On the feast of James of Jerusalem
The following sermon was preached by Ellen A. Mills, LSTC student, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Thursday, October 23, 2008.
"Prophets are not without honor except in their own country, and in their own house." Jesus was pegged. They knew just who he was -the son of Joseph the carpenter, the son of Mary, the pregnant teenager. They knew just what the son of a carpenter was expected to do, but Jesus was daring to speak like a rabbi, and he was saying things that even the rabbis weren't saying. He was talking about the kingdom of heaven coming in our midst. And he spoke with wisdom and performed deeds of power. But he was the son of a laborer. And his family and neighbors were convinced that God wouldn't speak through someone like that.
I saw an odd pattern at the university in the town where I lived. I called it, "The expert from afar." If a study needed to be done, a strategic plan, some sort of assessment, they needed an expert. And an expert was not to be found within. The people within the university were a known quantity. An expert had to come from outside - preferably far away - and needed to be paid lots of money to be authoritative. Sometimes we need an outside perspective, an unusual set of skills - but this was really about disrespect. The people within - despite their credentials and years of experience - simply were not good enough to be experts for their own university. Their voices and their gifts were not valued.
It is not unusual for us to create categories in our minds so that we can make sense of the world around us. The problem is when we allow the categories that we have created ourselves to define and limit the potential of people we have put in them, when we let those categories keep us from seeing what is valuable. When we make those categories absolute, we limit the power of God to do extraordinary things through ordinary people.
I went to college in the mid 70's. Yes, I know - this is ancient history - before many of you were born. But for me, this is living history. It was a liberal Quaker college, and they wanted to stretch our minds by presenting ideas and experiences that were new to us. So in humanities we read Ishi: the Last of the American Indians, and Soledad Brother and Night. But, in theology, we read Tillich, Bart, the Niebuhrs, Bultman, and Moltman because these were the experts. I was attracted and frustrated. I struggled to make the connection between what I was reading and my own faith experience and understanding of God. And I didn't know why. I remember a classmate asking why we didn't read Rahner, and she was told that was because Rahner wasn't up to the level of the experts we were reading. This was the theology that mattered. It didn't occur to me to ask what was missing. The writers we were reading were white male Protestants - but so were the professors. That was normal. It hadn't been any different in the leadership of the church I grew up in, so I didn't see anything wrong. It is hard to see what is not there.
It wasn't until I came to seminary thirty years later and discovered other theologians that I realized the frustration I felt wasn't just my lack of ability to understand. I got to read feminist and liberation theologians who strongly spoke to the experiences I have had, and provided a view of God that fits with my faith and understanding. I got to hear stories of God's love and grace working through brokenness and oppression. I got to hear that God is for all, even the least. I got to hear voices that I was never allowed to hear before - because they weren't considered important or relevant. I got to hear stories of God's transformation of ordinary lives and stories from many cultures and places. I heard this through voices of women and people of color. God was still speaking. God had always been speaking - the voices just hadn't been allowed to be heard.
Just where did we lose track that God is the God of surprises, who reveals the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary? Just when did we decide that God was tame and predictable? In the gospel, Jesus was disrespected because he was the son of a carpenter, living in a town that was not Jerusalem. He was lower class, not well educated, not expected to teach as the rabbis taught. And he was daring to go beyond the current thought and to talk about the kingdom of heaven in our midst, to suggest that the common people - and not just the powerful - mattered to God.
In the Bible, this has been God's pattern. When God chose someone to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he chose someone who could not speak well in public. When God sent Samuel to anoint a king from Jesse's sons, God did not pick the older sons. God chose the youngest - one of such little account that he was out keeping the sheep - a dirty, smelly, lowly job. God did not come in the flesh to be born to a powerful family in Jerusalem. God came to an unmarried teenager in a small town. And the birth was announced not to the noble and powerful, but to a bunch of grungy shepherds keeping sheep near Bethlehem. And Jesus chooses the ordinary. Jesus picks a ragtag of fishermen and a tax collector - not people educated to be rabbis. Over and over, God does the extraordinary through the ordinary.
So if this has been God's pattern through the ages - why isn't it ours? We never know just whose voice may be important. What categories are we placing people in that we do not expect God to speak through them? Who do we disrespect into silence? Are we open to the voices and stories of all of God's people, or do we only listen to those in the right categories - the categories that we ourselves have created? God's love bursts open categories. God's love is for all, and God uses many different voices to speak of the experience of God's grace. God needs all of the ordinary, peculiar people God created to be the vessels through which the Word is spoken to reach to this diverse, hurting world.
In our communities - and in our churches - are we listening to all of the voices? God may be speaking through those we have written off. We need to hear the full conversation. The theologians I studied in the 70's were good theologians - they just didn't provide the full story. Voices were missing. So when you listen to a voice coming from a new place - remember that God does the extraordinary through the ordinary.