Sermon: How Not to Be a Prophet

This is a synopsis of the sermon I preached at Universalist National Memorial Church on July 15, 2018, based on the notes and manuscript I prepared for the occasion. The texts were Amos 7:7-15 and Mark 6:14-29.


I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me into the pulpit this morning, and to you for welcoming me to the pulpit today.

I say “welcome” because there’s an old joke that a preacher has one sermon, preached in hundreds of different ways. At the worst, that suggests uncreative preaching; at best, it means that we are dealing with issues of such depth and importance that they must be approached from different directions in various ways over the course of years, perhaps a lifetime. And if we’re lucky, we can sketch the outlines of the eternal truths, and delve into one or more of them. I hope I can honor your welcome by building on past sermons; this is how theology develops.

I won’t keep you in suspense; what do I have to preach? What’s the one sermon? In a nutshell, Live with God, and grow into a godlike way. The rest is commentary, detail and a lifetime of work.

So, today I’d like to talk about a particular kind of ministry – that of prophecy – and how it fits into our life with God, and growing in a godlike way.

Let’s start by dispelling the biggest misunderstanding about prophecy. It’s not fortune-telling. Rather, prophets are intermediaries with God, and when God deigns to speak through them, it is often a word of judgment and warning. A judgment and warning attuned to the times they live in, and its failings. These failing can be of morals, of religious observance, of justice, or of peace. But they are prophecies to the time and place they are spoken in.

The funny thing is that human behavior doesn’t change so much, even over the centuries. So a prophetic word about greed or violence, spoken twenty or twenty-eight centuries ago, can sound like it was meant for us today. And I have to think this twin observation – a prophecy to a long-dead king being heard and stirring later generations – lead to these words becoming recognized as scripture.

The prophet Amos is particularly universal this way, so little wonder Martin Luther King, writing from the Birmingham jail, could quote words…

“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” …

as if they were meant for our age, too.

But that ability to identify with an ancient prophetic text can be misleading. There’s a strong tendency in the liberal churches to de-emphasize law and commandments and apply that emphasis to the prophets instead. We are moved by their words, particularly those which image a universal order of goodness, fairness and plenty. Our own tradition, as you can image, is particularly smitten.

The prophet’s word is ecstatic and mystical. If you don’t buy that it is at least courageous and deeply intuitive. And you can’t order up people touched by God. Worse, you have to be on guard for those. Just because the prophecy sounds universal, that doesn’t mean prophets are universally present. Indeed, they are very rare, but false prophets are always around the corner.

(I’m thinking of Jim Jones and his followers, more than nine hundred in all, who died at Jonestown forty years ago this November. One thing I can give credit to the UUA for, if rumor holds, is that he sought ministerial fellowship, but was rejected.) Beware prophets, even if they look the part.

And we should beware sounding like prophets just because we like the force and clarity of the prophet’s voice. It’s hard to live with God, and grow into a godlike way, when you’re mad all the time. Or shooting the upset with diversions, pleasant or otherwise. So then, what shall we do?

The church has a responsibility to look at the world, first to see that we approach it through the right lens and then offer means to cope with it. The most important of these means, I think, being the plain proclamation that God will gather us together, to be All in All. An ethics of care flows from that. But we live in the world that have, and not one we would choose.

It has become a standard response in the liberal church to maintain a prophetic witness, and perhaps even a cliché. I’m not sure I could define a prophetic response, but you know it when you see it. They are noisy, inconvenient, angry in tone or some combination of these.

And you’ll forgive me if a lot of “prophetic action” seems to be the action of people confused about what better could be done. Appealing to God’s prophets of old, and kindling their fire in this age, draws attention to those seeking justice.

We can admire the prophets. We can try to follow their teaching, perhaps also resent their wrath. We can teach their lessons to each other and our progeny. It is not at all clear that we should act like them. In any case, we’re not learning about the breadth and width of prophecy as if it were as new as it was in Amos’ day. Ours is a responsibility to act not as prophets but as responsible people who heed the prophets in the right time. Because the right time is the missing piece. Amos spoke out of a particular moment in his nation’s history. There was a context that called for a particular response. We can—and do—draw out guiding values from his words, but it’s clear that it’s not a universal prescription. Perhaps we do not need prophets because we have other spiritual offices – namely the pastors and deacons – who supply care in the ways particular to those offices.

In Amos, high in the heritage of the prophets, God has upset heritage itself. He was not born to prophecy, but for lack of a better term had it imposed upon him for the sake of his people.

Many of us are practical people who want sensible, approachable and actionable ideas to the world’s problems, even shaping our careers to help others. Ask generous people what they do to make life more fair and just. Good habits – including the good habits of being fair and just – good habits need models, practice, patience and reinforcements. Ask how others how to live with God, and grow into a godlike way — and do it.

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