Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 5, 2015
Let us pray.
Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
Our cultural air is thick with the chattering of those who presume themselves to be prophets—people who tell us what they think we need to hear whether we want to hear it or not. They know what the truth is about same-sex marriage or affordable healthcare or the Confederate Flag or some other issue of the moment and they will continue to shout it from the mountaintops, come what may. If their attitudes are questioned by you or me or their television interviewer, they will classify themselves as prophets and explain that prophets, by their nature, announce messages that are too blinding and powerful for the general public to stomach. After all, Jesus himself faced opposition in Nazareth and declared that “prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” For many self-appointed prophets, opposition becomes the stamp of legitimacy; the fiercer the opposition they encounter, the more certain they become in the tenets they hold, and the quicker they are to shut down any who seek to challenge them.
Ironically, though, many so-called prophets experience approval only from their kin, from the people who are most like them. According to Jesus, home is the environment that should be most hostile to prophets, yet so often self-appointed prophets are buttressed socially, financially and emotionally by their own homes, original or adopted, the places in which they feel most comfortable and that nurture their perspectives and opinions. Far from alone, they pat their friends on the back, confident and secure in the conclusions they have reached together, and then lash out at those who are different from them, wielding their words like swords. Too often what is called a prophecy is in fact a weapon—a mere tool in a war between opposing parties.
According to Jesus, however, the true prophet does not use prophecy to flatter one’s own community and attack the Other. To the contrary, Jesus suggests, true prophets are affirmed by outsiders and considered suspect by their own people. Being a prophet, then, involves questioning everything one has ever known, pushing back against the rules, systems, customs and individuals with which one is most familiar. For the prophet, the ability and willingness to be critical of one’s context is not a regrettable drawback but an essential requirement. The call to be a prophet is the call to stand on the fringes, even and especially in one’s hometown—to be utterly, completely independent.
Yet a prophet’s countercultural impulse cannot comprise the entirety of his or her motivations. The authentic, mindful prophet does not have the luxury of engaging in a careless rebellion that dismantles recklessly and indiscriminately, with no regard for anyone else’s wellbeing. She or he must be oriented outwards, putting others at the center and channeling all of his or her work towards the making of a more whole world.
At least, this is what Jesus does. He may have the hubris to call himself a prophet, but he is not a figure obsessed with tearing down his enemies. Indeed, he tells his disciples that if the residents at any particular location refuse to hear them, they should shake off the dust on their feet and keep going, not linger and start a fight. Jesus himself, the text clearly indicates, spends just as much time healing as he does teaching and prophesying. For Jesus, prophecy is not an intellectual exercise that he participates in to prove himself right; it is one part of the larger project of caring for others. His ministry focuses first and foremost on the interests of the people.
This weekend, as we once again fly flags, set off fireworks and hold barbeques to honor what we call the land of the free and home of the brave, it might benefit us to reflect on Jesus’ approach to prophecy and the rest of ministry. Especially on patriotic occasions such as the one we celebrated yesterday, we tend to depict our country as a glowing, unblemished beacon to which we owe our faithful, unquestioning support. But Jesus encourages us to remain in tension and even sometimes in opposition with our homeland, to dare to forego honor in our own country in order to work for the common good and be honored as prophets by God. At the same time, Independence Day this year falls during a time in which the pervasive divisions within several areas of American life have asserted themselves with new force, as the country reacts to several Supreme Court rulings on controversial issues, looks for a path forward from a period of particularly horrific racially motivated violence, and prepares for yet another rancorous election season. In such a climate, Jesus’ constant emphasis on healing reminds us that the words we say—and indeed the deeds we do—are holy and good only if they seek to contribute to the well-being of all.
One of the most powerful speeches in American history was Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro.” An abolitionist leader and himself an escaped slave, Douglass fiercely and justifiably condemned the practice of slavery in the United States, calling attention to the extreme violence and profound injustice of the American slave trade. For Douglass, the celebration of the 4th of July was a “sham,” a sign of “fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisy.” In his speech, Douglass addressed his country with harshness and anger; he did not mince words. But what made his speech especially powerful was not the sharpness of his rhetoric. Rather, it was the way in which, even as he outlined how the US was failing to live up to its ideals of liberty and equality, he also revered those same ideals and encouraged the full, complete implementation of them. Douglass made clear that he was not anti-American, that his efforts to end slavery were a logical result of his devotion to and respect for his country. He showed himself to be a prophet in the mold of Jesus: unafraid to challenge and critique, as long as his ultimate motivation remained the cause of human flourishing.
On this Independence Day weekend, whether you are a citizen or a green card holder or someone without paperwork at all, I invite you to consider what Frederick Douglass and Jesus Christ might have to teach you. Do you love this country with all your heart? Are you raving mad because of some of the things that go one within it? You don’t have to choose between these emotions. You can be tough on America and its people; you can criticize; you can be prophetic—not because you hate your country, but because you love it.