Muslims in Douma, Syria, wait for Iftar, the evening meal at the end of the daily Ramadan fast, amid the rubble of a bombed mosque.
I love wrong answers that are really right answers. You teachers probably know what I mean. When a student technically gets a question wrong, but their wrong answer is pretty right on a deep philosophical level. Here’s what I mean.
I had a confirmation student in my first parish about five years ago who gave the most perfect wrong answer I’ve ever heard. I asked, “The Bible was written by people who were what by God?”
I got a blank stare.
Finally, my one student piped up, “People who were in….. convenienced by God?”
No! But oh my gosh, yes!
The next session I brought a Scripture from Jeremiah to show her just how right her wrong answer was: Jeremiah 38:6 – “So they took Jeremiah and threw him into a cistern…letting Jeremiah down by ropes. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.”
I think it’s safe to call being lowered into a giant muddy cistern for being a prophet being “inconvenienced by God.”
That raises the question: what’s a prophet?
I’ll tell you what I thought a prophet was when I was younger: it was a person who told the future.
Turns out I was wrong. That’s a fortuneteller.
What I would learn later is that a prophet is a person who speaks — or in some cases, tries to speak — for God, who tells the truth as best they know it and faces the consequences. Because it turns out that sometimes when you speak for God, people don’t like you. It upsets the people in power, or sometimes, it upsets the majority. When you tell people that they’re overfed while other people are starving, they won’t like you. Ask Amos.
When God says, “These people are welcome,” and most people do not want to welcome those people, they will hate you. Ask the people of St. Mark United Methodist Church in Atlanta.
When I was a seminary intern back around 2009, I served at a church that is about 80% LGBTQ, and of those, most are gay men. It stands in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. Back in the 90s, Midtown Atlanta began to undergo a change as older white people moved out and a diverse community of gay men found refuge there. The Pride parade marched through every year and the pastor stood on the front lawn, staring at the Baptist church across the street who hired armed guards to protect themselves from… oh, I don’t know from what.
The Methodist pastor looked at the people in the parade and the witness of closed doors across the street and he thought to himself, “These people need a pastor too.” And so the next year, drawing on the Scripture that was our Gospel reading, the little old ladies of St. Mark United Methodist Church offered cups of cool water to the marchers in the parade, giving them rest from the Atlanta summer heat. They held signs that said, simply, “You are welcome here.”
Then the visitors started to come: three, four, ten, then as many as fifty on a single Sunday. Young gay men found faith again. And things came full circle as those same little old ladies lost the ability to drive, so the younger gay men took the church van to go and pick them up.
They called it “The Miracle on Peachtree.”
Years later, St. Mark is thriving, and the Baptist church across the street is now a park.
It wasn’t without controversy, of course. One lady declared in her Sunday school class: “I’m just uncomfortable with so many of those people here.”
Another lady clapped back, “Beatrice, ya said the same thing about the black folk thirty years ago.”
People don’t always like it when you speak for justice and welcome, and sometimes the consequences are more dire than the ire of Ms. Beatrice. Speaking out for justice is a good thing — we get to work for justice and do God’s work in the world. It’s less appealing, though, when you run into conflict, or think about getting thrown into cisterns, or worse.
If you’ve read very much of the Bible, you know what they do to prophets. If you’ve watched the news in the last fifty years, you know what they do to prophets. Tell me, what happened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? More recently, what happened to Malala Yousafzai, who even after being shot by radicals of her own faith and almost dying, still speaks out against radicalism and for the education of women in the Middle East? What happened to countless others targeted because other people didn’t like their message of justice or peace?
Jesus once said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it!”
But it ain’t just Jerusalem that kills prophets. It’s Memphis. It’s Atlanta. It’s Boston. It’s DC. Here on this Fourth of July weekend, we light sparklers and watch firework displays and celebrate while sometimes easily forgetting the high risk that our Founding Fathers took by signing the Declaration of Independence. If the Revolution had gone the other way, they would have been systematically hunted down and executed. They knew that. And they signed the thing anyway. And that is why you can enjoy BBQ and fireworks on Tuesday.
Every preacher wants to be prophetic, but few feel the full burden of it. As a wise man once told a class full of eager preachers — if you’re not willing to bear the cost, you ain’t no prophet.
I’m not sure I want to bear it myself. That cost is high. I know what happens to prophets. It’s easier to just be nice and safe.
But the truth is that we need prophets these days. And the truth is that we Lutherans, and we Americans, and we humans, come from courageous stock.
In an age when our discourse gets nastier and nastier, when Congresspeople get shot at rallies or playing baseball, God can still be heard echoing through the ages: who will I send? Who will go for us? Who will offer a cup of cold water in my name?
Being a prophet can be dangerous, but the good news is that we come from courageous stock.
This very land vibrates of the souls of brave patriots who once walked the same ground that you do. These church walls vibrate with the Lutherans who dared speak out and risked execution for their faith because as the Reformation caught fire, so did the martyrs burned at the stake. As American Lutherans, we are heirs of both.
If you can’t find your own courage, take your courage from these.
God is speaking. People are hurting. People need welcoming with a cup of cold water and some love. Whom will God send?
What’s more, the church often feels rendered impotent because we’re not the thriving, full congregations we once were back in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. They say people my age don’t come to church all the while looking past those of us that are here, or worse, patting us on the head.
I suppose we could all just go home and give up. But if we give up when our ancestors in faith and across the world have been through so much, what does that say about us?
Consider your ancestors. And consider the residents of Douma, Syria. Last week, after another day of Ramadan fasting, Muslim residents of Douma ate their Iftar meal in the blasted out shell of a mosque, amid rubble. They brought in tables and draped them in white cloth and passed around the food, daring to gather and experience joy. For the rest of Ramadan, they had broken their daily fasts in the safety of basements. But on that holy day, they took the risk of coming above ground and into the evening light, knowing full well that bombs could fall, to enjoy a meal together and practice their faith. (1)
So what were we western Christians feeling all hopeless about? Low attendance?
Aren’t we supposed to be the faith that believes in resurrection? That even when things lie in rubble, dead, that there’s still hope? Aren’t we an Easter people?
The cost of being a prophet is high. But if we are a people of resurrection, we dare to believe that truly, no price is too high. There is hope, and even when we can’t muster any hope ourselves, our own faith tells us that Good Friday always leads to Easter. And we are here, together, amid metaphorical rubble in the modern church, to remind each other of that.
I have just returned from spending ten days with confirmation kids, working my tail off as their chaplain in our synod’s camp, Camp Calumet. Calumet is a holy place where the good vibes flow, where every person is free to be themselves and speak their truth and laugh and play and feel God’s presence. Though Calumet can feel far away from the pain of the world, my mind hardly ever is. I still struggle with the state of the church in the United States while I was there, wondering where this whole road leads and what we’re supposed to do and how we could possibly be prophets when we’ve got folks who just can’t get out of the way and let the leaders lead and the prophets speak.
With that on my mind, I wrote a sermon for church last Sunday called “No John Trumbull,” named after a track on the Hamilton Mixtape, a song which describes John Trumbull’s famous painting of the Declaration of Independence — that scene looks so clean and romantic, but the truth is that it was anything but. Those Founding Fathers were not only risking their lives, but they didn’t agree on everything. Some of them didn’t agree on much.
And you know, neither do we. We will argue about what to speak out about and how and when. If all are truly welcome, things are gonna get uncomfortable sometimes as we struggle to find what it is we will take a stand for. And struggling with faith and human issues is hard.
But we all, like them, come from brave stock. Members of this congregation hail from far away lands and from just down the road. And we all come from brave stock.
Thank God we are an Easter people. I believe that even if every door of every church in the New England Synod closed tomorrow, the church of Jesus Christ would live on, and we would each find our place in it. Because if the people of Douma can faithfully celebrate their feast amid the rubble, we can celebrate ours in this place.
Listen — It will not be perfect and it may well not be comfortable. Mishaps will happen. Things will go wrong. When we meet and discuss just how to speak for God in the world, we will disagree on how that should happen because we are strong-willed people who come from brave stock. But let me tell you what I saw this week: the church of Jesus Christ is bigger than us. It’s more resilient than us.
Those confirmation kids may even be wiser than us, and someday soon they will take over the church and they will amaze those of us blessed enough to see it.
And the church of Jesus Christ will stand forever, because thank God: we are an Easter people.
Nayyirah Waheed, African American writer and poet, once shared with the world this wisdom: “I don’t pay attention to the world ending. It has ended for me many times and began again in the morning.”
And so let us pray, let us sing, and let us feast in hope. Amen.
1. Read more about the Iftar meal in Douma here.