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Ministry Reminders for Prophetic People

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A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, for the ordination of Rev. Marie Mainard O’Connell, First Presbyterian Church, Little Rock, Ark., on October 21, 2012.

Luke 4:14-30

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers* in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

After a long season of prayers, pondering, and discernment, we’re here to celebrate what God is doing, has done, and what we trust God will do through the ministry of Reverend Marie Mainard O’Connell and First Presbyterian Church.  And we should celebrate.  God has answered prayers.  God has granted discernment.  This congregation and minister have found a peace about the prospect of being pilgrims in and prophets of God’s grace and truth together.  We’re excited for Rev. O’Connell and for First Presbyterian because of the ministry they will engage in as pastor and people to the glory of God.  And on a personal note, I am so grateful to Rev. O’Connell, First Presbyterian, and the Presbytery of Arkansas for permitting me the honor of sharing in this service and delivering the sermon.

I love “The Blues Brothers” movie.  I love the music. I love seeing James Brown, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn.  I love hearing the old songs and seeing the band choreography.  I can’t play any musical instrument, sing only fairly well, and will never be confused with Michael Jackson on the dance floor.  But I love good soul and rhythm and blues and funk music.

My favorite scenes and lines from “The Blues Brothers” don’t involve the music.  They aren’t spoken by any of the artists I mentioned.  They aren’t even sung.  They’re spoken by Elwood Blues the character played by Dan Aykroyd. 

After Jake Blues, played by John Belushi, angrily confronts Elwood about trading their Cadillac for a microphone, lying to him about staying in touch with their band, and getting him involved in a scheme that could land him back in prison, Elwood responds, “They’re not gonna catch us.  We’re on a mission from God.”

When the soul food restaurant-owning and hard-working Mrs. Murphy (played by Aretha Franklin) learns that Jake and Elwood want her husband Matt “Guitar” Murphy (who played himself) to rejoin their band, she angrily objects.  Jake asks whether she would mind if Matt was joining them on something that was holy.  Then Elwood says, “We’re on a mission from God.” 

Mrs. Murphy responds, “Don’t you go blaspheme.  Don’t you come in here and blaspheme.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
   because he has anointed me
     to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
   and recovery of sight to the blind,
     to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

 
…21… ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

It is an audacious claim for anyone to publicly declare that he or she is appointed by God to do something.  God sent you? God anointed you?  God has no better way of getting God’s business done than by you?  That’s a rather cheeky claim to for anyone to make.

Yet that’s the tradition in which we stand.  Like Jesus, we’ve somehow gotten the notion that God has decided to do something in the world and, get this, we think God has called us to do it.  God is working.  We’re God’s instruments.  We’re agents of God?   We’re God’s Emissaries, Ambassadors, and Prophets? 

It’s cheeky enough to privately hold that notion of oneself.  But, again like Jesus, we’re publicly affirming it.  We’ve come out in the open to announce—celebrate even—that God has work that this preacher and these people will do that will make the kind of difference that only God can make.  Talk about audacity! 

That’s the first thing I’ve come to remind you this afternoon.  You’re on a mission from God! 

Yes, we are mortal creatures, fallible, gullible, vulnerable, and frail.  Yes, we have moments and sometimes seasons of doubt, fear, guilt, and frustration.  Yes, neighbors, schoolmates, and others may not think much about what we are doing or what we believe. 

Yet, we hold as truth that the Spirit of the Lord is working on and with us.  God has spoken to us.  This isn’t some casual undertaking we’re about.  We’re on God’s business!  We’re on a mission from God! 

And that brings me to the second reminder.  However audacious our calling and claims may seem, remember that the audacity must be traced to God. 

Marie, God has called you.  God has the audacity to look humanity and the rest of creation in the face and bestow on you the work of declaring the message of divine grace and truth.  And God knows you better than you know yourself or the rest of the world knows you. 

First Presbyterian, God knows you better than you know yourselves.  Despite all that you know about yourselves that give you pause, and despite all the reasons others may assert to question your ministry, never forget that the audacity of God called you to be prophetic agents of divine grace and truth! 

  • The audacity of God called you to confront the wickedness of hunger and greed through the Stewpot Ministry. 
  • The audacity of God called you to pray and protest for peace. 
  • The audacity of God has commissioned you as prophets of social justice.

Next, remember that we’ve been commissioned to proclaim God’s good news to people in bad situations and change the world.  We’ve been sent to shout freedom to people imprisoned by life and the order of things.  We’ve been sent by God to declare new vision to people blinded by the weight of their past and present realities.  God has sent us to call people who’ve been oppressed by greed, pride, power, violence, and hate and declare their freedom.  We’ve been commissioned by God to change the world.

  • God has called us to be radical people of grace in a tight-fisted world. 
  • God has called us to be radical prophets of self-sacrificing love in a self-centered world.
  • God has called us to be radical prophets of peace in a world that treats war-making as an adventure, killing as a game, and the savagery of violence as a virtue. 
  • God has called us to be messengers of truth to a world addicted to self-deception, fraud, and dishonesty. 
  • God has called us to be oracles of courage in a world paralyzed by its own fears. 
  • God has called us to be hopeful faces and voices in a world that lurches from disappointment, to anxiety, and to despair.

God has called you to change the world every day in your interactions with everyone you encounter.  This is what you are called to nurture children to become.  This is the faith you are called to cling to when adversity strikes your lives.  This is who you are when death leaves you numb with pain and unable to function.  This is who you are when friends misunderstand you, enemies attack you, and cynics mock you. 

When these things happen, remember who you are following.  Remember that radical peasant preacher named Jesus from that no-account town called Nazareth.  Remember that God had the audacity to show up disguised as a colonized subject of a militaristic empire that claimed divine prerogatives for its leader and thought it ran the world.  Remember that God had the audacity to show up in a poor unmarried woman’s child.  Remember that God had the audacity to show up in that child as an undocumented immigrant marked for death by a Palestinian despot.  Remember that God had the audacity to show up in an unlettered child who grew into the radical preacher we know as Jesus.

And God has sent us to make the same claims Jesus made after he read that passage from Isaiah on his first visit to his hometown synagogue as a preacher.   The same Spirit is on us.  The same message is given to us.  The same passion for justice and love drives us. 

And we are challenged to live out the same thing that Jesus affirmed.  ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’  

We’re on a mission from God.  We’re on this mission because God has the audacity to call us, commission us, and empower us for it.  We’re on this mission to proclaim good news to people in bad situations.  We’re here fulfilling God’s audacious plan to change the world.  That’s why you’ve got Stewpot.  That’s why you are embracing social justice.  That’s why you’re a prophetic congregation and preacher.  You’re here to fulfill God’s audacious plan to resurrect the world. 

When the dry times come and your way looks dreary, remember the audacity of God called you.  When your fears rush upon you and your failings threaten to overwhelm you, remember that you’re God’s child and people.  You’re on a mission from God.  When it looks like you’ve run out of gas, out of highway, and out of ideas on how to fulfill your ministry, remember that your mission is from God.  It’s God’s ministry in the world that you’re doing. 

Get to it!  Stay with it!  Fight the good fight.  Stay the course.  Finish the race.  Be God’s prophetic pastor and people!  Fulfill the audacious claims of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Live with resurrection hope and joy.  And may God who called you grant you a long day in God’s service and welcome you at evening with this word.  “Well done, good and faithful servants!  Well done!”  Amen.