Sermon delivered by Heather Entrekin, pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, K.S., on July 5 2009.
Ezekiel 2: 1-5.
Some time ago I read a story in the newsletter of First Baptist Church of Los Angeles that comes to mind whenever I wonder if I am making a difference in my church. The gist of the story is this. First Baptist had for many years a distinguished, respected, and prophetic pastor well known for his community work, his preaching, his leadership in the denomination. During the course of his long ministry in this historic, white, white collar church, Civil Rights came along, the community of the church changed, becoming more diverse economically, culturally and racially.
African American people began to visit the church, and they were received and welcomed. But one day, an African American family asked to join the church. They were not welcomed. And so the pastor went to the pulpit as was his custom on Sunday, and he said to the congregation, “Have you not heard a single word I have been preaching all these years?” And he resigned.
I think Ezekiel would have understood. Perhaps you know that story. The young Ezekiel is called to speak a prophetic word to God’s people in a time of terrible dislocation, deportation and distress. Unlike the pastor of First Baptist, Los Angeles, he was not a pastor of a big, prestigious church. In the face of social trauma and culture turned upside down, Ezekiel is a weak and wobbly little soul. He is pitiful and powerless. Too shaky to stand on his own two feet. O mortal.
Yet he is given a task that would be daunting even for the likes of James Forbes, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Adam Hamilton. Speak for God, Ezekiel. Tell truth.
But here comes the disheartening part: God’s people do not want to hear what God has to say from Ezekiel or anyone else. They are impudent, stubborn and rebellious. They “have hard faces and hard hearts.”
We are not talking about some organization called American Atheists here. These are children of Israel, God’s chosen people, but they’ve been rebelling and their ancestors before them, so long that the writer of Ezekiel calls them a “pagan nation” – goyim. And, of course, as the First Baptist Church of Los Angeles story reminds us, hard faces and hard hearts do not stop there.
“What a pity,” Annie Dillard writes, “that so hard on the heels of Christ come the Christians.” * We, American Baptists, have our own story of impudence, stubbornness and rebellion that works its way all through our several centuries of history.
From loose associations in the 1700s to state conventions to cooperating societies to the Northern Baptist Convention in 1910 to the American Baptist Convention in 1950 to American Baptist Churches USA in 1977, we have known plenty of hard faces and hard hearts.
At the 1814 Triennial we debated whether the focus should be foreign mission only or foreign and home mission plus publication. We debated whether membership should be individual or congregational. As the Civil War approached, we debated and avoided, we disagreed and divided over slavery. We also disagreed and divided over whether New England had too much power.
We have structured and restructured, appointed studies and commissions, changed, changed back, changed again and refused to change. At our denomination’s biennial in Pasadena last weekend, a proposal to restructure the denomination, streamline, make more responsive (we hope), cost less – failed. More discussion, more work is needed.
And through it all, God sends prophets to speak God’s word. Not just one or two famous ones, a Moses or an Ezekiel or even a Rauschenbusch or a Martin Luther King, Jr., but many every day prophets whose names and faces and voices we know including you, here, today. Through and in Christ, now each one of us is able and responsible to speak truth for God. These days, it’s Prophets R Us.
One I have the pleasure of working with on the General Board is Frank Christine, Vice President of our denomination. The national board had voted an action last fall that upset the regional executives and we spent hours, hours upon hours, debating, arguing, reviewing and disagreeing over that action and what should be done about it. The action was clearly a barrier to understanding, reconciliation, even simple conversation. Finally, at the last meeting, there was a motion to rescind the action and someone wanted to know would it take simple majority or 2/3 to rescind a board action.
Frank stood, a small, dignified, soft-spoken, white haired, African American man. He said, I’m not going to answer that question. I’m going to ask one. And he looked out at the crowd, more than 100 of us on that board, and he said, “Who here wants to keep in place a barrier to understanding?” Dead silence. He said it again, “Who in this room wants to keep a barrier to understanding among us?” No one moved. “He turned to the questioner and said, “It’s a moot point. I am not going to answer that question because the vote will be unanimous.” We voted, and it was.
Frank the prophet told the hard faces and the hard hearts in that room, you are blocking the love of God in this place. You can argue this point til the cows come home, til the sun turns black, til the end of time and you will be a block to God’s beloved community. Stop!
This time, they did. But God does not guarantee Ezekiel or Frank or anyone else that people will listen. That’s not our worry. God says, speak anyway.
So, a little humility, weak and wobbly ones of God. It’s not all up to you. Speak anyway. Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.
And then for fun, check out the FBCLA website!