St Stephen’s, Harrisburg--Amos 7:7-15
Well, as you probably know, it’s been barely more than a week now that I’ve been back in Illinois after the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church. If you’ve managed to look at either or both of the blogs I keep, or followed me on Facebook, you know some of my opinions about what happened in Salt Lake City, perhaps in more detail than anyone was really interested in! There is, of course, a great deal about General Convention that I find annoying, not the least of which is the way it dealt with the major issues, about which I’ve already said a lot, and will probably say more. But there are lesser annoyances as well, and among these lesser annoyances is the habit of considering and passing resolutions that presume to advise the federal government—and even, at times, foreign governments—on matters of public policy, including specific pieces of legislation. Now, in the case of many of these public policy resolutions, I find myself not agreeing with the substance of what they’re trying to say. But I’ll tell you something—I automatically vote ’No’ on all of them, whether I agree with the substance or not, and here’s why: As a matter of principle, I don’t think the Episcopal Church, or any church, should take an official position on any issue about which Christians might legitimately disagree. Of course, when I say this, I’m talking about Christians who are operating in good faith, who have a certain level of spiritual maturity, and who have taken the trouble to fully inform themselves on the issue at hand. And that covers nearly every public policy resolution that I’ve seen General Convention take up. On those rare occasions when they consider something that I think represents the only possible position that any Christian could have in good conscience, then I would vote for it. In fact, I did vote for one this year, because I thought it was undeniably an issue of justice and basic human rights; it had to do with the treatment of ethnic Haitians by the government of the Dominican Republic. But that sort of thing is notable because of its rarity. Way more often, it’s something that Christians could legitimately disagree on. And so, when we pass one of those resolutions, it creates winners and losers—unnecessarily and inappropriately so, in my opinion. It creates a class of Episcopalians who are marginalized within their own church, merely on the basis of a conscientiously held view that is not incompatible with Christian teaching. So, like I said, with a rare exception, I just vote ‘No.’
I have, on occasion, voiced this little personal policy of mine to others, and here’s one of the rejoinders that people often come up with: If the church does not take positions on concrete moral issues in the public square, in the theater of political power, how can it exercise its prophetic ministry? Jesus spoke the truth to power, and it was usually an uncomfortable truth for “power” to hear. The prophets of the Old Testament constantly spoke the truth to power. They fearlessly stood before kings and emperors and even the rulers of the religious establishment and boldly proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord!” If the church cannot take stands on political issues, how else can we speak the truth to power today? How else can we say “Thus says the Lord!”?
This is actually a good question. One of the images of Christ that emerges from the pages of the New Testament is his threefold ministry as Prophet, Priest, and King. The church is the Body of Christ, so it is part of our ministry as the church to enflesh all three of those aspects of Christ’s ministry. The church is to be prophetic. A prophet, contrary to popular belief, is not one who foretells the future, but one who “forth-tells” the present, often in the light of the future. A prophet says, particularly to those in positions of power, “Thus says the Lord!” If the General Convention doesn’t pass public policy resolutions, are we not casting off the prophetic mantle that has fallen upon us? Are we not shirking a God-given responsibility?
That depends. It depends on what we embrace as an alternative to public policy resolutions. The experience of the Old Testament prophet Amos gives us a helpful negative example. The Lord calls Amos to the work of a prophet, to speak truth to power, in this case, King Jeroboam II of Israel in the eighth century B.C. And the particular truth that Amos is called to speak to Jeroboam is not something the king is going to welcome. Amos is commissioned to announce God’s judgment on Jeroboam and on the nation of Israel. But a fellow named Amaziah—a priest, no less; one might think of him as a sort of royal chaplain to the court of Jeroboam—Amaziah tells the king, in effect, “Don’t pay any attention to Amos. He’s eaten some bad pizza, and it made him cranky.” And then he tells Amos, “What could you be thinking, you idiot, upsetting the king like that? Now get out of town! If you want to talk trash on Israel, you can do it from some place else!” What Amaziah wanted was for Amos to be a “good prophet,” to be a team player, to say some nice prayers, to be a chaplain to power, rather than a truth-teller to power. He wanted Amos to speak comfortable words to the king, and make everyone feel good.
Some of those who are “in power” in our society would love for the church to do the same thing—to be a chaplain to society, to speak soothing words, to be a cheerleader for those in power, and never to confront or challenge; in other words, to never be prophetic. This alternative, I have to say, is just as unacceptable as General Convention passing public policy resolutions. The question would remain: How else can we speak truth to power in our society? How else can we say, “Thus says the Lord!”
I want to raise with you the possibility that the Church’s prophetic ministry is most effectively expressed, not by public policy resolutions that will be universally ignored, and do not represent a consensus within the church anyway, and therefore have no meaning; and not by serving as a cheer-leading chaplain to our society and those who hold positions of power within that society, but, rather, by the authenticity of the Church’s own life. In other words, the Church’s prophetic witness is most likely to be noticed by society when it is expressed primarily in deeds, accompanied by a few words, rather than primarily in words, accompanied by meaningless deeds. When she is true to her own identity, the Church is her own most potent witness. I’m not talking about doing special things—projects, programs, missionary initiatives, and the like. I’m talking about normal things, usual things, everyday things.
Let me just name three specific areas in which I believe the Church can be faithful to her prophetic ministry in the world without resorting either to meaningless resolutions or toothless cheerleading:
The first of these is financial stewardship. Borrowing a phrase from a popular movie of several years ago, we live in a “show me the money” society. We are consumers, and we notice how those around us consume. I read once that the amount Americans spend per year on luxury upgrades to their bathrooms is greater than the entire Gross Domestic Product of Kenya. The way we spend our money is what gets people’s attention. So, if Christians were to consistently spend their money in a very different way than their non-Christian neighbors, think of the message that would send. All that would need to happen is for enough of us to follow the teaching of scripture and tithe—give 10% of our income—and you can calculate it after taxes if that helps—to the local congregation at whose altar we are fed. We could also do things like live more simply in an intentional way, but tithing alone would make an incredibly powerful prophetic statement about the priorities of those who know that this world is not their true home, and that they are citizens of the Kingdom of God, that all things come from God and we cannot give God anything that is not God’s already. It would offer a compelling prophetic word that there’s another way to live, another way to measure the worth of one’s life than by incessant conspicuous consumption. This would be a word of life to those who would be thereby freed to give, and a word of liberation to those whose lives would benefit from such giving.
In a related vein, another prophetic witness the church could make involves the stewardship of our time. We live in an insanely busy society. Americans, with the Puritan work ethic still in our DNA, and in contrast to our European cousins, leave an amazing amount of vacation time unused each year. It just disappears into oblivion. And so Sunday morning is “sacred” in our culture, but as a time for a latté and the New York Times crossword puzzle rather than the corporate worship of the Living God. So when the world sees Christians devoting precious time to worship, organizing our lives around it, planning our vacations around the liturgical calendar—yes, did you know that’s actually a thing?—it receives a powerful prophetic message, once again, about the priorities of people who know they exist in time and space only for a brief instant, but will dwell in Eternity forever. Our security rests not in what others think of our accomplishments, but in what God thinks of us.
Finally, we can offer a prophetic ministry to the world by our commitment to the community of the Church. We live in a highly individualistic society, where all associations are seen as voluntary, clubs that we can join when we want to and resign from when they no longer meet our needs. What if the members of the church were to understand themselves as forming a “tribe,” a people, an ethnicity? What if our society saw our commitment to one another as something that transcends all differences of race, all differences of culture, all differences of income, education, and social status? That would send an inescapable prophetic message of radical reconciliation and mutual self-giving that can literally be the foundation of world peace.
Tithing our financial resources, organizing our time around the life of the Church, and making a constant commitment to the community of the Church, all take the ministry of prophecy to a whole new level. When we as the Church pay attention to these and other aspects of the quality of our own life together, we are emulating Amos rather than Amaziah. When we decline to serve as a chaplain to society, we “speak the truth to power” many times more effectively than any number of General Convention resolutions. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.