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Sermon 6 after Trinity 11 July 2021

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Amos 7.7-15, Mark 6.14-29     Amos and John the Baptist

 

I want to talk about prophets this morning.  It’s a big topic and I can only consider a few aspects in a sermon.  I’m also aware that prophets can be controversial and that we won’t all necessarily have the same view of them, so hold on to your seats!

Perhaps we see them mainly them as people who can foretell the future, especially around Xmas when we hear prophecies from Isaiah and other prophets that anticipate the arrival of Christ.  Certainly, foretelling is a prophetic characteristic.  It’s a feature of having a clear sightedness in relation to the times in which the prophet lives.  They seem better able to read the signs of the times than many of us.

Photo of Sue Parfitt being arrested.  Rev Sue Parfitt is pictured here in central London after taking part in an act of non violent civil disobedience with several others by locking herself with chains underneath a lorry near Marble Arch.  Sue was for some years the adviser for pastoral care and counselling in the diocese where Richard and I served.  It was rather a shock to see pictures of her being arrested!  She said, ‘The only reason I am here is because climate change is an emergency and we must take action now.  That’s why I’m prepared to be arrested.  If it makes people in power pay attention and ends the suffering of climate breakdown, it will be worthwhile.’

Sue is a member of Green Christian, as are some members here.  GC is best known for providing resources for serious thinking and speaking about environmental issues, especially climate change.  Some of you are doing a GC course called Plenty! that Rosemary is running.  About 6 years ago, though, some members, weary of the lack of action on climate change, formed an offshoot called Christian Climate Action which plans actions like the one Rev Sue took part in, always in places where there is significant political power, so quite often in London.

Photo of 3 more members of CCA, blocking traffic.

Here we see more members of CCA – Ruth Jarman, Fr Martin Newell and another protester holding up traffic in central London.

I want to suggest that these protesters are examples of modern day prophets.

The prophets appearing in our bible, like Amos or John the Baptist, have certain characteristics; like Amos they hold up a plumb line, (Picture of the plumb line) to contemporary life and point out where it is wanting. A yardstick might be a word we would use.   The OT prophets had a particularly sharp inner yardstick and that was the covenant God made with his people through Moses which included the 10 commandments.  The covenant was given to Israel as a way of enabling them to live individually and corporately in relationship with a holy God.  The people of Israel frequently broke their side of this covenant.  The prophets would be trying to pull them back.  Often they would direct their message to their leaders, as Amos does in our OT reading in his reference to King Jereboam.

In today’s gospel we see John the Baptist, the last of the OT prophets, standing in that tradition. (picture of John B) He has held up the covenant yardstick to Herod over his breaking the covenant law in relation to adultery by marrying his brother’s wife, so now he’s in prison and then executed.

So, another characteristic of prophets is that they make us feel uncomfortable, or angry and they may provoke opposition, especially from those in power, then facing suffering as a result.

Picture of Rosa Parks.  Rosa Parks was a civil rights activist famously known for refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus, thus triggering the Montgomery bus boycott and all that followed. A modest action that had momentous consequences.  She was arrested and spent a day in jail – an experience familiar to a number of CCA activists.

 

These modern day prophets are all Christians, so perhaps they are doing more than holding up the OT covenant yardstick to us.  We have to ask, Was Jesus a prophet?  Last week’s gospel reading suggests that many people at the time thought he was, and Jesus, marvelling at the lack of faith in those from his home town used the saying, ‘A prophet is only without honour in his own town,’ as though confirming that understanding.  Certainly, in his words to the religious leaders of his day – the scribes, teachers of the law, the Pharisees, Jesus sounds very OT.  Instead of enabling their people to fulfil the covenant they we putting obstacles in their path, he says, calling them hypocrites and whitewashed tombs.

My hunch is that by including this gruesome account of JBs death in his gospel Mark is in effect starting to draw his listeners into the recognition that Jesus was more than a prophet.  He’s gradually leading us up to Peter’s declaration in chapter 8 ‘You are the Christ!’.  His narrative in our gospel reading today includes parallels between what lies ahead for Jesus and what is experienced by JB – opposition, arrest, appearing before a vacillating ruler, and execution – but it also hints at resurrection, which of course did not happen to JB.

So, Jesus stands in the prophetic tradition, but he’s more than a prophet and his story, unlike that of JB, will end in triumph over death.

I then have to ask, what is it that Christ brings to the prophetic tradition?  What’s his yardstick, if you like.  It’s there in his teaching about the kingdom of God.  It’s more about invitation than measuring us against a yardstick; an invitation to see, hear, receive and enter a way of life in which God is central  – the kingdom of God or ‘life in all its fulness’, to use the language of John’s gospel.  To take up the invitation usually involves a turning away from something, or turning in a different direction (repentance), a turning towards Christ and following in his footsteps. The invitation is there for everyone.  Jesus’ harshest prophetic language is therefore directed towards those religious leaders who behave as though faith is about joining a club which is only for the righteous as defined by them; a club for which they act as gatekeepers.

So, for Christian prophets, the yardstick includes holding in mind that fulness of life that Christ says is for everyone.  One question we might ask of any status quo, is whether it blocks or enables fulness of life.  The current climate crisis is a threat to human flourishing, just as segregation was, and prophets who may see more clearly than us and who read the signs of the times, bravely stand up and point out that reality.  There are other aspects of our status quo that threaten human flourishing too.  We may notice more of them as we enter more fully into that invitation of being part of God’s kingdom. We may well feel called to take action.

The prophets invite us to repent, to change our way of life before it is too late.  They remind us that we can choose life, life in all its fulness.  Not only that, but most importantly, since Christ’s resurrection, they remind us that death does not have the last word.  Resurrection is now woven into the human life story.  We can shout defiance confidently at whatever is death-dealing in our society.  At the end of the day we are on the winning side.

That could make it sound straightforward, but that’s not how it feels if you are considering doing something prophetic.  Listen to some of the things modern prophets have thought;

If I do this will it make things worse for the very people I’m trying to help?

Will it really make a difference?

Can I justify breaking the law?

What if it harms my family?

Suppose I’m trolled?

Do I have the courage to see this through?

(Picture of taking the knee)  As we draw towards that match tonight you might like to consider the closing slide.  How do you feel about it?  Do you see taking the knee as an example of political correctness, or of prophetic action?  What concerns might you have if you felt called to take part in an action of this kind? What might you want to say to those who do?

 

Christine Bainbridge