A Prophet Among Them
Pentecost VII (O. T. 14)
"The Prophet Martin Luther King, Jr." Probably none of you was offended by my saying that. But imagine it's April of 1967 and Dr. King has just delivered his speech against the Vietnam War in the Riverside Church in New York City. You've read in the newspaper or seen on TV these words:
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
You hear federal government policy attacked as a "manipulation of the poor" and hear the activity of our military criticized, then you come to church on Sunday and the preacher refers to that speaker as a prophet. Many of you would be not only offended, but angry. Such a man as Dr. King, you would say, should not be honored, but should be scorned.
It is easy now, more than 50 years after his martyrdom, to honor Dr. King as a prophet. Indeed, many reverently quote his speeches who at the time would doubtless have angrily denounced him. As a nation, we generally agree on the evil of Jim Crow laws and racial segregation; we generally agree on the wrongheadedness of the Vietnam War. So we can see the wisdom of the prophet. But in his own time and in his own country, he was not so honored.
So it has ever been with prophets. The Lord God sent the prophet Ezekiel to a rebellious people to speak the word to those who would refuse to hear it (Ezekiel 2:1-5), but the Lord added, "They shall know there has been a prophet among them." Some will listen, Ezekiel, but most will not; whether they listen or not, they will know that you were here and they will know – eventually – that you were a prophet.
Jesus, too, was a prophet and more than a prophet. And like all prophets, he has been more honored in retrospect than he was in his time and in his place. In particular, those who watched him grow up and saw him in the carpenter shop could not accept what he said and did. If you think about it, you can probably think of many stories where heroes are rejected in their hometown. The folks who saw you as a child can hardly imagine you as anything special. Whenever she thought my Dad needed to be humbled, my Aunt Ann would say to him, "I used to change your pants!" But in Jesus' case there is more at work than the typical hometown rejection of the hero. He also has words to say that people do not want to hear, words that challenge their priorities, their loyalties, their commitments. Those words can be summarized in one simple command: Repent.
Ezekiel told his people to repent; they didn't listen. But they knew there had been a prophet among them. Jesus told his people to repent; they didn't listen. But they knew there had been a prophet among them. Dr. King told us to repent; we didn't listen. But we know there has been a prophet among us. The problem with God is that God sees the big picture, God pays attention to the long term. Ezekiel and Jesus and Dr. King didn't get to see the result of their work, didn't get to see themselves honored as prophets. They didn't see the repentance they preached. Those who repented and those who dug in and refused to repent both knew there had a been a prophet among them.
Now there are prophets, and there are those who go out in the name of the prophet. So in the second half of our story, Jesus sent out the Twelve and gave them some interesting instructions that I'll go into on another occasion. Here's what interests me today: what was the message of the Twelve? "Repent." Same message, different occasion. Your priorities are wrong, your loyalties need revising, your commitments need rethinking. Repent. And Jesus clued them in to expect that some folks would welcome them and other folks would reject them. That's the way it is with God's work: sometimes they welcome you and offer you dinner and sometimes you're shaking the dust of their ground off your feet as a testimony against them. There was one place that, as I was moving away, I almost stopped my car on the freeway at the city limits to shake the dust off my shoes. But I didn't.
Probably none of us here is a prophet, but we are disciples of one. Our message is the same: repent. Sometimes our message will be welcomed. Sometimes it will be rejected and we'll have to move on. Either way, we go on speaking and living that message because we know there has been and there is a prophet among us: the prophet who was not honored in his hometown, because they remembered his work as a carpenter. He is among us.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Beyond Vietnam (April 4, 1967); retrieved from https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam