04/28/2008 05:53 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ministers and their Sermons

Cross-posted at

I haven't written much about the Rev. Wright thing because so many people have taken this topic on ad infinitum that there hasn't seemed much new to say. But with him doing his media tour thing, I thought I would weigh in on a topic not that much covered in the progressive blogosphere, which is the nature of ministers and their sermons. I only go to church these days when I am back home in Lincoln, but as the grandson and brother of Methodist ministers, and the son of the lay (non-clergy) leader of the Nebraska Methodist Church, this is a topic I know something about - at my family dinner table, if the topic was politics, you could take even odds on whether we were talking regular politics or church politics.

My minister brother and I were taking a few days back about the whole Wright thing, and he commented, "I sure wouldn't want my parishioners to be held responsible for the stuff I've said in my sermons." And that sentiment is true for every good minister I know if. What I was always told growing up was that a minister's job was to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Bad preachers speak in mushy truisms watered down to the lowest common denominator. Good ministers stir people up, challenge their congregants' assumptions, make people uncomfortable. They should serve, in the language of the church, a prophetic role that speaks truth to power.

They can get away with that, if they are good at their work, by that comforting the afflicted part of their job: visiting sick and elderly people at the hospital and in their homes, doing the funeral services, counseling those in trouble. When a minister does that sort of thing, they build an unshakable loyalty that allows them to survive, say, giving a sermon in favor of gay rights in North Platte, Nebraska. There were probably five people in my brother's congregation of 300 that agreed with what he said in such a sermon that day, but they didn't fire him or quit the congregation in droves because of it. That congregation knew my brother to be a good and gentle man who had been there for all of them time and time again in the hardest of times, and so they accepted what he said in his sermon without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm guessing that if one of them had run for office in North Platte, and bee confronted with that gay rights sermon by my brother, they would have said about what Barack Obama did of Jeremiah Wright- "Well, I didn't like what he said, but that man performed my marriage and baptized my children and brought me closer to my faith, so I'm not going to walk away form him personally."

Good ministers say dramatic things, stir things up, and push people hard to look at what they believe and how they act. That's their job. To hold their congregants accountable for every word they say in a sermon is absurd, and shows the people who attack them for such that they don't understand religion very well.