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The following sermon was presented today at the 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church, meeting in Indianapolis IN through July 12.
UTO INGATHERING AND FESTIVAL EUCHARIST
Sunday, July 8
The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church
Did you hear Ezekiel? Mortals! Stand up and listen! God is sending you to a rebellious house, full of impudent and stubborn folks. Your job is to go tell them, “listen up – here’s the deal, from the Big Man himself.” And if they don’t listen, at least they will have met a prophet.
Garrison Keillor is famous for noting that nobody wants a prophet at a birthday party. Our image of prophets is something like fire-breathing dragons or maybe Nunzilla, but a prophet is simply somebody sent to speak for God, to tell it like it really is. Sometimes prophets speak words of comfort and strength, the kind of words the psalmist is asking for – mercy and relief. And sometimes the prophet speaks words that are harder to hear, reminding us that we’re supposed to love God with all we are and have and love our neighbors as ourselves. The reminder usually comes because the audience hasn’t been living up to that expectation. Whatever Jesus said in the synagogue seems to have been that kind of challenging word.
Jesus’ friends and neighbors obviously don’t expect to hear anything prophetic from the ordinary carpenter down the street or from the brother of their friends. He has never stood up in their synagogue before and said anything particularly challenging – so who does he think he is? Mark doesn’t tell us what he reads or says. Luke says that it’s the part of Isaiah that says, “the Spirit has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, justice to the oppressed, and to announce the year of the Lord’s favor.” And his friends and neighbors are offended.
It is offensive – and confronting and challenging – to hear that even though you think you’re getting along OK, you’ve missed the boat. Yet until we can see the chasm between what is and what ought to be, we don’t have any hope of changing. Indeed it is the act of crossing that boundary between what is and what ought to be that is so characteristic of prophets. When Jesus is called a prophet, it has to do with erasing the boundary between God and human flesh. Prophetic words of comfort or challenge urge a kind of frontier work – getting across the fence between fear and possibility, reconciling division, transforming injustice, urging the lost onto the road home.
Sometimes those encouragers of boundary crossing come in very ordinary, even quiet, packages – and that may be what the people in Jesus’ hometown were so annoyed about. It’s harder to ignore somebody you respect or know pretty well.
A prophetic invitation arrived in my inbox a couple of months ago. A group of Christian leaders and politicians was asked to come to Washington, DC, to consider the state of public discourse in the United States. The invitation made reference to one of our better known political figures, Senator Jack Danforth. A conversation about civility seemed a highly appropriate endeavor, but as the day grew closer, getting ready for this gathering seemed a lot more urgent, and I came very close to canceling. But those who went heard a prophetic chorus of voices – Roman Catholic clergy and religious, Southern Baptist preachers, Senators and Representatives from both parties, Lutheran and Methodist bishops, evangelical pastors from the Assembly of God and Pentecostal traditions. Each one lamented the loss of respect for political opponents and the inability to make common cause for the greater good. We didn’t read today’s psalm, but it certainly fit the conversation:
Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy, we’ve had more than enough contempt.
Please! No more ridicule from the arrogant,
or abuse from proud and conceited people!
We started our gathering by talking about the hope of Americans and indeed people across the world for change, in the face of the contempt and arrogance they hear from Congress and other politicians. We soon moved to talking about the abuse and ridicule we hear from our brothers and sisters in Christ. That sort of confession brought hope, and urged us into other kinds of frontier crossing, beginning with finding a prayer partner. Mine is the Rev. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Mt. Vernon, New York and Port St Lucie, Florida. Other kinds of prophetic action and word are going to emerge from this process, including a statement and a number of positive actions to encourage more civil and effective discourse in politics and in our religious lives. Words matter profoundly, and as Christians we affirm that every time we gather to give thanks for the frontier crossing incarnate Word in our midst.
Prophets speak and act for God, with spoken and incarnate words of strength, hope, and challenge. That ministry comes in many forms. Today we’re going to give thanks for the prophetic work of the United Thank Offering, reaching out in creative possibility around the globe. Each triennial gathering of the Episcopal Church Women begins with a blessing and distribution of crosses, and the hands that are extended to receive them are a sacrament of blessing for this kind of prophetic work. When Jesus lays on hands and heals a few, even in a place that doesn’t think he’s got much to offer, he’s doing something prophetic. The work those hands of ECW members do in gathering and blessing ministries around the globe is another way of reaching out across borders, boundaries, walls and fences of division.
What about your hands? They, too, are instruments of healing, reconciling, re-creation – let’s see those hands! Here is a sacrament of God’s mission. How will you use those hands in an impudent and rebellious house? These hands can be instruments of warning, or to comfort and strengthen the wavering. Hands can be instruments of prophetic communication, a gift only some among us have learned.
When Jesus goes off to other villages to teach, he is using words and hands in prophetic ways, announcing the reign of God close at hand, healing, feeding, and drawing people into community. He sends his friends out to do the same things:
to announce the good news of the reign of God
to teach new believers
to heal the hurting
to challenge injustice
and to tend the garden we share with all the rest of creation.
Those five marks of mission are the work and mark of prophets, of all Jesus’ friends and their partners. All of his commentary about what to take on the trip across the border is a reminder to keep it simple – to go as emissaries of the incarnate word, to be a gift and to speak and act for God’s dream – to GO into the world of God’s dream.
When we gather like this to make Eucharist, we offer all that we are and have for this work. That little exchange that starts, “lift up your hearts,” is about entering another reality – some old translators put it, “hearts aloft!” Get moving! Go cross the frontier between heaven and earth – boldly go where Jesus has gone before – and invite others to go with you to help build the world that God intended at creation.
So – mortals, prophets – stand up! God is sending you to a rebellious house, full of impudent and stubborn folks. As the prophet Pogo said, “is us.” Your job is to go and say, “listen up – here’s the deal, God’s got a better world in mind, and you are needed to help make it happen.” And once you’ve started the conversation about good news, keep moving, keep showing and telling the world what God’s dream looks like.
Eventually, the world will know they’ve met a prophet – a whole community of prophets.
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 An Episcopal priest as well, he’s been a prophetic force in the search for peace in Sudan.