Garrison Keillor is known for saying that nobody really wants to be around a prophet, and they don’t get invited to birthday parties. They’re just too challenging to have around in normal life. Would you invite John the baptizer to dinner with your boss? Guess who’s coming to dinner! Would you be hospitable, tell your guests to wear camel skins, and serve locusts and honey? Prophets are more likely to be left shivering on the banks of an icy river – or executed.
Prophets have to be edgy. That’s their job – and they can’t do if effectively unless they stand on the margins of the community. They’re liminal, borderline folks, but that’s what gives them the ability to speak truth. They have to be able to see into the heart of the community as well as far beyond it to some greater vision. And they have to have the courage to tell the truth, even when it’s profoundly unpopular.
Some of you will remember Dixy Lee Ray, who managed to speak some truth about environmental issues in this state, even when other things she said were widely thought to be pretty doggone weird. It’s easier in retrospect to say that Teddy Roosevelt acted prophetically in beginning to preserve wilderness. It’s also easier for us to call Desmond Tutu a prophet because we weren’t living under apartheid while he was trying to dismantle it.
It can be hard to tell whether a person is crazy or prophetic. Those two often go together, because the word of truth being told can seem profoundly crazy to people with only an insider view of things. Look at the financial scandals of recent years – who could have imagined that so many mortgages would be in default because of scandalous lending practices?
What about other kinds of prophets? It can take prophetic action to invite an addict to seek treatment. The Occupy group is leading prophetic action in response to the devastation of Sandy – encouraging people all over the country to use the internet to buy and ship generators and diapers and bottled water directly to communities in need of them. The ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew continues to speak prophetically about care of the earth and all its resources – he’s called the green patriarch, and his words are beginning to get some traction.
Traction is what John the baptizer was after. His truth is about road-building – he’s a prophetic highway engineer. You heard the gospel: the work is to make a fast, smooth road for the arrival of God’s justice and peace. That’s what John was up to.
Advent’s expected child is God’s own word in the flesh, building a road in the wilderness for the homecoming of all God’s people. John’s work is to make a smooth road for that Word. The prophetic engineer is bent on filling in all the potholes that trip the unwary and flatten their tires, bend their chassis, and throw up stones that put out their headlights. Engineers post signs along the way – “this way home,” “see the light up ahead, revealing how well loved you are!” God the cosmic engineer isn’t just leaving the porchlight on, God’s filling the whole path with light – becoming light, and inviting others to share the light-bearing work. The hills are being flattened to make the way easier – getting rid of anything that stands in your way home. It’s about removing guilt, shame, and fear – and the engineer keeps reminding us that we can’t do anything that will put the light out forever.
So why are prophets so challenging? Many of us only hear the critique, the bald truth that where we’re standing is a long way from home, and that there are a whole lot of bumps and obstacles in the road, most of which we’ve put there ourselves. The word for sin in the gospels, skandalon, means a rock in the road, something you stumble over. Yet the journey begins with the first turn in the direction of the light, and then the path keeps on unfolding and rolling out before us. A real prophet offers a map and directions toward the destination, and some encouragement to get us moving – or a prod (that might feel like a cattle prod). That shock can be a jolt when we hear that we’ve got to turn around and move in another direction.
Dick and I spent some time driving around the UK earlier this year. Dick ran the GPS and I learned to drive from the right side of the car on the wrong side of the road. At first it takes intense focus to stay on the correct side of the road and figure out how to navigate roundabouts, and there isn’t much extra attention left for reading maps, or learning to use an unfamiliar GPS. It needed both of us, especially at 60 or 70 mph. Reorienting your internal framework takes time and conscious effort, especially when turning right used to mean one thing and now requires a different internal map and a vastly different level of attention. In some sense, it meant repenting of my American driving paradigm and exchanging it for another.
Prophets challenge us to exchange our paradigms for God’s, to see that our ideas of what the good life is, or what’s most important, isn’t the best one. Mostly prophets point to a road that can’t be taken all alone, that has to open to all our brothers and sisters, or we’ll never find the way home. That’s profoundly challenging for most of us. We want to be special, we want to be well-loved, and we tend to think that means others can’t also be. There’s a part of all of us that wants to be the center of attention, and see that as winning the competition. Yet this road home is on a map that shows every creature of God equally close to the divine heart. That’s very challenging geometry! But God is not an earthly engineer.
You heard the end of the gospel: all flesh shall see the salvation of God – all flesh, not just you or me or the folks we think are like us. That can induce motion sickness when we discover who some of our companions are going to be. But the engineers keep working at smoothing out the bumps in the road. The ride improves when we don’t startle at the companions going the same way with us.
Your bishop took me on a road trip yesterday. We visited a number of ministries that are building roads home in the Yakima Valley. The roadmap is called “Between the Ridges,” as that place rests between two rows of mountains. It reminded me of corduroy roads – and what it means to realign the logs used. Maybe then the word might mean “heart of the king.” Between the Ridges is about building an easier and smoother road for Native Americans, farmworkers, children without functioning parents, and people who bristle at their neighbors. Between the Ridges is an ecumenical effort responding to the needs expressed by the people themselves – for nourishing food, healing of generations of trauma and poverty, and helping each one find a decent home in peaceful communities.
We met all sorts and conditions of people sheltered at Noah’s Ark, where the residents govern the community. We saw some of the remarkable work of Campbell Farm, a sustainable agricultural enterprise that teaches young people about their place in community and in the larger world. We met Yakama spiritual leaders seeking healing for their people, and we met many partners standing in solidarity with all God’s children struggling to find the road toward home. It is deeply prophetic work, engineering highways that are broad enough for many people to travel, moving together into the heart of God.
That’s prophetic work, building a road for the prince of peace. The only question is whether we’re ready to navigate differently.