This is the text of the sermon I delivered at the congregation I serve -- Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist. As always, you can listen to it if you'd prefer.
“After a long absence, The Twilight Zone returns with one of the most ambitious, expensive and controversial productions in broadcast history.” This description of a then still upcoming television program was published in a Scottish newspaper last week. It continues, “Sci-fi writers have dabbled often with alternative history stories – among the most common is the ‘What If The Nazis Had Won The Second World War’ setting – but this huge interactive virtual reality project, which will unfold on TV, in the press, and on Twitter over the next four years, sets out to build an ongoing alternative present. The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 in which huge sections of the US electorate have somehow been duped into voting to make Donald Trump president. It sounds far-fetched, and it is, but as it goes on it becomes more and more chillingly plausible. Today’s feature-length opener concentrates on the gaudy inauguration of President Trump, and the stirrings of protest and despair surrounding the ceremony, while pundits speculate gravely on what lies ahead. It’s a flawed piece, but a disturbing glimpse of the horrors we could stumble into, if we’re not careful.”
I checked it out. This was actually published in Scotland’s Sunday Herald as its description of Friday’s coverage of the Inauguration. “The story begins in a nightmarish version of 2017 …”
It was quite the weekend in DC, wasn’t it? About a quarter of a million people gathered on the Washington Mall on Friday to see Donald J. Trump sworn in as the nation’s 45th President. On Saturday, an estimated half of a million women, children, and men – but mostly women – descended on DC to make their presence and their voices seen, heard, and felt. Throughout the country, it’s been estimated that roughly 3-4 million people gathered in solidarity with what was once called “the Million Woman March.” And initial, rough estimates says that nearly 30,000 people gathered in the more than 670 sister demonstrations around the world. That … well … that’s a lot of people wanting to “speak truth to power,” a phrase that’s often identified as being of old Quaker origin but which seems to have actually been coined by civil rights leader Bayard Rustin.
We’ve been exploring this month what it means to be “a people of prophecy,” and, perhaps more specifically, what it would mean to say that our Unitarian Universalist faith calls on us – as congregations and as individuals – calls on us to be “a people of prophecy.” The two busloads from our congregation who joined that gathered throng in DC, and the thousands of other UUs around the country, were living examples of at least part of the answer.
One way of understanding the word “prophecy,” of course, is to think about soothsayers and oracles, fortunetellers and clairvoyants. That’s not how I’m using the word this morning. Instead, I’m talking about “prophecy” as that thing those well-known prophets of the Jewish tradition were all about. I’m talking about “prophecy” as, “speaking truth to power.”
The Talmud teaches that during the Biblical period there were hundreds of thousands of prophets: at least twice as many as the 600,000 who were said to have left Egypt. For a variety of reasons, however, Jewish scripture only identifies 55 of them. The majority, but not all of those remembered, were men – there are stories of seven female prophets. And while that certainly isn’t it a lot, it’s worth noting that the Talmud reports that the prophetic ability of at least one of them, Sarah, was superior to that of her husband, Abraham. God told Abraham to listen to his wife and to do whatever she told him to, and said that he did not “ennoble” her, but that she “ennobled” him. Sarah would have brought Abraham to the March.
Gender identity aside, the prophets all spoke out for justice and against the injustices they saw in the society around them. Amos, for instance, cried out because he saw that the wealthy and the powerful oppressed the poor and dispossessed while, at the same time, pretending to be religiously observant. He said that the way those who had power treated those who did not was the measuring stick by which God would judge the whole nation. “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; I take no delight in your assemblies. … But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”
Hosea preached that the primary focus of God’s judgement was on the religious and secular leadership who willfully ignored God and deliberately abused those under their control. And while both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were to pay the price for this, the people themselves, if they repented, would feel God’s mercy. “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings"
Micah rebuked Israel because of dishonesty in the marketplace and corruption in government, and warned that when a nation’s leadership fails to set the right example for their society, the society will crumble. “He has shown you, O human, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Over and over again the men and women the Jewish tradition remembers as prophets bravely lifted their voices to warn, to rebuke, to challenge. They said, in essence, “the way things are is not the way things are supposed to be, and if things don’t change, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
Cypress did some research for this morning, and came across the book What Manner of Man is the Prophet? written in by the Polish-born American rabbi Abraham Heschel. Heschel was one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, as well as a professor of Jewish mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In his book, Heschel identifies a number of characteristics of the Hebrew prophets. Here are a few:
In and through the prophet’s words, the invisible God becomes audible. The Hebrew word for prophet – navi – comes from the term niv sefatayim, which means “fruit of the lips.” In his initiatory vision, the prophet Isaiah sees a seraphim take a live coal from the altar in the Temple and place it, burning, on his lips. The prophet speaks for God – you could say that through the prophet the people heard God’s words in a human voice.
It doesn’t really matter what word you use to describe this thing the Hebrew Scriptures call “God.” Call it, “The Good,” or “Truth;” call it, “Justice,” or “Love,” or “Spirit of Life.” The point here is that the prophet speaks for – and from – something larger than themselves. It isn’t just an individual noting her or his preferences or personal biases. When the prophet speaks, something larger is speaking. When Ai-jen Poo, Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; or Sister Simone Campbell, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby; or Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother; or Ilyasah Shabazz, Malcolm X's Daughter; or Gloria Steinem; or Angela Davis – when these women spoke yesterday, it was not simply their voices that were heard. Each of them – and all of the other speakers on the dais in DC, and those at rallies and marches around the country and the world – spoke for and from something larger than themselves. The spoke on behalf of the three million women, children, and men who had gathered, of course, and the hundreds of thousands more who were there in spirit, yet they spoke on behalf of something even more than that. Call it “Love,” call it “Justice,” call it “God” … call it what you will, but it was speaking in and through those human lips.
And like the prophets of old, these modern-day prophets challenged the whole country, not just those individuals or groups that might seem most at fault. That’s another one of Heschel’s observations about the prophets of the Jewish tradition – they never said that society’s problems were simply the fault of “those other guys.” You never heard a prophet in the Hebrew Scriptures warn of God’s judgement only on the “one percenters,” or the “fat cats on Wall Street.,” or “the crooked media.” Oh, they had no problem calling out the politically powerful and the wealthy elite for their behavior, or misbehavior. Yet they were equally clear that when things got really bad – as they inevitably would – it was going to be everyone’s head. Heschel says that the message of the prophets was that while “few are guilty; all are responsible.” While few are guilty, all are responsible.
Drawing again on the rallies yesterday, no one was intended to take away the idea that “those people,” over there, the ones who voted for Trump, let’s say, or the ones who were, and are now, actively working with him, no one was saying that “those people” need to change their ways while the rest of us just go only living as we always have. On the contrary, the hard truth of the prophetic imperative is that each of us is going to have to make some fundamental, and unvaryingly unwelcome, changes in the way we live. We, together, all of us, have to change, have to do things differently, have to be different. Heschel says that “the purpose of prophesy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner person as well as to revolutionize history.” It’s not just “them,” it’s “us” too. Because, of course, ultimately there is no “us” and “them.” “We” is all there really is.
There is one other aspect which Heschel says is common to all of the Biblical prophets – besides the fact that it seems like an awful job – is that while their message begins with a message of doom, but ends with a message of hope. “the way things are is not the way things are supposed to be, and if things don’t change, there’s going to be hell to pay.” That’s how it begins. Invariably, though, the prophet then says, “but things can change. Things don’t have to continue being the way things are right now. Instead of descending into hell, we can, together, create heaven on earth.”
Those 3 million women, children, and men – cis, trans, and other – did not gather in cities and towns from Abaline to Zebulon did not come together to declare, “We give up. We’ve lost. We have been overcome.” Quite the contrary. They said, “We’re not gonna take it. We will not be silenced. We will not be cowed. We will change the way things are into the way they should be.”
To say that we Unitarian Universalists are called to be “a people of prophecy” is to say that it is our faith’s mission to affirm and promote, to advocate for, to work for the principles we hold so dear:
· The Inherent worth and dignity of every person;
· Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
· Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
· [The] free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
· The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
· The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
· Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
As “a people of prophecy” we add our voices to all those prophetic voices – past, present, and into the future – who will not stop until justice rolls on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.