Why I don’t like the word prophetic

It started in seminary, this dislike of the word “prophetic,” but it has lasted a lot longer than I expected.  I went through the discernment process in the shadow of two world altering events: 9/11 and the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  Both events had their impact on my call as strong external forces.  For what now feels like a fleeting moment, in the days following 9/11 America stood united.  We were in some ways united in two directions.  We were united inwardly as we sought to heal a tear in the very fabric of our culture, the assumption that we were safe from foreign foes was lost forever.  We were also united outwardly as we came to realize that adherents to an extremist form of Islam were to blame for the tragedy.  Over time, however, we began to keep back toward division as our nation’s leaders tried to figure out how to respond.  Some argued that in the interest of national security, we had to find the leadership network of Al Qaeda and crush it.  Others argued that we had to follow the example of Jesus and turn the other cheek.  It was the classic just war vs. pacifist debate played out in real life.  Both sides had compelling reasons, and both were claiming that God was on their side.  I first heard the call to ordained ministry on late February 2002, five months after 9/11.  Certainly the way the world had changed in those five months were a part of my realizing this call.

On June 7, 2003, V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay priest in the Diocese of New Hampshire, was elected Bishop Coadjutor.  His election was ratified at the 2003 General Convention in Minneapolis, MN.  Convention ended on August 10th that year, and I recall my meeting with the Vestry of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church being scheduled for that night.  What was once a meeting to discuss the validity of my call to ordained ministry was now the special meeting of the vestry in response to the confirmation of the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.  The divisions were easily seen.  One side argued a prophetic calling toward justice.  The other, a prophetic calling toward restraint.  Both sides were certain that God was with them.

I grew to hate the word prophetic during this time because two prophets saying the opposite thing is no fun.  We tend to run to that word, prophetic, when we want to win an argument, but the thing is, we don’t get to say who speaks for God, only God gets to do that.  To paraphrase what Moses told the people of Israel in Sunday’s Deuteronomy lesson, “you best be careful with that word.”

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak– that prophet shall die”

I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to justice and peace.  I don’t think we need to stop calling the world to holiness of life.  I do think we need to be careful about claiming a prophetic voice every time we do it.  Prophet is not a title that I desire.  Being a prophet is really difficult and is only possible with God’s constant support.  Speaking a prophetic word is a sacred and powerful thing, which I’m afraid we take too lightly these days.  So let’s listen for the voice of God, let’s speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, but let’s let God call the prophets.

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Our Entry Point

After yesterday’s post, one of my friends, Bill from Saint James’ in Potomac, MD noted that it ended just as abruptly as Mark’s Gospel does. He thought that maybe there was fodder for another post in my very last sentance, “The good news of God has not beginning and it has not end, but it does have a place where we are able to enter in.” I’ve spent a good deal of time since I read Bill’s comment thinking about that entry point. As I said yesterday, I think they happen, most often, in the seemingly Godforsaken places. But it isn’t the abjectness of the situation itself that allows us to enter into the good news.

Instead, it is what the awfulness does to us. It is in those moments that, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Charles Price, “our disappointments and failures lead us to acknowledge our dependance upon God alone” (BCP, 836). Or as Eugene Peterson translated one of the beatitudes, “Your blessed when you are at the end of your rope. When there is less of you, there is more of God and his rule” (Mt 5.3, MSG). Those moments aren’t just for the individual, however, but for families, congregations, and even cultures.

In those moments, we each have a decision to make. Will we continue down the path we have chosen and walk further and further away from the dream of God and deeper into sin, or will we repent, literally change our minds, our hearts, and our direction, and make a God forsaken place an opportunity to enter into the Kingdom of God? I’m thankful to my colleague and riend, Evan Garner, who in a blog post this morning, invited us to remember that repentance is just step one on the journey into the good news of Jesus.

The God forsaken moments give us pause. They invite us to change. They allow us an entry point into the Good News of Jesus. And then. And then, as forgiven, restored, committed disciples of Jesus, the bearer and bringer of the good news, we set about the work of the Kingdom. Once we repent and enter into the good news, there are exceptions as to how we’ll live and move and have or being as individuals and as a community of the faithful: doing justice, loving righteousness, and walking humbly with our God (Micah 6.8). It all starts with repentance, the call of the prophets throughout the generations, but repentance is only the first step of God’s work in the lives of his faithful people, people of the good news.

Standby or Fast Pass?

Thanks to the generosity of my Father-in-Law and the willingness of my parents to keep SBC for a week, SHW, FBC, and I recently enjoyed a trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL.  There is one other person who needs to be thanked as well, and that is our Disney Travel Consultant, Reynolds.  Without her help, we would have made a trip to Orlando, but there is no way we would have enjoyed it.  It was through her wisdom that we were able to discern the best way through the parks, avoiding, as much as possible ridiculous wait times like this

and this.

The key to unlocking the magic of Disney is knowing how to use the FastPass+ system.  As I’m doing my research for my Advent 2 sermon, I’m beginning to think that maybe Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 invite us to unlock the mystery of the Kingdom of God with our own FastPass system, by engaging in the Kingdom of God.

David Lose, in his weekly column, Dear Partner in Preaching, puts it this way:

“So perhaps, Dear Partner, the question to put to our people this week is what kind of waiting do they want to do?  Sure, they can sit around and wait for Christmas, or Christ’s return, for that matter.  Or they can get in the game, see how they can spend their time, energy, wealth, and lives making a difference right now… God is continuing the story of the good news of Jesus in and through our words and actions and each of us will have a hundred and one opportunities this very week to contribute to that sacred story, to make it come alive, to help God keep God’s promises here and now.”

Do we want to spend 80, 90, or 100 years just sitting around, waiting for God to come and fix the mess humanity has created?  Wouldn’t we rather be about the work of Kingdom building, the work of comfort, the work of restoration, the work of pointing to Jesus as the redeemer of all things?  Do we want to wait standby for the Kingdom or would we rather utilize the FastPass God has given us: skills, abilities, money, and other resources to fulfill the prayer that Jesus taught us and bring the Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven?

When waiting breaks your heart

“How long, O Lord?”  That is the cry of the Psalmist and the Prophets.  “How long must we wait for your dream to become reality?” remains the cry for the faithful even today.  Since yesterday at about 8:26pm CST, I’ve been pondering this question of “How long?” and thinking, in light of the lessons for Advent 1, and the call to holy waiting, how I can faithful live in the meantime because living in the meantime can be heartbreaking.

Living in the meantime means living as a broken and sinful human being in a broken and sinful world.  It means paying the penalty for sin: my own and a myriad of systemic ones.  It means that sometimes a young black man, after a lifetime of living in fear of the police, makes a terrible choice and ends up dead.  It means sometimes that a young white man, in a position of authority and carrying a gun for a living, makes a terrible choice and kills that young black man.  It means sometimes that a grand jury, bound by laws that aren’t perfect makes a decision that is devastating to a family and a community.  It means sometimes that a group of people so fed up with the way things are takes to the streets to exact vigilante justice that devastates whole families and communities.  It means watching as conservative bloggers say some crazy racist stuff that gets liked by a friend on Facebook.  It means watching as liberal bloggers say some crazy insensitive stuff that gets retweeted by a friend on Twitter.  Living in the meantime means having your heart broken again and again by bigotry, injustice, violence, and hatred.

Living faithfully in the meantime means being a force for justice, hope, peace, and restoration.  It means putting a stop to the cycle of demonization, anger, violence, and vitriol that perpetuates the broken system.  Too often, in the emotional aftermath of an event like the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, even the Church forgets this call.  Too often, the Social Media accounts of the clergy look like the same bubbling cauldrons that the 24 hour news cycle has taught us to worship.  Too often, Christians forget to be harbingers of peace in the midst of conflict.

How long, O Lord, how long?

My heart breaks for the family of Michael Brown.  My heart breaks for Darren Wilson and his family.  My heart breaks for every African American person who lives in fear of the police, and my heart breaks for every police officer who lives in fear of every young black man they see.  My heart breaks for Ferguson, and for every place where the dream of God, that all should be united one to another and to God, has yet to be realized.  And so this morning, a few days ahead of the start of Advent, I will begin this year’s Advent Practice.   Following the suggestion of Bishop Matthew Wren from way back in 1662, I will pray the Collect for Advent 1 at least once each day.  I will pray through the waiting and through the heartbreak, trusting that through God’s grace, I can be a part of a Church that casts away the darkness of this broken and sinful world, and puts on the armor of light, of hope, of peace, and above all, the armor of love.  Won’t you join me?

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Advent Prayer

Jesus and Nickelodeon’s “Kid’s Court”

As a child of the late 80s/early 90s, I have vivid memories of the early days of Nickelodeon.  You remember the “You Can’t Do That on Television” era, don’t you?  Though I grew up in The Episcopal Church, may parents weren’t the new age hippies you might expect them to be.  Rather, there were very strict television rules in our house: No “YCDToTV” or “Ren and Stimpy” and certainly no MTV.  One of the shows I could watch was “Kid’s Court,” which was, as you might have guessed, a play on the perennially popular “People’s Court.”  Each episode featured a couple of “cases” in which children would write in seeking to settle a dispute with parents, siblings, etc.  The case would be “decided” by a very unruly courtroom audience which would scream for the side of the argument they thought should win.

Kid’s Court existed before the Internet, so you’re lucky that this screen grab is even available.

What I remember most vividly however, was at the end of each episode when the host would run around the audience getting kids to offer a brief complaint about life in their households.

“My mom always makes me wash the dishes while my brother plays Nintendo.”

“My dad never lets me help fix the car other than holding the flashlight.”

My parents went on a cruise and left me with my grandparents who smell like moth balls.”

Afterwards, the host would shout “Fair or Unfair?” and the audience would shout back their vote.  Obviously, all three of the above named complaints are “Unfair!”  I can’t help but read the story of the Prodigal Landowner without thinking about Kid’s Court.  “He payed everyone the same wage: Fair or Unfair?”

UNFAIR!!!!!!

In this parable, Jesus invites us to reconsider our understanding of fairness in light of the Kingdom of Heaven.  Reflecting back on last week’s lesson, if I’ve been forgiven a debt of 150,000 lifetimes, what right do I have to complain that another has been forgiven 1,500,000 lifetimes?  Or what right does someone who has been forgiven 15,000 lifetimes have to complain about me.  The promise of God is eternal life through his Son.  Whether we start that life at age 8 or 88, it doesn’t really matter.  Whether we “sin boldly” or live piously, it doesn’t really matter.  Whether we are first and last or last and first, it doesn’t really matter. Whether we think it is unfair or not, it doesn’t really matter.

The Kingdom of Heaven is the Kingdom of Heaven precisely because it is unfair.  Unfair enough to include me, and unfair enough to include you, too.

Alexander Crummell – a homily

          It wasn’t that long ago that I stood in this very pulpit and preached about the grit and determination of William Wilberforce, who after years of fighting in Parliament, saw the send of slavery in the British Empire just days before his death in 1833.  It would seem that grit and determination are par for the course for those who seek to fight against grave injustices upon which the world economy rests, and so today the Church remembers yet another brave soul who did the best he could to spread the Gospel and overcome oppression in his era.  Alexander Crummell was born a free African-American in New York City in 1819.  He was educated in the Quaker-run New York African School along with several others of the leading African-American leaders in the 19th century.

          After failing to receive admittance into the General Theological Seminary, Crummell read for orders under the tutelage of the Bishop of Massachusetts and was ordained a deacon in 1842 and priested in 1844.  After a brief stint in Massachusetts he attempted to move to Philadelphia to seek more a favorable congregation.[1]  He was met there by my least favorite bishop in all of Church history, the Rt. Rev. Henry Ustick Onderdonk, who told him “I will receive you into this diocese on one condition: no Negro priest can sit in my church convention and no Negro church must ask for representation there.”  Crummell paused for a moment and said, “I will never enter your diocese on such terms.”[2]  Seeing that the time was not right to be an African-American priest in the State, Crummell moved to England where he studied at Cambridge where he was sponsored in part by William Wilberforce and became the first black student to graduate from Cambridge University.

          History looks back on the plan to repatriate freed slaves in a colony called Liberia as the failed experiment of old, dead, colonialist white men.  While it probably wasn’t the best idea to lump the children and grandchildren of men and women stolen from various tribes in Africa together in one land that was not their native home, the intent was good, and Alexander Crummell was a chief advocate for Liberia as an African Utopia where the best of European education and technology could mix with the best of African culture and be supported by a national Episcopal Church headed by an African Bishop with European training. Political opposition and a lack of funds meant that Crummell’s dream ultimately failed and he once again found himself living in the United States serving St. Mary’s Mission in Foggy Bottom and as “Missionary at Large to the Colored People” in Washington, DC.  He spent the rest of his life working to develop independent black Episcopal congregations, like Saint Luke’s Church, DuPont Circle, a church not founded out of segregation from white congregations, but set up by blacks and for blacks.

          Alexander Crummell was very much like the sower in the famous parable appointed for his Feast Day.  He spread the seed of the Gospel everywhere he went by calling both Church and Country to leave behind its racist ways and move forward in respecting the dignity of every human being.  As we are often reminded of on these types of Feast Days, the work of the Kingdom is not for the faint of heart.  This day, we give thanks for the perseverance of the Rev. Dr. Alexander Crummell and his witness to us, even today, that racism is not of the Kingdom and not of God.  Amen.

[1] http://www.episcopalarchives.org/Afro-Anglican_history/exhibit/leadership/crummell.php

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexander_Crumm         

The Feast of William Wilberforce – a homily

Just and eternal God, we give you thanks for the stalwart faith and persistence of your servant William Wilberforce who, undeterred by opposition and failure, held fast to a vision of justice in which no child of yours might suffer in enforced servitude and misery. Grant that we, drawn by that same Gospel vision, may persevere in serving the common good and caring for those who have been cast down, that they may be raised up through Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

It’s been a while since you’ve had the chance to hear me rail against the current book, approved for trial use, from which we Episcopalians draw our celebrations of the saints of our faith. We used to have a book called Lesser Feasts and Fasts, which, in 2009, was replaced by a dreadful text called Holy Women, Holy Men. I’ll save you the details of my complaints this afternoon because I’m actually going to pay the new book, which will hopefully be tossed in the dustbin of history next summer, a compliment. The prayer which I read at the beginning of this service in remembrance of William Wilberforce is from Holy Women, Holy Men and it is far superior to the one from Lesser Feasts and Fasts because it actually deals with why we remember William Wilberforce at all. William Wilberforce has a feast day in our church because his faithful commitment to Jesus Christ made him doggedly persistent in the pursuit of justice against seemingly insurmountable odds.
Wilberforce was raised with a silver spoon in his mouth. In 1780, at the age of 21 and while still a university student, he was elected to Parliament where he served for 45 years. After four years of doing relatively little in office, other than building an erratic voting pattern, Wilberforce underwent an evangelical conversion and began to feel a call to leave politics to serve God more effectively. His friends thought his position was too powerful to give up and thankfully, convinced him to stay in Parliament and serve God there. While in his personal life, Wilberforce was keen to take on the evils of vice: gambling, drinking, card playing and the like, as a Member of Parliament, his area of deep interest was the slave trade.
By the late 18th century, between 35 and 50 thousand Africans were being shipped, every year, from the Gulf of Guinea to be sold into slavery. As much as 80% of Britain’s foreign income came via slave grown crops like cotton, sugar, and tobacco. The economics of slavery had become so entrenched that it was thought to be impossible to stop; only a handful of people even considered doing something about it, and they were mostly Quakers who had very little clout in 18th century England. At dinner one night in 1783, Wilberforce met the Rev. James Ramsay, a ship’s surgeon who later was ordained to serve in the Leeward Islands and earned his living as a medical supervisor on the plantations there. Wilberforce was horrified as Ramsay explained the conditions under which the slaves were treated on the ships and plantations, but it took him three years and that previously mentioned deep faith conversion to do anything about it. By 1787, Wilberforce had been convinced and so began “his persistent, uncompromising, and single-minded crusade for the abolition of the slave trade.”
Wilberforce and his friend Thomas Clarkson, proposed legislation to abolish the slave trade in 1789, 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. Finally in 1807, Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire. Wilberforce went to on work to ensure that these laws were enforced and eventually worked to make sure that slavery was abolished outright. On July 26th, 1833, three days before he died, Wilberforce received news that passage of emancipation for slaves was certain. Despite his wishes for a simple burial at a family plot next to his daughter and sister, William Wilberforce was buried as a national hero in the north transept of Westminster Abbey on August 3, 1833.
William Wilberforce was a man of stalwart faith. His commitment to the Gospel allowed him to persist over years of failure to change the slavery based economy of the British Empire. He, unlike many others who have fought for justice over the years, saw the fruit of his faithfulness. He died knowing two things for certain: that all men would be made free in the British Empire and that his home would be in the everlasting arms of his Savior Jesus Christ. This day, I give thanks for the stubbornness of William Wilberforce and ask God that he might make us just as determined in the pursuit of justice for all of his children: black and white; slave and free; male and female; straight and gay; documented and not: to the glory of his name. Amen.