Prophecy

Uncomfortable Words

We have returned now to what some churches call “ordinary time,” a designation more to do with the numbering of weeks than a plain or mundane time. Rather than celebrating a particular event or season, each Sunday in ordinary time is a celebration of resurrection—which isn’t so ordinary after all.

After Easter readings from Acts, Luke, and John, we return to the Hebrew Bible and gospel of Matthew. This month we read passages from the first half of the gospel; some are lengthy, some very short, some ignore divisions that most scholars recognize, others skip verses in the middle of a passage, some are collected sayings of Jesus, and others narrate scenes of action. All of them disturb me.

As a child I puzzled over these words from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: “Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith to all who truly turn to him.” This month’s gospel lections seem to be composed instead of uncomfortable words, words that assail us where we are most complacent. The portrait of Jesus and his call to discipleship is harsh and challenging. Ongoing action, radical inclusion, obligatory hospitality, divided families, and life-changing welcomes all call into question the divisions and barriers we use to define ourselves and to keep ourselves safe.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture

and justice educator in Vancouver, British Columbia.

www.laureldykstra.com

June 1

Just Do It

Genesis 6:9-22, 7:24, 8:14-19; Psalm 46; Romans 1:16-17, 3:22-31; Matthew 7:21-29

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Sojourners Magazine June 2008
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'If Such Women Should Rise!'

In the United States of the 1830s, it was unheard of for a woman to speak publicly to large groups that included men as well as women. Especially if the topic was a burning political issue.

But Maria W. Stewart, a free African-American woman in Boston, suffered social censure rather than defy her faith and conscience. Not yet 30 years old, Stewart stood up to lecture in Boston’s Franklin Hall at a September 1832 anti-slavery gathering of African-American women and men. Her topic: opposition to the “colonization” movement, which sought to ship free blacks and ex-slaves back to Africa rather than redress the wrongs done them. Her opening was blunt and provocative, a call to active resistance: “Why sit ye here and die? If we say we will go to a foreign land, the famine and the pestilence are there, and there we shall die. If we sit here, we shall die. Come let us plead our cause before the whites: if they save us alive, we shall live—and if they kill us, we shall but die.”

Then she makes a brief aside, so timed, one assumes, to answer the grumblings her boldness of speech would elicit from some. “Methinks I heard a spiritual interrogation—‘Who shall go forward, and take off the reproach that is cast upon the people of color? Shall it be a woman?’ And my heart made this reply—‘If it is thy will, be it even so, Lord Jesus!’”

Having claimed the only credential that by her standards mattered, Stewart returned to her lecture.

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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A Prophetic Call

December 1 is World AIDS Day. Worldwide, 15 million children have lost one or both parents to the AIDS pandemic; in Zimbabwe, one in five children are orphans. Yet in North America, December marks the start of our annual frenzy of conspicuous consumption, and churches often counter the market’s hijacking of our feast day with poor substitutes: charity and triumphalism.

The scripture passages for these weeks do not support our holiday evasions. While sometimes hopeful, the verses are neither cozy nor celebratory. Certainly we find stories of Jesus’ birth, but they come amid news of prisons, lions, vipers, swords, armor, and genocide. The lections’ strongest themes are of justice, violence, and the role of prophets.

Over five Sundays the lectionary takes us through seven books spanning eight centuries, and we engage with some of the best-loved passages in scripture: “A shoot shall come up from the stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11:1); “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6); “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Matthew 3:3); and “my soul magnifies the Lord” (Luke 1:47). The dominant texts are Isaiah, the book from the Hebrew Bible most quoted in the Greek Testament, and the gospel of Matthew, the book in the Greek Testament that draws most often from the Hebrew Bible. In a complex interplay, the texts read each other, we read the texts, and the texts read us and our times.

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is author of Set Them Free: The Other Side of Exodus.

December 2

Hunger and War

Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:36-44

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Sojourners Magazine December 2007
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Called to be Prophets

This month's readings bring to life Elijah, Elisha, Amos, and Hosea, prophets who turn up the heat on the status quo. They show us how God speaks through flame, smoke, water, and wind. Through poems, songs, stories, and powerful monologues, prophets are God's representatives in human history.

In their introduction to The Inclusive Hebrew Scriptures: The Prophets, Craig Smith and Mark Buckley explain both the definition and role of a prophet. "Prophet" means "to speak for," which means the prophet also shares what Abraham Heschel calls "the pathos of God's heart." The prophet listens to, understands, and finally proclaims a message that comes from the very heart of God.

The four prophets, using the language of repentance, call the children of Abraham to return to faithful living. God's uniqueness, faithfulness to covenant, justice, and kindness all mingle to create a portrait of God that confuses and distresses as much as it reveals. But this is not a bad place to be. As Smith and Buckley write, "Prophets revive our capacity to feel and draw our attention to what we would rather not see."

Paired with stories of Jesus' ministry from Luke's gospel, episodes from the prophets' lives can take on new meaning in a world that desperately needs to hear righteous words of judgment and healing. These words can save us from ourselves, but only if we are willing to be led to God's heart.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

July 1
Refining Fire
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

As a child, an illustration in my sister's Bible especially caught my eye. It was of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire. I hadn't remembered this story from Sunday school, or at least it failed to make an impression on me. But I was fascinated by this illustration.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2007
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Baptism's True Claim

Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann, writer, activist, and longtime editor of The Witness magazine, died on December 31, 2005, after more than seven years of struggle with brain cancer. Jeanie was married to Bill Wylie-Kellermann and was the mother of two daughters, Lydia and Lucy. This article is adapted from a sermon preached on the occasion of her memorial service in Detroit on January 8, 2006.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
—Romans 6:3

Just a year before Jeanie Wylie-Kellermann collapsed in the bathroom of her home with the first seizure of what would become the long journey that ended on New Year’s Eve 2005, she was the keynote speaker at the 1997 Finger Lakes Conference in Geneva, N.Y. The theme of that gathering was “The Politics of Baptism.”

Jeanie spoke about how she had struggled with whether to baptize her daughter Lydia when she was an infant. In an article she wrote for the Detroit Catholic Worker paper some years before, Jeanie reflected on her protective impulses:

Water, words, community. Offering our child back to God. We would stand with Abraham at the sacrifice. We would give her to a God who models the cross. We would invite her to listen for a voice calling in the night, to vigil, to put herself at risk, to leave family and friends, to speak clearly a truth for which one can be executed. We would thereby invite her into the risks we have already elected and, by God’s grace, still will elect to take with our own lives. In the act of baptism we would wash away the possibility that our concern for her might justify a diminishing of our own obedience to our Lord’s perverse ethic of vulnerability and gain through loss.

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Sojourners Magazine July 2006
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The Beauty of Justice

The Beauty of Justice

What’s old is new. The prophetic words and visions of antiquity form key Advent themes in the story of John the Baptist, in the gospels of both Mark and John. A still-relevant voice cries out in the wilderness—the wilderness of biblical exiles and of the “other America” beaten anew by storm and recession. The time has come to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3).

On this cosmic highway, prophets and poets can proclaim “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2) and the alternate rule of God’s justice. It is a sovereignty rooted in the Davidic kingdom, but born anew with the birth of the Prince of Peace. As God takes human form to dwell among us, humanity and all of creation prepare to sing of the beauty of “the feet of the messenger who announces peace,” brings good news, and announces salvation (Isaiah 52:7).

Although Isaiah first spoke to the vagaries of a particular community in exile, the flower of this prophetic tradition blossoms in these Advent and Christmas gospel lections. What, then, is new? The fullest revelation of God arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. Here, the prophetic and the incarnational meet, in the beauty of justice and the very songs of redemption.

What’s new? “[T]he Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Isaiah’s words will regain more power than ever, so let’s prepare the way!

Robert Roth is a writer and social activist in East Lansing, Michigan.

December 4
Building the Highway
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15; Mark 1:1-8

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Sojourners Magazine December 2005
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What's right with this picture?

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"God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"—Micah 6:8

In recent decades, evangelical Christians have been known more for individual piety than for heeding the prophets’ call for justice for the needy. The Micah Challenge, a new worldwide coalition of evangelical churches and relief groups, aims to change that—and to seize today’s unprecedented opportunity to put a serious dent in global poverty.

"The gospel has to be [lived] not just with personal commitment, but also social commitment," according to Micah Challenge co-chair Alfonso Wieland of Peru. "For the conservatives in the evangelical community, those issues of social justice are very unusual for them, so the approach for us is to develop biblical materials for those communities, trying to include that justice is from God."

The Micah Challenge is a joint project of the World Evangelical Alliance, which represents more than 3 million congregations around the world, and the Micah Network, a coalition of more than 270 Christian relief and development groups. Chapters have formed in Canada, India, Australia, the Andean region, Bangladesh, and the United Kingdom. More are forming; this spring in Washington, D.C., the National Association of Evangelicals will co-host a meeting to explore starting a U.S. chapter.

THE PROJECT’S GOALS, summed up in its global petition, the Micah Call, are twofold: within the church, to deepen connections to and solidarity with the poor, and, in society at large, to call on national and international decision-makers to fight poverty.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2005
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Prophetic Leadership

Whatever Christians decide about war with Iraq, they must do it on the basis of Christian theology. Liking and trusting President George W. Bush, as many conservatives do, or hating him, as many liberals do, is just not relevant here. Patriotism means loving your country and its best ideals, enough even to oppose it when it is grievously wrong. And Christian faithfulness always supercedes patriotism. U.S. Christians often need to be reminded that we are a worldwide church—the body of Christ; and what other Christians around the world think about what the United States does ought to be at least as important to us as the views of our fellow citizens. Judging from all the letters, statements, and articles that come across my desk, churches around the world (and across the theological spectrum) don't support the U.S. argument for going to war with Iraq. Which gets us back to theology.

The tradition of Christian nonviolence and pacifism rules out war as a way to resolve conflicts, and the just war doctrine, which many more churches accept, demands that a decision for war be subject to rigorous criteria and conditions. Those are the only two Christian traditions regarding war—unless we want to bring back the Crusade idea of war, which seems to be gaining in popularity with radical elements of Islam but not anywhere in the churches that I am aware of.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2003
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Once a Millennium

Within the Christian tradition, rarely is a concept more misunderstood than prophecy. Unfortunately, this misinterpretation wreaks havoc on our society in the form of doomsday soothsayers, apocalyptic dreamers, and militant revolutionaries.

The crux of the misunderstanding is this: Prophecy is not the result of seeing into the future. Instead, prophecy is the faithful declaration of the implications of current actions on the future, with the hope of having an impact on both.

For instance, one need not be a rocket scientist to figure out that increasing economic inequities lead to social dissolution and fragmentation. So someone with the courage to say that wealth accumulation leads to the destruction of community, and that the result will be a future awash in violence, isn’t looking into a crystal ball. They’re simply sensitive to inevitabilities.

For many within the Christian tradition, the Bible has been starved into a mere blueprint of unavoidable dystopia. Interestingly, many advocates of this interpretation allow common cultural mythology to syncretize with this biblical view, creating a very simple yet dangerous theology. Several new books offer a tour of the Christian Identity and millennial movement landscape.

Baker Books has made available an interesting, though not exhaustive, contribution to its evangelical audience with Gregory S. Camp’s Selling Fear: Conspiracy Theories and End-times Paranoia (1997). A professor of history at Minot State University in North Dakota, Camp provides an introductory primer on the religious dimension of the conspiracy tendencies so popular in the American perspective.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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