Welcoming Prophets

  • June 30, 2020

Romans 6:12-13 and Matthew 10:40-42

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gathers his disciples, and then he sends them out.  Jesus sends the disciples out to share the good news that “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”  He sends the disciples out to heal many forms of illness.  Jesus sends the disciples out with no supplies whatsoever, and he forbids them from accepting any form of payment. Instead, they must simply offer themselves to whoever will accept them in each place that they go.

This kind of traveling and teaching and healing will not be easy, Jesus warns.  In fact, the disciples will be as sheep in the midst of wolves. They will experience hatred and betrayal, family strife and persecution. They will need to be as wise as serpents to survive it, shaking the dust off their feet as they leave any unwelcoming place.

Still, Jesus tells them, “whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous.”

Hearing what Jesus asks his first disciples to do, I find myself feeling oddly grateful that I am not one of them.  But the selection of text that we hear today invites us to consider not what it would be like to be one of those disciples, but instead to wonder about those who encounter them in their tavels. 

Would we have welcomed one of these folks, if they arrived in our town, or at our door?  Would the risk of inviting in a poor stranger be worth the great rewards of which Jesus speaks?  I’m not sure how I would feel about welcoming someone who arrived with no introduction, no social standing, no luggage — nothing.  I’m even less sure that I would be ready to welcome that person if they were a prophet.

In biblical tradition, prophets are trouble!  They don’t so much predict the future as tell us deep truths about the present: truths that we have tried very hard not to acknowledge.  Prophets speak with passion; they don’t hold back. Prophets cause conflict, within our hearts and within our societies.  And just like the disciples, they generally arrive without warning, without introduction, without power, without privilege — and they are audacious enough to share their truths anyway.

Last week, after listening to The Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, III preach about the tragedies of racialized oppression and white supremacy in our country, a group of us talked about what we about what we have been taught, and what we have not been taught.  There was general agreement that our education is not what it should have been – though many of us received what is generally considered to be excellent schooling.  When it comes to American history and politics and economics, we have been lied to. We have been audaciously and systematically lied to.  Maybe you have been lied to, as well.

But as I listened to our conversation it kept coming forcefully to my heart that we can yet be saved from this terrible conspiracy of miseducation.  Here is the good news: we have never wanted for good teachers. Our school systems, our curriculums, and the powers that controlled them, may have failed us in many regards.  But teachers of truth have always shown up anyway. Without invitation, without permission, teachers have shown up with Holy Spirit fire and truth for us, if we will only receive their teachings.

Who are these teachers? Today, perhaps we can remember those truth tellers who showed up at the Stonewall Inn, starting early in the morning on this day, June 28th, in 1969.  At that time, LGBTQ folks in America were being openly and systemically persecuted: tracked by the FBI, criminalized by local governments, and labelled as having mental disorders.  To be honest about who you were at any time, in any place, was to risk your employment, your freedom, and even your life.  Tragically, this is all still true to some extent today.

In the early morning hours of that June 28th, there were a lot of folks at the Stonewall Inn, a gathering space for those whose gender identities and expressions, as well as their sexual orientations, race, and class, made them particularly vulnerable in our society.  These folks had come to the only gay bar in NYC that allowed dancing. And then the raid started. Police raids on gay bars were common, but this raid was particularly violent.  In addition to the regular practices of demanding ID, verifying biological sex, and placing people under arrest, this raid included sexual assault and beatings.  It was, witnesses and participants said, the last straw.  A riot began.

Who led the way in the days that followed, a critical turning point in the emergence of a Gay rights movement?  It was people like Marsha P. Johnson, a Black self-identified Drag Queen.  And Stonewall was only the beginning of their activism.  Johnson became a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front.  A leader in Greenwich village, Johnson was known as the “Mayor of Christopher Street.” Along with friend Sylvia Rivera, Johnson founded an organization called Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, providing shelter and food to homeless queer youth and fighting for transgender rights.  Later, Johnson became an AIDS activist with ACT UP.  Not always accepted even within gay rights efforts, Marsha P. Johnson’s presence and work taught the world a truth that was radical then and continues to be all too radical now. I have value, they insisted, people like me have value, and are entitled to the same rights as anyone else.

Those of us who read the book White Fragility last year received this teaching through author Robin DiAngelo. She shared the response of a man of color when asked what it would be like for white people to be open to feedback, to be willing to learn.  He replied, “It would be revolutionary.”

Beloved, most of us, white or not,  have been badly taught: in school, and in society.  But what we were never told, we can still learn, as long as we are willing to welcome those teachers, those prophets, who have always been trying to teach us.  Not all prophets have fancy degrees, or work in fancy schools. Not all prophets look like someone you’d expect to show up in your town, or at your door.  But countless prophets have offered the world the gift of their truth with astounding bravery; have insisted on the preciousness and dignity of human and natural life.

We have been badly taught. But we can learn, even those of us who are white. And we can use whatever power and privilege we have – many of us have a lot of it – to amplify and to fund the work of prophets and activists and change-makers of all kinds today.  God, in her wisdom, invites us not into shame for what we have thought, and who we have been, but into the freedom of a greater love. God invites us into a new life, in which, as the Apostle Paul writes, we can offer every part of ourselves to God as an instrument of righteousness. May it be so.