Sermon 7/21/19: Prophets of Grace

Pr. Ben Adams

Lectionary 16

July 20/21, 2019

Prophets of Grace

This past weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to Hot Springs, North Carolina for the Wild Goose Festival. For those of you who have never heard of such a festival, imagine Woodstock, but for people of faith. And every July for the past five years, I have made the ten-hour drive with my other hippie friends to commune with the Appalachian mountains and bathe in the French Broad river. 

Together, in that sacred place, we sing, dance, and celebrate the four days of beloved community that the Holy Spirit blesses us with. That community of oddballs and outsiders is enough to bring me back every year, but as I reflected on what it is that calls me to the Goose, it is more than just the community for me. I also go back to the Goose year after year because it is a prophetic space.

And what I mean by that is that the Goose frees me from distractions.  Because isn’t that what the best prophets do for us? They free us from distractions so we can focus on what matters, what is really important for us to put our focus on. So, for four glorious days each summer I get a chance to hear from modern day prophets like Nadia Bolz-Weber, Barbara Brown Taylor, Dianna Butler Bass, and Wiliam Barber III. These prophets that have a way with words, a way of seeing the world and articulating what we need to be giving our attention to.  Like a societal doctor, a prophet has a way of diagnosing the illnesses that plague our world and offering to us a treatment plan. They aren’t concerned with just managing the symptoms that can distract us, but they are intent on getting to the source of our sickness and offering a cure or at least starting us on a collective path to wellness.

But it’s not just the speakers at the Goose that prophesy to me. It’s also the nature that I am immersed in while I am there.  The smell and the gentle sway of the trees, the daily ritual of remembering my baptism with a dip in the river, the dirt that sticks to my sweat drenched skin, it all comes together to make for a prophetic experience where the daily distractions melt away and I return to that from which I have come the dirt, water, and breath of God.

That’s what makes the Goose for me a prophetic yearly pilgrimage.  The holy people and the sacred place where it is set remind me of what really matters.  I wonder who those people are for you or where those places are for you?

Maybe it’s Martin Luther King Jr. who spoke with courage and clarity about the systemic racism that plagues our country, or maybe a place that frees you from distraction is a church sanctuary like this one, where our purpose is clear and simple, to hear the word, to receive the sacraments, and to participate in beloved community together through fellowship, song, and prayer.

Whoever it is, or wherever it is that you experience the prophesy that frees you from distraction, there is just something about those people and places that calls us back again and again to be reminded of what really matters.

But prophets aren’t always so pleasant.  In fact, any prophet that doesn’t agitate you or stir you up isn’t a prophet at all. Those people and places are just enabling you to cope with the distracting symptoms but never treating source of the symptoms.  A true prophet, as Pastor Lenny Duncan says, “Loves you enough to tell you the truth about yourself.”

And today in our first reading we hear from the prophet Amos who could quite possibly win the award for being the most unpleasant and upsetting of all the biblical prophets because of his very clear, direct, and almost unhinged way of telling the truth about the world around him.  He definitely cuts through the distractions with lines like, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.” I don’t know about you, but I feel convicted an uncomfortable with opening statements like that.  Prophets like Amos might cause our defense mechanisms to jump into action.

Like the first time that I ever learned about systemic racism, and I had to come to the realization that I myself am a racist for my participation in, and lack of challenge to, this racist system that would show preference to me because of my skin color at the expense of my siblings of color. Thankfully I had prophets surrounding me to love me enough to tell me the truth about myself and the world around me.  But I remember at first those prophet’s words didn’t feel so loving. They felt like an attack on everything that I knew and took for granted. But those prophets didn’t abandon me. The ones who surrounded me in seminary, in anti-racism training, and those who continue to surround me to this day repeatedly tell me the truth about myself and the world so that I and we can dismantle systemic racism and create a just and equitable world where all people have the opportunity to thrive and experience God’s abundant love for us all.

But back to angry Amos. His words are so vehement that we might want to disregard them out of hand because of the way that he communicates, but that would be a mistake.  Instead of shutting down because of force behind his words, we must struggle to remain attentive to the truth Amos is conveying.  The fire of his words can then burn away the distractions and return us to our true calling as Christians, to care for the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and the brokenhearted.

But there is so much to distract us, so much to do, and so many places to be that we can’t even make eye contact with the person experiencing homelessness, or our energy and attention is taken up with so many tasks that we can’t even keep up with the most recent news headlines, each one more staggering than the first. We just can’t even.

We might feel a bit like Martha who is busy, distracted with many tasks, while her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. And when we are at our wits end with all that is keeping us overworked and distracted, we too might all at once exclaim, “Lord, do you not care that I am left me to do all the work by myself? Tell someone then to help me.”

And here’s what makes Jesus the most graceful prophet of all time, Jesus doesn’t criticize Martha or us for our work, he gracefully frees us from distractions so we can focus on what matters by saying, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

That one thing... is grace.  It’s grace that Mary was basking in at Jesus’ feet as she cherished every word he said. Grace is the better part that Mary chose, and it cannot and will not be taken away from her.

But back to Angry Amos just one more time. When I first studied the book of Amos in seminary, I remember being in my prophets class and being all fired up. I wanted to be just like Amos preaching and prophesying the hard truths to anyone who would listen.  But my wise professor, Ralph Klein, reminded us of the trust and love that must be present for anyone to be able to receive that message and not just disregard it or become defensive about it.  I have to confess that there have been times from this very pulpit that I have tried my best imitation of Amos, I tried to tell you the truth about yourself and our world, and I didn’t always do it with grace.

I repent for the ways in which my desires to be like Amos have distracted you and today I want to prophesy to you the way that my preaching professor taught us to be prophetic from the pulpit, and that is to preach of God’s radically free grace. It is the only thing we need, but the free part is the hardest thing for us to actually comprehend. We so desperately want to know that there is something that unlocks that grace for us, but I am here to testify and prophesy that there is nothing we must do, even more there is nothing we even can do to earn God’s grace because it is abundantly, profusely, poured out for all of us to such a degree that it would seem wasteful by our standards.

The never ending to-do list, the ever depressing headlines, the countless real and imaginary things we spend our time worrying about or in fear of, it is all distraction from God’s eternal grace that cuts through, and returns us to who we are and whose we are, God’s own beloved child. With that grace as our vision and our wisdom, we will experience true liberation from all of the things distracting us and we prophets will become prophets of grace, inviting others to experience freedom from distraction by our words and deeds that prophesy to God’s radically free grace poured out for all people and creation.  Sometimes it means stopping what we’re distracted with for long enough to sit at our prophet’s feet and be reminded and returned to that grace that frees us and stirs us to action. Amen.