The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Ezekiel 2:1-5 Mark 6:1-13
God and country. Here we are, on Independence Day weekend, in church. The American flag will be brought up at the altar, as an offering of our national life to God. God and country. How do we put these two together?
Some people merge the two. Their Christian faith is blurred with patriotism. Both have something vaguely to do with being a good person. The cross is wrapped in the flag, and somewhere along the way, it loses its distinctive meaning. Religion is used in the service of nationalism.
Others put God and country together by trying to legislate public life according to their understanding of the Bible, banning this and banning that. They want to make everyone else live under their restrictions, whether they are Christian or not.
For still others, God and country are kept entirely separate. They want no discussion of religion in public life and no discussion of politics in church. They keep God in a little box, trotting him out to help with their individual problems, and expect him to remain silent about social problems.
But there is another way of living out the relationship between God and country, one that is actually quite traditional both biblically and historically in the church. It is the way of the prophet. Today’s readings take us there.
Now in popular use, the word “prophet” means someone who has had a vision that enables them to predict the future. The word literally means “to see before.” The prophet is depicted as wild-eyed, angry, and kind of crazy. But the word “prophet” in the Bible and in church history is really just someone who uses the traditional teachings of the scriptures as a standard in order to critique what is happening in the present. They stand, fully grounded in God’s Word, and apply it to the social world in which they live.
In the first lesson today, we hear God calling Ezekiel to be such a prophet. Ezekiel was one of the Jews who had been exiled to Babylon around 600 BC. He looked at their suffering and evaluated the situation in light of what scripture says. He concluded that Israel’s exile was a direct result of their unfaithfulness to God’s ways. And so he was sent by God to speak to this “rebellious, stubborn, and impudent nation,” to call them to return to God.
Jesus was also a prophet. He too looked around in his day and used traditional teachings of the scriptures to critique his nation. For one thing, he called them away from the greed, violence, and materialism of the cosmopolitan Roman world, back to a more communal way of living that was grounded in the Jewish law. In the gospel today, Jesus speaks to his neighbors in Nazareth, who didn’t want to hear what he had to say. Jesus notes that prophets are usually without honor in their hometown, and because of their lack of faith in him, he has no power among them. He will have to take his prophetic message elsewhere in Israel, and ask his disciples to share some of the work, by being prophets too.
The prophetic way of approaching God and country is also traditional in church history. Early Christian martyrs, critics of kings and empires, church reformers, abolitionists and civil rights workers – they have been grounded in the teachings of scripture; they used this grounding to critique their world; and they then spoke about what they saw. That is what prophets do.
Understood this way, every person of faith is called to be a prophet. Every one of us is asked to not keep God in a little box, trotting him out to help us with our individual problems. We are also asked to stand in the scriptures, in the heart of the gospel, and use this perspective to evaluate the times we live in.
This assumes that we are, in fact, grounded in the vision of life that God and Jesus have revealed to us in scripture. When we hear the Word proclaimed here, when we read it at home, we try to understand not just what it might say to us personally, but also what it says about the use of money, about employment practices, about how the privileged should relate to the poor and others who suffer, about crime, punishment and war, about dealing with foreigners and people of a different religion, and our enemies.
Then we apply what we believe about God’s ways to the world in which we live. How do we do this? In a wide variety of ways.
A few of us are really good at getting directly involved in the political process to further candidates and legislation that we believe will further the ways of God. Others give time or money to organizations that do the same. Some work full time in jobs that further Gods ways. Some write or speak. Most of us read and talk with our friends and neighbors, speaking from our heart, from our faith. Hopefully all of us vote in a way that is consistent with what we believe to be God’s intention for this world.
We’re not all activists, we’re not all leaders, but we’re all asked to be prophetic – to actively apply the values of the scriptures to the world we live in. As we set about doing this, however, it is easy to become frustrated and lose heart. After all, this is a huge world with many deeply-ingrained problems. There are times when we wonder What difference can I make?” “What’s the point of even trying? This is where today’s readings from the Old Testament and from the gospel are most helpful.
Ezekiel was told to go and speak to his nation about how they had strayed from God’s ways. But at the end of the passage, God says something critical to Ezekiel. “Whether they hear or refuse to hear, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” That’s the important thing - not that Ezekiel was so effective that he turned his nation back to God, but that there had been a prophet among them. What was important is that Ezekiel witnessed to God’s ways. That’s all.
And then the gospel. Jesus sent his friends out to proclaim his teachings. But before they go, he says to them “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” Jesus did not expect his disciples to succeed in every village, with every person. He knew that like him, like every prophet, they would not be effective in every place. That’s not what matters. What matters is that they witness to God’s ways, and then leave the results to God.
You and I will not make over this world into the kingdom of God. We will not see universal peace and perfect justice in our day. Even Jesus hasn’t done that. What is most important is that God has people here on earth who listen to his Word and to his Son, become grounded in that truth, and have then consider what the implications of that revelation are for the world they live in. What matters is that God has advocates here on earth, people of faith who speak and act on behalf of God in this world.
On this Independence Day weekend, as we give thanks for our good fortune to be citizens of this wonderful and privileged country, we also pause and remember God’s even higher calling: that we be prophets to our nation.
Perhaps at the Offertory today, as we bring our nation’s flag forward, you might think of it as a symbol not just of our country, but as a symbol of your intention to exercise this calling. For our nation today, and every nation in every age, needs those who are willing to witness to God’s ways. And God needs us to be his advocates.