Sunday, July 5, 2009
On Being a Prophet in a Not-for-Prophet World
July 5, 2009
I generally do not title my sermons. In either of our traditions, sermon title sare not very important since we generally preach from the lectionary-that three year cycle of readings that most of the mainline traditions follow. But today I am making an exception and am going to steal a line from my friend’s Elizabeth Kaeton’s blog: This sermon title is going to be “On being a Prophet in a Not-for Prophet world”.
In the reading from Ezekiel we find in the call of God to Ezekiel one that is painful. Ezekiel lives during the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th century BCE. He had been taken into captivity when Nebukenezzer carried off most of the Judean elite to what is modern day Iraq in 586 BCE. The call of God comes to Ezekiel in this passage and calls him “Mortal” The Hebrew word is “Bar Adam”—son of Adam, Son of the mud. God tells this son of the earth to stand up and speak the word of God to the Jews in captivity. God also tells him that “the people are a stiff-necked people who probably won’t listen to you, but you are to tell what I put in your mouth” Now; I can assure you that that is a thankless job. It is hard to speak God’s word when no one is listening—when no one will pay attention or when people don’t like what you are saying. The role of a prophet is not one that people want to be. It takes God putting a fire in one’s heart. Or in Isaiah’s case, put what felt like burning coals on his lips so that he would speak. No, the role of the prophet is not a role that one chooses. It is a position that one cannot keep from doing.
A prophet in Hebrew thought was the mouthpiece of God. The Hebrew word for prophet Navi comes from the word for a hollow reed, like the reed that one made a whistle, or a musical instrument from. A prophet, then was one who did not play his own pipe, but became the pipe that God played. One third of the Hebrew Scripture, what we call the Old Testament is the writings of the Prophets. It was so much of Jesus’ tradition, that we cannot ignore the work of the prophets.
The role of the prophet in Jewish society was to wake people up to the message that God was still present to them. Whereas other nations had soothsayers and diviners who attempted to discover the will of their gods, according to Abraham Heschel the Hebrew prophets are characterized by their experience of God turning towards humanity. Heschel argues for the view of Hebrew prophets as receivers of the "Divine Pathos," of the wrath and sorrow of God over his nation. He says:
Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words. (The Prophets Ch. 1)
Prophets always sound angry. There is a temptation to think that the Old Testament God is an angry God, but I would suggest to you, that it is not God’s wrath that we see, but it is the frustration of the prophet who must each day speak God’s promise only for it to be ignored.
In the Gospel reading from the Book of Mark we find Jesus teaching in his home synagogue. Why can Jesus can do no miracles in his hometown? It is because the people have no faith. They know him. Jesus’ family is not up on the social scale. After all he was just a carpenter—of the artisan class, not a land holder. They mention that he is Mary’s son—they may even know that Joseph may not have been his father. They don’t know what rabbinical school he attended. He is just a hometown boy. He doesn’t have anything to say.
This reminds me when I was looking at colleges, a small college in Illinois was recommended to me by a friend’s mother who was a school counselor. Mom had lived in the town where that school was. “Aw, that is a nothing place” Mom said. Even though it was one of the best small schools in the country, Mom could not countenance it because it was from the same place she was. It obviously couldn’t be any good.
Often the reverse is true. It is the person from the outside that cannot be trusted. “What does he know of OUR situation?” we ask. “Or we don’t know who her family is, how can we believe her?” We cannot trust the prophet so we cannot hear the words of God coming from his or her mouth.
If we are to be able to hear prophecy, if we are to hear the word of God in our world today we must find ways to have faith in not in the prophet, but in the prophet’s words. Sometimes we would rather to disregard or guard against hearing God’s wrath or sorrow over our sinfulness. We try to avoid hearing the hard words that God has for us. In the gospel of Luke, this same story ends with an attempt on Jesus’ life. The people of Nazareth cannot tolerate for someone to preach God’s law to them so that they might have to repent of their deeds and their attitudes so that God’s message of love, peace and acceptance can be lived out in their lives. All too often the prophets in Old Testament times were killed for their faithfulness. Often they were excluded or ignored. But their word lasted. Their word hung around the necks of those for whom the word was meant like millstones. It was written down because it was true and important to the health of the community.
Prophecy is that call to honesty and justice that is God’s will for us in the world. It is the guard against falling into the dominion of power or privilege. It is the call to step beyond ego and into the land of promise and hope. Prophecy is what Jesus lived out in his life so that through his death we might know salvation. It is God’s word. But God’s word is not just something written on a page, or a word spoken. God’s word is not a noun—it is a verb. It is an action, a living out of God’s goodness. It is the thing that drives us to our knees. Some would call it law. Some would call it Gospel. It is God’s life working within us that draws us to Divine goodness, that draws us to what is always life-giving and healthy.
Is our day any different that those of Ezekiel? Are we not exiles just as intent upon ignoring God’s love for us and others as were those in Babylon? I find it incredibly ironic that we are still fighting in Babylon today. I find that the lure of Babylon’s wealth just as strong as it was 2500 years ago. Is our day any different than those of Jesus? Are we just as tempted to ignore the call to newness that the Nazareans did? Are we just as tempted to pay no heed to the life of justice and caring that is preached today?
The call today is no different. We must be willing to hear with the same kind of action that the word of God is proclaimed. All too often we have become so passive that the word of God cannot not root itself in us. We have become spiritual’ couch potatoes’ rather than the ambassadors of Christ that our baptism calls us to. Or we are more likely to fight against the true word of God and try to kill it by trivializing it, excluding it or demonizing it because we do not want to make the changes that God is calling us to.
The Church, the world has become a Not-For-Prophet country. All too often the newness of our age is fearful. We cannot trust the prophets. There are so many prophets that it hard to know which way to go. But I can tell you that wherever there is fear, wherever there is lack of trust, wherever there is lack of inclusion, God is not in it. Trusting is hard work. It is not warm an fuzzy. To trust in the word of God, in prophecy is cannot be done lightly. It requires goodness of heart. It takes a willingness to let go and let God be the center of our lives and not our personal opinions, or past traditions.
In the Epistle reading from 2nd Corinthians today, we hear the writer of the epistle speaking about just this issue. Paul is speaking about what it means to speak Christ’s word. He doesn’t do it out of a need for power or boasting. He says ,
“My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong."
It is in our weakness, whether we are rich or poor, employer or employe, laity or clergy. Whether it is in expertise or the way we have always done it, whether it is paying attention to that which is new or old, it is always God’s word that we must listen to. Most of the time that word is painful. Always it calls us to change; no matter how content we are with our lives, our attitudes, our education, our skills. It always calls us to change. Living willing to be moved by the word of God means that we must be willing to listen to the prophets in our lives wherever they come from, because it is not their words that they speak. AMEN