Claiming Our Prophetic Voice
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered August 5, 2012 at First Unitarian Church in Louisville, KY
What do you think of when you hear me use the word “prophet”? Someone who predicts the future –like Professor Trelawney from Harry Potter, giving the prophecy about the child who will vanquish Voldemort? Or the prophecies of Nostradamus?
Or maybe you think of the biblical prophets: people like Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Elija, Elisha. These were men who said things that no one wanted to hear: repent, or be destroyed. And Jonah, who was supposed to go be a prophet in Nineveh but didn’t want to, so he ran away only to get swallowed by a whale. The story goes that he prayed for 3 days and 3 nights, before the whale cast him out, at which point Jonah decided going to Nineveh maybe wasn’t so bad after all. These are the prophets who proclaimed: REPENT! Repent or be destroyed!! They were not generally very popular folks.
Or perhaps you think of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is a pretty popular prophet. He is credited with prophesying the coming of the Messiah. An angel is said to have placed a burning coal upon Isaiah’s tongue, to purify his voice for speaking the word of the Lord. Isaiah was a prophet for over 60 years, and in the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Isaiah is divided into 3 different periods. Listen to this excerpt from Isaiah chapter 61 – perhaps one of the most quotes parts of the book of Isaiah. In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is said to have quoted from this section in the book of Luke:
<< Isaiah 61:1-4 >>
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
Because the LORD has anointed me
To bring good news to the afflicted;
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to captives
And freedom to prisoners;
To proclaim the favorable year of the LORD
And the day of vengeance of our God;
To comfort all who mourn,
To grant those who mourn in Zion,
Giving them garlands instead of ashes,
The oil of gladness instead of mourning,
The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness,
The planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.
Then they will rebuild the ancient ruins,
They will raise up the former devastations;
And they will repair the ruined cities,
The desolations of many generations.
Sound familiar? This is the origin of the words to one of the most popular hymns, the hymn we sang this morning, “We’ll Build a Land.”
The key thing about prophets, whether biblical or fictional, within religion or outside it, is that prophets see things others don’t, and then speak them – whether or not they are popular. The saying “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” is often recommended as a way to balance the pastoral and prophetic aspects of being a minister.
Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams, writing in 1947, wrote that
“Prophets have been predictors – proclaimers of doom and judgement, heralds of a new fulfillment. They have attempted to interpret the signs of the times and to see into the future. They have stood not only at the edge of their own culture but also before the imminent shape of new and better things to come. At times of impending change and decision, they have seen the crisis as the crisis of a new age; they have felt called to foresee the coming of a new epoch.”
Martin Luther King, Jr, was such a prophet, foreseeing the coming of a new epoch, a new era. One who did not stand on his accomplishments, but continued to try to help bend the moral arc of the universe – that one which Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, wrote of (and who King quoted) who, in “Of Justice and the Conscience” (1853) asserted: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” The prophets call us to bend that arc, to right our wrongs, to fix that which is broken.
Some believe we are in such a period of transition right now. This does seem to be a time of change and decision. And though they sometimes get drowned out by the cacophony of social media and news-bites and more, there are prophetic voices we can hear today. Unitarian Universalist minister Marilyn Sewell found such voice in the Occupy Movement:
Somewhere during the last 30 years, we got lost on the way to the bank. We came to believe that “greed is good.” The best and the brightest of our university students concluded that making a lot of money and garnering many possessions is the great goal of living. A country that understood neighborliness and compassion as positive goods began to look past the hungry, the homeless, the afflicted, as if they were in no way connected with those of us who are strong and able. We began to stop making things and began to spend our working days shuffling paper and making bets on the vagaries of the stock market. We refused to believe that the earth had limits, and we kept sucking up resources as though there were no tomorrow. In other words, we have been living in sin.
The Occupy movement, she says, is a prophetic voice, calling us to repent or be destroyed: “Occupy Wall Street is calling out the devastating results of corporate greed. The occupiers are saying this must stop. They’re saying we must make human need and the care of the planet our central concerns.”
The Occupy movement is inspiring, too, because it reminds us that we each can be a prophet. That we don’t have to be an Isaiah, or a Gandhi, or a Martin Luther King, Jr. We each have a prophetic voice, waiting for us to claim it.
James Luther Adams takes this concept, of each of us having a prophetic voice, and calls it the Prophethood of All Believers. This is based on the concept of the priesthood of all believers that was originated by Martin Luther (not MLK, but the original German monk from back during the time of the Reformation), when Luther was claiming that we don’t not need a priest as an intermediary between us and God. JLA says:
“As an element of the radical laicism we need also a firm belief in the prophethood of all believers. The prophetic liberal church is not a church in which the prophetic function is assigned merely to the few. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which persons think and work together to interpret the signs of the times in light of their faith, to make explicit through discussion the epochal thinking that the times demand. The prophetic liberal church is the church in which all members share the common responsibility to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior (both individual and institutional), with the intention of making history in place of merely being pushed around by it. Only through a prophethood of all believers can we together foresee doom and mend our common ways.”
Remember, JLA was writing this back in 1947. When I re-read his essay this week, I was struck by how relevant it is to today. He wrote: “We live in a world of change and as religious liberals we have the obligation to confront the problems posed by our social economy, the problems of depression and unemployment and insecurity which have become characteristic of the present phase of the economy.”
Religious liberals, he said in 1947, had a moral obligation to not be silent, to claim our prophetic voice, to stand against injustice.
He didn’t say we had a moral obligation to grow our churches, or to provide lunches or social opportunities or religious education. Or to be popular. Or liked. Or even respected. He wasn’t against these things, mind you. He was a big proponent of voluntary institutions. But, he said, we had a moral obligation to confront societal problems. For each of us to not be silent, but to be prophets, calling society back into relationship with our best selves and with the larger force that is called by many names.
So do we do that? Today, do we live up to JLA’s vision of a prophethood of all believers? If not, should we? And if we should, how do we do it? What would it look like to be a prophetic church, one that concerns “itself with the struggle in history for human decency and justice”, one that shows “concern for the shape of things to come”, that attempts to “interpret the signs of the times”??
First, I think we need to recognize what we are up against; what barriers there are that are in the way of claiming our prophetic voice. Because if we don’t understand the barriers, we will get hung up on them, like a hurdler who misses and trips and the whole race is forfeit.
One of the barriers to claiming our prophetic voice is a lack of awareness of how we are personally affected by the various crises. We think it does not effect us, so we are content to remain silent. The healthcare issue is an excellent example of how we run into this barrier. If we are lucky enough to have health insurance, we may not realize that we are paying more for that insurance and for various exams and procedures because the hospitals and companies have to cover for those who don’t have the means to pay. So we think the human right to healthcare doesn’t impact us. But it clearly does. We are all connected – what effects one part of the interdependent web of existence effects us all. That is not just a nice saying, it is true. It is hard to claim our prophetic voice when we don’t feel personally connected to an issue.
Another barrier to claiming our prophetic voice, one that I think is even more dangerous, is that we are distracted. How many of us knows who UK beat to win the championship in March? How many of us know how many gold medals Michael Phelps has won in the past week? And who knows what is going on in Syria right now? Who knows that the timeline is for US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan? I love the internet and the accessibility of instant information gratification. But it has made it harder to pay attention to things that fall through the cracks, that don’t get as much coverage. We get distracted by what the media wants us to see/hear/know.
And there is another way of being distracted. It can be so difficult to pay attention to the suffering of someone else when I have so many things in my own life demanding attention. How to choose the right school for my kids, pay the bills, what groceries I can afford this week, whether or not to see a doctor for a health concern. Our own lives have become so complicated that we are cut off, distanced, distracted from some really important things that matter. It is hard to claim our prophetic voice when we are so distracted and distractable.
A third barrier to claiming our prophetic voice is fear. Fear of losing our jobs, fear of damaging a relationship, fear of coming across as an extremist. Most of us don’t want to be unpopular, shunned, a voice on the margins – which is where the prophet is often relegated. This barrier is, perhaps, the most pernicious. It keeps us silent when we hear racist jokes, when we see bullying at school or at work, when we are faced with injustice. Fear, particularly fear of what we might lose, is a powerful barrier that prevents us from claiming our prophetic voice.
These barriers, and more, keep us from claiming our prophetic voice. They keep us from standing up for what we believe in, loudly and proudly. And who does this benefit? The status quo, and those who love it, those who benefit from it. They are the ones who try to hold us back from realizing our vision of the beloved community, with peace, liberty and justice for all. They are the ones who, JLA points out “will try to persuade us that we are living in a former stage of our epoch or that new occasions do not teach new duties.”
I can’t help but think of Chil-fil-a appreciation day last week. There were lots of reasons folks lined up at the fast food restaurant chain last week. But the ones who were in line because they are against gay marriage don’t even realize that they have already lost. That gay marriage rights are, as Jon Stewart points out, happening. If you doubt this, all it takes is seeing that the Democratic National Committee has unanimously supported civil marriage rights in it’s platform, while also standing for the Employment Non-discrimination Act and standing against the Defense of Marriage act. This is huge, but there is no way the DNC would have done this if they didn’t believe these issues would get votes. The DNC is not a prophetic voice – they are following popular opinion. The prophets have successfully turned the tide of public opinion.
We – Unitarian Universalist and First Unitarian – were part of the prophetic voice that will make civil marriage a civil right. And Unitarian Universalists were part of the prophetic voice that stood against the unjust Arizona law SB1070, the broadest and strictest anti-illegal immigration measure at the time that it was passed.
There are so many reasons to hope, to realize that claiming our prophetic voice makes a difference! We don’t have to be like Jonah, and run away. We can claim our prophetic voice and make a difference.
This was one reason I was so proud of this congregation when it voted to affirm our mission statement listed at the top of your order of service: We are a church of reason and spirit that witnesses for progressive faith, nurtures our community and transforms our world. Witnesses for progressive faith and transforms our world. This says that this church has a prophetic voice to claim!
Philosopher, author, and civil rights activist Cornell West says that “Prophetic witness consists of human acts of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery. Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery. It highlights personal and institutional evil, including especially the evil of being indifferent to personal and institutional evil.”
This is why today was the day we handed out the HELP Ministry lunch bags. Because it is a cute, easy way to remember the poverty in the 40203 zip code, and the unjustified suffering that occurs because people lack access to basic human needs. To remind ourselves not to be indifferent to the suffering around us – in this neighborhood, and in our own congregation. To claim, in perhaps a more fun, cute, easy way, our prophetic voice. Not by giving money, but by raising awareness, by paying attention.
In the letter he wrote to the church announcing his resignation from First Unitarian in 1960, Robert T. Weston wrote: “I hope that you will face the future here with determination…to make this a stronger church, a church whose voice is heard and felt on matters of importance in the community and the world. You have no future as an institution which caters mainly to the emotional comfort and social approval of the community. Your future lies…in being a voice and an arm of religious and social liberalism.”
It won’t be comfortable. It won’t make us popular. But claiming our prophetic voice will allow us to live our mission statement, to stand on the side of love, to be helper, teacher, builder of the beloved community. May we work to make it so. Blessed be.