December 8, 2019

Hometown Prophets


Text: Matthew 3:1-12

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Repent.

Every Advent we come around to these words and the strange character of John the Baptist who utters them. Every Advent we hear them, wrestle with them, and then run away to those happier words like peace and joy, hope and salvation, babies and mangers, shining angels and scruffy shepherds.

Repent. To express remorse or sorrow to such a degree one is led to change individual behavior or a community or society is led to change corporate behavior. To enable, by changing your behavior, yourself or others to better experience the fullness God wishes for our lives and our communities.

A few months ago Elisabeth returned from the library with a stack of books. The book on top declared You Need a Budget. The next one down said something about a financial fast. It was clear some serious discussions were coming down the pike, discussions about one of the most difficult and most stressful topics in many households – money.

To be clear the Nelsons are not in extremely difficult financial shape. Our bills are paid, we eat well enough, we have some money put away for the future, we’re slowly chipping away at our debts. But while we always seem to have enough money to satisfy immediate desires, we never seem to have enough money for long term goals and objectives.

Each book had its own take on how we could decrease our financial stress, but each book agreed we would have to accomplish three tasks we would rather avoid. First, after decades of dodging the issue of money in our relationship, we would have to be truthful to each other about our values, financial priorities, innate behaviors and fears. Second, we would have to admit to each other some of our attitudes and behaviors around money might be wrong. Third, we would have to make concrete changes to our lifestyle – changes with long term positive results but real short-term impact.

Acknowledging truth, admitting we’re wrong, changing our behavior. Three of our least favorite activities, especially if the truth we must acknowledge is inconvenient, contrary to our world view, against our financial interests, or comes from voices we’d prefer to keep silent; especially if admitting we’re wrong makes us feel weak or powerless; especially if the behaviors we must change are behaviors we enjoy, are culturally conditioned, or are profitable.

Some of you, I assume, know or know of Daryl Hersh. Daryl, along with her husband John, run Ozer Ministries in East Palestine but I know Daryl best in her role as one of Columbiana County’s most persistent and outspoken advocates for victims of domestic violence. I once asked Daryl what was the hardest part of her work. She responded: when the male leaders of our county – the mayors, the city councilmen, the police chiefs – look her straight in the eye and tell her to go away because there is no domestic violence in their communities.

John the Baptist preached in the desert because the truths he told were not welcome in Jerusalem. King Herod felt so threatened by John’s words he ordered John killed. John’s call to truth telling and repentance was so powerful his disciples continued his work long after his death.

One of my first visitors when I came to Columbiana over five years ago was the executive director of Sophia Women’s Center in Salem, an agency committed to helping women with unwanted pregnancies choose options other than abortion. I admit I wasn’t impressed. While the woman who visited me was passionate about preventing abortion she seemed to have little regard for the women who came seeking assistance.

A few months ago I met with the new leadership team at Sophia Women’s Center. They hadn’t come to talk abortion. They wanted to talk about human trafficking. The more they’d listened to the women who came seeking their help the more they’d realized a deeply unpopular truth. These women weren’t loose, or trashy, or immoral. Many of them were victims of North East Ohio’s vibrant, lucrative and nationally regarded sex trade. They’d been lured into the trade by boyfriends, relatives, even parents. They were controlled through addiction, psychological manipulation and physical coercion. They were commodified by the thousands of men who bought and sold their bodies with less care then they would give a car.

After naming this difficult truth, the leaders of Sophia Women’s Center were forced to confront how they considered and treated the women who came to them for help. They changed their clinical practices. They risked alienating donors and community leaders by becoming vocal, outspoken advocates for women caught in cycles of abuse and victimization.

Who are the prophets among us? Whose voices cry out in the wilderness? Who stands at the margins of our communities and speak the truths nobody wants to hear? Who names the sins, even those nobody wants to acknowledge? Who leads us to change, even when change is hard or uncomfortable? Who keeps us centered on God’s agenda – an agenda where the impoverished find blessing, the meek find inheritance, the stranger finds welcome, the prisoner finds justice, the dead find new life? And do we – you and I, this church, our community – have the strength to listen to those we’ve ignored, acknowledge hard truths, admit where we’ve gone wrong, and make the changes necessary for us and our neighbors to experience new life?