Archives For Prophetic

     As Sarah Condon noted in a recent post at Mockingbird, pastors of late seem consumed with the question “Will my sermon be newsy enough this week?” Often, this concern is couched in the mandate for preachers to be prophetic. Thou Shalt Preach This Issue, Sarah rightly observed, is a law pastors have been laying on each other with increasing fervor since the election of Donald Trump to the White House, adding from our pulpits to the chorus of shoulds and ought available 24/7 on our social media newsfeeds and cable channels.

 

Make no mistake, there is a place for the prophetic in the Church’s worship life. Though, too many preachers seem to have forgotten that the prophetic in the Old Testament is a mantle thrust upon unhappy vessels against their own volition. It is not one happily taken up as a calling. Likewise, I fear that preachers on the left have made the same error as preachers on the right in confusing the Church with America, for the prophetic posture is most often directed today at the ‘Powers’ (the federal government) whereas the Hebrew prophets directed their godly ire at God’s own people and did so, more often than not, for the sin of idolatry of which injustice etc. were but symptoms. It’s true that the Hebrew prophets also prophesied against their leaders, but, again, Israel was a theocracy, made explicitly so by God.

     I, for one, am uncomfortable with any use of the prophetic that relies upon the same construal of America as Israel as employed by that charlatan pastor in Texas whose choir sings ‘Make America Great Again’ in Sunday worship.

What seems to be missing, however, in the urgency to prophesy God’s judgement against galling abuses at the border and other issues is the humility that as Christians, we’re supposed to put ourselves first under God’s judgment.

As much as we’re called to be prophetic- indeed perhaps more so- Christians are called to place ourselves first before the rest of the world under God’s judgment.

Because we’re the only ones who know not to fear the Judge.

Christians like to say that every Sunday is a little Easter, but, every day—every day is Ash Wednesday, where we bear the judgment of God on behalf of a sinful world.

 

The Apostle Peter makes this point when he writes in his letter that “Judgment begins with the household of God.”

The household to which Paul writes in Rome was divided against itself over issues of food and worship. It reads in Romans like an obscure, arcane issue, but wipe the dust off their dispute and you discover it’s really the same debate you see spun out all over social media, on CNN and Fox News, and across the front page of your newspaper (if you still trust them enough to read them).

It was a debate over politics and identity. It was an issue of “Us” vs. “Them.”

The community in Paul’s Rome had split into factions, drawn lines, created competing tribes whose divisions had calloused and calcified into contempt.

Sweep the dust off this argument and you see that the community in Paul’s Rome was no different than the community in the Rome we call America.

Carnivores vs. Vegetarians. It’s different in form but not in function from Democrats vs. Republicans.

Meat-Eaters vs. Non-Meat-Eaters—it’s the same dynamic as Black vs. White, Conservative vs. Progressive, Racist vs. Righteous. Every time, in each instance—it’s like Pink Floyd said; it’s Us and Them.

And to them all, the Apostle Paul admonishes: “Do not judge…for we will all stand before the Judgment Seat of God.”

“Judgment begins with the household of God.”

Paul isn’t arguing that there are “many sides” to every issue.

Paul isn’t asserting that every possible practice or perspective is permissible.

Paul most certainly isn’t urging acceptance for acceptance’s sake or tolerance for tolerance’s sake.No, when Paul implores the Christians in Rome not to cast judgment, he’s instead instructing them to bear it.

To bear judgement.

Upon themselves.

When Paul reminds them that we will all stand before the judgement seat of God, he’s not warning them of coming condemnation. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Paul isn’t preaching fire and brimstone. Paul’s pointing to their baptisms. He’s reminding them of their calling, their commissioning. He’s exhorting them to imitate Christ.

 

We talk all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.

But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgment for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgment on behalf of the guilty.

The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgment for others.

Don’t you see—that’s how this is good news. It’s us. We’re the good news.

We’re the good news of God’s judgment. We’re the followers of Jesus Christ who, like Jesus Christ, mimic his willingness to bear the judgment of God on behalf of the guilty. We’re the good news in this word of God’s judgment.

In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame—we’re the good news God has made in the world.

Just as Jesus said, the first will be last and the last will be first.

We who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified- we who should be last under God’s judgement thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.”

Rather than judging, we put ourselves before the Judgment Seat. Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess. We bear judgment rather than cast it.

We listen to the guilty. We never stand self-righteously at a distance from them. We never forget that “there but for the grace of God” we’d be just like them, and that it is them, not us, them—the ungodly—for whom God died.

We bear judgement rather than cast it.

We confess: our own sinfulness and guilt, our own racism and violence and pettiness, our own apathy and infidelity and failures to follow.

Knowing that there have been plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus thirsty and not given him a drink, plenty of times we’ve seen Jesus an immigrant and not welcomed him.

Knowing that even when we have seen Jesus hungry and fed him that doesn’t change the fact that even our good deeds, our best deeds, are like rags, for not one of us, really, is righteous and there is no distinction, really, between any of us.

We bear judgment rather than cast it. Because we know we can come before God’s Judgment Seat expecting to hear the first words spoken when God came to us: “Do not be afraid.”

We’re the good news in this word of God’s judgment.

In other words, I would argue that as much as the Church might need prophetic voices in its midst it also needs voices willing to confess their own sins of racism and nativism. Bearing judgement upon ourselves, we’re more likely to see grace as available to the ungodly among us.

 

 

With The Donald in the White House provoking moral outrage and righteous indignation in degrees that are both justified and knee-jerk partisan, I hear a lot of my clergy colleagues talking about how they plan to be prophetic in the pulpit.

Listeners to our podcast, particularly our Fridays with Fleming episodes, will know this to be a horse I’ve beaten to Walking Dead level evisceration, but, nonetheless, the fervor of the cultural moment demands repetition.

Stanley Hauerwas says when Methodists use the word ‘grace’ they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The word suffers from overuse (especially among pastors who like to think their battles with stubborn, unenlightened, wayward laity are somehow analogous with John the Baptist’s ministry).

The same could be said for the word ‘prophetic’ when it comes to preachers and their preaching.

Before The Donald provoked outrage at an hourly tweeted rate, in my own Christian tribe, United Methodism, I most often heard ‘the need to be prophetic’ in relation to the tradition’s language about sexuality.

Too many preachers, and I count myself among them, have felt the burden or compulsion to be prophetic in their preaching role.

So common is this compulsion it’s curious that those who God has actually called to be prophets (Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos et al) comprise a relatively small- and unpensioned- group of the human community.

If theology should be done on the slant from the pulpit, then I think prophetic preaching should be done on an even slighter slant.

The prophetic should be used sparingly in the pulpit, if at all.

The danger of confusing the preacher’s own hubris with God’s will is too great.

So is the danger of giving a particular issue greater attention than is warranted.

As is the risk of inflaming your congregation unnecessarily.

Very often, what seems to necessitate prophetic preaching in the moment recedes in urgency with the passage of time.

Just as often, the rough, unspoken translation of ‘being prophetic’ actually means ‘My congregation isn’t as theologically sophisticated as me.’

Still more often, preachers claim the mantle of ‘being prophetic’ when, in reality, they’re wrapping themselves in the red and blue dross of the Democratic or Republican parties.

Rather than a word received from the Lord and offered only grudgingly, it becomes a word derived from the preacher’s own worldview, which he or she is more than eager to put forward.

Back to Hauerwas (and I suppose Karl Barth): in a world that knows not God, the most prophetic thing we can do as Christians is to gather together in worship of God, to hear the Word read and proclaimed, and to be sent out in loyalty to a homeless, dead Jew we proclaim as raised from the dead. Our Risen Lord who resides on neither Penn Ave nor Wall Street.

In confusing ‘being prophetic’ for simply being political, we preachers forget that our confession of the Lordship of Christ is already and ultimately a political act more interesting than anything followed by a #resist hashtag. And because Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father, it’s a more impactful political act as well.

It’s more real.

Back to Barth again, here’s the crux of the prophetic problem –

 The very grammar of choosing to be prophetic is to misspeak the language we call Christian.

The posture of prophetic conjugates scripture’s testimony into the past-tense, rendering God passive (or dead) and the preacher the only active agent. 

Contrary to the pretense at “prophetic preaching” scripture is not a sourcebook but is a living witness. It’s not an inanimate object but is the means through which Christ elects to speak. Scripture is not the word of God, bound in the past; scripture is the medium by which Jesus Christ, the Word of God, reveals himself.

To say that God is at work in the world is to say, for Christians,                       the Word of God is at work in the world.

Jesus Christ, as the Risen Living Lord, is the agent of revelation NOT the object of revelation. The Risen Christ is the Revealer not what is revealed. As followers of a Risen, Living Lord we as preachers can never *choose* to be prophetic. Rather, we can only find ourselves, by way of hindsight, to have been chosen by the Word of God, the Risen Christ to be used in a prophetic manner.

To say ‘I’m going to be prophetic this Sunday’ is to say, knowingly or not, that the Word is not Risen and the Living(?) God no longer elects to speak in freedom.

We can never choose to be prophetic, even for the most faithful of intentions, because the Word of God, Jesus Christ, is alive, encountering us, calling us, transforming us, and choosing to speak.

Scripture is not the record of how God met us in Christ upon which we can pitch our partisan tent. Scripture is the ground on which the Risen Christ elects to meet us and from which the Risen Word elects to speak to us today. You can’t ‘choose’ to be prophetic in the pulpit. You can only see in hindsight and,  like Jeremiah, lament that God has so used you.