“We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic…”
I love that line. It’s like something we might’ve heard from Anthony Bourdain as he was remembering some of his favorite travel food experiences. Oh, I loved that fish we had in Egypt; you know the one with the leeks and the onions and the garlic...
Of course, this is the people of Israel, rosy memories of the good ole days, the land flowing with cucumbers and melons, and only the occasional chains or lashings. Indeed, the people aren’t too happy right now with Moses; this change isn’t what they expected. The future is too uncertain and challenging; how did we phrase it a few weeks ago? Better the pharaoh you know, than the God you don’t.
Moses goes before God and lets it fly. These people are angry, and so am I. How could you leave all the responsibility of caring for these people to only me? I can’t carry these people alone; it’s too heavy for me.
So, God anoints 70 elders with the Spirit of God, and together Moses and these elders prophesy to the people.
Now, I want to pause here and make a note about the prophetic voice. We hear that word “prophecy” or they “prophesied,” and we get uncomfortable. We think of fortune cookies, or televangelists mumbling incoherently, knocking their followers to the ground to heal them, or predicting future fortunes for those who give them money.
That’s not prophecy.
Prophesying, or a less awkward way of putting it — being prophetic — isn’t about fortune-telling, and it’s not about future-telling. It’s all about truth-telling. That means sometimes people who are oppressed or suffering need to hear words of comfort, like those here who are wandering in the desert without much to eat.
But being prophetic also means, and is probably more often the case in our many stories in the Bible, that people who are comfortable with maintaining the systems that cause that suffering for their neighbors need to hear words of challenge. Prophet after prophet after prophet after prophet in the Old Testament is challenging the people of God to repent of their neglect of the poor, of their mistreatment of the immigrants in their land, of their patterns of oppression that helped some get ahead at the expense of others. As many great preachers have put it, being prophetic means speaking words that comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.
So, here we see the Spirit of God fall upon these 70 elders and inspire them to speak prophetically. To comfort or to challenge the people of God.
This arrangement works so well, that by the end of the story, Moses longs for this to become the new reality for God’s people:
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them!”
Fast forward many centuries to our reading from Acts. It might be familiar to you as the story of Pentecost. Jesus had ascended into heaven, and the disciples were left wondering what happens next. And it’s then that the Spirit of God is unleashed like a rushing wind into a vacuum-sealed room. Soon, they are speaking prophetically to a host of people who had gathered, and the message is clear:
The time has come that God’s Spirit will fall upon everyone.
As Baptists, as Christians, as people of goodwill, these two sacred texts should resonate deep within your bones.
In the Baptist tradition we refer to something we call “The Priesthood of All Believers.” It’s this notion that we can go before God boldly, in prayer, in confession, in intercession, without the need to have a priest mediate on our behalf. It’s why you don’t come to me to confess your sins; you go directly to God, or you go to one another and apologize and ask for forgiveness, because we believe that Jesus is now our Great Mediator.
It’s a core tenant of our tradition. The Priesthood of All Believers.
Reading these stories today — both Moses’ longing for the Spirit to be upon the people, and also the Spirit’s rushing over the people in Acts — should inspire us in the same way as this notion of the Priesthood of All Believers. Except instead of referring to prayer, now we’re referring to the prophetic.
Something we might call the Prophethood of All Believers.
Because the Spirit is upon each of us now.
We are all called and gifted to be prophetic.
Not to be fortune-tellers, but to be truth-tellers.
We are called to be people who speak the truth of hope and comfort for the marginalized, and to be people who speak the truth to the powers of this world that keep them on the margins or put them there to begin with.
And that brings me to something I’ve heard a handful of times since I’ve been here. And it’s one of the reasons I wanted so many of you to be here today.
I’ve heard from a few of you that some people don’t like it when I bring politics into the pulpit.
Some of it, to be fair, is New England propriety. You never talk about your political beliefs. Those are personal, and they remain private. I get where you’re coming from. I really do. And I hear you.
But now I need you to hear me.
I wasn’t called to this church to be the proprietor of New England sensibilities. I was called to be your pastor. To offer comfort in your pain and presence in your grief, to offer hope in your despair, and to challenge you when you’re more comfortable with how the world is than how it should be.
So, I won’t be apologizing for following the long line of pastors in this church who have been political from this pulpit and in marches and in advocating for the oppressed, stretching all the way back to our opposition to slavery.
I promise you that I will try my hardest to bring as many of you along as possible.
When any one of you has difficulty understanding where I’m coming from, where the gospel is coming from, where this church is coming from, I promise you, that I will listen to you — to your questions and complaints — and I will do my best to better explain where we’re coming from. We’ll call it mutual curiosity. A brave conversation with one another. A few of us have had these brave conversations together already. And I think we’re each better served for having had them, for having listened.
So, let me start there. These three years together, I haven’t been perfect. I was telling a faithful church member this week, that I’ve come to learn that pastoring is always a process of calibrations. Go one way, recalibrate the other, back and forth, wobbling together on this journey of faith, recalibrating the whole way. Sometimes that has looked like me getting too far ahead of some of you on a particular topic or issue of social justice. Other times it means I haven’t spoken up loudly or boldly enough when the moment has called for it. And still other times I haven’t been clear enough that each and every time you hear me bringing “politics” into the pulpit, I believe I am bringing the good news of our liberating God of justice and mercy and grace and goodness and kindness and hope and peace and love.
I don’t preach politics because I have some political bent. My politics are rooted in the gospel of Jesus the Christ, because the gospel itself is political.
Stay with me for a few more moments:
The word politics comes from the Greek word polis which means city. Politics in its truest sense is about the work of the city. Improving the welfare of the city and its people.
The word gospel comes from the Greek word evangelion from which we get the word evangelical,but more literally, gospel means good news. It was a term used for when a herald would trumpet good news from battle, a victory for Caesar.
Yet we read in Luke 4, Jesus saying,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The gospel as we know it — an appropriation of the word for good news from battle — is that Jesus, not Caesar, not the King, not the President, not the fill-in-the-blank-earthly leader, but Jesus brings good news of victory, of liberation, of peace, of a new kingdom — really a kin-dom where all are family — that is better than any kingdom, any empire, any democracy this world will ever see.
Do you see it?
The gospel itself is political, but it will never be partisan. Political because it deals with issues as they pertain to people; but never partisan because partisanship hems to party lines and proximity to power. Jesus isn’t Democrat or Republican any more than he’s white or American.
As long as there are people suffering, as long as we have structures of injustice, as long as systemic sins like racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and xenophobia remain, the gospel will be political, and so will I, and so will this church.
No political party gets to lay claim to our work, to our mission, to our good news that belongs to our God. We stand up, and we speak out because our theology compels us to, because our God calls us to, because our faith is made real by doing so.
None of what I’m saying means that this won’t also be a space for worship, for renewal, for rest, for comfort, for prayer, for fellowship, for sanctuary, for friendship, for family, for community, for singing, for the Scriptures.
It always will be.
But it will also be a space where we will hear the words of Moses and Jesus and Acts and prophet after prophet after prophet after prophet reminding us that the Spirit of the Lord is upon each and every one of us to be truth-tellers to power, and to bring good news to the oppressed, that in this, our moment, we will do our part in tilting the world a little more towards dignity and kindness and flourishing for every single person who has breath
and a pulse
and a dream
and a story
and a name.
So, stand up next to our friends and neighbors who are experiencing homelessness. Do not let them sleep alone.
Stand up next to our friends and neighbors who live with addictions. Do not let them struggle alone.
Stand up next to our friends and neighbors who are the victims of violence. Do not let them run alone.
Stand up next to our immigrant friends and neighbors. Do not let them journey alone.
Stand up next to our friends and neighbors of color. Do not let them kneel alone.
Stand up next to our trans friends and neighbors. Do not let them vote Yes on 3 alone.
Stand up next to our LGBTQ+ friends and neighbors. Do not let them walk alone.
Stand up next to our friends and neighbors who identify as female. Do not let them testify alone.
Stand up next to our friends and neighbors who identify as male. Do not let them listen alone.
Stand up next to our white friends and neighbors. Do not let them learn alone.
Stand up next to our straight and cis friends. Do not let them grow alone.
Stand up next to our Muslim and Hindu and Jewish and Sikh friends and neighbors. Do not let them worship alone.
Stand up next to your friends and neighbors all throughout this space.
Do not let them do this alone.
I can’t be Christian for you.
It’s the Prophethood of All Believers.
Because the Spirit of the Lord is upon each and every one of you,
and has anointed each and every one of you to speak truth to power,
and to proclaim good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
and to declare that time’s up.
Prayers of the People
Oh God of justice,
From the beginning stories of our sacred text like Abel’s murder at the hands of his brother Cain, through the prophets who spoke truth to power as the conscience of the kings, to the Chosen One who suffered injustice at the hands of systemic oppression, to the closing chorus of a God who is victorious and a new earth is finally made real, we see your heart for justice, equity, dignity, compassion, mercy.
You have poured out your Spirit upon our children, our siblings, our neighbors, our very selves, and with this gift comes comfort for those of us afflicted with the indignities of injustice, but also affliction for those of us who are comfortable with maintaining these very systems of injustice that dehumanize, monetize, and victimize our neighbors and loved ones.
Teach us to be brave — to listen to survivors and to believe their stories.
Teach us to be bold — to be prophetic witnesses to the God who loves everyone and desires human flourishing for everyone.
Soften our hearts from being defensive, lessen our pride that needs to be right, and open our hearts to the humanity in others. Open our ears to the words they speak, our eyes to the lives they are living, our mouths to speak truth to power, that our lives might be open to shining lights in the darkest corners of our communities.
Sermon preached at FBC Worcester, MA, September 30, 2018
Numbers 11:4–6, 10–16, 24–29; Acts 2:1–4, 14–18