Choral Evensong 19th January 2020
Prophets, Grace, and Unity
We are in the week of prayer for Christian Unity. This year’s theme is ‘unusual kindness’. That kindness is unusual is, tragically, too often true, but what might ‘unusual kindness’ look like in practice? At the PCC Away Day yesterday there was intensive and fruitful discussion about people, places, and organisations that we need to be attentive to within attention to invitation, hospitality, and community engagement. One side of the graph read ‘urgent’ and the other, ‘important’. Plotting various words within the quadrants of this graph taught us something about why and how we do what we do and are what we are. Some things we do just because they’re good to do. Some, because they are specifically focused on inviting people to deepen their faith and trust in God within their Christian lives. Some, and we could venture, all, really, are because we are invited each day to change the world for the better. ‘Unusual kindness’ can be active across these categories. Is there a division within our Churches? Yes. Too many to name. Within this community? Every place has conflict and pain, without exception, whether it’s sharply on the surface or less prominent. Within ourselves? Certainly. These can be disrupted, in a good way, by ‘unusual kindness’.
When was the last time you showed ‘unusual kindness’ to yourself? Take a moment, whether this comes easily to you or not, to imagine what that might look like. Does it feel selfish, or silly, or indulgent? Or maybe it makes you smile, gives you a sense of peace and gratitude, or is simply good. In the relationship we cultivate between God, neighbour, and ourselves, being kind to ourselves is as foundational as love between ourselves and others, and ourselves and God. We can do no less. This flow of love is not easy and not consistent. For some, it will be a gush of water: clean, fresh, and abundant. For others it will be like the villages I visited in Nicaragua, arid because of climate injustice, necessitating walks for miles along arid riverbeds to water that is already polluted, because there is no alternative. The more we open ourselves to God, to one another, to our own interior, the better the quality and quantity of that water.
In Psalm 96, we are invited to ‘worship the Lord in holy splendour’ and to say to everyone ‘The Lord is King!’ God’s judgement brings righteousness, fairness, and liberation. The beginning of the psalm combines the freshness of originality and innovation with the promise of music. Psalms are a musical genre, but not every psalm specifically speaks of music as a form of prayer. The text begins, ‘Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.’ The singing, original and fresh, is not just for human voices. The whole of the environment, every plant and animal, is told to sing.
This telling has the tone of prophecy. Hear, listen, respond, and act. This evening’s readings make connections between prophecy’s power and its risks. How do we know who a prophet is, and who is not a prophet? Some pointers for spotting a prophet might be that she or he insists upon God’s glory and God’s voice above all else, takes risks to speak truth to power, and proclaims that the real power that operates in heaven and earth doesn’t belong to any person or any thing, but to God alone. And that power is driven by love, justice, wisdom, and mercy, and not by exploitation, manipulation, or oppression. Prophets are also surprised to become prophets. It is not a job that one applies for, but a multi-faceting calling that one is given.
In the Forgiveness Project, a charity that strives for restorative justice, reconciliation, and voices of transformation, people from across the world speak about their experiences of the worst life can bring. Murder, rape, war-torn communities, divisions in families, the anguish of addictions and poverty – all are approached with authenticity and dignity in the stories of frail yet strong human beings who have lived through pain and emerged changed. Assad Chaftri, one of the contributors, writes ‘I would venture into the jaws of hell if my story could shift just one person’s views and move them away from violence.’
God longs to move us away from violence. God’s prophets, whether Ezekiel, John the Baptist, or those far more recent voices of change, can be discerned by the way they talk about God’s world, even when it’s at its most chaotic. When Ezekiel recounts that God speaks to him directly and sends him personally to the ‘impudent and stubborn’, he states that those he admonishes will all know that he’s a prophet. The words of ‘lamentation, mourning and woe’ that he carries, in his mouth, are sweet not because of the sweetness of those dark words, but because they have God’s own mark of divine reality.
There have been many, whether individuals or groups, who have read this potent and, frankly, dangerous passage of the Book of Ezekiel and thought to themselves that God is on their side, that they must carry the word of the Lord to a rebellious people, and that their righteousness comes from God’s own voice. That may be, and there are many times when the truth of God’s love and justice will cause hardship for the one who delivers it and the ones who receive it (whether or not they hear it). However, there is need for deep caution when reading this passage because it can too easily seduce the zealous and unwittingly arrogant reader into believing that he or she is Ezekiel, the righteous voice with the truth of God, placed among people who are rebellious. That may be, but the opposite may also be true.
How do we know when we meet a prophet? We must measure their words and actions not with tools crafted from the resources and beliefs that keep us comfortable and safe, but with the deeper creativity of God’s own love and God’s own truth. How did Paul, who was brutally violent towards those who followed Jesus, and then, transformed, gave everything for the Gospel of Jesus, know when he was saying or doing the right thing? I would venture that he genuinely didn’t, at least not all the time. He tried, in each community’s differing circumstances, to say and do whatever would bring those particular people into a better relationship with God and with each other. In tonight’s passage, his persuasive strategy is to talk about how radically he has changed, and to explain that he did not invent his own truth, but is only offering God’s. Why? The answer is deceptively simple: because God asked him to do so. Through God’s grace, Paul does what he does. Through God’s grace, we do what we do.
Leonard Cohen knew a little about prophecy. Here are some of his words:
O longing of the branches
To lift the little bud
O longing of the arteries
To purify the blood
And let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb
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