Sermon,  Sermons

Prophet: Heart at the margins

Martin Luther King Jr. makes a beautiful observation about community – from his jail cell:

In a real sense all life is interrelated. All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single moment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be . . . This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter From a Birmingham Jail”

What each of us does matters. What we don’t do matters.

From 1Cor12:12-31

12 The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. 13 Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.

14 Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. 15 If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

18 But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it. 19 How strange a body would be if it had only one part! 22 In fact, some parts of the body that seem weakest and least important are actually the most necessary. 27 All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.some are apostles, some prophets, some teachers, etc. 29 Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? 30 Do we all have the gift of healing? Of course not! 31 So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts.

None are more important than others. Still, each are important. Prophets are necessary.

Prophets “are not without honor except in their hometown.”(Matt 13.57) This was Jesus’ experience, right?

The Prophet is “one who bears testimony to God’s concern for human beings.”

Abraham Heschel

Prophets know God’s will, are disposed to be particularly attuned to God’s heart in a matter. They challenge the dominant assumptions we inherit from the culture, and question the status quo – which they would see as the masses maintaining a shared delusion.

John 1:6-8

“There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.” And what happened to John? This witness to the Messiah?

James 1:21-24

“Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you. Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they look like.”

Message translation: “ . . . throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

22-24 Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.  How many times have you forgotten who you are; have I, who I am?

This is what a prophet does: calls out hypocrisy – that forgetting who we are – image-bearers.

            The prophetic gift is likely the most difficult calling because it is unpopular at best and dangerous at worst. This may be why Jesus exhorts us to give regard to those living into this vocation (Matt 10.4-42). The prophets among us speak uncomfortable truths. They challenge us. Those empowered by the Spirit to be a so-called “mouthpiece of God” are often so unpopular their personalities can become off-putting further making it even more difficult for us to heed.

            Perhaps it is more that we – I should say me – I don’t want to change or go through the effort of making a change or challenging the status quo because, quite frankly, I’m tired. But it might also speak to a prejudice or preconception I hold. And, let’s face it, we all harbor one or another to some degree.

“Oh God . . . to Thee we look for whatever good the future holds. We are not satisfied with the world as we have found it. It is too little the kingdom of God as yet. Grant us the privilege of a part in its regeneration. We are looking for a new earth which dwells in righteousness. It is our prayer that we may be children of light, the kind of people for whose coming and ministry the world is waiting. Amen.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The prophet knows was God is about, and what we are to be about as image-bearers.

characteristics/functions of prophets:

  • questions the norm
  • disrupts common practices
  • agitates for positive change
  • wants to learn to better influence that change
  • discerns the heart of Truth (vs. the current cultural default application of it)
  • felt urgency
  • deep compassion for the cause of the people
  • will think of creative ways to communicate the message
  • is about maintaining orientation toward God and the covenant bonds of the body
  • is about cultivating commitments to social justice, especially regarding the poor
  • speaks truth to power

immaturity is expressed by:

  • struggling with that discernment between the subjective and objective
  • can be moody
  • obsessed with being right
  • come across as “super-spiritual”
  • can lack nuance – black/white thinking

Prophets are advocates, existentialists, hackers, and anarchists. They are mystics, environmentalists, whistle-blowers, and magnanimous.  

            In practice, in the weekly grind of church we don’t often see these roles expressed.

            We’re coming to meetings from work (at home or elsewhere) already a bit weary (or more than a bit!) with an agenda to navigate. So when anyone has new ideas, consideration is often difficult to muster. Our committee meetings are important for organizing an effort to execute the directives of that committee. But if it isn’t also a place to think creatively, to imagine new ways of doing things – not merely new ways of doing the same kind of things, but new things altogether – then we will certainly continue maintaining the programs. Until we can’t.

             But it’s not just programmatic. It stems from the theological. And the roots are deep, and even evangelical. Soong-Chan Rah, professor at North Park University says this:

            “Individualistic soul-saving soteriology shifted focus from social amelioration to individual regeneration.”

Soong-Chan Rah, Prophetic Lament.

When our doctrine focuses exclusively on saving individual souls the entire project loses sight of whole systems (family, community, town, country . . .).

            We have prophets in our midst. The problem is, we don’t like to hear what they have to say! it requires that we listen with our inner ear, inner wisdom – that space where my spirit can hear the Spirit of God on a matter, where your spirit can discern God’s meaning.

Because isn’t that the purpose of this entire project‽ the project of living out Jesus’ mission, in the power of the Spirit: to Love God with everything and our neighbor as ourselves‽

            Still, we are “all members of the same body, though many, we are one.” each gift as important as another, each necessary for the other – and those with similar gifts also must listen to each other. My vision is one facet. The discernment God enlightens my spirit with shines light on the matter from one angle. You shine Jesus’ light through your discerning spirit from another angle. When we shine our brilliant lights from many angles, what stunning prismatic light might emerge! And remember CT Studd – “the light that shines farthest shines brightest nearest home!”

27 All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it… Some are apostles, some prophets, some teachers, etc. 29 Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? 30 Do we all have the gift of healing? Of course not! 31 So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts.

But now let me show you a way of life that is best of all . . . .

And what follows is, of course, 1 Cor chapter 13 – the Love chapter:

            “If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing. If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it; but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing.”

Love, the High Road of Justice

            As we consider the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., I am reminded that prophets throughout history stand outside of time because they stand in a reality that is timeless: love. A love that is concerned for the well-being of all peoples. A love that yearns for justice and righteousness—making things right in the world. A love that notices. A love that is not afraid. A love that doesn’t stand by, but takes action. It sees the effects of ones action – or inaction – the implications for the future. It holds the future in view in light of the past: God’s creative action punctuate, pierced by God’s greatest act of Love – the incarnation.

            MLK preached some powerful words, but I especially appreciate these from Strength to Love:

“One of the great tragedies of life is that [we] seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. A persistent schizophrenia leaves so many of us tragically divided against ourselves. On the one had, we proudly profess certain sublime and noble principles, but on the other hand, we sadly practice the very antithesis of these principles. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds! We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practice the very opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This is strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of [humanity’s] earthly pilgrimage.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Strength to Love

I recently finished the book of Malachi again, who repeats God’s incessant complaint against those God created to love:

“I will speak against those who cheat employees of their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, or who deprive the foreigners living among you of justice, for these people do not fear me,” says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3:5b [NLT]

            How do I honor what I profess to believe? how can I feed iron, as it were, to my deeds, do justice, love mercy, while walking humbly today? tomorrow? this week? I cannot do it alone. We are not meant to. What are you hearing from God? How might God be prompting you to be God’s mouthpiece? Or maybe you’ve heard a prophetic word and dismissed it? What practical way will you act on to take this high road of justice with me?