Proper 9B/Ordinary 14B/Pentecost 6
July 8, 2012
I’m having one of these weeks that every writer dreads. Nothing is coming together. No coherent narrative is emerging from the Hebrew Bible reading or the Gospel (or even the Psalm or Epistle, for that matter). Yes, there are themes that are visible: Being called by God, having that call rejected by society … but I am at a loss to explain why these should matter to average people who would say they are “spiritual but not religious”. The claim that one is “called” by God to preach has been heard on the lips of so many smarmy, smug and hate-filled televangelists (not to mention politicians), that the claim itself justly arouses suspicion. How can I say I’ve been “called”? Who died and made me prophet? And even if someone is genuinely “called”, what difference does that possibly make in an economy teetering on the brink of a breakdown and a world heating up (literally) like a wood-fired oven?
In the Hebrew Bible reading, the prophet Ezekiel is called by YHWH to prophesy to the nation of Israel. The call is not exactly comforting – YHWH lets Ezekiel know exactly what manner of welcome he is likely to receive: “… do not be afraid of them, and do not be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns surround you and you live among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words, and do not be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house (Ezekiel 2:6). Likewise, Jesus does not receive a warm welcome either when he returns to his hometown after traveling about the countryside healing people and exorcising demons. When Jesus begins to preach at the synagogue, the locals mutter among themselves, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:2-3). FYI: In a patriarchal society, such as in the time of Jesus, people were known as the son of (or daughter of) [insert father’s name]. The term “son of Mary” was an insult. It meant, basically, “we know who your Mama is, but we’re not too sure who’s your Daddy …”
In my own limited experience at this preaching business, I would actually have to say that the worst briars, scorpions and insults I’ve endured have been the ones in my own head. I think that’s the case with many people who are “called” – and, for what it’s worth, I think we’re ALL called. The world is in crisis. We need “all hands on deck” in the cause of God’s chesed (unconditional, Covenant-backed love) NOW. Unfortunately, most of us don’t see ourselves as called. We are typically hypnotized at a very early age into an enduring sense of our own insignificance, and those who have the highest-quality things to say are typically cowed into the greatest silence. We see daily the truth spoken by the poet Yeats played out on the TV screen: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming,” 1919). The greatest tragedy isn’t that prophets receive no honor in their hometowns, it’s that their thoughts are snuffed out in their minds before they even leave their mouths (or pens or keyboards).
So what are we do to about cultivating prophets? How can we get people to listen to the “still, small voice” of God (1 Kings 19:12) and take seriously the notion that they might have something to say about God’s love in the world? I think there is a reason why, in the Gospel reading for today, Jesus sends the Apostles out into the world two-by-two (Mark 6:7). Two people can serve as sounding boards for each other’s thoughts. Two people can check each other’s biases. Two people can shore up each other’s confidence when it begins to flag. I think the message this week is: You don’t have to do this alone. See who God sends you. Talk about this thing called faith with someone you trust. You would be surprised where the journey takes you.