July 4, 2021

Pentecost 6B

Prophets Be!

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. Mark 6:1-13

The prophet Ezekiel was active between 575 and 600 BC. During this period the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and God’s chosen people were carted off into exile in Babylon. It was a time of great turmoil and distress. The first lesson for today tells the story of God’s commissioning Ezekiel to be a prophet to the people of Israel at this difficult juncture in their history.

Prior to his commissioning, Ezekiel had an amazing vision of fire, winged creatures, and a chariot, and something that seemed like a human form seated on a throne. When Ezechiel saw this vision, which he said, was, “the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord,” he fell on his face. And then he heard the voice of the Lord.

The voice said it was sending him to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels. Human beings, being what we are, the epithet, “a nation of rebels”, is probably a fitting description for most nations at any time in their history. The voice continued, “You shall speak my words to them whether they hear or refuse to hear.” And then the Lord told Ezekel not to be afraid or dismayed.

This is rather standard stuff, in terms of what we know of Israel’s prophets: they are sent by God to His people, to call them back to the covenant; they are ignored, forgotten, berated, mistreated, tortured, and some even killed. And nobody listens to them. This scene plays itself out again and again.

Then we fast forward 400 years or so to Jesus. As Christians, we have our own view of Jesus. But we must understand that to most of his contemporaries, he was just another prophet. And as a prophet his experience was no different than that of His predecessors in the trade.

In today’s Gospel he is in Nazareth, his hometown, teaching in the synagogue, and no one is very happy with what He has to say. These are the people with whom He grew up. They know Him and his family. And how do they respond? They are scandalized. “Hey, isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy? What does he know? Who does he think he is?”

“Who do you think you are?” is one of the most enduring rebukes. We use it to put people down, to rein people in when we think they are starting to think too highly of themselves, when they start getting “too big for their britches.”

Everyone thought Ezekiel and the other prophets had a lot of nerve saying they spoke for God. And the people of Nazareth knew for certain that Jesus was getting too big for his britches, coming home, and preaching to them the way he did.

We have not changed much over the centuries. Human nature being what it is, most of us don’t care much for people who think they have a corner on the truth, or that they know “God’s will.” And so often our suspicions and skepticism prove to be right on the money.

There are just too many instances of people being led into dark places by self-proclaimed experts, pseudo-religious charismatic charlatans, right wing news media talking heads, and self-serving political demagogues, and always with very bad results.

The January 6th event was borne of such toxic energy. The right wing media and its mouthpieces serve up poisonous distortions with impunity. There is that unending parade of fundamentalist bible thumpers. We’re right to be careful, to be skeptical. It can be dangerous not to be. This being said, it never ceases to amaze me just how many people get sucked into this garbage by false prophets who personally profit from the lies they tell.

So how do we determine who is speaking the truth? How do we discern the real prophets from the frauds? Even if we summarily exclude some obvious politicians, some news reporters, and a steady supply of religious clowns, it can still be very difficult.

We can let our prejudices get in the way of our careful discernment; we can expect prophetic voices to fit a certain mold, to look and sound a certain way, to be of a certain social status. But all through the Bible we read of God using the least expected people to do His work, and very often the people involved weren’t too happy about it. Moses said he was not eloquent, that he was slow of speech: “Oh My Lord, please send someone else.” Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” Nobody with any sense wants this job! But God says again and again, “Don’t be afraid. I’ll tell you what to say.”

So, who is telling us what we want to hear, or what they want us to hear, and who is telling us the truth?

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul says he will not boast of what he has seen and heard “so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me.” Paul wants people to see and hear Christ in him, not Paul. This is one way of determining if someone is telling the truth: if it is for self-aggrandizement, for gathering power and attention, for promoting personal opinions, for advancing personal fortune, then it is best to be skeptical.

Very often the truth comes from the sources we least expect. Most often the truth is inconvenient. In our culture, the truth has become less important than what sells, than the sound bites and twisted rhetoric and even outright lies used to push a certain point of view or agenda. We are not certain whom to believe. Remember the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes? Something was happening, and the truth was not part of it – and it was the least likely person who saw through the scam.

The truth disrupts our carefully designed constructs, our carefully guarded prejudices, our convenient belief systems. No wonder we cry, “Who do you think you are?” The truth can threaten the very foundations upon which we have built our assumptions about other people, about systems of governance, about life in the church and about everything. We all have prejudices and assumptions that get us through the day. Look at our world.

Does not the myth of American exceptionalism fly in the face of our being, in too many ways, a nation of rebels when it comes to the will of God and the deepest truths about our humanity and divinity as revealed in Jesus?

For example, the truth that real freedom is only ever borne of loving, really loving, genuinely loving our neighbors as we would love our brothers and sisters by blood. On the other hand, freedom to selfishly pursue our own desires and get our own needs met; freedom to amass as much wealth as we are able; freedom to garner and steal the political power to deform our common life; this is not freedom but rather enslavement to our own narcissistic impulses.

The high-sounding words of the Declaration of Independence, that “All men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”, have yet to be realized for all, remain under siege, and in some instances are even being walked back.

Those states in which right wing politicians control the levers of government are now trying to rig future elections in ways that should deeply concern all of us.
We naively grow up thinking we are on a path that leads onward and upward. Drugged with that language of an American Dream accessible to all without prejudice, we never stop to think that things might not get better. They might get worse. Things that seem stable might collapse. And that the freedom to live as members of the beloved community, referenced by Blessed Martin Luther King, might be further thwarted.
Democracy is not for idealists or for those who place their trust in the emergence of a utopia. Democracy does not guarantee it will confer peace and plenty on all those who live within its reach. Rather, it is built on the narrowest of ideas, the belief that half the people will be right more than half the time.
Knowing his priorities and the priorities of the Kingdom, of which Jesus is the Prophet, do you really think it a stretch to understand that Christ is always challenging us to question our assumptions and especially the assumptions that we would make about our own goodness, magnificence, and greatness. The inflection point for authentic spirituality is the acknowledgement of our brokenness and our need to be made whole.

It is Christ who challenges us to answer questions such as these: Why do you tolerate the disenfranchisement of people of color and not actively oppose further oppression of those who are already sorely oppressed? Why do you allow victims of sexual assault to be re-victimized and re-traumatized by men with money and power? Why are you undermining your grandchildren’s futures and sealing the fate of the poor, for the greed that serves a morally bankrupt economic system in which the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer?

Life in Christ is life in truth. Who is speaking the truth to you today? And how are you called to speak the truth? Yes, at baptism we were all commissioned as prophets. When and what do we hear or refuse to hear, speak, or refuse to speak?

Speaking the truth starts with telling the truth to ourselves, and with heeding the still, small voice in our own hearts. We may not all be called as prophets to the nations, but we are called to discern the truth, to listen to the truth, to speak the truth and to spend our lives for the sake of the truth.

It starts with deconstructing our own carefully built walls of convenient assumptions and half-truths. Once we begin to tell the truth to ourselves, we will be better able to hear the word of the Lord all around us and respond with a prophetically-lived life.

The Rev. Frank J. Alagna
July 4, 2021