08 July 2012

Oh no, not a prophet

I served as supply priest at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Greenwood SC this morning.  What follows is the sermon -- and the wrenching process of composing it --  I wrote about in yesterday's post.
          It would be hard to escape the theme of the scripture readings this morning.  To use a carpenter’s imagery, the unifying idea is, “hammered home” – again and again and again.  The only reprieve from it came in the psalm, a sweet plea for mercy.  And, given how much the “P” word scares us 21st-century-Christians, looking to God for reassurance and aid and courage seems just the right thing.
          So.  Prophets.  Prophecy.  If I were to tell you the absolute truth, I probably don’t want to preach a sermon on prophets any more than you want to hear a sermon on prophets.  We’ve all experienced some pretty crazy stuff from people claiming to have prophetic power, enough that we simply don’t spend much time thinking about the topic at all.  We don’t know how to sort out what’s really prophecy and what’s not.  The last thing we want to do is believe the wrong thing or to follow the wrong lead.  I’m with you.
          That said, however (there’s always an “however”), prophecy is a component of our tradition.  We avoid it or we don’t come to terms with it or we refuse to get at its essence, we fail to clear away all the static and the half-truth and false claims to our peril.  Having an idea what is prophetic and what is not prophetic can enrich us, can even empower us.
          What do we know about prophets?  Let’s start there.  We know some names from Sunday school and major religious holidays:
·         Isaiah – For many of us Christmas isn’t complete without “for unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.”[1]
·         John the Baptist – Remember that wonderful line?  John saw Jesus “heading toward him through the tall grass along the river-bank” and his “heart skipped a beat when he heard himself say,”[2] “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”[3]
·         And, Amos, whose most famous line might be this:  “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”[4]
Good!  We know some names and recognize some of the words.  What else do we know?
·         Let’s start with the most obvious.  Prophets seem a little bit odd, maybe crazy.  John the Baptist was a sort of survivalist loner who ate bugs.  Ezekiel, just before this morning’s reading, saw “these gleaming wheels with spokes and rims and things that looked like eyes built into the rims” and “creatures who flew around with the wheels and made a noise like thunder or a sonic boom.”[5]  It’s no wonder we steer clear.
·         Prophets were human.  Let me rephrase that.  Prophets ARE human.  Every one of them.  In the past and in the present.
·         “No prophet is on record as having asked for the job.” [6]  Ever.  Isaiah wanted to know, “How long, O Lord?”[7]  Jeremiah told God he was much too young for such duty.[8]  Moses, full of but-what-ifs, didn’t see himself as much of a public speaker.[9]  Reluctant, all of them.  Full of excuses.
·         The word “prophet means spokesman [or spokesperson, but it does not mean] fortune-teller.”  In their unfathomable audacity the one for whom the prophets claim to speak is God.  They speak at God’s behest.[10]  They are not clairvoyant; they do not proclaim themselves.
·         Prophets can seem angry with the world, railing against what they see as being wrong.  But … one writer I really admire says this.  “A prophet’s quarrel with the world is deep-down a lover’s quarrel.  If they didn’t love the world, they probably wouldn’t bother to tell it that it’s going to Hell.  They’d just let it go.  Their quarrel is God’s quarrel.”[11]A prophet, when all is said and done, wants the best for the people whom he – or she – is addressing.  If the words are bitter and the demeanor is vengeful, it’s likely not prophecy.
·         Finally, prophets are not generally treated very well.  “They are ignored, forgotten, berated, mistreated, tortured, killed.  And nobody listens to them.”[12]
During the time Jesus lived on this earth most of the people he encountered saw him as just another prophet.  In a lot of ways he experienced what other prophets did.  Take this morning’s reading.  Having returned to his hometown, he’s teaching in the synagogue, speaking to people he grew up with, to people who know both him and his family.  And, no one seems particularly happy with what he has to say.  They are scandalized; they take offence.  “What does he know?  Just who does he think he is, preaching to us that way?”
     Who do you think you are?  What a universal and enduring line.  It’s used to put people down, to put them back in their places.  It’s used to rein people in when they seem to be developing delusions of grandeur, when they seem to be getting too big for their britches, as it were.  To think that Jesus himself got that reaction …
     Human nature being what it is we don’t care much for people who think they have a corner on the truth or who act as though they know “God’s will.”  In many cases our suspicion and skepticism is valuable.  There are just too many instances of people being led astray by self-proclaimed experts, usually with bad results.  We’re right to be careful, to remain unconvinced.  Most assuredly, it can be dangerous not to be. 
     But, how can we tell a real prophet from a fake?  Who is telling us what we want to hear?  Who is telling us what they want us to hear?  How do we tell who is telling us the truth? 
     Paul points out one way in this morning’s reading.  He says he will not boast of what he has seen and heard.  He’s not going to promote himself or his experience.  So, if the words seem to be aimed at increasing the speaker’s own power, to be a way for him or her to get attention, for promoting personal beliefs, it is best to be skeptical.
     And yet … it’s important for us to remember that oftentimes the truth comes from sources we might never anticipate.  We expect people to fit a certain mold, to look and sound a certain way, to be of certain social status.  Who among us wants a hometown boy or girl, one one hand, or some undesirable misfit, on the other, offering observations about that we’re doing, how we’re acting, the choices we’re making?  We don’t.
And, very often it seems to me, the truth is inconvenient.  In our culture, the truth has become less important than what sells, less important than the sound bites and twisted rhetoric that push a particular point of view.  The truth, the real truth, the truth God will inspire someone to speak, generally disrupts our carefully crafted view of the world, our carefully guarded opinions.  A prophecy that is real will challenge our convenient, comfortable belief systems, will challenge the way we’ve ordered our personal little worlds.  No wonder we harrumph and cross our arms and mutter, “Who does she think she is?”
     We are here because we believe in Jesus, because we believe Jesus had it right.  We’re here because we believe that Jesus spoke – and was – the truth.  And, we are here because we don’t believe we can sit back and assume that everything we do day in and day out is right or pleasing to God.  We know ourselves to be people of self-examination and confession.  We know ourselves to be people who are granted forgiveness and who can be changed.
Now, I cannot tell you how to determine who is speaking the truth to you – or to us, to our country, our world.  I have a hard enough time of that myself.  But, I will tell you what I think.
I think that really and deeply hearing the truth – from among all the opposing voices and out of the endless din that comes at us, that hearing the truth starts with our telling the truth to ourselves.  When and what do we hear or refuse to hear?  When and what do we speak or refuse to speak?  Who gets our backs up, every time?  What are our pet peeves?  When do we catch ourselves judging and finger pointing.  What ideas do we strive most passionately to protect?  Take a good, long look.  Tell yourself the truth.
In our deep inviting quiet that still, small voice that dwells in the depths of our own hearts may venture a word with us.  God does speak.  It will take trust and courage to begin examining – and in some cases even dismantling – the carefully built walls of convenient assumption and half-truth that govern our lives.  Once we begin to tell the truth to ourselves, maybe we will be better able to hear the word of God all around us.  Once we begin to tell the truth to ourselves, maybe, just maybe, we will find ourselves inspired by God to speak a prophetic word from our own lips.
We can always hope …

[1] Isaiah 9:6
[2] Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (HarperSanFrancisco, 1979) 71.
[3] John 1:29
[4] Amos 5:24
[5] Buechner, Peculiar 36.
[6] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC (HarperSanFrancisco), 1973/1993) 90.
[7] Isaiah 6:11
[8] Jeremiah 1:6
[9] Exodus 4:10
[10] Buechner, Wishful 88-89.
[11] Buechner, Wishful 91.
[12] For this quote and several other points that follow I am indebted to Kathleen L Wakefield, sermon for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9(B) – July 9, 2006, “Sermons that Work,” http://archive.episcopalchurch.org/sermons_that_work.htm.

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