Who is a prophet in your life?
Last Sunday during youth formation we wondered about who and what prophets are. Here is some of what we came up with: People who tell the truth – and are often brutally honest. People who give us reality checks, or maybe advice about how we should be living or what we should be doing. As Cristina preached in her sermon, prophets “call things exactly as they see them, or rather, exactly as they are; not how we might wish for things to be, or how it would be more comfortable, or more convenient, for things to be.” And always prophets point us to God, God’s love for us, and God’s vision for the world.
And so we asked, who are the prophets our own lives? Who are some prophets we might think of today?
A grandmother who offers her own clarion opinions and insights came up as an example. Friends who tell us the truth, even when we don’t want to hear it. Greta Thunberg, the young environmental activist, whose actions challenged powerful adults around the world to act on climate change; the Black Lives Matter movement and its truth telling about the deeply rooted racism and violence experienced by black folks in the U.S. Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe, two athletes in the public eye who have protested police brutality and racial injustice (and, in Kaepernick’s case, were publicly castigated for it), as well as gender discrimination.
Who are prophets in your own life?
Often, I think of prophets as loud and splashy – and sometimes they are! Sometimes they have to be. Think of Mark’s description of John the Baptist, from Sunday, a man clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, eating locusts and wild honey out in the wilderness. He was a character with a following, so much that people sought him out at the river to be baptized. And he directed people to Jesus, the one who would come after them, who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. And perhaps because he had a following – other Gospels attest to his disciples – or perhaps because he unsettled those in authority – he was arrested. (Mk 1)
Or think of Isaiah, who Mark quotes at the beginning of his Gospel. Isaiah had prophesied the judgement of his people and their exile in Babylon, along with a lot of judgement against other nations – sometimes walking naked and barefoot to do so! (Is. 20:2-3) Talk about a reality check. Among other things, Isaiah challenged people who wrote oppressive laws, who turned “aside the needy from justice,” and who robbed the poor of their rights. (Is. 10:1-2) He relayed God’s anger to them. But he also comforted his people as he prophesied their return from exile:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…[God] will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Is. 40:1,11)
Isaiah pointed his communities – and communities of neighboring peoples – to God’s justice and to God’s love, even, and perhaps especially, when they didn’t want to hear it.
But prophets don’t have to be loud and splashy. The friends I have who challenge my ways of thinking and acting or who remind me that I’m beloved (which is its own kind of prophetic voice) aren’t walking in the street naked to do so. They’re calling and texting and checking in, and I’m trying to do the same for them, too. They remind me where God is in the world around me, and how I can turn myself towards God when I get lost. Sometimes being lost can be so seductive, or so terrifying, that it’s easy to get stuck there, in the wilderness. Prophets, loud and splashy or more intimate, show us the way back to God.
I wonder – who are the prophets in your life?
One last thing: I think poets are prophets, too. They can tell us exactly how things are and point us towards God’s love and vision for the world all in one go. So here is a poem from one of my favorite prophets, Naomi Shihab Nye.
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by; Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all they years are met in thee tonight.
We have sung the carols a thousand times, watched the pageant over and over, packed and unpacked the creche so often that the shocking story of the Incarnation has become tame. The vision that God is born from a human mother, that heaven and earth meet in a baby wet from delivery, ought to find us hiding under the sofa rather than basking in any sentimental glow. Sound the alarm! Hit the decks! The God of the universe is wearing swaddling clothes and is asking us to hold him in our arms. Yikes! “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” is how the gospel of John describes this news, a notion that more than a few have called undignified, unsophisticated, and un-theological! But according to Christianity, it is the way things are.
Writer and former boys school chaplain Frederic Buechner writes, “All religions and philosophies which deny the reality or significance of the material, the fleshly, the earth bound are themselves denied (by this revelation). Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy, (but) incarnation means that all ground is holy, because God not only made it, but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it. If we are saved anywhere, we are saved here” within the dusty mess of the world and our lives.
The stories of Advent and Christmas present a vision that touches something quite deep and universal—of hope fulfilled, of peace achieved, of light that shines through overwhelming dark—but their gifts are more than emotional. They are mythic and politically charged, conveying truth that speaks directly to our current wilderness. Consider their historical context: the kingdom of God in the form of a Jewish peasant born in a marginal backwater is lined up against the imperial kingdom of Rome. And this poor brown man (and his mother Mary) offer a liberating way that continues to save us today, across the centuries, if we have ears to hear it.
Convention said the Roman puppet Herod was the “king of the Jews.” Caesar Augustus was called “son of God.” His successor Octavian, who ruled at the moment of Jesus’ birth, had the moniker “one who is divine.” Apollo was understood as the “light of the world.” So a story which appropriates all of these titles to Mary’s son, who was poor himself and gave voice to his humble following, redefined power then and now.
A vision of this social transformation from around the time of Jesus goes like this: “The earth will belong equally to all, undivided by walls and fences… Lives will be in common and wealth will have no more division… There will be no poor man there, no rich or tyrant, no slave. Further, no one will be either great or small anymore. No kings. No leaders. All will be on par together.” (Syballine Oracles 2:319-24) But how does this new day begin its dawning? The transformation began in the humility of the manger, but it has always depended on human beings to carry it out: God with us, God for us, God acting through us. Some current opportunities? Living wage jobs, affordable housing and health care, integrated neighborhoods and fair access to capital, equitable public schools, affordable daycare, a justice system committed to rehabilitation more than punishment. O come, o come Emmanuel in our hands and minds and hearts, in our systems and in our organizing… Now!
Fully understood, the Incarnation means that we bring heaven to earth.
I want to share with you this reading which is part of our tradition for Thanksgiving. It seems even more poignant this year. Bill and I will pray it, even though it will be just the two of us.
“An Accounting of Gratitude”
Arthur Foote from Taking Down the Defenses (1972)
“The grateful soul of the wise man is the true altar of God.” PHILO JUDAEUS (c. 20 BC-c.50 AD)
I say to myself: Be Thankful.
Be thankful for the happiness you have known in times past, the moments of mirth and ecstasy, the years of health; how many of your dreams have come true; promises , long deferred, have so often at least been made good.
Be thankful for the dearness of your loved ones, the fidelity of your friends, the courtesy and kindness repeatedly shown you by total strangers.
Be thankful that your fears have again and again proven groundless, that you have survived so many close calls, so many narrow escapes; and that the same good fortune has generally followed your children in their misadventures, and your friends likewise.
Be thankful for not only for the joys that have accompanied your way, and the unnumbered gifts of a kindly providence. Master the harder part of gratitude for life’s sterner lessons. You have known pain, pain that has given you warning of unseen dangers. You have known failure, failure that shattered false hopes of easy victory, and toughened your spirit for renewed efforts. Having made mistakes, you have learned important lessons. Having encountered obstacles, you have found courage and endurance to surmount them. Having known sorrow and loneliness, you have discovered that even these have quickened your sympathy, and taught you the needs of others.
Be thankful, then, that so much you have not sought and would have by-passed if you could, nonetheless has proved enriching to your experience. Even in life’s dark labyrinthine ways and bitter moments, the man of faith and hope can trace the workings of a mysterious wisdom, an impartial providence, to more than human love.
Last week after the “official” election results were announced my daughter, Crystal, posted an interesting thought on Facebook. “Now, the real work can begin!!”
Indeed, there is MUCH to be done. For me, that work begins with reflections on the new lessons we have all learned over the previous four years, about ourselves as a nation and as individuals within that nation. One of the foremost lessons is about our relationships with our BFF’s, parents, and others whom we hold near and dear.
I have personally learned that many of my siblings (by other mothers) are or have been quite naïve and almost simplistic in their views of the nature of human beings. Nevertheless, reading a sibling’s blog yesterday reminded me of how many are truly suffering with the grief and pain of loosing family members and close friends due to political or ideological differences. Who knows, you may be one of them.
Now, with a time of food and fellowship just around the corner, some discover that those whom they have shared bread with for years (or even a lifetime), will no longer speak or converse with them at all as a consequence of the overtly divisive climate that has been made manifest in our common life. It is sad and painful to acknowledge. But I want to assure you that there is always a lesson to be learned as we journey through life…and THIS is a lesson indeed. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the spirit of the heart binds us to one another.
While reading my brother, John’s laments about his loss of personal and familial ties, I recalled an experience from the life of Jesus of Nazareth which could shed some meaningful light on what he and many may be experiencing.
In the third chapter of Mark, Jesus has been teaching something different from the religious establishment of his day. Additionally, his teachings are accompanied by acts that are truly amazing. Some of the religious elite slander him openly suggesting that he is aligned with Satan and not God. So many people surround his home for hearing and healing, that the local folks start talking and his own family thinks he has gone a bit loco and must be protected from the crowds. They need to stop him from acting this way. The text says:
“When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind!’” (verse 21)
When his family calls to him, Jesus’ response was not quite what was expected from someone living in a society where family was essential to the meaning of life, itself. His response is astounding.
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking around at those who sat around him, he said, “here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (verses 33-35)
Now I ask you, what is GOD’s will, except to love?
Jesus words are a shocking redefinition of what that society would have thought family meant. Family, it turns out, is not a matter of biology or even ideology, but of loyalty, respect, and mutual deference to God’s will. Blood may be thicker than water, the spirit of the heart is love and that binding is deeper and eternal.
This may not be comforting to John or many others, but there is a lesson here if we can receive it. I have to admit the times I have experienced the loss of a close familial relationship has been neither comfortable nor convenient, but I know there is a lot to be said for siblings (by other mothers) whose hearts beat in loving rhythm. I actually have quite a few of those! Not biologically or even ideologically compatible all the time, our desire to-be-in-Relationship with each other instead of to be right, transcends our conflict. Somehow, we work it out.
BTW, the Relationship, is not our own…it is GOD’s. That is why the “R” is capitalized! The Relationship is in, with, and through The Holy Mystery whom we call God. It is a different world with new lessons. I continue to learn daily.
So, my Brothers and Sisters (of other mothers), be encouraged and keep learning. The old Pete Seeger song says, “keep your eyes on the prize and hold on.”
With prayers of LIGHT & LOVE,
We will have to create some new traditions this Thanksgiving. I know one family that plans a visit to a sculpture garden that day. Another person is collecting books for a children’s library, and he’ll spend that morning pasting bookplates inside the front covers. The Franciscan Center at 101 West 23rd Street serves meals every week, and maybe you and a friend could lend a hand this year around Turkey-day? (https://fcbmore.org/get-involved/volunteer/) Or you could organize your neighbors to rake leaves as a group, or write letters to old friends, or buy groceries for the person behind you at the store? Listen carefully over the next few days to hear about someone who will be alone this year… If they have a computer or a cell phone, invite them to your table virtually, and then break bread together through the wonder of Zoom. It may feel awkward or silly at first, but if you let the limitations recede, you’ll be surprised how “normal” it feels to have Aunt Sue across the table on a screen. (An added bonus: you won’t have to eat those creamed onions she brings every year!)
Public health educators tell us that the holidays could wreak havoc with the virus. So, instead of inadvertently being part of a super-spreading event, we should spend Thanksgiving with our pod this year. Connect to your extended family over the phone instead of meeting them around a table; and if you do gather with a little group, do so outside, sitting six feet apart, and leave your masks on when you are not eating. Here’s an idea: invite your cousins to play a game virtually, setting up a board at the either end of the phone line and moving the pieces around for one another. Scrabble and Monopoly work well! Or save a few crossword puzzles and give each other clues on the phone, over pie. Or bust up the idea of a traditional meal altogether—maybe it’s too painful to face the empty chairs—so go on a bike ride or a hike or a long walk, instead. Then make something to eat that you would never associate with Thanksgiving, like tofu or chickpeas or lamb burgers, and buy a six-pack of local beer instead of choosing wine that goes with a bird.
In college I spent Thanksgiving with friends in upstate New York for several years. Decades before, in the early 50’s, the mom’s family lived in Brooklyn and welcomed a French exchange student to their home on the day before Thanksgiving. With little in the way of shared language, the family had to explain the holiday and its historical background in a matter of hours to a young woman from Nantes, who had no context for the large meal with distinctive foods, not to mention a way to understand the Macy’s parade. When words failed them, the family found themselves with their new friend on the streets of Brooklyn in makeshift costumes and cap-guns, wielding a pillowcase that had been painted to look like a turkey. They have never forgotten that hilarious pantomime, rooted in the need to foster welcome and create new traditions. What is the opportunity this year for you?
To me it feels like that day in long ago Brooklyn. Traditions seem strange. Words fail us. Loss is more familiar at our tables than friends or faraway loved ones. So we will have get to Thanksgiving by another road this year… Hang on, change is coming, and we are being born again. How will you get there? And when you get a glimpse of how it might be good, maybe you can share it with a stranger or a friend.
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened (e.e. cummings)
Yesterday several of us gathered in the courtyard for noonday Eucharist, to draw strength and sustenance from our ancient ritual of gathering together in community to pray, to hear God’s Word and to share our Lord’s meal. We came with questions, uncertainty, anxiety, sadness. We came with a desire to be together, in our spiritual home. We came looking for hope and something solid to stand on. I imagine you may be feeling the same way …
A couple of years ago, a dear friend was struggling to make it through a season of darkness in her life; she confessed she felt she was drowning in a sea of uncertainty and couldn’t find a foothold on anything that felt like solid ground. But the more she talked and reflected on her life, the more she was able to identify specific things she was, indeed, certain of — islands of solid ground, that she could stand on, in the midst of a sea of uncertainty — like outcroppings of rock on which to stand, to make her way step by step, across a turbulent, fast flowing stream.
Perhaps this is a “practice” each of us can intentionally engage in, to navigate our way forward, if only for today. Find something — identify something — in your life, of which you are certain … and allow yourself to “linger” there, for awhile. One minute? 5 minutes? Let it be the rock on which you stand, if only for a moment. Perhaps it’s the feel of the warmth of the sun on your face. Or the feeling of your beloved’s hand, wrapped around yours. Or the steady drumbeat of your own heart, as it beats its sacred rhythm inside your ribcage. Or your breath, as the air enters and exits your body. Perhaps it’s a passage or psalm from holy scripture that anchors you, a favorite poem, a song. (Psalm 46 and Psalm 146 feel particularly appropriate for today!) A walk outdoors. A recipe to bake. A friend to call.
In his sermon for the Feast of All Saints last Sunday, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry lifted up the teachings of Jesus as something solid for all of us to stand on, this season and always. If you haven’t heard or watched his sermon already, I commend it to you https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=-idK1D8XHdY
Last Sunday as we gathered outdoors at 8am before the rain storm and then at 10am indoors (a last-minute adjustment!) during the rain storm, we renewed our promises to God, ourselves and one another as baptized Christians, as part of our baptismal covenant. Renewing these promises together is another island of solid ground, on which we can stand, together: https://episcopalchurch.org/baptismal-covenant
Whatever your “practice”, let it be a time of reenergizing your soul-spirit’s connection to the Source of All, the Holy Mystery that holds us and is the very Ground of Our Being … we are each a part of something Grand, Awesome and Majestic that is working in and through our present reality, and we each have our part to play.
A poem for you, that I came across last night; it spoke to me, may it speak to you as well.
By Audette Fulbright Fulson
H/t Peace Lee
Did you rise this morning,
broken and hung over
with weariness and pain
and rage tattered from waving too long in a brutal wind?
Get up, child.
Pull your bones upright
gather your skin and muscle into a patch of sun.
Draw breath deep into your lungs;
you will need it
for another day calls to you.
I know you ache.
I know you wish the work were done
with everyone you have ever loved
were on a distant shore
safe, and unafraid.
But remember this,
tired as you are:
you are not alone.
and here also
there are others weeping
and gathering their courage.
You belong to them
and they to you
we will break through
and bend the arc of justice
all the way down
into our lives.
I took a break from the headlines this morning and stopped focusing on the bold-faced names. In the space freed up, I gave thanks for the neighbors who raked a few leaves this week so that our gutters wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the rain… I thought about the social worker in Baltimore county who hasn’t missed a beat since March, organizing food distribution on Wednesdays, health-checks on Tuesdays, and homework help every other afternoon… I thought about the teacher in Rosedale who keeps coming up with new ways to find the 7th graders who haven’t shown up on-line… I thought about the folks we have buried over the last months, and the babies born, and the couples who figured out how to get married in little circles of ten (with grandma and grandpa on Zoom or parked a safe distance away)… Before dawn today, my body weaves the ache of the last six months with the hope for next Tuesday’s decision, especially for folks who sweep up around the bottom. If Jesus is the model, our work is to make sure the top of the ticket knows what’s going on with the rest of us. This election is about making sure that every one of us can rise and thrive.
With covid-19 cases increasing, I think about Jason, who works the night shift at the hospital. He’s a great big man with a very quiet voice, whose job is to give a shower to people who can no longer bathe themselves, and to help them go to the bathroom when they call in the middle of the night.
And Annie the nurse, who disarms with humor the most frustrated teenager, paralyzed by an automobile accident, or businessman halted by an aneurysm, distracting patients from what they can’t do and helping them see all that they can still accomplish. “Baby, you go ahead and cry if you need to, but we’re also going to laugh some,” she says. “We don’t have any invalids around here, no sir. Just folks who’ve got to learn a new way to do things. And if this old dog can still learn a new trick, then you can, too.”
And Rosalie, who for eleven years took critically ill babies home from the hospital, because they didn’t have parents or anyone else who could take care of them. She and her husband Joe, who just got over the virus, gave the infants weeks or a few months of comfort and a decent burial, adding strength and solidarity to their brief and often difficult lives. One child thrived beyond anyone’s expectations, through several major surgeries and significant disabilities, and she’s now their 30-year-old adopted daughter.
By any name, these people are saints.
Jesus never praised climbing the ladder of success. In fact, he warned against it. “Don’t take the best seat at dinner. Don’t lay up your treasures on earth. Don’t curry favor with those in power.” Instead Jesus focused our eyes on people from whom we usually look away: the lost, the lonely, the lame, and the left-behind.
Blessed are you, he said, when you are poor in spirit; when you are laid low by mourning; when you are meek and unheard; when you long for justice with all your heart; when you are merciful; when your heart is pure enough to see good in every person; when you help make peace. We do not find the light of God in our lives apart from our suffering. Saints don’t direct us to easy, comfortable ways. The ones I know show us how to keep going in deep darkness, how to survive the bullies, how to have hope in the mean times. (paraphrase of Nancy Rockwell)
Look in each other’s eyes when you stand in line to vote: that’s where the action is. With God’s help, the world is being restored by everyday saints.