“From Among Your Own People”
Text: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Moses said, The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.
It’s so uncomfortable to be reminded that this is how prophets appear: from among our own people. The check-out clerk at QFC. The kid who sleeps rough in the doorway of American Apparel. Your least favorite cousin. You. When we hear scriptures like today’s lesson from Deuteronomy, we can sort of picture Moses scanning the assembled crowd while everyone avoids making eye contact with him and mutters, Please not me, don’t pick me, don’t pick me. Everybody loves a prophet until we remember that prophecy is a responsibility we share. Like taking out the trash and cleaning out that slimy stuff in drain of the kitchen sink. Sometimes that is my job, sometimes that is your job, and some people grumpily end up covering double shifts when others slack off on their duties.
“Prophet” has become a hip and marketable word in some corners of the church these days, despite the biblical prophets being the least marketable people imaginable. The core of our faith, and the reason we prophesy, is always material. This does not make us less spiritual but it does make us decidedly less marketable. Freezing bodies and empty bellies are the deepest kind of spiritual crisis in any society. All of today’s readings are grounded in the flesh-and-blood concerns of our faith. The promised prophet in Deuteronomy is pledged to a people with sore, blistered, calloused feet from decades of roaming the wilderness. Psalm 111 tells us, “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, he gives food to those who fear him.” For all of Paul’s rhetorical gymnastics in this letter to the church at Corinth, he still has to confront the human need for food. Jesus offers up some compelling teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum but ultimately his authority among the people is earned when they watch him heal a man’s convulsing body. Notice how the gospel-writer doesn’t even record what all that teaching was about. Apparently Jesus’ words were less important than the bodies and the actions in the room. This is an important thing for prophets like us to keep in mind. We are not just about words. We’re about bodies and we’re about that action, boss.
We prophets are living in a kairos moment. In this city, in this nation, in the world. Kairos time is unordinary time (or extra-ordinary time, depending on how you look at it). Kairos moments are those ones you have when time suddenly seems to open up. Kairos moments in history are those ones when certain systems, certain structures, certain evils which once seemed permanent and part of the natural order of things are suddenly revealed for what they are: passing. Temporary, in the grand scheme of things. Made by our hands and history, and unmade the same way. At their most powerful, they are moments when vast numbers of ordinary people wake up and seize their own prophetic power.
Saint Frederick Douglass the abolitionist wrote these words in 1845, on the verge of another kairos moment in the United States:
I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members. The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus […]
The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand in hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other. The clanking of fetters and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other. The dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other — devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.
As much as this present kairos moment in the human story belongs to us contemporary prophets, it also belongs to Frederick Douglass. We stand on the shoulders of all the prophets who came before us—be it him, or the Moses of Deuteronomy, or the Moses of the Mid-Atlantic seaboard, Saint Harriet Tubman. We are indebted to these abolitionist prophets and kairos moments are the best times to break even on repaying those debts. It’s sort of like trying to repay your debt to Jesus, though—you don’t pay with monthly installments as much as you pay by pledging your life and then following. By doing what they did. By speaking, by teaching, by walking, by running. They weren’t rich people or great television personalities. They were poor and often illiterate, sometimes disabled, all traumatized. They were faithful. We are faithful. So who will we be, in this kairos moment? What will we abolish? What will we prophesy?