The Lectionary Committee skipped most of Matthew 23 in its 3 year Scripture cycle, perhaps because Jesus bites us. Jesus irritates by warning that we who put up statues to the prophets and plaques for visionaries are the very same people who vilify and crush today’s prophets: “How terrible it will be for you church legal experts and church boards! Hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. You say, ‘If we had lived in our ancestors’ days, we wouldn’t have joined them in killing the prophets.’ You testify against yourselves that you are children of those who murdered the prophets.” Long before any national holiday, Dr. King wrote from inside a Birmingham Jail: “I have watched the white church stand(ing) on the sidelines and merely mouth(ing) pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities… so here we are moving toward the exit of the twentieth century with a religious community largely adjusted to the status quo, standing as a taillight behind other community agencies rather than a headlight leading people to higher levels of justice.” If these rebukes sting, maybe they should.
Why is it that we quote Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech or venerate “Wesley’s 52 Sermons” and somehow we miss that God is always still speaking today? How is it that we enshrine the methods or music of the Wesleys but somehow miss how John and Charles broke church rules, got outside the building, and wrote new songs! Jesus promises God will always send prophets, new insights, and change agents: Therefore, look, (God is) sending you prophets, wise people, and legal experts. Some of them you will kill and crucify. And some you will beat in your churches and chase from city to city.” Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement remind us that God is always sending the church prophets and wise people to wrestle with current events and new theological insights. We forget that Wesley was pelted with rotting vegetables, beaten by mobs, and barred from preaching at his alma mater and many churches. We forget that Dr. King was arrested for parading without a permit and these are the same sort of tactics our State leaders employed during the Black Lives Matter marches.
Like a surgeon seeking to remove cancer, Jesus exfoliates the church: “Woe to you, preachers, leaders and boards, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23) Does the church lack faith enough to believe that God is still sending prophets to bring weightier messages about justice, mercy and faith? Does the church pick up the newspaper and raise its voice like a trumpet calling down all forms of evil, injustice, and oppression? Hebrews 4 tells us “the Word of God is living and active, sharper than a 2 edged sword, piercing deep into our souls”! The church is not relegated to stand(ing) on the sidelines and mouth(ing) pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. Let us not comfortably quote Dr. King, while fearing wading into the troubled waters of current events and theological controversies- no let us like Isaiah, Elijah, Mary, Paul, Wesley, and King dive into the deep-end troubles head first.
Who needs a prophetic word if everything is going great and the agreed path is clear to all? But even when all seems calm God troubles the waters. In 1 Kings 18, Ahab, one of Israel’s most successful kings, greats Elijah, “is that you oh Troubler of Israel?” God is always sending disruptors, trouble-makers and truth tellers. Prophetic preaching applies the Word of God to unsettled current events and church controversies. Why do we forget that the church was once unsure if we should worship on Sundays, allow non-jews to join, drop a Kosher diet, translate the Scriptures into German or English, abolish slavery, ordain women, or make cross racial appointments? The prophetic voice wades into the swirling unsettled stream of current events and movements with enough faith to risk shouting out for justice, mercy, faith and love.
Shout out; do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my church their rebellion, to the house of Jacob (and Jesus) their sins.
Yet day after day you seek me, wanting God on your side
as if you are a nation that practices righteousness!
You cry out “Why do we fast, but God does not see?
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress your workers.
You fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to untie the bonds of injustice,
let the oppressed go free, and break every enslaving yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them, and take care of the needs of the afflicted
(When you see the hungry you feed them, and offer healthcare to the sick) (Matt 25)
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly;
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; when you cry for help, God will say, “Here I am.”
then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
Then you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of city streets to live in.
In 1967 at the riverside in New York City, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, laid out a point by point defense of why he opposed the war in Vietnam. This was not popular even with many in the civil rights movement. King begins with “blessed are the peacemakers,” affirmed his love of our nation and his deep concern for the loss of life among poor, black, and other marginalized Americans- fighting for freedoms overseas that they could not enjoy at home. Listen to hear how King’s prophetic preaching holds a certain holy imagination that leans out into unsettled waters seeking to apply the spirit of the law into a current reality. (If you need a Biblical example, check out Acts 9-15 or 2 Corinthians 3) Prophetic preaching stirs up dreams, visions, and hopes it longs for justice, mercy, and love for all people. Such dreams always shake up our comfortable sense of the status quo.
“I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice.” Prophetic preaching often flows from that spiritual jolt- an inner witness of the Spirit that “this is not right- I need to do something”. Maybe you have felt God’s Spirit awaken you with a feeling of ‘that’s not right”? King continues “we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on. Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night, have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. But we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism, to the higher ground of a firm dissent, based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement well, and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems to close in around us.” ( A Time to Break the Silence) God is never done troubling the waters, stinging our conscience, and awakening us into action. There is silence to break and work to do, unsettled waters to wade into because at our baptism we vowed to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever form” we find it!
Hear the Good News, God is always still speaking- sending new voices, new insights, new movements, but we must listen carefully because God’s message will come from the margins. Jesus tells us that the church and state corridors of power always try to chase the prophets out of town. (Matthew 23). In “The Strength to Love” Rev. Dr King writes : We must not be tempted to confuse spiritual power and large numbers. Jumboism, as someone has called it, is an utterly fallacious standard for measuring positive power. An increase in quantity does not automatically bring an increase in quality. A larger membership does not necessarily represent a correspondingly increased commitment to Christ. Almost always, the creative, dedicated minority has made the world a better place.”
This weekend, let us celebrate the faithfulness of the black church, Dr. King, and the civil rights movement. However, let us do more than throw up another plaque or buy a T-shirt. Let us recapture a sense of prophetic preaching and real-world (Kin-dom) dreaming that moves us beyond pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. Let us be a church that risks leaving the shallow end and engaging with the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith, seeking to apply loving-kindness for neighbor, stranger and opponents to systems and everyday lives. (Matthew 5-7 & 23) Let us celebrate the civil rights movement by getting moving. You can connect with such work through Nashville Organized for Action and Hope, Belmonters for Inclusion who are seeking to resist legislation rooted in hate, with Community Care Fellowship, the Villages at Glencliff, the HERO project, Open Table, Justice for our Neighbors and other groups dreaming of a more just world. And let’s stop driving the uncomfortable prophetic voices from our churches. Prophets dive into unsettled waters. Finally, let us rejoice, remembering that God’s Spirit is always; still speaking, sending prophets, awakening consciences, and flipping over tables somewhere. Amen.