One of the silly idioms that I’ve learned from my dad over the years is one that gets a lot more use that I would have expected. I’m not sure where it came from, but when someone would ask my dad, “What should I call you?” he would respond, “Just don’t call me late for supper.” Being a priest, ordained at 27, and serving in a denomination with an average age of about 8,000, I get this question a lot. It comes from folks who don’t feel comfortable calling someone their grandson’s age “Father.” It comes from people who didn’t grow up in a tradition that used any honorific other than “Reverend.” It comes from inside and outside the church. Over the years, I’ve borrowed and adapted a response from the late Right Reverend Mark Dyer who would say, “When I die and get to heaven, Jesus won’t call me Bishop (I say Father, which is even more true) and you don’t have to either,” but recently, I’ve found myself living deeply into my dadness and replying that I don’t really care what folks call me as long as they don’t call me late for supper.
There is one other title that I don’t really wish to carry, but it was bestowed upon me way back in my seminary days. Advent 2 being all about the Prophets, I’ve been reminded of the deep cut my spiritual director, Kathleen Staudt, gave me after one session in which I expressed some of my deep concerns about how the Episcopal Church seemed to be headed into a deep quagmire of Moral Therapeutic Deism and self-preservation naval gazing. She told me, with a straight face and no wiggle room, “Steve, I think you are called to be a prophet to the church.” Allow me to revise my earlier dad joke. Don’t call me late for supper or a prophet. The life of those who are called to speak God’s truth to the systems of power are never easy. These systems create intentional barriers to protect themselves from those who are willing to call them out. People who say difficult things often find themselves on the outside looking in, if they’re not on the inside of some kind of prison cell longing to get out.
In the years since Dr. Staudt bestowed that moniker upon me, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside a lot of great people who carry out the prophetic task with grace and dignity. I’ve learned that while early John the Baptist might have liked the “You brood of vipers” imagery, the key to the prophetic word is creating space for it to be heard, and coming in hot isn’t always (or ever) the best way to make that happen. The heavy handed approach often leads to one’s metaphorical and/or literal head on a platter.
Rather, as the Collect for Advent 2 intimates, the call to repentance must always come with an idea about what salvation looks like. Being a prophet isn’t just about carrying a big stick, but about casting a vision of the future that is built on hope, restoration, and renewal. One can’t tell the full story of God’s redemption without a call to repentance, but if it ends at shame, guilt, and grief, the take of the prophet is only half done. Like Isaiah, modern day prophets are called to share the good news of God’s ongoing work of planting and re-planting the root of Jesse so that one day, the Church that follows Jesus Christ might live fully into the vision of the wolf and lamb living together in harmony for the welfare and peace of the world.