Grace and peace to you, my sisters and brothers, in the name of Jesus. Amen.
So, the first thing I have say right off the bat is that the texts we’ve heard this morning are the same set of texts that were read on July 12, 2006 – the day I came to preach for you during the call process that led to me packing my bags and selling my home in Atlanta, Georgia to be with you. I think I will always remember these texts as my trial sermon texts, and it is really something else to realize that we’ve been in ministry together almost three full years. Almost long enough to work our way through the three-year cycle of the lectionary together.
I don’t know if those of you who were here that Sunday three years ago remember this, but I preached about St. John’s Lutheran Church in Atlanta that day. I talked about how the pastor of that church, Pastor Bradley Schmeling, was being put on trial by the synod for having fallen in love with his partner, another Lutheran pastor named Darin Easler. In my trial sermon I said,
Our pastor is much beloved to us, but beyond our love for him St. John’s sees an issue of justice at stake. We are actually grateful for all that is unfolding at our church right now, despite the sometimes hard feelings it’s created between our congregation and the larger church. We are grateful for the opportunity in this situation to speak clearly to the people in our neighborhood, the people of Atlanta, the people of the ELCA about the grace of God – a God who loves us in mercy, by grace, and who calls us into relationships of peace and justice.
During those days, when we were under intense public scrutiny – when television news crews were showing up at our church on Sunday mornings to report on the story of a congregation that was backing its pastor and witnessing to the world the power and the cost of the words “all are welcome” – we had some sense of how the prophet Ezekiel felt when he wrote,
when [God] spoke to me, a spirit entered into me and set me on my feet; and I heard [God] speaking to me. [God] said to me, Mortal, I am sending you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me…I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, “thus says the Lord God.” Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. (Ezekiel 2:1-5)
The spirit of God certainly had set us on our feet and had given us a prophetic word to say to the powers and principalities of the world around us. And, coming here to St. Luke’s I shared with you my own commitment to teach and to preach on issues of sexuality and gender as justice concerns. That is a condition of my rostering with Extraordinary Lutheran Ministries and, even if it weren’t, it is what I would be doing since I made my own decision a little over a decade ago when I began seminary and candidacy in the ELCA to be fully out in the church, no matter what it cost me.
In my final approval interview with the ELCA – the one that came after being approved for entrance into the process, after being endorsed by my candidacy committee halfway through seminary, after my year-long internship in New Jersey, and halfway through my year of post-graduate studies in Philadelphia, the one where I was finally kicked out of the denomination’s candidacy process – one of my interviewers asked me why I was seeking ordination in a church whose rules precluded me from serving as a pastor. He said, “do you think you’re some kind of prophet?”
I don’t know if anyone has ever asked you that question but, I’ll tell you, it’s really awkward. I said, “I don’t know if I’m a prophet. It’s certainly not what I set out to be. I’m just trying to be faithful to what I sense God calling me to be and do with my life. If by doing that I contribute in some small way to a change in the church or the world, then I suppose people may look back at this moment in the future and say I was speaking prophetically. If not, I’ll probably be lumped in with all the other heretics.” That does sometimes seem to be the difference between the people we call prophets and the people we call heretics – which side of history they end up on.
But, we as people and as a church aren’t allowed to see into the future, to know what side of history we will end up on, as we live our lives and take our part in the story of God’s unfolding grace. We are called to put our reasoning minds and lived experience in service of the witness of scripture and tradition as we look at the world and ask ourselves what God is up to in it. We are called to live our lives shaped by the history of God’s work in the world, salvation history, and then to step out on faith and (as Martin Luther said) “sin boldy.” We are to attempt to be faithful, even if it means making a mistake, trusting in the mercy and forgiveness of God if we are wrong. We are called to be humble prophets.
How then are we to discern what God is up to in the world, and how does God encounter each of us with the prophetic word that stands us up on our feet and send us out to speak?
On this Fourth of July weekend, when we are celebrating our independence as a nation and, hopefully, recognizing our inter-dependence across the globe, I want to propose that Christian worship, the rites and the rituals that we return to time and time again, speaks to us not only with a pastoral voice, comforting us in the cares and concerns of our own life; not only in the priestly voice, shaping our acts of confession, praise and thanksgiving; but also in the prophetic voice, challenging us to stand up and be a part of God’s inbreaking reign of justice and mercy. The liturgy, our worship, speaks to us as a prophet.
On a weekly basis we experience this most directly as we read the scriptures together and ask what they mean for us here and now. In this season of time after Pentecost, when we hear the stories of Jesus’ teaching and healing, we are confronted with Jesus in his prophetic mode. We are reminded that his death on the cross and resurrection from the grave were a direct result of his confrontation with the powers of the world. And so, even in these last two weeks we’ve heard stories of his power of the storm and we’ve been challenged to think about how we move beyond words to action in the storm that is our state budget crisis, which threatens to drown thousands of families depending on state-funded services in order to protect and educate their children. We’ve remembered how he healed not only the daughter of Jairus, a prominent Temple official, but also a nameless woman who’d spent all she had on heathcare and was still sick, and we’ve been challenged to think about how we move beyond words to action as the nation considers whether or not access to quality, affordable healthcare will be made available to all people on an equal basis, or only those who can afford it. The stories of Jesus reveal God to us as one who does not leave the world as it is, but challenges it to repent and be renewed.
But that is not the only way the liturgy speaks to us with its prophetic voice. At the heart of Christian worship lie its two sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
- Baptism, which is for the Christian community our immigration policy, declares that all are welcome
here. What was once a purity ritual, now by the grace of God we see that in Christ all people are made pure, made holy. All people are children of God, and thus we are all family to one another, and we are challenged to make whatever changes we must so that the world’s welcome and God’s welcome are in order.
- The Lord’s Supper, which is for the Christian community our welfare program, our budget proposal, our economic policy, says there is already enough. No need to hoard when there is enough for everyone. Enough to eat, enough to drink, enough grace, enough forgiveness, enough love. All that we have is a gift from God, and we are entrusted with a mission to make sure that the gifts of God are distributed justly, so that the world’s economy and God’s economy are in order.
When we are awake to the power of our ritual, the ability of words and actions to shape us over time, then we also become aware of how important it is that we choose our words and shape our rituals responsibly. The symbols and metaphors we surround ourselves with are always teaching us – sometimes quietly, subconsciously; sometimes blaringly loud and overt.
- Why do we now follow the traditional formulation of the Holy Trinity, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” with “One God, Mother of us all?” Because we have discovered over centuries of use that speaking of God only in male terms has contributed to all sorts of injustices against women, including practices within the church that have treated women like second-class citizens of their own faith community. Because the scriptures are full of images for God, some male and some female, some human and some drawn from nature, and we are only richer for the experience of bringing those images into our worship.
- Why do we sometimes use the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed, but other times use the Affirmations of Faith that come to us from those denominations with which we’re in full communion? Because, although we recognize that our creeds speak powerfully to the questions that were shaping the church at its inception, there are still other questions that have shaped the church throughout time, and we want to hear how our sisters and brothers have responded to God’s prophetic voice in the world.
- Why do we sometimes use the traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer (which we got from the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer), and other times use the modern, ecumenical version which we’ve been singing for the last two months and will speak for the first time today? Because we are part of a global church, an ecumenical church, and we acknowledge that we are part of a dynamic, living tradition. One that connects us with our past, even as it challenges us to use words and songs and prayers and rituals that make God’s grace available and understandable to those who are new to faith.
The liturgy, our weekly worship, is not a cold, dead thing. It is not a memorial to the past. It is a dynamic, living, growing tradition that connects us to other people and other cultures and shapes us around its central values – that all are welcome and there is always enough.
This is not always easy. We are descendants of the nation of Israel, which God tells us through Ezekiel means we have a tendency to be impudent and stubborn. We know how we like things, and we don’t often appreciate change. But God is so good as to give us the gift of a prophet we can return to week after week, one that has yet to shake the dust off its shoes and leave us behind. It is worship that gathers us, instructs us, feeds us and sends us out into the world to live our entire lives as a form of worship. If we heed its words we will find ourselves in uncomfortable places, speaking truth to power, fielding the awkward question, “who do you think you are, a prophet?” And in those moments, if we have understood the meaning of this font, if we have been fed at this table, we will be able to say, “that’s for you to decide. I’m just trying to be faithful to what I sense God calling me to be and do with my life.”
And then, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they (and we) are full of rebellion, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.