Fourth Sunday after Epiphany - Year B
Sunday, February 1, 2009
Let us pray: Powerful God, make us bold to embrace your wisdom and open to being shaped by its way. Speak to us, that we might enact your word and transform our world in amazing ways to conform to your way of compassion, love, and justice. Amen.
If you could only hear the title of this reflection you might be led to think that it is going to be another commentary on the current economic situation. “Speaking of prophets” might well be the headline for any number of stories that abound on the radio and television air waves these days. But I’m sure you’ve already taken a look at the worship bulletin and have seen that “prophets” in this case is the other spelling. However, you would only be partially correct if you thought that my words will have nothing to do with the crisis which currently besets the global economy.
First of all let’s do a little study on that word “prophet”. What is a prophet? How can we tell whether we are in the presence of a prophet? I can remember an incident when I was a younger and certainly more naive seminarian in my first year of theological studies. The occasion was the anniversary of the ordination of Lydia Gruchy - the first woman to be ordained by The United Church of Canada. As recognition of the importance of the event, Saskatoon presbytery decided it would be a good idea to have a woman preach at every church in the presbytery on the Sunday closest to the anniversary. This was twenty-three years ago, and there were many fewer women serving in ministry. As a result St. Andrew’s College, the local United Church seminary became a ready source for female preachers. A friend of mine was asked to lead worship and preach in a two-point pastoral charge outside of Saskatoon. It was early November. A description of the day merits a much longer story - including a set of directions that were incorrect, and a fresh fall of snow on Saskatchewan gravel roads, but I’ll leave the details for another day. There was much that was memorable about the occasion, to say nothing of the importance that we attached to the anniversary that was being celebrated.
It was a big deal that we were celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of a woman. Perhaps it was the significance of the event that resulted in the word “prophet” coming up in the conversation that my friend and I had as we cruised around the country roads looking for the church where we were supposed to be in fewer minutes than it was going to take us to find. Anyway, I foolishly suggested that the definition of a prophet was someone who could predict the future, only to be memorably admonished for such a simplistic understanding. Like any lesson learned under fire - whether it was the fire of the response that my comment elicited, or the fire of the situation in which we were looking in the wrong place for a church we couldn’t find, I’ve never forgotten the conversation. And ever since I’ve been much more wise about the definition of a prophet. A prophet is a predictor of the future only in the sense that she or he issues warnings about what might happen if the people don’t smarten up and straighten out their errant ways. In other words, not a soothsayer, but a truth teller. That leads to a further definition - because a prophet is often telling truth that is hard to hear, it is quite common for prophets to be ignored, ridiculed or condemned. And that by consequence leads to yet a third criteria that is often associated with prophets - reluctance to take on the role. I mean, after all, who would want a job that involves telling people things they don’t want to hear, with the result that you are ignored, condemned or ridiculed and with the belief that if you aren’t listened to that the world is going to h-e-double hockey sticks as my father-in-law euphemistically says to avoid the “swear”!
So perhaps you are starting to see that prophets and the economic crisis are not mutually exclusive. Financial profits are down - all over the world, and that situation leads to an increased need for the other kind of prophets - the truth tellers, the warning givers. And it is easy to understand some of the characteristics of prophets that I outlined above. Who wants to hear bad news, and pretty much every newscast has plenty of it these days. Who wants to be the bearer of bad news - but that’s often what a prophet is required to do.
However, I forgot to mention one important characteristic of a prophet. They aren’t just wise futurists. They are interpreters of God’s word. They aren’t just people who look at the signs and make deductive predictions about the way the world is going, they are people who despite their often harsh words and bad news have a message of hope about the promise of God for the future, if only people will smarten up - get more community oriented and less self-important.
So, have you heard any prophets lately? It’s often hard to discern a prophet without the benefit of hindsight. The title of prophet is often one that is given posthumously. But I think it is possible to listen carefully and distinguish some prophetic voices in our day and age. I’m pretty sure I heard a few of them last weekend during my attendance at Epiphany Explorations in Victoria.
The most highly attended session during the whole weekend occurred on Saturday evening, when close to eight hundred people gathered to hear Stephen Lewis. I doubt that’s a new name to anyone here. Perhaps you’ve heard Mr. Lewis during his recent trip to Yellowknife, being interviewed on the radio, or in the 2005 Massey Lectures, which were repeated again during the summer of 2006. The lectures inspired his book “Race Against Time” which tells the story of AIDS ravaged Africa, and his rage at western complicity in the crisis - that continues because promised money has never materialised and because of policies enacted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which only deepen the problems and a further lack of funds to deal with the monumental issues brought about because of AIDS and HIV. At first impression it might seem that Mr. Lewis does not quite fit the mould of prophet. After all, people were hanging on his every word during his speech in Victoria. Surely prophets are not that popular. Except when you recognise that being ignored, ridiculed or condemned cannot solely be judged by who shows up for your speeches. Surely the fact that even though Mr. Lewis has called for western countries and the United Nations to simply meet their promised obligations, those calls are largely unheeded is another form of ridicule, condemnation and a sign that despite his eloquence, the compassionate and powerful case that he makes, that he is largely being ignored. In fact, given all that he has seen in his many travels to Africa, given all the opposition he has faced in trying to bring some justice to the people of Africa, it is actually unbelievably amazing that Stephen Lewis continues to have hope. He still believes that solutions are possible, that the effects of the disease can be turned around. Hope in the midst of unfathomable misery. Rage against the powers that be. That sounds like a prophet to me.
The other prophet I heard in Victoria is even more familiar to some of us. His name is Bill Phipps, a former moderator of The United Church of Canada - and a new grandpa, as he was quick to tell everyone in Victoria - proudly announcing that his new grandson was born one hour before the inauguration of Barack Obama. The significance of the vastly different world that his grandson was born into versus the one we’ve experienced over the past eight years was not lost on any of us. I would like to say more about what Bill had to say to us in a workshop I attended last Saturday afternoon, but I’ll leave that for another day. Let me just say that he outlined the themes he considers in his book “Cause for Hope”. Let me tantalize you a bit with these words, paraphrased from what I heard Bill say - “that the current economic crisis is an opportunity for us to expose the global economic empire for what it is - a system that rewards the strong and oppresses the weak - until it is proven to be a sham - like right now. But even when it is failing - the poor are still the losers. But we are people who have a different view of the world. We are followers of one who said that the first shall be last, the last shall be first, the weak are strong and peacemakers are a blessing. And we meet every week - a community of people who gather at table to find strength in community, to feed our souls, our resolve and our bodies with bread for the journey. When Jesus arrived in Capernaum, at worship he spoke of God’s community in words and then demonstrated God’s community in action. And we are called to follow. Amen.