Thursday, January 29, 2015

Sermon -- 'Replaceable'

This is a sermon that I gave for Wesley Seminary's Wednesday Night Chapel Service last night, based on Deuteronomy 18:9-20. The sound on the recording is a little bit wonky but I think it's understandable. My sincere apologies to Beyoncé.



            I want you to imagine something.
            I want you to imagine that you’ve been asked to preach on Sunday morning.
            You’ve been asked to preach in a church that you know loves you and cares about you. You’ve known the folks in this church for a long time, and you love them, too. But you also know that the church is having some problems. You know the type. Attendance down. Not enough young people. Not sure of their mission or vision. Not sure how to break out of old habits and “we’ve always done it this way”ism.
            You’ve been asked to preach in this church, and because you’ve been to Wesley Theological Seminary, you know that what you say is important. You know that over the past decades much preaching in churches has been subpar. You know that biblical literacy is low and that solid theological reflection is rare. You know the importance of adaptive leadership, of preaching and modeling stewardship, of inclusive and diverse language for God. You know that the church in the U.S. is struggling, some might even say dying. You know that there is a lot riding on your leadership and on your preaching.
            And you can’t, for the life of you, think of a single thing to say.
            And now, I want you to imagine that it’s Saturday night. That you have been banging your head against this sermon all week and all you have is a couple of scattered words in an otherwise blank Word document. You’re way past the procrastinating-on-Facebook stage and you’re into the pure panic stage. You have reached a place of true desperation. And finally, you fall on your knees, and you cry out to God, “God! If you want me to preach this sermon, you are going to have to tell me what to say!”
            And here’s the amazing thing: God answers! God speaks to you!
            I don’t mean any of this wishy-washy heart-strangely-warmed nonsense. I don’t mean you happen to glance over and see a vase of flowers on your desk and that reminds you of how your grandmother always had a vase of flowers on her desk and that reminds you of the importance of remembering our traditions and that gives you a sermon idea. I mean God speaks to you, speaks actual words, in a voice that somehow you know is God’s.
            God tells you exactly what to say!
            And what God tells you to do is to get up in front of the congregation and say: ‘Church, someday I’m going to die. But don’t worry about it. I’m pretty replaceable.”
            And that’s it.
            Not exactly the word of God that you were hoping for.
            That feeling you’re imagining? I have the sense that Moses is feeling just like that in tonight’s passage. The text that Monica read for us is part of the Deuteronomic law book. Moses is reviewing the law before the Israelites enter their new land. Leaving aside for the moment the ambiguities inherent in a promised homeland that involves displacing other nations, and leaving aside for a moment the likely historical context of the Deuteronomic redactors, the goal of Moses’ recitation in this passage is to delineate the sort of community that God desires, a community that is meant to be substantially different from those who surround it.
            And twice, in the course of this relatively short passage, Moses tells the assembled people that he’s received a direct message from God, telling Moses to tell the people that God will raise up another prophet like Moses.
            Now, biblical commentators, and the biblical redactors themselves, are clearly uncomfortable with this. Nearly every single commentary that I looked at for tonight made sure to clarify that “a prophet like Moses” means a prophet in the tradition  of Moses, not a prophet exactly like Moses. Moses, after all, is a pretty special guy. A prophet extraordinaire – the original, the one-and-only. And when the Deuteronomic editors wrote Moses’ epitaph, they made sure to include the statement, “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face” (Deut 34:10).
            This made sense the first time I read it, but after the third or fourth time, it was starting to sound a wee bit defensive. I mean, is Moses’ ego that fragile that we need to rush to assure him that he’s the most special-est of all the special prophets? The more that I read that Moses was way more prophet-y-than-any-other-prophet-that-ever-did-prophesy, the more it seemed to me that the words “I will raise up for them a prophet like you” must have really carried some weight. The words seemed less and less like God’s comforting promise to the people, and started sounding more and more like the words of my favorite United Methodist theologian, Beyoncé Knowles:
            “You must not know about me / You must not know about me
            I can find another you in a minute / Matter of fact, he’ll be here any minute”
“Moses,” I could hear God saying, “don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.”[i]
            In fact, tonight’s text argues for replaceability as a key characteristic of the prophet. Moses is describing the continuation of the prophetic office in the Israelite community. And if you were to hear the lectionary text from Deuteronomy 18 in church this Sunday, that’s all you’d hear. But tonight, I had Monica read from verse 9 instead of verse 15 so we can hear that Moses isn’t just talking about prophecy for the sake of prophecy. No, prophecy is a contrast, a counternarrative, to the way that the surrounding nations deal with divine reality.
            Prophecy, in this passage, is the opposite of magic.
            Prophecy is the gift that God offers to the people, and is to be distinguished from sorcery, divination, consulting the spirits of the deceased, or, you know, digging through bird entrails or Pew Research Forum[ii] results to discern the future.
            Now, depending on what sort of faith community you grew up in, you might have heard this sort of text being used to warn you away from Ouija boards or Dungeons and Dragons or magic shows. And then maybe you grew up and realized those sorts of things are really pretty harmless, and so you forgot all about the warnings about sorcery. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.
            You see, what all the sorcerers and the magicians and diviners have in common, which prophecy stands in contrast to, is that they claim to have the right kind of expertise, the right kind of power, to manipulate the divine reality to achieve the results that they desire. They know the right words and the right gestures, the right spells, to get what they want. Or, if you’re willing to pay them enough, to get what you want. They’ve got the secret formula to success.
            Unlike the magician, the prophet relies not on the secret formula or the right spell ingredients but on the word of God. This isn’t to say that a prophet is just a divine ventriloquist, verbally transcribing messages from God. One Jewish commentator puts it this way: “In the Bible, a prophet is not someone who tells the future, stealing knowledge from God and sharing it with the people. A prophet is someone who tells the truth.”[iii] The prophet is the one who responds to God’s call and interprets that call within the context of a particular community. The truth that the prophet tells is not reliant on the special skills or hidden knowledge of the prophet, but rather on the faithful activity of God in the midst of the people. In fact, tonight’s passage spells out a sort of divine death penalty for anyone prophesying on their own behalf or out of a sense of their own importance. A bit extreme, perhaps, but a clear indication that the prophet doesn’t get to dictate the activity of the divine.
            This is an important reminder for us as seminary students and as future ministers, whatever form that takes. Seminary plays a good and important role in teaching critical knowledge, best practices, and effective methodologies. We should learn all of that, and we should certainly put it to use in our ministry. But if we’re not careful, it’s easy to slip into the trap of thinking of ourselves as sorcerers. As magicians. As diviners of the future. It’s easy to start seeing ourselves as manipulators of divine reality, people who have learned special skills that will allow us to achieve desired results – to save the church from dying, perhaps; to grow vital ministry; to secure our own relevance.
            But if Moses is replaceable, than you better believe that we’re replaceable, too. That the point isn’t really our special talents, as wonderful as those may be; the point isn’t really our specialized knowledge, as helpful as that might be at times; the point isn’t really our best practices, as important as those are to learn. The point is that God is up to something, here, in our midst, in the midst of the church, in the midst of God’s world. God will work through our talents and our knowledge and our best practices; and God will work outside of our talents and our knowledge and our best practices. We are learning to be servants, not sorcerers – and certainly not saviors.
It is not, ultimately, about us.
And that is very, very good news.
See, I imagine that many of you are like me in that you have two voices yammering on in your head most of the time.[iv] These two voices seem to be in competition with each other, but in fact they are ingeniously collaborating to undermine you. One says, “You are irreplaceable. You are the center of the universe. Life is a story about you.” The other one says, “You are totally useless. Anybody else could do this job better than you. You’re the worst.” Those sound like opposites, but they’re not. They’re part of the same lie. The lie is, “You are alone. You are not part of a community. You are not surrounded by God’s grace. You must do it yourself. You must justify yourself.” Sure, one voice is trying to tell you that you are way better at that than anyone around you, and the other is telling you that you’re way worse at it, but neither of them is telling the truth. The truth is, we can’t justify or un-justify ourselves. We can’t perfect or un-perfect ourselves. That’s what God’s up to. That’s what God’s promising to do.
What we are supposed to do in response is summed up in tonight’s text by the Hebrew word tamim. It means “whole” or “complete” or “undivided.” The NRSV translates it as “completely loyal,” as we heard tonight “You must remain completely loyal to the LORD your God.” But I like Robert Alter’s translation: “You shall be wholehearted with the LORD your God.”[v]  I love that word. “Wholehearted.” Here’s a definition provided by the sociologist Brené Brown:
“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.[vi]
Maybe that’s not what the Deuteronomist meant by, “You must be tamim,” but if prophecy is all about counternarrative, about contrast-community, then what a counternarrative that would be. What a contrast that would be to the voices that say, “It’s all about me…and I’m total shit.” What a contrast between saying, “I am the one who has the special skills and the special knowledge to manipulate divine reality,” and saying, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” I am enough, because I know that my worth and my relevance and my effectiveness ultimately derive from the grace and love of a God who longs deeply for the healing and redemption of the cosmos.
And that God calls us to be prophets, not prognosticators. Ministers, not magicians.
That God has two messages for us, a counter to the two voices droning on in our minds.
The first message is, “You. Are. Enough.”
            The second is, “And don’t you ever for a second get to thinking you’re irreplaceable.

[i] From the song “Irreplaceable,” by the irreplaceable Beyoncé Knowles. For the tragically Beyoncé-challenged:

[ii] I should clarify that I find the Pew Research Forum, the research of the Barna Group, and other survey data very useful in my own ministry. Social science is an invaluable tool for understanding the context of a community; it’s just not the crystal ball that some church researchers seem to wish it to be. For a great take on this, check out Patrick Scriven’s article “I just left the funeral for the church...
[iii] David L. Lieber, et. al., editors, Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1999),
[iv] Anne Lamott refers to these voices as “Radio Station KFKD” in her marvelous Bird By Bird (New York: Anchor, 1994).
[v] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004), 970.
[vi] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly (New York: Gotham, 2012), 10.

No comments:

Post a Comment