When we think of prophets today, we think of an unkempt homeless person with wild hair standing on a street corner yelling the world is coming to an end and that we should repent our sins. Generally we think these people are in need of psychiatric medical attention and we turn our heads away and move on. Although this is a common and in most cases a true perception of how many view prophecy, I would like to look beyond this view and see other perceptions of prophesy and how they can be very helpful to our lives and the world. Western religious tradition is filled with the concept of prophetic thought.
Looking back in time to the Jewish Scriptures over half the number of books in the Jewish Scriptures are grouped under the Prophetic section. Each of the stories are different, but there are recurring themes throughout. There is ongoing condemnation and threat of punishment for people who have betrayed the covenantal law of the Jewish people coupled with an ongoing assurance of redemption. There is also throughout the prophetic works an unending focus on justice. Much of the Christian Scriptures are about the prophetic words of Jesus. And in Islam Muhammad is known as the Prophet.
Now much of the prophetic writings were written with the goal of trying to understand why their lives had come to the point in history where they were and what they needed to do to improve their lives. This is true of all three traditions. In the Judaic tradition, after the death of King Solomon, the Jewish Kingdom split into two over various power struggles in approximately 922 BCE. The Northern Kingdom was eventually overrun by the Assyrians in approximately 722BCE, and then the Southern Kingdom, which included Jerusalem, was defeated and most of its people deported by Babylonia in approximately 586BCE. Throughout this whole time period there were numerous political alliances amongst countries, assassinations of Jewish Kings and military coups. Prophets gave advice to Leaders for and against alliances, whether to go to war or not to go to war. Now it is generally believed that many of the Jewish Scriptures were written after the events actually occurred, so it is easier to be prophetic if you are writing historically. So if you would like to know who is going to win the world series ask me next month. Yet in the end the Jewish people were trying to explain why, if their God was all powerful, would God allow them to be destroyed and deported, and more importantly they were also trying to give people a vision of hope for a better future and what rules people should live by to make this vision a reality. Although we do not follow all the same covenantal laws of the Jewish Scriptures, we are a covenantal people, we live by the rule of law, we come together in community and decide what is acceptable and is not acceptable behavior. The question is whose vision of the world will come to fruition. Every day we can turn on the television or the radio and listen to people prognosticate what events will happen. Who will win the presidential election in 2012; the pros and cons of DNA testing, what outrageous thing will Lady Gaga do next.
In the book of Micah there is condemnation against prophets who shape their prophecy to gain favor and money from those in power. I think we all can think of many instances of this occurring. And it is a tempting option. People have to put food on their table, people have to put a roof over their head, so they do what they need to survive for the moment. But the lesson we should gain from prophetic writings is that for our long term survival, we need to speak against injustice, we need to speak out against the powerful with a different vision then they are proclaiming as the only truth. We need to realize our own power.
Prophecy is not just about predicting the future blindly, but also about looking at the present state of circumstances and seeing what the consequences of our current actions will be. Then we have to take actions. We often hear the phrase self fulfilling prophecy for if we believe something is going to happen we will direct our mind to act to have that outcome. Well that can be a good thing. It all depends on what we direct our mind to do.
So lets look at an examples of current day prophesy - I prophesize that if we don’t do something to reduce greenhouse gases global warming will continue to get worse and we will have ecological devastation. How many times have we heard this, how many scientists indicate this, how much of the artic has to disappear before we act on this prophesy…..and yet we still often hear the false prophets who tell us not to worry about this. Who say all the data is false, all our perceptions are false, that somehow we will find a solution, or that possibly this is the what is supposed to happen in the evolution of the world. I guess all of that is possible, well not the data part…yet with every fiber of my being, with every synapse of mental activity within my brain, I believe we should do what we can now with the knowledge we have now to avoid ecological devastation. We may learn more fifty years from now, but based on what we know now, we need reduce greenhouse gases. And it truth, most people realize this.
We see this because there has been a strong demand for alternative fuel efficient autos, and auto makers are responding and making more fuel efficient autos. Yet what really caused that demand? The concern for the ozone layer? For some maybe, for others it may have been the rising oil prices, and for others it may have been unrest in the middle east, and the realization that fuel independence or alternative fuels will lead the way to peace.
Now the auto makers who prophesized this and built fuel efficient or alternative fuel cars have became very successful. Why does it take war and increased gas prices or an ecological catastrophe such as the Fukushima Nuclear accident to move us. We need to be proactive, and think about the type of world we want our children and grandchildren and their grandchildren to live in, and not just our families, but all families on this planet. We can and we must all be prophets. We do not have to shout alone from the street corners, we can start in our communities, we can be firm in our beliefs and we can prophesize how we want the future to be, and we can all take actions that will lead to such a future. It may sometimes seem that we are a small voice in the wilderness. But if that voice is the truth, people will recognize it. And then it is up to everyone of us who hears it to continue to speak our truth as well and to live our truths. Lets not wait for other peoples visions to self destruct before we take actions to implement our vision. Lets speak our prophetic vision to the world so people realize there are alternative possibilities which include ending poverty, ending starvation, and living in a way that creates a sustainable environment.
Let us build models of such communities with sustainable and safe agriculture and worker owned businesses, Let us build a model community where everyone’s gifts are welcomed and used in a way that builds beloved community. We must prophesize this and take actions to make it real. We will be challenged but we must carry on even in adversity, for if we know it to be true, we must keep speaking and acting so others can see the truth, and others will then make it their vision and their truth, and then as it spreads it will become a reality. For so often what was once considered impossible or crazy is now considered common knowledge. In the scheme of human existence it was not long ago that everyone believed the world was flat and sun revolved around the earth. People actually were killed for proposing what we now today accept as this common fact. So we need to realize that what we start today over the arc of time can have lasting impact. And we have started acting in our own community. Our religion is a prophetic religion. Our principles call for us to create a community with peace liberty and justice for all. Our vision as a Congregation calls for us to Support the social justice and social action initiatives in our congregation and the greater community.
Our social justice ministry team has worked hard over the last year to determine what needs in the community match our skills and passion. We currently have three active teams, Youth at Risk, Immigration and Green Sanctuary, and we have a fourth one in formation dealing with BGLQT rights. We have partnered with community groups such as Quad Cities Interfaith, Quad Cities Alliance for Immigrants and Refugees, Earth Keepers and the West Davenport Center. Another partner that I have personally been involved with, is Williams Middle School, where we are helping with English as a Second language, Mentoring and Tutoring. It can be a simple thing. Each week, in the afterschool program, I end up playing chess with one of the students. Others are helping students just get organized and others helping with homework. First let me say it can be humbling being beaten at chess by a middle school student. But secondly, without question, we are making a difference in the lives of these students, which is making a difference in the life of our larger community. The only reason the school cannot expand the program is that we do not have enough volunteers. So now is the time, we are asking for your help. We are asking for you to help this congregation to live out its vision and mission, that you, the members of the Congregation created. This is our identity, who we say we are as a congregation. So after the service, we will have members of the social justice ministry team downstairs to talk with you about what the teams are doing, and how you can be involved. Although we all have different circumstances, we have to ask ourselves what are we called to do as a Congregation. When they say what do Unitarian Universalists stand for, let it be very clear through our actions as a Congregation what we stand for. We all have different gifts and we all can help in different ways. But what is it that will move us to offer these gifts.
In the movie “Life or something like it” that came out a number of years ago, Angela Jolie plays a self absorbed reporter who is doing a news story on a street prophet who happens to be a homeless person with wild hair. Upon meeting him he predicts the score of the Seattle Seahawks football game that night. She then asks him if she will get the big promotion she is up for. He tells her no and that she is going to die in one week. Well she doesn’t really start to worry until the Seahawks win by the exact score that the street prophet predicted.
In that one week’s time, thinking she is going to die she reevaluates her life to determine what is important to her and she connects with the people that are important in her life. Each of us can use a little prophesy in our congregational lives – by determining what is important to us here, what fulfills us here. To really connect with people here who are important to us. In building trust with one another so that when we do speak, people know that it is non judgmental, that it is from our heart, and even if they don’t agree with us, they will always trust that our words, that our hopes and that our visions are our truth, and come from a place of goodness.
The Jewish prophets trusted in their God Yahweh. Prior to the destruction of Israel by the Babylonians, people believed that God actually resided in the temple. After Jerusalem was invaded and the temple destroyed, people had to have a new vision of God, or in essence their concept of God had to evolve. When we speak the truth to power we trust in the ultimate goodness of humanity. We trust that humanity will hear our voice and react. Maybe the connection of ultimate goodness is an evolution of God.
So each of us must find it within ourselves first, we must find the words that are meaningful to us, the feelings that bring us wholeness, and the purpose that moves us to action, and then only then will we come together in community and connect with others who hear the same voice, and feel the same passion, and together our life’s purpose will be to speak those words together, and to do the work together to bring about peace, liberty and justice in this world. May it be so.