by Ellen Sims
When we left our hero last week, Jesus of Nazareth, having made a name for himself preaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee, had returned to his hometown and his home synagogue. There he read impressively from the scroll of prophet Isaiah that one day God would tap someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. It was through that passage in Isaiah that Jesus first announced his campaign of love. Following the scripture reading he wowed the hometown crowd by declaring: “I’m taking this on, y’all,” in a “drop the mic” moment.
That’s where last Sunday’s lection ended. And in a rare move, the lectionary this week picks up the story by repeating the final verse from last Sunday because it’s pivotal. The crowd seemed to approve of Jesus up to that point. But he could tell from their enthusiasm that they had misunderstood him. They hadn’t really grasped the radical reforming necessary for good news to come to the poor and imprisoned and blind and oppressed. The proud crowd thought they knew the hometown boy-turned-preacher. But as we read farther today it becomes clear that at the very moment when the synagogue was ready to take up a love offering for Jesus, he had to correct their misimpression. Awkward.
Having returned to my hometown 14 years ago, I awkwardly received praise from old friends who initially misunderstood my ministry in Mobile. With kind intentions, some said to me, in effect, “Well, I don’t agree that women should be preachers, Ellen, but I thank God for using you to save souls.” As Open Table was getting started 10 years ago, others whispered something like: “Ellen, I understand you’re inviting, um, gay people. I’ll be praying for you as you try to convert them.”
God forgive me, sometimes it just wasn’t possible to explain progressive theology, Open Table’s mission, and our Open and Affirming stance to a former Sunday School teacher standing next to me in the checkout line at the Winn-Dixie. Unlike Jesus, I drew upon society’s notion of “people skills” rather than prophetic skills.
Jesus had more courage and scruples than I. When his former neighbors and third cousins applauded his performance in the synagogue, Jesus realized he’d been misunderstood and immediately made it painfully clear to them the difference between their expectations of his ministry and his aims. He was out to change some things. And he was not staying in Nazareth. No. Prophets weren’t welcome or effective in their hometowns. He would take his ministry elsewhere as, he explained, the prophets of old had done. Elijah went to Sidon and there saved a widow and her son from starvation even though there were plenty of starving widows and children in Israel. Likewise, Elisha went to Syria to heal Naaman from leprosy even though many right there in Israel suffered from that same disease. “It’s been nice visiting y’all again,” Jesus said, “but I’m taking my ministry on the road.”
I’d have advised Jesus to work on his people skills a bit: thank them and move on quietly, no forwarding address. Shouldn’t a prophet have predicted that clarifying his expansive mission would enrage them? Luke’s gospel says the congregation “drove him out of town”–and it doesn’t mean in a limo. Fresh from worship, a murderous phalanx jostled him and shoved him and pushed him to the edge of town and almost over a cliff. After identifying with the persecuted Hebrew prophets of long before, Jesus should have expected as much.
Prophets had then—and have still today—a dangerous job. The danger comes from their role as cantankerous change makers. Prophets are both agents of social change and instruments of spiritual transformation, a combo that’s hard to hold together.
Richard Rohr believes the early Hebrew prophets played a significant role in reuniting two diverging strands of Judaism: “Very early in the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a split between the Exodus tradition, . . . the mainline and original tradition of full liberation [that defies the pharaohs of this world], and the tradition that develops in Leviticus and Numbers, which is called the ‘priestly’ tradition, which seems more concerned about how to organize and control and perpetuate the [religious] experience.” *
Rohr continues: “About eight centuries before Christ we finally meet the spiritual geniuses—the Jewish prophets—who tried desperately to link two traditions: inner God experience and outer work for justice and truth. That linkage is forever needed and yet forever resented and avoided to this day. We continue to have halfhearted religious divisions in the form of Right or Left, liberal or conservative, establishment or disestablishment, contemplative or activist. They really do need one another, but in most of history the priestly tradition has been in control and defined religion. We always and forever need the prophets, who are invariably pushed off to the side.” Prophets risk getting “pushed off to the side,” Rohr says. Or pushed nearly off a cliff, as the Gospel of Luke says. Last week my sermon named individual prophets in Christian history: from Isaiah to Jesus to Martin Luther King, Jr. to Rev. William Barber.
But let’s now consider that a congregation might collectively be a prophet, might together bear prophetic witness to the human/divine capacity for transformation, and at the same time, might serve one another and the community in priestly ways. I believe, friends, we at Open Table have a calling and a capability to be a Priestly and Prophetic Church. In fact, in the heart of our mission statement, printed on the front page of every worship bulletin, is a reminder that we are trying to follow the ways of Jesus through both spiritual and social transformation. We’re trying to do what Rohr says is the work of pulling together two religious tasks by journeying both inwardly and outwardly. Because to do one form of transformation without the other gives too much power either to a religious system or our own ego. To emphasize spiritual transformation to the exclusion of addressing systemic problems in the culture can create a religious fanatic or an emotionally detached navel gazer. To emphasize societal change without cultivating the inner life can create an ideologue more concerned about a cause than about living beings. Besides that, crusaders for a cause burn out without inner resources.
This priestly/ prophetic tension is challenging but makes good sense. Some of us prefer the adventure of social reformation; others the adventure of inner spiritual maturation. When we come together as a faith community, we can draw from both the liberation and priestly traditions we’ve inherited. You might worry that our diversity could threaten our ability to move forward together. But by appreciating these differences within Open Table, our faith community is enriched.
How would you classify your primary means of engaging at Open Table? How would you describe your preferred way of following Jesus’s way? Does church first and foremost give you a way to engage in some action that contributes to some systemic change in our world—or does it mainly deepen your experience of God and provide inner resources to deepen your inner life?
Here’s a self-quiz: Would you rather take some action for justice (i.e., spend a night hosting families through Family Promise, demonstrating for LGBTQ rights at Drag Queen Story Hour, providing food for the Prism teens, writing your legislators to support justice for immigrants, etc.? Or would you rather cultivate spiritual resources by, for instance, walking the labyrinth, attending worship services, meditating, reading and discussing a book like Why Religion?, journaling, praying prayers of gratitude, singing hymns?
A few of you will be pulled equally between both of these responses to God. Others will feel much more at home in either the first category (as a liberator) or the second category (as a priest). But each of us NEEDS BOTH the spiritual experience of acting and reflecting. These are recursive ways of engaging our faith. We listen for God’s leading, then we act, then we reflect and therefore learn from the action, then we engage again actively before returning to prayerful reflection and honest self-examination and tending to our own human hearts. But when we combine our gifts and goals as a faith community–that is, when we engage in both actions and worship/reflection TOGETHER–we have a chance to do what the Hebrew prophets and Jesus were trying to do: bring both social and spiritual transformation together in a recursive and mutually reinforcing loop. This mix of reflection and action is essential as we move forward with congregational decisions. Let’s value our differences while remaining united around a common mission to follow in the ways of Jesus—-together.
There will be times when others—within or outside our faith community—are angered or afraid of a prophetic stance we take. We will try to hear different voices, remaining humble that we may be wrong. But if someone wants to be angry about a position we’ve taken, we’ll remember we’re called to LOVE, to love others; we are not called to be loved by others. Although I don’t expect we’ll be driven out of town when we’re prophetic, we will not always be loved and admired and understood.
In Paul’s iconic love chapter that the lectionary paired with today’s Gospel text, Paul gives examples of prophetic and spiritual gifts that, without love, count as nothing. Neither ecstatic experience of the divine nor sacrificial actions for the common good will help usher in God’s kin*dom without love, without the kind of love that is both an inner feeling and an outward action. Friends, our leaders are using Orwellian doublespeak to deny an impending ecological disaster, deeply embedded racism, and systemic violence of every type including the violence of poverty. Now is the time to nurture of inner spirits AND engage the powers that be. Being a part of a church like Open Table supports us in both those aims of love.
The story of Jesus’s short and not so sweet sermon ends with him at the edge of cliff. Being on the edge of a new thought or action is exactly where a sermon should take us. But Luke says that Jesus, at the edge of the cliff, then “passed through the midst of the crowd and went on his way.” We don’t know exactly how Jesus escaped the mob, but in the midst of the accusations, the disappointment, the anger—he went on his way, a way that was always a way of peace and justice.
PRAYER: God who works in action and stillness, grant us the wisdom and courage and love of the prophets. Amen
*Rohr, Richard. “The Liberation Tradition,” https://cac.org/the-liberation-tradition-2017-01-16/