There was A Prophet Among Them
A Meditation on Mark 6: 1 – 13 and Ezekiel 2: 1 – 5
Rev. Cathy C. Hoop Grace Presbyterian Church July 8, 2018
One week and one day ago I was returning from a pilgrimage in the Holy Land. I still had the dirt of Jerusalem’s ancient streets in my sandals. I still carried the cool, clear taste of the water of Jacob’s well, (where, among other stories, Jesus met a woman of Samaria and renewed her outcast hope) as well as the bitter (and unintended) taste of the Dead Sea on my tongue. I could still smell the spices from the markets and the beeswax candles and incense from the many sanctuaries in which I prayed. I could still feel the breeze on my face from a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee and the sun’s heat as it pressed down upon us as we stood on Masada’s plateau. I could still hear the ringing of church bells, interlaced with the Muslim call to prayer as they both echoed out across the walls of the old city. I could still feel the soft wool of a lamb, which I paid a young boy a few shekels so that a silly tourist in Bethlehem might have a photo op.
Two weeks earlier, just before I departed from Tuscaloosa, Jeff Sessions had misused and abused a passage from Romans 13 to defend the separation of children from their parents. Just before I returned, Justice Kennedy announced his resignation, triggering a deepening anxiety on many issues, including the future of women’s choices for their own bodies and the rights of LGBTQAI individuals. And somewhere in the middle a group of young boys in Thailand, along with their soccer coach, were lost in a cave. AND to top it all off, our denomination’s General Assembly was meeting to pray, to worship, to discern, and to labor together in Jesus’ name.
Because the world keeps turning…whether you go on vacation, or on pilgrimage or whether you are doing the ordinary, everyday things we all must do. But it particularly troubled me that I was not with you so that we might process together Jeff Session’s words. I am so thankful for those of you who went to Birmingham a week ago Saturday- in sweltering heat – to participate in the “Families Belong Together” protest rally. Peaceful protest is the work of prophets. Speaking truth to power is the prophet’s labor. Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winning author Saul Bellow supposedly said, “Being a prophet is a great job. The problem is finding work.”
I wonder who comes to mind for you when you hear the word “prophet”? When I worked with children, we talked about prophets as people who walk closely with God and God walks closely with them. Out of that close walk, prophets help people remember what God “looks like” and who God wants us to be. This is critical because the world can cloud our vision. Who do you see when you hear the word “prophet”?
This past Tuesday evening, though I was still struggling to get my body clock reset to Alabama time, I went to the movies. I had heard it was the last night that the documentary about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” would be showing in Tuscaloosa, and I didn’t want to miss it. The prophet’s voice calls to us through the academy, the church, through the visual and performing arts, through children and youth, from so many directions and walks of life. I left that movie theater even more convinced that Fred Rogers is one of our generation’s prophets. An ordained Presbyterian minister, Mr. Rogers’ pulpit was a children’s television film set rather than a pulpit. He preached through his words, addressing death in honest terms. Speaking openly with children about divorce. Celebrating feelings and emotions and imagination. He also preached through his actions. When public swimming pools were closing down because white people were too foolish and hateful to share with people of color, Mr. Rogers invited “Office Clemmons” into his “backyard” to sit for a while, and to rest his tired feet in Mr. Rogers’ wading pool. There on the screen, two pairs of feet, one pair a rich brown, and one pair a pale white. Sharing a pool and teaching hospitality, teaching the intrinsic value of all people. All created in God’s image. All worthy. All to be celebrated. All God’s family.
Many friends warned me to take tissues to the movie. Everyone has a different moment that affects them. For some it was at the end, when they showed a clip of Fred inviting people to remember the people in their lives who have “loved them into being,” “the people who have helped you become who you are.” Now that is prophetic work –“loving people into being!” There were several moments for me: when Coco the gorilla signed “I love you” to Fred, and then held him in her arms, sensing the purity of his love. My eyes teared up as film clips revealed those who protested at his memorial service, condemning him for the wideness of his welcome and love. Or the moment when he found it difficult to compose himself after the events of 9/11. The world turned to him for a message of hope, but you could see the heaviness of his broken heart.
It is a merciful thing that Mr. Rogers did not live to see the day that his homeland began stripping infants and children away from their parents’ arms. It might have been too much for him, knowing all that he did about child development and a child’s need for security within the bonds of family. We can have no doubt that Mr. Rogers would have responded on his show with both gentleness and power.
For it is the prophet’s job to shed light on injustice, to denounce abuse, and to offer the possibility of renewal which always awaits those who seek God’s face. Mr. Rogers’ was easy to mock, easy to spoof. He laughed at some of the representations of himself that made their way through popular culture. Others troubled him. As a prophet, he continued to stand up, to join with God in the redeeming of the world, and to persist regardless of how he was received or rejected.
This is the message we hear in the passage from Ezekiel. Ezekiel, prophet to the people of Judah, lived with the exiled remnant in Babylon, under king Nebuchadnezzer. God speaks to Ezekiel, and tells him to stand up. Consider this. The posture one would take before God, the posture Ezekiel has taken before God is to kneel. In the presence of God, we kneel, we bow down, we humble ourselves. To the prophet, God says, “Stand up!” Ezekiel stands on his own two feet, stands before God. God does not want Ezekiel to prostrate himself. God wants to see Ezekiel’s face. “If Ezekiel can rise and stand before God, cannot he rise and stand before his captors? God’s call [to stand up] is liberating.” (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B., p. 321) A wind stands Ezekiel up because – bless our hearts – we are human – Ezekiel was human – and we need God’s Spirit to stand us up. God’s Spirit joins Ezekiel’s to strengthen and uphold him. Finally, God gives Ezekiel a “heads up.” God warns Ezekiel that they may not listen to his words, but even if they do not take his advice, they will know that a prophet had been among them. The people may refuse to listen, but their minds and hearts will know the truth. God’s word to Ezekiel is to stand up, to join with God and to persist. (Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B, p. 321)) We never protest for the sake of protesting, we protest because God calls us to be prophets.
So here’s another definition of prophet, offered to us by Professor Van Thanh Nguyen of Catholic Theological Union, who describes a prophet, and particularly Jesus, as an “apostle of change.” When Jesus appeared in his hometown, not as a day laborer, but as a healer and teacher, the people were amazed, impressed, even proud. “Local boy makes good!” read the headlines of the “Daily Scroll.” But when the healer and teacher began speaking as a prophet, they quickly switched from amazement to annoyance, even jealousy.
- Where did “this man” get wisdom?
- What is this “wisdom” anyway?
- How is he able to heal?
- Isn’t he just a laborer?
- Don’t we all know his very ordinary family?
Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus read that day, but Luke (who loves details) says that a scroll was handed to Jesus to read. That is a particularly relevant detail. Jesus didn’t choose a passage – it was offered to him. On it were these words from Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Having spoken the words of a beloved and honored prophet, Jesus joins the ranks of the rejected. In Luke’s version of this story, the crowd is so angry, that they attempt to throw Jesus off of a cliff. So it goes when truth makes us uncomfortable, so it goes when the kid next door goes away to college and comes back a prophet.
I wonder if Jeff Sessions has reconsidered his misuse of scripture. The Romans passage he cited was written to a people trying to re-enter society, but even they broke laws. As Christians, they did not, would not make sacrifices to the emperor. The very author who penned those words about obedience to the government made its leaders so angry that they executed him. And one has to wonder if someone handed Jeff Sessions a sound bite, because otherwise he might have kept on reading in Romans 13, in which Paul continues, “Don’t be in debt to anyone, except for the obligation to love each other. Whoever loves another person has fulfilled the Law. 9 The commandments, Don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t desire what others have, and any other commandments, are all summed up in one word: You must love your neighbor as yourself. Love doesn’t do anything wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is what fulfills the Law.”
In case we’ve forgotten how Jesus defined, “neighbor,” we only need to return to the story of the Good Samaritan, in which the outcast, the other, the excluded is the source of mercy and healing.
Much good, prophetic work was done at our denomination’s General Assembly, including this Confessional Declaration from 223rd Assembly on the Role of the Church:
As confessing Christians, we trust God, whom we know through Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray as others pray in other names. We are obligated to declare our concerns about the direction towards autocracy that our country is taking.
We say Yes to God’s power of love and justice for the neighbor as well as the self, and we say No to demonic power that urges hate of the other, scatters blame, and creates civic discord.
We say Yes to our imperfect democracy with one person, one vote, and No to any corruption of our elections.
We say Yes to universal health care and No to care based on the ability to pay.
We say Yes to safe schools, houses of worship, and public gathering places; and No to civilian access to assault and/or military-style weapons.
We say Yes to core human values and No to dividing our humanity by ideology and partisanship.
We say Yes to bridges and preservation of families and No to walls.
We say Yes to affirming and celebrating the full spectra of human identity and No to discrimination and bigotry. We say: “In life, and in death we belong to God.”
When we were young, people asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. As adults we ask children what they hope to be. Here is a different way to ask the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I heard it on public radio years and years ago… “What will you be when you are ready to be it?” When Jesus returned to his hometown to preach in the synagogue, he was ready to be the prophet messiah he was born to be. He was ready to be it despite the cost. I pray by God’s grace, that whatever we are in whatever work we are called to do, that we will also say we are ready to be God’s prophets, co-creators with God to build neighborhoods of justice, neighborhoods of peace for all people, all people. Despite the cost. Thanks be to God. Amen.