Saturday, December 11, 2010

Advent 3d: Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 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.
Isaiah 35:1-10

...who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
Psalm 146:6-9

Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord...Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
James 5:7-10

...Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in God's Heavenly Reign is greater than he.
Matthew 12:2-11

…if Christ is the pivot point of the advance of the kingdom, God’s Son leading the redemption of the planet, we must study every aspect of his life and teachings, for he is the key to human history and all reality. So, because Jesus employed a prophetic hermeneutic, we must do the same. Because Christ placed his mission and his teachings within the context of the kingdom of God, we must do likewise, and because Christ embodied his teaching in the way he treated people, we must do the same.
Glen Stassen and David Gushee, Kingdom Ethics (2003)

I can't explain how the poor in Bolivia evangelized me during that year of 1984-85, but they turned me inside out, and from that moment forward I only wanted to walk with them. This was a wholly selfish decision on my part. I knew that the poor had some privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel.
Father Gregory Boyle

There has been a strong tendency--especially since the days of Constantine in the 4the century, who did more than anyone to mold Christianity into popular forms--for those who follow Jesus to excuse prophets as "radicals," "whack-jobs," "weirdos" or, put positively, those who receive a "special calling." There is no doubt that prophets, by word and deed, offer an alternative vision for humanity, and therefore, by definition, are quite odd. It takes courage to be a Cornel West or a Rev. Billy Talen because what they are embodying is so contrary to popular notions of living that they come off as either offensive or embarrassing. But as contemporary prophet Greg Boyle consistently reminds audiences, the prophetic challenge is not a "rarefied call": it is for everyone who dares to dedicate their existence to imitating the Crucified God. Truly, as these Scripture passages on the 3rd weekend of Advent attest, to be a "normal" Christian is to be prophetic, imaginatively, courageously & contextually living out a Spirit-directed vocation that cuts against the grain.

At the beginning of the Gospel narratives, John the Baptist represents Moses, leading the children of Israel right up to the border of the Promised Land...but never entering. John is thrown into a prison cell for speaking truth to powerful Herod, passing the baton to the 1st century Joshua ("Jesus" is actually Yeshua in Hebrew) who leads the newly inaugurated Jew+Gentile People of God into a New Age, animated by Isaiah long before. These two Jewish prophets had different styles of resistance, but both were written off by conventional wisdom: John's fasting made him out to be "demonic" and Jesus' feasting made him out to be a "glutton and drunkard." Name-calling is what the system does to dehumanize and de-legitimize the prophetic way before it gains too much steam. And then, as the Gospels narrate, once the name-calling wears off, the system resorts to Plan B, subjecting both the Baptist and the Messiah to horrific deaths that side-stepped due process of law. Beheadings and crucifixions are what the system uses when a New Movement representing a New Reality gains so much steam that it takes over public opinion and threatens to topple the administration.

As John Howard Yoder pointed out four decades ago in The Politics of Jesus (1972), and many others have echoed since (in various ways: Shane Claiborne, Richard Hays, Stanley Hauerwas, James McClendon & others), Jesus is to be imitated precisely in his radical nonviolent confrontation with dehumanizing and demonizing powers. This is what "taking up the cross" would have meant in a 1st century Roman context. To be prophetic means that we reflect the light of God to a dark world that might just flip the switch on our lives. After all, too many who are imprisoned in dark cells of unfreedom (enslaved to power, greed, various substances, hate-mongering, scapegoating, consumption, approval, gossip, celebrities, etc) passionately resist the light being turned on their own lives. The prophet cares only about enacting a creatively strategic faithfulness that may not be popular nor effective in the end.

Often times, however, establishment Christians attempt to debunk prophetic stances (like pacifism & anti-consumerism) by reasoning that "if everyone lived that way" then the whole system would implode. When Christians cling to this kind of "responsibility" or "realism," they severely risk being unfaithful to the original prophetic message of Jesus. First of all, this logic crumbles as we reflect on the realistic possibilities of their justification for not taking the prophetic way. We know that people naturally flee the way of suffering, endurance and pain. It takes supernatural energy and discernment to live the way of the gospel. It is absurb to think that everyone, let alone anyone, will actually choose the road less traveled (no matter how grandiose their intentions). Don't get me wrong, the New Testament makes it clear that this Way is for everyone, but as it also makes clear, only a few choose this Adventure because it comes with such a high cost (unless you hate your own life, the narrow way, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, etc). Bottom line: suffering and endurance don't sell very well in a culture characterized by the herd instinct, approval ratings, emotional reactivity, immature leadership & blame displacement (what pyschologist Edwin Friedman called an "emotional regressive society").

And, second, if everyone did live out the radical vision of the Reign of God (or just every one of the 75% population of the US who call themselves "Christian"), our entire economic system of self-interest would be replaced by one defined by generosity, abundance, caring, sharing and sustanance...and our enemies (al Qaeda, Iran, etc) would be so stunned by our global love-fest that they would no longer have any legitimate reason to be our enemies (this idealistic situation would, of course, mean that we emptied all American troops out of Iraq, Afghanistan & Pakistan and started using our million dollar drones all over the world to seek out the poor and hungry to drop food and water bombs where necessary).

In order for everyday, average Christians to start intentionally living the prophetic way, two key shifts need to emerge in North American Christianity. First, we all need to take the "prophetic hermeneutic" of Jesus seriously. The Gospels, through references to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (especially Isaiah) and their their description of Jesus' teaching and ministry, portray Jesus' Way as a fulfillment and extension of the prophetic strand of Israel. Contrary to popular Evangelical reading strategies, the Bible, let alone the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), is not a "flat" document. There are a variety of voices and strands of faithful witness, some priestly (God is experienced in rituals and special buildings!), some royal (God speaks through the king and his cabinet!), some prophetic (God is present on the margins...where no one naturally looks!). Jesus the Priest and King who baptizes those traditions into the prophetic strand of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Amos, speaking truth to the most powerful and hope to the most vulnerable. North American Evangelical Christianity, by and large, embraces status and status quo, citing their numbers and places of power in society as proof of God's Blessing. A truly prophetic imagination, on the other hand, always gives privilege to the marginalized by demanding a fresh way of seeing the world through the eyes of Yahweh who:

keeps faith forever...executes justice for the food to the hungry...sets the prisoners free...opens the eyes of the blind...lifts up those who are bowed down...loves the over the strangers...upholds the orphan and the widow...brings to ruin [the wicked].

This Advent Psalm reflects the very same hope that Isaiah the prophet infused into exiled Israel and the very same hope that Jesus the messianic prophet told John the imprisoned prophet that had come to still-exiled Israel in his life, teaching and eventual death: God is fully present with those left behind by the system. This was the New Age, the Beginning of the End of the World as they knew it, the Invasion of God's Dream into every corner of life on earth through the power of God's Spirit working in and to and through little clusters of Jesus followers called churches. It didn't matter if you were a Gentile, a Jew, a slave, a peasant or land-owner, man or woman, adult or child. Everyone was invited to this new way of being human, which was really God's original way, based on a prophetic reading of God's beautiful Torah prepared for the recently freed slaves during their strange wilderness journey.

And this, of course, leads to the second vital shift needed in order for North American "Christians" to transform into the prophetic way of John and Jesus: God's Kingdom has arrived and we are called--right here and right now--to search for where God's Reign is being inaugurated among us. The resurrection vindicated the way of Jesus and boldly proclaimed that "the kingdom of God" or "heaven" is here, extending into dark corners of the world, in mysterious and scandalous ways. If God became human in the life of Jesus, then we should search far and wide for the lepers and losers to find God's "privileged delivery system" that gives us free access to the gospel. If we were taught to pray, simply and consistently, for God's will to "be done on earth as it is in heaven," then we sure as hell (pun intended) should not be waiting to die to discover heaven (as priestly and royal strands preach). We, the children of John and Jesus, expend all of our time, energy and resources to prophetically work for heavenly causes in our world today.

In closing, I'd like to simply allow the words of two 20th century prophets to speak unfiltered. These men truly embodied a blend of courage and hope that we prophetic Christians need to sustain us.
I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world...the struggle for justice should never be abandoned because of the apparent overwhelming power of those who have the guns and the money and who seem invincible in their determination to hold on to it. That apparent power has, again and again, proved vulnerable to human qualities less measurable than bombs and dollars: moral fervor, determination, unity, organization, sacrifice, wit, ingenuity, courage, patience...
Howard Zinn (1922-2010)

It helps now and then to step back and take the long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts; it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about:
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders – ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Oscar Romero (1917-1980)

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