’s own voice. When they hold not just the reading of God’s word but the preaching of it as sacred and gladly hear and learn it, God is having His way with them. They are living the fulfillment of “they shall all be taught of the Lord” (Isaiah 54:13). Jesus didn’t command Peter three times to befriend sheep but to feed them.
In sum , better to have your pastor as a bullfrog than a friend as long as you know he’s not just croaking out opinions up there.