Prophet Jesus

It’s tough being a prophet—a spokesperson for God. In our world we’d probably call prophets press secretaries or publicists. These jobs are difficult because the messages they’re called to speak aren’t their own. And sometimes the messages are unpopular or even offensive.

Moses was visiting a burning bush that wasn’t being burned up—and God spoke to him out of the bush. “Moses, I’ve got a job for you to do. Go down into Egypt and tell ole Pharaoh to let my people go.” Well, Moses wasn’t born yesterday—he was wise enough to know that this message wasn’t going to go down well with Pharaoh, so he tried to get out of this prophet thing. “God, I don’t speak well. I get tongue tied. Send someone else.” But in the end, God prevailed, and Moses headed off to do his bidding.

Amos is another example. He was from the southern kingdom of Judah, and was called by God to go to the northern kingdom of Israel to prophesy there. He was in the chapel in Bethel saying things like this:

Woe to you who are rushing headlong to disaster!

  Catastrophe is just around the corner!

Woe to those who live in luxury

  and expect everyone else to serve them!

Woe to those who live only for today,

  indifferent to the fate of others!

Woe to the playboys, the playgirls,

  who think life is a party held just for them! (Amos 6:3-4)

Then Amaziah, the head priest, confronted Amos.

Seer, be on your way! Get out of here and go back to Judah where you came from! Do your preaching there. But no more preaching at Bethel! Don’t show your face here again. This is the king’s sanctuary. This is a royal shrine.

But Amos stood up to Amaziah:

I never set out to be a prophet, never had plans to be a prophet. I raised cattle and I pruned trees for a living. Then God took me off the farm and said, “Go preach to my people Israel.”

So listen to God’s Word. You tell me, “Don’t preach to Israel. Don’t say anything against the king and his court.” But here’s what God is telling you:

Your wife will become a harlot in town.

Your children will be killed.

Your land will be auctioned off.

You will die homeless and friendless.

And Israel will be hauled off to exile, far from home. (Amos 7:12-17)

See what I mean? Prophets aren’t generally popular. They’re frequently ridiculed, threatened, run out of town, even killed.

And so it was that Jesus went home to Nazareth and to the synagogue where he read from the prophet Isaiah. At first they seemed to be proud of their hometown boy who’d been making a name for himself. And they wanted him to do some miracles like he’d done over in Capernaum. 

“You should take care of us first. We’re your people. Put Nazareth back on the map again,” they said.

Then Jesus said, 

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”

The point is that God is the God of all people, not just the folk in Nazareth, or Galilee, or even Israel. Foreigners and immigrants fall within God’s care and qualify for God’s grace like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian. And that’s when the hometown people got angry.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.

What gets lost or drowned out in the news cycle and the political battles of our time on the right and the left is the voice of God’s spokespersons—the prophetic voices. It’s often not a popular message, because it’s not about scoring points, winning elections, or getting rich. It’s about love—God’s love for the weak, the poor, the broken, the refugees, the hungry, the prisoners, the sick, the addicted, the lost ones—as well as God’s love for the those of us who are doing OK at the moment. 

How do we know what love looks and sounds like? St. Paul, wrote about it in Chapter 13 of his First Letter to the Corinthians. I would venture to say that many people think Paul wrote it for a wedding, since it’s read in about 90% of all Christian weddings. But that’s not the case—Paul wrote I Corinthians 13 in the middle of a big church fight where factions were battling over control of the church in Corinth. So he laid out these ground rules for how to disagree and to fight—with love.

Here’s a paraphrase:

Love never gives up.

Love cares as much for others as for self.

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.

Love doesn’t strut,

Doesn’t have a swelled head,

Doesn’t force itself on others,

Isn’t always “me first,”

Doesn’t fly off the handle,

Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,

Doesn’t revel when others grovel,

Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,

Puts up with anything,

Trusts God always,

Always looks for the best,

Never looks back,

But keeps going to the end.

Love is the message of the prophets. It’s the message that Jesus brought to his hometown. It’s a message that’s often rejected—even crucified. And yet, “Faith, hope, and love abide. These three. But the greatest of these is love.”


I had a phone call the other day from a friend who’s now serving as an interim priest in a parish in another diocese. My colleague called asking for a consult on a matter that had come up in the congregation. In preparation for producing a parish profile in their search for a new rector, some folk were going through historical records and came across a photograph of a number of people in blackface. After some more digging, they discovered that the parish, in the first half of the 20thCentury, put on annual minstrel shows as fundraisers. What to do with this history of entertainment that demeaned and made fun of Black people?

And of course, this comes to light in the middle of Black History month and in a week where the news cycle was all about revelations of public figures with a past history of using blackface.

First of all, let’s be absolutely clear that we need to condemn and renounce the denigration of others and to do so in the harshest terms. Racist thinking, racist language, racist actions, Ku Klux Klan dress—even when intended to be in jest—are nothing short of hurtful, hateful, and mean in their effects. And let’s also be certain to denounce such behaviors when they’re directed at others as well: Hispanics, Asians, Moslems, Jews, Native Americans and so on. 

Beyond parish minstrel shows, the church as a whole has a lot to answer for. I point to Crusades and pogroms and holocaust. There were Inquisitions, burnings at the stake, witch trials. Slavery, Jim Crow, and lynchings were all supported, in part, by at least some Christians. 

The problem is that at too many times and on too many occasions we have forgotten that God is love and that we are called to love God, love our neighbors, love even our enemies. 

My second thought is that we also need to be careful here with our condemnations lest we violate one of Christianity’s core values—the value of repentance. It seems to me that this is a teachable moment and today’s Epistle from First Corinthians 15 provides us with the text. It reads:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them–though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we proclaim and so you have come to believe. (I Corinthians 15:3-11)

St. Paul had been present, maybe even a participant, in the stoning of St. Stephen. He was on the road to Damascus, on the way to persecute the Church in Syria, when he encountered Jesus and was converted. As he said, “I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”

This isn’t the first time that the Bible presents us with flawed people who went on to become major figures in our faith story. Moses was a murderer and on the lamb from the law when God called him to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. David, the shepherd boy, became king and was an adulterer and committed murder. Matthew, writing to justify Jesus’ genealogy as a descendent of Abraham, includes four tainted women among Jesus’ ancestors. 

So our own Holy Scriptures teach us that we can move beyond the flaws and sins that populate our past. Paul wrote, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.”

Many of us have things in our own pasts that we’re not proud of—things we’d rather not see the light of day. And when or if they do come to light, are we to be condemned forever? No! There is always God’s grace. It’s not the cheap grace that Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to. It’s not the “Oh, I’m sorry,” and then let’s move on like some of my children like to get away with. Or the completely non-apologetic, “I’m sorry that you took offence at what I did.” Grace, the gift of forgiveness, is costly. It requires effort—dying to sinful ways in order to discover new life.

Real grace comes after repentance, turning away from bad behavior and adopting better behavior, what we refer to as amendment of life. 

This isn’t intended as a prescription for what should be done with public figures when their past sins are made public. But the recent revelations about sins (sexual and racial in nature), do raise these questions. Have the perpetrators given up their past behaviors? Are they open and honest? Have they made amends and worked to address the hurt and damage they’ve caused?

And why do we focus on certain sins and not others like avarice and greed? Why is something that happened 30 or 40 or more years ago drawing so much lightning when current behavior and policies do damage to millions? 

Our faith calls us to avoid simplistic analysis and conclusions. We always hold in tension the condemnation of sin and forgiveness of sin–renunciation of evil and redemption—the tension between being accountable and the gift of grace. 

The danger is that careful analysis is always at risk in the world of Tweets and other social media—a world where yesterday’s news is drowned out by today’s—and where everything is judged based upon who can claim victory and not on what is the common good.

The gift that we, the Church, bring to the world is that we’ve been dealing with sin for a long time. Reconciliation of Penitents is our business. The God of Love has called us to it and has shown it to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

The specifics are carefully prescribed in the promises we made at Baptism.

  1. Trust in God the Father.
  2. Trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
  3. Trust in God the Holy Spirit.
  4. Continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.
  5. Persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.
  6. Proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
  7. Seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.
  8. Strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

May the grace of God, the love of God, and the peace of God be with you always! 


Sermon on the Plain

Just about everyone has heard of the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s three chapters long, and it begins with the familiar Beatitudes or Blessings.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

And so on.

Our Gospel for today is Saint Luke’s version of the Beatitudes. They aren’t as familiar as Matthew’s and, in some ways, they’re more basic and earthy. 

For example:

Matthew    “Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . .”

Luke           “Blessed are you who are poor . . . .”


Matthew    “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness . . . .”

Luke            “Blessed are you who are hungry . . . .”

Which is it? The poor “in spirit” or just “the poor”?  “Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” or “You who are hungry”?

Some folk might look at these texts and ask, “Who got it right, Matthew or Luke?” What did Jesus really say?” Matthew says that the sermon was preached from a mountain with the crowds gathered below. Luke has Jesus standing on a plain with the people gathered around him. Matthew has nine Beatitudes while Luke has just four. And those four are followed and matched by four “woe’s” or warnings.

But rather than ask about which is the correct version of the sermon, I like to imagine that Matthew and Luke are both right. According to them, Jesus’ public ministry lasted for a whole year. In the course of that year, he would have preached in many places and to numerous audiences. And the message would have been adapted, depending upon who he was speaking to.

In 1943, Psychologist Abraham Maslow published a paper on human motivation in which he said that there is a hierarchy of needs. At the base we all need to have enough food and shelter and safety—before we’re free to focus on higher needs like love, esteem, and self-actualization. If Jesus was speaking to a crowd of poor and hungry people, he would have had a different message than if his audience was a group of middle or upper income folk. Some people are just flat out hungry while others hunger for righteousness and meaning. Both need to be fed, but in different ways. The first group needs a meal while the second might benefit from spiritual introspection. 

Too often we tend to paint the world in binary or dualistic ways: good/bad, right/wrong, spiritual/material—when the reality is a lot more complicated. This is all a way of saying that Matthew’s Beatitudes and Luke’s Beatitudes focus on different people with different realities. The Good News is that He speaks to us all—and he starts where we are—with our level of need.

Those who come in for heavy warning are the ones who deny that they have any need. In Luke’s original telling, the four Beatitudes are all together, then they’re followed by the four woes. Let’s listen again to the passage, but this time I’m going to change the order, so that you can more clearly hear how each blessing is matched to a warning.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation. 

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, 
for you will be filled. 

“Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry. 

“Blessed are you who weep now, 
for you will laugh.

 “Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep. 

“Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” 

“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

It’s not that Jesus is out to condemn or wishes woe on anyone. We’re all in need. When we recognize that fact, then we’re open to God and to our friends and neighbors. We place ourselves in peril only when we think that we don’t need anybody, that we’ve got it all together, that we’re not vulnerable. 

That’s why, week after week, we have a confession. I admit, it’s not my favorite thing to do. But serves as a humbling reminder that we aren’t all that we might like ourselves to be. There is enough poverty and emptiness in us that God still has room to work. 

May you be blessed.