The Rev. Marsha Vollkommer preached the following message in St. Paul's on the Third Sunday of Advent. She's given me permission to share it with you in this space. - Jonathan
A Sermon for Sunday, December 17, 2017
Pride and Prophets
Isaiah 61:1-4,8-11 – The Magnificat – John 1:6-8,19-28
There’s a voice in the wilderness crying…
We heard some mighty voices, speaking mighty words, this morning. Did you listen? Did you hear what they said?
Did you hear Isaiah say, “he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn…”?
Did you hear Mary say, “he has scattered the proud in their conceit, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty…he has remembered his promise of mercy…”?
Did you hear John say, “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal…”?
Three people – three prophets – born of fatherd and mothers, living lives as flawed and humble human beings – who listened to God and answered the call to be part of the fulfillment of God’s kingdom on earth – to bear witness to God’s love for God’s people – a love literally embodied in Jesus.
And if we listen to them – if we truly hear what they are saying – then we have some serious questions to ask ourselves.
Every year at this time, we in the church turn our hearts and our minds (and our time and our energy) to the glorious celebration of the birth so very long ago of God made flesh. In the midst of the hustle, the stress, the fatigue imposed by all that is attendant to our secular celebration of Christmas, there is still within us a warmth – an awe – a feeling of gratitude for what the season really means. The greatest prophet – the greatest teacher – the greatest living, breathing embodiment of the love of God was born to humankind. We listen – and we hear – and our belief is so strong we can feel it humming through our bones.
And while I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on a good and joy-filled thing, the question is: what will we do with this gift?
Another question – and I’ll make this mine – you can decide for yourself. When Mary talks about God scattering the proud in their conceit, and casting down the mighty, is she talking about me? “Surely not!” I’d like to protest – vehemently – and yet the simple notion that I stop to wonder somehow tells me that I may, indeed, have moments when I’m far too proud – far to “haughty” – placing myself among the mighty and not the lowly.
Here’s the reason I think this is a particularly important question…and in the telling of the story, I am making my confession that I am, indeed, oftentimes too proud and haughty. Rob and I moved to Bellingham from a very beautiful place that was populated with far too many of the proud and haughty – a place where your house and your garden and the car you drove were important – were idols. We moved to a street in Bellingham that I have come to cherish…but I didn’t at first. It is a street of small, crowded houses – some with five or six or seven cars (in various stages of wholeness) in the street – some with window blinds akimbo, and garages overflowing into the driveways. I am ashamed to say that, at first, I would explain to people that when you got down the street a few blocks, things opened up and there were newer, bigger houses, etc, etc. A few months in, I began to notice the broad and beautiful diversity of the people living on my street – young and old, black and brown and Asian – multigenerational – couples (and families) in every configuration – and animals galore. I started waving at people as I passed…and of course they waved back. I started to see them…really see them…and, although I still don’t know their names, I know the ones who walk to take the bus to work every day, the moms and dads who walk their kids to school, the gaggle of middle-schoolers getting of the bus, the smiling black man (always smiling) walking home in his scrubs after his shift at the hospital. I see them all, now, and I can truly say I love them. And I can truly say that a pretty deplorable pride on my part kept me – at first – from seeing them at all.
I can only hope, as Thomas Merton so aptly prayed, that God will recognize my (newly found) good intentions.
The reason I think searching our souls for pride is so important – perhaps the reason (or at least part of the reason) that God doesn’t want much to do with the proud and the mighty, is that hanging onto our pride, our “betterness”, keeps us from seeing the lowly, the hungry, the brokenhearted, those who are held captive and imprisoned by so many circumstances over which they have little, if any control. We don’t see them – so they don’t exist – because when pride and striving are at our center, the only place we look is in the direction of the next rung up the ladder of power and influence we have decided to climb. And yet these are the children of God that the Father watches over with special care – the children of God our Father implores us to see, to care for, to love.
One last question…Who are the prophets whose voices you value – the ones to whom you listen – the ones whose words you take in to shape and form your life?
We live in a time in the world that is full of voices. It is often said that in our sophisticated, 24/7 world of communication we all suffer from information overload – too much to know – too much to hear – to much to take in. I would suggest, instead, that we live in a world with too many voices. Too many people, for too many reasons, trying to tell us what to think, what to do, what we need, who we are supposed to be, how we are supposed to live…and what our full, accomplished, meaningful lives should look like. Too often those voices tell us what we should get, rather than what we should give. Too often those voices tell us what we must do to be more important than someone else. Too often those voices tell us that we (and the tribes to which we belong) are the most important, and we had better hang together or the “others” will overtake us. Too often those voices tell us that we have to stand up for “us” because “they” are out to get us. And they make us nervous, and they make us suspicious, and they plant in us a fear of what might happen, and we give ourselves over to their will. There are many voices that would like us to believe they are prophets because of their power…their power in governance, in wealth, in the marketing of what we buy, and what we consume, and what we value. And the pride of their conceit not only makes them haughty, it makes them feel as though they are the only true prophets any of us need hear.
But. They. Are. Not. God!!!!
Isaiah and Mary and John were prophetic witnesses to the love of God! If the stories are to believed, John was actually a bit of a kook…living in the woods, eating nuts and berries, apparently never combing his hair. He didn’t claim to be anything – and even denied being a prophet, calling himself unworthy even to perform a task left to slaves who stooped down to remove a person’s shoes. All he claimed was that he was called to be the voice crying in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord” – open up to the path of God’s love. And yet it was this man – whom we would no doubt choose not to see if we passed him on the street – a man who was challenged by the religious elite – a man who would be beheaded at the hands of the proud and the haughty – John was the one was called to baptize the incarnate Jesus.
God asks us to listen to and truly hear only one thing – to love God with all our hearts, and minds, and strength…and to love our neighbors. The request – the call – is so simple that we all know it by heart. And yet it turns out to be one of the hardest things we are ever asked to do. To love with one’s heart isn’t so difficult…but to love with one’s mind – to value and dedicate one’s self intellectually to a love that is radical, and counter to the voices we hear all around us requires an overwhelming effort. And to love God with all one’s strength – which surely means God is calling us into action – into living, minute by minute, day by day, year by year, in accordance with that love, is a pledge that is daunting to make. To love one’s neighbor, in the way God asks, means not only loving those with whom we feel comfortable, or with whom we feel aligned, or with whom we prefer to be grouped. No, it means loving every single child of God with the same love God loves us. It means loving those who look and speak and act differently than we do; it means loving the frustrating and the annoying, and even the despicable…because in God’s eyes they are all God’s children…and when it comes down to it, if we believe what we profess to believe about God, we have no room to question who God loves, and why.
The scriptures are full of powerful words and powerful stories of prophetic witness…and it come as no surprise that the message shared throughout the ages has been the same. God does not value the worldly idols we create, but values the children he created. There are prophetic voices around us, still, if we have ears to hear. My best guess is that the ones worth listening to – the ones in whom we put our confidence and to whom we give our respect – are the ones that talk to us about loving and valuing and respecting and reaching out to what Jesus called “the least of these.” Love and respect and reaching out can build many, many bridges…to the poor and the marginalized…to those we see as enemies…to those we see as other. Following God’s prophets, we will begin to find our connections, rather than our divisions…our commonalities rather than our differences…our sisterhood and brotherhood with Christ as children of a compassionate, forgiving and loving God. Make straight the way of the Lord, John said…open up – build a bridge – clear the path – reach out – share love. God is with us.