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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Office and charism, prophets and martyrs (B14O)

The readings Sunday triangulate a reflection on living in the truth of God’s word in a world that can be hostile to its hearing. In the call of Ezekiel in the first reading, for instance, Ezekiel is told that he is to preach what is revealed to him, and that people, being who they are, will reject him, but that is their problem. His job is to be faithful. We can recall the call of other prophets of the Jewish scriptures as well, and their objections to God’s invitation: Moses’ speech impediment and the outstanding warrant for his arrest; Isaiah’s protestations of an unclean mouth; Jeremiah’s youth, Jonah’s distaste for the people to whom he is sent. Prophets are frequently complete outsiders. There are bands of “official” prophets in the employ of the king, and there is the priestly class, too, both of which often depend for their survival less on their fidelity to the word and covenant than to pleasing the regent. Outside of these relatively protected professions, a prophet lives by his wits and God’s mercy, and the vindication of his message often is a posthumous event. It’s no wonder there is resistance to the call!

Jesus encounters resistance in his hometown among his kinsfolk and neighbors, and is “amazed at their lack of faith.” What this means to me is not that they don’t believe in God, but that they can’t believe that God can be so ordinary as to work through someone they know. Our problem with this God of the paschal mystery is that we want an intervener, a powerful, imperial presence who will rule the rulers and show them who’s boss. But this God, whom we see gradually in scripture and par excellence in Jesus, lives in dialogue, in the perpetual self-emptying of agape. This God’s essence is one that foils our expectations completely. The vindication of the prophet is not the defeat of his enemies, but that history unfolds as predicted. Injustice leads to unrest, unrest leads to violence. Violence leads to more violence, more injustice. The circle, the wrong circle, is unbroken.

It dawned on Paul, at the end of his ministry, that God demonstrates divine power by operating through his weakness. It is Paul’s weakness itself that enables the strength of God to shine. Remember that Paul, if the stories are to be believed, has already tried force and threat as a means of proselytizing. Strength has failed him; the naked powerlessness of the crucified one transforms him into the peaceful enabler of agapic communities in cities throughout the Mediterranean. Aren’t St. Paul’s words enigmatic to us who want to be winners, who want to win by intimidation and victory, who want a God who is king, victor, and enforcer?
...(Christ) said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you,

for power is made perfect in weakness." 

I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,

in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. 

Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults,

hardships, persecutions, and constraints,

for the sake of Christ;

for when I am weak, then I am strong.

The difficulty for me, of course, maybe for anyone who wants to follow Christ in the modern world, is not confusing criticism and rejection with being right! As one friend of mine recently said in an online post, “As one of my OT profs used to say ‘A lot of people thought the prophets were assholes but just because you're an asshole it doesn't automatically make you a prophet.’” Also, “prophet” becomes a buzzword for someone who overuses the word “justice” and makes someone into a secular idealist with one competing worldview among many. But real prophets are dangerous because their lives demonstrate, first and foremost, that they themselves are committed to the God whom they seek to serve. They are non-violent, not just in the fact that they don’t take up arms, but they don’t take up vitriolic rhetoric and bullying as a tactic of God’s empire. Real prophets tend to scare churches and governments and even interest groups like races and neighborhoods, because no empire, sacred or secular, can stand long on any truth other than the truth of agape. Real prophets generally are not survivors; they do not live to see their children’s children.

Even in my parish, in our diocese, at every level and in every aspect of church life, there is tension between office and charism, between those who are trained, ordained, and appointed to do religious work, and those who have simply been “raised up” in the baptismal spirit to give a certain gift to the church and world. Often, office and charism come together in a person; we’d like to think that by and large we train the people God has chosen for a job. We have faith in that process. But the Spirit blows where she will, and gifts are given according to God’s design, not ours. It’s a chore to keep trying to be open-minded and open-hearted to voices from outside our comfort zone, voices with new ideas about breaking open boundaries and widening the circle of our collective heart. It’s also a chore to believe that the in-group, the ordained, the professional ministers, are sometimes right in what they ask us to do. We need to discern together. It’s not about what I want or what you want, but about God’s choice and God’s will. Chances are, to discern that properly, we’re going to need to listen to the voices that don’t conform to what we want to maintain our peace and comfort. We need to listen to the prophets, if we can just figure out who the heck they are. One way to know, I think, is by their strategy of truth-telling: does they way they live, the way they preach the word, actually mirror the message? Are they prophets of the God of Jesus, or the god of discord, anger, factionalism, or individualism? For prophets, par excellence, the medium is the message.

Seems to me that that considerably narrows the field. ☺

Here’s what we’re singing at St. Anne’s this week:

Gathering: Praise to You, O Christ Our Savior (Farrell)
Psalm 95: If Today You Hear (Cooney)

Gifts: Voices that Challenge (Haas) or The Summons (Bell)
Communion: Here I Am, Lord (Schutte)
Recessional: We Will Serve the Lord (Cooney) or A Place at the Table (True)
Hard of face and obstinate of heart

are they to whom I am sending you. 

But you shall say to them:
Thus says the LORD GOD!
And whether they heed or resist,
…they shall know that a prophet has been among them. (Ez 2:4-5)