Angels and Prophets
What is the difference between angels and prophets? Both have a message from God, but with one very important difference. It is a little bit like the secret every grandparent knows—one gets to give the kid back, the other has to raise the kid up. They angel brings the good news and. then leaves, the prophet must stay and walk with the community in through all their ups and downs. We have had our ups and downs over the years, and even in this last week together.
So, which would you rather be?
An angel or a prophet? One is loved, the other often thought of as inconvenient, and often criticized. Me too, I would rather be angel too. But since I haven’t learned how to grow wings…
Our Prophetic History
Over these past 5 years together I have spent time reading our history, studying the stained glass windows, walking the halls of every room of this church and I have listened to what the angels of this church have been telling me about you, and about the legacy that has been handed to us, here in this very place. A place where worship has been going on uninterrupted for 175 years—more than 6 generations of people have learned what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ and to love God with all their heart…in this place. And you are among that great legacy of faith.
What I have learned, is that this church has a strong prophetic tradition—a tradition that has produced great community leaders who did not accept no for an answer, who believed they could make a difference, and even if they didn’t, they knew that they should try because they believed in hope. Rev. Hiram Foote, the first called pastor after the founding was a national figure in the abolitionist movement. Willing to take a stand on freedom of all people. Fredrick Douglas, a. black freeman spoke here in support of abolition of slavery. Rev. Hiram Foote helped to establish this church’s call toward justice.
Most recently, I have learned of a remarkable woman, and member of our church, a prophet in her own right, Rhoda Lavinia Goodell. You might know that she was the first woman who accepted to the Bar of Wisconsin as a lawyer. What you may not know, is that she spoke out on many subjects, including the appropriate place of women in the church—in the pulpit. Hear her words from 1872…
“Miss Smilie, preaching in the .. pulpit, seems to have shaken ecclesiastical authority… it is amusing as well as instructive to observe upon what general principle the objection to woman preaching is based. ….The reason that woman must not preach is – not that …it is incompatible with her other duties, … not that she lacks any intellectual or spiritual qualification – simply and only that this would be coming out … and asserting equality.”
Lavinia Goodell, Janesville Wisconsin, and member of this church. March 23rd, 1872
A few months later this must. have caused quite a stir because the Presbyterians of Boston decided to take matters into their own hands. Lavina writes,
“The Presbytery of Brooklyn, the Rev. Dr. J.C. Butler, moderator, has adopted an address to the General Assembly; …earnestly requesting “… all the Presbyteries …not to license or ordain women to the Gospel ministry and not to allow any woman to teach or preach in pulpits or in the public and promiscuous meetings of the Church of Christ.”
using as evidence that
“The prophets, writers, and church instructors of the Bible were all men.” Did the Presbytery never hear of “Miriam, the prophetess;” …“Huldah the prophetess” …Did it never observe that Peter alluded to the prophesy of Joel, “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” as having been fulfilled in his day?
Lavinia Goodell, Janesville Wisconsin, and member of this church. May. 18th, 1872
Lavinia knew her bible as well as any pastor does today, better perhaps than some even now. Nearly 150 years later, the timing of this moment is not lost on me. Here I stand, occupying this pulpit, one that was forbid of women during Lavinia’s time. And further, right there, in the back of our sanctuary, on my left, is our newly installed stained-glass window, entitled “Miriam the Prophet.” Lavinia’s call for justice for women long ago seems to be fulfilled in our time.
This church has been, is now, and will hopefully continue to be the stage where prophets are born, raised, educated and then sent out into the world to declare the world as it is, and then dare to point to the world as it should be.
What is a Prophet?
Walter Brueggemann states in his work The Prophetic Imagination that a prophet not only has a message to deliver from God, but that he, or she, or they must come from the margins. For there to be truth spoken, it must first be seen and heard by one who has eyes to see and ears to hear… and what there is to see and hear is what is going on among those who lack power, privilege, resources, ability, access, and opportunity.
Prophets must always come the margins of our world.
New Prophetic Age
Friends, I believe, that we are now living in a new age of prophetic voices that emerge from the margins. We are living in a New Prophetic Age with social movements on the rise and people of faith at the heart of them. Black Lives Matter, the #MeToo movement, LGBTQ+ marriage rights, gender equality #ClimateStrike, #NoBanNoWall rallies, and #MarchforOurLives are a few of the movements where people put their faith into action.
The voices we are hearing are of our young activists who are willing to stand in the way of bullets, and the policies that protect them. They are willing protest on behalf of the earth against the world leaders that are ignoring the planet’s repeating cries, “I cannot breathe.” These young people will save us, if we will have eyes that can see and ears that can hear.
Two Unlikely Scriptures—speaking about Love and Dignity
It might seem unusual to pair these two scriptures together and to have them be the focus of my sermon for this day as we formally begin our celebrations of 175 years of ministry. But I will tell you the end at the beginning. Both of these scriptures share the themes of love and dignity.
Love and dignity, is just another way to talk about the very basic and human needs. We need love—in fact, we have a right to love. I don’t mean some erotic kind of love. No, this is the kind of love that means we have a place to belong, a place to call home, a right to be, a right to exist.
You see, love is form of acceptance, the more we can accept a person the way they are, the more we are able to show them love—in fact in Luke’s gospel Jesus says, the woman who has anointed his feet he says, “she has shown great love”.
The second very basic human need is that every human being has worth and deserves an equal chance at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, when you break it down, dignity is really about the ability to take care of yourself and your family by your own labor— dignity is all about equal chances, and equal chances are all about justice.
That is why God is all about Love and Justice. And so are we, here in this church. Because we are the. #LoveandJusticeChurch
It says so right on that sign right there, so it must be true.
Our second scripture highlights some of the dimensions of what dignity looks like. Isaiah is imagining a future where people have homes they built and orchards they planted—there is dignity in keeping what it yours.
It goes on to say, “my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain.” Human dignity comes from our ability to labor… to use our hands, our minds, our God given skills, our time to make something lasting, permanent and then to enjoy.
People should have a right to build it and then not have it then taken away; this is what Isaiah is telling us. But these days thieves come in the night, or while the kids are away at school, and they steal whole lives, not just home and orchards.
The Alabaster Jar:
As I reflect on this scripture in Luke and I think about the church’s role today, I wonder:
What if the Church is the Alabaster Jar of Costly Ointment meant to be broke open and shared? What if our resources are the inheritance that is needed to begin the work of reparations for sun- down cities and stolen lands?
Friends and leaders of good will, if you are not on the margins, then you must go there. God is calling us there. If you are already there, then it is time that you start talking. Remember God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called. You are what the church needs to thrive.
A church that turns outward, not inward, is what a Jesus focused ministry is all about.
What does an Act of Great Love look like today?
What does it look like when leaders use their power to extend real grace and forgiveness and redemption to the ones whom society has deemed expendable, forgettable, and in the esteemed words of Howard Thurman, whose backs are pressed forever against the walls?
What does grace look like in a world filled with guilt-ridden immobilized white folks, desperate brown folks, Queer folks whose bodies become momentary news cycles? What does it look like to promote real change, real solidarity for the disabled, disenfranchised, and disinherited?
What does it look like right here at Janesville UCC?
- Partnering with Social workers and the YWCA to create Two micro-grant programs: One for refugees and undocumented students to help meet the financial needs of students to finish their education. And the other to provide bridge money for child care to. support women going back to work.
- An African American woman with 5 kids and a section 8 housing voucher who cannot find a home, so the church worked to see that one was bought for her and then we began to learn how to be a faithful landlord.
- A homeless and frightened man living in his car in the parking lot of church, refusing to be invisible, calls the church to make a home—a place to call his own.
- And most recently, it looked like the church inviting innovators to tell us what they then their community needs, and then funding those projects by investing $5000 in that work.
It’s hard work. And it takes our whole faith-filled lives to begin to do this kind of work with God’s help. This is what outreach begins to look like, but we can do more.
What do great acts of love and justice in the church look like?
Friends, it’s messy. It’s intimate. It’s expensive. No, not that kind of expensive—we have plenty of money, we even have plenty of time. But what it costs us is ourselves…it requires a reorienting of who we are—a shift in our being. A work-order to real labor—it is time sow and tend a new crop of yet unharvested rewards in the fields of Christian love and world-wide dignity and justice.
The UCC-white-privileged-way-of-doing-ministry; the “let me help you out” with a little trickle- down economics in the middle of the up-down politics of the progressive world will not be enough to get us where God wants us to go. We will have to remake ourselves and our churches in the image of the brown man who is brutalized with words and deeds, remake ourselves in the image of the queer high school student who can find no safe place to be, and the poor undocumented mom trying to make it in a community that privileges law-abiding.-respectability over collective-community-responsibility.
We have a lot of work to do
What happens far too often when the church feels its back against the walls of financial inevitability and cast adrift in a sea people who are spiritual-but-not-religious, is that the church shuts down and forgets that Jesus was a community organizer who specialized in going to the folks who were not in the center of the political structures. Jesus went to the margins then he went right back to the centers of power, and he spoke truth to the powerful about how they could do better, and some even did do better—and they were better off for it. That’s redemption.
We have a lot of work to do, yet we should not be discouraged, or become numb. Pay attention to what is going on right in your own community.
Homelessness should not be marginalized or criminalized, and yet it is, right here in Everywhere, America. Your immigration status is now an excuse to write you out of the constitution and apparently out of the biblical record of faithfulness itself. Love your neighbor no longer means that you should love your literal neighbor, it means to love the one who is chosen for you by the social media algorithm that deems we are the most alike. Our friends tend to be the ones who serve as sycophants within our own echo chambers.
We can do so much better, because we have this faith.
Jesus often talked about people who have eyes but do not see, and who have ears but do not hear. The church has become numb to the world around us. We need to be able to wake ourselves out of the stupor of instability and reclaim our prophetic role. We are not angels, we do not deliver our message and then get out of town, we stick around and see the project through. It is not easy; it will be messy; and it’s definitely rewarding. The best part is this, it is exactly what God is calling us to do.
The people from the margins are demanding to be accepted—in other words, they are demanding to be loved. And God, God is calling out to us to make a
way out of no way, God is calling us to do the work of
Whether you like it or not, this is the New Prophetic Age…young voices from the margins reminding us of what our real reason to be has always been about. It’s never been about budgets, buildings, or the #’s in the pews. It’s always been about becoming a #LoveandJusticeChurch.
Asleep at the Wheel
What does this New Prophetic Age look like to those who refuse to see and refuse to hear? It simply doesn’t exist—because prophets cannot be heard when their message falls on deaf ears stopped up with greed and the business of busyness.
But for those of us who are trying ever so hard to fight against the narcoleptic tendency to fall asleep at the wheel of God’s call to justice, we see and hear prophetic voices everywhere. Each time someone breaks through the wall of white-privilege, male-patriarchy, breaking through the walls of American-xenophobia, heterosexual-normativity, and Christian-colonial-supremacy, it is usually the voice of the young activists shouting out that our skeptical-bellybutton-budget- conscious-gradualism will not save anyone; it will, however, ultimately get us all killed.
A Place at the Table
So, let’s not fall asleep. Let’s stay awake. Let’s continue to fund initiatives that reward innovation, that support and empower youth activists who do what they do, not because it’s fashionable, but because its faithful. Let’s keep investing in safe and secure housing, working to ensure that people have a right to the dignity of work—to labor, to make something and have a sense of worth in this world and be paid a fair wage for it. Let our churches be the place where love and justice begins. Let us not wait for the marginalized to come to us, let us instead be the ones who are going to the margins, listening, walking, witnessing, accompanying and then—by God’s grace, let us show great love—like the woman who showed great love for Jesus by anointing him Christ, and then Jesus showed her great love by giving her a place at the table.