Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent
February 21, 2016
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
There seems to be a great deal of confusion about what it means to be a prophet. There seem to be two prevailing ideas, both inaccurate. The most popular misconception is that being a prophet is all about telling the future. This confuses prophets with soothsayers, doomsayers, and fortune-tellers, whose pronouncements are supposedly inevitable, yet so vague that even if the people who heard them wanted to change their ways, it’s not clear what they should do until it’s too late. Though I do enjoy hearing a good old-fashioned doomsayer every now and then.
The second misconception is one I see mostly in the Church, one that is a little closer to the truth, and therefore more dangerous. When clergy call themselves “prophetic,” it often means, “hold on to your wallets.” Even though we of all people should know better, some clergy can’t resist the urge to play at prophecy, making carefully-articulated statements demanding that other people change, despite the fact that they themselves have never even tried to walk with the people they profess to care about, nor made an effort to help them in concrete, material ways.
Jesus understood, in every fiber of his being, what being a prophet is all about. While his ministry did include ethical teaching and demands for reform, his words grew out of his actions, his works of mercy and compassion, which he was able to work because he was a poor man living among the poor and constantly at risk of losing what he did have, including his life. Because he was grounded in the community for which he advocated and the religious tradition that defined their concepts of righteousness and loving-kindness, Jesus was never at risk of becoming self-righteous. He was humble and authentic, and therefore beloved and effective.
Being a prophet, then, is really a manifestation of the two great loves that Jesus defined as the heart of the relationship between God and humanity: love of God and love of neighbor. Jesus submitted to the religious tradition he was raised in before he started offering a new interpretation of it, one at odds with the elite. And Jesus could be at odds with the elite because he was one with the common, his love and compassion for them burning within him as holy fire. He expressed his love not with elaborate position statements drafted by comfortable people in comfortable offices, but with punchy stories and earthy metaphors that betrayed his poor, rural roots, like the beloved image of himself as a mother hen, lovingly protecting her children, setting her body, her life, between her brood and the hazards of the world.
So Jesus understood, too, that being a prophet entails real risk, up to and including death, the agonizing death that the state inflicted on anyone who challenged its claims of legitimate authority and absolute power. This concept of sacrifice is wholly absent from both of the popular misconceptions of prophecy. While it’s true that, as one of my Old Testament professors said, “prophecy is not foretelling, it is forth-telling,” it matters very much who is doing the telling, and why they are doing it. If the motivation is self-satisfaction, the audience is not fooled, let alone moved, or served. Prophecy may involve speaking truth to power, but power doesn’t have to listen, let alone respond. People in power are very familiar with empty rhetoric and manipulative propaganda, and they can tell the difference between that and a real movement for change.
The kind of prophet I’m talking about is a rare creature, a Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King. Each generation sees only a few. But there is a form of prophecy to which all of us can aspire. Living our lives so intentionally in accord with Jesus’s commandment to love God and our neighbors that we are willing to make sacrifices, to inconvenience ourselves and even suffer for our obedience to Jesus, brings us close to the prophetic office. Proclaiming our trust in God, our hope that the will of God will make the world a better place, and our commitment to serve God’s people because of God’s love for them, gets us the rest of the way there. So to take part in the prophetic tradition, we don’t need to dress up in itchy robes, or, God help us, a chicken costume. Putting on our faith and wearing it conspicuously will suffice.