Is. 40:1-11; Ps. 85; Acts 13:14b-26; Luke 1:57-80
In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.
We celebrate a double event in the life of our parish today: it is the feast of our patron saint, John the Baptist, and it is also Stewardship Sunday. Now at first glance John the Baptist and stewardship don't seem to have too much in common. Actually after two weeks of reflecting on the topics of John the Baptist and stewardship, I didn't find anything at all in common- until it occurred to me that being a prophet, is also to be a good steward: a steward of God's word.
Within the religious tradition prophets are people who speak with divine inspiration, and usually are the interpreters - or mouthpiece - through whom the will of God is expressed. Because God speaks through them, prophets are gifted with profound moral insight and exceptional powers of expression. If we understand the meaning of religious stewardship to include wisely employing our God-given gifts so that we can proclaim the Good News, then prophets are clearly stewards of the gift of the word of God, that is given to and through them.
And John the Baptist was not only a prophet, he was also a very good steward of God's word. Sent to prepare the way of the Lord, John speaks the word of God without hesitation. He preached, reproved sin in all of its guises, and called people to repentance and amendment of life. And he didn't mince words either - diplomacy was not John's strong suit. To give you an example of this: once while he was baptizing folks in the river Jordan, some of the religious elite came to check out John's activities, although certainly not out of any sincere desire to be cleansed of sin. And John knows this. "You brood of vipers!" he shouts at them. "Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come." Not exactly a comment to win over friends!
And it didn't matter who you were in society either. John the Baptist, (maybe we should call him John the Steward of God's word) spoke the truth regardless of the persons position or status. If you were behaving unethically and against God's word, John had a word for you. Here's another example: Herod Antipas, the King of Galilee at that time, had taken a liking to his brother Philip's wife Herodias, (who also just happened to be his niece!) His desire for her was such that Herod divorced his then wife, and took Herodias for his new bride from his brother Philip. ( Thereby qualifying this story as a potential riveting plot on the current T.V. program Desperate Housewives.) This behavior on Herod's part was clearly against the religious law of Moses and the word of God. John the Baptist consistently railed against it in public, much to Herod's and Herodias' embarrassment. John even confronted Herod telling the king, "It is not lawful for you to have her." (Mt. 14:4b) Proving that even prophets can engage in understatement. John was so vocal and persistent in speaking against this immoral behavior, that under pressure from Herodias, Herod had John arrested and eventually beheaded. Most people who are the focus of a prophets criticisms, tend to prefer their prophets dead rather than alive.
John, the Steward of God's word was a faithful prophet. He was also according to the scriptures the end of the prophetic line. When Jesus was asked about who John was, he tells the people, "John is a prophet and more than a prophet. He is the one spoke of in [the book of the prophet] Malachi (3:1), the messenger who comes to prepare the way of the LORD." This statement by Jesus has been understood to mean that John the Baptist is the last of the prophets. He represents the climax of the long tradition of Jewish prophets - people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Hosea - all of whom were looking forward to the promised delivery of the Jewish people by the messiah. As John was the one born to, "prepare the way of the Lord", or the messiah, he fulfills the prophesy of Isaiah who foretold his coming. So John is the last.
Or is he?
Did prophesy end with John the Baptist? Has there been no one since him who has spoken with divine inspiration; anyone through whom the will of God has been expressed? Persons who have been stewards of God's word, gifted with profound moral insight, and exceptional powers of expression?
I think the answer to these questions is yes, because of both the evidence of people who have lived since John, and because I believe that God continues to be active in the world, raising up prophets for us, to proclaim anew his living word in vibrant and crucial ways.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Mahatma Ghandi, Jonathon Daniels, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther-King, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Archbishop Oscar Romero. These are but a few of the more well known people of the last century who have been prophets and faithful stewards of God's word. An like John the Baptist, four of them - Bonhoeffer, Daniels, King and Romero - were martyred.
Prophets come in all guises. And most prophets go relatively unnoticed. I have had the privilege of knowing people who have been faithful stewards of God's word - people who have been gifted with profound moral insight, and have been fearless in calling to task unethical and immoral behavior in the world - both great and small. They are role models for me, as I struggle to walk the Christian journey.
Let me tell you the story of a modern day prophet, who would have gone un-noticed - and possibly martyred for her prophesying - had she not come to the attention of New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof. Her name is Mukhtaran Bibi.
Mukhtaran Bibi is a Pakistani woman who lives in the small rural village of Meerwala. Three years ago the village council was upset at her brother for having an affair with a woman from another tribe, and because of that they sentenced Mukhtaran to be gang-raped - a common sentence in that culture, where women often bear the punishment for the sins of men in their families. The sentence was meant as revenge for this offense committed by her brother, and Mukhtaran was subsequently raped by four men. Armed guards prevented members of her family from protecting her. Afterwards she was forced to walk home nearly naked before a jeering crowd. Most woman who suffer such degradation just fade away and die. In fact the expectation in that culture is that such a "defiled woman" engage in honor killing: either by committing suicide, or being murdered by a family member, so to cleanse the family name, which in a perverse way is considered to have been allowed by the woman to be besmirched by her rape.
But not Mukhtaran.
She defied the tradition of her people and testified against her attackers in a court of law, sending them to prison. She received compensation money for her suffering, and used that money to build two elementary schools in her village. She herself - uneducated at the time- enrolled in one of the schools and is now in the fourth grade. Recently Mukhtaran was scheduled to visit the United States to speak about her experience, and about the hideous practices of gang-rape and honor killings practiced against women in her country. When Pakistani officials learned of the planned visit, they detained her and confiscated her passport. Because of the nature of these acts, it was deemed by the Pakistani government that a visit by Mukhtaran to the U.S. would have been a public relations problem for Pakistan. The officials were so desperate to dissuade Mukhtaran from speaking out - from freely expressing the moral and ethical word of God - that they even tried to intimidate her by threatening to release from prison the four men convicted of raping her.
But she is unfazed. She recently received a call from an aide to a high-ranking Pakistani official, who offered to take Mukhtaran on a tightly chaperoned tour of the U.S. Her response: "No. I only want to go of my own free will."
Echos of John the Baptist. Mukhtaran's rare courage to speak out against immoral behavior - that of the village council, the rapists, the culture and her government's - have made her like John, a person gifted by God with profound moral insight and exceptional powers of expression.
In his column this past Sunday, Kristof called Mukhtaran Bibi, " a peasant woman with a heart of gold and a will of steel." I call her a prophet and a faithful steward of God's word.
Pray for Mukhtaran Bibi. Pray for all prophets. Pray that each and everyone of us might find it in our hearts and wills to be good stewards of God's word.