All the Rest of God’s People
Jeremiah was a bullfrog, we were told long years ago. But Jeremiah was also a prophet of the highest order. He lived centuries before Jesus, during a time of political intrigue and religious confusion in ancient Israel.
His most famous sermon is recorded in chapter 7 of the book of Jeremiah. It is his lone voice of warning against the peace-promising messages of other prophets and priests. Neither the people nor their king did not know who was speaking the truth—those who were preaching peace or Jeremiah who was warning danger.
Later, King Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah on false charges. The brave prophet of God told the king and his minions that the armies of Babylon would defeat Israel. But on the sly, the king sent for the prophet with the minority voice, with the unpopular opinion, with the word that stood in sharp contrast to the religious leaders who ran the temple.
“Is there any word from the Lord?” the king asked Jeremiah the prophet.
“Yes, there is,” Jeremiah replied to Zedekiah. “Babylon will crush you.”
It is not always easy to know who speaks the truth, who speaks for God, who speaks the Word of the Lord.
This week, in America, voices clammer for attention, many of them claiming to speak for God, for the Church, for Jesus. For decades, one group of vocal and persistent voices has sounded out in the same of God. That group—some Catholics and some Evangelicals—this week gained the microphone and announced to the world what they think is the word of the Lord.
But I am here today to give voice to the rest of God’s people.
I am here with Jeremiah to push back, to beg to differ, to speak a word that stirs up opposition. I am here to say: there is another way to love God, live in the spirit, and follow Jesus.
Once again, I take my inspiration from, of all places, Paul’s letter to the Philippians.
Not everybody looks at the gospel the same way, from the same place, asking the same questions. Which is why, from the very beginning, we have had many options, many voices, many leaders claiming to march at the head of the Jesus parade.
We struggle with that now, in the United States: who speaks for God?
And Paul struggled with that then, in the Mediterranean world.
In chapter one of this letter, he wrote about his work and about the work of others. “Some preach out of jealousy and rivalry…. They preach with selfish ambition…They want to make my chains more painful for me.”
It is an old strategy: to challenge the motives of those who do not like us, who do not agree with us, who do not support us. We respond by casting doubt on their personhood, on their judgment, on their motives. Paul had to defend himself all the time, even as he spoke disparagingly of others.
He goes on to write in this letter, “Don’t be intimidated by your enemies.” Who are these enemies: the magistrates who arrested him or other apostles who disparaged him?
In chapter two, he writes about Timothy, “I have no one else like Timothy. He genuinely cares about your welfare. Al the others care only for themselves and not for what matters to Christ.”
Here again, Paul pushes back against other disciples, other evangelists, other apostles. There is a tussle going on in Philippi for the loyalty of the Philippian people.
Then Paul turns to name-calling: “Watch out for those dogs!
He is referring to other Christian teachers. They had a school of thought that emphasizes circumcision. They criticized Paul because he does not require it. Here is on the first big divisions of the house in Christian history: what to do with the Gentiles—how can they become followers of Jesus? Some contend they must be circumcised; others, including Paul, said no.
This tension runs throughout the gospels.
Remember when the disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven? But Jesus said, NO.
Then on the mount of transfiguration, some disciples wanted to build altars or memorials. Again, Jesus said NO.
At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do the people say I am?” They answered, “Some say Elijah. Some say, a prophet. And we say you are Messiah.” Even among these followers of Jesus, there were different ideas, different interpretations, different voices.
The great council in Jerusalem, described in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 pits the influence of James the brother of Jesus against Simon Peter the chief among the apostles. At that early stage of Christian history, there were divisions of the house, contrary voices, opposition thoughts.
It is easy to say: this is the way, this is the word, this is what Jesus wants. But it has been a problem all along.
On every issue in American Christianity, the voices come from every direction: on slavery and abolition; on alcohol, abstinence, and temperance; on baptism, immersion, and sprinkling; on women, leadership and ordination; on sexuality, orientation and hospitality; on speaking in tongues and the fullness of the spirit; on bishops, pastors, overseers and elders.
On every issue, there are voices and voices, all invoking Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit, all quoting scripture, all claiming the blessing from on high.
The Bible calls us to discern the spirits, and we try to do that. Paul tells us to ignore some teachers, and some we are glad to ignore. One tent preacher a few weeks ago announced to his congregation, in Nashville, that God had revealed to him that there were six witches in his congregation, some of whom were under the tent, sitting and listening.
I know craziness when I hear it, sometimes! But often I wonder: is she speaking the truth? Is he reading things right?
Don’t you ever feel like this?
Do you ever wonder, who should I believe or follow or embrace?
What about that Moody guy? What’s he talking about? Is he for real??
The loudest voices in the American religious world are celebrating today.
Roman Catholic leaders, from Pope Francis to parish priests everywhere, gave thanks for the Supreme Court ruling. The U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that “the pro-life movement deserves to be numbered among the great movements for social change and civil rights in our nation’s history." The six justices who issued the decision are all Catholic.
Louder still are the words of the white Evangelical leaders. The newly-elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention announced the support of his denomination for the new ruling; and the president of National Association of Evangelicals praised the anti-abortion decision of the Supreme Court.
Millions of pew-sitting Christians in churches of all types have worked to this end, and they are celebrating today. They are celebrating not because America has changed its mind or practice, but because they finally secured six of their people on the Supreme Court.
But I speak today on behalf of what Paul called “the rest of God’s people.”
There are millions of us. We treasure the right to privacy. We support the need for women to have bodily autonomy. We think this decision is a rude intrusion of a religious ideology into the personal decision-making of people, into the democratic processes of the United States.
The Supreme Court this week demonstrated what minority rule looks like.
The majority of Americans favor the right to choose. The majority of Americans favor stricter gun laws. The majority of Americans support the separation of church and state. But this week, six justices announced the end of privacy, the expansion of gun rights, and serious damage to the wall of separation.
But the rest of us have a voice as well.
Fifty years of preaching, praying, and protesting has not convinced the American people that a ban on abortion is a gospel imperative.
Today, from pulpits, pews, and prayer circles all over the country, we send our gospel greeting to the nation. We declare that religious ideology should not dominate public policy. We assert that tax dollars should not support the teaching in religious schools. We contend that surrendering guns rather than brandishing guns is inspired by the life and teaching of Jesus.
I want to be frank today.
I am not promoting abortion as a Christian practice. I treasure life and birth and living to the glory of God. But the Catholic position on this matter rules out abortion and contraception. Already some in high places are calling for the Court to overturn their 1965 ruling known as Griswold vs Connecticut that confirmed the freedom to use contraception.
I likewise dissent from the Evangelical position on life. It is often described as supporting the right to life from conception to birth, but after that you are on your own. White Evangelicals are the religious group most likely to own guns, support capital punishment, and go to war.
Hear a word from the rest of God’s people, as Paul describes his own cohort.
Keep judges and prosecutors out of the doctor’s office.
Keep our tax money away from religious schools.
Keep your gun locked up in a safe place. Or, as Johnny Cash used to sing, “don’t take your guns to town, boys, don’t take your guns to town.”
You remember, don’t you? That was the issue when Wyatt Earp and his brothers confronted the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral I 1881—the rule in Tombstone, Arizona was this: turn your guns in if you want to come to town.
Haven’t those justices watched the movie, Tombstone?
The rest of God’s people know there is a bigger threat ahead. We only have to read the Court opinion of Clarence Thomas and remember what happened after the Civil War.
That war granted freedom to millions of enslaved people. The federal government initiated a program of support and protection to the freed slaves. It was known as Reconstruction. It had great ambitions to pull the once-enslaved people into the mainstream of American life: living, praying, voting, working, owning, traveling, loving, raising families, and serving as public officials. It was a time full of idealism and optimism. The future was not to be like the past.
But then the reaction set in.
The white masters seized control of the levers of power. Powerful financial, legal, political, and religious interests pushed back against this wave of freedom. They launched the revenge of the conservatives who wanted noting to do with the progress on civil and human rights. They legalized segregation, put blacks in their own ghettos and their own schools, restricted where they could walk and talk and live and work, and in general undid most of what the Civil War had won. To enforce their new but old regime, the embraced the practice of lynching.
Today there is a museum in Montgomery Alabama commemorating the conservative strategy of lynching.
Today there is also a movement again on American soil, one designed to roll back all the civil and human rights progress of the last 70 years. It is not just abortion they have in mind, but contraception, interracial marriage, gay and lesbian rights, voting rights, immigrant rights, human rights.
Financial interests, legal interests, political interests, and religious interests—all conspire today to push back against the future of the United States. Our future is brown, and diverse. It is religious and secular; it is Christian and Muslim and nothing at all.
Miss Liberty still lifts her lamp beside the golden door. It is a door that leads to equality and opportunity and freedom and dignity of each and every person.
But some people don’t like this. They deny building permits to mosques. They deny ballots to the poor. They deny access to the refugee. They deny freedom to the LGBTQ.
“Stoney the road we trod,” we sang last week in that great anthem of black freedom. The road ahead got a lot stonier this week. Not just for people of color, but for all of us who value equality and freedom and dignity.
This week, the right-wing Supreme Court launched the revenge of the conservatives. They ripped a hole in the wall of separation; they blew up a fundamental right for women while expanding the gun-slinging rights of men.
We have a long road ahead of us, a stoney road.
But here is a good word, a good gospel word from the rest of God’s people. I use the very last words of this wonderful letter:
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit as we defend the wall that separates the state from the church.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit as we beat our weapons into tools for the garden of God.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit as we secure the universal right to privacy and agency.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit as we sing for joy and live with hope.