A Prophetic Irritant
Out of the wilderness it comes. It’s a pesky little nano-bug, known for making people uncomfortable, itchy and annoyed. Once you’ve been bitten by this critter, you know it, and you fall into spasms of scratching in a desperate attempt to find relief.
We’re talking about the flea here, a human flea to be exact. Scientific name for the flea: Pulex irritants. One can’t claw one’s self out of a flea infestation. One needs a flea dip.
Out of the wilderness John-the-Baptist came. John is the messenger, the one preparing the way, the voice crying out in the wilderness. The wilderness is symbolic of a time and place in the life of God’s people as God was preparing them for entrance into the Promised Land, and the wilderness also being a place of preparation – not for the Promised Land, but for the One who is coming. So, here is John, a kind of human flea in the hair of his people proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. His challenging words made people terribly uncomfortable; they were greatly perturbed by his unusual appearance, and most itchy with his socially unacceptable clothing of camel’s hair.
John was what I would call “a prophetic irritant,” who got under folks skin as he called them to live in ways they either rejected or never accepted. Still no amount of scratching any would do could remove the discomfort created by his words. He spoke a nagging truth about the need to for persons to get their lives together, so people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins (Mark 1:5).
And, relief could only come through a flea dip in the river Jordan.
Let’s stay with fleas for a moment – and also for that matter, elephants. According to Charles Handy (Irish born Brit, author/philosopher who specializes in organizational behavior and management), there are two kinds of organizations in the world: elephants and fleas. Elephants are large corporations, religious institutions or government bureaucracies. I would add, even individuals with deeply ingrained ways of working and behaving, allowing little scope for spontaneity or new expression. Elephants are often inflexible and unable to change when conditions in the world suggest they should.
Think for a moment of the religious organization of the Pharisees and Sadducees back in first-century Judea. These spiritual leaders thought they were “living large,” based on the fact that Abraham was their ancestor (Matthew 3:9). What elephants!
A human flea, on the other hand, is more akin to John the Baptist. Much is made of John’s eccentricity – his clothing, his diet, his wilderness address. Insofar as “eccentric” means “off center,” his deviance is precisely the point. He does not dress as the priests in Jerusalem dress. He does not sound like they sound, nor does he commend their road to anyone. He is as far away from the temple as he can get and it is there – way out in the wilderness – that he is calling people to prepare the way of the Lord. He invokes the possibility in how he looks, what he says, where he is, and what he offers that God’s way might be alternative to the accepted norms and ways of the world, including the religious norms and ways. Could it be that the more “centered” we are in the present order and the accepted practices, the less engaged we are in God’s Kairos moments, and the less likely we are to welcome eccentrics such as John who renew the voice of God and speak peace in the land?
In the instance of The Baptist, a flea can be a single person working alone or, fleas can work as a movement of people. A flea’s life is never so narrowly focused in work that they demonstrate inflexibility in seeing the bigger picture and keeping life in proper balance. Fleas take control of their lives, maximize their abilities, and are not stifled by bureaucracy or do they cling to familiar patterns.
As Charles Handy wisely points out, fleas are ever increasingly important in the business world and I venture to add they are also important in other dimensions of our lives as well. Fleas are able to work more efficiently and often more effectively than the elephants. They have speed on their side, flexibility, oftentimes creativity, and certainly motivation. They are highly focused independent contractors who perform tasks free from the inertia of tradition and accepted patterns. They have a way of completing the project and moving on to the next, while those vested in the elephant culture are still meeting to put together the project team for a plan.
I want to say to you the laboring slow movement Elephant Church is ill-suited for the incredible opportunities there are for ministry today in our fast paced, ever changing world.
What we need is a Flea Church, filled with prophetic irritants.
This is not a call to put away the comfortable Christmas sweaters and replace them with camel’s hair. But there is a lot to be said for the flea like behavior of John the Baptist, especially if we wish to pursue peace by preparing the way of the Lord.
As a flea, John felt free to speak the truth, calling persons to change from what is wrong to what is right. He embraced the authority and responsibility that had been given to him by God, and did not worry about being accepted by the religious elephants of Jerusalem. He employed the innovative idea of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and most importantly he pointed people to the coming of Jesus Christ.
John’s innovative approach allowed him to move faster, jump higher and have a more profound effect on religious life than all the elephants around him. The very same can be true for us. As a community of faith, let us discard some of our elephant attributes and behave more and more like fleas. This means moving from a focus on tending to what we already have and do, and getting others to fit neatly into our slots-to a focus of vibrant Christian mission. As a flea like people of the way who are called to be like John “prophetic irritants” let us operate by allowing one another greater individual expression. Let’s spend less time meeting and talking about values and start practicing and living our values so that we can have a more positive impact on the world in which we live. As Prophetic irritants we are people who should never grow too comfortable. We are people who accept authority, combined with responsibility; we ground our ministry in both speed and flexibility.
I don’t know about you, but over these last two weeks I have been doing a lot of thinking and praying about what has been going on in our country as a Missouri grand jury refused to indict a police officer who had shot and killed Michael Brown on a Ferguson street, hearing of 12 year old Tamir Rice being shot and killed in Cleveland within 2 seconds of police arriving to a park as he played with a bb gun, and the moment a New York grand jury refused to indict a police officer who choked and killed Eric Garner on a Staten Island sidewalk — on video, as he struggled to utter the words, “I can’t breathe!” As an African-American male myself, with three sons, and a grandson you can imagine concerns with the data clearly showing racial profiling to real; disparate treatment of black and brown males by police officers to be real, and grotesquely disproportionate numbers of killings of black males by the police being real.
On the other hand I have been encouraged by the number of fleas of all races and economic conditions that have arisen in righteous indignation all over this country in protest and outrage while reminding us that “black lives matter.” Indeed, all lives matter! This is not about being anti-police, it is about being pro-justice and pro-fairness for all, no matter how one looks, and where one lives. They are in many respects prophetic irritants in our day as they have moved with speed and flexibility in calling attention to that which does not make for peace. Today I invite you to join me and the other pastors in being prophetic irritants in a silent lament lined along Washington St following our service. I am not asking you stop traffic but to be a witness for peace as we prepare for Christ’s coming. Our world cries out for you and me to be prophets of peace.
Finally, let me share with you the story of a mouse that became a prophetic irritant:
It seems that a mouse was looking through a crack in the wall one day, and noticed a farmer and his wife opening a package. “What food might this contain?’ The mouse wondered. He was devastated to discover it was a mousetrap. Retreating to the farmyard, the mouse proclaimed the warning. “There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!”
The chicken clucked and scratched and raised her head and said, “Mr. Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it.”
The pig sympathized, but said, “I am very sorry, Mr. Mouse, but there is nothing I can do but pray. Be assured you are in my prayers.”
The mouse turned to what seemed like an elephant-sized cow and said, “There is a mousetrap in the house! There is a mousetrap in the house!” The cow said, “Wow, Mr. Mouse, I am sorry for you, but it is no skin off my nose.”
So, the mouse returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmers mousetrap—alone.
That very night a sound was heard throughout the house—like the sound of a mousetrap catching its prey. The farmer’s wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness, she did not see it was a venomous snake whose tail the trap had caught. The snake bit the farmer’s wife. The farmer rushed her to the hospital and she returned home with a fever.
Everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the farmyard for the soup’s main ingredient. But the wife’s sickness continued, so the friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them, the farmer butchered the pig.
Sadly enough the wife of the farmer did not get well and she died. So many people came for her funeral; the farmer had the cow slaughtered to provide enough meat for all of them.
The mouse looked upon it all from his crack in the wall with great sadness.
So the whenever you hear someone is facing a problem and think it doesn’t concern you, remember – when one of us is threatened, we are all at risk!