The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori - Telling the Hard Truths

Sermon at St. Paul's, Charlottesville, VA

by The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori


What does [profit/prophet] mean to you? What you used to get when you sold your house? Somebody who says the world is going to end on June 23rd, 2025? The forecaster who told us several days ago that all this snow was coming?

Those two words that sound alike mean quite different things, but there is some connection. The kind of profit that we think of as financial originally meant progress or advance - proficient comes from the same root. It has the sense of moving toward perfection, as in "what does it profit a man to gain the whole world if he loses his life?" (Mark 8:36). The prophet with challenging words to say is speaking about progress toward some end - or lack of progress - whether it's a snowstorm or the goal of creation. That kind of prophet often claims to speak for God.

Garrison Keillor insists that prophets are folks who tell the truth, and nobody really wants them around because that truth is often uncomfortable. Prophets don't get invited to birthday parties, at least not more than once!

Jeremiah the prophet has been appointed to speak judgment as well as hope: "to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." It's the first part that makes people want to get rid of prophets. That's certainly what happens to Jesus in the synagogue. He's just read the remarkable passage from Isaiah that talks about God's vision of abundant life - good news for the oppressed, release for the captives, comfort for the grieving, and one line of judgment about those who are providing the oppression, captivity, and death. And then Jesus says, "today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." The villagers don't get mad until he tells them that only a few will ‘get' the good news - either receive it or understand it. They react the way we often do when somebody has the chutzpah to tell us the truth, "who does he think he is?" And they try to take him out, in the first-century equivalent of a lynching.

What do we do with challenging prophetic words or calls to judgment? There are prophets all around us, if we're able to hear them: the earth is warming, and our behavior has something to do with it; excessive profits in the financial industry have a connection to our current economic mess; how we treat our bodies, in terms of food and exercise, has a lot to do with the state of our own health and the cost of health care. Those words of judgment aren't words of damnation or a curse, they're a description of what the consequences of behavior are likely to be. If we keep on doing what we've been doing, then this is what the future is going to look like. Prophets actually speak out of concern for our future profit - our progress toward perfection or away from it.

The prophets we revere speak from a position grounded in the overarching vision of God for a healed world, like what Martin Luther King had to say about the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.

There are two sorts of biblical prophets - the ones like Garrison Keillor's truth tellers, who speak out about the divide between that divine vision and current reality - prophets like Amos and Micah and Isaiah. There are others who try to prop up and justify current reality by insisting that things are just fine the way they are - the royal prophets, and the prophets of Baal. The current debate over health care in this nation has lots of both kinds, and the messages aren't always immediately distinguishable. We've heard some remind us that healing should be available to all who are sick, and we've heard some who want to tell us that it's going to be expensive. How we sort out those messages has something to do with where we think the goal lies - is it in healing more of the sick, or is it linked to budgets and bank accounts, or does it perhaps have something to do with both?

Yesterday, I read a friend's account of life in the Solomon Islands (South Pacific). He is the recently retired bishop of Malaita, in Melanesia, and he tells of the land that's disappearing in those islands, most of which are just barely above sea level . Storms are fiercer than they used to be, and storm surges and high tides higher, and the land on which his people live is eroding and sinking beneath the sea. Many of the Solomon Islanders make their living from the sea, and grow limited staple crops in the sand just above tide line. Their ability to maintain their culture is disappearing along with their ancestral homeland. They and others like them are becoming environmental refugees. Terry Brown's account has words of challenge at the end, about how both we and the Solomon Islanders share in the responsibility for greenhouse warming because of the fossil fuels we use, but he also notes that the wealthier nations of the world have a greater responsibility to change, because we have the resources. In the long run we can all enjoy a more abundant life, if we're willing to change.

But prophets aren't just oceanic bishops or Old Testament firebrands. Prophetic work is part of our baptismal vocation - will you persevere in resisting evil, will you proclaim the good news in word and action, will you strive for justice and peace? Every time we see and speak out about injustice, or the need for healing or reconciliation, we're both speaking in God's name and pushing for progress toward God's vision. Loving our neighbors is intimately wrapped up in that prophetic work of telling the truth of what is and what ought to be.

The ability to tell those hard truths has something to do with courage, and a deep connectedness to God and all of God's creation: the courage that St. Paul's had right after the Second World War to challenge others in this community to contribute to rebuilding churches in Europe; the courage to say no to Harry Byrd's program of massive resistance to integrated schools; the courage to host a prayer vigil during the Viet Nam war; the courage to read out the names of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan this past week; and the courage to say keep on saying yes to all comers in this community. Your next hundred years will be built on that kind of courage to speak truth, to pluck up and pull down human structures of injustice, and to build and plant a community of peace. You will continue to be prophets here as long as you notice the hungry and figure out how to feed people, as long as you reach out to students who might not otherwise get here to the University of Virginia. How about inviting young people from Haiti or Liberia to apply for Skinner scholarships? The vision from Isaiah that Jesus read, the truth he proclaimed that nearly got him lynched in Nazareth, is the courageous truth we share - a healed and healing world.

Prophets may be quaking in their boots, like MLK the night his house was bombed, but they keep on speaking, and they keep on moving toward God's perfection. May your words and deeds be bold!

[Taken with permission from the website of The Episcopal Church.]