On prophetic witness, exercising power, exorcising evil.
Rampant racism. Suppression of the black vote, and gerrymandering congressional districts to favor white voters. Lack of integration in schools. Harassment of African-American students. Police brutality towards blacks, including fatal shootings. The rise of white supremacist hate-groups, including the Klan. And racism, not only in the deep south, but also in the north, a place long considered to be favorable towards black citizens. Quite a depressing state of affairs, isn’t it? Now, do want to get really depressed? Really ticked off? I was just describing the US in 1875. Immediately after the civil war, 1/3 of the elected representatives in the state house in Mississippi were black. By 1875, in one voting district with a black population of over 14,000 people, only three dared go to the polls. In ten years, most all of the civil rights gains that followed the Civil War were erased in the south, while northerners, tired of fighting, acquiesced and began to defend states’ rights in the south.
I am reading the last few chapters of Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses Grant. At this point, he seems to be one of a few voices (along with his friend, Frederick Douglas), advocating for full racial equality. I catch myself just shaking my head. Have we really come all that far in race relations? Are we moving backwards? Have the voices of the prophets made a difference? Is anyone listening to prophets any more?
For the last two Sundays, the Hebrew lectionary texts have featured prophets, first Samuel, then Jonah — young persons and reluctant messengers.
We had to discern their effectiveness by what they said and did. We learned that as Samuel grew, “the LORD was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground,” the writer’s way of telling us that he was completely accurate (1 Samuel 3:19). From Jonah, we watched the fruit of his actions, as the people of Nineveh repented and God relented from destroying them. Thus, the prophet’s words make the difference (Jonah 3:10). According to these words in Deuteronomy, then, both Samuel and Jonah were “true prophets.” That’s easy enough to see.
And now Moses speaks to us in Deuteronomy. From among us, a prophet like Moses will arise, speaking truth. Is this an invitation to sit and wait for another prophet, or is this an exhortation to BE prophets? Dare we, with our flaws and imperfections, call ourselves prophets? And by what authority do we speak?
In the tiny book of Mark’s gospel, this expulsion of a demon is the first public miracle of Jesus. Unlike the usual religious leadership, Jesus speaks with exousia (authority, in Greek). His words are authoritative and true, and although the demon protests, Jesus exercises true Godly authority, and exorcises the demon. This is a good-vs-evil moment, and it exemplifies what Jesus is all about.
In the time of Jesus, mental illness was characterized as demonic possession. The ancient world view that attributes illness to unclean spirits that lies behind this story, although outdated medically, does dramatize forces that wreak havoc within individuals, communities, and countries — mental illness, addiction, sexual abuse, greed, war-mongering, and racial hatred. The gospel proclaims Jesus’ “authority” over even the most unclean of spirits that continue to take us over.
As we deliberate what it means for us to be the people of Trinity Church, in this time and in this place, what authority can we exercise? What evil can we exorcise? In our discussion and planning about our resources, our building, our mission, our context, we can never lose sight of the source of prophetic authority.
One more look at the choice of the word “exousia” in Greek. There are two words for authority that might have been used in this gospel, exousia, and dunami. Dunami is authority and power that is inherent. I have power that is inherently mine, and I therefore exercise my own power. Not so with exousia. Exousia is the power and authority to do good and act morally. But it is not inherent – it is delegated. Exousia is a delegated authority. Jesus speaks with moral authority to the demon, because he is of God. In this context, the son of God is also the delegate of God. In this early moment in his ministry, Jesus shows us God.
If God is to raise up prophets today, it might just be people like you and me, delegated with power and authority to do good. My authority as a Christian is not inherent – this exousia is GIVEN to me. Imperfect, sinful, impetuous, human me. And the grace of our vocation is that the authority that is not ours to grab is nonetheless ours to exercise, because it is a Godly authority that must flow through us. We are call to be the prophets of today. In these times, we must bear prophetic witness and speak with moral authority.
We must speak truth to power. And it’s not easy, and it makes us tired, and it’s why we need each other. It’s why we have each other. Thanks be to God. Amen