Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Mark 1:21-28
How many email accounts do you have? More than one? More than two? More than three? More than you can reasonably count?
Have any of you received a nice note from someone in Nigeria, asking for your help in securing $21 million dollars or more? All you need to do is open up your bank account to them so they have some place to dump all this money. You’ll get generous cut, and the letter assures you that this transaction is 100 percent safe! It’s such a great deal! But, then there are snags – paperwork gets complicated, officials need to be bribed. You’ll need to send them a couple of thousand dollars to grease the wheels of international commerce. But, what’s a thousand here or there when you’ll make it all back and millions more? What could go wrong?
As with most of these get rich quick, profit making opportunities, this one is too good to be true. By the time you figure out what’s going on – your bank account is as dry as the Sahara and your Nigerian friends – and your money – are nowhere to be found.
If we take a lesson from today’s Hebrew scripture reading – this would be a false “prophet.” Scripture tells us that we can tell true prophets from false ones by their outcome. True prophets produce true “profit” – what they predict comes to pass. False prophets are like the Nigerian email scam – what they predict never comes to pass. I would guess those who have been taken by this scam are hoping the fate that Deuteronomy predicts will come to pass on these false prophets.
The mark of a true prophet, however, is authority. Those Nigerians are certainly polite in their request for financial help, but ultimately, they have no authority to carry through on their promise. Only true prophets have authority. It is this question of authority that marks Jesus as a true prophet. In our Gospel reading, Jesus goes to the synagogue and heals a man possessed by a demon. It’s not so much the healing that impresses those in the temple, though. Instead, they are impressed by Jesus’ authority.
“They were all amazed,” the scripture tells us, “and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’ At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.”
Not only do true prophets have authority to back up their words, but they also have the courage to slay the sacred cows of society – to upend conventional wisdom and speak truth to power.
If you stop and think about it, our world is full of prophet making opportunities – chances for truly prophetic people to move our world forward in ways conventional wisdom tells us is not possible. Things that we take for granted today were, at one time, wild prophecies, and the prophets envisioning these fantastic things were thought to mad – or at least silly.
Here are some true quotes about some of the things we now take for granted in our world:
From a Western Union internal memo, 1876: “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”
Lord Kelvin the president of the Royal Society remarked in 1895 that: “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible.”
David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s said: “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
How about this one?
“We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” That came from Decca Recording Company when they rejected the Beatles in 1962
In 1949, an issue of Popular Mechanics predicted that “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, said in1943: “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
Echoing those sentiments in 1977 Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp. said, “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
These are the voices of conventional wisdom. Imagine what our world would be like today if people had listened to them – if they had not taken advantage of those prophet making opportunities. Instead, prophets were raised up, they spoke and worked with authority and today you have phones on your hips, you travel in heavier-than-air flying machines and listen to the most famous band ever, the Beatles, on your wireless music box. You can carry a computer in your pocket and everyone seems to want a computer in their home. So much for conventional wisdom.
Jesus understood this. He knew that conventional wisdom needed to be challenged. His entire mission on this earth was one of challenging the conventional wisdom in every arena of society – not just within the church, but within the political arena. Those who witnessed his amazing act of authority in that synagogue in Capernaum were not just the religious leaders of the day – they were the political leaders of the day.
Smith’s Bible Dictionary tells us that the Pharisees “secured the popular favor and thereby acquired considerable political influence. This influence was greatly increased by the extension of the Pharisees over the whole land and the majority which they obtained in the Sanhedrin,” which was the supreme council of the Jewish people. In short, when Jesus acted with authority in that temple, he challenged the political leaders of his day and dared to criticize their conventional wisdom.
Jesus was an expert in seizing prophet making opportunities. His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 is a classic example. He tells the crowd “You have heard it said” and talks about the conventional wisdom of the day – conventional wisdom enshrined in political laws. Then he turns that conventional wisdom, that political law, inside out, and in a prophet making opportunity, creates a new way of living, new ways of being a child of God.
You have heard it said, he told them, that you shall not kill … but then he said, I say to you that even if you’re angry with a brother or sister you’re guilty of murder. You have heard it said, Jesus told them, that you shall not commit adultery, but then he said, I say to you, even if you look upon another with lust, then you’ve committed adultery. You have heard it said, he told them, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” but then he said, I say to you “do not resist evil.” You have heard it said, he told them, love your neighbor and hate your enemy, but then he said, I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
These are the laws of the day – the political, conventional wisdom of the day and Jesus tosses them all out in one sermon. What a prophet making opportunity! No wonder the Pharisees were upset, they saw Jesus as nothing more than a traitor to the national cause. If he can so easily toss out the political and conventional wisdom of the day and people believed him – what would happen to their power, their authority? They didn’t want to wait and find out.
But, Jesus isn’t the only one who has the authority to seize prophet making opportunities. As children of the still speaking, still creating God, we too, are given that authority. God is still raising prophets from among our own people, even today.
Last July, the United Church of Christ recognized its own authority as prophets by becoming the first mainstream denomination to affirm same-gender marriage. The UCC understands the importance of this seemingly only political issue – they understand this is a spiritual issue as well – an issue that they believe Jesus would speak about – and speak against the conventional wisdom. The UCC, backed by Jesus’ authority, prophesied to the modern day Pharisees who seek to keep gays and lesbians second class citizens in this country.
In his statement supporting same-gender marriage General Minister and President of the UCC, John Thomas, just like Jesus, turned conventional wisdom on its head when he wrote:
I have argued that much of the societal resistance to extending marriage rights to same gender couples reflects the same history of resistance we in the United States, and in the church, have shown toward extending citizenship to the stranger, the alien, the other.
Throughout our history we have found ways to limit citizenship whether it was the refusal to allow women to own titles to property or have the right to vote, whether it is our ongoing resistance to grant immigrants, migrants, and refugees work permits or naturalization documents, whether it was a system that made some among us “three fifth” citizens and, until only recently in our history, denied them voting registration cards. Even our forebears in New England argued over who should be admitted to baptism when membership in the church and citizenship in the commonwealth were nearly coterminous (I had to stop and look this word up. It means “having the same range of meaning,” so he’s saying that being a member of the church and being a citizen meant nearly the same thing). Withholding a marriage certificate remains one of the few remaining ways of limiting full citizenship to some among us who are perceived to be alien or “other.” How do we square this with the frequent biblical admonition to “treat the alien in our midst as a citizen?” Not to tolerate. Not to grant second class status. But to treat as citizens.
Thomas and the UCC seized this prophet making opportunity, just like so many religious leaders before them, to challenge both the religious and the political authorities of the day – especially when those two are intertwined. The UCC understands that they are prophets and as prophets they speak with the authority of the God that still speaks words of justice, mercy, love and reconciliation in a world sorely in need of all of these things.
They’ve paid a political cost as some churches have voted to leave the UCC, but more churches, like Garden of Grace, have elected to seek affiliation with this prophetic body of Christ, because they recognize – and we recognize – the prophetic authority of this denomination. Remember, true prophets speak and their predictions come to pass.
I believe the UCC will be recognized in the coming years as the prophets they are as acceptance of same-gender marriage grows in many places around the world including Canada, England, Spain and even Massachusetts. Remember too, God promises to hold accountable anyone who does not heed the word of the prophet.
Woe, then, to those who would deny civil rights to anyone – woe to those who do not practice God’s radical love and hospitality.
Those who oppose equality in marriage argue for conventional wisdom around marriage, but even that has changed over the millennia. At one time the conventional wisdom was that men could take many wives. At one time the conventional wisdom was that women were the property of men. At one time the conventional wisdom was that women could not initiate a divorce. At one time the conventional wisdom was that only members of the same race could marry. The conventional wisdom around marriage has, and continues to change, because of the prophets like the United Church of Christ – prophets who understand that they, like Jesus, have the authority to speak and act in both spiritual and political arenas – especially when the two converge.
But they’re not the only ones taking advantage of prophet making opportunities. Take a look around this room. Look closely at those sitting next to you and those sitting across the room from you. Each and every one in this room is a prophet. You, Garden of Grace, are prophets, raised up by God for such a time as this.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that a church like ours would not be one to grow. Churches that grow in today’s world are conservative, both politically and theologically. Churches that grow are the ones that teach a prosperity gospel, a feel-good gospel, or an exclusive gospel that congratulates you for being in the right church or the right denomination and condemning those who don’t believe exactly as they do.
Churches that preach about God’s radical hospitality for all people or that seek to provide a “sanctuary of love, warmth, and laughter by providing Spirit-filled worship, music, and an open communion” are not the ones that should be growing. But, like Jesus, we’re making the most of a prophet making opportunity. We’re growing – we’re turning conventional wisdom on its head – providing new ways to live as children of the living, still speaking, still creating God.
We are prophets, and remember the criteria for a prophet – what they say comes to pass. Garden of Grace, what we have said, what we have predicted is coming to pass. We said we would be welcoming and open, and it is coming to pass.
We said we would gather still others, and it is coming to pass. We said we would move forward, seeking communion with a dynamic denomination like the United Church of Christ and it is coming to pass. We said we’d show our community the radical love and hospitality of Christ and it is coming to pass.
My brothers and sisters we are in the midst of a prophet making opportunity – not some false profit making scam from Nigeria. We must continue to prophesy – to listen to our still speaking God and seek God’s guidance as we move boldly move forward to claim our place in God’s world. If we keep listening closely, if we keep seeking God’s will for our church, if we keep gathering still others, then whatever we prophesy in God’s name will come to pass. May it be so, with the help of our still speaking God.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.