This is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday. Tomorrow, the nation honors the life and legacy of that great prophet.
I use that word, “prophet,” intentionally, designating anyone who speaks to the crucial issues of our time from the perspective of what is loving and just. Sometimes the prophet must trouble the waters when that’s what’s needed; sometimes the prophet must energize and encourage when hearts are weary.
That’s exactly what Dr. King did.
Note well that there is no fortunetelling or divination in any of this. When I use that word, “prophet,” in talking about contemporary prophets or Biblical prophets of the past, there is nothing smacking of Nostradamus in any of them. It’s not about fortunetelling; it’s about rallying people to the cause of justice.
On this Dr. King Sunday, it is appropriate that we take a closer look at prophets. We lost some of our great contemporary prophets in 2021, like Desmond Tutu and bell hooks, and each of these great souls has opened up the souls of so many.
But it’s not just singular individuals we want to bring to mind. Bring to mind, also, communities of prophetic activism. Prophetic activism is something that Unitarian Universalist communities like ours try to summon, with such things as our Seven Principles, when with them we affirm the inherent worth of all people; justice, equity, and compassion in human relations; respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. When our Seven Principles move among us, like the Holy Spirit, we each find ourselves inspired to act more unselfishly, more generously, more justice-mindedly. We come to experience how prophetism is a shoe that can fit our feet too.
Prophetism is for us, too.
And then there’s the proposed addition to our Seven Principles: the Eighth: “journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” This is yet another way our Unitarian Universalist community tries to rally each of us with prophetic energy and vision.
There are prophetic individuals, and there are prophetic communities, and we need both.
Now, today’s sermon in our year-long sermon series on Reading the Bible Again for the First Time comes to us with good timing, because this just happens to be the installment that explores the ancient Biblical prophets. When we go back and explore these fascinating characters, what we open ourselves to is enlightenment about all sorts of aspects and issues related to prophetic activism.
We are reading the Bible Again for the First Time today in pursuit of that enlightenment, because prophetic activism is near and dear to our Unitarian Universalist hearts.
But as with any story told in installments, let’s be reminded of where we are so far. So far, we have explored the Bible’s first five books. In Genesis, we learned how the world was created, and we were also introduced to the patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph—Joseph being the one who landed in Egypt and essentially became Pharoah’s best friend. The next Bible book is Exodus, which picked up the story but hundreds of years later, when the current Pharaoh had all but forgotten Joseph and had enslaved all of the Hebrews. But then came Moses, led by the spirit of God, and he liberated the people with all sorts of signs and wonders. Book number three is Leviticus, in which the laws of Judaism were given to the people, and God laid out God’s dream of justice. Book number four, Numbers, essentially tells the story of how the Hebrews wandered the desert for 40 years, and how they were a contentious, cranky lot that disrespected Moses and God repeatedly because they were traumatized: the external oppression and bullying they had experienced in Egypt had gone deep into them and they were unconsciously reproducing it in their relationships with each other. The last book, book five, is Deuteronomy, which is when the Hebrews were done with their 40 years of wandering and they were about to enter into the Promised Land. But there’s a cliffhanger to all of this: had they truly unlearned the systemic oppression that went deep into their bones while in Egypt? Could they go on to create communities that center God’s vision of justice and love, or would they simply create Egypt all over again, except this time some Hebrews would be on top, and others would be on bottom, humiliated, enslaved.
What’s going to happen next?
What happened next is that the Hebrews entered into the land of Canaan, and they organized as a tribal confederacy with no centralized government. That lasted for 300 years, until 1000BCE (roughly), when the Elders of Israel came to the main prophet of the time, Samuel, and said that they were tired of decentralized government. They were tired. They wanted a king to rule over all of Israel.
Egypt had a king; they wanted a king.
Here’s what Samuel did, once he heard this. He left the Elders and went to a private place and communed with God. Now, the Bible makes it sound like Samuel and God had something like a telephone conversation, which is too bad, because that makes no sense. Prophets, being human, are creatures of their historical time and culture; they are bound to five physical senses and to human language. God, on the other hand, is a reality that far transcends the human–in just the same way that human beings are a reality that far transcend rocks, pebbles, and sand. But theologians and scholars have described the special relationship between prophets and God as more of an emotional connection. Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it “sympathy with the divine pathos”; Gerhard von Rad defines a Biblical prophet as “one who participates in the emotions of God.” Samuel and God don’t talk together on the phone; but Samuel’s communion with God is a way of feeling God’s feelings. And God is outraged by what the Elders of Israel are about to unleash. As 1 Samuel Ch. 8, says
Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you.
There’s more to Samuel’s time of communion with God than this, which Samuel goes on to communicate with the Elders, when they meet again. We pick up with the next verse:
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
That’s what God felt, according to Samuel, about the Elders wanting Israel to have a king over all. God was warning them.
But the Elders went ahead anyway. A kingship was created. First it was King Saul, then King David, then King Solomon; and then, after Solomon’s death, the single Kingdom split into two—into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom, each with their own King.
And God was right. What happened with Kingship in Israel was an explicit return of social oppression—of the exact same sort that the Hebrews experienced in Egypt. Some kings were better than others, yes. But generally, the ruling King, with his elites, would greedily gather all the land’s resources to themselves; they were neglectful towards how this brutalized everyone else, if not downright oblivious; but they would cynically talk the talk and walk the walk of the pious and so were able to curry the favor of the very same people whom they drained dry. The Kings and their elites would praise God—the same God that hated what they did.
And so, a stream of prophets was unleashed upon the land. One prophet after another, starting with the establishment of Israel’s kingship, and then when the Kingdom split into two, and then when the Northern Kingdom was wiped off the face of the earth in 722BCE, and then when the Southern Kingdom was destroyed in 586BCE.
Prophets, who tried to warn the people to change their ways, before it was too late.
The prophet Amos, speaking to the King and elites of the Northern Kingdom before its destruction, saying:
For I know how many are your transgressions,
and how great are your sins—
you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe,
and push aside the needy in the gate.
I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
And then there is Micah, speaking to the King and the Elites of the Southern Kingdom before its destruction:
Hear this, you rulers of the house of Jacob
and chiefs of the house of Israel,
who abhor justice
and pervert all equity,
10 who build Zion with blood
and Jerusalem with wrong!
11 Its rulers give judgment for a bribe,
its priests teach for a price,
its prophets give oracles for money;
yet they lean upon the Lord and say,
“Surely the Lord is with us!
No harm shall come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you
Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
and the mountain of the house a wooded height.
Now let’s stop right here for a moment and gather ourselves. What are we learning?
We are learning that prophets had a special connection with God, or with the Sacred Reality that we Unitarian Universalists give diverse names to. Their justice activism was rooted in spirituality, rooted in love. They were connected with divine emotion. It had to be so because, not only did it give them the resolve and courage to speak up as they did to people who hated what they had to say, but their God-connected helped purify them of any self-interest, self-prejudice, or self-delusion. As one of our modern prophets from not too long ago—Thomas Merton—said, “What is the relation of [contemplation] to action? Simply this. He who attempts to act and do things for others or for the world without deepening his own self-understanding, freedom, integrity, and capacity to love, will not have anything to give others. He will communicate to them nothing but the contagion of his own obsessions, his aggressiveness, his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means, his doctrinaire prejudices and ideas.”
Which leads to a second thing to learn. That, back in Bible times, there were plenty of folks who did, in fact, “communicate nothing but the contagion of their own obsessions and ego-centered ambitions.” Micah called them out. He said:
Thus says the Lord concerning the prophets
who lead my people astray,
who cry “Peace”
when they have something to eat,
but declare war against those
who put nothing into their mouths.
6 Therefore it shall be night to you, without vision,
and darkness to you, without revelation….
Micah here is calling out the false prophets of the time, who proclaimed that God loved the kingship; that God ordained the rulership and its community of elites and its system of laws that fed the rich and stole from everyone else. The false prophets would go around saying that there was no oppression, that all was well, that there should be peace, that in fact folks like Samuel and Amos and Micah were simply troublemakers and had it all wrong and should be stopped.
It was like this in Bible times, and it’s like this now.
The other day I was reading a prophetic article by contemporary writer Rebecca Solnit, speaking to the cynicism of current Republican leaders and elites and all their enablers—people motivated by sheer ambition and greed; people charming the masses with their shenanigans or distracting them with their outrageous Big Lies; people who then turn right around and spit at the masses with disdain and contempt and create policies and laws that make their lives only worse at the benefit of those who already have too much; people willing to break all values we hold sacred to satisfy their rapaciousness.
Donald Trump, I am calling you out.
Jim Jordan, I am calling you out.
Tucker Carlson, I am calling you out. You are a false, false prophet.
As in Bible times, so now. False prophets playing with truth. Politicizing truth. For example: The politicization of the Covid-19 virus, and so counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump have had nearly three times the Covid-19 death rate than counties that voted for Biden.
There’s climate denialism, there’s obsession over guns, there’s a ruckus about critical race theory, there’s a ruckus about mask wearing, elected Republicans in Congress were mostly absent from observances of the Jan. 6 insurrection, elected Republicans at all levels are actively trying to destroy the democratic system through which they were elected.
What are we learning?
That the time for faithful prophets is not ended, but is now. Here and now.
And there is one more thing for us to learn today. Let me tell you a story about a prophet named Jonah. It’s a complicated story–a warts-and-all story. God sends Jonah to the city of Ninevah, which is the capital of Assyria, to tell them to stop with their brutality and repent. God had good reason to want this. Up to that time, the Assyrians had been busy in a campaign of warfare to crush the Northern Kingdom. Jonah was a member of the Northern Kingdom and was enraged by the brutality and rapaciousness of the Assyrians, so what did Jonah want? He wanted God to destroy them! So in no way did he want to convey any message that offered up any opportunity for the Assyrians to repent and be spared.
So, Jonah wasn’t going to obey God. Jonah is yet another Biblical example of what Thomas Merton said when he spoke of action that does not emerge out of mature spirituality: that when a person is spiritually ungrounded, “his own obsessions, […] his ego-centered ambitions, his delusions about ends and means” infect his action, and he becomes just another part of the problem—not the solution.
You may know the rest of this story. Jonah ran away, to sea. It led him to being swallowed by a whale, but he was rescued. God then told him a second time to go to the capital city of Ninevah, and he did. There, Jonah told the Ninevites everything that had happened to him after he defied God. The Ninevites heard—they reflected together—they ended up deciding that, yes, they better clean up their act. They repented. It was sincere—God saw that—and so God forgave them, and Jonah (being the prophet he is) felt God’s feelings and conveyed them to the city.
And then Jonah stomped out of that city, in a huff. He was furious. He was outraged.
He just couldn’t go with God and forgive.
It’s like Jonah was addicted to outrage. Like that was his only mode of prophetism.
Thus this last, important thing for us to know about prophets and prophetic activism: that it has an energizing and inspiring side too. It’s not all and only about disturbing the peace, calling people out, and speaking truth to power.
There is another side to prophetism, which comes out when appropriate and needed.
Think back to almost 60 years ago, to times when supporters and actors and marchers in the civil rights movement felt despair and felt hopeless; and think back to Dr. King, at the time co-pastoring Ebenezer Baptist Church, who would speak words of encouragement and words of hope to the people. Dr. King would say,
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
He would say,
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
He would say so many powerful things, in that unforgettable voice of his. And then, after the sermon, the church would sing gospel songs, spirituals. This one became a key anthem of the Civil Rights movement:
We shall overcome,
we shall overcome,
we shall overcome someday!
Oh, deep in my heart I do believe
we shall overcome someday!
That’s how that prophetic man, together with that prophetic community of prophetic hope for a better future for all God’s children, demonstrated so beautifully the other side of prophetic action: to uplift the downtrodden, to encourage people who are trying their best to create positive change, to inspire, to energize. In particular, not to allow the frustrations of dealing with cynical people or apathetic people to spill over, so that fellow prophetic activists start fighting each other. Not that—but to inspire instead a unity of purpose and compassion, especially when doing what we are called to do is not simple at all, but challenging. Hard.
May our aspiration as prophetic activists today be balanced. Critique when appropriate. Encouragement when appropriate.
I close with a quote from a prophet whose name we simply do not know, but scholars call him “Second Isaiah” because his words were tacked on to what the real Isaiah had said hundreds of years earlier. “Second Isaiah” spoke to what was left of the exiled Israelites, back in 539BCE, when they were allowed to return to their demolished nation. What God felt for them—these people who had spit in his face, who had persisted in creating Kingship and Kingdoms, who therefore recreated the oppressiveness of Egypt in their own land, and who were ultimately crushed by foreign powers, but now had an opportunity to begin again—what God felt for them was compassion. What God felt for them was hope. So we hear from Second Isaiah:
40 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
As we Unitarian Universalists look to the oppressive systems of our day (which the proposed Eighth Principle names), and to the people with power who are cynical and will stop at nothing to steal from others to fill their pockets; and as we reflect on the kind of prophetic action that is ours to do, no matter how big or small–as we do this, perhaps we cannot call on the God of the Bible to be a source of hope for us. Many of us don’t believe in that kind of God; some of us don’t believe at all.
But we can believe in the power of love. We can trust that love will win, however long it takes.
With Dr. King, we can say,
We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Deep in my heart I do believe we shall overcome. And I believe it because somehow the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right; “no lie can live forever….”
With this faith, [said Dr. King,] we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day. And in the words of prophecy, every valley shall be exalted. And every mountain and hill shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together. This will be a great day.
That is what Dr. King said.
And he is right.
It will be a great day.