On the occasion of John Hines Day and the anniversary of his 100th Birthday
Christ Chapel– Seminary of the Southwest
Micah Jackson, John Hines Assistant Professor of Preaching
Several years ago, the United Church of Christ began an advertising campaign designed to answer what they considered to be one of the primary questions facing people wondering about the church. Their slogan was “God is still speaking.” It was a powerful campaign, and by all accounts, it was successful. And I wouldn’t want to criticize the marketing geniuses behind the United Church of Christ, but I do think that they’re asking the wrong question. If you ask me, there is a much more important question facing the Church these days. And I suspect that Bishop Hines would agree with me on this. Of course God is still speaking. The real question is this:
Are God’s prophets still speaking?
God said, “Amos, what do you see?” and Amos replied, “A plumb-line.” The plumb-line, of course, represents God’s way of building, one that is straight and true. This passage from Amos was very important to Bishop Hines, and indeed, it is the source for the beautiful sculpture in the narthex here in Christ Chapel. The sculpture shows the plumb-line coming from Heaven, to guide the people of the city toward that which is true. But it also hangs over the city as a sign of judgment, for indeed, dire consequences befall those who do not build straight to the plumb-line of the Lord. But in front of the sculpture is a stand, with a Bible on it. And inscribed on the stand are God’s words (in the Authorized Translation, of course) “Amos, what seest thou?” This is significant to me because it reveals that Bishop Hines knew that the plumb-line was important, but even more so was the vision of the prophet.
Prophets are the ones who see not only the world as it is, but also the world as God created it to be, wholly good, restored and rebuilt, as if with a plumb-line. And they can help others to see it, too. About a month ago, we presented the Charles Cook award in Servant Leadership to one of our own graduates, Zane Wilemon. He is the founder of Comfort the Children International. He was honored not only for his work, but also for his vision of relationships between us here in America and the people of Kenya. But more even than his vision, he was honored for what he causes others to see. The citation for the award quoted Zane’s grandmother who wisely taught him, “Seeing your life may be as close as some people get to reading the Bible.” Zane Wilemon is a plumb-line, placed in the midst of the people, which we are invited to see.
Are God’s prophets still speaking? Yes, they are.
Paul’s extraordinary letter to the Corinthians gives us another piece of this puzzle. He tells us how to proclaim the vision we see. For, as Christians, we do not see ourselves, or even plumb-lines. When God asks us “What seest thou” we see Christ crucified for the salvation of the world. And it is this vision that we must proclaim. And Paul knows that such a proclamation is not easy, indeed that it is very dangerous. But even if we are not simply afflicted in every way, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down, but also crushed, driven to despair, forsaken and destroyed, we follow the vision of a man who has been to all these places before, and has triumphed over them all, even death, the final fear.
Bishop Hines lived this way. He proclaimed a true Gospel–even though unpopular with some–a Gospel of social justice inflected by the particular concerns of his day, racial injustice. His work with the General Convention Special Program was criticized for his insistence that the money the program distributed be given freely, without conditions and without oversight. Some said that it was irresponsible, and that the money might be wasted, and that without oversight, there would be no way of knowing if the programs the GCSP supported, let alone the program itself, was being effective. But Hines knew that so long as people in power insisted on judging the effectiveness of things, that true change in the systems of oppression would never be possible. He disregarded this criticism and all others because he knew that proclaiming the vision he saw of a world transformed by justice was his sacred calling, his one duty, and his joy.
Are God’s prophets still speaking? Yes. They are.
Jesus makes a difficult invitation to us this morning. Surely, following him means going where he goes, and maybe even ending up where he ended up. Jesus tells us not to be too concerned about protecting our lives. Indeed, he says that those who save their lives will lose them. Certainly, lives here could mean that our earthly existence could be demanded of us, but it could just as easily mean our metaphorical life–our safety and comfort–which is often harder to imagine surrendering. Taking up the cross daily is not easy, but it is the third piece of the prophet’s call. Not only to see the vision, nor only to proclaim it, but also to live it out in the world.
I might give another example here of one of God’s prophets, and how he or she is a living example of Christ’s call to us to take up our cross daily, but I won’t do that. I won’t do that because, frankly, I don’t want to let any one of us off the hook. If I name someone here then it might seem like all is well and I can just go on about my daily business of caring mostly about myself and paying lip service to the rest of the world. As a part of fallen humanity, I have that tendency, and maybe you recognize it in yourself, too. Instead, I’ll simply ask my question again.
Are God’s prophets still speaking? Yes, they are.
But are you speaking? It’s not an empty question. Simply flipping on the television or tuning in the radio, even just going down to the corner store will reveal that there are plenty of unloving, uncharitable blowhards still speaking. And though many of them are Christians, you couldn’t tell it from their actions, or their message. They’re speaking all right, but it is not the kind of challenging yet life-giving prophecy God demands of us. Some of them have a plumb-line, but often it is they themselves–and not God–who is doing the measuring. There should be more vision than that. They’re speaking all right, but some of them proclaim themselves rather than Christ crucified, his life poured out for the salvation of the world. There should be better proclamation than that. They’re speaking all right, but they speak from the safety of distance–distance and safety born of wealth, and power, and privilege rather than the all-encompassing, unblinking love of God for the creation. There should be more congruence between word and life than that.
God calls out to each of us, every day, and charges us to speak–to speak of love, and justice, and understanding, and peace; to speak of strength, and power, and mercy; to speak of friendship, and joy; in other words, to speak of God. Samuel heard God’s voice and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Today when you hear God’s voice calling out to you, you will hear it saying, “Speak, prophet, for my world is listening.”