Sixth Sunday after Pentecost 2021B

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary: Sunday July 3-9 in Year B

Prophets and Apostles in Our Midst  Amy Carr reflects on a God-driven vision of right relations in our shared world.


Ezekiel 2:1-5
Psalm 123
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Mark 6:1-13

In light of today’s readings about the experience of being a prophet or apostle, we might see Independence Day as a moment to recall the United States’ own complicated place within the biblical narrative about liberation from oppression. “Prophets” might be those who interrupted the status quo of colonial rule with a revolutionary imagination, and “apostles” those who shaped the constitutional structure of the new nation. So too today, prophets continue to spark revitalization movements that extend our understanding of what just relations look like for people and the planet as a whole, while apostles seek to institutionalize that new and better vision in the nitty-gritty of local, state, federal, and international law (as well as in household, congregational, and business practices). [1]

To be sure, whether it concerns a religious or a national community, the language of prophecy is dangerous. When we are angry enough, any of us might mistake our emotional state for a call to prophecy, claiming the mantle of Ezekiel:

“Mortal, I am sending you to . . . a nation of rebels who have rebelled against me; they and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants are impudent and stubborn” (Ezekiel 2:3-4).

Those who called themselves “patriots” while participating in the attempted insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 saw themselves in a revolutionary lineage, standing up for persecuted truth and freedom from tyranny. With equal zeal, others rebuke the January 6 patriots as false prophets who distort a true prophetic focus on empirical facts, racial justice, care for the vulnerable, and a global reorientation away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

We can keep fine-tuning the language of prophecy, as if we’re trying to get the radio frequency just right, keen to hear God’s voice with clarity and elegance, in a way that ennobles rather than dispirits us. Think of recent critiques of virtue-signaling by those with white privilege who protest or use social media to identify themselves as anti-racists. Or of moral grandstanding by anyone adamantly on our own side on an issue, but expressing themselves in a way we find screeching, embarrassing, or counter-productive. Virtue-signalers and moral grandstanders—any who want most to mark their own status on the right side of justice—might find their proof text in Ezekiel 2:5: “Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know there has been a prophet among them.”

Of course, these are God’s words, not Ezekiel’s. Ezekiel had fallen face-down on the ground after seeing a dazzling image of God (Ezekiel 2:1); he was so overcome that God had to pick him up off the ground and make him stand up. God’s own outrage about injustice was finding its way through Ezekiel despite or because of his own humility and vulnerability. Here Ezekiel is quite like Paul, who speaks of himself as a rather awkward apostle.

As Christians we cannot avoid embracing (or running up against) the voice of the prophet—even if we need always to test the spirit of prophecy, to keep listening anew for the Word of God as we risk speaking what we hear in our attention to scripture and to the world around us.

The gospel and epistle readings depict public responses to Jesus himself as prophet—a prophet of good news in a hurting world. In Mark 6, we see how disappointed Jesus with those in his hometown of Nazareth who couldn’t fathom that some guy they’d watched grow up could be a prophet. Wasn’t he just one of Mary’s many sons? Jesus was baffled that their bewilderment was so strong they couldn’t open themselves to a good gift right in front of them:  Jesus’ generative power of healing.

How often do those of us in social change movements also look to far-away celebrity leadership, rather than noticing and cultivating leadership in our own congregations and communities?

Once when I belonged to a local peace and justice group that opposed the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, a woman wanted to invite Greg Mortenson to our community to speak about the schools for girls that he was building in Afghanistan through his non-profit organization. His book Three Cups of Tea was a bestseller. We didn’t know then that Mortenson was mismanaging funds, but we did know he was charging thousands of dollars as a speaker. I argued that our small organization shouldn’t try to fundraise that much just for a speaker, especially when we had someone local who could talk about building schools in Afghanistan: a US military officer who had worked on civilian projects in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We did end up inviting our local military officer to speak instead, and he agreed after being persuaded that we weren’t simply going to use the occasion to bash soldiers. The talk revealed to us how little the peace movement was covering the many schools and infrastructure projects being built by the US military (vastly more than by Mortenson’s NGO), and how much the officer who spoke with us admired the below-the-radar civilian foreign women and men who stayed in remote, rural conflict zones to contribute to community-building.

Jesus’ response to his hometown’s dismissal of him was to send out other ordinary movement members two by two to go into towns to preach repentance, to anoint the sick with oil, and to cast out demons. Jesus equipped his disciples with only one thing: “authority over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7). He gave them the clarity of a prophetic vision, seeing beneath the layers of suffering to a path to flourishing and well-being. He told them to set boundaries by no longer engaging those who did not listen, while warning them of the consequences of doing so. And we are called to do likewise, aware as we are of the manifold sufferings on a planet facing rising CO2 levels and pollution of many sorts.

Jesus’ disciples became the apostles of the church that continued after the risen and ascended Jesus sent to them the power of the Holy Spirit. Interestingly, in the apostle Paul’s own account of getting high in the mystical joy of Paradise, he was simultaneously brought down to earth: “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated” (I Corinthians 12:7). The Lord told Paul to see this thorn as a gift that itself allowed “the power of Christ” to “dwell” in him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (I Corinthians 2:9).

Think of all that Paul accomplished as a missionary as he lived through this mix of being caught up in two sensations at once:  a debilitating affliction, and ecstatic fellowship with the risen Christ. Paul is a disability theologian who reminds us that even when our whole society is snagged by the thorn of an addiction to unsustainable levels of consumption and a despair about our ability to change our ways, we can draw on a Spirit-driven vision to do the work of an apostle for our planet’s well-being.

Here, too, we might pay attention to the local apostles in our midst, and think about where we can join in their labor.

Reading the local newspaper while visiting family this past week in Upper Michigan, I have witnessed apostolic labor at play in the cooperative work of the Buffalo Reef Task Force and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Water Resources Division to remove stamp sands along a five-mile stretch of Lake Superior in the Keweenaw Peninsula. The stamp sands are left behind by copper mill processing, and as they drift into the Buffalo Reef, they threaten the habitat of lake trout and whitefish. Shoreline property owners are asked to report underground septic and water features, to gauge how removing the stamp sands will affect them. And in an editorial, I noticed another apostolic effort at organizing creation care through the federal legislative process: two bills, the Clean Water for Military Families Act and the Filthy Fifty Act, would “direct the Department of Defense to identify and clean up PPAS [per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances] at U.S. military installation,” like the defunct K.I. Sawyer Air Force base in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. [2]

Environmental activism is not only about selfie-friendly Extinction Rebellion protests and arrests, though some of us are called to bear witness in ways that disrupt the flow of our lives. All of us, however, can open our eyes to see where we can create or support local, state, and national efforts to promote a healthier environment and reduce carbon emissions. Illinois may become the first US state this summer to ban coal-fired power plants; more companies and professions are working with technological innovations to move from greenwashing to carbon reduction. One of our thorns today is living with the question: can we act quickly enough to abate an apocalypse of our own making?

Our scripture readings for July 4 convey that prophets and apostles are freed to work with and through their senses of inadequacy, or their not being believed by others. May we draw upon that same freeing power as we seek to enact a God-driven vision of right relations in our shared world.

Originally written by Amy Carr in 2021.
amyreneecarr@gmail.com

[1] Enrique Dussel’s Ethics and Community (Orbis, 1988) remains a sound companion in thinking through the ways that the gospel motivates, transcends, and ever refines liberation movements.
[2] Marquette Mining Journal Editorial, appearing in The Daily Mining Gazette, June 14, 2021, 4A.