6 Pentecost: Prophetic Community

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Michael Jordan at Boston Garden: Steve Lipofsky at basketballphoto.com

Have you have ever considered
how difficult it might be to play basketball
as Michael Jordan’s or LeBron James’
teenage son or daughter?

Same with being Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
Or even his mother.

We can get to the discomfort of being Jesus
by coming through the back door of his family.

Jesus is known as “the son of Mary.”
No man in those days
was known as the son of his mother
unless his father was unknown.

To have Jesus referenced
as the son of Mary, as in,
“Isn’t this Mary’s son?”
is a reminder of a scandalous history
that just won’t die in a small town.
Likewise, to be Jesus’ brothers –
as in James, Joses, Judas, and Simon –
is to be associated with whatever your brother does
…guilt by association.

”Isn’t that your crazy brother, James?
Must run in the family!”

Just a few weeks ago
we heard the story in Mark
about the painful hemorrhage in family bonds
when Jesus was at his own house in Nazareth
and it was crowded with people
who had come to be healed of their woundedness.

If you remember that story,
from way in the back,
perhaps out in the alley because they can’t get through,
Mary and her other children appear.

The narrator tells us
they came to take Jesus home
because they thought he was possessed –
literally, beside himself or,
as we would say today, crazy.

Someone yells out, “Hey Jesus,
your mother and brothers and sisters are here.”
Knowing what’s up,
Jesus says – perhaps scowling in the direction
of his blood relatives –
“Who are my mother
and my brothers
and my sisters?
These here,” pointing to the scabbed
and puss-oozing,
“these are MY mother and brothers and sisters.”

So, long before Jesus was rejected
by his neighbors at the old home synagogue,
Jesus had to contend with the painful distance
between a prophet
and his or her own family and friends.

But we can also identify personally, I’m sure,
that it is painful to be Mary and to be his siblings too.

As my mother used to tell me,
my actions didn’t just reflect on me
but also on the whole family.
Jesus’ family
become suspect because Jesus was suspect.
Jesus’ notoriety served to keep the scandal of his birth
fresh and dogging his mother all those years later.
His shame is their shame.

But while his family is ashamed,
apparently Jesus is not.
Jesus had a vision they did not see;
he had a knowledge they do not know;
he had a purpose they did not share.
And so goes the prophet.

That reading from Buechner
dispels the myth
that a prophet is one who sees the future.
In the biblical tradition, a prophet
is not a fortune-teller
or even the predictor of future events.

A prophet is the voice of God.
The prophet is the very lips of God —
the mind of God
uttered upon the notes
of an ordinary human voice.

You may or may not believe in such a thing,
but just imagine that if it were true,
how terrible – how terrifying –
it would be to be a prophet?
No one in their right mind
who has even an inkling of what that would mean,
would want to be a prophet.

When I was younger,
and even more dense and ridiculous than I am now,
I wanted to be prophet.

Like many liberals in the church,
I liked to think of myself as prophetic
when I acted as a surly and angry critic
of the church and other institutions.

But what liberals often think of as prophetic
is no more than adolescent rebellion
or passive-aggressive bitterness.

Meanwhile, the prophets we do have
get romanticized beyond the point of recognition.
They get domesticated and easy to take
rather than what they were —
hard to swallow,
painful to listen to,
maybe even unpleasant to be around.

Take, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Here was an ordinary minister
who actually wanted to be an academic not a prophet.
He is a mythic hero now of course,
but only in retrospect.
At the time of the Civil Rights Movement,
most whites and even millions of Blacks
took offense at him,
and felt threatened
by the activities to which he gave voice.

His popularity,
even among his own inner circle,
ebbed and flowed.
At one point,
Dr. King almost single-highhandedly
took on the entire leadership
of the Civil Rights Movement
by deciding to engage in public criticism
and advocacy against the Vietnam war,
because he could see it was a racist war.
He insisted that Vietnam was a platform
from which to confront racism
and that action got him in trouble with everyone.

Like all prophets,
he was out-of-step
with his own colleagues – as in,
a step or more ahead.

Prophets are rarely
wild-eyed zealots
marching off to glory like a moth
burning itself in the heat of a flame.

Rather, Moses, Jeremiah,
Amos, Micah, Ezekiel, Jesus…
were either well-ensconced members
of the establishment when they began
their prophetic ministry,
or they were innocent by-standers
who were abruptly selected for the job
and immediately retired into obscurity afterward –
if indeed they made it out alive.

Truly, being a prophet
is not a job anyone who understands it
would desire or seek.
The position has a fairly specific job description
in case any of us is interested in applying.

The prophet holds up the distance
between what we say we believe
and what we actually do.

I’ll repeat that in case you want the job:
The prophet holds up the distance
between what we say we believe
and what we actually do.

In deference to the Gospel story we just heard,
the prophet is actually more likely
to be an influential voice
among those with whom he or she lives
than among strangers.

Think about it.
Who has more influence on us
than our family and friends?
Certainly the home crowd
is more persuasive and powerful
than a ranting television preacher –
or even a ranting Trinity Place preacher.

Surly the opinions of family and friends,
over time,
have far more clout with us
than unknown social critics
who yak at us from social media and television.

It is parents, children, spouses,
partners, co-workers, and members
of the faith community
who can best hold up to us
the distance between what we say
and what we do.

Often it only takes one person
to stick their neck out
and refuse to confirm
an ignorant bigotry
and staunch the easy flow
of such things among a group
of family and friends.
Or if not stop the flow
raise a conversation
that can demonstrate that the bigoted
or ignorant remarks
are not universally held.

Don’t get me wrong,
I’m not Pollyanna.
When we stand up to be that first little voice,
like Ezekiel says,
we may feel as if we are surrounded
by briers and thorns and scorpions.

But eventually truth has a way of leveling ugliness
and coming back around
to shine upon the holder of truth.

It is certainly not a pleasant task,
but how much more life-giving is it
to be the lips of God
than the brackish decay of silence
in the face of bigotry,
ignorance, or even lies?

Being prophetic
is not fun
or even that rewarding,
but the alternative is to rot
in the furrows of those whose intent
is not love
and whose seed is not truth.

Being prophetic does not require fame,
public histrionics,
or anything terribly heroic.

All it really requires
is for us to begin saying
what we already know to be true
and give voice to a vision
we already know to be possible.

In case you have a nagging
and irrational interest in being prophetic,
here is an even more specific job description
for the position of prophet.

First, the prophet identifies and names
the assumptions and idols
we have taken for granted
and live with daily.

Then the prophet evokes the vision
of an alternative possibility.

And finally, the prophet helps the community
to rehearse that alternative vision.

While you an I may not each be called
to a prophetic ministry,
the Church as the body of Christ,
IS a prophetic ministry.
That is what we are.

We cannot be the Church
unless we are a prophetic community.
It is our nature,
and if we refuse the task then we are not
who we were created to be.
It really is just that simple and just that important.

As the body of Christ
we are called upon to name out loud
in front of the city,
the neighborhood,
and anyone else who might listen,
the false idols we worship.

You know, like consumerism,
the immoderate pursuit of happiness,
success, wealth, and power.
It is not a small or secret list.

After naming our idols
we are called upon to share our vision
of an alternative way to live.

For some of us, that means
learning a way to talk about our faith
with the people we know and love,
even the people we simply work with
or see on a regular basis.

We cannot be the lips of God
if we are unable to evoke the vision
of an alternative possibility.

Finally, as a prophetic community,
we are to rehearse that vision
of an alternative way to live –
rehearse it personally in our own homes
and neighborhoods and jobs,
and rehearse it as the Church
when we come together for worship or fun.

We are to be like a labor and delivery coach
or Douala who assists in the birthing process –
we can not make it happen
but we can attend God
who brings forth new life.

Here is the truth
we must know and remind each other often:
If we do not name the idols,
if we do not evoke the vision,
if we do not rehearse the alternative,
then we cannot be the body of Christ.

We are called to be a prophetic community
in the image of the prophet Jesus,
a prophet
who walked in the shoes of the prophets
before him,
and who blesses all the prophets – including us —
who follow in his footsteps.

This is our call – yours, mine, and Trinity’s:
to be a prophetic community in the image of Jesus.
And to those who get upset with us,
and call us unAmerican
or unChristian, or just rude and annoying,
let us remember what Fred Buechner told us:

“…a prophet’s quarrel with the world is deep down a lover’s quarrel. If they didn’t love the world, they probably wouldn’t bother to tell it that it is going to hell. They’d just let it go.”

In fact, we love the world,
we love the community,
we love the human family…so let’s not let it go.