Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

 

Soul Surviving: Giving Back the Trouble

Sunday, January 9, 2005

 

 

I Kings 18: 7-18

 

Matthew 3: 13-17

 

 

Rev. Dean Snyder

Dean Snyder, Senior Minister, is a preacher, writer and activist who coordinates a talented ministerial and lay staff. He has previously served congregations in Philadelphia as well as a director of communications, editor, specialist in congregational development and new church starts, campus minister and college instructor. A graduate of Boston University School of Theology and Albright College, his articles have appeared in dozens of publications.

 

 

Years ago, during a time of military conflict in Central America, shop owners in the Philadelphia airport reported to airport security that there was a Hispanic man causing a disturbance in the airport concourse. He was talking to people passing by in Spanish in an agitated voice as they tried to make their way to their flights. Airport security took the man into custody, and they sent out for a translator.

 

When the translator finally arrived, the translator asked the man why he was making trouble. He answered them: “Yo no estaba tratando de crear problemas. Yo estaba tratando de decirte que tenemos problemas.”

 

“I wasn’t trying to make trouble. I was trying to tell you: ‘You’ve got trouble.’”

 

This Epiphany I am asking us to study together the life of the prophet Elijah. Elijah was called by God to be a prophet – to be a minority voice and an agent of change on behalf of the God of justice, equality and compassion, during a time when Israel had gone astray as a people and had begun instead to worship a God of affluence, success, and power. This is still today one of the church’s callings: part of our calling is to be a prophetic people who articulate God’s call to justice, equality and compassion, that we work for peace and humility during times when our society and our world and our institutions, including the church, have gone astray.

 

But being a prophetic voice and an agent for change has its own difficulties, its own spiritual struggles.  One of the things I tried to talk about last Sunday is the possibility that, when we attempt to be faithful to our calling to be a prophetic people, we can become mere ideologues, people beating a drum for a cause. So it was important in Elijah’s life that God put him in the place to live with a widow and her sick son. And he came to love the sick son, to love him so deeply that he gave him life. This is a reminder that what we are about, finally, is not ideology or causes. We are about love and what it means to extend our own intimate and loving relationships to all of God’s people. I suggested last Sunday that, if we are to be faithful to our prophetic calling, it is also important that we practice love and compassion and patience toward those who are closest to us and most intimate to us in our own lives. 

 

But this week I want to lift up another spiritual danger that seems to me is suggested by the story of the prophet Elijah – the danger that when we find ourselves a minority voice, agents for change, that we can come to doubt our own sensibilities and sanity. If you are a prophetic voice in the midst of a larger society gone astray, you can begin to feel out of step with the people around you and you can begin to suspect that there is something wrong with you. And part of the reason for this is because there will probably be others suggesting that you are the problem.

 

When Elijah came to meet King Ahab, King Ahab’s first response upon seeing him was to say: “Is that you, you troublemaker of Israel? Is that you, Elijah, you troublemaker? What is wrong with you, Elijah, that you can’t get along with other people? What is wrong with you, Elijah, that you are out of step with the rest of us? You, Elijah, are the problem here.”

 

And Elijah’s answer to the king was: “Yo no estaba tratando de crear problemas. Yo estaba tratando de decirte que tenemos problemas.”

 

“I am not making trouble. I am trying to tell you that we’ve got trouble.”

 

It is almost inevitable that the larger society, the nation, the institutions, the churches that have gone astray will see the prophetic voice and the prophetic presence within them as the problem.

 

I remember during the early days of the civil rights era that people would talk about “the Negro problem,” as though African-Americans rather than the racism of our society were the problem.

 

I can remember when people talked about “the feminist problem,” as though those raising questions of equality for women were the problem rather than the sexism in our society.

 

And not long ago, I was at a gathering where I heard some church people talk about “the Beth Stroud problem.” The Beth Stroud problem – as though Beth Stroud, the openly gay United Methodist pastor who was tried for being herself and for being honest about it, as though Beth were the problem rather than the inconsistency of our church’s policies with what we say we believe at this point in history. 

 

When I heard that Rev. Hultman’s wife Jean had passed away this week, I stopped by the house to see him. He was reminiscing for a time about his experience in ministry. In 1967, Rev. Hultman was the pastor of a congregational church in Cambridge, Maryland. In the summer of 1967, there were demonstrations in Cambridge, Maryland led by an activist by the name of H. Rap Brown. In the process of the demonstrations, some black stores and a black church were set afire. That coming Sunday, Rev. Hultman preached a sermon entitled “Smoke Over Cambridge.” He said that in the sermon he attempted to suggest that the smoke over Cambridge was not caused by civil rights activists, but had been caused by the failure of the white churches of Cambridge to reach out to their African-American neighbors. Later that week, a group of officers of the congregational church came to meet with him and disinvited him from being their pastor, as though to remove Rev. Hultman would be to solve the problem. 

 

The assumption of King Ahab was that if he could get rid of Elijah, his problems would go away, which is usually the assumption of the majority. If those troublemakers would just shut up and be quiet and go along, everything would be fine.

 

Now what I want to say about that is that in the midst of times of change, during the midst of times when we are re-examining profound questions about what we really believe and what it means to be true to what we say we believe, and during those times where there are people who are called to be a prophetic voice and presence within the larger society and within the institutions of the society, for those of us called to this kind of prophetic role, it is sometimes hard to wonder whether maybe we aren’t the problem. Maybe everybody else is right. Maybe there is something wrong with me that I just cannot go along with the way things are. Maybe I am mal-adjusted. Maybe I am the problem.

 

This is a difficult, spiritual struggle because many people will see us as the problem. And it is also very difficult because it is often true that many of us do have our own psychological and personal issues that make us less than perfect people and less than perfect voices.

 

Throughout the years, I have had clergy friends call me when they were under fire from their congregations because of a prophetic stance that they had taken. And they would call me and be upset because they would tell me that their district superintendent had suggested that they should get some psychological therapy – suggesting that the problem was their personality.

 

I can remember saying to one or two of them: “Listen, I’ve known you for a long time and I think you should get therapy, too. But because I think that you can benefit from therapy doesn’t mean that you are wrong about the stand that you have taken. It doesn’t mean you are wrong to have taken it. You may have some problems, like many of us have some problems. But you are not the problem.”

 

We are blessed to live in a time of social change. We are blessed and fortunate to live in a time of social change. The question before our nation today is whether we will live up to our most fundamental values of equality for all. The question before the Christian churches today is whether we will live up to our most fundamental creed of God’s love for all and the full inclusion of all within the church.

 

Those of us who are moved by God to be voices calling us to consistency with our deepest and most profound values as a nation and as a church may be seen as troublemakers.

 

A few weeks after the Beth Stroud trial, I received in the mail a newsletter from a Methodist caucus group proposing that all of us who disagree with the verdict simply leave the United Methodist Church, so that the church could get back to being the church again.

 

As I read it, I said to myself: “Yo no estaba tratando de crear problemas. Yo estaba tratando de decirte que tenemos problemas.” We are not trying to make trouble. We are trying merely to remind this church that we have trouble that we need to face and work at together.

 

Today is Baptism of our Lord Sunday. To me, one of the significant things about this Sunday is that it reminds me that even Jesus needed the means of grace. Even Jesus chose to be baptized by John. It reminds us that all of us need the spiritual nurture of the community of faith. In the midst of a situation where we are perceived as troublemakers and where we really cannot go along peacefully and calmly with the society and the institutions and always the churches of which we are a part. We particularly need the means of grace.

 

This is why it is important that, while Foundry is an activist church in the areas of peace and justice and equality, it is critically important that we are also a praying church that takes our spiritual life very seriously. We are a worshiping church that worships with all our heart. We are a church where we gather together to pray for healing for one another, for healing for our society. We are a church that taps deeply into the spiritual resources of our faith. We are not some change movement. We are not some societal social work organization. We are a church of spiritual people who are simply trying to ask that we live out our deepest beliefs. It’s important that as prophets we be a spiritual people.  

 

During the Protestant reformation, Martin Luther had times of great self-doubt, especially during the beginning when he first began challenging the church. Was it possible, he would ask himself, that his problems with the church were really his problem, and not a failing of the institution? Did his opposition to the church, did his inability to go along with the way things were, did that mean there was something wrong with him? In those early days as Martin Luther challenged the church, he began to worry that he might be damned, that his soul was lost.        

 

During those times of self-doubt Martin Luther would recite to himself, like a mantra, these words: “I am baptized. I am baptized. I am baptized.”

 

We are not the problem. We are not the problem. Injustice is the problem. Inequality is the problem. Our failure to enact with our lives what we say we believe with our lips is the problem. Our lack of compassion is the problem.

 

“Yo no estaba tratando de crear problemas. Yo estaba tratando de decirte que tenemos problemas.”

 

 

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