The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
What a lovely story. The decapitation of John the Baptist. His head brought forth on a platter. I hope it gives you all the comfort and inspiration you’re searching for today!
John made the mistake of publicly criticizing King Herod’s marriage to his sister-in-law, Herodias. So when the opportunity arose, she took vengeance. At a decadent party, her dancing teenage daughter so excited Herod that he foolishly promised her anything, and the deed was done. John’s head was served up to the host like some exotic dish.
John’s end was not that unusual for a prophet. They’re generally not too popular. As Garrison Keillor has said, nobody wants a prophet at a birthday party. In our first lesson, we heard of another unpopular prophet, Amos. He was told by his king to take his annoying speeches out of Bethel, for Bethel was “the king’s sanctuary, a temple of the kingdom.” Picture Malcolm X at the White House, breathing fire.
Prophets can be like this, but not necessarily. A prophetic word is heard whenever someone rises up out of a cacophony of voices and says what needs to be said. Other voices become irrelevant and drop away. Where there was confusion, there is now clarity; where there was paralysis, there is now movement. When a tipping point comes, the prophet pushes things over.
That’s what happened when Martin Luther King came along at the right time and said things like “We must live together like brothers or perish together like fools.” Or when at the Berlin Wall Ronald Reagan said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
A prophetic word was recently spoken by our church gathered in General Convention. After 35 years of debate, division, theological study, and most importantly, lived experience, we approved rites for the blessing of same-sex couples. The tipping point had come, and the prophetic act pushed us over.
The main argument against it was that we have no business creating division by stepping ahead of other Anglicans and our ecumenical friends. We should wait until consensus can be reached. But if we had followed this advice, we never would have had women priests; we never would have had civil rights legislation. Sometimes prophetic action must be taken before consensus can be reached. Sometimes prophetic words separate those who cling to the past from those who must move forward. As Jesus said, “I came not to bring peace, but a sword that will divide.”
Now that this door has been opened in our church, now that we’ve passed the tipping point, we are able to live into a new reality, where a greater number of people can enjoy God’s blessing and the community’s support. It is a new day.
But this was not the only way in which our church was prophetic at General Convention. In fact, if you just looked around, the more obvious thing was the amazing variety of people, causes, races, languages, and perspectives. At liturgies, we heard Spanish and Creole along with English. Fellow Anglicans came from the Sudan, Brazil, the Dominican Republic. We all rubbed elbows - oung urban activists, evangelical missionaries, scholars, puffed-up princes of the church, and wizened old monks. It was beautiful.
Why is this prophetic? Because the whole messy human family was gathered as one, and that is the kingdom of God. This doesn’t happen too often. In fact, it runs counter to the way of the world, which wants to classify by rank and social category, separate out those who don’t fit, homogenize those that remain, and retain power for the right kind of people.
But even more prophetic is the fact that our church clearly does not view the educated, white, suburban person as the norm, the one who graciously reaches out to the less fortunate “other.” There is no “us” viewing “them” from a distance. There is only “us,” all together, in a kaleidoscopic whole. Everyone has equal voice; everyone has a place at the table.
While for some this seems chaotic, for others it is a kind of prophetic clarity that helps us deal with a society that doesn’t know what to do with the rich diversity it contains. At General Convention, we show one another that we can live together like brothers and sisters, arguing, yes, but with affection and a sense of humor. And we discover that in relationship, we’re all affected and made the better for it. We learn how the Spirit moves in the friction between us, and something new is created.
It feels like the kingdom of God, which is what we pray for, isn’t it? Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. If we can experience this in the church, we can take it out into the world, and the Lord’s Prayer is fulfilled: Your kingdom come on earth.
In this parish, we have undertaken a time of listening and discernment called Who is My Neighbor? Continuing the series, we’ll soon hear from those who work with those who are homeless or in poverty; we’ll hear from other congregations that have learned to place ministry with the underprivileged at the center of their identity instead of on the periphery.
One of the dangers as we go about this is to unintentionally reinforce existing social separation. We can see ourselves as the norm: mostly white, educated, privileged people who imagine that we have our lives together. Over there is them: mostly brown, uneducated, poor people whose lives are broken. In our graciousness, we reach out from “here” to “there,” and then go back to our lives unchanged. The social distance and power differential is kept intact; in fact, it can be reinforced by our charity.
What is happening in the wider church is quite different. We stand together in one place and risk being influenced by the other. Whatever differences we have - whether they are racial, economic, or otherwise - are less significant than the humanity and the Spirit that unites us.
In fact, in our church today there are many who won’t use the word “outreach” or “mission” anymore. They speak instead of partnership and mutuality. In this approach, both parties are potentially changed by the encounter. Both are blessed by the experience and outlook of the other.
You’ll be hearing about this on Tuesday evening from two clergy who will be a part of the Who is My Neighbor? series. Trey and Cheri will talk about how their congregations became a part of their neighborhoods, ministering with it instead of to it.
One of the ways in which we already know how this works is within the parish. If you’ve been here awhile, you have rubbed elbows with gay and lesbian couples, old and young, transgendered people, folks with a different political perspective than your own, or simply those with different personality types. Over time, through real relationships, we are influenced. Our edges are softened. We’re more comfortable with the mystery that is humanity.
In fact, every time a new person comes to this parish, we are all changed. We become a different community, because each of us brings something new into the mix. New members don’t conform themselves to a fixed “thing” that is St. Michael and All Angels. “They” don’t join “us” in what we are doing. New people help us evolve into what we are all in a process of becoming. The Spirit moves within the friction between us, and something new comes into being of its own.
The same can be true in our relationship with those outside the walls of this church. As we dare to get to know our neighbor, we both will be changed. They might see a church that doesn’t fit their stereotype of church, and we might learn a different way of understanding the forces that shape their lives. The Spirit will move, and something new will be created.
We have the opportunity here to be prophetic. In a world that keeps people apart, we can bring them together. In a world that creates separated groups of people who share similar world-views, we can mix it up. This does not create chaos or insecurity. In fact, it creates order and stability, because it helps us to live more harmoniously, with mutual understanding and respect, with greater creativity.
God needs prophets in every age, in order to bring life where there is stagnation. You don’t have to be a fire-breather in order to be a prophet. All you have to do is be willing to risk going against the grain, and in this case, by getting to know a wider circle of God’s people. The Spirit will take it from there, and God’s kingdom will come on earth.