The Plight of the Prophet

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The question I've been mulling over this week is, “Who are the prophets today?"I really wrestled with this, unsure even how we would identify a prophet. There are so many voices. So many speaking. Many speaking out against injustice and the broken systems that have failed us.

And this certainly is one of the characteristics of the prophets of the bible.

They were tasked with the challenge of being between God and the people. The job was to point out where the people or even the king had fallen short of being faithful. But can we say with any certainty which voices are prophetic and which are just promoting their own agenda?

It’s been said that we don’t have any clearly identified leaders in society today. And people don’t necessarily trust the leaders they once did. For instance, even clergy who were once among a trusted group, no longer hold that position for a majority of people in our country.

But not that long ago there were identified leaders. During the fight for civil rights, a number of strong figures arose. Of course, most famously MLK Jr. In South Africa there was Nelson Mandela. In India, Ghandi. Earlier there were Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas. Perhaps these were prophets among us.  

One of the other characteristics of prophets is that they are of the people to whom they are speaking. So, in reality they are speaking to themselves as much as to their neighbors. In more recent times we might think more of movements than one particular voice. #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, #NeverAgain, immigration rights and reform. Individuals from communities affected by injustice and violence, standing up and crying for change. Pleading for us to hear and act.

No one likes someone standing up and pointing out their issues. But they resent it even more when it is someone pointing out flaws they pretend are not their own. Though we see that the temptation is always to dismiss the prophets words. We will use whatever excuse we can to undercut the prophetic voice. In Jesus’ case the people use his familiarity with them against him. Isn’t this the little boy who used to play around the carpenter shop? Oh, isn’t it cute that he’s telling us about what God is doing! Who does he think he is really? Speaking for God!

It actually says they took offense at him. They aligned themselves against him because they could not hear the words he was speaking.

Prophets point to God’s action in the world. But mostly they demonstrate how the people are not ready to receive the loving action of God. The coming of the Day of the Lord sounds like something people would be looking forward to. But prophets warn that if God were to come right this moment, we wouldn’t be ready. That is the root of our brokenness as humanity. That we are not ready to receive the full force of God’s love and grace. It sounds crazy. Like, why wouldn’t we want that?! But it doesn’t fit our agenda to have everyone receive the same mercy, love and grace.

Even for people who say they want justice and peace for everyone. When it comes to those we perceive as opposed to us and our views, we have a hard time.

If we get back to the question of how to identify a real prophet, the truth is it shouldn’t be someone who wants the job. All the prophets of the bible resist the call to do this kind of work. They know that prophets suffer. They are hated. They are threatened and sometimes killed by the people they are trying to save. The prophet’s own body become the symbol of the rejection of God. That the people refuse to hear God’s call to repent in order to receive the hope and promise that will come.

When we think of some of the prophetic voices of the modern era we see this too. MLK was assassinated because of the very evils he spoke against. Nelson Mandela was jailed by the regime whose power he threatened. We should beware the prophet who hasn’t lost anything.

In Jesus’ case his prophetic work of speaking on God’s behalf became a Messianic role of giving is own body up to the forces that defy God. He realized in this experience at Nazareth that if his own friends and neighbors couldn’t hear it, then it would be hard for the majority of people to understand the coming Kingdom of God. If he was going to make it a reality it would be at the cost of his own life.

The work of prophetic speaking is no less relevant now than it was in biblical times. It’s also no less difficult. We are still the stubborn, impudent people who refuse to hear God’s call. But knowing this about us, God made a way that can’t be denied. A way that can’t be opposed or lost by our own refusal to hear. In Jesus the promise of salvation and hope is available to all people. Even the most stubborn and hard hearted among us. For people of faith the difficult part is accepting that without resentment. And living into it as a call on our own lives. To speak of God’s mercy and love even for those we can’t stand.

Power Through Powerlessness

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A few years I was on the train dressed up for one of those dinner cruises. It was rush hour, so the train was very full. People were pressed in tight. At some point I felt someone behind me touching me in away that felt uncomfortable. I turned around and glared to let the guy behind me know that I knew it was him. Only a little while later I felt it happen again, and I reeled around and yelled at him. I told him he better not touch me again. Instead of support from fellow passengers I felt others thought I was overreacting. Like the disciples asking Jesus how he could wonder who touched him when so many people were crowded around. I felt powerless in that situation. I questioned my own judgement but knew it was not just someone bumping me with the movement of the train. But I think most women are meant to feel this way at times. Powerless, vulnerable, questioned.

The woman in the story has suffered so much over the previous 12 years. She is powerless to change her situation. Even though she has tried and tried to find a cure from the many doctors she has seen. Still she suffers with bleeding everyday. In that time her condition made her unclean in the eyes of the religious authorities. She could not cook for her family because she would make them unclean. She could not sit on the same furniture. Could not sleep in the same bed with her husband (if she has one).

In contrast there is Jairus, a prominent community figure. He is quite powerful in his situation in life. As a leader of the synagogue he would have been one of the men in the community that kept this woman from being fully integrated with the rest of the people. He was charged with upholding the purity laws and practices that were thought to have kept the rest of the community in God’s favor. But now he too is made powerless by the sudden illness of his daughter. A girl who has been alive as long as the woman has been suffering.

Both these figures — one named, the other anonymous — come to Jesus in their desperation.

I think power and feelings of powerlessness are at the root of much of the conflicts of our time. The turmoil in our political system is about who has the power and who feels like they don’t. And it’s about those in power wanting to keep their power at all costs. Even making policies that further disempower whole groups of people. From police brutality to legislation that limits women’s rights to make their own decisions about reproductive health. To detention of families seeking asylum and the expressed with to deny them due process. To the people in middle America who voted for Trump because they feel their power slipping away. The desperation of powerlessness takes many forms. Some take up arms and shoot classmates and teachers. Others take up protests in the streets. Still others cross borders against the law hoping for mercy.

With more anxiety coming down the road with questions about who will fill an open position in the highest court. We are constantly dealing with dynamics of power.

For the woman she found some power in persistence. Though she had received no help from medical professionals, she took one last chance. But it meant crossing a boundary that could have had severe consequences. It meant breaking the laws that kept her separated from others, especially men. To reach out and touch without asking permission. Trusting the power of God to heal her. She takes what she believes she is owed. Knowing that if she asked first, she might get rebuffed again. She doesn’t take that chance this time. This time she takes what belongs to her as a daughter of God.

Jairus, who may have never faced powerlessness like he did in the face of his daughter’s death, assumes the same posture as the woman before Jesus. He kneels in a gesture of recognizing one more powerful than he is. It is an amazing thing. Here a religious leader also transgresses what he himself has taught. Against the other authorities who fail to recognize Jesus’ power, Jairus takes a chance. What if this is the only option for his daughter? He is willing to risk losing his position, looking foolish, looking blasphemous in front of his congregation. If it could mean life restored to his child.

I would like to think that Jairus learned something in his encounter with Jesus. Whether or not he knew the woman personally, though if they were from the same village it is likely he did. His experience of limited power might have taught him empathy for those whose power was limited by virtue of their gender or other life situations. Empathy as a means to shared power is something we should work to cultivate.

Jesus feels the power leave him when the woman reaches out for healing. And in that state of powerlessness he goes and heals Jairus’ daughter. Both the woman and the girl were restored to full life by their encounter with the emptied Jesus.

Follow me on this logic, but with empathy we learn to speak against abuse of power and imbalances of power. Not because we need to rescue others but because we understand our connection to them. That we are all in the same boat, even if we are separated by life experiences. Jairus was one sick child away from losing all his power for the sake of the one thing that mattered most. And he and the woman both come to the same place, the feet of Jesus to find healing.

Building Sacred Communities

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”
He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm.

He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”

They were terrified and asked each other, “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him!”
— Mark 4:35-41 Jesus Calms the Storm
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This week words printed on a $39 jacket spoke volumes. Simultaneously tone deaf and descriptive of the President’s response to people seeking asylum. “I don’t care, do you?" It wasn’t meant this way, but perhaps it can be read as a challenge to us. We can be outraged at all of this. But do we care? Really? “Do you not care that we are perishing?” The disciples cry from the depths of their fear. And Jesus’ words after calming the storm are a challenge back to them — “Have you still no faith?”

But what is faithful response when the storms of the world rage?

Sacred community is one of the values of the Park Church Co-op. Or rather we understand that what makes this a sacred place is not the ornamentation and the stained glass windows, but the people who are gathered here. And that gathering is done by the Holy Spirit. So that each time people come together this becomes holy ground. The question then is how we will respond to the gathering God has wrought among us this morning. Or next Sunday, or Tuesday at bible study or for concerts and community.

About 10 years ago I went to Maine with a friend. One place we visited was Sabbathday Lake, which is the last remaining Shaker community, with only two official Shakers left. The model of the Shaker community was not a sustainable one. They saw themselves as faithful remnants. In the 18-19th centuries, they practiced celibacy and removed themselves from the world. It was their way of creating a sacred community. Set apart, protected from the immorality and impurity of the world around them. They saw themselves as the small boat on the ocean. Jesus was inside and the storms raged around. But they were kept safe by their faith.

There are still those communities that believe holiness is about separating themselves from the world. But that is not what Jesus promises. Jesus sends his followers into the world as the storms rage. To be the ones that understand the peace of God in the face of tumultuousness around them. It’s why having places like this to retreat to for just a time is so important. When we are gathered in here we enter sacred time and space. We say we are part of a different reality. The values of God’s Kingdom are in full force as we proclaim peace to each other, even if there were war outside the doors. We say that salvation belongs to all, even when we know there are people out there suffering because of who they are. We give thanks for blessings, even if things are not quite what we wish they would be for us or our neighbors. For this hour they can be. This may seem like delusional thinking. But the reason we practice living this different reality here is so that we can take it with us when we re-engage with a tempestuous world.

Jesus, do you not care that we are perishing? In the midst of the disaster that is our government and the lives that are being destroyed even as we gather, we ask this same question. Do you not care? Jesus knows what they don’t in that moment. That the depths to which humanity can sink under the guise of enforcing law and order would reveal itself sooner than they knew. And Jesus would be the one left on the cross alone. The followers would disappear as he hung on the cross. Do you not care that I am perishing?

We know the storm raging right now. We can’t escape the media coverage. And we ourselves are filled with roiling outrage at the scenes of children, even infants being torn away from parents. Put in detention centers. Even here in New York City. Over 2000 in just the last two months.

In the story fear and faith are intimately tied. Jesus seems to put them at odds. But facing down fear is the seed of faith. Acting despite fear is what faith is about.

I think about parents who fled countries with children on their backs and at their sides. Where was their fear the greatest? Was it facing gang violence in their homeland? Was it when they got into trucks driven by strangers on a treacherous journey across multiple borders? Was it when they arrived at the US/Mexico border to face ICE agents unsure of what the next step would be? Was it when their children were taken away for baths never to return?

And yet the journey they undertook was with hope that in the end they would find safety and that things would be better than they were back home. It takes an incredible amount of faith to enter the storm like that. Do you not care that we are perishing?

We should not doubt that if Jesus is anywhere he is in those detention centers with people who are suffering. And what we practice in here is a definitive, “Yes,” to the question, “Do you not care?” We are reminded at the table when we are all fed by God’s grace. And we assure one another the sharing of peace. That Jesus is in the boat amid the storms with us.

In turn we enter the storm out there with people who need to know that the answer to the question, “Do you care?” is “Yes, we do.” Sacred space and community is where we are reminded of God’s care for us. Not so that we sit and relish it, soaking it all up for ourselves. It’s so we are strengthened to be the ones proclaiming God’s peace for those who are being tossed about in this life.

Even when we don’t care or don’t know HOW to care, Jesus does. And the grace of God is poured on us and all people. So when we see the storms coming, we face with faith despite our fear.