I spend a good amount of time every January attending to the operational and organizational side of the church as we develop a budget, analyze various metrics, review staff roles, and seek out new vestry members. I wouldn’t consider any of these activities to be in wheelhouse, so I find I have to attend to them in a very focused way.
This can cause a particular problem. I call it the January Problem. The January Problem is this: I can focus so carefully on the “what” and “who” and “how much” that it’s easy to lose focus on the “why.” So today, I’d like to extricate myself from the January Problem and focus on the “why” by talking about two interrelated concepts: love and mission.
One of my favorite songs was released the year after I was born. The song comes from U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire and bears the title “Pride (In the Name of Love).” In one of the verses, Bono sings:
Early morning, April four Shot rings out in the Memphis sky. Free at last, they took your life They could not take your pride.
U2 continues with the chorus: “In the name of love / What more in the name of love.” They repeat these words over and over again, astonished and overwhelmed by the lengths to which love calls us to go.
One of the challenges of growing as human beings is expecting perfection when we try something new simply because we are pretty good at something else. I thought I could pick up the violin because I’m a fairly good guitarist. Not so much. We humans do not like doing things we are bad at because our egos get in the way. The older we get, the more solidified becomes the subset of activities that we think we are good enough to engage in. Does that resonate with you? I can still play soccer because I’ve been playing it since I was a kid. But don’t expect me to pick up lacrosse any time soon. I don’t want to feel foolish when the ball stubbornly fails to stay in the little net for the hundredth time.
All right. So why am I talking about this? The innocuous music and sports examples are one thing. But we need to grow in so many ways so we don’t become static and stagnant – ways that we naturally resist because growth takes energy and focus. We need to keep growing in kindness and compassion so we outgrow selfishness and callousness. We need to keep growing in the desire to be of service to others while also understanding our own healthy boundaries and limits. We need to keep growing in all facets of our identity – as spouses, family members, friends, neighbors, citizens, and followers of Jesus.
This is a sermon about prophecy, but first I want you to put a question in your mind because I’m going to ask it again at the end, and I don’t want you to be caught off guard. Here’s the question. How are you challenging the world of today in order to make the future better?
Got it in your mind? Good. Because that question is the essence of prophecy. How are you challenging the world of today in order to make the future better? We’ll get back to that question in a few minutes. For now, let’s talk about Moses and prophecy.
Today is the day of Pentecost, the day we celebrate the Holy Spirit empowering Jesus’ first followers to spread his loving, liberating, and life-giving message. If you were listening closely to the readings, you might have noticed we actually read two different versions of the sending of the Holy Spirit. In the first one from the Acts of the Apostles, the Holy Spirit spirals into the house like a rushing wind from heaven and anoints the disciples with tongues like fire. In this story, we sense the glorious upheaval in the lives of the disciples as these elemental forces – wind, fire – disrupt and invigorate them to embrace their new ministry as Jesus’ witnesses.
In the second story from the Gospel of John, Jesus comes to his disciples on the evening of the resurrection. They lean in close as he breathes on them, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In this intimate story, Jesus delivers the Comforter, the enlivening companion the disciples need to be about their work.
A few years ago, I read something my sister Melinda wrote on her website at the beginning of a new year. Melinda is something of a mystic: a writer and yoga teacher, who spends her days working at the YMCA to make sure as many kids as possible can benefit from the Y’s programs. Now, I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, so I was glad to see she had put a different spin on the concept. As she looks at the horizon of a new year, Melinda discerns not a resolution, but an intention. Here’s what she wrote two years ago:
“In years past, I’ve written about and set an intention rather than a resolution. In yoga we call this a sankalpa – a word or small phrase in the present tense that represents where we want to go or what we want to cultivate.” She continues: “I hadn’t planned on designating a new sankulpa for this year either, but as I was lying down for a little rest the world community sprung to my awareness… I don’t know what community is asking of me, but I do know enough to let it be, and open to what this energy wants to create through me.”
Early morning, April four Shot rings out in the Memphis sky. Free at last, they took your life They could not take your pride.
U2 continues with the chorus: “In the name of love / What more in the name of love.” They repeat these words over and over again, astonished and overwhelmed by the lengths to which love calls us to go. From 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, the song bears the title “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and easily slots into my Top 10 list of all-time favorite U2 songs. It’s one of those songs that I never skip when those first rifts from The Edge’s guitar bloom on my radio.
I love this song because it is about a profoundly misunderstood concept, but which U2 understands profoundly in their lyrics. The song is about martyrdom* and the reason someone would die in witness to a cause. For U2, there is only one reason that could ever lead someone down the martyr’s path, and that is Love. Continue reading “They Could Not Take Your Pride”→
Sermon for Sunday, July 10, 2016 || Proper 10C || Luke 10:25-37
During the summer, I am preaching without a text, so what follows is an edited transcript of what I said Sunday morning at the 8 a.m. service at St. Mark’s.
This morning I’m supposed to do part three of our four part series about being born again as followers of Jesus Christ. But instead, I need to talk about what has happened this week in the United States. I’m not qualified to comment on the killing of black men by police officers; nor am I qualified to comment on the killing of police officers by snipers at peaceful demonstrations. What I am qualified to talk about is my own experience growing up in the Deep South as a white guy.
Sermon for Sunday, April 24, 2016 || Easter 5C || Revelation 21:1-6
I need to warn you right off the bat: if I had a soapbox I would stand on it right now. And on the spectrum between personal and academic, the sermon I’m about to preach is so far to the academic side that it might as well be called a lecture. But I think it’s important to take this opportunity, while we are reading the book of Revelation this Easter season, to talk about this strange and scary and sorely misunderstood piece of ancient writing. You may have read some or all of it yourself at one time or another. (My money’s on “some of it.”) Or you may be aware of popular media that references it, such as the Left Behind series. Or you may know a thing or two about some of the stranger doctrines of certain forms of Christianity: doctrines that use words like “rapture” and “dispensation” and “tribulation.” Or you may have had no contact with Revelation whatsoever, so you’re wondering why I seem so worried about it.
Whatever your knowledge of the book of Revelation may be, my entire intent today is to redefine for you two words. (This is the soapbox.) The misunderstanding of these two words has led to a horribly mangled history of misinterpretation of the book of Revelation. The two words are “prophecy” and “apocalypse.” Even if you’ve never read Revelation, you’ve heard these words. They’re pretty powerful words. And I guarantee our culture has shaped an erroneous definition of both of them in your minds.
Prophecy is foretelling the future, right? Apocalypse is the end times, right? Nope.
To understand the proper definition of “prophecy,” let’s compare two people who have both been labeled prophets. First, in this corner, Michel de Nostredame, the 16th century French apothecary who wrote a book called The Prophecies, which purported to predict future world events. You’ll know him better as the “Nostradamus.” Second, in the other corner, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., preacher and civil rights advocate of the mid-20th century United States.
The Nostradamus has been called a prophet, but he was not one. He was a fortune teller. He was an astrologist, who attempted to divine the future by looking for patterns in the order of the planets and stars. In other words, he was a meteorologist, but for the future, not for the weather. To use the same word to describe him as Martin Luther King is utterly laughable.
Dr. King was a true prophet. He spoke truth to power, and he didn’t flinch. A true prophet does not predict the future, but puts forth a compelling vision of a better possible future. True prophecy is about telling the truth of the present in order that the resulting future might change. This is what King did when he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and said those immortal words: “I have a dream.”
Do you see the difference? A fortune teller like the Nostradamus wants his predictions of the future to be accurate, or else no one will buy his book. A prophet like Martin Luther King wants more than anything else for the future to be different than the one the present is heading towards.
The story of Jonah illustrates the true nature of prophecy. People usually remember the bit about the fish, but there is more. Jonah goes to the city of Ninevah and says, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” He says this to shake them out of complacency, to get them to turn back to God. And they do. The king proclaims a fast and repents of evil. He even puts on sackcloth and ashes. At the end of the forty days, the city is not destroyed! Does this make Jonah a false prophet because his words didn’t come true? No. Quite the contrary: Jonah succeeds as a prophet because the people of Ninevah listened and changed.*
So to sum up, prophecy is telling hard truths about the present so that the future might turn out differently. Let’s turn to my other soapbox word: “apocalypse,” a very scary word in our culture, to be sure, but one that is not necessarily about the end of the world. Rather, “apocalypse” simply means “an unveiling” or “revealing.”** We’re used to hearing the word paired with trailers for disaster movies, but the term is really about pulling back the curtain of so-called reality to see the deeper reality at work underneath.
The message of Revelation is urgent not because the book is specifically about the world’s eventual destruction, but because much early Christian thought grew out of the notion that Christ would return very soon. In that context, John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, prayerfully looks behind the veil of the world’s reality and tells the truth about his own present. John’s vision convinces him that true reality is a very different place than the one, which the Roman propaganda machine describes. The Empire had declared peace – the Pax Romana – but John sees this peace for the sham it really is: a violent, suppressive regime that rules by intimidation, occupation, fear, and capital punishment. This is why so much of the imagery of Revelation is bloody and violent.
John addressed his Revelation to a set of seven churches in Asia Minor, which had begun to buy into the Roman system of social domination. They were getting comfortable and complacent. They were adapting to the false reality of the Empire rather than living the countercultural lifestyle of the followers of Jesus Christ. So John pulls back the curtain, or to change the metaphor, lifts up the rock to see all the creepy crawlies festering underneath. And he uses coded language – graphic and gruesome coded language to get by the Roman censors, much like modern day satire can skewer the positions of a government without ever talking about them specifically.
So we have prophecy, which is telling the truth of the present in order to change the future. And we have apocalypse, which is the revealing of true reality that is often covered over by a false narrative put forward by the powerful. In his Revelation, John of Patmos is a true prophet. He pulls back the curtain to reveal the truth of his own present, which happens also to be the truth of ours and all the times in between. This truth speaks of the corrupting nature of absolute power, the passing nature of all oppressive regimes, and the eternal nature of God’s triumph over evil and death. Timely for John; timely for us. John’s Revelation is not meant to be shelved until the eventual end of the world. His Revelation is meant to be read to help change the world again and again. That’s why the words in today’s reading are so powerful. The one sitting on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new.”
I am making all things new. Constantly. Continuously. We have the opportunity to forsake our allegiance to the old systems of domination that John describes in all their gory detail and instead to join God’s team of renewal and reconciliation. We have the opportunity to have our thirst quenched by the gift of new and fresh and clear water gushing up from the spring of the water of life. We have the opportunity to be at home with God, experiencing the daily newness of God’s presence both here on earth and in heaven. And through it all, we have the opportunity, with God’s help, to be prophets: to speak hard truths about our current reality so that the future will turn out better, not just for more people, but for Creation as a whole.
* The funny thing is that Jonah gets a bit petulant when his prediction doesn’t come true. That’s when God teaches him the true meaning of prophecy.
** The words “apocalypse” and “revelation” are actually synonyms. For a long time, the book we know of as the “Revelation of John” was called the “Apocalypse of John.”