The Profit of Prophets - thrive UMC Official Blog

The Profit of Prophets


I would imagine that some of you sometimes catch yourselves wondering what good it is to go through all of the effort it takes to be here, doing this thing we call ‘church.’  I’ll admit I wonder about it myself, from time to time.  After all, you certainly don’t have to. Long gone are the days where you’ll be publicly shamed or ostracized for missing a Sunday or, let’s be honest, all of them.  It’s even possible that the reverse may now be true in some social circles.  And we all know that there are other things out there to do that likely seem more fun and more urgent, and maybe even more important –depending on your metrics.  For instance, we’re not primarily here to help you pay your bills, complete all of your chores, cure your illnesses, or even feed you.  Sure, we’ll provide some snacks every week, but even if you eat them, you’re still likely leave still hungry.

Then, on top of all of that, when you come here, you’ll probably be confronted with things that don’t match your preferences.  We’ll sing and play songs that won’t be your favorites, in musical styles that may not be your thing. And you’ll definitely hear me say stuff that you won’t be totally comfortable with, eventually. And at some point, you may even be outright offended by what you encounter here –because we’ll confront you with something that will be against at least some of your personal values –as I’m well aware has happened more than once before already. Or what’s even worse, to me at least, you might be bored.

After all we’ll read from the Bible.  Which, to hear some people describe it, is about as fun as slip ‘n sliding down twenty feet of sandpaper, naked. From a distance it seems harmless enough, but once you make actual contact with the content of it, it very quickly starts to feel uncomfortable –and more so the longer it goes. So that you’re tempted to retreat to your happy place, silently humming game-show music.  Of all things, why not read excerpts from Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey or a Malcolm Gladwell book instead? It’s one of those questions we should probably have a clear answer for.

Next, when that’s all finally done, and after I’ve talked longer than it sounds like the vast majority of you can physically endure, you all are going to get asked for stuff, including money. That’s right folks: the offering is coming. And I don’t think it’s a huge secret that we hope you’ll give more than the price of a movie-ticket, when you’ll receive not even a slight fraction of the production value of Avengers: Infinity War.

Then at last, we’ll wrap everything up with the invitation to talk to strangers.  I’ll say ‘receive the best gift that God has for you this morning, the gift of one another, find someone you don’t know, learn their name, share a story, blah blah blah” which is apparently the inadvertent cue for everyone with social anxieties to make a stealthy exit. Grab a snack on your way out the door, dodging all the people who might try to force friendly conversation with you: the end –please join us for our 10 Hour Challenge group so you can get more of all that!

Friends, to be here costs you your time, and some of your patience, and the sacrifice of all the other things you could be doing in this very moment.  And being here is not always comfortable. In spite of all of our efforts to be encouraging and empowering, sometimes that’s not how we experience it. And it doesn’t always feel good –and let’s be honest, sometimes being in the presence of other people hurts.

So again I ask: what good is it? (By the way, most of what I’m talking about isn’t unique to this place here –much of this is true wherever do anything –especially when you gather with other people –but I’m talking about it in this context, because we’re here.)

What good is it to give up all that other stuff for this?

What good is it to be in the presence of people you’re not always going to agree with? What good is it to sing these songs, and read from these old books, and to give in such a way that IRS requires us to print: ‘you receive nothing in return but “intangible religious benefits”’ for your gifts?

What good is it to be here?

While I personally love broad, open questions, this is probably one that you need to have something of an answer to, isn’t it?  Because if you don’t have at least something to say, and to remind yourself of, in those dark hours of discomfort and offense, then sooner or later it will absolutely not be worth it. The cost will be too high, the distance too far, the stress and offense too much.  And you’ll be gone, somewhere else.

So what is it –what’s the good? Is it for some sense of a transcendent joy?  Is it a ticket to heaven for you? To make friends or maybe find a ‘soulmate’? Is it to be able to see yourself as loved or good –more spiritual or maybe even more human?  Is it to find some sense of purpose, by feeding the loneliness that growls like an empty stomach whenever silence encroaches upon the myriad layers of noise in your life?  Is it to enact justice on the earth? Is it for the sake of obedience or obligation?  Simple maintenance of a habit?  To keep a tradition from extinction?

I wonder about this, especially when I think about the prophets of ancient Israel and Judah.  What good is a prophet?  What good is the prophetic tradition, which we’re trying to follow and live out here today?

Over the last two months we’ve been reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible, and if you’ve been listening at all, the tone of the readings so far hasn’t exactly been what you’d call totally uplifting. Although it does offer pronouncements of future hope, they seem rather distant and vague, especially compared to the very imminent and concrete announcements of doom, destruction, dismemberment, and death at the hands of rising, foreign empires. Meanwhile it’s hard to argue that Isaiah is being particularly helpful in the midst of this coming disaster. Rare are his suggestions of what could be done to improve their circumstance, and absent are his instructions for escape.

To our modern sensibilities, Isaiah sounds like salt on a wound: it would be bad enough that these people had to experience the horrors and griefs they did, but then in the midst of all of it, when it’s already too late for them to do anything to stop it, he pipes up to proclaim that it’s not just some nasty, greedy people who greet them with violence, but it’s actually God’s own self!  It’s not just some rotten luck that they’ll end up losing just about everything, but this doom is an act of judgment! So really, at the end of the day –he says to these people- you can’t blame these other people for the evil you’ll experience at their hands, and you can’t even blame God; but instead the ones who bear the burden of blame are you. All of this doom and terror, you brought it on yourselves.  You, oh Jerusalem! You are the ones responsible for the slaughter of your husbands and fathers and sons in battle.  You’re the ones who issued the rape of your sisters and daughters, and the smashing of infant skulls upon the stony rubble.  You’re the ones who put shackles upon the limbs of your grandchildren, to be carted off and forced to serve foreign masters and gods. You’re the ones who made this horror and bloodshed a wholly righteous accounting.

That’s the message the prophet brings.  Today, we’d call this ‘victim blaming,’ and we would have absolutely none of it, using all the powers of shame and coercion that we have at our disposal to shut the prophet up.  But here Isaiah isn’t finished yet.

‘And do you know how?’ asks prophet. Do you know how you accomplished these terrible and grievous evils for yourselves?  Do you want to know how you earned these front-row seats to this violent theater of suffering and dread?

By writing laws that overlook and exclude the needy.  By robbing your own people of justice.  By leaving the widow and the orphan voiceless and unprotected. By worshipping cheap and vain idols. By a hundred quiet, daily failures to be the blessing you were created and called and empowered to be.  That’s how you achieved your ruin. You loved money and property and your own status and image more than you loved your neighbor or the One who created you. Those were the seeds you sewed that sprouted your gory demise.  And the moment of reaping has come! Somewhere in between the lines, we have to give ourselves space to admit that Isaiah sounds insane here. We picture him ragged and shrieking on a court-yard’s edge, frothing at the mouth while he spews his doom.  Because there is no clear connection whatsoever between maybe not going out of our way to help someone in our own city who can’t help themselves, and all-out war being sieged by a far-away nation. Is there? I mean it’s not like this poor hungry widow, who couldn’t find anyone to share their dinner, becomes so incensed that she walked the hundreds of miles to Assur or Babylon to invite them to invade.  That didn’t happen.

But there’s something here that we should perhaps allow to unsettle us.  Isaiah was a real, historical man; but we have this book in the Bible not because of what he wrote, but because of the tradition he inspired.  The book Isaiah wasn’t written by a lone man with a pen (so to speak), as we might sometimes imagine, but it was inspired from what he wrote, and the words he spoke, and by the teachings he shared that were passed on to his students.  And those students took what they had received and they then added to it and revised it.  And this happened a few times, over a couple of hundred years before we arrive at the final version of the scroll of Isaiah that we have today, translated now into hundreds of languages across the world.

And that matters, because it means that the thing he saw wasn’t just a crazed sighting by a lone madman –but it was a message that was received and recognized by others as well.  What we’re reading from is a communal document, regarding a communal experience.  So while Isaiah might have been the first one to point his finger to the thing he saw, there were certainly others around him who looked and also went, ‘oh.’ When they turned their heads and set their eyes upon it, they couldn’t help but notice that something was there.  So that Isaiah’s name became a name for a way of seeing.

And what they saw was something holy.  Then later, as this writing remains and is passed on, from generation to generation, it’s affirmed anew that there’s something there.  Something holy that we need to see and recognize. Something to live into.

And at the heart of what they saw, I think, is the profound power and consequence of human choice and action.  What people do, matters.  How we engage with our neighbors is of global –if not cosmic- significance, because it affects the very atmosphere we breathe.  Bump into somebody at the mall, accident or not, but if you let that go without apologizing, chances are a disgruntled post will pop up on social media somewhere.  And other people will see that and they’ll learn something about human decency, which will not be good.  So that that post will get comments from friends and supporters calling you whatever name they can think of in 8-point font, to pay back slight for slight in accordance with their shallow, twisted version of justice.  And we all know that if someone gets bumped into and overlooked and walked upon enough times, they will do desperate and destructive things.  To somebody else, or to themselves.  Even if we haven’t yet had the words for it, we all know and recognize the truth that hurt people hurt people.  People are very well known to snap. So that violence and self-concern spread like wildfire among brambles in an arid wind.

Some of you are coming in today with somebody else’s footprints fresh on your hearts and lives.  And you might be feeling like a victim, wondering: what did I ever do to deserve this?   You’re wondering: God, where were you and why didn’t you stop this bad stuff from happening to me?  Where are you now, to help me get through this terrible moment?  I deserve a blessing for having caught this curse, square in the teeth!

The school of Isaiah would show up and ask: what about the widow and the orphan, and the left out?  How have you been faithful in your service to them?  Have you done absolutely everything you can to make their lives better?

And you would have to admit, because loving servants don’t have time for self-pity parties: ‘no –I could have done more.  Probably a lot more.’

Then the school of the prophet would ask: so if your first and foremost concern isn’t taking care of your neighbors, how are you really any different from the person who slighted you?  Does a shop-lifter still have a right to cry injustice when his car is stolen? Wouldn’t any demands for recrimination only indict himself?  So, sure, maybe you’re less guilty by comparison to the person who wronged you; but that doesn’t make you innocent.  We’re all here playing the same human-animal game of ‘me, me, me, mine.’

But the eyes of the prophet see much more broadly and deeply. They watch as global history unfolds and see that violence begets violence, begets violence.  And eventually what the strong do to the weak will happen to them in their own turn.  And in the chapter following the once we read last week, we see that the judgment that fell upon Israel and Judah eventually gets turned on the hand that issued the destruction. After doom is proclaimed for Judah, it’s then proclaimed for Assyria, and then Babylon –even without a word being said about the Babylonian invasion.  On the topic of Jerusalem’s destruction and their leader’s captivity, the prophet is first silent.  And we should observe this silence with reverence and wonder –for sometimes things are too close and too painful to speak God into, yet.  Even prophets are susceptible to being unseeing on personal points.

But then we get to the part I wanted to share with you today.  It’s a song of trust printed like an oasis in a desert of doom. It speaks of a time where conqueror and conquered alike sit together in the rubble of their own doing. Once all among the political landscape have been made low, then the people will be free to appreciate the simple gifts of life and space and sustenance.  It says this:

12 You will say on that day: “I thank you, Lord. Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away and you comforted me. God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid. Yah, the Lord, is my strength and my shield; he has become my salvation.”

You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation. And you will say on that day: “Thank the Lord; call on God’s name; proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples; declare that God’s name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things; proclaim this throughout all the earth.” Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion, because the holy one of Israel is great among you.  

Brothers and sisters, the encouragement I wanted to offer you today is twofold.  First of all, I wanted to remind you of the good news that may not always feel so good, which is that you don’t deserve any of the great things you have.  You didn’t earn your life, or your stuff, or the love that others shower or sprinkle upon you.  You don’t deserve the wealth and luxury and security we get to enjoy by living in this country in this time.  But instead, it’s all a gift. And it may not last.

But the second reminder I wanted to share with you today is that what you, and all that you do, matters.  It is of supreme importance.  Every day you rise, whether you realize it or not, and you project yourself and your heat into the global winds.  Your kindness and apathy.  Your compassion and your anger.  Your hunger and your service and your devotion are impacting our shared culture, and the people around you in ways that you’ll likely never be able to appreciate.

So insofar as its within your power, I want to encourage you to act out of a deeper and wider love.  See others not as tools or obstacles, but as siblings every bit as precious and vital as you are, regardless of how they chose to conduct themselves. They have needs and blind-spots and gifts and grudges, just like you.  Let your eyes search for those who are overlooked and left out.  Be the good news for them.  Share with them the wise encouragement of the prophets: that God is here, working for the re-creation of a new heaven and a new earth, even when it looks like destruction from the surface.  And we are called and empowered to be servants of our good and loving creator: not to reap what we sew, but instead to grow in our participation of the spirit of grace.

This is the good we have to share together today.  The news of our true nature and identity: we are children of God, who have been given power.  To help open the eyes of those who are caught up in their own suffering.  And we know that our experiences of grief and need and pain can be used as tools to sit with others as they struggle to search for God and for goodness in their own lives.

May we give of ourselves generously, with prophetic sight –as the world is made new around us.

Let’s pray.