The idea of prophets and prophecy runs strongly through the readings for today. From Ezekiel (2:1-5) we see the very beginning, sort of the commissioning, when God calls on Ezekiel to serve as a prophet to God’s people. The psalm for today (123) finds us praying: Have mercy on us, O God; for we have had more than enough of contempt. Give us what we need, not just what we want. And Jesus himself allows himself to be disappointed in the reception of his old neighbors, those who knew him all his life: A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.
It’s not just that Jesus really was human – in this expression of momentary exasperation, he communicates a different message. He calls himself a prophet. And any time that Jesus talks about himself, we would do well to pay attention.
Mostly, I think, we view prophecy as predicting the future. When we say that someone has made a prophetic statement, we mean that someone has told us where the road we are on leads to. And certainly the Bible gives us many examples of such activity.
But reading the state of things, examining current events and making statements about where they will lead, that’s only one part of the life of the prophet. When we look to our scriptural examples, from Amos to Zephaniah, we find that they are tasked with the highly inflammatory job of speaking the truth. And that’s what I believe Jesus is pointing to when, in today’s Gospel lesson, he describes himself as a prophet.
The role of the prophet is to speak the truth – and we can’t handle the truth, at least we would rather not handle the truth much of the time.
Maybe that’s why we’re more comfortable with the thought of prophets who lived thousands of years ago, whose messages are tucked safely away between the pages of the Bible. That was a long time ago. God doesn’t tap people on the shoulder and anoint them to prophesy anymore.
When the readings point so strongly to prophecy, it sort of begs the question: what does prophecy – what do these readings – have to do with us, here, now, today?
A month ago, Bishop Tim Smith addressed the North Carolina Synod Assembly, making it uncomfortably clear that the role of the prophet has not disappeared, that in fact prophecy in terms of hearing and speaking God’s truth is alive and well. He said that prophecy is:
Compassion and the courage in Christ to risk being labeled and blamed and despised – crucified – for speaking and enacting truth. Intentionally Jesus makes clear that the reign of God he is already ushering in is more concerned with kindness and mercy and love. What is standing in the way of our embracing and embodying that reign of love?
This is the question of prophecy for our time. What is standing in the way of our embracing and embodying that reign of love? Which leads in turn to another question: Where might we find prophets for today? Who are our contemporaries who speak of the Kingdom of God?
I wasn’t really looking for one when I went to the movies recently. I was only interested in seeing the much-discussed documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? It’s an examination of the life and ministry of, can you guess, Mister Rogers.
Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister with a prophetic truth that he repeated over and over, for more than 900 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Kindness is as vital to our existence as oxygen. Rather than being a naïve, mythical thing like unicorns, kindness – grace, really – was something absolutely vital to our survival, and it was incumbent on all of us not only to practice it but also to look for it in others. If the question is: Won’t you be my neighbor? — then the follow-up question, straight from the prophet Jesus, is: Who is my neighbor? And by embodying that kindness and graciousness to everyone he encountered, Mister Rogers showed us all what it looked like to be a prophet. What it looked like to embody the Kingdom of God. What the truth can look like when we recognize that the root of truth is always, always, the love of God.
Mister Rogers, even fifteen years after his death, still resonates with us, as prophets tend to do. And the idea that Fred Rogers can have been a prophet leads us back to another potentially scary question: Does that mean that we, you and me, each of us, has it in us to be a prophet?
The answer is yes. The answer is the most emphatic and resounding yes of God that we claim in baptism. Each of us has been tapped on the shoulder by God, after all. Remember the words of Ezekiel in today’s reading: He said to me, “O mortal, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.”
With you. With you, with me. And suddenly the idea that each of us has been invited to be a prophet is less frightening because we are reminded, after all, that we are all equipped to do this. All we have to do, as it turns out, is to be the person that Mister Rogers told us we could be, and treat our neighbors like Mister Rogers treated everyone he encountered: with real delight, with gentle good will, free from our own preconceptions, with the love of the Kingdom of God.