Don’t Call Me a Prophet

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.

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JBap’s message wasn’t well received

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.

Zechariah’s Song

For a guy who wakes up at 5 am most days, I’m really not a morning guy.  I hate getting out of bed.  It takes me at least 90 minutes and two cups of coffee to feel safe operating a motor vehicle.  I rarely wake up excited to start a new day.  So it is that I’m not one who can pull out their Book of Common Prayer and a Bible and read morning prayer.  Navigating the Psalms, appointed lessons, and the Collect of the Day is enough to make me want to crawl back in bed.  I rely instead on the good people at Forward Movement who provide up-to-the minute accuracy on the Daily Office website.  It might be cheating to not have to do the page flipping, but that it keeps me from cursing seems to be a fair trade off, and besides, I own a pellet smoker, so I’m kind of OK with taking the easy way out.

Still, I’m not a morning person, and so I’m often either teetering on the edge of falling back asleep or pushing my luck in the amount of time I have before the kids get up.  Should I be planning my own Morning Prayer office, I’d probably choose the shortest canticles every morning, but because I rely on the coding skills of the FM staff, I’m at their mercy.  If they choose all three section of Canticle 12: A Song of Creation, I’m stuck reading it.  I can remember early on in this phase of my Daily Office habit getting frustrated with what seems to be a strong affinity on behalf of the coders for Canticle 16: the Song of Zechariah.  It’s pretty long, and it spends half of its time rehearsing Old Testament prophecy.  Couldn’t it just jump from the first verse to “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High…”?

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In the years that have passed since restarting a Morning Prayer routine, I’ve learned to love Zechariah’s Song, which is appointed in place of a Psalm for Advent 2C.  I love it contextually, as it comes from the mouth of the temporarily mute priest Zechariah who doubted God’s ability to produce a child for this long barren couple. I love that it is sung in direct response to his fear-filled neighbors who wonder, “What will this child become?”  And yes, now I even love that it takes the time to cover the promise of God to the people of Israel through the prophets, all the way back to Abraham.  What I love the most, however, is the blessing Zechariah bestows upon his son.  Like it is for Mary, I’m sure that Zechariah knows that this particular blessing will bring with it pain for John and his family, but in faithfulness, the blessing is proclaimed nonetheless.

“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, *
for you will go before the Lord to prayer his way,

To give his people knowledge of salvation *
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God *
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, *
and to guid our feet into the way of peace.”

Testify to the Light

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When approaching an airport in low light conditions, a pilot is trained to look for the airport’s beacon.  You’ve surely seen them as well.  They are particularly noticeable near a smaller airfield where roads often pass by in close proximity.  Often when there are some low level clouds lingering about, you’ll see the white and green beams streaking across the sky.  From the air, these lights are visible from many miles away, helping a pilot flying under Visual Flight Rules get their bearings and begin the approach process.  If you can’t see the beacon at the airport, you can’t legally land there under VFR.

The beacon image came to mind this morning as I was reading John’s version of the John the Baptist story.  The lectionary assigns selected verses from John 1 (6-8, 19-28), including three from the familiar and beloved prologue.  With its dual themes of Word and light, the prologue sets up for the reader the theological foundation of John’s Gospel.  The preexistent Word was sent into the world to shine the light of God for all people.  In our text for Sunday, John is careful to note that John the Baptist is not the light, but rather “he came as a witness to testify to the light.”

Both the noun “witness” and the verb “to testify” are translated from the same Greek root, martyr.  John was the witness of the light who was to witness about the light.  To stretch the flying metaphor above, JBap had been given the ability to see the beacon of God’s work in Christ, and was called to get on the radio to tell anyone with who would listen where to find the light.  He was calling everyone back to their home field.  He was inviting them all to see the light shining in the darkness of the world.

As disciples of Jesus in the 21st century, we are inheritors of this primary vocation.  We are called to share the Good News of Jesus; to help our family, friends, and neighbors to see the beacon that is so often obscured by the fog of fear, anger, hurt, and regret.  As followers of Jesus, we are to carry that light out into the world to help people see that in the light of Christ there is life, and that life is abundant with joy, compassion, grace, hope, and love.  The world is in a constant state of low light conditions, but with the light of Christ, Christians are called to shine in the darkness, for as we hear in the prologue, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

Here is your God

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Matthias Gruenewald’s Crucifixion

The more I think about the role of John the Baptist in salvation history, the more amazed I am at his humility, and the more cognizant I am of my need for the Holy Spirit.  As I read both Isaiah’s prophecy and Mark’s summation of John’s work, I was reminded of Gruenewald’s painting of the Crucifixion on the Isenheim Altarpiece.  Here we see lots of imagery, all smashed together, to a very positive effect.  Beginning at the left, we find Mary, white as a ghost at the ghastly sight she has been forced to behold being comforted by the Disciple whom Jesus Loved.  At Jesus’ feet is a woman, likely Mary Magdalene, alabaster jar nearby, kneeling in worship of her Lord upon the cross.  Two the right of the emaciated Jesus, covered in wounds, his whole body pricked with thorns, we find the Passover Lamb, whose blood is being poured out from a wound that matches the spear prick on Jesus, into a chalice, a reminder of Jesus’ commandment that we make Eucharist in remembrance of him.

Finally, at the far right, we see a strange looking character.  His hair and beard seem unkempt in Renaissance terms.  He is wearing a cloak of camel hair and holding a codex, likely the book of the Prophets.  He is clearly John the Baptist.  Now, we know the Biblical witness tells us that John had long since died when Jesus was crucified, and yet, here he is, standing at the foot of the cross, when all but Mary, Mary, and John the Evangelist had abandoned him.  Notice what he is doing.  John is pointing at the disfigured man, writhing in pain upon the cross.  The words at his outstretched finger are Latin and read “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

John was a wildly popular character.  The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees feared his popularity, even after his death.  It would have been easy for John to lose perspective and to begin to think that it was all about him.  Like a preacher in the receiving line, John could have begun to think that maybe his own work had brought him to the level of his fame, but he did not waver.  His task was to point and to say, “Here is your God.”  He did his job so faithfully, that Grunewald felt compelled to include him in what would become one of the most famous paintings of the crucifixion in history.  John, the one who came to point the way to the Messiah.

Ironic Jesus

Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a doozy, and reading it in context doesn’t seem to help.  After sending his Apostles out with the instructions we’ve heard over the past three weeks, Jesus returned to his own ministry of healing and preaching.  Matthew doesn’t reiterate Jesus’ message, but we know that on this missionary journey, like all the others, he has be proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has come near.  This is the same message that John the Baptist preached during his ministry at the Jordan (see Mt 3).  Interestingly, it is during this time that John, now in prison, sends his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

It is in response to this question from John the Baptist that Jesus engages in the teaching we will hear on Sunday.  The seemingly random aside about children in the marketplace, the woes to unrepentant cities that the lectionary skips, and even this prayer to the Father about thing hidden from the wise, are all a result of John’s somewhat surprising questioning of Jesus’ Messiahship.  But what really strange about all of this is how Jesus wraps it all up by saying, ““Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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That’s a serious eye roll, Ironic Jesus!

Is Jesus being ironic here?  After a chapter of pretty difficult apocalyptic teaching, he’s going to end with “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”?  Has he not heard himself for the last five minutes?  He has literally just condemned Bethsaida and Capernaum, the home towns of several of his disciples, to a fate worse than Sodom for their unbelief.  What is easy about this faith if John the Baptist can’t handle it?  How light can the burden possibly be if these towns filled with faithful Jews can’t carry his teaching?

Preachers, and by that I mean, I tend to isolate this final verse from the rest of the lesson and talk about how a Rabbi’s yoke was his teaching, and how Jesus’ commandments to love God and love neighbor would seem downright easy compared to the teaching of the Pharisees, but in context, what Jesus is suggesting is downright heavy.  That is, until we remember that the task of the disciple is not to accomplish faith on our own, but rather to allow Jesus to carry it for us.  John was struggling.  In prison for his teaching and looking at the horizon of his own demise, he wanted to be sure that he had done the right thing.  His faith faltered, if only for a moment, and he looked for reassurance.  What he got was the word that being in prison was exactly where he was supposed to be, and that while his burden seemed heavy, God was there to help lighten the load.  His death would not be in vain.  His faith, unstable as it might have been at the time, would not fail.  The burden of following Jesus, even to death, is light because we are not invited to carry it alone.

What evangelism looks like

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Evangelism gets a bad wrap in Episcopal circles.  We’ve abdicated our responsibility to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We’ve allowed others to proclaim a Gospel of fear, guilt, and shame, and done very little to show the world that John 3:16 is about perfect love that casts out fear, guilt, and shame.  In so doing, we have lost at least two generations of potential disciples of Jesus to a form of Christianity that can be more damaging than good.  There is good work beginning to happen.  From the Presiding Bishop’s Revivals to the General Convention Task Force on Leveraging Social Media for Evangelism, we are beginning to turn the corner.  The E-Word, as Brian McLaren once put it, is no longer a bad word in Episcopal circles.  The time is now to being re-learning what Episcopal Evangelism looks like.

One place to turn is this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, which includes no less than three evangelistic encounters.  It begins with John pointing out Jesus to his disciples.  “Here is the lamb of God!” he proclaims, and he can do because he has first hand experience with Jesus.  That’s the first lesson we have to learn: evangelism is telling the story of our experience with Jesus.  How has following Jesus changed your life?  How had attending your church been transformative?  When have you seen God at work in the world about you?  In order to be an evangelist requires nothing more than being willing to tell your story.

The second evangelistic encounter comes from Jesus himself.  He can feel Andrew and the unnamed disciple sniffing around and he invites them to “come and see.”  Those of us in the church are used to people sniffing around.  They are curious, hungry even, to know what it is that makes us different.  Why is it that we can have joy and hope in dire circumstances?  Who in their right mind gives up a Sunday morning of sleeping in and the Times crossword puzzle to teach three year-olds gospel stories on felt boards?  Here, the challenge isn’t so much to be wiling to tell our story, they’ve already seen it in our lives, but instead to have our eyes open to their interest.  They might hover nearby or ask tangential questions; unsure of how to get at the meat of what they are looking for.  One of the ways God’s had is at work is bringing people into our lives who are hungry for God’s love.  Pray that your eyes might be open.

Finally, there is the story of Andrew and Simon Peter.  Here we have the classic model of evangelism where one person, often a convert, excited about what God is doing in the world finds someone with whom they already have a relationship and shares the Good News.  “We have found the Messiah!”   It is the form of evangelism to which every disciple is called.  This is the easiest form of evangelism, and often the most effective, as one person who loves and cares for another shares what is important in their lives.

Sunday’s lesson might be another in a seemingly unending string of stories about JBap, but deep down, it is a delightful lesson on evangelism.  Thanks be to God.

Is Jesus the one? a sermon

You can listen to this on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.


What a difference a few months can make.  It was just last week that we heard the story of John’s bustling ministry down by the riverside.  John was a baptizer, but more than that, he was a prophet.  To say he got it honest would be an understatement.  His father, Zechariah, was a priest, and his mother, Elizabeth, was from the priestly tribe of Aaron.  Even before he was born, John was already in touch with the power of God, leaping in his mother’s womb when he heard the voice of Mary the Mother of our Lord.  Thirty years later, John was out in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan River, baptizing people and calling them to repentance in preparation for the Messiah who was coming.  Matthew tells us that John’s life and ministry were the fulfillment of the words of the prophet Isaiah some seven hundred years earlier.  He was the one who was sent ahead of the Messiah to prepare a path.  As Bishop Russell told us, John’s job was to smooth out peoples’ hearts in preparation for the love of God that was enfleshed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

There on the shores of the River Jordan, John the Baptizer seemed so confident.  He was even willing to challenge, head on, the religious leaders of the time.  He called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” right to their faces.  He promised them that judgment was coming upon them and upon the whole world.  The one who would follow him was coming with a winnowing fork, and the chaff would be burned with unquenchable fire.  When Jesus came to be baptized by him, John balked at the idea.  He wasn’t worthy to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals, and yet he was faithful in his call, and watched as the heavens opened, and the dove descended, and the voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

If anyone had reason to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, it was John the Baptist, and yet here we are, just a few months later, and doubt seems to be creeping in.  Of course, a lot has happened in the meantime.  John is no longer working down by the river.  His brash preaching style went too far when he openly challenged King Herod’s marriage.  See, Herod’s wife, Herodias, had been married before – to Herod’s brother.  Aside from being generally uncool, this sort of marriage arrangement was unlawful, and John made sure Herod knew about it, which of course didn’t sit well with the King or his wife, and so John’s ministry came to an abrupt end when he found himself arrested and put in jail.  We can’t be sure how long John was in prison by the time our Gospel lesson for today takes place, but context tells us it’s been a while, and John has had plenty of time to think.  Too much time, in fact.

While it was the state that could put you in jail in Roman occupied territories in the first century, it wasn’t the state’s responsibility to take care of you once you were there.  Food and clean clothing came to prisons from their families and friends, which meant that communication lines with the outside world were wide open.  While John was behind bars, he was able to keep up with what his cousin Jesus, the Messiah, was up to.  The first thing he heard was that Jesus decided to set his basecamp in Capernaum, a small fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, at least a four days hike from Jerusalem.  Why had the Messiah who had come to save Israel from her captors, to set her free from oppression, and to restore right religion in her Temple decided to set up shop so far from the seat of power?  John could not have been too happy with this turn of events.

Next, he would have heard of the crowd with whom Jesus surrounded himself.  Guys like Peter and his brother Andrew, James and John, all small-time fishermen from Capernaum and Matthew, a tax collector from the same backwater burgh.  Who were these people?  What could they possibly do to help Jesus in his role as Messiah?  They weren’t military strategists.  They weren’t men of much means.  There wasn’t anything about any of them that was particularly impressive.  What good could possibly come from Jesus hanging out with this ragtag group of country bumpkins?

Eventually, word came to John about Jesus’ ministry; how he was preaching repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Certainly this made John feel a little bit better, their messages were in agreement, Jesus must have been on the right track.  Not long after that, however, heard about a big sermon Jesus gave from the mountainside.  “Blessed are the poor in spirit?”  “Blessed are the meek?”  Blessed are the peacemakers?”  No, no, no!  This wasn’t right at all.  If Jesus was the Messiah then he was supposed to come with power and might.  His message was to be one of revolution and God’s vengeance of those who had led Israel into sin.  What was Jesus doing?!?

Finally, he heard of the miracles.  There might have been just a little relief in John when he heard that Jesus was tapping in to his God given power, and yet, the miracles he was doing, what was the goal?  Healing a leper?  The servant of a Roman Centurion?  A couple of blind men?  Even raising the daughter of a synagogue official from the dead?  To what end?  What was Jesus up to?  Why was he wasting his time on these small time parlor tricks?  Why lavishly waste the power of God to help a Centurion or synagogue leader?

John had heard enough.  After months of bouncing around a jail cell with nothing but thoughts to fill his time, John needed some reassurance.  Was Jesus really the one he had been waiting for?  Was the scene at his baptism for real, or had he imagined it in a hope filled hallucination?  Is Jesus the Messiah or not?  And so John sent a few of his disciples to go and ask Jesus plainly, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus stops short of answering “yes” to the question, but this might be the closest thing we ever get to a straightforward answer from Jesus.  Note that his response is exactly what caused John to ask this question in the first place, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard.”  What John has seen and heard has him doubting the whole enterprise, but Jesus turns it on his head.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news brought to them.”  Like John in his ministry, Jesus goes back to the prophet Isaiah.  There, in the thirty-fifth chapter, Isaiah describes what the restoration of Zion will look like, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”

John, like many others in his day and ours, had fundamentally misjudged what God was going to be up to when his Kingdom came to earth as it is in heaven.  Instead of coming with power and might, God comes to us in the form of a child, born in a stable, to a frightened, unwed mother.  Instead of overthrowing the religious and political powers-that-be with armies of men and violence, Jesus took down the power of evil by being crucified by those very same powers-that-be.  In the years in between, God didn’t coerce, he didn’t surround himself with the rich and powerful, he didn’t do favors for the elite.  Instead, Jesus ministered to the poor, the vulnerable, the meek, and the outcast.  Jesus brought the Kingdom of God to precisely those who never thought it could be for them so that he could bring the Kingdom of God for everyone: even John the Baptist, even a Centurion, even a Synagogue official, even you and me.  This Advent, we once again prepare for God to come to earth in a most unexpected way and to bring about his Kingdom for a world that desperately needs it.  We may doubt God’s way of doing things, and we would be in good company, but Jesus reminds to see, to hear, and to take part in his work in the world about us: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor have the good news brought to them.  That is good news my friends, Good News, indeed.  Amen.