I watched a YouTube video earlier this week subtitled, “Social Experiment.” In the video, a young man decides to conduct his own, small scale social experiment on the streets of New York City. In the first half of the video, the young man sits by himself, nearly barefoot, looking fairly disheveled and leaning against a storefront window. Like many people in a similar predicament, he has a handwritten sign propped up next to him. But this sign is markedly different.
Written on the sign are the following words. “Homeless: need money for weed, drugs, and alcohol.” And while this young man sits there on the sidewalk, numerous people stop for a few moments to read the sign and acknowledge the young man. In fact, some of the same people who read the sign reach into their pockets and pull out a dollar or two so they can put the money into the young man’s cup. All the while offering fascinating words of encouragement like, “stay high man, stay high.” Or “make sure you get a really big bottle.” Eventually, when the young man’s can is nearly overflowing with money, the first part of the video ends.
In the second half of the video, the same young man, dressed the same way, sits on the same sidewalk along the same street in New York City. There are only two things that have changed in this second scene. This time the young man has a barefoot little girl next to him. In fact, the girl is lying down on the sidewalk with her head resting on the young man’s lap.
And this time, the handwritten sign has a different message on it. The sign reads, “Homeless: single father, need money for family.” Again, hundreds of people stroll up and down the sidewalk. But no one stops to look at the sign. No one acknowledges the young man or the girl with any eye contact. And no one puts any money in the cup. In fact, a number of the pedestrians go out of their way to step around the two of them while barely breaking stride.
After close to an hour goes by, finally a woman stops. She takes a moment to read the sign. She looks at the young man and the girl. And then she bends down, taking a small amount of cash and putting it in the cup. “This is all I made today,” the woman confesses, “but you need it so much more than I do.” Then before she walks away, the woman offers to pray for the young man and the young girl, asking God to watch over both of them and keep them safe.
As the woman, whom the video makes clear is homeless herself, begins to walk away, the young man jumps to his feet and reveals that the whole setup has been part of a social experiment. He explains to the woman that the whole scene is being filmed by a nearby camera. And after he tells the woman how touched he felt by her generosity, he offers the woman all the money he has in his own wallet. Along with his sincere gratitude for her kindness.
At that point the video ends and the screen fades to black. While the following quote scrolls across the screen. “Sometimes those who have less are the ones who give more…”
This morning’s Gospel lesson from Luke finds Jesus talking about prophets while the Pharisees are busy warning Jesus about the impending wrath of King Herod. Paying the Pharisees little mind, Jesus, in the span of four short verses, makes the bold claim that the Pharisees home city, the holy city of Jerusalem, went out of their way to kill any prophets who were sent to it.
This fascinating, relatively obscure interaction in Scripture between Jesus and the Pharisees begs the question. What is a prophet?
In our Judeo-Christian faith tradition, prophets were the ones who spoke and taught the Word of God. While we consider Jesus to be more than a prophet, the truth is that Jesus stood in a long line of prophets going back to early in the Old Testament. Most of those prophets were men and a few were women. Those prophets preached and taught about any number of different issues. They all had their own unique soapboxes they stood upon. But as far as Jesus was concerned, the one thing every prophet shared in common was the fact that their truth or their viewpoint was rejected by every contemporary authority figure who had an interest in maintaining power and the status quo.
Not that any of the prophets were ever silenced by their opponents. Arguably, the opposite was true. The louder and more vociferous their opponents were, the more emboldened the prophets became. Which shouldn’t be surprising because God commissions prophets to challenge the prevailing power structures. And the most effective prophets threaten the power structure of their day. They speak truth to power, they tell privileged people what they don’t want to hear and they never sugarcoat what they are saying.
So it was with Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. Claiming his prophetic role, Jesus confronted the Pharisees for trying to control how people understood God. He questioned the Pharisees on their integrity. He threatened their authority. And in doing so Jesus actively undermined the structures of power in a society where wealth and entitlement were concentrated in the hands of a few while the majority had no voice and no influence…
Well that’s all well and good for Jesus, you might be thinking. Jesus was used to living on the edge and holding people’s feet to the fire. But what does today’s Gospel story have to do with you and me?
The forty day season of Lent, I believe, is a good time for us to think about what it means to live prophetically. Maybe not the same way Jesus was a prophet. Or the way Isaiah or Jeremiah or Elijah were prophets before him…speaking out with a loud voice, making radical claims and creating enemies by rubbing people the wrong way.
I wonder, though, if God has a prophetic role in mind for each one of us…
There was a study a few years ago that took place in a suburb of San Diego. In that study, a marketing professor told a research team to go out into suburban neighborhoods near San Diego and place tags on every doorknob with information about how to conserve energy.
In some of the tags, homeowners were encouraged to conserve energy so that future generations would be less energy dependent. In other tags, homeowners were encouraged to save energy so they would help protect the environment. A third set of tags touted the cost savings a typical homeowner might anticipate if they conserved energy. And the fourth and final set of tags stated that other homeowners in the neighborhood had already taken steps to conserve energy in their homes.
At the end of one month, the marketing professor and his team of researchers returned to the homes in the San Diego suburb where they had placed door tags and compared them to homes where no door tags had been placed. And what the team found when they read the electrical meters and calculated monthly usage was that only one of the four messages had any concrete, measurable impact on energy conservation.
Can you guess which door tag made a difference? The one that said, “your neighbors are doing it.” Which led the research team to conclude that people decide how to behave and how to live, at least in part, by watching those around them. Or to put it less subtly…”peer pressure is real at any age.”
Prophets are people who teach and preach the word of God. But knowing human beings the way God knows each one of us, is it possible that God uses our human tendency to compare ourselves with others and submit to peer pressure to God’s advantage? Living a prophetic life need not involve speaking out and making radical choices and putting ourselves in danger. Instead, living a prophetic life might be fairly simple. Bear witness to the love of Christ in whatever ways we can while other people are watching. Knowing they just might follow suit…
If you are a person who has already made a decision to sacrifice something in Lent, as a way of focusing and disciplining and preparing yourself during this holy season, there is nothing wrong with that practice. On the other hand, it’s not your only Lenten option.
Instead, you might decide to use these Lenten days as a time to embrace a purpose or a person beyond yourself. To show love to someone around you in a tangible, heartfelt way. To bear witness to the abundant grace of God, even if it seems like a small gesture. You and I could use Lent as a time to live more intentional, more prophetic lives.
Perhaps you have a generous heart and you are more than willing to give to someone in desperate need, even if you don’t have much yourself. Maybe you decide to reach out to a neighbor or friend or colleague because you want them to engage in something that’s deeply important to you. Perhaps you will come across someone in your life who needs God’s care because they’re going through a tough time in their lives. And you take the time to stop along your Lenten way and offer a prayer for their well-being.
There is no act of generosity too small. No passion shared that is too insignificant. No prayer lifted up that is too trivial. God has given a prophetic voice to you and to me. And God has put us in a world that needs all the prophets it can get.
Live a prophetic life then…through this Lenten season and beyond, Amen.
NOTE: I am indebted to the Rev. Christopher Girata, TEC, for the theme of this morning’s sermon. Rev. Girata’s sermon, entitled “Your Prophetic Voice,” is written and will be delivered as part of the the DAY1 radio program.