June 10, 2007 II Pentecost (RCL 5/C) 1 Kings 17: 8-24; Gal. 1: 11-24; Luke 7: 11-17
It’s one of those easy puns that just seem inevitable with the propers this first Sunday after Trinity Sunday, the Second after Pentecost, to say that as the Church we are all too-often a “non-prophet” organization. That’s P.R.O.P.H.E.T. “A non-prophet organization.” And as you might suspect, given my comments a couple of weeks ago about “vision,” it’s not a thought that makes me entirely unhappy. Every once in a while it may be necessary for God to send a prophet to call his people back and get them on the right track, I guess, but when the gift of prophecy starts seeming about as common as membership in AARP, I start getting a little nervous, no question about it.
In any case, in the literature of the supermarket magazine rack and also in some parts of the wider Christian family you can hear and read quite a bit about prophecy, which seems more often than not to have to do with some kind of clairvoyant vision of future events. Did Jean Dixon predict JFK’s assassination? That sort of thing. “The amazing prophecies of Nostradamus.” And some of this blending into an edge of popular religious interest, sometimes focusing on imagery from Ezekiel or Daniel or, with great frequency, from the Revelation to John.
I think about the whole series of novels that were massive best-sellers just a few years ago: the “Left Behind” series, imagining the world of our own day as it might reflect at least one interpretation of Biblical “end-times.” Or Israel attacks Lebanon, and the t.v. preacher announces that this is one of the Biblically predicted signs of the coming Battle of Armageddon. I guess we’ve all seen this in one supermarket aisle or cable t.v. channel or another all our lives. And with our good Anglican and Episcopalian reputation for moderation and rationality and cool detachment, we would at least most of the time float above all that.
But we come to the readings from scripture appointed for today, and this word, prophet, is a word we can’t seem really to skip over, as the people of the village of Nain witness this incredible, truly unbelievable event. A young man has died. His body has been prepared for burial, wrapped in the shroud, and the funeral procession is moving through the square, led by the figure of the young man’s weeping mother, a widow who had only one son. And Jesus, a stranger, someone they had never seen before, stops them, puts his hand on the stretcher, and speaks over the body of the dead man. And there, right in front of their eyes, the dead man sits up. As if he had only been asleep. He looks around. He begins to speak: “What’s happening here? Where am I? What are you all doing?” And the crowd is filled with—what? Confusion? Disorientation? Fear? And they begin to shout. Not to say--He’s a magician, a practitioner of the dark arts! But A great prophet has risen among us!
Perhaps in some immediate, intuitive, unconscious way in this moment the people of the village remembered the ancient Biblical story of the great prophet Elijah, who also was remembered as having prayed over the body of the son of a widow, and in this dramatic moment as well have turned back the clock and seen the dead man restored to life.
Prophets are, perhaps we can say, instruments of God’s compassion. They are inevitably about the dramatic representation of God’s presence and God’s power—to display that power in the midst of the people, sometimes in word, sometimes in action, sometimes in the moment of a truly miraculous demonstration, in such a way as to interrupt the flow of whatever is going on that is leading that people further into a breaking of their relationship with God, to set off an alarm, as it were, to catch their attention by word or by deed, and to call them back, to call them to return to the arms of the loving Father, to offer healing to the broken, forgiveness, restoration, and hope.
A number of years ago it became a very popular thing—and still is quite common actually, and not a bad thing at all—for all kinds of organizations, churches, social service agencies, arts organizations, businesses and schools and corporations, to develop what is called a “mission statement.” I can’t even begin to count the number of board retreats and vestry days I’ve participated in with this on the agenda. A succinct one or two sentence summary to answer the question, “what are you here for?” Using concepts like “the elevator speech.” How you would describe your organization, your church, in the time that it takes to move up or down a few floors in a downtown office building. Or what core message you would be able to communicate on the cover of a matchbook.
Again, I think usually a helpful process, and I understand that a lot of educators and counselors in the area of personal development would suggest that it might be helpful for all of us, in our families, as individuals, to have a mission statement too. These statements can and should change and evolve as our lives and situations change or evolve. They’re tools, not some kind of oppressive law. But they are a way to bring focus, a certain clarity, to help keep ourselves on track. A context for goal-setting, and for self-evaluation. The first step of the journey, and each step after that, has to do with choosing a direction, and this is simply a way of articulating that choice.
Sometimes all this happens in conference rooms, and then stays there, more or less forgotten by the time you get home from the meeting--but it can be kind of exciting when there is a word or phrase that actually strikes home with us, reveals to us what we have been thinking and feeling about who we are at perhaps a deeper level. A younger friend of mine was talking about her life recently and she said to me, “I’m the mom.” And whatever that word might conjure up for you or me, for her it was enough, there was content there that makes sense of things for her, what she’s about, what her goals are. I know a few years ago I was talking with someone about my life here at St. Andrew’s and in this neighborhood, and I said that one of the great things about being here is that I get to be “the village priest.” And that’s kind of a simple phrase, but again one I find actually quite meaningful as I draw together the various strands of my ministry, and I suppose draw it all together in the background music of imagery from Chaucer to George Herbert and from the living examples of colleagues and friends and mentors. How each one of us puts these things together in our own lives is going to be different, obviously, but the more we do that, the deeper our clarity, our self-awareness, and our effectiveness will become.
All this is to say, that if there’s one thing the readings from scripture this morning would remind us, it might be that while the Church may not be about “making a profit,” we are in fact in a meaningful way called to be a “for prophet” enterprise. “P.R.O.P.H.E.T.” Which as I defined it a few minutes ago, and I’ll say it again, not only about Biblical characters of long ago, but about you and me, about St. Andrew’s, the life of the wider church: Prophets are instruments of God’s compassion.
Even the ones who use the vocabulary of condemnation and judgment, which in the biblical tradition is always about tough love. Not about telling people what they want to hear, but helping us to hear what we need to hear. About truth and promise, not a false sense of security, but a true and living hope. To echo the Prayer of St. Francis, as we pray that week by week. They, we, are called to be about the dramatic representation of God’s presence and God’s power. To display that power in the midst of a hurting and broken world: sometimes in word, sometimes in action, sometimes in the moment of a truly miraculous demonstration, in such a way as to interrupt the flow of whatever is going on that is leading that people further into a breaking of our relationship with God, to set off an alarm, to catch our attention by word or by deed, and to call us back, to call us to return to the arms of the loving Father, to offer healing to the broken, forgiveness, restoration, and hope. Miracles. And new life. As we heard this morning: true then, true now. New life.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.