Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister





God is still speaking -

Reclaiming prophecy in our personal and political lives

Sunday, September 11, 2011





Rev. Dean Snyder

How to do a new thing: How prophecy creates change
Isaiah 43:15-21

Jane had a hospital experience week before last. She is okay and back at work, but it was an experience I found particularly upsetting. Our grandson was scheduled to visit Labor Day weekend and I knew if I maintained my regular weekend schedule, it would be an extra burden on Jane. So I talked to our district superintendent and to Jill Barker who facilitates our Congregational Council and got permission to take the weekend off, something I'd never done at the last minute like this before. Then I talked to Dawn who had two days to prepare a sermon. Who was here last Sunday? Didn't Dawn have a good word last week? I listened to her sermon on our website. It was a good word.

I want to say thanks to Dawn and to our staff and to our Congregational Council and to you for the weekend to spend with family last weekend. We appreciate your prayers for Jane. We are working with the doctors to figure out what causes these incidents and we appreciate your prayers for our doctors and the medical professions as well.  

I want to remind you that Jimmy Creech will be here in two weeks. Jimmy played an early and pivotal role in the struggle for marriage equality in the United Methodist Church. He's written a fascinating book about his experience entitled Adam's Gift. He will preach here at 9:30 AM, 11:00 AM and 5:30 PM on September 25. Bring a friend or relative. Pastor Theresa has arranged a book signing at Bus Boys and Poets on Monday evening. September 28 is our one year anniversary of voting as a congregation to practice marriage equality and this year is our 16th anniversary of becoming a reconciling congregation.  

Dawn began our fall series on prophecy last Sunday. Biblically, prophecy is God's word entering the realm of creation and history through human speech or action. The prophets spoke God's word to kings and nations in Old Testament times. Much of the Hebrew Scriptures consist of the words and actions of prophets to impact nations and peoples.

In the New Testament, the number one manifestation of the presence of the Holt Spirit is prophecy. On the Day of Pentecost when the church was born, the Apostle Peter quoted this scripture: "In the latter days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters shall prophesy…Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy." (Acts 2:17-18)   

The Apostle Paul writing to the church at Corinth says: "Pursue love and strive for the spiritual…and especially that you may prophesy." (I Cor. 14:1)

So here is the question. Did prophecy end when they sewed the back cover on the Bible? Was it just a Bible-times thing? Or is the biblical idea of prophecy just a primitive, pre-scientific, magical way of thinking? Or is it possible that God still speak into human lives and human history? Is God still speaking?

The title of this teaching series is the slogan of the United Church of Christ – God is still speaking? Is God still speaking? Is prophecy still alive?

Is it maybe possible that we don't hear God speaking into human history and our lives because we are not doing what Paul instructed us to do, which is to seek the spiritual, especially that we may prophesy? Muscles we don't exercise atrophy. Is it possible we don't hear God still speaking because we have stopped pursuing the prophetic word in our churches?

I have had a few weird experiences in my life. One experience happened a year and a half ago when during a worship service at the end of my sermon, I got a strange feeling in my stomach. I got an idea in my head of something I though I should say that I didn't want to say because it did not make sense to me but I felt compelled to say it.

My insides actually felt as if I needed to get the words out of me. So I got up and said it, although I could not tell you exactly what I said. It was some strange thing about Abraham's call and his father's call, and what would have happened if Abraham hadn't listened for a new word from God when he was about to sacrifice Isaac. I said it. Then I did the benediction and ended the service. I was embarrassed, but I said it, and after I said it ,I experienced relief from whatever had been churning inside me.  

After the service when almost everyone else had left the building a person came to me and said "I think you may have been speaking to me this morning." And he told me his story. He was a gay man who had been a minister on the staff of a congregation in a Pentecostal denomination. He'd been fired because he is gay. He had given up on the church. It had been a long time since he had left the church.

A friend of his had called him up early that morning and had told him they were going to church that morning. He said "No thanks." But his friend insisted, so he came.

He said the strange rambling words I spoke spoke directly to his heart. The next months were a struggle for him. But he is living now in a city in the far South where he was from, leading a LGBT Bible study in a United Methodist Church down there, and beginning seminary work.

I believe that I was given a prophetic word for him that particular Sunday. The experience was weird for me.  I am a pretty rational guy who does not act on my impulses and emotions without thinking it through. I think it may have happened the way it did because he needed to hear a word for his life and this is the only church where he would have been able to hear the particular word he needed to hear and I was the only one available to speak it.

I also wonder whether God was trying to teach me that the realm of the spiritual and transcendent is not as rational and controllable as I like to try to make it. I actually think that God still speaks in miraculous and weird ways.

But I do not think that this is the only way or even the most common way that God speaks. I do not think God only speaks when our experience of it is miraculous or supernatural or strange.

God speaks into our lives through the words of friends and teachers and parents and coworkers and members of our small group. God is still speaking.

Prophecy is a way, maybe a primary way, that God introduces the possibility of change into our lives and into our world.

God creates the possibility of newness by speaking a word into the world. In the beginning God creates by saying "Let there be light" and there is light. God created by saying "Let there be…" and there is.

God creates by speaking a new word into creation and history.

Most of us do not know our own potential until somebody speaks our potential into our lives. I have listened now to hundreds of clergy candidates tell their call story about how they heard God's call into Christian ministry. More than anything else, people report that someone spoke the possibility into their lives. Someone told them they saw the potential for ministry within them.

Jane and I were students in a Disciple Bible Study a few years ago. We read 80 percent of the Bible in 32 weeks as part of a small group. The very last session, after discussing the Bible together for 32 weeks, each of us in the group were invited to tell each other the spiritual gifts we had observed in each other during our 32 weeks together. Almost everybody in that group has since changed the course of their lives dramatically as the result of a new word and a new possibility that they heard spoken into their lives in that Bible study small group experience.

One of the grave and wonderful responsibilities of teachers is to speak possibilities into students' lives. One of the grave and wonderful responsibilities of parents is to speak possibilities into their children's lives. One of the grave and wonderful responsibilities of therapists is to speak new possibilities into patients' lives. One of the grave and wonderful responsibilities of friends is to speak possibilities into the lives of their friends.

For every single time that God speaks in a miraculous or supernatural or weird way, God speaks a hundred thousand times in what we consider to be ordinary ways, but which are not really very ordinary at all.

God only uses a sledgehammer when our defenses are really, really thick. God doesn't use a sledgehammer to crack open a walnut. If you've experienced a weird, supernatural, obviously miraculous prophecy in your life, it is not a compliment. It is not because you have a special gift. It is because you have a special denseness. I'm sorry but that's the way I read that. Paul's encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus in which he was knocked off of his donkey and struck speechless for days was not a compliment. It happened that way not because Paul's gift was special, but because Paul was particularly stubborn and resistant.

So what I am suggesting today is that God still speaks into our lives. God speaks into our lives through the voices of friends and teachers and parents and God especially speaks into our lives in small groups where we open our souls to one another and share with each other from a vulnerable place.

I do not believe God sends us tragedies. God is not responsible for 9/11. God does not send earthquakes and floods as a punishment. God does not send illness and disease. The earthquake damage and the crane accident at the National Cathedral does not mean that God has it in for Episcopalians. 

But I will say this. Sometimes a 9/11, an earthquakes, a hospital experience puts us in a place where we are more open, more receptive, to hear a word from God.

Many of us try to protect ourselves from hearing a word from God. For many of us life is demanding enough, uncontrollable enough, without God speaking a word of new possibility to us.

When a 9/11 comes, when an earthquake come, when a test comes back from the lab positive, God hasn't done this, but it may open our spirits to hear a word that God has been trying to speak into our life that we have organized our lives in such a way as to avoid hearing. It is hard to hear God speak with the TV blaring, although not impossible.  

God changes our lives by speaking new possibilities into them often through the words of our friends and members of our small groups. God speaks new possibilities into our lives if we put ourselves in a place to hear them and sometimes even when we don't.  

God also speaks into cities, cultures and nations.

In Isaiah 43, God speaks to Israel:

"I am the Lord, your holy one, the creator of Israel, your King. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." (Isa. 43:15, 18-19)

How is it that new ideas emerge within human history and create a new reality?  Every new idea sounds crazy to most people when it is first spoken.

Do you realize that it has been less than 100 years since the 16th amendment to the US Constitution giving women the right to vote was passed? My mother was born into a United States of America where women did not have a constitutional right to vote. You can find on the internet the front page story in the Jan. 12, 1915 New York Times about a 10-hour debate in the House of Representatives in which the opponents of women's suffrage refer to the movement as a passing wave of "hysteria." Rep. Bowdle of Ohio argued on the floor of Congress that the women of Washington, DC were too beautiful to waste their time worrying about matters of State. Mr. Mann of Illinois was quoted as saying that the women working on behalf of the vote "ought to be home where they belong."

What causes a word like women's suffrage to be spoken into history and then to become such a reality that we could find hardly anyone who would seriously question women's right to vote, not even the most conservative politicians, a number of whom it turns out are women. There is only one country left in the entire world where no women have the right to vote. One country is too many, but women's suffrage is an idea that went from people mocking it to the overwhelming reality of the globe in less than a hundred years.

Where do you suppose a word like that comes from?

When Foundry's resolution on marriage equality was passed by the Baltimore-Washington Conference and the Washington Post did an article about it, and they interviewed Ann Brown Birkel. She said about marriage equality: "It is an idea whose time has come." I want to suggest that God speaks into history and we experience it as an idea whose time has come.

One word of warning. There is such a thing as false prophecy.  Paul writes in First Thessalonians:   "Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything." (I Thes. 5:19-21)

Sometimes prophecy can come from the wrong spirit. We all know about African-American children who were told by teachers and guidance counselors that they did not have the potential to be professionals because the words they spoke into children's lives came from a spirit of racism and prejudice rather than the Spirit of God. We all know of women in generations past who were told they could not be professionals or pastors or presidents because the word spoken into their lives came from a spirit of sexism and prejudice rather than the Spirit of God. Gay people are sometimes still being told they can't be married or become parents because the word being spoken into their lives comes from a spirit of homophobia and prejudice rather than the Spirit of God.

Let me make a confession. There are some southerners who speak with a slow drawn-out drawl. I used to be prejudiced about those folk without even being aware of it. There was a member of a church I pastored who had a slow rural really, really slow, drawn out Southern drawl. All the church ever invited him to do was the cooking for the annual chicken barbecue. I got into a long conversation with him once and discovered he was retired from a career in the military in which he had achieved significant rank and accomplishments. It broke my prejudice. I prophetically invited him the next year to be chair of the trustees and it was the only time in my ministry at that church during which the trustees functioned well.

Here's a rule about prophecy. It always expands possibilities; it does not diminish them. If a prophecy closes doors rather than opens them, test the spirit behind it. If the prophecy is from the Spirit of God, it always expands possibilities and does not diminish them.

I think understanding prophecy can help those for whom believing in God is an intellectually struggle. Try thinking of God as the One who speaks newness into our lives and world. Try thinking of God as whoever, whatever, or however it is that new words are spoken into our world and into our lives. Try on that way of thinking about God. God is the one who makes all things new. God is whoever, whatever, or however newness comes into our world and life.

God may be trying to speak a new word into your life. God may be trying to speak a new word into someone else's life through you.  The Apostle Paul says: "Pursue love and strive for the spiritual…and especially that you may prophesy." (I Cor. 14:1)

Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of the prophets.