Prophets and/as Permanent Provision
Good morning, God’s people!
I’ve got prophets on the brain this morning.
We just wrapped an extended adult education series on the prophetic imagination. Two weeks ago, we celebrated the life and ministry of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 2020, we mourned the deaths of prophets like John Lewis, CT Vivian, and too many others. Last week, we heard the voice of the young prophet, Amanda Gorman, who invited us to imagine an America “that is bruised but whole, / benevolent but bold, / fierce and free.”
The change and unrest in our country also has my prophet senses tingling. It seems the more unsettled we feel, the better we hear the voices of those organizing and inviting us to a different way. The young leaders who protested police brutality this summer. The black women who empowered Georgia, a state infamous for voter suppression, to elect their first black and Jewish senators. Even the January 6th attack on the capitol by white supremacists has me thinking about prophets. About the disturbing knowledge that there are those who put their hope in Donald Trump and “Q”, even if I see them as false prophets who speak in God’s name but do not build God’s justice.
As the church, we have a responsibility to participate in these conversations about prophets. They are a part of our tradition while also connecting us to other religious traditions. In America, we are the tradition that is perhaps most responsible for misnomers and misunderstandings of the prophet. In this moment, we have the opportunity to share and to repair. And this responsibility, this opportunity, requires our own discernment. Particularly, around how the prophet is viewed by God versus how they are viewed by Empire.
We could spend a lot of time with each of these comparisons, but what strikes me is that God imagines prophets as an ongoing presence in our life together. What’s what God tells Moses in Deuteronomy, as the people prepare to enter the Promised Land: (a) God will continue to expect fidelity and righteousness and (b) God will provide them with support along the way, including “a prophet” who will be their guide and mediator.
That stopped me in my tracks. It sounds great, makes sense. But that’s not my engrained understanding of prophets. No, we’re taught God raises up prophets during particular times of struggle, when things are really bad. And yet, in the founding faith document that is Deuteronomy, God outlines the permanent role of the prophet, in the same section where God outlines the roles of tribal leaders, priests, and even kings. God doesn’t just establish another prophet, God establishes the prophetic office.
I want to suggest that my image of prophet-as-seasonal-employee actually comes from Empire. This image makes it easier to overlook the prophets always among us. It dehumanizes the prophet, so that we forget Isaiah had children and that Martin liked playing pool. That they both made mistakes and hurt people they loved. It subliminally associates the prophet with bad news, as the one who creates conflict. It over simplifies the ministry of the prophet, as if their work could be accomplished with one speech or spectacle. Most of all, it suggests that Empire is the norm, even if it’s a negative norm. What does this do to our understanding of who we are? If at our core, we operate from the belief that, most of the time, we’re totally off-track from who God calls us to be? What does it do to our understanding of who God is, if God waits until things are going off-the-rails to speak? How does it build God’s kindom, if the power of Empire is the norm but the power of the prophet is not?
The beliefs we hold, or, better said, the beliefs that have a hold on us, affect how we understand the prophets of our own time. Like the man with the unclean spirit in our gospel, these beliefs can consume us.
We tend to dismiss exorcism stories as archaic, but more than ever we should recognize that any number of death-dealing forces today are often experienced as “possession”, getting “caught up” in dynamics that far exceed our intentions or control. Think of how addiction overwhelms individuals and families; how racism and white supremacy shape-shift over time; how anger consumes; how envy devours; or how all of us, even against our will, are complicit in the climate crisis. We may or may not call these “demons,” but they are most certainly demonic. They resist our best attempts to overcome them. And as we make those attempts, the experience can be less like figuring out an equation and more like wrestling with a force much bigger than us.
No one understands the difficulty of this more than the prophet, the one who is called to connect with us by confronting these most difficult parts of ourselves. The prophet’s calling is not for the faint of heart. And, the truth is, very few of us are called to be prophets. We are called to be the prophet’s audience. To recognize that we are caught up in the ways of Empire and the demons that keep it in power. And to ask, “Is there another way?” We do not have to have all of the answers. Remember, God provides for us.
Which brings us to our gospel reading, when Jesus and his disciples go to synagogue on the Sabbath. Jesus teaches, the text says, with authority, a sign of his distinctive prophetic standing and power. In fact, the word Mark uses here for “authority” is exousia, a close cousin of the word in the Nicene Creed to indicate “substance” or “being” or “essence.” Jesus speaks and acts from his essence. The Word spoken through the prophets, made flesh to live among us. For Mark, when Jesus speaks, we hear God’s voice; and when Jesus acts, we see God’s activity in the world. And sure enough, Jesus doesn’t simply talk about healing and liberation. He heals and liberates.
That is God’s promise to us, that is salvation. Not an easy way out to the sweet by-and-by or a perfect prophet who magically makes things right, but rather to bring new health into our lives and communities today. For the sake of all people and the whole of creation, the death-dealing forces around us must be confronted and, ultimately, overcome. To follow Jesus is to join him in just this kind of confrontation, to speak and act with boldness and clarity, to heal and liberate with our words and at the same time with our deeds. He means for us to follow him into the work of building up from the ruins, of freeing the captives, of help and health, in the immediate here and now.
What sticks out to me in our gospel reading is that the synagogue welcomed Jesus in, and he was able to teach, to share God’s Word. We know this will change as his ministry grows, and we know the ways the Church has closed our doors, our hearts, to prophetic voices. Right now, I would like to open St. Peter’s doors to one of the prophets of our own time, Andre Henry, and I invite us to open our eyes, ears, and hearts to his prophetic word to us, the Body of Christ. This is his song, “Hookey.”
God imagines prophets as permanent, consistent, and important parts of our life together. What if we did too? Not because things are always bad or in an effort to desensitize the challenging message prophets proclaim, but because God established the prophetic office as a provision, a trustworthy guide, as we strive to build God’s kindom. That is seeing prophets through God’s eyes, but we often see them through the eyes of Empire, too. Those Empire views keep us from experiencing the healing found in the prophet’s words, the healing found in Jesus the Christ. Like the man possessed by the unclean spirit, we are wrestling with the demons of our own time, including white supremacy. As the Church, we must open our doors to the prophet. As a permanent, consistent, and important part of our life together. We must trust in the authority, the essence, of who Christ is: “the Holy One of God,” the one who has come to heal and liberate the world. When we bring ourselves to him, quieting the fears that close us off from the prophets of our own time, God will heal and draw us into the work of healing too.
May it be so. Amen.