The scriptures for this morning are all about prophecies and prophets. The more I have worked with the lessons and other materials, the more I have realized how confused I am about what is or is not "prophecy," that is, what is or isn’t a true word from God. I confess to being confused by many voices issuing dire warnings and/or proposing various courses of action to address the material and spiritual woes of the world, the US, this city, and my soul.
In A Guide to Seekers Church, there is a section entitled, "Why We Named Ourselves ‘Seekers Church.’" In it, there is a quote from the book Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf:
I now embrace the theory of prophecy that holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all of the time…The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, the responsiveness of the hearers…It is seekers, then, who make prophets, and the initiative of any one of us in searching for and responding to the voice of contemporary prophets may mark the turning point in their growth and service.
Greenleaf’s insights about the role of seekers is important, but it does not answer my questions about how to distinguish true from false prophets (an age-old problem as we can see throughout the Bible), how to go about searching for and responding to authentic prophecy. Moreover, I suspect that I am not the only one here this morning who lacks ready answers to these questions.
In the 1 Corinthians passage that Sarah read this morning, Paul tells us not to expect clear answers in this life: "Our knowledge is imperfect and our prophesying is imperfect…Now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, then we will see face to face." Nevertheless, God calls us in the here and now to help each other increase in knowledge and love-to work together to bring God’s realm of perfect knowing into being.
How do we help each other recognize the authentic prophets who are speaking in our time? How can we encourage each other to hear and respond to truly prophetic voices? What follows are a few musings of mine, in all their imperfections!
What do you think of when you hear the word "prophet"? What jumps to mind when someone says "Jeremiah" or "Hosea" or "Amos"? If you are like me, you quickly go to thoughts of doomsayers, bearers of bad news, and harsh critics. Words like "Woe unto you" and "Beware" come to mind.
When I began work on this sermon, this confrontational side of God’s word was uppermost in my spirit. I am one of the participants in John and Katie’s class, "Steps toward a Peaceable Kingdom." In that class, we are confronting the consequences of human exploitation of fellow creatures on the earth. As you might imagine, class members are being invited to hear and see things we would rather ignore.
In response to one class, I went to a website and viewed a relatively low-key video about the transport of animals from factory farm to slaughterhouse. At the end of the video, I found myself mute and a bit stunned.
Almost immediately, my mind kicked in with all sorts of critiques of my stunned response: Kate, you are anthromorphizing; animals are not human. Kate, you are ignoring how vicious animals are to each other in nature. And on and on. It was simply too hard to stay with my deep, initial response that something was terribly wrong. So maybe one marker of authentic prophecy or truth-telling is an immediate desire on the part of the seeker to turn from, deny, or try to explain away-to avoid engaging with what we don’t want to hear.
The congregation in the synagogue in today’s Gospel lesson took denial to an extreme. At first, things went well. We know from last week’s lesson that Jesus’ reputation as a healer and sage had preceded his visit to his hometown. He had been preaching and healing in other parts of Galilee, and the citizens of Nazareth were proud. "This is Mary and Joseph’s son. He is famous. Surely his power speaks well of us. Let’s welcome the boy home!"
Those gathered in the synagogue were ready to celebrate not only one of their own who had made good but what they believed was their exalted status in the eyes of God. Nothing in the passage Jesus read (which we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson) was upsetting to anyone in the congregation. They probably thought, "It would be wonderful if the poor finally had some good news, if those imprisoned by the Romans were set free, and if the blind were given their sight. Praise God! We wonder how Jesus is going to do all these things-he must be great!"
Then Jesus uttered the prophetic word: He was not going to do these things. The prophecy pointed to the need for changes in the ways the well-to-do in Nazareth-and elsewhere-lived. God did not ordain their comfortable lives. In fact, the very people who prided themselves on being God’s chosen ones who needed the greatest transformation in their understanding and their lives.
"At these words, the whole audience in the synagogue was filled with indignation. They rose up and dragged Jesus out of town, leading him to the brow of the hill on which the city was built, with the intention of hurling him over the edge." (Luke 4: 28-29.) Now that is a strong refusal to engage with what one does not want to hear!
I would like to pause here to ask you to reflect for a moment on what you do not want to hear. Will you think of one or two situations in the world or in your life that feel so overwhelming that you simply want to turn away when the subject comes up? Can you name one of those aloud?
Now think about the Hebrew scripture for today. In it, Jeremiah heard what he did not want to hear: "I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations," God said. Jeremiah almost certainly knew what the role of a prophet demanded. In the modern-day words of Joan Chittister, being a prophet means "growing more ready to lose one’s life; being willing to be a stranger in one’s own land; staying where one does not fit; and being a sojourner, an alien to everything one has been raised to believe." (Repeat)
No wonder Jeremiah exclaimed, "But Sovereign YHWH! I do not know how to speak! I am too young!" He did not want to hear the word God had for him.
What enabled Jeremiah to stay engaged with God? I believe what made that possible may be the second marker of authentic prophecy: The reassurance that the news that is hard to hear is NOT the final word. God said to Jeremiah, "Do not fear anyone, for I am with you to protect you. It is YHWH who speaks. Look, I am putting my words in your mouth."
So perhaps we can recognize authentic prophecies if two markers are present in what is proclaimed: First, words or insights that convict us of being alienated from God in some important area of our lives, and second, words of hope that draw us back toward God.
As Christians, we do not understand condemnation, alone, to be true prophecy, that is, the word of God. Listen to Paul’s message to the Corinthians: "If I have the gift of prophecy such that I can comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge but do not have love, I am nothing."
I may embarrass John by saying this, but I believe he has modeled the role of prophet for this community. In his sermon last September, John confronted us gently with some facts and descriptions that pointed to our human contempt-and worse-for fellow creatures in God’s creation. I believe most of us hearing that sermon might have left with our ears and hearts closed if John had not also given us possible ways to take small steps back toward God’s hope for creation. John prophesied out of love-love for us and for creation.
Mother Teresa said, "It is not what we do that is important, but how much love we put into what we do: we should do small things with great love," but prophets call us as a people or as humankind to great things-huge changes in our collective lives: the eradication of poverty, the end of war, preservation of life on our planet, the end of racism.
As individuals, we may find it hard to see how to respond to great calls. Perhaps as the seekers Robert Greenleaf speaks of we need to help each other see the small steps we can take to bring about the world the prophets envision. As we hear in Proverbs 29:18, "Without a vision, the people perish" but without a vision of how we are part of the bigger picture, we despair.
I’d like to conclude with three short quotes (in addition to Mother’s Teresa’s) that I find helpful when I am tempted to despair of making any contribution to the vision I know God has for creation, the vision that is spoken of by the true prophets.
From Brother Roger of Taizé: "Whoever is on a journey towards God goes from one beginning to another beginning. Will you be among those who dare to tell themselves: ‘Begin again! Leave discouragement behind! Let your soul live!’"
From Always We Begin Again by John McQuiston II: "Each good action we perform is like a blow from a sculptor’s chisel, cutting away the dross, and shaping the ideal form hidden within the stone. It is the small daily brush strokes that create the painting, no matter how large the canvas."
Finally from Joan Chittister’s article, "Prophets and Us" in Sojourner’s Magazine, November 1991: "[Here are] three ancient truths to prod and provoke and energize us as we go. The first, from the Zen, reads, "No seed ever sees the flower." The second, from the Talmud, teaches: You are not obliged to complete your work, but you are not at liberty to quit it. Moreover, finally, the Greeks record a conversation that calls us all: ‘Thucydides,’ they asked, ‘when will justice come to Athens?’ And Thucydides answered them, ‘Justice will not come to Athens until those who are not injured are as indignant as those who are.’"