Who Wants to be a Prophet?
A sermon on Matthew 10:40-42 and Jeremiah 28:5-9.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.]
The gospel readings for the past few weeks have been… challenging.
Lots of talk about rejection, and division, and taking up our cross if we want to be disciples of Jesus.
In other words, we have been hearing the kind of texts that have preachers wishing we had looked ahead at the lectionary and decided to take a vacation that week.
So, imagine my relief when I read the three short verses of our gospel reading for this week.
Welcome. That’s a nice word. And look, it’s repeated six times.
And giving “a cup of cold water to one of these little ones.” That’s nice too. Better even, since Jesus is telling us that we will get rewarded for such an incredibly easy act of service.
Whew! Nothing scary here. Maybe I’m getting a bit of a break this week…
Except… what was that about prophets?
Now, I generally like the readings that we get from the Hebrew prophets, because they tend to hit pretty hard on the themes of care for the poor and vulnerable, and justice for the oppressed and outsiders, which are commitments that are a big part of my life and faith.
But I am aware that they “hit hard.”
In our Bible study session on Wednesday, one of our texts was from Isaiah, so, in talking about the context, I reminded the group about how the prophet’s job in ancient Israel was almost always to call the people to CHANGE something they were doing.
And, I am familiar enough with being human that I know most of us don’t really like it when some busy body gets in our face about how we need to change.
And then there’s today’s reading from Jeremiah.
Jeremiah is not my favorite prophet. He tends to be pretty depressing… Lamentations and all.
And he’s in top form in this little scene of his confrontation with the “good news” prophet Hananiah, reminding Hananiah that it’s generally not the prophet’s job to assure the people that everything’s going to be wonderful.
Jeremiah’s little quip about knowing that the Lord has sent the prophet of peace when that word actually comes true is meant to be read with heavy sarcasm. Think John Stewart on the Daily Show at his most eye-rolling.
So, welcoming a prophet might be a little more taxing than offering a cup of cold water to a sweet little one.
And Jesus makes it clear that this isn’t just about simple hospitality. He talks about welcoming a prophet in the name of a prophet, which means welcoming them in their capacity as a prophet.
This is not just about having my friend, who happens to be a prophet, over for dinner.
It’s about welcoming the prophet’s words; being prepared to hear whatever message of challenge or change the prophet is there to deliver.
But wait, there’s more!
Because this passage comes at the end of Jesus’s instruction to his disciples about their task to go out as his messengers. Which means: he’s not giving them commands about how they are to welcome; he is telling them about the consequences of how people will (or will not) welcome them… in their role as prophets.
For a second, this might feel like a reprieve, because it means that we (as Jesus’s disciples) are not the ones being called upon to welcome a word of challenge…
Until we realize this means Jesus assumes we will be the ones SPEAKING a word of challenge. And that’s even harder. (Trust me… I’ve been preaching through Matthew 9-10 for several weeks now).
There are a few things we need to grapple with in this realization of where we, as disciples of Jesus, are located in this description of welcome.
The first is recognizing that ours is the task of delivering hard truths... with the goal that they can actually be heard!
It’s one thing to speak truth to power from a self-righteous mindset that worries only about one’s own integrity in saying what needs to be said.
But in a highly divided society like the one we live in today, such truth-speaking might only serve to further entrench those who most need to hear the challenge.
And the task gets even more fraught when we consider the second consequence of “being the prophets” in this scenario: In order to be the ones who receive welcome, rather than offering it, we have to relinquish power.
Which means delivering our message from a place of weakness, with no means of coercing obedience.
As Commentator Debie Thomas explains, “(Jesus) wanted his good news to be preached from a place unencumbered and untainted by the temptations and corruptions of human power. He wanted the message of God’s saving love to come from dependent outsiders. From the edges of society, not the center.”
And that’s a very uncomfortable realization, especially on a weekend when our whole country is celebrating our independence!.
While the society around us is focused on rejoicing in the freedom to live the way we want to live, we are being called into vulnerability.
And out of that place of vulnerability, we are being called to offer a witness that challenges the rights-focused, invulnerable narrative of the larger celebration.
Because we are called to witness to love, not as a sentimental value, but as a world-disrupting commitment.
A commitment to welcome the one who will issue a challenge, and the one who will show how far we fall short of God’s righteousness.
And a commitment to reach out in compassion to these “little ones” who speak from the margins and have no shame in being dependent while the world around them celebrates independence.
If I’m honest, I have a hard time believing that such a message will find a welcoming ear in our current context.
It’s not that this message in un-American.
In some ways it is echoed by those stirring worlds etched at the feet of the Statue of Liberty: Give me you tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
THAT is certainly a message of welcome for those on the margins.
But The New Colossus is a message that appeals to our magnanimity. It frames us as the saviors, not as those who need to hear any word of challenge from the homeless and tempest-tossed.
And it is a very different thing to welcome the pitiable poor vs. welcoming the prophet.
If the evidence of this past Tuesday’s township Council meeting is anything to go by, our society is much more likely to argue back and forth about who is being “hateful” to whom, than to actually seek to learn from those speaking from the margins, much less to actually consider change.
And I know I am not immune to that critique either. I can still feel in my body the tension that built-up as I listened to comments that triggered all of my fight or flight instincts.
Listening is hard, hard work. And trying to speak truth without clutching for the power to enforce that truth is even harder.
But I am finding hope in a reframing I re-read this week in Bishop Michael Curry’s book Love is the Way.
It is a reframing that calls us into a new diagnosis of what is really at the heart of the deep divisions in our society.
Bishop Curry argues, “If love looks outward, to the good of the other, then its opposite isn’t hate. Its opposite is selfishness! It’s a life completely centered on the self.”
No one believes about themselves that they are being hateful. But most of us, in our honest, inner selves, can admit to moments and attitudes selfishness.
If we think about it, we might even be able to see a link between our clench-fisted hold on our independence, rights, and freedoms and a tendency to life “a life completely centered on the self.”
So, if Bishop Curry is right, and the opposite of love is not hate, but rather selfishness.
And if being messengers of God’s love means being prophets who bring a word of challenge… not through the strategies of power, but from the vulnerability of the margins.
Then perhaps there is hope for our task if we focus on the corrosive impact of selfishness in our society…. If we venerate love above our rights and freedoms.
I’m not saying you have to lecture the hosts of your 4th of July bar-b-q about the self-centered roots of a focus on independence… they probably won’t recognize that listening to such a message could earn them a prophet’s reward.
But, if you do get a chance to be a prophet, to offer a word of challenge that could maybe make a difference in our divided and divisive world…
Remember when you do, that prophets operate from the margins…
And remember that your word of challenge should call your listeners into love.
“Truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
Thanks be to God.