by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
It took only a few decades after his death before John received the moniker Chrysostom or “golden mouth,” not just because he was acknowledged as the greatest Greek orator apart from Demosthenes, but mainly because in his much preaching he championed the equality of women, fostered education of the young, advocated for social justice, decried corruption in government, all the while dearly loving the people of his bishopric in Constantinople. He never wavered from speaking the good news clearly, forcefully and eloquently.
His sense of calling, like most of yours I suspect, was at first unclear. He decided to study law, but lost interest. He wanted to become a monk, but his mother prevailed upon him to stay at home. He tried that but soon decided to leave anyhow, for four years, two of which he spent as a hermit, living in a cave. Unexpected circumstances brought him back to Antioch where, ordained a Deacon, he began to preach—alot, sometimes for two hours, punctuated by applause.
John knew his listeners, so well, that, when they rioted because of new taxes—tearing down statues of the authorities, he intervened on their behalf. He preached some more, encouraging the powerless and chiding privileged women for their “inordinate love of ornament.”
Now the empress did not take kindly to this sort of rhetoric. She erected a silver statue of herself right next to the cathedral in Constantinople where he was now bishop. Take that, golden mouth. John preached more fervently, and the empress sent him away, far away to Armenia. He responded by relentlessly staying in touch with his people. The empress in turn exiled him again, and ordered that he be sent still farther away with the hope that golden mouth’s voice would be lost in the wilderness. He died on the way in the year 407.
In today’s Gospel, Luke has Jesus reflecting on the end times. Watch for dissension among nations, Jesus urged, and look for earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and terror. And then, Jesus continued, expect that THEY will lay hands on you (just to be sure: this is not the kind that comes with baptism and ordination), they will lay hands on you and they will persecute you (the word also gets translated drive you out, like to Armenia), and they will drag you before the authorities, kings and governors, the power people—all because of me, for my name’s sake.
When you place the transparency of John’s life on the picture Jesus paints, there is a pattern, a story line that shows through. The shapes and curvatures look alike. Seemingly unimpressive and insignificant people get called, suddenly speak and act for Jesus’ sake, and end up driven out by threatened authorities, or even killed.
Indeed, this story line emerges as the GPS for a raft of misfits: Jeremiah (I’m just a youth—See, I have set you over against nations and kingdoms); Isaiah (I am a man of unclean lips—Go, and say to the people); Stephen (They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke); Luther (here I stand); Martin Luther King, and the list goes on.
Are you on it? Will you be on it? Does this call thing, be it baptismal, commisional, diaconal, or ordinational, does this call thing we probe, poke at, put under a microscope—does this call thing automatically come with a pre-packaged story line?
Luke likely was using Jesus’ warnings as a way to reflect on the destruction of Jerusalem. Perhaps he already had in mind the persecutions of Peter and Paul about which he would be writing in the book of Acts. End times seem to be around perpetually: pestilences? How about bedbugs and malaria-laden mosquitos. Famines? How about Somalia and all the neighborhoods served by food pantries. Earthquakes? I don’t have to tell you. End times are now and so are threatened power holders, even those who seek inordinate ornament.
Go, tell the people, God said to Jeremiah, Isaiah, and John of the golden mouth. When God has compassion on the poor, the hungry, and the powerless, then God sends the Word, no, God sends someone with the Word. That’s just part of the story line. That’s what calling is about.
Then Jesus clears up the story further. When you are dragged before the authorities, when sin needs to be addressed, when the people need to hear God’s plans and promises, then there is opportunity to testify; it’s an opportunity that must be answered. This is the time for witness. Embedded in that call of yours are inevitable moments of having to speak or act, not just once but often. Your moments may not look like fourth-century Constantinople, they may not be as dramatic as Stephen’s confession and stoning, but they will come, some dramatic, others regularly, like Sunday to Sunday.
Clearly, Jesus is invested in all of them, for he supplies stage directions.
Don’t fret, he says, don’t fret about what you are going to say. This is not about you, Jesus continues. My interest and investment in the reign of God is too crucial, crucial (it’s about the cross), for me to give way to stuffy scribalisms, prepared speeches, or stock fodder from web sites.
I will give you a mouth and wisdom, he says. A mouth, as if to say, I will open your lips, I will jump-start the chords, and words will come out that your sinus cavities have never heard before. Wisdom will come hand in hand, you will know your listeners, you will speak as one of them, syllables and phrases will flow forth right into their hearts. I will do this, Jesus says, and one senses the Spirit blowing with a wind.
I will give you a mouth, a golden mouth. And here is the marvel of it all, my friends of the calling. THIS is the time of the testimony. I am giving you a mouth now, says the Lord Jesus and the Spirit. Look around for the story line and its promises. In the Hebrew verb lodges the subtleties by which we grasp God’s grace, carefully molded for each particular time and place. In the callings of saints from all centuries reside wisdom and the traces of God’s faithfulness. In theology we discover the pathways on which the testimonies will most easily travel.
The time for testimony emerges now. Jesus is giving us mouths, now, here, in this place. Not everything, of course, that is uttered in this chapel, in 208 or 202, or any other classroom is golden. Nor will all of you be matches for Demosthenes. But, as the forgiveness of sins (the gold of THE end time) breaks in on us, our mouths are shaped, richly.
Just because Jesus is daily busy giving here, we too can claim to be golden mouths.
So, St. Justin Chrysostom, so St. Cheryl Chrysostom, So St. Daniel Chrysostom, So St. Nate Chrysostom—all you golden mouths out there, this is the time. Mouths are being given, and ever more golden. Go for the gold.
Luke 21: 12-15