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Sunday, July 09, 2006

On Being a Prophet in a 'Not-for-Prophet' Church

V Pentecost – July 9, 2006 –
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul, Chatham, NJ
(the Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
(2Cor 12:2-10, Mark 6:1-13)

We’re going to start off this morning with a pop quiz. See if you can identify the author of this quote: "A prophet is meant to be a nuisance, asking such questions precisely when we think we have so ordered our Church, community, society or relationships as not to exclude."

How many think it was Bishop Jack Spong? Nope. How many think it was our Presiding Bishop Elect, Katharine Jefferts Schori? Nope. Actually, it was the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He wrote those words eight years ago. I suspect he never thought he’d have to eat them.

You may know from reading the New York Times or listening to NPR that he has just revealed his grand scheme for the unity of the Anglican Communion, which looks to be designed to exclude nuisances from the Church – that would be people like you and me. ‘Revisionists,’ we’re called – the newest way to say ‘nuisance.’

We’re the ones, in the Archbishop’s terms, who ‘ask such questions precisely when we think we have ordered our church, community, society or relationships as not to exclude.’ On one level, you have to have pity on the man. It’s really hard when you become your own worst nuisance.

Many of the historic prophets were nuisances. Their job, as someone once said, is to ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’. You can hear that in the words of Ezekiel, calling the people of Israel “a nation of rebels,” and their descendents, “impudent and stubborn” – asking difficult questions on behalf of the God of mercy and justice while assuring them of God continual presence among them.

Ezekiel was a priest who wrote as a prophet to the exiles, who literally ate his words – or, more accurately, God’s words. So that he will speak only what the Lord has written, Ezekiel must eat a papyrus scroll filled with words of woe. I kid you not. Your ‘vacation bible school assignment’ is to check your Bible for Chapter two of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel and read verse 8.

I have always loved reading the prophets. There’s lots of passion and poetry in their prose. They always ask the tough questions, but they never ask them before wrestling with the questions or the issues long and hard themselves. We hear this in Paul’s second epistle to the early church in Corinth. In the earlier chapters, he has indicated that his relationship with them has deteriorated; making what he calls “a painful visit to the church.”
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This may be the reason he tells that very strange story about a person who was in Christ in whom God had placed a thorn in his flesh, he says, “to keep me from being too elated.” Three times he asks the Lord to remove the thorn from his flesh, but God says to him, “My grace is sufficient to you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”

He ends by saying, this of’t quoted sentence: “For whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” It is important to note that, by the time he has written these words, his relationship with the Corinthian had vastly improved. I suspect that Paul is attributing that small miracle to the grace of God.

Jesus tells us, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their own hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” So, we ought not be surprised to hear him instruct his disciples with this admonition: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on you feet as a testimony against them.”

One of these days, I’m going to write a book, the title of which will be: “On Being a Prophet in a ‘Not-for-Prophet’ Church.”

Actually, I like my prophets – like my angels – with dirty feet. I like the ones like Jonah who try to run away from their call. I like the ones like Ruth, who hang around even when they are not wanted. I especially like the Davids and the Samuels, the Mariams and the Esters, the Zacheus’ and all the unnamed and unnumbered women who were persistent in enacting what they knew they were called by God to do, even when there were those to whom they were merely nuisances.

These are the men and women who were ‘holy nuisances’ in their day and time, so that you and I could stand in that great tradition in ours. We, the baptized, need to ask questions, tough questions, of our church – indeed, of all of our institutions. As any parent can tell you, when kids question the status quo, or challenge the rules, they can be quite the nuisance. Indeed, some of my favorite prophets not only have dirty feet, they have small feet.

I have lots of images of them still fresh in my mind from General Convention. There was a large contingency of youth there, who didn’t just hang around and observe. They were assigned resolutions to follow and committees to observe and hearings in which to testify.

Some of you who have read my Blog know about one of those prophets with dirty feet – Charlie Hererra, one of the kids in my congregation when I was priest-in-charge at House of Prayer in Newark, who testified brilliantly in my committee, Social and Urban Affairs, concerning the right of workers to organize and encouraging employers to consider offering not simply minimum wage, but a living wage.

I haven’t told you about Sam. Sam Gould, the son of a seminary classmate of mine, Jane Gould who is presently rector of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic church in Lyn, MA which holds services of Eucharist in Spanish, French and Swahili. Sam’s testimony caught everyone off guard – not just because he was a 16 year old boy who spoke movingly and eloquently about the LGBT people in his congregation and community whom he loved, but mainly, perhaps, because of the way he looked.

And, he looked . . . well, there’s only one way to describe Sam: unabashedly, unashamedly, outrageously, preppy. Kaki pants. Red tie (YES! A red tie!). Navy blue blazer. Penny loafers. I haven’t seen a kid that age dressed like that at a church function except, perhaps, at a funeral or a wedding. If the old guard was bemoaning the loss of “the good old days” of the church, while wringing their hands with worry about Her future, here it was, staring them right in the face: the way it used to look and the way it now sounds. And, clearly, this church of ours is not your father’s Oldsmobile.

Sam started off by reporting a conversation he had had with a young member of the his Sunday school class – an African kid, as I recall – who didn’t want Sam to miss the next Sunday’s class. “But why do you have to go, Sam?” asked the child. “Because,” said Sam in a tone mature beyond his years, “I have to go and tell the people in the ‘Big Church’ about Jesus.” “Don’t they already know about Jesus?” asked the young boy. “Well,” said Sam, “I’m going to tell them about the Jesus I know who wants everyone to come to him. I want to tell them about the Jesus I know who gets very sad when we try to keep people out of the church.” “Tell them about Jesus,” responded the kid, with no small amount of enthusiasm.

Thusly commissioned, and, with that preface, the young boy Samuel began to prophesy to the church, making more than one adult in the so-called orthodox aisle uncomfortable, and causing some in the ‘movable middle’ of the church to raise an eyebrow, but amazing us all – including his mother. “Isn’t that Jane Gould’s kid,” we asked. “Where did he get all this?” we inquired of each other. “What is this wisdom that has been given to him?” we wondered silently.

St. Paul reminds us that, in the economy of God, not only is God’s power perfected in our weakness, but that God often chooses the weak to shame the strong. Prophets are like that. But, here’s the thing my friends, we are all called to be prophets in this not-for-prophet church of ours. Even though we feel inadequate to the task, the vocational call of our baptism demands that we speak out against injustice, that we ask the difficult question – even if (no, especially when), it is disturbing to the status quo.

Don’t worry if you feel that you aren’t smart enough or articulate enough or qualified. God has promised us grace – abundant grace – whenever we do a work of justice or mercy in his name. And, sometimes, by God’s grace, you don’t even have to think of clever words yourself. Sometimes, you just have to remind prophets of the words they, themselves, once spoke. Then, like Ezekiel, all you have to do is get them to eat them. (Perhaps, for this Welshman, with a side of Haggis.)

I know. What a nuisance! Pray that God send us more prophets with dirty feet; more holy nuisances to ask annoying questions. It’s the only way I know to bring an end to hatred and division, injustice and oppression, and help us to live more fully into the unconditional love we know in Christ Jesus. Amen.

8 comments:

Mike in Texas said...

Elizabeth wrote: " ... send us more prophets with dirty feet; more holy nuisances to ask annoying questions."

You rang? {LOL)

Renee in Ohio said...

Our priest talked about following Jesus on a "sandal-wearing" journey, and went a little bit into what it means to wear sandals--more connected to the environment, must walk more carefully, more vulnerable, etc.

But when the reading today had Jesus talking about prophets not being recognized in their home towns, I couldn't help thinking of the Rowan quote Father Jake posted recently. Glad to see you made good use of it.

Katie Sherrod said...

Wonderful, Elizabeth. Living in a "not for prophet" diocese, I particularly appreciate this.

Ew-3 said...

"Pray that God send us more prophets with dirty feet; more holy nuisances to ask annoying questions"

My questions have been VERY annoying to you and others. I think your prayers have been answered.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

To EW-3:

How old are you?

Developmentally, you are behaving at about the level of a 9 year old - a very bratty nine year old.

I don't want to chastize you; neither do I want to embarrass you in publc but since you won't reveal your identity, you leave me with no other choice.

That was a perfect example of a "snarky" post.

I'll give you that as a free pass. It will stand as an example to you and any one else who has a question about what I mean.

Bottom line: Three strikes and you're out.

Unless you are vulgar or violent and then I not only pull you, I permanently block you from posting.

If you haven't guessed, I'm as serious as a heart attack about this.

Ew-3 said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ew-3 said...

Responding to Rev. Elizabeth's fourth(?) non-response to me:

How old am I? How old are YOU???? Listen to yourself! You have ZERO sense of humor! I made that comment about 'annoying questions' half in jest! Are you now going to get out a ruler, rap my knuckles, and teach me the 'love' of Christian liberalism? You sure sound like you are on the verge of it!

Sorry for not following 'your' rules. It is interesting how rules are now so important, and how intolerant you can evidently be with those who dare the defy them. What about the thousands-of-years-old Biblical rules against homosexuality? Those can be dispensed with, right? Hmmm, Biblical rules: BAD; Elizabeth's rules: GOOD. Uh, I see, I guess.

I would like to note that I made a similar quip to that of Mike in Texas made above, and you had NOTHING to say to him. But when I say it - My God! - you threaten to kick me off the board and call me a child! Oh, but that's OK, because Mike in Texas is from the left, but a right-wing homophobe like me gets no mercy, right? Silly me!

I am stunned that a clergyperson of my faith can call me a "coward" and a "very bratty nine year old", among other choice words. Real nice, huh? I see all too clearly what an ECUSA in the mold of Rev. Elizabeth would be like, and it is not a pretty sight. Perhaps a few of your own parishioners might wake up and smell the coffee.

And I still can't fathom why you are so obsessed about my identity, Rev. Elizabeth. Even a 'reformed Nazi' RCC priest hears 'confessions' in a darkened, anonymous booth, not knowing or caring who is making them. Why are you so interested in knowing who I am? How will that change your response? Or do you have some other purpose?

You need not have a 'heart attack', Reverend (what words!) nor follow through with your threat and remove me (Leftist 'free speech' at it's best!), though I am also not about to act like a mummy and shut up just to get tactic 'blessings' from you. Please save them for someone else, for I would never ask you for one. The truth sure seems to make you uncomfortable, as your fierce reactions to it demonstrate. Believe me, your censorship of me will speak far louder than my words. I would much rather live (or die) knowing that I was silenced for speaking the truth, rather than knowing that I had silenced someone for saying it.

Liz Zivanov+ said...

I'd say EW-3 has a real fixation on you, Mother. She or he (does anyone know?) might have a maternal issue and is working it out on you. My guess is that this person is in the late 20s range and has difficulty with baby boomers. Especially gay ones. I also think that along with her fixation on you, she probably has some real issues around sexuality.

Sad. But there's not much you can do other than block her or give her space to run herself down. She's really on the edge of hysteria.