by Ellen Sims
Our opening hymn asked, “Where are the prophets?”. Last Saturday some of us walked to signal support for continued efforts to uphold the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., a prophet who lived within the lifespan of some of us. But where are the living prophets today who, like the ancient Hebrew prophets, speak truth to the powerful, expose injustices, and side with the voiceless? Paraphrasing songwriter William Flanders’ lyrics, where are the prophets who see clearly what’s happening in society, who sacrifice their own comfort and security, who urge us to face our fears, our privilege, our pride. Where are today’ prophets who make us peer into the darkness and grieve a world we must leave behind? And where are the prophets who are casting a hopeful vision for a new world yet to come?
I’m far from the first person to name Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the current Poor People’s Campaign, as one of today’s prophets. A year ago this month I joined a group of Alabama faith leaders who were planning the recruitment, training sessions, and direct actions for Alabama’s 2018 Poor People’s Campaign that included six direct actions at our state capital last spring. I volunteered to be in the first group arrested on May 21 and spoke at the next week’s rally on the capitol steps prior to the second peaceful action of civil disobedience. I played my very, very minor role in response to Rev. Barber’s defiance of injustice in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets. I had started tracking Rev. Barber after Justin and I heard him speak stirringly at the UCC’s General Synod in the summer of 2017, where he was already announcing this ambitious campaign to support those on the margins. Rev. Barber’s voice and priorities were unmistakably prophetic.
This past Monday Barber was the keynote speaker to a crowd of thousands in Nashville for MLK Day. He was quick to explain he wasn’t there to celebrate King. “We do not celebrate martyrs,” he said. We join them.” His fiery 50-minute speech rallied the crowd to join the movement for significant changes to support the poor, the immigrants, the minorities, the environment. “If … it doesn’t lead to the liberation of the sick, poor and oppressed — then preaching is just words with no action,” he stated in words resembling those we read from Luke earlier, a sermon by Jesus which quoted from the prophet Isaiah. Although Rev. Barber’s calls to end “public policy violence” brought the crowd to their feet, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, seated on the front row of the dais, reportedly was one of only a few on stage or in the audience who did NOT stand at points when Barber explicitly asked people to rise if they support measures to care for those on the margins. Like an Old Testament prophet, Barber at one point turned directly to Governor Lee and other elected officials and called them out: “I am not fussing at you, I am saying it is time to put down the partisanship and do what is right.” Barber then urged event organizers that in the future they should invite to MLK events only those speakers who support the changes King championed. He concluded, in a drop the mic moment: “People love dead prophets, but the question is are you willing to follow Dr. King today?”
The point of this sermon is for US to recall that, sure, people love dead prophets, but are WE willing to follow JESUS today?
Next Sunday we’ll read what happened after Jesus preached his first sermon in his hometown. Today we need to grapple with the sermon itself, which concluded with a first-century equivalent of dropping the mic. First recall that just prior Jesus’s sermon in his hometown, he’d been, according to Luke, in the desert, tested by the devil, quoting scriptures in response to each of the three temptations the devil offered him. Having bested the devil, Jesus then began teaching in synagogues in Galilee to great acclaim. When he made his way to Nazareth, he visited the synagogue on the Sabbath and was given the scroll of prophet Isaiah from which to read. He “found” a particular passage from Isaiah. He chose words to announce the spiritual equivalent of a political campaign. He selected verses to characterize his mission.
Luke 4:18 suggests that the Lucan Jesus saw himself in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah, who had challenged the mighty to deal justly with the marginalized: to demand justice for poor, the prisoners (which Luke calls the captives), the physically handicapped (Luke abbreviates as the blind), and the powerless (the oppressed). And Jesus added that he was called to preach the year of the Jubilee. That’s shorthand for an economic revolution that would make Bernie Sanders look like Bernie Madoff. The year of the Jubilee was “a radical ethical-economic practice” prescribed in Leviticus 25 that required small plots of land to be returned to its original owners after 49 years in order to redistribute the wealth that had accumulated through unfair taxation. Forgiveness of debts was also a mechanism to prevent great disparities in wealth. Brueggemann connects Jesus’s sermon in Nazareth with the Jubilee this way: “What [Jesus] meant [in Luke 4:18] was, ‘I am Jubilee. Isaiah wrote about it. I am going to enact it.’ And he set about giving social power and social access and social goods to the poor and excluded.” ((Brueggemann, Walter. “On Signal: Breaking the Vicious Cycle” The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol. 1. Presbyterian Publishing Co. 142).
And as Luke will tell us next Sunday, and as Brueggemann continues in his sermon, the synagogue members “did not want to hear about the Jubilee that would curb their accumulation, not even for Jesus. It is a hard command. . . . The only reason one might obey such a hard command that is concrete material, and economic divestment is that we have a different, larger vision of the future. We know what is promised and what will be, by the power of God. The command is to serve the great social vision of the Gospel, because that vision of God will only become reality when there is enough human obedience. This vision of God is not a vision of accumulation and monopoly so that those who have the most when they die win. This vision of God’s future is not about angels who have gone to heaven floating around in the sky with their loved ones. This vision, rather, is about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it already is in heaven. God’s rule where the practices of justice and mercy and kindness and peaceableness are every day the order of the day. It is a vision of the world as a peaceable neighborliness in which no one is under threat, no one is at risk, no one is in danger, because all are safe, all are valued, all are honored, all are cared for. And this community of peaceableness will come only when the vicious cycles of violent accumulation are broken . . . . That vision of God will only become reality when there is enough human obedience.”
Jesus did not run afoul of the powerful in his day because he was preaching about being nice. He was executed because he was announcing a proposal to recalibrate the social-economic system based on God’s partiality for the poor. Prophet Isaiah understood his role as announcing God’s good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed. Prophet Jesus lined up behind Prophet Isaiah to condemn a predatory economy. Prophet Martin came behind Jesus with his Poor People’s Campaign that insisted on a similar socio-economic, faith- based agenda. Prophet William Barber is carrying that baton forward today with a second Poor People’s Campaign fifty years after King.
Do you doubt Luke’s Jesus is really talking about challenging economic systems marked by great differences in wealth? Wait until we get to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes two chapters later, which parallel Matthew’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit” but Luke’s non-spiritualized version is “Blessed are the poor.” Luke’s beatitudes conclude this way: 24“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”
Fellow followers of Jesus, this path we’re on is no walk in the park. Today’s prophets who are following Jesus and inviting US to follow with them are asking us to defy the mainstream culture. They ask this hard thing of us not merely because they think it’s the Jesus-y thing to do. They ask us to join them because it’s the way this ol’ world can be saved — from a greed that will kill our planet, lead to war, decimate vulnerable people. Ancient and modern prophets are not grumpy old men. They are visionaries and game changers who grasp what happens when the strong trample the weak. So they show us the way of salvation.
After Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah and as “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him,” he preached a one-sentence sermon. This was it: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What? This Jesus who grew up right here among us is claiming to be the fulfillment of the prophecy? his audience must have wondered. Is he equating himself with the Jubilee year that reverses injustices? Is he challenging the systems we assume are givens?
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Mic dropped.
For those of us who have a love-hate relationship with the Bible because it’s been used to beat up on folks, let me tell you why some of us should be uncomfortable reading scripture. Much of scripture favors the weak, the minorities, the disempowered, the poor, the sick. We have read the stories and sayings of Jesus while wearing the lenses of own 21st century, Western, affluent values. But if we recall how badly the prophets of old were treated—and authentic prophets today like King and Barber—it’s easier to see what they risked to offer their compassion to “the least.”
Today we are at least four layers deep in prophets. Barber, following in the footsteps of King, following in the footsteps of Jesus, following in the footsteps of Isaiah—-prophets all—-challenged and challenge the powers that be with mic-dropping rhetoric and empire-irritating messages. And with hearts of compassion.r
God of the Prophets, we give thanks for those with clarity of vision and conviction of purpose. May we catch your vision of a kin*dom of compassion. Amen