Whenever I talk about the gift of prophecy, someone inevitably walks up to me later and says, “So, let’s hear a prophecy.”
So let me begin by dispelling a myth: prophets are not fortune tellers. They are not oracles. They are not soothsayers or magicians. Prophets hear the word of the God and speak truth to power. Prophets speak bluntly in the court of public opinion. Prophets say out loud what everyone else is thinking.
It’s no surprise, then, that prophecy is the spiritual gift that no one wants. Prophets may be summoned for an audience with the king, but they are rarely invited to the after-party. They aren’t known for their extensive social networks. In fact, if scripture is to be believed, their lives are a constant stream of insult, misery, and rejection.
For quite a few weeks Jeremiah has been trying to tell us about new beginnings, about opportunity in what appears to be defeat, about looking at things in a bold and creative light.
Back in September when God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house, he saw the potter at the wheel and watched as he formed the clay into something lovely, yet imperfect. He saw the potter mash the clay back into a lump, wet it a little, and try again.
My first reaction to this scene was, “What?! But the rainbow…the promise…God wasn’t going to do that again!” Yet as I reflected on this reading, I came to understand that while it was true that God had promised he would never destroy creation again, God never ruled out the possibility of a do-over.
In mashing up the clay and beginning again, the potter does not destroy the clay. The potter reuses the same clay, reshaping and redirecting the material at hand through new beginning.
This is a wonderful metaphor for our congregations facing decline, whether the “clay” of ministry resources available for renewal comes from within the bounds of the congregation or, increasingly, through regional ministry partnerships. But because this is a lengthy processes, it will inevitably overlap with at least one cycle of annual financial commitment. The prophets who serve on our planning teams will worry that members will opt not to pledge this year because they aren’t sure what’s going on, or they don’t trust the process, or they’re confused about the future. People may be hearing rumors, or may just assume that the church is going to close.
How can we, as leaders, keep everyone on board?
Jeremiah has some suggestions.
First, it’s OK to be angry. Jeremiah is very clear that we do have the option of not liking what we hear. We can eat all the sour grapes we want. Grief and anger are a normal part of adaptive change. Through our baptism we live as stewards of one another’s hopes and dreams, fears and worries. So if a members needs to set their teeth on edge for a while, we must assure them that they will be met with the love, the compassion, and the prayers of the congregation.
The second option Jeremiah offers is to go “all in.” Jeremiah challenges the people of Israel to move from an external covenant confined to a tabernacle, and move toward an internal covenant that lives within their being, a covenant that is part of who they are. Jeremiah challenges us likewise to move toward being the people of god in a new way, grounded in the baptismal covenant that lives within our being, always present as part of who we are.
In calling the people of Israel to a new covenant, there is one option that Jeremiah explicitly takes off the table: We’re not going to sit and do nothing. We’re not going to ride it out, wait for the crisis to pass so we can get back to where we were.
No. Jeremiah is very clear that above all, the people of Israel—and by extension, we—are called to live in the now. Through baptism, the Great I Am—the god whose very name is the present tense—calls us to radical relevance in mission and ministry.
That is Jeremiah’s call to each and all of us, not just to our diocesan leaders, or clergy, or vestry, or planning committee. In the coming weeks many of us will be invited to make a pledge in support of our congregations—in support of the congregation that is, the congregation of the here and now.
I encourage all members of every congregation not to think of letter and pledge card that you receive as merely a request for money. Think of it as an invitation to partnership in the radical relevance of mission and ministry. The future is a work in progress. The present calls us to make offerings of prayer, of effort, and of dedication; offerings brought forth from the first fruits of our life and labor, in the name of the one whose covenant is written on our hearts.