In my twelve years of being clergy, I have had to suggest that someone leave the congregation only once. And from my point of view, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
As briefly as possible: A woman in one of my former congregations felt that the diocese and the former priest had badly wronged her. When I started at the congregation, I understood the situation and I agreed with the past actions. Because I did not jump to her defense, her anger was transferred to me.
She continued to push for me to change things back to the way they were and I continued to resist. As I resisted, she gathered allies from the congregation and sowed discontent. She also would avoid coming to worship but would show up for coffee afterwards.
Eventually, I told her that I was not going to change my position and that it may be better to seek a different congregation where she could find a new beginning without all the pain and anger that she was still feeling at her present congregation. Of course, this went over like a lead balloon.
She did eventually find another congregation and, from what I understand, is doing well there. But before she left, she proceeded to tell everyone that I was hateful, self-serving, evil, and unqualified to lead a congregation.
Now, why am I telling you this? This is probably the most profound example when I had to act in a prophetic manner. I had to say and do things that were not going to be pleasant, but to not say and do them would be even worse. I could have worked to maintain my “good guy” image, but the only person who would have been served would have been me. To do what needed to be done, I had to risk the disapproval of many people; in fact, I had to risk the disapproval of the whole congregation.
So often in churches we talk about prophetic messages, but prophetic messages are not necessarily pleasant things to hear or to have directed toward us. Prophetic messages mean that things we have become quite comfortable with are going to have to change. And our general response when we first hear prophecy is to become angry with the person speaking the prophecy. If the person would just go with the flow, everything would be so much better. If the prophet would stop rocking the boat, we could all sleep soundly at night. But, usually, the prophet will not be quiet. The prophet keeps speaking and the people continue to get angry.
This is the situation that we see in the gospel reading for today. Jesus is speaking to the people. But the words he spoke were not making the people happy. But instead of listening to what Jesus was saying, the people kept looking for ways to discredit him. They brought up that he was just a carpenter. They brought up that he was “Mary’s son.” (Note: They didn’t say, “Joseph’s Son.” By not mentioning Joseph, they were publicly slamming Jesus’ questionable paternity.) Then kept coming up with as many things as possible to discredit the message Jesus was speaking. This is an old trick, if we can discredit the messenger, we don’t have to pay any attention to the message.
But, this says more about the person hearing the message than the person sharing the message. When we don’t want to hear the message, we will actively look for ways to not have to attend to the message. But we ignore Christ’s message to our own peril. We need to remember that the message Jesus speaks is presented for our BENEFIT! It is not there to make our life difficult; it is there to make our life BETTER. The difficult thing is putting our ego aside and really LISTENING to the message.
Thinking back to my situation in the congregation, I wanted what was the best for the congregation and for the woman. I wasn’t suggesting that she leave just to make my life easier, it actually caused some additional problems of me, but it was suggested to help her. She was skipping worship services and just coming to fellowship. Whenever she was at church, she always seemed angry. Being part of the congregation seemed to be making her life worse. Although suggesting she go somewhere else seemed quite offensive to her, the hope was that she would continue to grow in her faith.
When Jesus gives a prophecy to us, it may sound offensive; however, we need to have faith, trust the source, and realize that it is given to us in love. Christ is not trying to make our life worse, but to make it better! Aside from helping others, when we attend to Jesus prophetic speech, it helps us. Tithing helps us to keep our finances in perspective. Helping the poor and sick helps us to appreciate our blessings in life and to appreciate our health. Doing these things may not be easy, but we become more mature through the process. We ignore the words of the prophet to our loss! (You knew that one was coming!)
Of course, this also means that when we go out into the world to spread Christ’s word, we may find the reception to be a little cool. Asking people to welcome the stranger is likely to be met with resistance. Telling people to give to help the poor and needy is likely to be met with claims that the poor and needy are that way by their own fault. To be the true prophetic voice of Christ in the world is very likely to make you unpopular in certain sectors of the population. But there were certain sectors of the population where Christ was not very popular either. However, just because it may not be the popular thing to do or say does not mean it is not the right thing to do.
Probably the most difficult part of listening to prophecy is knowing which is the true prophet and which is the false prophet. And here, I do not have any easy answers. The only thing that I can tell you with assurance is that we need to have faith and trust. We need to have faith that God will work through us if we just place our trust in him. We need to have faith that God will be present and can take our activities and use them for the benefit of God’s Kingdom. But we also need to do something. We cannot expect to just sit still and have God move our hands like some kind of puppeteer. If we are willing to move, God will be there to guide our feet and hands. But if we choose to sit, God will sit there with us; but I believe that God wants us to be out and about in the world.
Prophetic voices are not easy things to deal with. We really do not want to hear them, and we really don’t want to speak them. Prophetic voices are risky. Prophetic voices can make some pretty powerful people angry. But when the prophetic voice is offered in love, it can change the world. I think God wants us to be more than we ever dream for ourselves. I believe God wants us to be the people who speak love and forgiveness to the world. I believe God wants us to be the people who can change the world! Pretty incredible, huh?