Sermon for Feb. 1, 2015
8:15 a.m. service
“Who is Our Prophet?”
Take a ride through history with me. Close your eyes and imagine the things I tell you:
You are walking down the main avenue of the city you live in. The sun illuminates the bright, blue sky with little whisps of cloud interrupting the blue hues. The shop to your right bakes bread; the morning air is laced with aromas of cracked wheat with a little bit of char. Mmm, you think, that would be good with some honey drizzled on it. You only take a moment to pause as the dust of the street blows into your face and brings you back to reality. “It’s time to eat,” you think.
On your way to get a quick bite, you pass along the shops highlighted by clay pots filled with flowers. Orange and yellow flashes catch your eye, but you look at the shop owner, and he does not look pleased you are there. You walk a little faster to get to your destination. The few coins in your pocket are all you carry, and you only carry those to pay for lunch. You walk in the back entrance to the place - darting your eyes left and right before you enter - lest you get the owner in trouble. You walk in. *sigh* You made it. Friends of yours covered in the same dust that hit you earlier sit in a long row against a stone wall eating their lunches. You grab your bowl of stew and eat your quick meal before heading to work. These few minutes with a hot meal are the most quiet you will have all day, so you try to enjoy the bliss of being alone.
When I was told that story, I couldn’t quite place where I was. My professor was describing what it was like to be a Jewish person in a ghetto in New York at the turn of the century. I, a child of the post-civil-rights era South, assumed it was about an African American man in Alabama. My friend sitting next to me thought he was experiencing the life of a slave in Egypt or Assyria. We could all make a pretty good argument as to why we were right, and that may have been my professor’s point. History tends to find ways to repeat itself, and as much as we want to think otherwise, the basic experiences of living tend to only change in look.
So in preparing to work with this Sunday’s scriptures, I could not get my mind away from the news and how we continually seem to hear the same stories throughout our lives to the point we think nothing changes. We just celebrated the life of Dr. King a few weeks ago, yet the conversation of race and class continues to be on our minds and in our hearts. I hear the same headlines of crime, traffic, and celebrity gossip that I heard when my mother drove me to school. That feeling of continuity and familiarity occurs when I read the Bible sometimes, so I attempted to hear these readings with fresh ears. How can we continue on the righteous path of bringing heaven to earth? What can we do to honor King’s work and legacy?
I read the first passage in Deuteronomy and stopped at the word “Prophet.” The word is almost always ascribed to Dr. King, some have also ascribed the title to the current and some previous popes, many argue figures like Ghandi, Howard Thurman, various writers, thinkers, and activists, and others in recent history who they think deserve the term. And, to be fair, for some it really should stick. I felt it would be good if we asked ourselves, “who is OUR prophet today?”
We as Methodists love, for good reason, to point to our church’s founder John Wesley. He and his brother formulated our polity, our hymnody, and our understanding of God’s love and grace that supersedes all. But is either Wesley a prophet? What about people who work in the religious world now? We have academics who devote their life’s work to understanding the language and intent of God’s Word, would that make them prophets? What about pastors who put their credit and reputation on the line to stand with and even live with the marginalized peoples of the world. Are they prophets? How do we know who is on the cusp of seeing God’s next move?
I think we are safe with King. Letters from a Birmingham jail and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, along with countless others I am remiss to name individually, point to a world that need not be like the one we have. He goes after the exact problems he sees and names them and says, “NO MORE!” I think we could borrow the practice of naming our problems from our extended family in the black churches of America. They know how to say what needs to be said.
Those who we call prophets go to great lengths to show our mixed up and sometimes sinful values in real ways. I’ll admit I do not get the full effect of Ezekiel cutting off all of his hair and dividing it, but I do understand Ghandi literally standing against the British until the empire left. Both suffered by pushing against the taboos and mores of their culture, and that is how we know they were willing to fight for the cause of the just. God’s name may not always make an appearance in their words, but I believe in the mystery of our faith that says God moves in ways that we know in our hearts.
The sad reality is prophets by nature are on the leading edge of what God is doing in the world. From what I know of history, most people we give the title of prophet were not seen as prophetic by the wider world of their day. Prophets are tasked with swaying society back toward what God wants, and what we want often is in direct conflict with that. The Bible tells us to share what we have with others, but the world tells us not to enable those who take charity for granted. “Love your neighbors,” Jesus said, “…unless they try to steal from you,” the world adds, “then they deserve what’s coming.” God’s will is often different from our will. Our will usually has something to do with our wallets. God works in the currency of infinite love and grace.
When we look to Deuteronomy, the writer makes clear where our prophets will come from. They don’t originate out of nowhere and they certainly cannot name themselves as such. Verse 18 says, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people;…” For one, the prophet will have authority, because not everyone was versed in the law of the Pentateuch – the Jewish law from which Deuteronomy comes. To know the law, one must have wisdom and patience to understand God’s will. Similarly, that person will come from within the community. No one who does not know the community can speak for it.
1 Corinthians warns us that we must also be vigilant in discerning what is good for us. When we hear someone speaking on our or God’s behalf, we must be mindful of what they say and do. While this passage concerns food specifically, it talks about how we should know what is good for us. We can have all the knowledge in the world but it is not good unless it serves love of God and love of neighbor. Otherwise, knowledge runs the risk of ego.
Knowing who our prophets are sits well in the context of food and community. I am a firm believer that you really get to know someone when you share a meal with them. Community is based on what we do together. It is no surprise that our two major sacraments of communion and baptism are both deeply personal actions – eating and washing – that are done in the presence of others. Paul warns the community in Corinth to be mindful of what they do just as Deuteronomy asks we be mindful of what God wants for us. This morning, while we celebrate communion, I ask that you take a moment to show appreciation for the God who loves you always and finds various avenues for you to be reminded that you are loved and cared for.
So, when we speak of prophets coming from amongst us, how can be sure we have found someone whom God has anointed to speak? My first instinct is to point to the Gospels. We see Christ as being so much more than a prophet, but he was still a prophet of his time. He told people that empires did not dictate the ways of the world; God does. The same laws passed through history were taught to Jesus as a boy. He came from a Jewish family. Given he was a craftsman, I can’t vouch for his education and knowledge of the law, but I think our faith in his Son of God status has a wisdom component.
Jesus shows us that God’s word and will can often be hidden like the parables. Sometimes God is as plain as “love God, love neighbor.” God’s will can hurt our plans as the rich, young ruler learned. God also knows when we are poor and blesses us with loaves and fish. If you ever need to know what a prophet looks like, I would recommend brushing up on the Gospels and look for the good news that God loves all of us, wants us to love each other, and is in the business of seeing the world serve for goodness for all and not just for some. The Gospels and the Living Christ still challenge us to hear God’s words fresh and new.
Jesus offers us a litmus test for knowing who our modern day prophets are. They must be willing to be honest yet unyielding to naming and ending injustice. They must achieve justice without violence or manipulation. They will be one of us. Prophets will come and go, but those who will lead us to a new tomorrow will look a lot like Christ, because they have God on their side.
If you are looking for our prophet, start by looking around you. Belmont serves a single community in a single city, but its members are doing some good things. Who is to say OUR prophet for today is not sitting in a pew here this morning or at the 10:30 service. We are a community striving to love God and neighbor as best we can by opening our doors to people who need love. I say this community, and communities all around Nashville, Tennessee, and the world, are building up their members to do great works in the name of God. May we be so blessed as to find our prophet. Amen.