Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
February 1, 2009
I’ve found a new detective/crime series I’ve been reading recently. I’m always hesitant to tell you about my guilty pleasure reading these fiction series. I actually devour them, so Warren is always on the lookout for another author, another crime-solving, flawed, brilliant, flawed, compassionate but (did I mention flawed?) oh-so-interesting crime-solving main character. There’s Reacher, and Kidd, and Lucas Davenport and Scarpetta and Eve Dallas and Joe Gunther and Alex Cross, Anna Pigeon, V.I. Warshawski. I love them all. My recent find is writer Karin Slaughter whose crime-solvers are Sara, a pediatrician and coroner, her ex-husband Jeffrey, the chief of police, and Lena, a detective that gives new meaning to the word complicated. Stay with me, I‘m going to get to the point of this sermon here.
In one of these books (here comes something of a spoiler), a local, much-beloved pastor turns out to be a pedophile. When he is finally discovered and questioned, there is a snippet of insight in Jeffrey about religion and Biblical authority and power and self-delusion that every seminarian ought to read. Who are we, to speak for God? How dare we presume? And yet, if preachers did not think we could do this, we wouldn’t get up into a pulpit Sunday after Sunday. And yet, as soon as we think we are speaking for God, we need to puncture our own inflated egos. And yet, a congregation would tire of hearing sermons littered with phrases like, “of course I could be wrong”, or “it’s possible other interpretations of this point have validity”, or “I’m just offering this possibility – you need to decide for yourselves”. I’ll tell you something – I assume you know I could be wrong and that many interpretations have validity and you better decide for yourselves because as much as I love you, I am not responsible for your salvation. Still, if we’re going to try to live according to the will of God, we’re going to have to put words into God’s mouth.
The section of Deuteronomy from which our morning reading comes is a description of the ordering of the community of God’s chosen people. Remember that Deuteronomy is one of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Pentateuch, the story of God and Israel from the creation of the earth to the structuring of Israel to fulfill God’s desires for humanity. The Israelites had been freed from slavery. They had entered the promised land and had been given the law of Moses. Now came the details. These verses from Deuteronomy provide some of those details in describing a kind of hierarchy of leadership. In this nation I have created, said God, there will be leaders – Kings, priests, and judges. They will guide my people. But (this is God still speaking here), from time-to-time, my people are going to need a course correction. Their rulers are going to go astray. They’re going to be enticed by their power and authority and the ego boost of a captive audience. They’re going to need to be popped upside the head, so to speak, and for that, I will bring forth from you prophets.
I am reducing the sweep of Israel’s formation into a very short meditation – a little like the first sentence of the Reader’s Digest version of a movie trailer which is an abbreviated version of a film which is the abbreviated version of a synopsis of a novel, the abbreviated version of the novel itself. Still, if we are to understand the essential role of the prophet then and now, we need to understand this structuring of Israel’s communal life. So, there were kings, priests, and judges, the monarchy, the rituals of honor and thanksgiving, and the judicial system – all laid out for the ordering of human life. It was tidy and efficient and thorough. In fact, in that interesting and all-but-lost intersection between American jurisprudence and religion, seeds of the structure laid out for ordering Israel’s life may still be found in the documents of our founding forbears.
Still, the story tells us, God knows that structure and order, no matter how clean and complete, can still go astray. People being people will carry logic to its most illogical extreme. Or we will elevate systems so high as to leave the weak, or the despised struggling on the ground. Or we will polis our systems until they gleam in the light, ignoring the shadows they cast. So a fourth role was established, the role of the prophet. “I will raise up for them a prophet from among their own people, and I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet.”
The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with divine/human conversations, between God and prophets, some of them funny, some a kind of bargaining, most of them expressing God’s anger over the behavior of God’s people and God’s expectations for new ways and new demonstrations of faithfulness. What is consistent and clear is that Monarchs, priests, and judges would not be enough for staying faithful to God. Prophets would be required – prophets who loved their people, came up from among them, were wise, articulate, angry, and passionate for God’s truth.
When William Sloan Coffin was ill and close to death, many of his readers and friends wondered from whence would come another prophet. It felt as if he was the last of a breed and that the role of American prophet had become extinct. Bill himself would laugh when he was told of that worry. No one I have ever known or will probably ever meet trusted God more than Bill, so such an expression of anticipatory grief at his passing was really an expression of faithlessness. We talked about this once in his hospital room. I was sitting on the foot of his bed, at his feet both physically and metaphorically. Carla, he said, with patience and laughter, do you trust God or don’t you?
I’ve had reason to ponder that question a thousand times in my life, before and since Bill’s death – do I trust God or don’t I? When the writer of Deuteronomy wrote these words for God, “I will raise up for them a prophet from among them”, do I believe that or not? And when a structure based on God’s justice and God’s hopes for human life goes awry, do I trust that God will give words to the prophets among us to do the kind of course correction required?
The answer to those questions is yes, yes I trust God, yes, I believe that God raises prophets up from among us, yes God gives words to those prophets to set us back on the right course. Oh, and incidentally, when I think of Jesus as a King, Priest, and Judge, I am leaving the most important role out of the equation if I do not add Prophet. Jesus was a Prophet raised up by God from among his own people. God’s words were in his mouth. And when God asks me to heed the words of the Prophet Christ, I want to do nothing more than obey. When I suggest you all might do the same, I believe I’m speaking for God. Amen.