Reflection: Prophets and the Messiah
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
I am back in California after a week in the state of Georgia. When I started with you as Executive Presbyter, I had the opportunity to attend the Presbytery Leader Formation training program. It is a three-year program, and we are put in a particular cohort based on the year we started. The cohort I was in was unusual—we were smaller in number, younger in age (though several of us already had experience working with presbyteries), more strategic, and our contexts differed markedly from the imagined presbytery the faculty was training us for. To the faculty’s surprise (and dismay, for some), we were very clear how their training didn’t address our experience—which may have a little to do with the fact that two of the eight in our cohort are now tasked with overhauling the presbytery leader training approach.
We were also unusual in how strongly we bonded, so we continue to meet for a week each year. This year’s host, Deb Tregaskis, is the executive for Flint River Presbytery, south of Atlanta. The big surprise for me was that this rural area, Sumter County, has less than 33,000 residents, yet it has been the home of a small group of Christian revolutionaries, including:
- Clarence Jordan, who wrote the Cotton Patch series, which restates New Testament passages within the context of Civil Rights-era Georgia, where Jews and Gentiles are rendered as “white men and Negroes,” crucifixion is lynching, Rome is Washington, DC, and Jerusalem is Atlanta. Jordan also co-founded Koinonia Farm, a group who tried to live like the Acts church, sharing a common purse and inviting Blacks and Whites to live as equal neighbors—which led to violence by segregationists in the area.
- Millard and Linda Fuller, who lived at Koinonia before founding Habitat for Humanity. Millard was also a law-school classmate and business partner with Morris Dees, founder of Southern Poverty Law Center. (They made millions in publishing while still in Alabama, which helped fund their respective non-profits.)
- President Jimmy Carter, whose home is close by and is still teaching Sunday School at his church in Plains, and who lent his fame to Habitat for Humanity, making it a global organization.
We had the privilege of having dinner with Linda Fuller Degelmann, Millard’s widow and former partner, a formidable Christian justice activist in her own right. As I learned more about this group, I noticed that several of these people suffered in their prophetic witness. There was discussion about Millard being forced out of Habitat for Humanity, and Linda mentioned how Morris Dees was just fired by Southern Poverty Law Center the week before. We remembered how Jimmy Carter was criticized as President, including after a speech on energy conservation and sustainability that was amazing in its foresight and Christian ethic of self-sacrifice (which almost never wins votes).
In our discussions about these prophets, we theorized that while there may have been actual misconduct which warranted discipline, often prophets are pushed out because they do not have the ability to “scale up” as their movement grows. In Silicon Valley, it’s generally considered that start-up founders or new technology wizards often find themselves forced out of the very company they started, either because they don’t have the skills to manage a much larger organization, or the aggressive personality that helped them promote their invention ended up alienating the people who came alongside them to develop the business.
I have often considered John the Baptist this way—a prophet whose passion for God’s kingdom was needed to foretell the coming of the Messiah, but whose unbending sense of righteousness got him in some trouble. Now I would not make a parallel between Jesus, the real Messiah, and large-scale corporate administrators, but Jesus did offer a much more nuanced message than John. Jesus had his moments of righteous anger, but the dominant message from Jesus was one of forgiveness and grace extended not only to honorable Jews but also the outcast “sinners” of society, including even Gentiles. Jesus was not only a prophet of judgment, but also a prophet of radical, life-giving love and acceptance, and his resurrection was proof of God’s promise of hope for all of us.
As we continue on our Lenten journey, may we take seriously this promise of hope, and our call to be prophets in our own ways. May we accept the fact that no one of us can be the right voice for all people at all times, so even as we might come up short, even within the Christian context, let us give thanks that there are others who can step forward and continue the mission with varied gifts and skills.
But let us hold to a few constants, including what I consider the core lesson of Lent: that Jesus loves us so much, and obeys God so well, as to give up his life even in disgrace—and that God then lifted him up to God’s glory.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16
May we live as followers of Christ, in our work, in our lives, even in the face of danger and death.
Trusting in the promise of the Gospel,