Lent 2 – Who Do You Say That I Am?

“Jesus as Social Prophet,” Bob Ryder

Mark 2:23-28 One sabbath Jesus was walking with his disciples through the fields. As they made their way the disciples began to pluck heads from stalks of grain and ate them. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’  And Jesus replied, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.

For our Lenten series we’re considering the various ways we try to understand who Jesus was, approaching the question partly by way of ideas presented by Marcus Borg in his book “Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.” The passage we’re using as our springboard is…

Mark 8:27-29a Jesus went with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi. On the way he asked them, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ They answered, ‘Some say you are John the Baptist; others say you’re Elijah; and still others say you’re one of the prophets.’ Then he asked them, “And who do you say that I am?”

In his writings, Borg considers the life and ministry of the historical Jesus’ in four categories – as a spirit person, as a wisdom teacher, as a movement founder, and as a social prophet. Susan talked about his identity as a spirit-person last week. This morning we’ll consider what it means to know him as prophet. Whatever else we might say about Jesus, he most certainly was a prophet – one of those outspoken, often exceptionally eloquent critics of social institutions who speaks truth to power undaunted by resistance or threats from those benefitting by the status quo. These are fellow citizens who call for change on behalf of those being neglected or abused by the current state of things.

In my estimation, Jesus’ role as a prophet is the most misunderstood aspect of his identity. Traditional Christians often interpret Jesus’s words as if he’d had modern society in mind, and read into his messages predictions about everything from the fall of the Berlin wall to 9/11, from North Korea testing nuclear missiles to what was on Hillary’s email server. It’s the kind of Nostradamus-like fantasy-indulgent thinking that makes Christianity look irrelevant and ridiculous. That’s not what it means to be a prophet. There’s nothing super-natural about prophetic activity – it doesn’t imply clairvoyance or doom-mongering or access to special knowledge unavailable to the rest of humanity. Prophecy is a manifestation of disciplined perspective and orientation. It is a way of evaluating human activity through the lens of justice and compassion; a willingness to question assumptions of conventional wisdom and to challenge authorities who control resources to their own advantage.

To understand who Jesus was, we must begin by acknowledging that he did not foresee us, and he was not interested in predicting the future as if he were a psychic. His ministry was about improving the conditions of his own society, addressing problems relevant to his own people. Neither was he attempting to start a new religion, but only to reform Judaism away from legalism and segregation toward compassionate inclusivity. That was his experience of the sacred, and the organizing theme of his prophetic activity rivaling the oppressive religious and social institutions of his day. When Mark imagines Jesus asking, “Who do you say that I am?” an informed answer requires we understand his role as a prophet – holding corrupt leaders to account and imposing high standards those who enjoy a privileged existence.

The passage we heard from Mark in which Jesus pushes back against the Pharisees as they criticize him is a small but worthy example. The practice of Judaism at the time was strict about prohibiting work on the sabbath. The original intent of that law was to facilitate spirituality and rest and family time by imposing a mandatory break from work. It was intended to improve people’s lives by giving them a chance to rest and connect without worrying about competition from neighbors. But by the time of Jesus, the law came to be regarded as a means for perfecting human behavior so as to become worthy of God’s intervention on behalf of Israel. The Pharisees high and holy reaction to the disciples feeding themselves – picking grain was technically harvesting and therefor working on the sabbath – completely ignored the compassionate spirit of the law. Thus, Jesus confronts them for being more invested in obedience to the Torah for its own sake than in the well-being of those the Torah was meant to serve. This was an act of prophecy, criticizing a repressive social convention and its proponents on behalf of common people.

Now maybe it’s difficult to connect with the idea of religious or political leaders worshipping a law over the well-being of their fellow citizens. Separated as we are by two millennia and vastly different cultures, it’s hard to imagine why breaking sabbath law was such an affront to the Pharisees. For me to explain that it was part of their collective identity; that the keeping the Torah and being Jewish were profound sources of pride and hope– that probably wouldn’t make it much more accessible. So consider how some politicians respond when athletes decline to stand for the national anthem. Consider how some politicians respond when protesters burn flags. As it happens, neither of those actions automatically offends me – it depends on the cause people are protesting for. I fully support the athletes who kneel during the national anthem calling attention to racism and police brutality. I don’t think highly of wearing tank tops and boxer shorts adorned with the stars and stripes. And make no mistake, I adore the nation. I have deep reverence for the principles of freedom and justice we strive for – however inconsistently and imperfectly. I take solemn pride in the kindness we offer one another as neighbors when natural disasters happen. I feel an awesome connection to our heritage as descendants of immigrants. I hold in high esteem those who serve in our military and police and fire and rescue services. I get a lump in my throat when I read the Declaration of Independence and Preamble to the Constitution, or when we sing “O beautiful for patriot dream that see beyond the years, thine alabaster cities gleam undimmed by human tears.” Because I feel that way, because I identify with the best aspects and aspirations of our national character, I feel offended when a performer sings the national anthem in such a way that tortures the melody to show off their voice, trampling on the dignity and unity the occasion is meant to inspire. Like us, Israel had a deep spiritual connection with their traditions. So it’s easy to understand if not excuse why the Pharisees were touchy about sabbath law. Consider how Americans respond when there’s talk about amending the constitution, as I am about to do. That’s the investment Jesus was confronting. That’s the tension of social prophecy, and what we need to understand to appreciate who Jesus was.

Now, a long time ago when I was ordained as a minister, Susan was one of the speakers for that service. In her sermon she used to excellent effect a quote by then recent vice-presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen from when he debated Dan Quayle and said, “You’re no Jack Kennedy.” She told me in her sermon… “I serve Jesus Christ. I know Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is a friend of mine. Bob, you’re no Jesus Christ.” So, in referring to my next thoughts as being in the same category of activity with Jesus as a social prophet, please infer no arrogance – I am quite humble about my prophetic credentials. Yet gathered as we are less than 2 weeks after the latest American mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it would be negligent not to speak prophetically for a moment about the issue of guns and our constitutional rights.

The time has come to acknowledge that perfecting our union requires sensible and broad regulation of the public’s access to firearms. The time has come to infringe – thoughtfully – upon the people’s right to keep and bear arms. The time has come to change the 2nd Amendment. The modern working interpretation of the people’s right to keep and bear arms already blatantly ignores adjacent references to maintaining a well-regulated militia and the security of the state. At very least it tortures the common-sense definitions of those words. But for the sake of argument, let’s consider as valid the most permissive possible intention of the founders and interpretation of the judiciary. In 2018 the assertion that any private citizen is entitled to any kind of gun and in any quantity they desire is absurd. The very concept of weaponry has changed so vastly between the 18th and 21st centuries that the law is irrelevant. Imagine relying on 18th century knowledge of surgery and pharmacology to inform medical law now. Which of us would go to an 18th century dentist to have toothache treated? The unrestricted access to weapons that was tenable, perhaps even in the best interest of the nation 230 years ago is not tolerable now. In schools and work places and concerts and houses of worship our fellow citizens, our co-workers and neighbors, our family, our children are being slaughtered. We venerate an 18th century policy as ruler over our 21st century reality. America has become too big and complex, our weapons have become too powerful and available to maintain an unrestricted presumptive right to keep and bear arms. We have to rethink our relationship with guns.

The urgency to sensibly infringe on public access to military weapons is glaring. I mean, consider the precise wording of the law… “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Not just guns – arms! By that definition assault rifles aren’t merely permissible, they become insufficient. Doesn’t the word “Arms” now suggest that for the security of the state, the people have the right to keep and bear grenade launchers, tanks, Blackhawk helicopters, nuclear weapons? The most dangerous weapons when the constitution was established were single shot muskets that took minutes to reload and had very limited range and accuracy. The massive lethal capacity of modern war weapons is absolutely inappropriate for private citizens.   It is insanely easy for the most irresponsible person to get a military grade weapon that can wipe out hundreds of people in minutes. We cannot go on like this.

Doubtless I’ve already lost any possible audience persuaded that the that the 2nd amendment is sacrosanct. Nevertheless I hasten to add that I am not advocating nor would I support policy to withhold or confiscate every gun from every citizen. There is a place for responsible gun ownership in America. But the opportunity to own firearms of sensibly limited capacity, and to use them in sensibly limited contexts should be managed as a privilege, not as a right. Rather than allowing any citizen to own any weapon, hoping against all odds to filter out those who might be dangerous before they start killing, we should allow sane, law-abiding citizens who want to own guns to train and demonstrate themselves capable and trustworthy. Like the opportunity to drive a car, one must be carefully screened for the necessary maturity and skill set.

I do not assert this as a liberal nor a socialist nor a pacifist nor an extremist nor an elitist – I am none of the above. I assert it as a patriot and a neighbor possessed of common sense. I assert it as a citizen prophet in opposition to the NRA and every public official who accepts their blood money. We have to think about access to fire arms differently. Neither am I naive. Anyone can see that the changes America needs to make in its gun laws will happen too slowly to prevent more mass shootings, and that the conflict will be divisive – probably violent – before we achieve some semblance of effective gun control in the United States. But it is the task of prophets to speak truth, to challenge conventional wisdom, to confront evil institutions, to advocate for those who are being harmed.

The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school are the most recent examples of social prophets. Undaunted by death threats against their families and vicious lies about their character, these young people have already confronted the gun lobby and changed the direction of our national debate. In eleven days since the tragedy, as a result of their efforts: over a dozen corporations have cut ties with the NRA; the Republican governor of Florida has called for changes in state gun laws; marches and school walkouts have been planned nationwide; and the NRA is on the defensive issuing a martyred statement yesterday decrying public and corporate outrage at their complicity. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas students have also initiated a campaign to get 17-year-old citizens pre-registered to vote in time for the 2018 mid-term elections. Despite being maligned and threatened, they stand undaunted for their cause, holding public servants to account. Is it any wonder these students attend a school named for Marjory Stoneman Douglas – a social prophet known for her outspoken views and political activism in women’s suffrage, civil rights, and environmental conservation?

To say that we need to change the 2nd amendment will seem deliberately provocative. Prophetic words always provoke opposition from those who benefit from evil. This is to be expected, as the right to buy and sell guns is prized as highly as the right to buy and sell politicians. I anticipate more distorted-logic arguments and insults and threats. Yet I’m not saying this for the sake of being provocative. I say it because if our society is going to make progress reducing gun violence we have to transcend the conventional wisdom of presumptive gun rights. It has to become legitimate and normative to think this way. And so when elected officials venerate an archaic law for its own sake over public well-being, offering platitudes from one hand while taking blood money with the other, prophets like Emma Gonzalez will be there to “call BS!” When privileged pundits invested in the status quo say it’s too soon to talk about gun control, prophets like Representative Ted Deutch will say, “It is not too soon, it’s too late.”

Which brings me back to the subject of Jesus as a social prophet. Jesus didn’t anticipate America or its constitution. He certainly never imagined guns or a person’s divine right to carry an AR-15 assault rifle. But he did understand the related priorities, and if we’re going to understand who Jesus was, if we’re going to navigate our lives as neighbors and citizens as his informed followers, we have to adopt the same prophetic principle – Americans do not exist to serve the Constitution, the Constitution exists to serve Americans. The most passionate arguments against gun control are usually some variation of the idea that it’s wrong to change the constitution, that we have to make our individual and collective lives conform to the traditions and values of the founders, that we must obey the law for its own sake rather than adapting the law to serve our collective needs. Amending our rights to fit with changing circumstances is not wrong. The constitution itself provides for the need to amend it.   Article 5 makes it a slow and difficult process to be undertaken only when absolutely necessary, and rightly so. But changing the Constitution from time to time is necessary and right. What’s wrong is to worship and archaic law for its own sake at the expense of fellow citizens’ lives. As things are now, the 2nd amendment facilitates an ongoing massacre, and we need to change it. Americans don’t exist to serve the Constitution, the Constitution exists to serve Americans, and so the Son of Man is lord even of the Constitution. Amen.