Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
Body: 6 Pentecost, Year B
The Rev. R. Bingham Powell
Ezekiel 2:1-5; Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10; Mark 6:1-13
Sometimes the appointed lessons all align in such a way that a single theme is obvious and unavoidable. Today is one of those Sundays. The theme of the day is prophecy. In our first lesson, we heard the calling of Ezekiel to be a prophet. In our second lesson, Paul tells the story of a person – who many scholars think is actually Paul himself – who has a prophetic vision. And finally in our Gospel lesson, Jesus finds himself back in his hometown, back where he grew up. And there, those who already knew him reject him and his prophecy. “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown,” Jesus laments.
So what is this thing called prophecy? In general, when using the word prophecy, people usually mean one of two things. In one understanding of the term, prophecy is about predicting the future. Someone like Harold Camping, who had predicted the world was going to end last year, thought he was engaging in prophecy, because he was predicting the future. Prophecy in this sense is something akin to fortune telling, like reading tealeaves. In the other typical way of using the term, prophecy is not about the future, but about the present. Prophecy is the act of naming uncomfortable truths and fighting against injustice, usually social and economic injustice. In this understanding of prophecy, prophecy all too easily gets tied up with a particular political agenda. Usually people think of prophecy as one or the other of these. From the biblical narrative, we can see a grain of truth in both of these perspectives. Prophecy in Scripture does often have a future-oriented focus, however, that perspective is not really about prediction as much as about hope and reasserting God’s power and dominion. And the prophets certainly also focus on the here and now, with a great concern about injustice and oppression.
When I graduated from college, Bishop Ladehoff gave me a little book called The Prophetic Imagination by the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann, and his explanation of prophecy has stuck with me ever since. Brueggemann argues that neither of these understandings of prophecy are the Biblical understanding of prophecy. Rather, the Biblical prophet is trying to imagine alternatives to the surrounding world. Prophecy is not about predicting the future or about social action, but about imagining a world different from the world that surrounds us. Prophecy is not primarily about words, but about imagination.
Jesus prophesied this way not by predicting his resurrection, but by re-imagining suffering and death as an opportunity for hope in resurrected life. Jesus engaged in this type of prophecy by eating with the wrong sort of people - the sinners and the tax collectors, you know, people like you and me – re-imagining who is a part of God’s community. Jesus used his prophetic imagination by teaching primarily through storytelling, from re-imagining who really was our neighbor in the parable of the Good Samaritan, to what forgiveness really looks like in the story of the Prodigal Son, to what the kingdom of God really means by using simple agricultural metaphors, among many other stories. Jesus was a prophet who re-imagined leadership by getting down on his knees and washing the feet of his disciples, and by breaking bread with them the night before his own body was broken.
As the Body of Christ, part of what we are called to do is to continue Christ’s prophetic ministry. We are called to use our imagination. We are called to imagine a world different from the world that surrounds us, a new re-imagined world that stands up to the measure of God’s love and mercy and grace, and we are called to try and find alternative ways to enact that vision. To let that vision shine forth for a while.
The world around teaches us so many different things. For example, the world teaches us that strength and power and success are linked, and yet we in the Christian community proclaim Christ crucified, and have the cross at the center of our communal life. “[God’s] grace is sufficient for [us], for power is made perfect in weakness” as we heard in our Epistle today. The world teaches us to deny death, and yet, we place death at the center of our ritual week in and week out. The world teaches us that our worth is defined by how much we have; and yet our faith teaches us we are defined by how much we give in proportion to how much we have.
The world around us also teaches us to stay separated from one another, to build barriers. More and more, it seems like we are dividing out into groups of like-minded people who will agree with us uncritically, and more and more it seems like we are cutting ourselves off from those with whom we disagree. And so our prophetic mission in this case is to imagine an alternative way of being, a way in which we don’t all divide off into our like-minded camps. I think that we here at St. Mary’s are trying to do exactly that, imagining an alternative where people of all kinds of different backgrounds gather together to seek God, an alternative where what unites us is stronger than what divides us. Every week, we try to enact this vision by gathering here together to worship God and to be fed by Christ’s body and blood. Over the years, I have seen the most conservative Republican and the most liberal Democrat sharing a pew. I have seen the ninety-year old passing peace to the newborn infant. I have seen those whose resources puts them in the top 1% and the those whose lack thereof puts them in the bottom 1% kneeling side-by-side at the altar rail, hands outstretched, waiting to receive the exact same meal. I have seen the judge and the former convict both bowing their heads in confession and both receiving God’s forgiveness. Our alternative to the world says that although we may have differences, we also all share a common humanity, each of us made in the image of God. And we share a common desire to encounter the holy, and experience God’s presence and grace. This is one of the great gifts of the Episcopal Church. We have always tried to be a broad tent church, the so-called via media, trying to stick it out together, learning from one another, and hoping that we will understand God a bit better by being around people with whom we disagree on a few things. It’s not always easy - in fact, it’s often a bit messy – but we believe that it is the best way to grow in our faith and to better encounter God.
We are called to engage in this prophetic imagination, showing the world that their way is not the only way, that alternatives based in God’s mercy and love and grace really can exist. The world’s vision is strong and tempting in its comfort, but with God’s help, we will continue to imagine another way.