A Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B – Proper 10 – 15 July 2012
John Edward Miller, Rector
This is what the Lord God showed me: the LORD was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. And the LORD said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, “A plumb line.” Then the LORD said, “See, I am setting a plumb line in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by; the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, “Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, ‘Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.’”
And Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.”
Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
– Amos 7:7-15
O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls/ and tenement halls/ and whispered in the sound of silence.” Paul Simon wrote those haunting words in 1964. He sang them with his friend Art Garfunkel on a record album released two years later. The thoughts the duo expressed became a folk rock mantra for the 60s social revolution. Graffiti artists have covered vast expanses of urban space in our time. There is hardly a wall, or a poster, or a subway, or railroad boxcar that has been left untouched. It is clear that the artists have something to say, and they risk life and limb (and arrest) to leave behind their spray-painted icons and slogans. But is this prophecy, social protest, or pop art?
We are awash in sloganeering – e.g., Nike’s famous swoosh and “just do it” logo. We are bombarded by propaganda – including everything from current political icons to Che Guevara’s bearded likeness on t-shirts. There are whole university departments dedicated to branding, which takes an old art into the digital age. I have a friend who visited England for the first time as a teenage idealist. He told me that he kept seeing buses, murals, and signs all over London inscribed with the motto, “Take courage.” At the time, he was duly impressed with the civility and graciousness of the British people. “What a wonderful thing to say!” he thought. “I’m encouraged, and I suppose everyone else feels better too.” But when he mentioned something about this to a resident Englishman, he found to his disappointment that the motto was a branding campaign for a product – John Courage Ale. And yes, take enough of that courage and you’ll feel no pain. The words had been written on a building wall. But were they prophecy, or simply good advertising?
I’m sure Paul Simon’s lyric had something more in mind than product promotion. His prophets’ words may have been expressions of protest, or counter-cultural outrage, or existential Angst. Who knows? They may also have been the media of God – words of reckoning, words calling the world into account.
But this begs the question: “What is a prophet?” Are we talking about someone who functions as a soothsayer, a seer, an oracle, a fortuneteller, or a predictor of the future, such as Nostradamus? Or are we referring more to an interpreter of our experience, a commentator on current events, critic of culture, or perhaps an op-ed writer rendering an opinion about the mores of our time?
Among the classical Greeks and Romans, and in modern parlance, the idea of prophet is linked to the idea of prediction. Leaders of state made pilgrimages to the Oracle at Delphi before committing to a military campaign, or a plan to change the social order. Likewise, modern day Wall Street pays attention when Warren Buffett speaks. Many regard his market forecasts as prophetic. However, in biblical literature, prophecy was less specific about future events and more focused on the impact of popular morality on contemporary life. In ancient Israel, the prophet was one who looked carefully at current events, measured them for good or ill against the benchmark of covenant law, and then rendered a judgment on them. He was God’s spokesman, delivering a word of God’s truth for the people to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest.
In our liturgy of Holy Communion, we hear this definition of prophecy in the Great Thanksgiving of Rite II’s Prayer B. It celebrates the key role that the biblical prophets have had, and it links their work to the final revelation of God in Christ Jesus. Here is what the celebrant says:
We give thanks to you, O God, for the goodness and love which you have made known to us in creation; in the calling of Israel to be your people; in your Word spoken through the prophets; and above all in the Word made flesh, Jesus, your Son. For in these last days you sent him to be incarnate from the Virgin Mary, to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world. In him, you have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.
“In your Word spoken through the prophets” is a phrase describing how God delivers a prophetic message to the people. The biblical prophet has a formal ministry, a vocation to a specific role. It is powerful, literally, because once delivered, the divine Word works its message of judgment to completion. So, the prophetic ministry is not something to take lightly, or dabble in, or pretend to do without an authentic call from God.
During the recent search process leading to the election of our fine new Bishop Suffragan, there were gatherings in strategic locations wherein delegates to council and other interested persons could hear the candidates speak in an evening format. The opening question to all candidates in the Richmond venue had them address an issue of versatility. They were asked: “How do you balance the pastoral and the prophetic role in your current ministry, and how would see that balance translated into the ministry of a bishop in this diocese?” It was an interesting question that challenged the candidates to dig deeply into their vision of ministry. All six priests handled it well, and therein lay the more challenging question for me: Why is it that all of them were comfortable with the idea of prophecy as a function of their various ministries? They were obviously accustomed to the terminology, and considered it a part of their role.
And that leads me to say, “Thus sayeth the Church: ‘O ordained ones, thy ministries includeth the role of the prophet.’” It’s now expected to be a significant part of our job description. And that’s a fact. But is it in accord with the biblical witness?
“When I said that, I was being prophetic.” I’ve heard that line from many a minister. It’s a trend nowadays. Whenever a priest decides to speak out, or act out, against a particular policy, administration, or political party, he uses the p-word to explain his actions. “Prophecy-lite” is what I call it. Or maybe “progressive speak,” because it’s all in the name of a progressive ethos, which says, “We know the truth, we know the mind of Christ, and we know what he would do.” The prophetic is simply a facet of a clergyman’s preaching, or social ministry.
Funny thing, though. I don’t recall any biblical prophet – from Amos to John the Baptist – who ever said such a thing. No prophet would introduce his prophecy by announcing, “Listen up, I’m being prophetic here.” They just spoke up in the name of the LORD, and paid an awful price for exercising their ministry. Many were slain by angry mobs, while others were beaten, run out of town, thrown into a cistern, or simply shunned by the people who heard the messages they delivered. Biblical prophets were marked men. Their work was risky business.
Listen again to what Amos said to Amaziah the priest. In reply to Amaziah’s fair warning that Amos needed to skedaddle, or else be killed by the king’s goons, Amos stated for the record: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”
In other words, Amos disavowed any linkage to the professional “prophets” who hung out in the royal court, telling the king what he wanted to hear, and enjoying the king’s largesse. Amos was clearly not one of those people. He asserted his amateur status, insisting that he was a herdsman, a dresser of sycamore trees – and nothing else. He had no prophet’s i.d. card, nor did his ministry imply any type of entitlement. For him it was as simple as this: God called him to be his spokesman. He said, “The LORD took me from following the flock, and the LORD said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” That divine imperative was his only credential. He had received a directive from God. He was not spurred to action by his own bright idea.
Being a prophet always involves a cost to the one who delivers the message. It is a high-stakes ministry, often costing the prophet his livelihood, or even his life. That is the biblical model. And we get a clear look at both the messenger and the risk taken in the lessons assigned for this Sunday. When Amos received the vision of the LORD’s plumb line, he knew what he must say to the people of Israel. The plumb line is the Torah, the standard of justice and righteousness against which the people’s behavior (and misbehavior) would be gauged. When the prophet spoke, he would proclaim God’s judgment on Israel’s crimes against the grace of God. And there would be consequences for him as well as for the people. In Mark’s Gospel, we see the terrible consequence for John the Baptist’s announcement of judgment on Herod’s corrupt household. The prophet’s head on a platter speaks volumes about the cost of faithfulness.
In other words, no prophet ever had a retirement plan; none of them would draw an income from the Church Pension Fund. In fact, “retired prophet” is an oxymoron. Virtually all of them were martyred.
In our time, prophets have been few and far between. I mean prophets in the biblical sense, rather than in the parlance of today’s church. Search as I will for contemporary spokesmen for God, I come up with a handful that bear the biblical marks of the prophet. Two that come to mind are Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both men understood the cost of being prophetic, and both men answered the call to serve. Neither of them lived to write their memoirs.
Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who spoke out against Hitler, and was executed at age 39 by the Nazis shortly before the war’s end for his involvement in the plot to assassinate the evil Fuhrer wreaking havoc in Europe. Bonhoeffer’s book, The Cost of Discipleship, is a study of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There the young theologian focused on the grace of God, and Jesus’ call to respond in the moral life. Bonhoeffer heard that call, and his response was to lead the Church in a direction that was costly, but righteous.
Martin King, as well, had the marks of the biblical prophet. He was a pastor who left his regular pulpit to become the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference during the Civil Rights Movement. His “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is based on the principles of justice and love, and it has been compared favorably to a Pauline epistle. For King, the prophetic plumb line was the Word spoken by the ancient prophets and the Word made flesh, Jesus of Nazareth. Measured against that standard, the injustices of segregation became all the more egregious. King spoke out, and organized a campaign of non-violent resistance to witness to what God would have us do. The campaign was costly, but it eventually overcame the structures of racism. King’s death by assassination at age 39 came in 1968. The Word of love and justice continues to live, and to seek redemption among God’s people.
Neither Bonhoeffer nor King ever claimed to be a prophet. And yet, each man left behind his original profession to answer a call to become a spokesman for the Word of God in his time. In this respect, their ministries resemble those of Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Nathan, and, for that matter, John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah. How do we know that their ministries were prophetic? There is a short run, and a long run, answer to that crucial question.
The short run response is that these men heard a call and walked away from safety and security and entitlement to follow a lonely, unpopular path toward personal sacrifice for the sake of truth, and for the love of God. The general public reviled them for what they said. But they spoke, and they paid the price. Longevity, said Dr. King, is a desirable thing. But once you’ve seen the Promised Land, you can’t give it up for the sake of a long, comfortable life. When God calls, a prophet leaves behind the trappings of the good life, and goes to the people, and delivers God’s message, come what may.
In the long run, we shall know them by their fruits, as biblical wisdom advises. The Word of God will not be deterred. It will achieve fruition, and that is the evidence of a prophet’s authenticity. Nazism was defeated, and Europe was made safe again for Jews and other decimated minorities. In our country, segregation was dismantled, opening possibilities for full citizenship for all Americans. From our 21st-century perspective we can see the fruit of faithful prophecy mature.
That is good news for us. Prophecy is serious work. It is not for the faint of heart, or the ne’er-do-well, because the kind of change that God has in mind for this world that he loves so dearly is expensive. And yet, thank God, there are men and women who step forward when called, and say, “Here am I. Send me.” Through them God speaks to us, and urges us to join in the effort to advance the peaceable kingdom. Our job is to pay attention, and remain open, to hearing what his spokesmen say. That is no easy task; our need to preserve the status quo is strong. But then there is the grace of God that helps the Word break through our defenses. It is a costly grace; it comes to us in the form of a cross. But it is truth and it is life – for us and for all of God’s people. Through that precious grace, the message speaks. It says: “Christian, follow me.” Shall we?
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Paul Simon, “The Sound of Silence,” (1964), released on the Simon and Garfunkel album, “Sounds of Silence,” on January 17, 1966.
 Holy Eucharist, Rite II, Eucharistic Prayer B, p. 368, The Book of Common Prayer (1979).
 Isaiah 6:8. This was the prophet’s response to God’s call to become his messenger.