I want to tell you the tale
of two prophetic moments.
One came from a man in poor health
in his mid-70s,
and the other from a young teenager.
The first thing to note about Paul
was that in his poor health
and at the beginning of his old-old years,
as Joan Chisister would call them,
he was still agitating for the Kingdom of God.
He called me out of the blue one day
from a city and state
I had formerly lived in.
He said he wanted to put me on the ballot
for the bishop in that diocese.
He wasn’t really asking, he was
telling me I needed to be on the ballot.
The search committee had already nominated
five candidates but Paul and
a group he was representing,
said none of those five
had the slightest whiff of prophetic ministry
in their resumes.
I needed to be on the ballot, he said
with his gravelly resonate voice.
I was stunned when he said it.
Actually, I remember feeling small.
You see, Paul was someone whose ministry,
and truly prophetic witness throughout the years,
was someone I deeply respected.
So for him to suggest
that I could meet his notion of a prophetic ministry
made me feel like an impostor.
I will confess to you
that most of the time I don’t feel like
I have ever done anything
other than preach
a whole bunch of sermons.
But the point of that story
is Paul, late in his life,
after having retired from teaching seminary
and active ministry,
wasn’t about to stop agitating
and working for
what he understood as the kingdom of God.
He placed me at a personal crossroads
where I had to make a decision.
That is what a prophet does —
places us at crossroads
where we need to make a decision
and be honest about why we are making it.
I did accept that nomination
and was placed on the ballot —
something that required a considerable number
of signatures on a petition
since I was not one of the original nominees
put forth by the Search Committee.
Then there was an historic intervention.
The first openly gay man
became the bishop of New Hampshire.
It was a big deal
and it rattled the cage
of the much more conservative Anglican Communion.
There was anxiety and anger
that made the leadership of
The Episcopal Church
They wrung their hands
and didn’t make a decision for as long
as they could get away with it.
What they did was call a moratorium
on electing any bishop
for a year.
The diocese where I had been nominated
called the six candidates
and offered to let us back out of the ballot
if we didn’t want to be in limbo for a year.
Now the second prophetic voice.
As you know, I have four children
that are seven years apart
from the youngest to oldest.
There had been a lot of consternation
brewing among my children
over my acceptance of that nomination.
They had only been in their present schools
and neighborhood for five years
when this came up.
They had some feelings about it.
So, thinking I could calm those feelings
we had a family meeting about it.
But the level of emotions
the older two were feeling
is what I would call hot — boiling even.
So finally, while I assured them
that I understood their worries
and their unhappiness,
I said I was taken aback by the intensity
of their anger.
What is it?
What makes you so angry?
Then my oldest son said
that I had been able to attend
all of his sporting events and school concerts
and activities that parents were invited to,
but that if I did this —
was elected a bishop —
I would never be able to do that
for their youngest brother.
I would not be around.
I would not be available.
I would not be the dad they had known.
I was of course, speechless.
In my mind
I was running through scenarios
by which I could insure that I was available
as an active parent,
but even as I conjured them in my thoughts,
I knew they were lies.
He was right.
My young teenage son,
and my oldest daughter too,
placed me at a crossroads
where I had to make a decision.
Again, that is a prophetic moment.
What is a prophet?
First of all, the word is prophet
with a ph-et not an f-it.
Everyone in our world
knows what profit is, f-it – making money.
Making money is the end goal
of the economic empire we live in.
”Thy kingdom come”
in our empire
is making money
and the more the better.
But what is a prophet – et?
I will quote from one of Paul’s sermons
because in his usual way,
he spelled it out clearly.
“Why in the world
is there any confusion,” he wrote,
”about what it means to be followers of Christ?
Why is there any confusion
about what the priorities are for humanity
to live within the kingdom of God,
the domain, the realm of God?
“There is a higher allegiance than nation,
tribe, or family;
allegiance to the realm of God.
The Kingdom of God
is not something that human beings build.
It is already here as a gift.
Our task is to build a way of living together
that conforms more nearly
to the rule of God – with attention
to the real issues of peace,
providing for health care,
caring for the planet –
creating and sustaining that kind of social order.
Other concerns become trivial or secondary.”
Said that way, if true,
we are placed at a crossroads —
a moment of decision.
That was Paul’s description
of what prophetic ministry is
and he would say, if he were alive
and here preaching,
that any of us who are baptized,
are baptized to be prophets
in this world of ours.
Whatever else we are –
healers, teachers, servants,
leaders, reformers, pastors,
parents, plumbers, bakers –
we are to be prophets:
the arms and legs and voice
of the love of God.
To quote Martin Luther King once again,
“The question is not
‘What are we prepared to die for?’
The question is, ‘What are we prepared to live for?’”
So let’s notice a little something
about this story Matthew tells about Jesus.
It starts out this way:
“Now when Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested,
he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth
and made his home in Capernaum by the sea…”
I interpret that to mean he was hiding out!
Think about it.
Jesus was a big fan of John the Baptist.
John was the go-to guy,
he was the main prophet in their day,
someone Jesus must have looked up to.
He went to be baptized by John after all.
But then, suddenly, John was beheaded.
King Herod cut John the Baptist’s head off
and had it carried on a silver platter
and presented as a present
to his step-daughter.
How ghastly is that?
When he heard it,
Jesus must have felt naked.
All of a sudden
Jesus was the go-to guy,
the prophet of his day
and the next in line to lose his head.
So what does he do?
He takes off and relocates.
Nazareth was too small –
he could be too easily found there.
He relocates to a lake-side city
that was actually quite cosmopolitan in his day.
He slips into the city
and becomes part of the urban fabric
and much less easy to notice or trace.
From there he goes about looking for students.
We call them groupies
but they called them disciples.
By some accounts
he spent three years
building up a following
by going out into the countryside and preaching
then returning to the city with his students.
Three years of vibrant life
before he too
is put to death
by the brutal power of empire.
This is not a make-believe story – it happened,
and it has happened thousands of times.
But Jesus was not looking for trouble.
I suspect that, like you and me,
Jesus did not want to end up
as a glop of goo
between the toes of the Roman Empire.
When John was killed
Jesus must have been scared.
You and I are scared
and I think that is where we need to begin
our deeper exploration of baptism.
We are scared.
There is nobody in this worship space today
(or online reading or listening to this)
that wants to be an outcast.
Nobody wants to risk their reputation.
Nobody is unafraid
of losing their livelihood.
Nobody lives without anxiety
or a sense of vulnerability
to powers that are
greater and more brutal than ourselves.
Nobody would knowingly
follow Jesus or John
or anybody else
let alone to torture and death —
not if it could possibly be avoided.
We are afraid of some things.
We are afraid of some people.
We know that rumor, innuendo, and accusation
are powerful agents of hatred and anger in our world.
It doesn’t take much to ruin somebody, does it?
So we are afraid.
We are afraid to care too much.
So much is beyond our control
and there seems to be
so little we can do about injustice
that we are just afraid —
afraid even, to care too much.
We are afraid to go out on a limb
for a cause
or a person
or an issue,
because once we are labeled
no one will ever give us
much credibility again.
We are even afraid
to tell someone that a joke has offended us;
that there is no humor in degrading anyone
by race, gender, or sexuality.
We are even afraid
to tell people who we know well,
that we not only believe in God
but that we actually worship God
and seek to become a part of the Kingdom of God
that is here and now.
So here is the invitation today —
the Epiphany baptismal moment, if you will.
What are we afraid of?
Who are we afraid of?
What is our fear keeping us from doing?
When was the last time we acted in spite of our fear?
When we know what is behind the curtain of our fear
then we can begin to get clear about
what we are willing to live for.
And when we are clear
about what we are willing to live for
we will begin to more fully live the life
that the Giver of All Life
has given us.
Remember, by virtue of our baptism
we have been called to be prophetic.
We don’t have to be a prophet
and live out on the edge.
But we are called by baptism
to be prophetic:
to bring ourselves
and one another
to the crossroads of decision
where we must choose
between the economy of God
and our economy.
It is never a once and for all
but small, particular moments
usually between incremental
actions and commitments
that contribute to
thy kingdom come on earth
or conversely, the economy of empire.
Those small, incremental choices
are the decision we are called to make
are called to share,
and are called to incarnate.
They scare us
and so we need one another
and sacred community
for strength and courage.
By the way,
the day after my kids
placed me at that crossroad,
I withdrew from the nomination.