Monday, September 30, 2019

Paying Attention to the Prophets

'Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,

and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria.

Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory,

and lounge on their couches,

and eat lambs from the flock,

and calves from the stall;

who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,

and like David improvise on instruments of music;

who drink wine from bowls,

and anoint themselves with the finest oils, 
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!

Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile,

and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.'
--Amos 6: 1a, 4-7r

In last week's post, when I talked about Jesus' proclamation that we cannot serve God and wealth, I brought in the prophet Amos as an example of someone who, long before Jesus, was preaching the same message. I said then that I would be coming back to Amos and talking about him and the importance of prophetic witness to us Christians.  I try really hard to be a man of my word, so for those of you who read ahead and brushed up on your Amos and other prophets this past week, I reckon you’re in for a treat. 

If we are to be a people who seek to follow the way of Jesus, then we must understand the traditions out of which Jesus arises, namely the tradition of the prophets.  Marcus Borg once said that the prophets were among the most remarkable people who have ever lived.  They speak with poetry and passion, their messages combining harsh criticisms of the way things are with a redirection toward how God desires things to actually be.  Prophets comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, so the saying goes, and as a recent article in Christian Century put it, theirs is a ministry of suffering, of interaction with people and circumstances of a particular time and place. This is true for Jesus and for the prophets who came before him—like the 12 prophets of ancient Israel—and those who came after him—like the prophet Muhammad.  Heeding those prophetic witnesses, is a vital component of all three Abrahamic traditions, all of whom seek to live into God’s dream for this world.

An ancient acrylic depiction of the prophet Amos.

While there were prophets who came before him, tradition holds that the first prophet whose message was recorded in writing is Amos, who preached about 800 years before Jesus.  Of course, Amos didn’t write anything himself, but his message was meaningful enough that someone saw fit in the years that followed to record his words, a tradition that carried on with the prophets who followed Amos. As I said last week, Amos preached in a time of great affluence in the kingdom of Israel, but maybe a bit more background will help illustrate just how significant his message was.  Amos, unlike other prophets such as Samuel or Jeremiah, was not born with the expectation that he would preach God’s word to the people.  Instead, he was a shepherd, a poor man living in the southern kingdom of Judah—at that time there were two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south.  Far into adulthood, Amos was called by God to head up north to preach to their king, Jeroboam, one of the rulers whom the Hebrew Bible actually commends as a pretty good king.  Amos' message:  while Israel’s rich get richer and the poor get poorer because Jeroboam and other wealthy elites have forgotten God’s dream of justice and equity for all people, and as a result of such negligence, they will be the first to go into exile in the coming catastrophe.  It’s a truly frightening message, one that did not really land with the king or any of the other rich folks in Israel, who just scoffed at Amos and sent him back down south; that is, until the calamity of which Amos spoke came to pass when the empire of Assyria invaded Israel and took its people into exile about 50 years after Amos’ preaching. 

What makes Amos and other prophets important is not the ability to predict the future.  They’re not psychics, but rather the people who speak up about the way things currently are and declare that they are not the way things are supposed to be.  It doesn't take clairvoyance for someone to see injustice in the world and remark that, unless something is done about it, something terrible will happen.  We certainly can recall a few modern prophets in our midst right now who are doing just that! Simply put, prophets look at the way of the world and help redirect the people toward God’s original vision for it, a vision that in Hebrew is called shalom, in Arabic is called salaam, and in English is called peace.  But what does that peace look like?

Greta Thunberg, modern prophet.

Do y’all remember the hymn They Cast Their Nets in Galilee?  It’s a song about the original apostles, and in it is a line that is quite striking:  "the peace of God, it is no peace, but strife sowed in the sod."  The peace that the prophets point us to is not a sanitized one, and it is certainly not handed to us by those in positions of power.  Rather, it is a peace that comes often out of some kind of strife, some kind of struggle.  Such a struggle goes on within our own hearts, but also in the world. It is nothing less than the struggle for God's peace and justice for the whole world. 

What happened to Amos, and what happens to nearly all of the prophets, is that their message of God’s dream for peace and justice often bumps up against political, social, and economic forces, that say to the prophetic voice, “We’re fine here!”  I suspect this is because we are groomed to categorize our lives into secular and sacred spheres.  If a prophet is a messenger of God, then surely he or she should only talk about God, right?  Instead, prophets talk about economic injustice, social concerns, and corrupt politicians. This often ruffles our feathers, but what the prophets are doing is reminding us that there really are no such things as "sacred matters" and "secular matters." The prophets speak with a voice that we don’t often want to hear, a voice that calls people to have a unified and integrated sense of reality, such that no clear distinctions can be made between so-called sacred and secular lives.  What we might hear from the prophets as a sacred or religious teaching is just as much a socio-economic and political teaching.  The task of the prophet is to call people back to the place where we began, to the place where every single facet of our lives was governed by divine sovereignty instead of human sovereignty, because while the former is always concerned with justice and peace for all of creation, the latter so very often becomes infatuated with individual gain and domination over others, especially the most vulnerable among us. There are no words in the Hebrew Tanak, Greek Christian Testament, or Arabic Quran that can be translated to "secular" or to "religion" because the men and women that gave us these texts understood that it was all connected.  One individual who certainly did this was Jesus. 

'Jesus said, "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, `Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.' But Abraham said, `Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.' He said, `Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father's house-- for I have five brothers-- that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.' Abraham replied, `They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.' He said, `No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.' He said to him, `If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'"'
--Luke 16: 19-31

Jesus echoes the witness of Amos in this parable of a poor man named Lazarus and a nameless rich man.  Though the rich man does not appear to physically or verbally abuse Lazarus, he ignores him, doesn’t even see him as a person.  When both die, a great chasm lies between them, with the rich man in pain and Lazarus in paradise.  You’d think death would change the rich man’s mind, but even then he still can’t see what he had done wrong, and only sees Lazarus as something of an errand boy, asking for him to dip his finger in some water to cool his tongue in the torment of the flames.  In the wake of last week’s message about our inability to serve both God and our wealth, Jesus’ illustration today hammers the point home:  the way of the world, where the poor man is so often nameless and the rich man is known by everyone, is not what God's dream looks like, and we must resist the drive for exploitative power, which will lead to greater justice and peace.  This is Jesus at his prophetic best.

An Eastern icon of the rich man and Lazarus.

As with every parable that we hear we are compelled to ask ourselves who we might be in the story.  Are we the rich man?  Not likely since so few of us have wealth of his degree.  Are we Lazarus?  Clearly not, none of us are so poor as to ask for scraps from someone’s table.  So who are we?  Perhaps we are those brothers of whom the rich man spoke to Father Abraham, those who are still in their earthly journey, who have the words of the prophets at their disposal, who need to pay attention to their witness, perhaps even reclaim that witness for themselves and engage in our own prophetic struggle for justice and peace, so that we may create a society that better reflects God’s dream.

If that is who we are, then one of the things we can begin to do is stop categorizing our lives.  We are taught that separating our lives into secular and sacred spheres will maintain order, but ultimately all it does is cause us to ignore political, social, or economic concerns for the sake of not mixing them with the sacred and spiritual elements of our lives. So instead of categorizing, what if we fully integrated our spiritual lives into the rest of our lives?  This does not mean proselytizing and forcing our religion on our co-workers, nor does it mean our clergy should be telling people who to vote for in November.  But it does mean engaging the concerns of the world and asking ourselves how our spirituality factors into them.  It means letting our faith inspire us when we vote and to not be afraid to talk about those controversial secular topics in a church setting; after all, God cared enough about this world to take on the human condition, so that means God must still care about every aspect of the human condition.  That includes politics, social concerns, and economic justice.  If we begin to see that there is no sacred or secular, but rather that God is all and in all—yes, even in that thing that popped in your head right now and made you go, ‘Nope!  Not that!’ yes, even that—then we will be paying attention to the voice of the prophets, who call us to engage in our own struggles for justice and peace in every part of our lives.

There’s a reason that things don’t usually end well for the prophets.  Their message is hard.  They require folks to change, or at the very least to examine their own lives and ask—in what ways have I promoted God’s dream of justice and peace?  It’s easy to think that faith is only about our own hearts and spirits.  That is what the rich man in Jesus' parable does, and it is what King Jeroboam did.  They're weren't "bad" necessarily, but they just didn't care. There is, however, another component to faith, one that sees the brutalities of our world and dares to do something about them.  This is faith put into action, and if this component of faith is ignored, then all we are left with is a happy, comfortable feeling about our own lives while the world around us suffers in the grip of systemic injustice.  In short, we end up like this:

What happens when we ignore the voice of the prophets.

We can reclaim the prophetic witness of our faith, see beyond the structures of our individual churches or our individual ideas about God, and build a world that looks like the dream spoken by the prophets, where the people of God collectively say no to the way things are and yes to the way God has always intended them to be. Thanks be to God for the witness of the prophets past, those among us now, and those who are still to come.  Blessings be upon them and upon us as we seek to live into their witness of God’s shalom, God’s salaam, God’s peace for the whole world.