This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 22. It was based on the lessons for the day, Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 23; Ephesians 2:11-22; Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
Last week, I preached about two faithful prophets who spoke a word of truth to power and, as a result placed their lives in danger. I talked about how its hard to be that kind of Christian. Apparently, that sermon sparked quite a bit of conversation. So, I decided to use the theme and a few quotes from that sermon as the basis for our Theology on Tap conversation on Wednesday evening. I opened the conversation with this question, “What does it mean to be a prophetic church and what does that look like? When we had our time for questions at the end, someone asked, “Pastor, what is a prophetic church?” In that moment, I realized that I had mad an unfair assumption. I had been using insider language and needed to be very clear and simple. So, after talking about what it means to be a prophetic church, someone said, “Pastor, I think you have the topic for your next sermon. You need to tell us us what it means to be a prophetic church.”
This morning, our lessons gives us exactly the chance to consider that very question. What does it mean to be a prophetic church?
Jeremiah proclaims a word of judgment to the leaders of the ancient nation of Israel. Throughout Jeremiah’s lifetime, much of the ancient Middle East was in a constant state of warfare. The tiny nations of Israel and Judah often got caught in the machinations of the larger world superpowers. But they were not entirely victims. Jeremiah proclaimed that the nasty plight of Israel and Judah was God’s punishment for their unfaithfulness. In today’s reading, Jeremiah likens the rulers to shepherds who were supposed to care for ALL people as a good shepherd cares for ALL his sheep — to nourish them and to protect them. Here the judgment is placed on rulers who have misused their power and failed shepherd their people. Because the shepherds have failed to visit their flock with vigilance and care, thus ensuring their welfare, God will now visit these shepherds in judgment.
This is one piece of what it means to be a prophetic church. A prophetic church speaks the truth about what it sees going on in the world. A prophetic church stands up for and commits itself to the enactment of God’s vision for the world. God intends a world where all God’s creatures flourish, a world characterized by peace and justice and righteousness.
To speak the truth and stand up for what’s right is not where the prophetic church begins, however. The great Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann suggests that the first task of the prophetic church is to lament. That is, to grieve over the shattered vision of what God intends for the world. To lament the structures that were created good but have been coopted for evil. To get a stomach ache over the fact that so many people are not allowed to flourish and to live as God intends. In the gospel lesson, Mark tells us that Jesus had compassion on the crowds because they were stumbling through life as though they were sheep without a shepherd. The Greek word there, the one we translate “had compassion for,” literally means to have a stomach ache over. Jesus had a stomach ache over the plight of the people.
I spent two days this past week at a statewide conference on affordable housing. What I learned is that the challenges we face in Door County in providing decent affordable housing for our working people are not unique to our community. It’s nationwide crisis. I learned how many of the poor are spending over 50% of their income on housing that is often in horrible condition. Matthew Desmond’s powerful book, Evicted, tells the story of what it’s like to be poor and try to find a decent place to live. A prophetic church is heartbroken when it sees economic and social structures that chain the poor in cycles of need that they have little chance of escaping.
A prophetic church is realistic. Jeremiah rightly understood that the king was never going to be able to be that leader that the people so desperately needed. So, he placed his hope in a king that God would provide, a new David, one who would come without the flaws of the first David, one who would fully and perfectly care for his people and protect them from evil. Jeremiah’s hope is a reminder that our salvation and the salvation the world needs will never be realized by any earthly ruler. A prophetic church is starkly realistic about what we can expect from any ruler or any government or institution. We don’t look for more than is possible; we are realists; we understand that salvation is from God. The prophetic church looks to God and to the leader whom God would raise up. That leader is Christ, the One who came as the Good Shepherd. He’s the One Jeremiah was pointing to. He is the One who knows his sheep, the one who looked at the people who were like sheep without a shepherd, and in order to care for them and protect them, gave his life for them. See, if Jesus is Messiah — and we believe that he is — then God’s care, God’s shepherding does not come as we might expect. It does not come through pursuing war and violence and force — even if the war and violence and force are waged by the good guys. God’s provision and God’s purposes will not be realized as armies and powerful nations defeat their worldly enemies in battle. It comes through God’s offering God’s self in vulnerability and weakness. The great 20th century rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “To the prophet. . .God does not reveal himself in abstract absoluteness, but in a personal, intimate relation to the world. He does not simply command and expect obedience; he is also moved and affected by what happens in the world. God is concerned about the world and shares its fate. Indeed, this is the essence of God’s moral nature: his willingness to be involved in the history of humanity.” We have seen this very miracle of divine love, that God is so wiling to be involved in the history of humanity that God has sent God’s son, “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The miracle of divine love comes to us and to the world through the Messiah’s crucifixion and resurrection. As the followers of the crucified one die to themselves and rise to new life, they in turn share that self-giving love with the world.
Here’s where we come to the final piece of what it means to be a prophetic church. A prophetic church is involved in the world, becomes the agents of God’s intentions and purposes for the world. The church, individual children of God who have died to themselves in their baptism, and have risen to new life in Christ, collectively become the agents for what God intends in the world. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that in Christ Jesus, we who were once far off from God have been brought near by the blood of Christ. So, we become agents of reconciliation, repairers of the breach, bringing all things into their fullness in Christ Jesus. We become the ones who spread the compassion of Jesus in the dark corners of the world. Compassion is different than pity. When we pity people, we can keep them at arm’s length, never getting our hands dirty and our hearts broken. That’s not what Jesus did. They laid their sick at his feet and his touch healed them. Jesus’ compassion is not distant and it is not condescending; Jesus compassion identifies with the hurting, the burdened, the broken and gets down in the midst of them. Now he calls us to come out of our places of comfort and distance and identify with, and show solidarity with, the hurting, the burdened, and the broken.
Mark offers two descriptions of those who gathered around Jesus, each as true today as it was then. In all the comings and goings of our lives, our community and our nation, we are like sheep without a shepherd. Yet in all of it, our Shepherd is present and the crowds around us recognize God in Christ in us, with us, and among us. So, don’t be surprised, dear church, when they rush about and start to bring the sick and the needy to touch Jesus. And we, dear prophetic church, will be there as Christ touches them and heals them through us.