steeples in the sky

Sunday, February 3, 2013 

Texts:  Jeremiah 1: 4-11; Luke 4: 21-30

When we left our hero last week, Jesus of Nazareth, having made a name for himself preaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee, had returned to his hometown and his home synagogue.  There he read impressively from the scroll of prophet Isaiah that one day God would tap someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.  Jesus’s one-sentence commentary afterward was a sermon disguised as a mission statement.  With it Jesus initially wowed the hometown crowd by announcing: “And I’m taking this on, y’all.”

It seemed at first they were all with him.  But Jesus could tell from their overly enthusiastic reaction that the congregation had misunderstood him.  They hadn’t really grasped the radical reforming he had in mind in order to bring good news to the poor and imprisoned and blind and oppressed.  They thought they knew the hometown boy-turned-preacher.  But at the very moment when they were bursting with hometown pride, he had to correct this misunderstanding.  Awkward.

Having returned to my hometown eight years ago, I’ve had the awkward experience of receiving praise from old friends who have misunderstood the purpose of my new ministry in Mobile. With kindness toward me and with an understanding of Christianity that is limited by their experiences, some have said to me, in effect, “Well, I don’t necessarily agree that women should be preachers, Ellen, but when your mother told me you were starting a church, I thanked God that you’d be bringing more people to Christ.”  Others have whispered something along the lines of: “Ellen, I understand your church invites, um,  gay people to worship with you. Well, I’m praying for you. I believe God can use you to convert them.”  Sigh. Sometimes it just hasn’t seemed possible for me to try to explain to Mrs. So-and-So the finer points of Open Table’s mission statement or our Open and Affirming statement—while she and I are standing in the checkout line at the Winn-Dixie. God forgive me, I’ve sometimes let some souls live with the illusion that I’m out saving sinners from hell fire, and I’ve accepted their praise or prayers under false pretenses.

But Jesus had more courage and scruples than I.  When his former neighbors and third cousins applauded his performance in the synagogue, Jesus realized he’d been misunderstood and immediately made it painfully clear to them the difference between their expectations of his ministry and his intentions. He was out to change some things.  And he was not going to be staying in Nazareth.  No. Prophets weren’t usually welcomed or effective in their hometowns.  No. He’d be taking his ministry elsewhere as, he explained, the prophets of old had done.  Elijah went to Sidon and there saved a widow and her son from starvation even though there were plenty of starving widows and orphans in Israel. Likewise, Elisha went to Syria to heal Naaman from leprosy even though many right there in Israel suffered from that same disease. No. “It’s been nice visiting y’all again,” Jesus said, “but I’m taking my ministry elsewhere.  That stuff about good news for the poor and captives and blind and oppressed—well, that’s for the poor and captives and blind and oppressed somewhere else because they are not beyond God’s reach.”

So that sermon did not go well.  Maybe it was a case of TMI.  I’d have advised Jesus just to say, “Thanks for your vote of confidence” and move on quietly, no forwarding address. Of course, not even a prophet could have predicted that clarifying his more expansive mission would enrage them so.  Luke’s gospel says the congregation “drove him out of town”–and it doesn’t mean in a limo. Fresh from worship, a murderous phalanx jostled him and shoved him and pushed Jesus to the edge of town and almost over a cliff.

Identifying with the Hebrew prophets of some 700 years earlier, Jesus should have expected as much.  Jeremiah, who (as we read earlier) reluctantly agreed as a boy to become a prophet, was nearly killed years later by the priests of Anathoth who felt threated by his preaching.  Prophets had then—and have still today—a dangerous job.

The danger comes from their role as change makers and because prophets are both agents of social change and instruments of spiritual transformation.

Richard Rohr believes the early Hebrew prophets played a significant role in reuniting two diverging strands of Judaism: “Very early in the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a split between the Exodus tradition, . . . the mainline and original tradition of full liberation [that defies the pharaohs of this world], and the tradition that develops in Leviticus and Numbers, which is called the ‘priestly’ tradition, which seems more concerned about how to organize and control and perpetuate the [religious] experience.”

He continues: “About eight centuries before Christ we finally meet the spiritual geniuses—the Jewish prophets—who tried desperately to link two traditions: inner God experience and outer work for justice and truth. That linkage is forever needed and yet forever resented and avoided to this day. We continue to have halfhearted religious divisions in the form of Right or Left, liberal or conservative, establishment or disestablishment, contemplative or activist. They really do need one another, but in most of history the priestly tradition has been in control and defined religion. We always and forever need the prophets, who are invariably pushed off to the side.”

Prophets risk getting “pushed off to the side,” Rohr says.  Or pushed nearly off a cliff, as the Gospel of Luke says.

We’ve had a chance earlier in the service to name modern day prophets.  King and Gandhi seem to fit Rohr’s definition especially well to me because they were both concerned with spiritual as well as social goals.

But let’s now consider that a congregation might collectively be a prophet, might together bear prophetic witness to the human/divine capacity for transformation.  I believe, friends, we at Open Table have a calling and a capability to be a Prophetic Church.  In fact, in the heart of our mission statement, printed on the front page of every worship bulletin, is a reminder that we are trying to follow the ways of Jesus through spiritual and social transformation.  We’re trying to do what Rohr says is the work of a prophet–pulling together two religious tasks by journeying both inwardly and outwardly.  Because to do one form of transformation without the other gives too much power either to our own ego or to a religious system. To emphasize societal change to the exclusion of the inner life can create an ideologue more concerned about a cause than about living beings.  To emphasize spiritual transformation to the exclusion of addressing systemic problems in the culture can create a religious fanatic or an emotionally detached navel gazer.

As I’ve thought about it this week, sharing together this prophetic work has its challenges but also makes good sense.  Some of us prefer the adventure of social reformation; others the adventure of spiritual transformation.  When we come together as a diverse faith community, we can draw from both the liberation and priestly traditions we’ve inherited. At times our diversity may seem to threaten our ability to move forward together. But we can appreciate this difference, by which I mean we can both recognize these differences within Open Table and be thankful for them.

How might you classify your primary or favorite way of engaging at Open Table? How would you describe your way of following Jesus’s way?   Does church give you a way to engage in some action that contributes to some systemic change in our world—or does it primarily deepen your experience of God ?  So here’s a self-quiz: Would you rather spend a night hosting families through Family Promise, demonstrating for LGBT rights in the We Do Campaign, writing your legislators to supporting immigration reform, planning a tutoring project for at risk children, etc.?   Or would you rather take time to participate in a worship service, find some quiet time for meditation or introspection, read a book that triggers inner examination, attend or lead a class or discussion session with religious content, write in a spiritual journal, take a walk on a beautiful day like today with gratitude in your heart, etc.?

A few of you will be pulled equally between both of these responses to God. Others will feel much more at home in either the first category (as a liberator) or the second category (as a priest).  But when we combine our gifts and goals as a faith community, we have a chance to do what the Hebrew prophets and Jesus were trying to do:  bring both social and spiritual transformation together in a recursive and mutually reinforcing process.

So let’s hear one another’s diverse perspectives as we make decisions together, recognizing our individual tendency toward either social or spiritual change and remembering our favored means of achieving change through either action or contemplation. Some of us, for instance, will urge the rest of us to take to the streets and worry that we’re worshiping in a pretty space far from the neediest places in our city. Others will focus on inviting visitors and offering more programs and worry if we are not planning and organizing well for our future.

When someone offers a different perspective, let’s see it as a necessary counterpoint to our own.  As we move forward with decisions, large and small, let’s value our differences while remaining united around a common mission to follow in the ways of Jesus. We do so not believing it’s his way or the highway.  But we look to Jesus’s life as a picture of how we can love others, create social and spiritual change, extend hospitality, value inclusion, and worship—together.

There will be times when others—within or outside our faith community—are angered or afraid of a prophetic stance. We will try to hear different voices, remaining humble that we may be wrong.  But if someone wants to be angry about a position we’ve taken, we’ll remember we’re called to love others, not to be loved by others. Although I don’t expect we’ll be driven out of town, if we’re being prophetic, we will not always be loved and admired and understood.

The story of Jesus’s short and not so sweet sermon ends with him at the edge of cliff. Being on the edge of a new thought or action is exactly where a sermon should take us. But Luke says that Jesus, at the edge of the cliff, then “passed through the midst of the crowd and went on his way.”  We don’t know exactly how Jesus escaped the mob, but in the midst of the accusations, the disappointment, the anger—he went on his way, a way that was always a way of peace and justice.

PRAYER: God who works in action and stillness, grant us the wisdom and courage of the prophets. Amen

Category Prayer, Scripture
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