Do you know someone who is a prophet?
Your answer is probably “no” – there is no one you know who is a prophet…and maybe you’re just as glad, because prophets can be difficult, uncomfortable to be around, telling us things we may not want to hear. So, can we just skip over this idea altogether? Not so fast!
First, it’s important to get clear what a prophet is and is not from a Biblical perspective. A prophet is not someone who foretells the future, just so we can plan out our life, knowing what opportunities to make the most of, what situations to avoid, and what difficulties to prepare for – like getting the long-range weather forecast. Nor does a prophet announce God’s judgment and punishment as a fait accompli, an inevitable event that will be visited upon us from on high to which we cannot respond in any way except to run and hide.
Instead, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, a prophet is one who speaks God’s truth and wisdom and purpose and perspective into a human situation so that the People of God can wake up and take a clear and hard look at what they are doing, and then make the changes in their actions and attitudes that will bring them into closer alignment with God. The prophets role isn’t nearly so much about saying “God will get you for that!” as it is about saying “Look at what’s going on here; if you don’t take steps now to make some changes, the results could be very dire; but if you do choose to act in accordance with God’s purposes (even if some of those actions may be painful in the short run) your faithfulness will be a blessing to you and to the whole community or nation.” Prophets speak what they hear and know to be true, to the best of their abilities – recognizing, of course, that they are still limited human beings and may not have the full picture.
Some modern-day prophets that we might think of are Martin Luther King, Jr. who spoke God’s truth about civil rights, and the worth and dignity of all people, and the importance of non-violence; or Mother Theresa, who spoke and lived so clearly God’s love and value for the poorest, the meanest, the most unlovely, the sick and dying homeless. Another person who acted similarly from a secular perspective was Rachel Carson, the marine biologist and conservationist whose work “The Silent Spring” announced clearly the devastating connection between the pesticide DDT and cancer and other illness in animals and humans; her work moved conservation and environmental awareness onto our national stage.
And on a very local level, in 1960, Helen Fenske of Green Village organized and led a group of people from the surrounding area preserve the area we know as the Great Swamp – protecting it from the Port Authority who planned to build a regional jetport smack in the middle of the swamp, and kick-starting the environmental movement in New Jersey. I don’t know that Helen had any particular faith connections, but I do know that Marcellus and Geraldine Dodge, the wealthy couple who helped to buy the property so it could be donated to the National Wildlife Refuge, were long-time members of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison. We can only imagine what our community would have been like today if Helen, the Dodges and all those who worked with them had not spoken the truth with clarity and boldness.
OK, prophets – so far, so good; but what does this all have to do with Jesus and with this morning’s Gospel? Jesus had returned home to Nazareth after healing the woman with the hemorrhage and raising Jairus’ twelve year old daughter from death, as we heard last week. He taught in the synagogue in which he had been raised, and the people who heard him were amazed, and not in a good way – they were offended. We had a hint of this four weeks ago when the Gospel mentioned that Jesus’ family heard about what he was doing, was afraid that he had lost his mind, and went to Capernaum to try to take him home. No doubt this news had gotten back to the home-town folks and so they were primed to be very suspicious of anything Jesus said or did. But even more than that, it is always difficult to go home again and take on a role of authority if you had not had that role before, if others remember all-too-clearly things that you wish they would forget.
In Jesus’ case, there would have been questions about who his father was (Mark doesn’t even mention Joseph), what was his mother’s background – really, and who does he think he is, coming back here and trying to tell us something new and deeper about God and our own Scriptures? He should just shut his mouth and remember what his place in this town is! No wonder Jesus said what he did about prophets not being honored in their own home-towns; and no wonder he couldn’t do any of God’s deeds of power there – he was blocked by their unwillingness to receive what he had to offer.
But before we get too smug about those stubborn, know-nothing people from Nazareth, let’s just stop for a minute and think about how it is when someone shows up and starts telling us that the boundaries of our beliefs and world-view, the opinions we hold most dear and upon which we have built our lives, are too narrow or too shallow or misguided or just flat out wrong – particularly if that person trying to enlighten us was raised with the same views and values? We get uncomfortable, defensive, angry, we don’t want to listen to what they have to say because maybe it’s too hard or too painful or just too different.
And what did Jesus do when he encountered all this in his home-town? He said his piece, he did what he could, and then he walked away and let his words and actions fall where they may and bear whatever fruit they could. And then he took that experience and made it part of his instructions to the Twelve when he sent them out in mission to the surrounding villages to share in the work of preaching, of calling people to repentance, of healing and announcing the Kingdom of God. Jesus said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them."
So, with honor or with dishonor, whether people recognized or received it or not, the prophetic role was part of Jesus’ ministry and mission; and it was part of the mission he shared with the Twelve and with all of those disciples who followed him.
And those early disciples – we may think of them as historical figures, or as the core of the Church in its earliest days – but they are also our elder siblings in the faith, connected to us not in some antique-historical-museum sort of way, but connected to us in the household of God, the family of faith. And their mission is our mission, because we are all Jesus’ disciples. And that prophetic role is part of our mission and ministry, just as it was the disciples’, and just as it was Jesus’. We who follow Jesus and who live to bring the goodness of God’s kingdom to fruition on earth as it is in heaven are called to act as prophets when and where and in the manner the Holy Spirit shows us.
That doesn’t mean, most likely, that you’ll start carrying a sign that proclaims repentance, or walk up to another person and tell them that they are way out of line with God’s values and purposes. But it does mean that we all need to speak God’s truth with and for God’s people and God’s creation whenever and however it is called for.
You may be called to lead a march in support of human rights, like Martin Luther King; you may be called to shape your life in a way that is hard and uncomfortable in the service of others, like Mother Theresa; you may be called to write and organize others and address legislative bodies, like Rachel Carson and Helen Fenske.
You also may be called to assure a child that he does not deserve the bullying he is receiving at school or on the bus, and then take steps to stop the bullying in whatever way you can - for that child and for the whole class or school.
You may be called to tell a person important to you in a calm, clear way that their addictive behavior is out of control, and hurting you and them both, and that you can’t support them in what they are doing, as much as you love them.
In our life as disciples, as partners in Jesus’ mission, there are times when we, too, will be called to act as prophets; and as scary as that may sound, we do so knowing that Jesus has gone to that place before us, and the Holy Spirit is with us and within us, giving us strength and courage and guidance to do and say whatever is needed. A prophet’s role may be an honorable one, but it is always with an eye to the establishment of God’s Kingdom and to God’s honor and glory and sovereignty.
Let us pray.
Almighty God, you proclaim your truth in every age by many voices: Direct, in our time, we pray, those who speak where many listen and write what many read; that we may do our part in making the heart of this people wise, its mind sound, and its will righteous; to the honor of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. ~ For those who Influence Public Opinion (adapt.), Book of Common Prayer, page 827
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 8, 2012