Why I Believe in the Prophetic Christian Tradition

Preacher: Brooks Berndt

Scripture: Matthew 6:24-33

Date: January 29, 2023

There are a wide variety of Christians out there in the world, and I am grateful that your church is willing to take a chance this morning on a Christian of a different denominational flavor. Fortunately, I think our flavors work well together. It is like we are both flavors at Ben & Jerry’s. I can see one of us being the Cherry Garcia of denominations. I am not sure what that would make the other one—Marshmallow Sky or Chewy Gooey Cookie—but I am sure there is one that works. This morning I want to switch metaphors for how we think of our various Christian identities. It has been said that one’s identity can give one a sense of belonging, so there is a way in which our faith identity can be sort of like a house or a home. It can make you feel like you’re in the right place and among the right people. This is certainly fitting when one thinks about one’s immediate church family. Church at its best should give one the feeling that one is surrounded by the ties and relationships that sustain one.

This morning I want to invite you to consider a different kind of spiritual home. This home doesn’t require leaving your church or your denomination. With spiritual homes, I believe it is possible to inhabit more than one at a time. One can be part of a local church and a denomination, while also being part of a larger tradition like the peace church tradition.

Over the past year, the spiritual home that has given me a sense of belonging and that has sustained me in my faith is something I have come to call the prophetic Christian tradition. In some ways, this has been the spiritual home that I have been inhabiting at least partially most of my life, but I had never fully defined and articulated it in this way until I found myself seeking a refuge that afforded the kind of spiritual shelter I felt I needed at this point in my life. I work on environmental justice issues, and I can say that the climate crisis in some ways creates a spiritual crisis, a faith crisis, especially when it is fully confronted. The sheer enormity of it, the harm it has caused and will continue to cause, the multiple issues of justice and peace intertwined with it, the powerful economic forces driving it—all of these are more than enough reason for despair.

For me to move from despair to hope in this situation required that I have a spiritual home that does more than soothe and comfort me. I certainly need some of that, but I also need more. If I look out the window of my home and see a forest fire, I need more than consolation, especially if that consolation isn’t addressing the fire that poses a very real danger. I need a spiritual home that will give me some hope that something can be done about the fire. For me, the best kind of hope is an active hope. I would rather roll up my sleeves to do whatever I can rather than passively count on others. So it was that I found myself wanting a spiritual home that can give me the strength and courage to go out into the world and do what I can to make a difference.

Over this past year, I started to read the Bible in a different way as I reflected upon the kind of spiritual home that would work for me in this moment. In the Bible, I kept finding persons who seemed to come from the kind of home I was looking for. They all had something in common. They were all prophets, and I saw that the prophets had some reoccurring characteristics. First, they often disturbed the status quo. Martin Luther King, Jr., suggested the kind of orientation that a prophet must have when dysfunction has become normalized in a society. He said that “there are certain things within our social order to which I’m proud to be maladjusted.” He went on to cite the prophet Amos and a string of other change-makers as being among the maladjusted. King went so far as to declare that there was a need for a new organization called “The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.” For King, the salvation of the world resided in the creatively maladjusted—which might be one of the best definitions there is for being a prophet.

As I read the Bible more and more with an eye toward the prophets, I saw them as becoming increasingly relevant to the world in which we live. They sought change in ways that made sense to me. They went public. They didn’t keep their concerns private. They confronted the powerful. They didn’t ineffectually hope and wish for better days from a distance. They also centered justice in all that they did. They were clear in their values and commitments. It eventually occurred to me that the entire Bible could be read as a series of stories in which prophets are the lead protagonists. The plot structure goes along the following lines: Humanity strays from God. As such, the norms of society and the ways of the powerful come to reflect and embody this estrangement. The Bible calls this state of estrangement sin. In response, a maladjusted prophet comes along to disrupt the status quo and demand that a different direction be taken. The Bible calls this turning in a new direction repentance. The goal is then to be in right relationship with God and with each other. The Bible calls this justice. This storyline repeats itself over and over in the Hebrew scriptures until it explodes with technicolor vividness in the pages of the New Testament.

As a prophet, Jesus embodied this tradition to its fullest, and we see this in our scripture for today. The scripture comes from the Sermon on the Mount which has been variously called the Jesus Manifesto or the Kingdom Manifesto. The overarching thrust and summation of this manifesto is found in our final verse today: “Seek first the kingdom of Godand God’s justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.” We sometimes refer to God’s kingdom as the beloved community. It is this beloved community that is the opposite of society’s normalized dysfunction. For Jesus, the beloved community was the opposite of the Roman Empire. In his mountaintop manifesto, we can see Jesus building toward the climax of his Kingdom-centered, justice-centered message. Earlier in our scripture for today, he begins with the assertion that we cannot serve two gods. Whereas society idolizes money and wealth, God should be the ultimate focus of our loyalty. We might be tempted by material pursuits as represented by fancy clothes. We might be fixated on ever more consumption as represented by food and drink. Jesus tells us, his followers, that collectively we can have a far better and more meaningful life with a different set of priorities: God’s beloved community and God’s justice. When we are able to live into this life, we will find our needs met. Later, in Matthew, Jesus would offer a tangible glimpse and expression of this in the feeding of the multitudes with loaves and fishes. This world of mutual care and sharing is what justice looks like when it has been actualized and realized in the beloved community. This is the world to which the prophets have been calling and inviting us. This is the end goal of the prophetic Christian tradition.  

 For those who are drawn to struggles for peace and justice, the appeal of identifying with the changer-makers of our faith makes sense. What is perhaps less intuitive is that word “tradition.” For some, that word may seem immediately unappealing because it can evoke not only a resistance to change but a desire to impose restrictive and oppressive beliefs on adherents. A change-making tradition would seem oxymoronic. Moreover, the cultural context of today makes the notion that a tradition could have much appeal seem dubious at best.

In the media and social media, there is a lot of talk about the differences between generations. This is also often a big topic in churches. A lot of discussion about falling church attendance numbers and changing styles of worship has in significant part to do with religion. In society at large, movements for change are often generationally driven. So today, you’ve got your baby boomers and your millennials and your gen Zers and gen Xers. Now, consider how “tradition” comes from the Latin word for “hand over or transmit.” Can we imagine these seemingly divergent groups doing much in the way of passing and receiving? More than just being different, it is common in our culture for one generation to bemoan the supposed habits of another generation or to derisively make fun of the fashions and mannerisms of another generation. Think of jokes about Boomers resisting change or laments about Millennial work habits. Of course, some jokes have an element of truth: “Why did the Millennial cross the road? To stare at his phone on the other side.” Or: “How do boomers change a lightbulb? They don’t—they just keep talking about how great the old one was.”

In the context of today’s generational differences and animosities, can you imagine “tradition” having much appeal unless you happen to be the generation that wants to pass its wisdom down to the younger generations below it—even it’s a broken lightbulb? Just joking. But I do think there is a concept of tradition that works as something desirable even in our generationally divided world. Consider today’s independent, creative, do-it-yourself culture. It might seem like the antithesis of tradition. But even someone who is building their own house from scratch is relying upon the knowledge and the tools of those who have gone before them. Without that being passed along, we would have a bunch of dilapidated, soggy mud huts. In practice, tradition isn’t something that anyone avoids completely. 

Some of you may recall how the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” focuses in part on oppressive traditions that can prevent a marriage from happening between two lovers, but nevertheless the musical begins with the opening line, “Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”

With the peace and justice issues facing our society today, we need critical thinking that is so keen and sharp that it knows what traditions are not only worth saving but are worth embracing. We need to hold onto the best of our wisdom and resources in the face of challenges like the climate crisis. In this light, the best kind of tradition is a tradition that in many instances drives change rather than fights change. The best kind of tradition is a tradition whose core values promote not only critical thinking, but also the kind of action desperately needed in our world today, the kind of action that is willing to put out fires and protect all that we hold dear. This is why I believe in the prophetic Christian tradition. This is why I find in it an enduring source of hope. This is why I call it home.

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