Happy Fourth of July everyone!
Here is a preview of my sermon for tomorrow:
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Prophets seem to have been multiplying like rabbits lately. They are turning up everywhere. Television. Newspapers. On line and on street corners. Men and women who are so convinced of their own spiritual superiority, their own certainty of what God intends for God’s people, they loudly call for the repentance of, well, pretty much everybody. I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video that had caught the attention of a number of independent news outlets. It depicted a bearded man, otherwise quite ordinary, bellowing his warnings of fire and brimstone and hell in the midst of a neighborhood music festival. I suspect, among all those who gathered for music and some afternoon fun, there had to at least been a few petty thieves and adulterers and otherwise run of the mill sinners; but this fiery preacher had zeroed in on one person in particular: a seven year old girl. Now, the music festival just happened to fall on June 27, the day after the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality; and maybe that little girl supported equal rights or maybe she simply liked rainbows, but she was holding a rainbow flag, all pigtails and innocence, being screamed at by an angry man to repent of her sinfulness and accept Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.
Now, I’m all for repentance. God grieves our sinful natures and longs for restored relationship, but I do not believe that bearded and otherwise ordinary man was one singled out and called by God to be a prophet among God’s people. Of course, not all false prophets are so vulgar as to holler at children and threaten damnation. Some are far more manipulative, with well-crafted messages and polished presentations. Some draw large crowds of like-minded self-perceived chosen ones. Some even have their own cable television shows. How’s a person supposed to know? How do we distinguish between a charlatan spewing lies and a true prophet proclaiming the truth? Sadly, public perception of Christianity has become so distorted by the racquet, as to effectively silence the whispers of those seeking to speak of truth and mercy and love. Churches struggle with evangelism. No one wants any part of such a thing; no one wants to talk to strangers about Jesus; no one wants to risk being perceived as “one of them.” So much for being sent out two by two. We’d much rather stick close and keep our mouths shut. We certainly don’t know enough. We can’t possibly be sure enough. We’re not even convinced we’re called, let alone sent. And so, all that is true falls silent on our lips.
When I was in the third grade, I took up the violin. I was excited about it. I practiced faithfully. I even spent my Saturday mornings rehearsing with a county orchestra. My friend, Patty, played the oboe and she was in the orchestra too. We ended up sitting together on the bus. Every Saturday morning we rode to rehearsal and back and talked about all sorts of things, but mostly about Jesus. Now, I went to Sunday school. I sat with my parents and grandma in church. And I dutifully recited the prayers my brother and I were expected to pray every evening at supper and at bedtime. But I wasn’t at all sure about anything. Patty, on the other hand, was really sure—maybe not about everything but certainly about Jesus. I have this clear and precise memory of the two of us on the school bus. Patty was sitting next to me with her notebook open on her oboe case, frantically sketching out a drawing to help me understand what she knew with certainty. She drew two high mountains, with a huge chasm between them. Jesus was on one side, she explained. And I was on the other. How was I ever going to get to the other side? According to Patty, the answer was simple: Jesus had laid down his cross to bridge the gap between us. It seemed like good news at the time. It still does.
I don’t know what church Patty’s family attended. I don’t know if Patty went to Sunday school or if she prayed grace with her siblings at meals. But, with all the wisdom and innocence of a third grader, she knew enough; was sure enough; was convinced she was not only called, but sent—at least to me. And I have never forgotten. You don’t need a loud voice to proclaim the good news of God in Christ. A whisper will do. A whisper and the certainty that your authority to speak at all comes—not from you—but from Christ who dwells in you. That’s how Paul explains it anyway. Truth tellers point to Jesus; charlatans boast of themselves. He writes to the church at Corinth with urgent concern. The Corinthians are being led astray by the loud voices of false prophets claiming the authority of visions and revelations. Paul, too, could boast if he wanted to, but he doesn’t. It is not his own authority he claims. Sure, fourteen years earlier, he had his own encounter with the Risen Christ; but, still, he claims no authority for himself. He wants only to be judged by what he does and the words he speaks. He knows better than to confuse his authority with that of his message. Indeed, he is forever humbled by a thorn he bears in his flesh; an ever-present reminder of his weakness, his sinfulness, his unwavering confidence that God’s grace is sufficient. No hardship, insult, persecution, or calamity will ever silence Paul’s voice, because Paul does not speak for himself; he speaks for Christ; for the One who dwells in him, each day renewing his strength to give voice to truth and mercy and love.
The last time I was with you, I shared about wanting to step into Mark’s narrative to urge the disciples to listen up and pay attention; to learn their lessons well, because the day was coming when Jesus would no longer be with them. Mark’s is a fast paced gospel, and already we have the disciples being sent out to expand Jesus’ ministry of repentance and healing. They can no longer use the excuse of not knowing enough, or that they are merely students, or even that they lack the confidence to be on their own. Today is their graduation day, so to speak. One last class and they will be sent out, two by two, into an often unwelcoming world. Today’s classroom? Nazareth. Jesus’ home town. And at first, everything is going splendidly as usual: the entire synagogue is mesmerized by the authority with which Jesus speaks. But then suddenly and without warning, everything turns sour. Someone realizes who Jesus is: a carpenter, a local boy, one of their own—one of the common folk, like the rest of them. Who does he think he is? The entire town takes offense and refuses to believe. For two thousand years since, people have been taking offense. Unable to distinguish between true and false prophets, they opt to not believe. Learn your lesson well, disciples. Watch what the Teacher does. Listen closely as he instructs you to do the same.
Go. Where you are welcomed, stay. Where you are not, where people refuse to hear and believe, simply leave. Shake the dust from your sandals and move on. You don’t have to raise your voice or stomp your feet or make a spectacle or threaten anybody. A whisper will do. The authority and power you have is not yours, it is that of Christ who dwells in you. It is yours by virtue of your baptism. And Jesus can as easily work through you and me as he can through a reluctant band of students who would much rather stay in school than graduate. Just for today, turn down the volume on all the voices clamoring for your attention and listen for the whispers. There, there you will find the grace and truth of Christ: In the scribblings of a young oboe player on a school bus, in the quiet witness of a child being bullied by a street preacher, in the hardships and humility of prophets and disciples who have, despite indifference and offense, entrusted God’s words of truth and mercy and love to generation after generation and finally into your hands on this summer Sunday morning in July. Like so many who have gone before us, we will soon gather at our Lord’s table of grace and then be sent out, dismissed into a world that so often seems to want only to coerce us into silence.
We have all we need to stay strong. God’s grace is sufficient. God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. God’s truth continues to find its voice on your lips and on mine, in the hesitant whispers finding courage and strength in the power of Christ that dwells in us. This gospel, this message of God’s truth and mercy and love that has been entrusted to us cannot be silenced. No matter if the entire world takes offense, we will continue to dust ourselves off and carry on. It is who we are. It is the ministry to which we are called. Christ keeps leading, keeps going before us and we, well, we who have been baptized into His Body, ready or not, we are carried along and forward into His future. Amen.