A few weeks ago, I received a video link from a friend. In the video, a young man performed a small-scale experiment, a "social experiment" if you will, on the streets of New York. As he sat on the sidewalk by himself, leaning up against a storefront window, the young man held a sign that read, "Homeless: need money for weed, drugs, and alcohol." As people walk by in the video, numerous people stopped to give him money. Some of the people who toss money into his cup say things like, "Stay high man, stay high," and "make sure you get a big bottle." After collecting a meaningful amount of money, his cup filled with cash, the screen goes dark.
The video returns to the same young man dressed the same way, but this time he has a small girl next to him. The young girl is lying on the sidewalk with her head in his lap. The sign he is holding now has changed and it reads, "Homeless: single father, need money for family." This time, the response is a deafening silence. As people walk by, his cup sits empty next to him. As the little girl coughs, people step around them, trying not to look at them. Finally, and after an hour of being completely ignored, a woman stops.
The woman bends down with a small amount of cash; and as she puts the money in the cup she says, "This is all I made today, but you need it so much more than I do." Then the woman, who we learn is homeless herself, asks if she can say a prayer for them. She offers a beautiful prayer, asking God to look out for them and keep them safe. As she walks away, the young man jumps up and reveals that he was conducting an experiment and that her kindness was the most beautiful thing he had seen all day. As he thanks the woman for her amazing gift, handing her a whole lot more money than she offered him, he is genuinely touched by her generosity, calling her a "hero." The video ends with a quote on the screen that reads, "Sometimes those who have less are the ones who give more." [“Homeless Drug Addict VS Homeless Father (Social Experiment),” accessed August 5, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ilxjo5RlzFc.]
Today's gospel lesson finds Jesus talking about prophets as he fends off a group of Pharisees. Twice, Jesus talks of prophets and how Jerusalem, the holy city itself, "kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it." This provocative gospel passage begs the question: what is a prophet?
In our Christian tradition, prophets are understood to be people who speak and teach the Word of God. Although Jesus is so much more than a prophet, Jesus is connected to the prophetic tradition that he inherits and that continues today. Prophets come in many shapes and sizes, and they speak about many different ideas, but the one thing they have in common, according to Jesus, is that their truth is quickly rejected by those who have a stake in maintaining power and the status quo.
You see, prophets challenge the prevailing authority structure. Prophets speak and teach about God's truth, about God's power, and that threatens the truth and power of the day. In Jesus's time, he threatened the religious authorities and their control of how the people were to understand God. Jesus questioned the integrity of those in power, challenging the power structure they worked so hard to create that centralized authority and wealth in the hands of a select few and made the common citizen feel powerless.
Being a prophet might sound like a daunting role, one that is filled by someone else, certainly not people like you and me; but what if being prophetic was simpler than you thought? What if being a prophet was not something God left up to those with the loudest voices, but rather, what if God was calling each one of us to be prophetic in our own, unique way?
In a study conducted a few years ago, marketing professor Robert Cialdini directed a research team to go door to door in a San Diego suburb, placing hangers on doorknobs with messages about energy conservation. For some homes, the signs urged the homeowners to save energy in order to protect the environment; another said they should conserve energy for the benefit of future generations; a third pointed to the cost savings that would result from conserving energy; and the last stated that most of the homeowner's neighbors were taking steps to save energy every day.
At the end of the month, Cialdini and his team returned to the homes that received the door hangers to read their meters and then compared them to homes that received no messages at all. They hoped to discover what kind of messaging effects people's behavior the most. After comparing the energy usage from the houses with door hangers, what they found is that only one of the four groups of houses that received those hangers actually reduced their energy consumption as compared to the houses who didn't receive a door hanger at all. The only door hanger that made a difference in people's behavior was the one that said "your neighbors are doing it." The homeowners who received one of the other three messages, touting the benefits of energy conservation, did not change their lifestyle and kept on living as they had before. Cialdini summarized the most important conclusion in the study when he said, "People are looking at those around them, like them, in their particular environment, in their particular context, to decide what to do." In other words, people decide what's important, in fact, how to live, by watching those around them.
I love that a major university study spent a huge amount of time in order to prove what any teenager can tell you--peer pressure is real. And peer pressure doesn't ever really stop. From the moment we become aware of ourselves in relationship with others, we begin to weigh who we are and how we fit in. We are constantly comparing ourselves with those around us--who is more successful, who is smartest, who is strongest, who is thinnest, who is kindest. For some, that kind of comparison is almost completely subconscious. For others, comparisons control every part of their life. Comparing ourselves, living with peer pressure, can be exhausting; but if comparison is a part of life, then perhaps God can use that very human condition for good.
Going back to the idea of prophets, prophets are people who teach others about the Word of God; but teaching happens everywhere, and most often in the classroom of everyday life. We know, either through research or common sense, that people--all people--are looking to those around them to decide what to do and how to live. A prophetic life does not have to be a complicated or complex one; a prophetic life, a prophetic witness, simply has to be grounded in the truth of Christ.
Today is the second Sunday in Lent. We are on a journey through this special season in which we often find ourselves trying to live differently, to mark these 40 days with a certain behavior that can change our lives for the better. Lent has historically been about denying ourselves. I can remember as a child considering whether I would give up watching TV or desserts during Lent. As an adult, the biggest challenge might be to give up caffeine, something I have never even attempted to do. But perhaps Lent can be an invitation to change our lives in meaningful ways that go beyond these 40 days. Perhaps we can make a change, even create a habit in our own lives that uses the idea of peer pressure for our own good and the good of those around us. Perhaps we can claim our own ability to encourage others to recognize God in the world, in other words, to claim our own prophetic voice.
Small shifts in behavior, small tweaks in our habits, can create big ripples in our lifestyles. For most of us, prophetic living is not the strongest habit in their lives. Sure, going to church, being a part of a Christian community, sounds good; but taking that identity out into the world, being a prophet in the other spheres of our lives, is not a habit for us, but I think it could be.
Just imagine all the people in your life that have no connection to you and your faith community. Friends, coworkers, neighbors--there are so many, so many people who connect with us on a regular basis that have nothing to do with our spiritual life. How many of those people live day-to-day, working hard, staying busy, just putting one foot in front of the other, but always hoping for something more? Honestly, how many of us live day-to-day, working hard, staying busy, but always hoping for more? God wants so much more for us, so much more than just the daily grind. God wants us to claim our purpose beyond ourselves, to show love in tangible, meaningful ways, and when our lives bear witness to the grace of God, we become prophets to those around us.
Let me be fair with you--a prophetic life is not an easy life. Consider the story of the video I told you about. We live in a world where people often choose to support destructive behavior. We live in a world where too often cynicism is celebrated and hopefulness is derided. The status quo raises up and rewards self-centeredness while compassion is seen as weak. Our broken world needs prophets, and God has sent you and me to make a change. We are being called to bear witness to the radical truth of Christ, a truth that is as prophetic and vital and threatening and hopeful today as it was 2,000 years ago.
You have a prophetic voice to share with the world. Whether you have a generous heart, willing to give your last dollar to someone who needs it more than you do, or you have the courage to influence your neighbors in positive, hopeful ways, you have a prophetic voice; and God is calling you to make your voice heard. No act of love is too small. No witness of hope is too small.
A friend of mine often quotes a prayer from her childhood that inspires me to this day, and I'll leave you with this:
"What we keep, we lose, and only what we give remains our own."
We have been given unique gifts from God, gifts to share with the world. Do not let your gift go to waste. You do have a prophetic voice, and the world is ready to listen.
 Scott Sleek, "Small Nudge, Big Impact," Observer (vol. 26, no. 7), September 2013, accessed November 9, 2015, http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/publications/observer/2013/september-13/small-nudge-big-impact.html