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Prophets of the 21st Century

A Sermon by Rev. Dr. Nina D. Grey

First Unitarian Church of Chicago February 1, 2009

Tomorrow, Punxsutawney Phil will awake from his winter hibernation, creep out and look for a sign, and then prophesy an early or late coming of spring. Does this make him a prophet? When I told my sister I was speaking today about prophets of the 21st century, she thought at first I meant this kind of prophecy, a seer into the future, a predictor of future events. But this is not exactly what the Hebrew prophets did. And it is not exactly what prophets of this century will do. Punxsutawney Phil simply reads the sun sign, or we read them for him; and there were oracles in ancient times who read the star signs. Today too, there are astrologers who correlate our birthdays with the stars and tell us what is coming. And there are readers of tarot cards and interpreters of the I-Ching, who give us hints about our possible futures. But this is not what the Hebrew prophets did, and not what 21st century prophets do or will do.

Palm readers, tea leaf readers, astrologers and tarot card readers, and even interpreters of the enneagram or of a myers briggs test help us look at ourselves as individuals and may even provoke insights about our needs or personal direction. Meditation and prayer may do that, too, and possibly more effectively. But Hebrew prophets did something else. And 21st century prophets aim for something different.

Hebrew prophets like Amos, Jeremiah or Isaiah, spoke to a people, not to one individual. They were preachers and they cried out to the people of Israel, and sometimes mainly to the rulers of ancient Israel. Sometimes they distinguished between the rulers and all the people. Sometimes they lumped them all together. Perhaps the best and most famous writer about these prophets was Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was himself a prophet for his time, the mid-20th century. Heschel stood beside Martin Luther King, Jr. King in Selma. Heschel was a passionate fighter for the rights of all people, an ardent foe of the Viet Nam war.

Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, wrote that Heschel founded the organization Clergy and Laity concerned about Viet Nam.

When Heschel returned from marching with Dr. King, he wrote that it felt like his legs were praying. He understood that spirituality and social activism are inseparable. A great scholar of the Hebrew prophets, he knew that the 8th century BCE prophets were burning with God’s agony over human injustice and suffering. For the prophets, God was not abstract, an idea like Paul Tillich’s Ground of Being. For the Prophets God was deeply involved with the people, noticed the small and large injustices, was concerned and felt compassion for the poor, the widow and the orphan. Through the voice of the prophets God cried for fairness, justice, and righteousness. God was less interested in rituals and sacrifice, ceremony or celebration. The prophet Amos spoke for God, saying, I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

22 Yea, though ye offer me your burnt-offerings and meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts.

23 Take thou away from me the noise of thy songs; for I will not hear the melody of thy viols.

24 But let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

The prophets felt God is love and compassion for the people. Out of that great love came grief and sometimes anger when the people turned away from a life of justice. The prophet was grasped by God, felt God’s love, saw the people through God’s eyes. The prophet pronounced God’s condemnation for injustice, God’s plea for repentance, and God’s promise of hope if the people would change. That plea echoes in the first lines of our hymn, Turn Back, Turn Back, #120 in our hymnal.

Turn back, turn back, forswear thy foolish ways.

Old now is earth, and none may count her days;

Yet humankind, whose head is crowned with flame,

Still will not hear the inner God proclaim:

“Turn back, turn back, forswear thy foolish ways.”

In our story today, The Turtle and the Voice of God, the young Theodore Parker hears a voice calling out NO, imploring him to stop what he was about to do, which was hurt a small animal, a turtle. His mother explains that the voice is his conscience, telling him the difference between right and wrong, compelling him to listen. She said some believe the conscience is the inner voice of God.

In ancient Israel, Abraham Heschel tells us, the prophets heard and were grasped by the voice and the words but most importantly by the passion, the feelings of God for God’s people. And the prophet could not turn down or away from that God, whom the 20th century UU ethicist James Luther Adams calls the Commanding Reality. The prophet felt deeply both God’s love and God’s concern for the people’s erring ways. The prophet was not alone for he was God’s partner in converting the people to justice, but the prophet was lonely, for he worked alone, and often, perhaps usually, the people rejected him. He had to keep going, though, could not take a break from compassion or justice. He had to do what he was called to do.

I have known people like this, haven’t you, whose call to justice-making was so strong, and who needed to get others to turn also. I have wondered at how they kept on witnessing and advocating for their deep, powerful vision of justice, in the face of resistance, and sometimes rejection. I can only assume that, in the 20th century and in the early 21st century, they too have deeply felt the pain of injustice. And they have been sure of the awful consequences if we fail to change our ways. Like the prophets of old. They have not be able to escape from or deny what they see, and feel. And some of them, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Heschel, and Dorothy Day, received sustenance from relationship with their God whose essence is love, and some, such as Rachel Carson, or Al Gore, whose cry for justice extends to care for the whole earth, have understood how everything is connected, how we and the earth are inseparable kin. Like ancient prophets they see and speak the consequences of inaction and like those prophets, their hearts too are filled with both love and pain and a prayer that we will listen, will hear, will change, will act.

The Hebrew prophets, Heschel said, often exaggerated the evil they saw around them, for they were very sensitive to even small injustices. On the other hand, they also understood that injustice was systemic, that its causes, for example, greed or grasping for power, could distort the values of an entire people. They spoke the truth directly, harshly, and without nuance, as they both saw and felt the truth. They proclaimed doom if the people would not change; and they promised hope, if the people would turn, would change what needs to be changed.

Who are the prophets today in the first years of the 21st century? Are they like the Hebrew prophets, solitary individuals, grasped by God, or Truth, Pain or Love? How do we recognize a prophet? How will today’s prophets speak truth to power? What will they call the people to do?

One man, himself a prophetic figure, the Unitarian Universalist Rev. Richard Gilbert, roots today’s prophetic impulse in the Hebrew prophets. Gilbert grounds today’s prophecy in a vision, like the prophets’, of a world where we could live in peace and unafraid, where nations did not war against nations. Today’s prophet still insists on seeing the evils of greed and inequity. Today’s prophets respond with feeling, word and action.

And today, Gilbert tells us the prophetic call is a group call, to the whole church, the synagogue, the mosque, and the temple, a call to hold as a people a vision of peace and justice.It is a call to act as a body, to see injustice, to witness to the truth, however unpleasant that truth might be, to apply balm for the pain of injustice, but most importantly to seek the causes of injustice and to affect change in systems of injustice. I agree with Gilbert, and I believe that other groups are also called to the prophetic task: voluntary associations like the NAACP, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights, the Environmental Defense Fund, the Children’s Defense Fund, whose mission is to leave no child behind and to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start, and even the United Nations, when it proclaims a Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Rights of the Child. In this age when we have a deeper understanding of systems, we are called to live the prophetic impulse within groups. In this day, the prophet cannot work alone, cannot be the solitary proclaimer of ills or worker for justice in a sea of injustice. We have to share the role within the strength of community.

In 2001 Richard Gilbert wrote, “We live in a time of issues explosions as we confront the crisis of the week screaming at us from our TV sets or print headlines or computer screens.” He wrote that information overload can overwhelm us and lead us to despair, numbing us, or causing us to seek escape routes. And he wrote in 2001, before the Iraq War, before the severe economic melt down, and earlier in our awareness of global warming. It may be more painful today to see and speak truth. It may be harder today to find courage and hope. But I believe the possibilities and the hope lie within the communities: the church, the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the community organizations and national organizations seeking justice for all; and even the online communities like moveon.org, and Emily’s list. The willingness to see clearly and the necessary courage and hope come from participation with others in prophetic work.

The title of Alice Walker’s latest book reminds us that we are the change we seek.

We do still need leaders who help us all see that we are part of the problems, that we need to sacrifice, that we will have to change some behaviors and practices. But we need to remember that we are partners with those leaders. We can’t choose, or elect leaders and expect they will face tough challenges on their own. We’re in this together.

In the book of acts, Luke reminds his listeners that they are all part of the body of Christ, each with gifts that are important. Similarly, the great UU ethicist, the late James Luther Adams, speaks of the prophethood of all believers. Whether we are believers in God, or Love, or the human capacity to make a difference, we need to let our community be grasped by Love, by the concern we have for all people and the earth; let that deep love and concern fire us up; let our minds get learning; let us find common ground among our differences; and then let our voices and feet get moving, praying, speaking, and acting for a better day. That’s what 21st century prophets can do together. May it be so. Amen.