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.

Spontaneous Volunteerism

The sermon begins at about the 15 minute mark.


My older half-brother, Ed, served in the United States Air Force for more than thirty-two years.  He was active in both Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom and was awarded several medals and commendations.  Ed is quite a bit older than I am, so we really only see each other at major family events like weddings, funerals, and graduations.  I remember one time listening to Ed talk about his time in the military, I think from when he was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.  He was talking about the lessons life in the Air Force had taught him, one of which was “when they ask for volunteers, always raise your hand.”  “At worst,” he said, “you’ll have to wash a truck, but you might get to go home.  No matter what, it is better than sitting around.”

I can’t help but wonder if Simon Peter subscribed to a similar life philosophy.  I like to joke about Peter’s impetuous nature.  He certainly was of the “ready, shoot, aim” school of ministry.  He was always ready to say or do something, whether it made any sense or not.  In reading our Gospel lesson for this morning, however, I’m beginning to think that this style was cultivated in him by Jesus from the beginning?  What if Jesus chose Peter precisely because he was always ready to raise his hand and volunteer?  In fact, between the story of Jesus calling his first disciples in Luke and the calling of the Prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson, it seems as though God rather enjoys working with those who are ready to jump into service without quite knowing what that service will actually look like.

In the lesson from Isaiah, we hear God’s initial call to the prophet.  It is a majestic scene, in which Isaiah actually comes face-to-face with the Lord God Almighty, an event thought to be so holy that it would cause any human being to die instantly.  There, standing before the throne of God, hearing a voice so powerful that the very foundations of the earth shook beneath him, Isaiah was so keenly aware of his unworthiness that he cried out to God, “Woe to me!”  Even after an angel touched a live coal taken from the altar of God directly to Isaiah’s lips, he was eager to answer God’s call with, “Here am I; send me!”  Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with Isaiah’s work, but lessons from his book have been the Daily Office readings of late, and let me tell you, he had no idea what he was signing up for.  His stinging words of rebuke to the leaders of Israel brought him significant hardship, and yet, Isaiah stood firm, answering again and again God’s call to proclaim judgement.

You are likely more familiar with the trials and tribulations of Peter, who in our story for today makes his first appearance in Luke’s Gospel.  We find Simon Peter tired after a long and frustrating night of not catching fish on the Sea of Galilee.  He and his companions were doing the work that you have to do at the end of a day of fishing – work that is a lot more fun when there is the promise of fresh fish when it is over.  The only thing on Simon Peter’s mind at that moment was going home and going to bed.  Tomorrow night was already coming quickly, and rest was the order of the day.  That is, until a commotion rose up around them.  Jesus had been preaching further down the shore, when suddenly, the crowd was upon them.  As Peter looked up from his net, he was just in time to see Jesus stepping over the gunwale of his boat.

“Can you put out a bit so that the crowd can hear me?” Jesus asked.

“Get your own dang boat,” might have been my reply, but that’s not what Simon Peter did.  Impulsive Peter hopped in and pushed off.  As he sat there at the feet of Jesus, something seems to have clicked in Simon’s mind.  The message of the Kingdom of God coming near spoke to a deep longing that Simon Peter might not have even known he had.  Who knows how long he sat there as Jesus taught the crowds, but when he was done, Peter once again looked up at Jesus just in time to be put to work.

“Head out to the deep water and throw out your nets for a catch,” Jesus suggests.

This time, Peter pushes back just a bit, “Master, we fished all night long and didn’t catch thing.”  His retort didn’t stick however, as he quickly changes course, “but if you say so, I’ll give it a try.”  Peter threw his net over the side of the boat, not knowing what was going to happen next.  This Jesus character promised him a catch, but he didn’t say what kind.  Was he hoping just for enough to feed himself?  Did he want to feed the crowd that had gathered or the entire Village of Capernaum.  Peter didn’t know, and thanks to his spontaneous streak, Peter didn’t seem to care either.  Out went the nets and the haul of fish was so enormous that it threatened to sink both his boat and the one James and John had brought out to help.[1]

Peter’s response to this miraculous scene is not unlike Isaiah’s response to seeing the throne of God.  Immediately, he fell to his knees and worshipped Jesus in fear and trembling.  “Go away from me, O Lord, for a I am a sinful man.”  Again, just like it was for Isaiah, God won’t let Peter off quite so easily.  From Isaiah’s “whom shall I send,” to Peter’s “Don’t be afraid, from now on, you will be catching people,” in both cases the response was the same – they dropped everything and followed God’s call, with no idea what was going to happen next.

I am not like Isaiah, nor like Peter.  I don’t have a spontaneous bone in my body.  I hate surprises, and I almost always have a plan.  Following God, however, often means throwing the plan out the window, raising your hand, and saying, “here I am God, what do you need?”  In October of last year, in the midst of all the amazing things we have going on here at Christ Church, a crowd arrived on our doorstep.  We have named them the Cloister Community, but that just a fancy church euphemism for people who are experiencing homelessness and find themselves sleeping in our Cloister.  At first, I didn’t really know what to do.  I mean, we all knew that folks have been sleeping out there for years, but all of a sudden, they were visible.  It is as if I looked up from cleaning my nets one day and suddenly saw a whole group of people that I had never seen before.  It was a rocky start.  People, personal belongings, blankets, pallets, bikes, and even shopping carts seemed to multiply by the day. I’ll admit that my initial reaction was to push back against this change, to fear for our beautiful campus, and to want to shoo them away.  Something kept that from happening; probably the influence of Deacon Kellie, Mother Becca, and other lay leaders who would soon develop into a group called Sacred Conversations that is devoted to praying for our Cloister Community and seeking ways to help them move on to long-term, sustainable housing solutions.

After a painfully slow six weeks or so, in December, we published a set of community expectations, and for the past eight weeks, we’ve been working daily to help ensure those expectations are being met, building relationships, and generally following the Peter model of ministry – ready, fire, aim.  It hasn’t always been pretty.  There have been unintended consequences both good and bad, but we are making progress toward our goal of providing a safe, temporary place for those experiencing homelessness to sleep.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  I wish we had a grand plan.  I wish there was a flow-chart I could post in my office, but it seems that God’s ways are not my ways.  All God asks is for you to raise your hand and volunteer.  Slowly but surely, the rest will be revealed.

If you want to raise your hand and say “here am I; send me,” come pray with us on the porch, Mondays at 4pm or join our Sacred Conversations meetings on Wednesdays at 4 in the Conference Room.  Jesus loves to make use of Peters and Isaiahs who are flexible and spontaneous, just as he loves to make use of me, a planner and organizer.  I don’t know what will come of this latest invitation to walk with our neighbors; but as my brother would say following Jesus brings a whole lot more blessing than sitting around.  Amen.

[1] I am grateful to Lauren Dow Wegner for her imagery. https://www.christiancentury.org/article/living-word/february-10-epiphany-5c-luke-51-11-isaiah-61-8-9-13 (accessed 1/5/19)

 

The Promises of God

Today marks the beginning of a new season.  Christmas is [finally] over, and the Feast of the Epiphany is upon us.  Today we celebrate the coming of the Magi, and begin a season of looking for the ways in which God continues to reveal his will in the world.  I’ll post my Epiphany homily a little later today, but in the meantime, I’m still looking toward Sunday, which my Prayer Book calls “First Sunday after the Epiphany *colon* The Baptism of our Lord.”

It would be easy to see the second half of this feast’s title and focus all of our attention of the Gospel appointed for Sunday, but honestly, a chopped up version of Luke’s baptism narrative doesn’t get me too excited. Another Sunday preaching about how John the Baptist wasn’t the Messiah doesn’t seem particularly helpful.  And since I dealt with the Holy Spirit yesterday, I find myself seeking another angle for the first Sunday in a very short season after the Epiphany.

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I was struck this morning by the lesson from the prophet Isaiah, in which the prophet recounts for the people of Israel, now living in exile, the promise that God is faithful even in the toughest of times.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;  I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;  and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

For many Christians, the chief image of baptism is that of being washed clean of our sin, but for the Apostle Paul, the prevailing image is that of death.  As he writes in Colossians 2, in baptism we are buried with Christ and raised to new life.  Couple that with the promise of God in Isaiah 43, and we are reminded on this the First Sunday after the Epiphany *colon* The Baptism of our Lord, that just as God stood with Jesus in his baptism, his temptation, and yes, even his death, God stands ready to reveal himself to us in our baptism, in the trials and tribulations of our lives, in those moments of joy and grace, and perhaps most especially in the hour of our death, where we join with Christ in the fullness of life everlasting.

The Key to Endurance – A Sermon

You can listen to this sermon on the Saint Paul’s Website, or read on.

Y’know, it really is a miracle that we are here at all this morning.  Of course there is the miracle and gift of life itself, which is a topic very much worth pondering, but that’s not really what I’m thinking about.  I’m thinking more about how it is that the Church exists at all, let alone four-hundred-ninety-eight members at Saint Paul’s[1] or eighteen-thousand members of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast[2] or one-point-nine-million members of The Episcopal Church[3] or two-point-two billion Christians[4] in forty-one-thousand different denominations around the globe.[5]  Christianity was founded by a rag-tag group of disciples whose leader, Jesus of Nazareth, was betrayed by one of his closest associates, arrested by his own people, and killed as a traitor by one of the largest empires in world history.  Thirty years after Jesus died, there were maybe four thousand Christians in all of the Roman Empire when in the year 64 a fire broke out in Rome that burned for six days.[6]  Rumors swirled that the Emperor, Nero, had ordered the fire be set and in an attempt to deflect attention from himself, Nero blamed Christians for setting it.  Quickly, a persecution swept through Rome that many scholars believe is how both Peter and Paul ended up martyred.  Christians were an easy target because they were a very small sect and because they were viewed by proper Romans as having a “hatred of humankind,” their leader was killed as a traitor to Rome, and their chief activity of worship was believed to be ritual cannibalism: eating the body and blood of their dead leader.  It really is a miracle that the Church survived at all.  Our presence here this morning is the result of more than two-thousand years of Christians who have endured amidst all sorts of hardship.

Our ability to endure goes back even further than the time of Jesus.  This morning’s Old Testament Lesson and the Canticle both come from the book of the prophet Isaiah, a book that tells the story of more than two hundred years of endurance.  The First Song of Isaiah is attributed to Isaiah himself, who lived some seven-hundred years before Jesus and was a prophet to several Kings of Judah in a time that saw the Assyrian Empire conquering Israel and breathing down Judah’s neck.  Things did not look good for God’s Chosen People while Isaiah was alive, and yet the prophet was able to speak words of comfort and strength to encourage the people to endure their hardship.  “On that day…” Isaiah wrote again and again, imagining a better world, “On that day when God’s mighty hand brings vengeance upon our enemies and salvation to our land, we will draw water with rejoicing, we will ring out our joy, and we will live in the presence of the Holy One of Israel.”

Some two-hundred years later, when most scholars believe a different prophet wrote the final ten chapters of Isaiah, the people of Judah have been through the Babylonian Exile, their Temple has been laid waste, and they have returned to find a very unwelcoming land.  As they begin the arduous work of building the Second Temple as a testimony to God’s presence even in the midst of their hardship, the prophet declares that their endurance will be rewarded: that the shame and sorrow of the recent past will be replaced with eternal joy and prosperity.[7]  Isaiah’s great vision of the new heavens and the new earth are a reminder of the hope of Judah that in then end the reward for their endurance will be greater than anything they could even imagine.  It is a utopian picture of God’s holy mountain, where he will dwell alongside his people, where infant mortality rates will drop from 3 in 4 to 0, where someone living long enough for Willard Scott to call their name on the Today Show would be considered a youth, where all human work is successful, where wolves stop eating lambs, and where even the lions are domesticated.[8]  All the people have to do to inherit this paradise is endure.

And endure they do.  The temple is ultimately built, and then expanded and impeccably adorned at the command of Herod, so that by the time Jesus and his disciples arrive in Jerusalem the outer court can hold four-hundred-thousand people.[9]  It is no wonder that tourists all around Jesus are looking up at its great edifice and saying, “Wow!  Would you look at that Temple!  It is breath-taking, just beautiful!”  Jesus knows, however, that things aren’t quite what they seem.  The Temple is big and it is beautiful, but it is only that way because Herod, the Roman figurehead, self-proclaimed “King of the Jews,” had funneled massive amounts of money into it.  Herod’s Temple, as it came to be known, was paid for by massive taxes on the local Jews and was as much a sign of the power and presence of God in Jerusalem as it was the power and prestige of Herod himself.[10]

Jesus knows that a time of real endurance is coming.  He is only a few days away from his crucifixion, and he is keenly aware that the road ahead for his followers is not going to be an easy one.  As they look over the Temple Hill, Jesus encourages his disciples in a most peculiar way, through an apocalyptic vision.  “The day will come,” do you hear the echo of Isaiah here?  “The day will come when this whole Temple will be destroyed, wars will be unleashed, natural disasters will pile one upon the other, and the skies will be filled with ominous signs.  You will be hated, arrested, persecuted, and some even killed.  Like me, you’ll be turned over to the authorities by your closest family and friends, but these trials will be an opportunity for you, a chance to testify to the truth.  Don’t worry.  I’ll be with you.  I’ll give you the words to say.  I’ll give you the wisdom you need.  All you have to do is endure and you will gain your souls.”

Like in Isaiah 12 and Isaiah 65, Jesus encourages his disciples to endure the forthcoming hardship for the sake of unrivaled future blessings.  He invites them to endure, not by their own might, or as the result of their own intestinal fortitude, but by having faith in the Father.  That seems to be the key to unlocking endurance.  It is not me who steels myself against the coming trial, but it is through faith in the promises of God that we gain our strength.

Given my own tendency to want to throw in the towel when the going gets tough, I think of it as miraculous that the Church exists at all, but when you think about the strength of Judah, the steadfast faith of Jerusalem, and the endurance of the early Church, it is less a miracle and more a testament to God’s faithfulness.  Over and over again, God has been willing to give his people faith as a gift of his grace.  We endure because Jesus Christ endured the cross and the grave to make us right with God.   We endure because of the gift of faith that gives us hope and saves our souls.  We endure because God wants us to.  We endure so that we can testify to his faithfulness in times of persecution and in times of prosperity.  We endure so that we can join with those who have endured from every generation in proclaiming, “Surely it is God who saves me.  I will trust in him and not be afraid… Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever.”  Amen.


[1] 2012 Parochial Report

[3] The Blue Book, 2012

[4] Pew Research, 2011

[5] Center for the Study of Global Christianity, 2011

[6] OT1 Class Notes

[7] Roberts, J.J.M., Introduction to Isaiah in the HarperCollins Study Bible, (1993), p. 1013.

[10] Ibid.