Link to Lectionary Texts: http://www.lectionarypage.net/YearB_RCL/Pentecost/BProp9_RCL.html
(A subversivepreacher archive sermon)
There is an airplane story I want to tell you.
It is a true story,
one of those fascinating moments between strangers
that hangs in the memory like a moist haze over water.
It was a cross-country flight some years back,
when I had the good fortune to get an Emergency Exit seat
in the first row between first class and last class.
So there was no seat ahead of me,
just six feet of legroom.
I was humming with my good fortune
because it was a Saturday
and I had been at a conference for a week
and I had to preach the next day.
This was going to be my sermon time
and I had room to type.
So there I was, my laptop out ready to go
as soon as the plane reached cruising altitude.
I was in the aisle seat and next to me
was a young Chinese American woman.
As I would come to learn,
she was adopted by an American couple ten years previously
and now, in her mid-twenties, was a Financial Analyst
for an international brokerage house
on her way to a two-year posting in Amsterdam.
On the other side of her, in the window seat,
sat a Frenchman who was now living in the States
after marrying an American.
Both my fellow passengers could not have been friendlier
or more eager to chat,
which was unfortunate given the sermon hanging over my head.
The woman sitting between us, me and the Frenchman,
was also quite the host – asking each of us a million questions
about our thoughts on every subject under the sun.
Inevitably an inquiry about my line of work arrived.
That is the moment of decision,
when I hover over the temptation to deflect
in order to be released from whatever discomfort
or misplaced enthusiasm ensues.
Usually when I tell a stranger that I am a minister
it produces some discomfort or embarrassment,
as if magically I know
they didn’t go to church last Sunday
or stole a cookie from the cookie jar.
Or it provides an immediate silence
and hurried exit from the topic
in order to avoid further conversation.
Alternately it can also produce an inappropriate sense of solidarity
as the person gleefully assumes I share
all their beliefs and prejudices.
My airplane companions created a new category.
The woman was a fearless bundle of energy.
“Oh,” she said, “that means you do not believe in Evolution.”
Before I could get a word in edgewise, she was off.
“My American Mom and Dad are Christian.
But I cannot be Christian” she said,
“because I cannot believe in all that they believe…”
The description of her parents’ church
led me to suspect it was a non-denominational congregation
with a theologically conservative approach to religion.
As it turned out, she attended this church with her parents
but could never accept the beliefs she heard expressed there.
After her long commentary on all the things she could not believe,
I said, “Well, I don’t believe that either.”
“What? How can you be Christian and not believe?”
I could not tell if she was skeptical or amazed.
“I don’t see any conflict,” I told her,“ between the poetic descriptions
of Creation in Genesis and the observable ideas of Evolution.”
She laughed and laughed and laughed. “How can you be Christian,
and believe in Evolution?” She was totally flabbergasted at what seemed to be a new thought.
Needless to say, we were off to the races.
Being religious was so completely alien to her that she was utterly unselfconscious and talked about cherished religious beliefs
in the same way she would ask about why
I liked to wear Nike instead of Rebok.
I was a Chinese Philosophy major my first two years of college
so we were able to talk about China and religion as well.
She confided, that to her, her American parent’s church
had the same ‘cult of personality’
as the Chinese Cultural Revolution
when Mao and his successors, she said,
proved to be utterly decadent while punishing
and impoverishing others for straying from the party line.
She said that the cult of personality around Mao
and the total embrace of his ideology
was itself a religion.
So beside the fact that this intelligent and well educated woman
could not believe that God made the cosmos in six days,
or that Jesus was God in human form
she was also deeply cynical about religiosity,
and wary of the abuse of power
by people who claim religious authority.
In other words, she was a Poster Child
for the huge portion of the population that have nothing to do
with organized religion.
The Frenchman seemed less complex.
He simply did not believe in ‘any of that stuff.’
My response to them both
was to make the case that spirituality is not religion
and the church is not God.
Religion, I suggested, is to spirituality
as educational institutions are to learning.
You can become an educated person on your own,
without going to school,
but it is a lot harder and when you do,
you often have to re-invent the wheel.
Religion is the practice of spirituality, I told them,
whether you do it with others or not
and whether you are Christian or not.
Christianity, I acknowledged,
is only one of the great historic spiritual practices
and we have a choice about which one we practice
if we practice any at all.
That caused the Chinese woman to ask me
why I chose to be a Christian
since I started out studying Chinese philosophy.
Then I got more personal.
Soon the Frenchman asked tersely, “What good is it?”
“What good is what,” I was confused.
“What good is spirituality? What good does it do you?”
I thought about that question and did not know how to explain,
in terms that might make sense to him,
that in fact, it is was not good for anything.
I wanted to say that if we practice spirituality
because we think it will get us something,
it will do just the opposite.
So instead I asked him, “What good does it do to listen to music?
What good does it do to see paintings or sculpture?
What good does do to dance?”
Now he looked confused.
So I took a piece of paper and poked a tiny hole in it
with my mechanical pencil. I said to him,
“This is how much of the cosmos we see, right?
He looked puzzled.
“With all of our scientific knowledge,” I continued,
“and with all of our historical perspective,
and with all of our technological advances,
we still only have a peephole through which to view
all that is out there, right?”
“So practicing spirituality makes the hole a little bigger.”
I smiled. “There is more than one way of knowing,
and the more ways we have of knowing, and of seeing,
the bigger our peephole.
“What does that get us,” I asked rhetorically,
But maybe it allows us to be wiser.
Maybe we get to be more perceptive
and that gives us a chance
to be less reactive in life,
and move more gracefully with the currents
we cannot see but we can feel – “
“Maybe,” the woman interrupted, “I could be your kind of Christian.”
And then she laughed and laughed, and laughed.
Here is the point.
Prophets are the people who make the peephole bigger for us.
Prophets voice God the way that a piano voices music.
The prophet is not the music itself but he or she delivers the sound.
There have always been prophets.
Famous ones whose names we know –
Moses, Amos, Deborah, Micah, Isaiah –
and not so famous ones that are only known to a few.
Here is what they do.
We humans are herd animals.
We think we are great individuals, like roving Grizzly bears,
but we are pack animals.
We are easily shaped by media-generated perceptions
and other purveyors of enculturation –
ones we prize,
like great classical literature;
and ones we may disparage,
like pornography and racism.
We are herded by people who wield instruments
of power and influence.
We like to think there is someone
who really knows the right answer
and who has the ability to guide us into safety and security.
And that desire is easily massaged and manipulated
and when a critical mass of people responds affirmatively
to a suggestion, then the herd moves as a group.
Such ‘herdness’ is not wrong, sinful, stupid
or cowardly –
it is just what we are,
and it is better to understand
who and what we are and account for it
than it is to be in denial of it –
and so more easily manipulated.
Prophets break the herd.
They somehow say things,
and say them in such a way that we can hear them
so that we suddenly see the place
we have been standing in an entirely new light.
It is as if suddenly we see our own living room
with the furniture all moved around
and it gives us an entirely new perspective.
The prophet gives us new eyes like that,
and for a moment
we can see we have been herded
and where we are heading
and the hazard of continuing to go there.
We may get annoyed at the prophet for pushing us to see
what we do not want to see.
And if the prophet is really effective at opening our eyes,
and getting under our skin –
and begins to threaten business-as-usual
for those who profit most
from business-as-usual –
then we might decide the prophet needs to go.
But the difference between a prophet and a rabble-rouser,
or a prophet and a revolutionary,
or a prophet and an advocate,
is that the prophet voices God.
The prophet may be all those other things as well,
and those other kinds of loudmouths may be prophetic also,
but voicing God
is what makes the prophet unique
regardless of what else he or she is up to.
It is not easy to discern the difference.
In the prophet’s words,
as well as in his or her life,
the love of God will be loud and clear
and the God’s-eye view
that has no respect for borders
and special interests
will be obvious.
If that tough sinewy love of God is not present,
and the point-of-view so filtered by assumptions of
as to impair it
then it is probably not prophetic.
So allow me to end with the airplane story
before ending with what I think all this has to say to us just now.
We landed and the Chinese American
and the French immigrant and I got ready
to make our flight connections.
We said good-bye with smiles
and even though my sermon was not even begun,
I felt strangely energized.
Then an amazing thing happened.
As I exited the walkway and stepped into the airport,
a woman I did not recognize stepped up to me and said,
“I want to thank you for that conversation. I was entertained the whole trip and I feel so stimulated.”
I must have been wearing a dumb expression on my face
because she then explained that she was sitting in the last row
of the First Class section,
and listened to our conversation for the entire flight.
We exchanged a few pleasantries
and both went our separate ways.
So with all of that in mind,
from the airplane story to Ezekiel and Mark,
I will end with what crystallized for me in those encounters.
First, we live in a time in which Christianity
is an alien religion – largely unknown even to many people
who attend church now and again.
Secondly – to be Christian now is to make a choice
among other choices,
and not because those other choices are
heathen or pagan or evil.
Rather, because while we can affirm that other traditions
have wisdom about God,
we have chosen to practice our spirituality
through the peculiar wisdom of Jesus
and the other Judeo-Christian prophets and teachers.
Third, Christianity will go on being defined
by theology and practices that do not make sense to us
unless we – you and me – take the risk
to share our spiritual yearning and practice
with others who are hungry too.
Finally, we never know,
we rarely if ever get to know,
how our willingness to share
our own stories and spirituality with others
will ripple out and have influence –
just like I might never have known
that anyone else was listening to our conversation.
Any one of us may be used to voice God
at any given time;
and believe me, the prophets still speak.
You may be one of them.