The Value of Prophecy
We continue this morning our series on the Identity, Values, and Mission of our congregation. Around here we usually like to take a few weeks at the beginning of the year to think about who we are together, what it means to be part of this community of faith, and what we’re here to do. It seems like a good way to start off the year—thinking about our own commitments. Over the last two weeks we’ve explored the values of Perspective (our congregational legacy), and Place (our role and calling here in this building on this corner in Washington, DC). Today we’re exploring our congregational value of Prophecy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about preaching this week because I’ve just started teaching a preaching class across town at Wesley Theological Seminary. In my class are many young, fresh-faced preachers-to-be, armed with semesters of biblical Greek and Introduction to Old Testament and Life and Writings of Paul, ready to learn how to translate a text to the art form of a sermon. On the first day of class we talk about what a preacher does, and I tell them that it’s part of a preacher’s task to be a prophet.
Prophet?, you ask. Yes.
And, I remind them, being a prophet does not mean: yelling really, really loud while beating on your pulpit wearing a shiny suit. Neither does being a prophet mean predicting the future, especially in an end-of-the-world kind of way. Being a preacher/prophet means what Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “The purpose of preaching is to arouse in the congregation the capacity for an experience of God.”
Yes. Prophetic preaching means the words you hear from the pulpit should often hit somewhere close to here—to your heart. They should make you think, but most of all, they should make you act. Often in ways you wouldn’t otherwise. A good preacher does this—why? Because a good preacher should always be dusting off and holding forward for your consideration the gospel message—Jesus’ uncomfortable invitation to live in a countercultural way.
Now that I’ve shown my hand, I’d like to propose it’s not just the preachers who are called to be prophets. It’s all of us who claim to follow Jesus. And around here, in this specific community of faith, prophecy is a value that characterizes who we say we want to be as a church. Taking the definition of prophecy to a communal level, we could say that the way we live as a community of faith in this city and in the world should always arouse for those we encounter the capacity for an experience of God.
As we think of what it means to be a church that embodies the value of prophecy, we’re considering this morning a very familiar passage from the gospel of Matthew known as The Beatitudes. I’d like to invite you to open your Bibles to the Matthew 5 passage on page 785 of your pew Bibles and hear those familiar words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew’s version of The Beatitudes is one of three in the New Testament—you can find shorter versions in Luke chapter 6 and Mark chapter 3. The original text is thought to be from Mark, but we generally like Matthew the best because it’s a longer list, more fleshed out, more poetic. The Gospel of Matthew puts The Beatitudes right at the start of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount; they’re there to set the tone for some foundational sayings of Jesus throughout Matthew’s Gospel. And whether Jesus actually said the full, long version in Matthew or a shorter version like the one in Mark, the way he was speaking would have been familiar to those listening. His poetic cadence—“Blessed are the…for they shall…” sounds a lot like passages found in the Psalms, like in Psalm 1.
And while Jesus’ manner of speaking was familiar to those listening to him that day, it’s not that familiar to us. Because of that, we’ve been known to (try to contain your shock) misinterpret what Jesus was actually saying. In our individualistic, achievement-focused society, for example, some of us have read these words of Jesus and thought that Jesus was laying out a path to success and happiness—if you do this, then you will get this. Right?
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Hmmm, I better get on that being meek thing if I want to be blessed with wealth and comfort. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be shown mercy—good reminder not to get angry, speed up and recklessly tail the guy ahead of me in traffic who cut in instead of waiting his turn, insuring that I’ll get a pass the next time I do that.
That’s the way we think about life in our culture, so it makes sense that sermons and books about The Beatitudes would have titles like, “The Path to a Blessed Life” and “How We Can Receive God’s Blessings.” And don’t forget Robert Schuller’s masterpiece, “The Be-Happy Attitudes: 8 Positive Attitudes That Can Change Your Life.” Here’s the description: “Many seek happiness in wealth, fame, relationships, even drugs—and, of course, they fail. How can we be happy? In his most inspirational best-selling book to date, Dr. Robert H. Schuller, the spiritual host of the weekly telecast ‘The Hour of Power,’ probes the Beatitudes for the answer—and discovers eight universal positive mental attitudes that have been used for their healing value through the ages. Through them, you can make real happiness truly possible.”
Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no, no. This is real life example of the ridiculous scene in the 1979 Monty Python movie, “Life of Brian,” an irreverent biblical satire about a first century Middle Eastern Jew named Brian who joins an anti-Roman movement and is mistaken for the Messiah. During a scene reenacting the Sermon on the Mount, Brian is preaching from far off and the crowd is straining to hear. One of the members of the crowd says, “I think it was ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers’. Someone else says, “Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” Another responds, “Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”
When we turn The Beatitudes into a formula for our own happiness, we are making our own ridiculous Monty Python-esque parody of what Jesus really meant. Instead, per usual, Jesus’ words were intended to be troublesome and challenging, to call the people to a new way of understanding themselves in the larger picture of God’s work in the world. In other words, Jesus was doing what any good prophetic preacher would do: “arousing in the congregation the capacity for an experience of God.”
Here’s how. The context in which Jesus was speaking was not, like ours, a context of individual achievement, independence, and a personal quest for happiness. Instead, it was a society that was fiercely interdependent. When you experienced a loss or an illness or a weakness, you were understood to be the recipient of God’s disapproval, and thus the community shut you out. When you bucked expectations to make peace or to overlook a slight, doing it to the strong disapproval of your community, you were risking exclusion. The community did what it thought best to protect the interests of the whole: weed out the weak ones; eliminate those who wouldn’t take up arms; exclude those who had clearly been the recipients of God’s disapproval through loss of income or disability or sorrow. Poor. Mourning. Meek. Hungry. Thirsty. Reviled. Persecuted. For the sake of the larger community, in line with the laws of the temple, we exclude. It doesn’t mean we’re not charitable, but it does mean we rank people according to their value.
But Jesus said no.
New Testament scholar Jerome Neyrey says that one of the ways we misinterpret this passage is by using the word “Blessed.” Instead, he argues a better translation would be “Honored.” When we do that suddenly this passage starts to mean something different than we thought. That switch changes our view of this passage from a formula for individual happiness to a radical reframing of the way we see each other. Honored are the meek; honored are the peacemakers; honored are those who weep; honored are the merciful; honored are the poor in spirit.
Jesus isn’t giving us a quick fix guide to being more blessed than everybody else. He’s giving us a radical new way to see…each other. He’s saying, “Look around you. All those people who you mentally classify as less than you are? Yeah, change that. Honor them.”
Because when you start doing that, it will change your perspective. And, when you change the way you look at each other, you can change the world.
What might this mean for us as a community, as we think about our call to be a church that values prophecy, that constantly risks saying unpopular things, that honors and includes those whom others would not? It means that we have to be ever-vigilant in ourselves, too. Who are the people we exclude? Who are those we might write off? The way of Jesus, the prophetic, countercultural and radical challenge we’re always answering as a prophetic community of faith is this: honor them.
You heard Carol Blythe speak earlier about some of the ways this community of faith has been a leader in raising a prophetic voice on behalf of those who have been excluded, and it is true: this church is known for doing that often. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s been easy. The uncomfortable push to see each other the way Jesus invited us has been painful, even for us.
In 1955, Calvary was the first white church in the District of Columbia to admit an African American into membership. This was radical and groundbreaking at the time; think about the history of the Civil Rights Movement—this was in 1955. It’s a great thing to remember; I’ve heard that fact recounted often, with pride.
A few years ago I got a telephone call from Dick Cranford. Dick was the son of Clarence Cranford, Calvary’s much-beloved pastor of 32 years who happened to be pastor in 1955, when this important church vote on open membership was taken. Dick wanted me to know, as Paul Harvey might say, the rest of the story. While it was true that the church voted to admit an African American member in 1955, that was a very contentious vote. It deeply divided the congregation and, up until it was taken nobody really knew which way the vote was going to go. Dick told me that his father worked until late the Saturday night before the church meeting, composing his resignation letter. Before he stepped into the church meeting that day, he locked the letter in his top desk drawer. He didn’t know which way the vote was going to go, but he knew that if Florence Davis was excluded from membership at Calvary that day, he would promptly submit his letter of resignation.
In the end, the church voted for openness: 125 for accepting Florence Davis and 79 against. But it was hard. And being prophetic is still hard. It requires rigorous living of the gospel; it asks us to constantly examine and reexamine our own hearts and the life of our community; it’s constantly pulling us to look around, at each other, at the world out there and reexamine who is on the outside…then welcome them in, with honor. Then, keep showing honor to those this world dishonors, again and again and again.
Because this is what a prophetic community of faith does. It arouses in one another…and it arouses in the world around it…the capacity for an experience of God.
May it be so in our own lives. And may it be so in our life together.