As most of you know, in addition to my role as curate of St. Luke’s, I also serve as a hospital chaplain, and have been for the last 4 years. I have so many stories from my hospital ministry, stories that will stay with me and be a part of me as long as I live, and I want to tell you one of them this morning.
One day, in the Before COVID times, I got a phone call from a woman, saying a family member of hers was in the hospital, and he needed to talk to a priest. “He’s been apart from the church for a long time,” she said, “and he’s actively dying, and he needs a Catholic priest to anoint him.” So I said, “Oh, and this is something the patient is asking for?” And she said, “Yes, he’s fine with it, and so is his family.”
Well, I am occasionally a suspicious sort, especially as it involves family members making religious requests on behalf of their loved one, so I decided to find out for myself whether this gentleman could speak for himself and tell me he really did want to talk to a priest. I went up to the unit and found this 80ish year old gentleman holding court with his family. We’ll call him Mr. John Smith to protect his privacy. His wife and daughter were at bedside, and a friend of mine, his nurse, was talking to the patient. I introduced myself to his wife while that was happening, and said I’d received a call from one of their family members saying that Mr. Smith might like to talk to a priest. Mrs. Smith said, “Well, yes, that would be nice.” And seeing that Mr. Smith was certainly able to speak for himself, I said, “Let’s ask him!”
So, his wife said, “John, this is Hillary, one of the chaplains. She came to ask if you want a Catholic priest to come and bless you.”
And Mr. Smith— even though he was in significant pain and having some trouble breathing— he looked right at me with the most appalled expression and said, “Oh, HELL no.” And I tried extremely hard not to laugh and said, “That’s clear enough for me! We won’t do that then.” His family was a little disappointed, and I empathized with them, but they supported his choice. And we got to talking anyway, Mr. Smith and I. He told me he’d served in the military. He’d seen how horribly his fellow soldiers of color were abused and castigated, how a bartender refused to serve his friend simply because he was black. He told me how he’d seen the Church turn a blind eye to racism like this. He told me how he’d worked in the city for years and years, and seen the homelessness crisis get worse and worse and worse. He told me how he’d seen churches turn a blind eye to people who were starving and freezing, people who had nothing. He said, “The Church would sing and preach about helping the poor, and then, when the last hymn finished, forget all about it.” My patient, for much of his 80 plus years, watched the church, measured it, and found it wanting.
Anger is often an unpleasant emotion, but our anger comes from our desire for justice. My patient saw injustice and saw the Church’s complicity in some of that injustice, and he was angry and spoke out. In some ways, my patient was a prophet, just like Amos. In our passage from Amos today, the prophet has a vision of a plumbline. This is a difficult word in Hebrew to translate, but according to my Old Testament professor, Dr. David Garber, a plumbline is “a piece of led or tin hanging from a string used to measure the straightness of a recently constructed wall. In essence, YHWH has measured the northern kingdom of Israel and found the nation wanting.”
This is what prophetic voices do, both in the scriptures and today– they speak truth to power; they are a microphone for God’s anger against injustice. They are voices that cry out in the wilderness! They call people out when they do wrong. And just like we saw last week with Christ and Ezekiel being rejected for their prophetic voices, we see it again this week with John the Baptist and Amos. Being a prophet is a often a thankless, even dangerous job.
When you go around constantly critiquing the people with all the power and telling them they’re disobeying God, the powerful people tend to react badly. That’s why Amaziah, the priest, told Amos to “flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel.” People don’t enjoy being the target of prophets. Prophets are forever being banished or executed in the scriptures, just like in today’s gospel story of John the Baptizer’s beheading. Last week, Jesus himself declared that prophets are never welcome in their hometown; Jesus himself was eventually executed. Thankfully, we know the ending of that story.
My patient, Mr. Smith, he was a prophetic voice. His family looked at his relationship with the church, measured it and found it wanting. But John, he’d watched and measured the church for his whole life and found it wanting. And in the final days of his life, he didn’t want a blessing; he wanted to prophesy. So he did, and I listened. I agreed with him. I said, “You’re right. We failed, and we have to be better. We have to do more. We have to give more. We have to love more.” We had a wonderful discussion, and I became the representative of the church to whom he could express years of anger. We talked and talked, and eventually, he said, “Well, you don’t have to hang around and do a full conversion, you know. It’s not going to work anyway.”
I laughed, told him that’s not what I do and he didn’t need any conversion anyway. I wished him peace and comfort and turned around to leave so he could visit with his family. But he said, “Wait!” I turned around. And John said, “Well. Thanks for coming. Maybe, maybe you could put me on your prayer list, huh? Along with all those people who need our compassion? Put me there.”
I said, “Of course I will, John. I promise.”
My patient, like Amos, spoke prophetic words. So can we. It’s not easy; sometimes, being the prophetic voice means difficult conversations. It means confronting people when they make a racist joke. It means defending people from bullies and challenging people when they use the Bible to justify their hatred, be it their sexism, their homophobia, their racism, or their xenophobia. it means speaking up when people commit horrors in the name of Jesus. And for many of us it means giving up our privilege or leveraging it to lift others up.
So, this week, I challenge myself and I challenge all of you. If you see injustice, if you see prejudice, if you see hatred, if you see oppression— speak truth to it. Whenever you measure the justice in the church, in the community, in the world, and find it wanting, speak that truth. Because truth, no matter how hard to hear, will eventually do what it always does: set us free.