Speaking truth to power: have you heard this expression? In seminary, it was the phrase I learned to describe what it meant to be a prophetic presence in our post-modern world. Speaking truth to power; being willing to say those things that must be said, but which may also not be so popular with everyone. It’s one thing to study about this concept in the Hogworts-like halls of seminary, quite another thing to do it in “the real world”. There can be real life costs.
In today’s Gospel lesson according to Luke, Jesus shows us some of those consequences. While at first, those elders of Nazareth were impressed by Jesus’ “truth-telling”, and tried to claim him as Joseph’s son, as their own, once they realized that they did not control Jesus, they rejected him. Imagine Jesus, pressed right up to the edge of a cliff, and having the confidence to simply “pass through the midst of” his attackers and “go on his way”. How might we stand as strongly?
The prophet Jeremiah had a tough job. Speaking to the people returning from exile, he was tasked with not only comforting them, but also delivering the less popular message of restoration — of owning the role of Israel and Judah in their defeat by Babylon and Syria. In a time of turmoil, God calls Jeremiah to bring hope to the wounded, but also to move beyond their tragic narrative, resolving to do things differently in the future. Yikes! Good luck with that!
What I believe gave both Jesus and Jeremiah their confidence was their bone-deep faith that God was with them; having faith that God had formed them and called them to speak. “Do not be afraid of them,” God tells Jeremiah, “for I am with you to deliver you.” The Psalmist, King David, often sang about God’s power in forming us “in the womb” — today we read that “from (our) mother’s womb (God) has been (our) strength.” Many of us cling to the song of Psalm 139, reminding us that “God formed our inward parts; God knit us together in our mother’s womb.” This knowledge gives us the strength to speak truth to power.
Do you know who first coined that phrase, “truth to power”? Some credit it to the Quaker non-violence group, American Friends Service Committee, which is partially true. The real author was a civil rights activist Baynard Rustin, who wrote a pamphlet with this title for the AFSC in the 1950’s. A black, gay man, Rustin worked his whole life — from 1912 to 1980 — as an advocate for gay and black rights. He worked with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership to organize the Freedom Rides that challenged segregation; Rustin helped organize two Marches on Washington, the first one in 1941, which he cancelled when President Roosevelt passed the Fair Employment Act. What made Rustin’s words effective? What helped him to voice the needs of those who had been silenced? What made him more than a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”? I think that Paul gives the answer to that to Corinth and to us.
Love. Paul reminded the earliest churches that, no matter what the Jesus movement accomplished or what wisdom it possessed, if it forgot about Love, it would all b
e for nothing. The idea of “prophecy” as a prediction of the future, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Those “prophecies” come and go. A prophetic voice is one that speaks from their love for God and God’s people; advocates for those whose voices are not being heard. Their love gives them strength, and confidence, and a power that transcends politics.
Paul speaks about a mature love; the love that we, as adults, choose to live out regardless of the sacrifice, putting away our “childish ways. It is this mature love that builds up the Body of Christ. In Chapter 8 of first Corinthians, Paul observes that “knowledge puffs up; Love builds up”. He was addressing those who, as we discussed last week, were placing themselves above others for their observance of particular purity laws. Ok, ok, Paul was saying. We all know the law. What about the truth of Love?
The preface to Ruskin’s treatise states “Our truth is an ancient one: that love endures and overcomes; that hatred destroys; that what is obtained by love is retained, but what is obtained by hatred proves a burden.” Rustin’s love helped him endure, even after his authorship was removed from the treatise when he came out as gay. In 2010, the AFSC restored Rustin’s name to the document; in 2013, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Our Presiding Bishop, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the first African American Episcopal primate elected in our country, commends to us this year to follow the “Way of Love”. I invite you to go onto our Diocesan website and find resources to help all of us follow the cycle to Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest. This helps us to ground ourselves in Love, even as we continue to speak truth to power, to Go: crossing boundaries, listening deeply, and living like Jesus. It is this divine love that provides the foundation for our words and actions.
The Apostle Paul (or one of his followers) wrote about speaking this truth to the early church in Ephesus. The letter to the Ephesians comes from a mature place, and talks about the unity of the Body of Christ. Chapter 4: 15,16 says: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.”
Friends, let us follow the way of Love this year, growing up in every way, and gaining the courage to speak the truth, with Love. Let us discover what we can do, what we can build together with God’s power working within us.
And all of God’s prophets said together AMEN!