Rev. Danielle K Bartz October 9, 2022
Mark 6:1-6 “God’s Melody”
It is important, I think, for me to begin by stating I fully believe there continues to be prophets today. People who speak the word of God, no matter how hard it is to hear, who do so no matter the consequences, who call on believers to put their entire selves into the work of God – those people are in the world today. I believe they are people of all ages, gender identities, political ideologies, and religious beliefs. I believe some are well known figures, and most are just quietly speaking God’s truth to anyone who sits still long enough to pay attention. In fact, for Lent of 2020, I was really excited for a sermon series about the prophets of the 20th and 21st century. I had a long list of people and had to narrow it down to just 5 for us to focus on each Sunday that season. But of course, Lent was in March of 2020, and things got a little side-tracked.
So, while I firmly believe that God continues to speak through prophets, I have found myself troubled by a nagging question – how do we distinguish between a prophet speaking God’s word, and someone just making a lot of noise? Further, how can we tell the difference between someone speaking with wisdom and insight, and someone speaking prophetically? So, perhaps we need to start with the definition of prophet. The basic definition is ‘a person regarded as an inspired teacher or proclaimer of the will of God.” And that definition, while vague, actually works pretty well for me. I may reword it to say something like, ‘a person who speaks the truth of God in a way that convicts people to do the will of God in the world.’
But, working with that definition, I find myself with a problem: how do I know that person is proclaiming the will of God? And the reason for this problem I have is because, when I think through all of the people of yesterday and today who I consider to be prophetic, I can’t help but notice I already agree with them. Yes, they may push me to do more, but they aren’t saying things that are contrary to my believes. Is it possible that there are prophets out there speaking God’s truth, with God urging me to listen, but whom I vehemently disagree with? I am forced to concede that, yes, that is more than possible – it is undoubtedly true.
This is a tremendous problem because, in our remarkably divided world, a world in which we tend to surround ourselves with like-minded people who think and act and talk and vote just like we do – opportunities to hear from voices different than our own are scarce. Too often we don’t bother, or we dismiss them out of hand because of some preconceived notion about them. We assume they are wrong, so we don’t listen in the first place.
This is, of course, not a new problem. It is the basis of our scripture lesson this morning. The people to whom Jesus was speaking could not conceive of him as someone who was speaking the word of God. In this case, it was because they knew him too well. They had known him as a child, they knew his siblings and his parents. How could someone they watched grow up, from an average, undistinguished family, possibly be a messenger of God? And while it is not clear in this particular lesson, there are other instances in the Gospels of their prejudice against him deepening because not only was he just some kid from their village, but he was speaking or preaching things they did not already agree with. It is not recorded what he said in the synagogue that day, but it is fair to assume it was some unpopular truth because that was characteristic of his ministry. A prophet can never be a prophet in their hometown, Jesus said, and he moved on. I can’t help but wonder what those people would think today if they were here – attending a service on the other side of the world worshipping that hometown kid, repeating his words, and saying we all have to be more like him.
But, it is one thing to dismiss someone because you just know too much about them, or you ‘knew them back when.’ But it is entirely a different thing to dismiss someone because you have already decided you are not going to like what they have to say. It is not difficult to look back in history at all the people who were dismissed, even though they were speaking God’s truth and enacting God’s will. From the Biblical prophets to those in the relatively recent past, to those still speaking today – we can all think of a myriad of examples. So, how do we make sure we don’t continue that trend? How can we make sure we don’t perpetuate the preponderance of echo chambers in this world? How do we ensure we fulfill our Christian mandate to listen for the will of God, even if that will is spoken through the most unlikely of people? And how we tease out who is speaking the will of God, and who is just making noise, even if it is noise we agree with?
First, we must be in conversation with a diversity of people. People of differing opinions, people with different life experiences, people who view the world in a completely different way. I want to be clear, I am not talking about politicians or politics here. Politics has taken on the role of religion for a lot of people, and we must continue to resist that. I am instead talking about those who write and speak about this world, who do so not for the sake of their own power, but do so because they are trying to get the world to pay attention. People who are motivated not by notoriety and fame, but rather motivated by the possibility that people will look to where they are pointing. And if that person doesn’t fall into whatever category we have created in our minds for those worth listening to, then we need to listen that much harder. We might not agree, we may never agree, we may spend all our energy disagreeing – but we must at least listen. There is a reason that the parables Jesus told often were about unlikely people doing the will of God. The impact of that unlikeliness has softened because of history – but in Jesus’ time, having Samaritans be the hero, fishermen as disciples, or women as the only ones left attending to the tomb – that was radical, unbelievable, and would not have fit into the categories the people of Jesus’ day had created. Jesus was teaching that God speaks and works through the most unlikely of people.
Once we have allowed ourselves to be in true conversation with a diversity of people, we then need to listen for a familiar melody of God’s will in the midst of the conversation. Because there is a familiar line through it all that we can understand as God’s voice. In all of the major and minor religions, there is an emphasis on caring for the neighbor. There is the reminder that selflessness is closer to God’s will than selfishness. Doing good, showing love, and caring for the least of these is the melodic line on which everything of God rests. And if we listen carefully enough, we can hear that familiar melody even if it is being played in an unfamiliar, even uncomfortable way.
Every Wednesday afternoon I try to listen to the Piano Puzzler on classical MPR. It is a game in which someone with knowledge of and love for music listens as a remarkably talented pianist plays a familiar piece of music, but dressed up as something very unfamiliar. It is necessary to listen closely for a familiar melody buried in musical flair. And the melodies are almost always something incredibly common and recognizable in must circumstances. “Sweet Caroline,” the theme from the “Addams Family,” even the “Star-Spangled Banner” were recent familiar tunes that were played in an unfamiliar way. But, with ears attuned just right, the melody can be heard. Sometimes the pianist, if the contestant is struggling, will play it differently, making sure to bring the familiar melody more to the surface. It is fun to listen to, not just to marvel at the pianist’s abilities, but because once the familiar melody is recognized, it is given more life by hearing it in a new way.
That is what it is like to listen for God’s word and God’s truth today. We have to listen for a familiar melody, the melody taught to us by Jesus. We have to listen for the two greatest commandments – to love God and love neighbor. We have to listen for the focus of the prayer Jesus taught – loving God and seeking just enough for today and forgiving those who have wronged us. Those melodies are familiar, and with our ears listening for them, we can recognize them in the words of today’s prophets even as they speak words that make us uncomfortable, challenge our assumptions, or call on us to change.
And if we are hearing just making a lot of noise, even if it is words or opinions that we agree with, but we don’t hear in them the melody of God’s voice and God’s will, than that person is not a prophet. It can be incredibly difficult, at times, to tell the difference. And we may never be entirely sure, but we are still encouraged to listen as carefully as we can.
Jesus was dismissed by those who could not bring themselves to admit that God may work through someone that didn’t fit a neat category of prophet. And the prophets of today are too frequently dismissed because they don’t fit into the categories of today, or because they exist outside of the echo chambers we too often find ourselves in. But, there is something miraculous about hearing a familiar melody played in an unfamiliar way. And this world needs miracles, miracles that we can make real by stepping outside of the familiar and listening with our whole selves. Amen.
Good and great God, you are still speaking to us today in new and unfamiliar ways. For your still-speaking voice, we give great thanks. And it is in that gratitude that we come before you in prayer today.
The words of your son and our teacher Jesus Christ are words that both comfort and convict us. Help us to engage with them in everything we do and in each interaction we have. Give us the courage to speak them to others and the wisdom to hear them from the stranger.
One of the ways, God, we listen for your voice is through prayer, when we turn over to you the needs of our hearts and the needs of our neighbors. In these moments of silence we seek your comforting presence and your convicting call on our lives…
Loving God, you have never turned away from your creation, in fact you continue to urge us to live your will for our lives. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our greatest teacher and guide, and the one who taught us to sing your familiar melody by raising our voices together…Our Father…