Conundrum of an Avowed Non-Prophet

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Saturday was Groundhog Day. It means absolutely nothing to most people on the planet, except for the residents of Punxsutawney PA and meteorologists who have lost faith in science. In 1993, a movie by the same name featured a weatherman who mysteriously lives the same day over and over. So lately when referring to Groundhog Day, it can also mean we find ourselves trapped in a never-ending loop of aggravating unbearable strangeness. It has felt like Groundhog Day all week. Some people might say even longer. I don’t enjoy fighting never-ending battles week after week. I’m thinking I might ride off into the sunset sooner, to a different zip code, area code, and time zone.

And along comes today’s readings. As prominent and celebrated as Jeremiah was among the old testament prophets, his story is quite tragic. God called him as a young man, giving him a place regarded with great honor and deep respect. We read from the first chapter, where God tells Jeremiah not to worry. He would be invincible. As God’s spokesman and representative he would be “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of brass, against the whole land, against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people. They will fight against you but not prevail over you, for I am with you to deliver you.[1]” With assurances like this, who could walk away? Even the least confident quarterback should be willing to face any opposing team and their rabid fans going into the Superbowl. But Jeremiah should have known better if he had paid closer attention to what had become of all the other prophets before him.

Later in chapter 20, we hear Jeremiah complaining to God, “You seduced me, LORD, and I let myself be seduced; you were too strong for me, and you prevailed. All day long I am an object of laughter; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I must cry out, violence and outrage I proclaim; The word of the LORD has brought me reproach and derision all day long. I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name. But then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding back, I cannot![2]” All of a sudden Jeremiah isn’t loving his job as much anymore. But he is not discouraged. Instead, he continues to call his fellow Israelites to repentance, and to put their trust in God. For this he is ridiculed, despised, denounced, and persecuted. Jewish tradition recounts in non-biblical sources that he was stoned to death by his own exasperated countrymen in Egypt where he was taken against his will after his governor protector was assassinated. I bet Jeremiah would never consider himself a success story.

With this background, we read from Luke’s gospel today. The assembly gathered in the synagogue were impressed with Jesus’ preaching. But they wanted more. They expected healings and wondrous signs, like he owed it to them, here in his hometown. Instead, Jesus was disappointed by their lack of faith. He tells them—and yes, he could have been more diplomatic; he might have lived longer as well—he tells them that they could do better, that there were foreigners—the widow of Zarephath in Elijah’s time, and Naaman the Syrian in Elisha’s time—they who did not share Israel’s privileged status as children of Abraham in covenant with God, that God fed them in time of famine and healed their illnesses because they had faith! And he would much appreciate a less critical and less jaded reception of his teaching and his ministry. Why O why is it that prophets never learn?

So when God calls prophets in our day, I hope they scour the scriptures and the history books before agreeing to take the job. It never ends well for prophets, never has, never will. So let me announce plainly for all to hear. And you can quote me. I am no prophet. I don’t care what you think. And unless I get instructions otherwise from someone higher up—way up, my exit strategy does not include being ridiculed, despised, denounced, or persecuted. So if you have an opinion about how I should live my life and do my work, be prepared to listen to my opinion about how you should live your life and do you work. And I will remember to be as kind to you as you are to me.

But wait, there’s more! This past week, I attended 2 meetings in Richmond. And as clearly as I am able, I assure you I was nowhere near anyone who had anything to do with anything reported in the news from Richmond this week. Your thinking it assumes I have way more influence and command way more attention than I actually do. I don’t. Get over it. The first meeting I attended was most troubling. I’ll tell you about the second another time. In light of the gatherings convened by the bishop across the diocese last fall following the last wave of sexual abuse reports from Washington DC, and the Attorney General’s intent to release his own report soon, and after the outcry for greater transparency in sharing information about credible and substantiated incidences of sexual abuse by members of the clergy, Bishop Knestout informed all priests, deacons, school principals, and campus ministers that his office would release a list of names sometime this month. Don’t shoot the messenger.

Newly named Bishop Barry C. Knestout speaks at the announcement of his appointment on Tuesday, December 5, 2017.
JOE MAHONEY/TIMES-DISPATCH

These are dark days for all of us. But I am hoping we will not hear anything we have not heard before, nothing recent, nothing involving St. John’s. All of those listed have since been removed from active ministry or have died. Our most immediate concern is the victims and their families. We will need to affirm their courage and listen to their stories. Some of them will feel the need to yell at me or you. You have done nothing wrong, nor have I. But we will still need to listen, extend compassion, and find healing. None of us signed up for this when we professed faith in Jesus Christ, nor when we became members of his church. But it is exactly where we are because none of us is perfect. It is where we need to be because God’s mercy is greater than our sins.

The passage we so often associate with weddings from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is actually more about the life of the Christian community. Just before it, Paul explains that we are members of the body of Christ, that we belong to, and need one another. He was writing to a very fractured Christian community, torn by politics and religious practice and orthodoxy and popular culture, not a whole lot different from where we are now. In his book “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” Stephen Covey reflects on how we might use our energies more efficiently. “Imagine two circles, one inside the other. The larger is our ‘circle of concern’ and the smaller our ‘circle of influence.’ He suggests we should spend more of our energy in the smaller circle,” where we can be more effective[3]. “Love is patient, love is kind,” and all that. It means we should spend less energy ranting about national politics and things we can do little about, and pay more attention to those around us who hurt. Or you could be a prophet. I hear they’re hiring. Or you can take my job. I really need Groundhog Day to be over.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019


[1]Jeremiah 1: 18-19

[2]Jeremiah 20: 7-9

[3]Stephen Covey video