Presiding Bishop preaches at Church of the Nativity, Phoenix, AZ

Posted Jun 9, 2014

8 June 2014
Church of the Nativity, Phoenix, AZ

The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Presiding Bishop and Primate
The Episcopal Church

We’re going to make a prophet today. Actually, we’re going to authorize several prophets. And then we’re going to send them out there. Ready or not, world, here they come!

Garrison Keillor is famous for saying, ‘Who wants to be a prophet? Nobody wants ‘em around. Prophets don’t get invited to birthday parties or wedding feasts.’ [1] The world would rather have the profit of companies than the company of prophets.

What’s your image of a prophet? Somebody who looks a little like John the Baptist, delivering long rants on the street corner? The word actually means to speak forth, or speak for another, in this case, God. They’re spokespersons, newscasters. The prophets of the Bible weren’t fortune tellers or predictors of the future. They did tell people the truth about what was likely to happen if they didn’t change their ways, and they encouraged people who were feeling lost and abandoned.

Prophets have two main tasks in the truth they tell – to announce the news about God’s intention for creation and how we live together, and to both challenge and encourage people to live in ways that lead toward the Reign of God. It’s a vision of a world of peace and justice and right relationship among all its inhabitants. That’s what Jesus means when he says to his friends, “peace be with you. I’m sending you out with the same message – peace be with you and go help make peace for the whole world.”

Baptism is an invitation to become a truth-telling prophet. Like Eldad and Medad, it doesn’t really matter where you are, because somebody with a dose of spirit can prophesy anywhere. It doesn’t just happen in church. The company of prophets moves out into the world to announce the good news about God’s love for each one of us, and the hope for what this world might be if we all lived in ways that reflected the love that is already within us.

Prophets get their bad reputation because they’re willing to point out the gap between the goal of the Reign of God and where we are right now. Sometimes they use pretty strong language: “you cows of Bashan, lolling about on your ivory couches calling for wine while people are starving outside your doors… you’re going to be the first sent into exile.”[2] But they also offer comfort and encouragement to people who are suffering, like those in exile: “comfort ye, comfort ye my people…God is already preparing a smooth road home for you”[3]; or by reminding them that God weeps over them.[4] A prophet speaks God’s healing and renewing and creative word into the midst of life and its suffering.

That is what those baptismal promises are most centrally about – holding up that vision of what God’s world is intended to look like; coming together to learn and be fed for the work of proclaiming that vision, encouraging others by speaking and acting out that vision, and loving our neighbors as we go – encountering each person as Christ himself, with utmost respect for the divine image each neighbor bears.

So, what does that have to do with us, right here and right now? Everybody here has been inspired – we’ve all received spirit – for the journey toward the Reign of God. A prophet would look around and see where the world doesn’t look like that vision. The news is usually full of it – like the bad news of hungry and homeless people on our streets. Every year a lot of people who don’t have shelter from the heat die in this desert. Right now this part of the world is seeing an influx of refugees from Central America – lots of children coming alone, or with their mothers and siblings. Like refugees in Sudan, they’re fleeing hunger, violence, and the inability to make a living. What would a prophet do?

First task is to remember the vision, notice the need of a neighbor and tell the truth about what you see. Then respond to the need – with food, shelter, education – as this congregation does through your partnerships at UMOM here in Phoenix,[5] and in Navajoland and Veracruz.[6] But prophets go deeper, and begin to ask why the need exists, why the systems of this world permit or encourage this suffering. This is where the hard work of self-examination comes – what is my part in this injustice, and what can I do to change it? The theological term for it is repentance and amendment of life – turning back toward God’s vision of a healed world and seeking ways to live in that direction. It’s not easy work, but it’s far more possible in communities like this one that support and encourage and keep pointing the way.

Where have you seen a prophet at work?

I remember visiting a congregation during the depths of the economic downturn in 2008. We heard about the various ministries that had developed to respond to the suffering in that community, and then a middle schooler stood up to tell her story. She realized that the people who were losing their homes or jobs often had pets, whose human companions were finding it hard to feed them. So she organized a pet food bank to care for non-human neighbors. A high school student told about a mission trip he’d taken a year earlier. He’d seen people who’d lost limbs to landmines, and couldn’t make a living except by sitting along the road and begging. They had a very hard time getting around, because they had no access to wheelchairs. He went home and figured out how to build inexpensive wheelchairs out of bicycle wheels and plastic plumbing parts, for about $60 apiece, and he challenged people around him to help fund the work.

The response to Gabbie Gifford’s shooting here has motivated a number of prophets, working to address gun violence, mental illness, and a greater respect for neighbors and their differences as well as what we all share in common.

The ERD photo exhibit that’s been set up here gives you a sense of how prophets see possibilities for healing. I’d encourage you to take a look at how this part of the body of Christ is working to bridge the gap between what is and what ought to be.

Prophets change the world, one person and one situation at a time. They also change the world by inspiring others to notice the difference between current reality and God’s dream. Speaking truth isn’t always easy, but it is the only real route to abundant life.

Garrison Keillor is only partly right when he says that prophets don’t get invited to birthday parties and wedding feasts. Today we’re celebrating the birthday of the church, and all the baptized are being feted today as prophets in this body of Christ. It is indeed a birthday party for truth-tellers and world changers! And we’re all bound for the wedding feast – the heavenly banquet, Isaiah’s great picnic on a hillside, when everyone can sit down in safety and feast in peace because there is justice for all. Welcome to the company of prophets – happy birthday, church! What truth will you tell, and what change will you seek?

[1] Several places, but this one is typical: Garrison Keillor, Lake Wobegon, USA: Fertility. Track 2, “Prophet”

[2] Amos 4:1ff; Amos 6:4ff

[3] Isaiah 40:1-4

[4] Isaiah 16:11; Luke 19:41-44

[5] Largest homeless shelter in Arizona.