24 Reading: Numbers 11:24-35
I’ve been a churchgoer most of my life, and I admit I’ve never really thought much about prophets. Truthfully, I never really thought about prophets at all except when the occasional reading crossed my path. Oh, the story of Ezekiel and the dry bones always seem to get my attention and my connection with John the Baptist focused almost as much on the locusts and wild honey as it did his prophetic message. Most of the time prophets seemed to be people who were either chronically depressed, cynics, or on some mind altering substance that made them see chariots flying through the air or something of that nature. Other than that, even as often as I heard about prophets in church, I really didn’t pay much attention.
At some point in time a book called Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann showed up on my reading table and suddenly there was a whole different world, a world that included prophets not as people who foretold the future like Madam Zuzu in the storefront down the street who, for a fee, will read your palm and assure you of long life, good health and the like. Kings and emperors have had prophets on staff to do the same thing as Madam Zuzu, namely to tell them that they were great, that things were going to be fine and if by chance they didn’t or things went badly, the king or emperor just got a new staff of prophets. With Brueggemann though, I started to gain a new understanding of what prophets were and suddenly they were not such alien creatures after all. To my surprise I found I recognized a number of people who were prophets (without the title) and I even personally knew one or two. These prophets were those who looked around, saw the world as it was, visualized the world as it could be, and spoke to the people about how to get from one to the other.
In this morning’s reading, Moses gathered up 70 elders and God is poured out prophetic gift on them. Two men, Eldad and Medad, it stayed in the camp but were also prophesying, which made some people nervous. Like kids running to tell the teacher did Billy or Jane was doing something wrong, they couldn’t wait to tell Moses about Eldad and Medad. Then Moses said something astounding, “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” Moses was not only chastising the fault finders, it was uttering a prophetic wish of his own. He wished that all the people heard and spoke the words of the Spirit as Eldad and Medad did. That line struck me several weeks ago when I was practicing portion of this morning’s reading for my stint as a reader on Pentecost at church. When I encountered it again this morning, I have had the benefit of several weeks of contemplation and a whole new perspective gained from a very wise and timely source.
On Pentecost the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, my parish, was honored by the presence of the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Rev Katharine Jefferts Schori, as our presider and preacher. In addition to the celebration of Pentecost, we celebrated the confirmations of 15 teens and adults by our Diocesan Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith, so it was celebrations all around. In her sermon, Bishop Katharine noted that we were authorizing prophets and sending them out into the world to spread the good news. That was a wake-up call right there.
Prophets have several jobs to do. The one we probably think of most often is exhortation, telling people what’s wrong and why they need to fix it. People are often wrong-headed or selfishly oriented so a prophet needs to speak to them, whether they hear it or not. Most choose not to because, after all, who wants think they’re wrong? As a result, we usually think of prophets as dour, gloomy, bad news kind of people who often seem to be hitting us over the head with threats of destruction, famine, war, and anything else bad they can think of. But prophets often remind us of good things, of things we have forgotten or visions we need to share of beautiful things, peaceful things, comforting things even when times are hard or bad. Prophets were as much about speaking to people in exile about “the crooked made straight, and the rough places a plain” (Is. 40:4c) as they were about reminding people why they were in exile to start with, namely forgetting God and doing what they wanted instead of what God asked them to do.
The Presiding Bishop gave a quotation from Garrison Keillor, “Who wants to be a prophet? Nobody wants ‘em around. Prophets don’t get invited to birthday parties or wedding feasts.”[i] Too often we think of prophets as people wandering around with signs on sticks, a Bible tucked under one arm or is to in one hand, and exhorting rather loudly the message,” Repent! Repent! REPENT!” like a street-corner preacher. Somehow in my imagination I see that kind of person as a sort of modern day image of what they think John the Baptist would look like if he were around today. That way of doing things isn’t really conducive to invitations to celebratory occasions. But John didn’t just talk about repentance; he had a good news message to bring and that was that a Messiah was coming. He was telling people to clean up the house, put out the best linen, breakout the best food and wine and prepare to welcome a most honored guest. To me, that’s good news, a kind of prophecy I can deal with.
“Baptism is an invitation to become a truth telling prophet,”[ii] Bishop Katharine reminded us. Later we all read from the Prayer Book: “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?... Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?... Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” to which we responded, “We will, with God’s help.”[iii] We restated, reaffirmed and recalled the vows we made or which were made on our behalf at our baptism, renewed at our confirmation and remembered during the several times each year when we as a congregation witness a baptism or confirmation or simply repeat them as part of a Sunday morning worship. I, probably like a lot of people, have restated those vows time and time again but never really connected them with the notion of being a prophet, but now that I think about it, they are a prophetic charge.
“Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” God has put God’s spirit on all of us and we have accepted it as we have accepted baptism. God has made us prophets, so now we have to go out and use that gift wisely and well. It’s kingdom work and there’s room for all the prophets who will respond to the call.
That would be the fulfillment of Moses’ wish and, I’m pretty sure, the message Bishop Katharine wanted us to get. It’s also the will of God. That trumps wedding feast and birthday party invitations and the results would change the world.
Now to go out and be the prophet I’m supposed to be. I will, with God’s help.
[i] Jefferts Schori, The Most Rev. Katharine, sermon delivered at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, North Scottsdale, AZ, June 8, 2014, quoted in Episcopal News Service, accessed 6/9/14.
[ii] Jefferts Schori, Ibid.
[iii] Church Publishing Corp, ,The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 305