I want to thank Pastor Limina Grace and the worship team for inviting me to be with you today. It’s a risk to invite someone to come and speak when you don’t really know what they might say. What if this turns out to be someone who we want to run out of town, like the people wanting to run Jesus off the side of the cliff in his own home town? As I joked in my bio this morning, I guess that I’ll hope I’m far enough away from my home town of Woodstock - where I grew up - to avoid being run out of town like an unwanted prophet.
And interestingly, the prophetic message I feel called to bring to us today is about being prophets and prophetic in our work on social justice matters: That we are all, in fact, called to Christ-centered, prophetic work through Christ-centered communities focused on creating and doing prophetically good works in the world.
You’ve been talking these past weeks about educational inequality, incarceration, economic injustice and unemployment, and medical and mental health. You’ve been considering how God calls us through scripture into reflection and into action. This is a great topic to start the secular new year, and I appreciate how the worship team has framed this series to encourage us to think - not about what may happen - but about what we can make happen. And, of course, we remember that anything good we can make happen is possible only because of the saving grace of Christ working through the cross and resurrection to make of us a resurrection people.
Without God and Christ at center we are but clanging bells, right?
In our first lesson today, we hear the apostle Paul, writing to the fledgling Christian community at Corinth in an effort to redirect them away from squabbling (putting their energy into things that didn’t really matter) and back towards developing their identity as followers of the Christ, reminding them that no matter how many gifts they might have, if they lack love, they are like clanging bells. Not the beautiful bells rung at churches like the one where I grew up in Woodstock, calling people to worship, or beautifully programmed carillon bells ringing out “peace on earth, good will to all.” No, no, the apostle Paul writes, when we squabble over who has the greatest gifts and who should be in charge in our striving to follow Christ communities (aka churches), we are like clanging bells. And who can stand all that noise, noise, noise!
No, we do not want to be making that kind of noise as church communities. The noise of squabbling over who is greatest and who should be in charge. And being here as an ecumenical partner today I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention the noise, noise, noise that we can make as denominations sometimes, arguing over who is best or whether it was John Wesley or Martin Luther who “got it right.” Oh, I have seen the sin of Lutheran pride and our denominations squabbling over who has “gotten it right” and that is not a noise that we should be making!
No, there is another, more important noise to be making – a joyous noise unto God. A more important and good trouble to be starting and stirring up, thank you John Lewis.
Jesus points to the kind of trouble we should be making in our gospel lesson today. There he is – Jesus – standing in his hometown Nazareth synagogue. Reports have been spreading about this Jesus, who has just returned from forty days in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. Reports have been spreading and so the people are listening extra closely, maybe hoping that Jesus will affirm God’s message of love and promise for them as the Israelites; for them as God’s chosen people. And Jesus does indeed affirm God’s love for God’s people, but Jesus does this by using examples from scripture of where God fed a non-Jewish widow. Where God healed a non-Jewish man named Naaman – a Syrian.
Suddenly the mood of the crowd shifts. Jesus’ affirmation of God’s story of love pushes them beyond their comfort zones. This is not the story of God that they wanted to hear, the story affirming themselves on the inside.
You know, I have heard that New Paltz United Methodist Church is known within the Annual Conference for your creative worship endeavors, for your active and vibrant outreach ministries. I bet this gets a lot of positive feedback, and it should. Yet I have also heard that NPUMC is among the national Methodist congregations crying out for justice within the larger Methodist denomination, specifically for LGBTQ inclusion and welcome. And I have heard that these are prophetic efforts not welcome by many in the larger Methodist denomination. The mood of the crowd shifts, and suddenly the prophets are not welcome, eh?
I can share that LGBTQ welcome has been a prophetic work in the ELCA, the Lutheran Church of which I am a part. In fact, we lost a good many congregations when, in 2009, we publicly stated that enough of us believed that we had been wrong about what we thought scripture did and did not say about LGBTQ people and God’s purposes for them, and that we needed to build a better Church, a more LGBTQ inclusive church, a Church better reflecting Christ’s purposes of welcome.
I wonder if those of us as people and as church communities who discern, among God’s many gifts, the gift of the prophetic word; I wonder if maybe some of us as people and church communities and maybe even as denominations are going to have to get used to people wanting to run us out of town as we seek to speak and live the prophetic message of justice for God’s people.
So, I have added LGBTQ justice into the mix of your social injustice worship series and we can and should add racial justice and the work of dismantling racism, even as we think of the educational, economic, medical and mental health, and incarceration topics that you have been discussing and considering these last weeks. These topics that can seem varied and different from one another actually become a united whole when we consider them in light of our Christian vocation to love and praise God and love our neighbors as ourselves.
At the end of John Wesley’s influential pamphlet, "Thoughts Upon Slavery," he prays: “O thou God of love, thou who art loving to every man, and whose mercy is over all thy works; though who art the Father of the spirits of all flesh, and who art rich in mercy unto all..”
In his best-selling pamphlet of the day, Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther wrote that, “The holy apostle (Paul) in 1 Corinthians 13:5 attributes to love that it does not seek its own interests but the interests of the neighbor...Christians do not live in themselves but in Christ and in their neighbor — in Christ through faith and in the neighbor through love.”
Wesley, Luther, reminding us that we have a unified purpose that calls us to love and service of neighbor. And what is love and service of neighbor if not social justice? The Reverend Ryan Dunn of the United Methodist Church says the following about social justice:
For social justice is achieved when one person comes alongside another to ensure mutual welfare and well-being. To come alongside another human being does not necessarily mean that we get to invite into our place of comfort. Rather, it means entering in to another's suffering. We cannot experience a shared sense of justice until we have recognized where injustice occurs — until we have recognized where inequality exists because of race, gender, age, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, education, legal status, economic background, and mental or physical ability.
Wesley, Luther, Dunn, the apostle Paul, and Luke sharing a glimpse of Jesus’s message of love that transcends normalized boundaries of this world and humanity all share one message: love of God and love of neighbor equals striving for social justice. This is prophetic work that may not make us popular. Yet it can also be unifying work that helps us set aside differences and focus on helping others as we rise against injustice, whether we be Methodists or Lutherans – no matter what descriptors we put before or after our names. For really, there is only one descriptor that matters: beloved and blessed child of God. And there is no one who is left out of that equation.
Is it more important to be safe and comfortable, or are we called to put everything on the line in order to follow Jesus out of our comfort zones into the challenging yet uplifting territory of loving neighbor and dismantling injustice?
It’s the secular new year which comes on the Church’s new year that started with Advent. It’s a good time to consider who we are and the God of love and justice to whom we belong. It’s a good time to consider the challenges that face us and our neighbors and it’s a good time to remember that we are called into Church communities for the sake of amplifying our outward-focused ministry for the sake of the gospel and world. It is a good time to be remembering our prophetic calling on Christ’s behalf, and that as we sometimes share difficult messages that we and others may not want to hear, we are in good company with Christ whose message of love beyond known boundaries was not welcome in his home town.
And our churches are filled with literal and metaphorical bells waiting to share this good news and truth of Christ’s grace and mercy and love for all who are in need. Now, what are we going to do about it?