Year C, Epiphany 4
Abbot Moses was a tall, muscular man with rich ebony-colored skin and warm brown eyes. He had lived a life of scandal and wrong-doing as a robber and murderer before coming to the monastery in the desert where he begged for quite a long time to be accepted as a monk. Now he had lived many years in prayer and contemplation. He knew the long road of remorse and forgiveness. So when he was called to a council of brothers to consider the consequences of the misdoings of a young novice he refused to come. The brothers and other Elders continued to implore him to be present. On the day of the council Abbot Moses arrived carrying a basket of sand. The basket had a hole and the sand poured out of the hole creating a trail behind the holy man wherever he went. When asked about the basket and the trail of sand, Abbot Moses replied, “My sins run out behind me and I do not see them. Yet I am summoned this day to judge failings that are not mine.” Chastened by this answer from Abbot Moses, the council released the young man with loving words of encouragement for his spiritual path and prayers for his future.
I first found this story in Elisa Davy Pearmain’s book, Doorways to the Soul. Abbot Moses was one of the 4th century Desert Fathers in northern Africa. This story speaks to me of the biblical prophetic proclamations of justice and mercy. You can read about Abbot Moses (St. Moses the Ethiopian or Moses the Black) at these websites, http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.com/2009/08/st-moses-ethiopian-righteous-of-scete.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moses_the_Black.
We might think that we left the prophets behind in Advent, but here they are again leading us through the texts of this fourth Sunday in Epiphany. We begin with the reluctant Hebrew scripture prophet, Jeremiah, who was called as a young man, a boy, to proclaim God’s truth to the people. We conclude with Jesus’ proclamation to his neighbors in Nazareth that he is anointed by the Spirit to proclaim God’s message to all people, not just his hometown buds. In her book, Treasures Old and New; Images in the Lectionary Gail Ramshaw gives us the two-fold image of a prophet – “one who proclaims both God’s mercy and God’s justice. And both are good news: that God seeks justice is good news for us all, and that finally we will all receive mercy is the best news of all.”[i]
We might also think that being anointed a prophet, a messenger to bring God’ good news is the most wonderful of callings. And it is. Yet as the stories testify it is also the riskiest of businesses. Speaking truth to power is never well received by the powers that want to keep their power. Both Jeremiah and Jesus encounter the attempts of those who fear their message to silence them from speaking God’s truths of justice and mercy. Both suffer the consequences as they refuse to be silenced. After a long life of repentance and prayer for justice and mercy, Abbot Moses was martyred by robbers who lived a life of greed and violence as he had in his former life.
Psalm 71 sings of the sustenance of God’s spirit for those who are called to be prophets. God knows and loves them while they are still in their mother’s womb. “In you, O LORD, I take refuge … Be to me a rock of refuge … Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel. For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust … Upon you I have leaned from my birth …” (from Psalm 71:1-6). Who are the prophets of your community that live justice and mercy? In what ways are we all called to a prophetic life-style in the God’s realm?
In the famous passage from I Corinthians 13, “the Love Chapter”, Paul gives us the basis for God’s message of mercy and justice. It is all rooted in God’s love. Without love all the greatest works of intellect and mysticism, of wealth and power, of self-giving and martyrdom are nothing. Love is the foundation of all prophetic proclamation and action. Justice and mercy may be the two-fold message of the prophet, but love is the power that drives the message – love of good news of the message, love of the people it will empower and love of God who is the source of all life and goodness.
Once there was a boy born to a poor family that already had twelve children. His father was desperate to find him a godparent for his baptism because with so many children he had run out of friends and family to ask. Through a curious set of events the father finally accepted what seemed to be the fortuitous offer of Death to be the boy’s godfather. Death promised to give the boy great gifts of intelligence and power, wealth and notoriety. When the boy grew into a young man, he became a physician with great healing ability. At first he used it only for the poor and downtrodden because he had been brought up in poverty and wanted to help his people. But soon the wealthy and powerful demanded his services. When he was finally summoned to heal the king of the land he came to be at dangerous odds with his Godfather Death. Would he continue to follow Death’s path of wealth and power or would he learn to follow the path of love even if it meant giving up his life?
This story comes to us in written form from the German folktale collections of the Brothers Grimm. Yet it has been told in many variations around the world. You can find a good article on it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Godfather_Death. My favorite telling is from Bob Wilhelm on his website, Storyfest Journeys. http://www.storyfest.com/listen-here/caribbean–the-atlantic/godfather-death–haiti.html As a theologian and a storyteller Bob gives the ending a different twist that serves our scripture text from 1 Corinthians 13:2, “… if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
May your sermon writing, teaching and storytelling be blessed this week with the spirit of prophecy – with justice, mercy and love – as you minister in your community!
Blessings on your story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2016. Commentary and photos to be used with permission only.
[i] Gail Ramshaw, Treasures Old and New; Images in the Lectionary, (Fortress Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2002, 331).