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February 4, 2018: “The Prophethood of the Earnest”

Monthly Theme: Unconditional Love

Time for All Ages “Tikki Tikki Tembo” Rev Denis Letourneau Paul

Reading Laura Solomon

This morning’s reading is by Unitarian Universalist theologian James Luther Adams, from his essay “The Prophethood of All Believers.”

Religious Liberals are accustomed to emphasize the prophetic task of the church. But we have long ago abandoned the whole idea of predicting the future by means of interpreting the biblical prophecies. In conformity with the findings of modern historical research, we have held that prediction is a secondary and even an unimportant aspect of Old Testament prophecy.

Accordingly, we say that the prophets were primarily forthtellers and foretellers; they proclaimed the action of God in history; they disclosed the meaning of history.

We see the prophet as one who stands at the edge of a community’s experience and tradition, under the Great Taskmaster’s eye, viewing human life from a piercing perspective and bringing an imperative sense of the perennial and inescapable struggle of good against evil, of justice against injustice. In the name of the Holy One, the prophet shakes us out of our pride and calls for a change of heart and mind and action.

With fear and trembling the prophet announces crisis and demands ethical decision here and now. …

But we fall short of understanding the full nature of prophecy (and of the prophetic task of the church) if we think of the prophets merely as critics dealing with religious and ethical generalities. In the great ages of prophecy, the prophets (whether inside or outside the churches) have been foretellers as well as forthtellers.

They have been predicters – proclaimers of doom and judgment, heralds of new fulfillment.

They have attempted to interpret the signs of the times and to see into the future.

They have stood not only at the edge of their own culture but also before the imminent shape of new and better things to come. At times of impending change and decision, they have seen crisis as the crisis of an age; they have felt called to foresee the coming of a new epoch. That is, they have been “epochal thinkers.”

Wherever you find a prophet of world historical significance you find a foreteller and you find “epochal thinking.” By this kind of prophecy the signs of the times are interpreted as parts of a pattern, of an old pattern in the structure of the society which is passing away or of a new pattern of life which is coming into being. Jeremiah and Isaiah, Jesus and Paul, Augustine and Joachim of Fiore were all epochal thinkers in this sense; they saw themselves as standing between the times, between epochs.

Sermon “The Prophethood of the Earnest” Rev. Denis Letourneau Paul

There I was, sitting in a circle of many of the movers and shakers of Unitarian Universalism in the region, when the Association’s moderator asked us to break into small groups to imagine the prophetic role our congregations could take in the wider world if we could build coalitions with one another and share resources better.

We were parish ministers, community ministers, lay leaders, students and teachers from the nearby seminary, and our task in that moment, was to create an image, a metaphor for the work we could do together.

The first thing I thought about was a well, and a lot of romantic imagery: the way we tap into an underground aquifer for that which is the basis of all life; the way that aquifer is fed by underground springs coming from all directions; the depth that is required to reach it; and the skill needed to get there.

Communities are built around wells, and fragile as they are, they have to be maintained. They can easily be contaminated from above, so they require stewardship, nurturance.

My partners in discussion didn’t like my image. They found it ominous. Scary.

Needless to say, I got a little defensive. So, while others were speaking, I was doing exactly what I should NOT have been doing: I was thinking about the next thing I was going to say, wracking my brains trying to think of a story about a well, something life-affirming. Something positive.

All I could think of was baby Jessica McClure falling into an 18″ well casing in Midland Texas in 1987, and the media circus surrounding the event. How people called her “everybody’s baby,” and the creepy kind of ownership so many felt for her story, and the man who was celebrated as her savior, then – battling PTSD – took his own life.

I couldn’t come up with anything else. I remembered the story of Tikki Tikki Tembo. I loved that story as a child. I wasn’t really aware of how racist the images were in the book, all of the characters with absurdly slanted squinty eyes and buck teeth, but I could relate to one thing: I was the younger of two brothers then, the one with the simple name, and the older with the exotic sounding unpronounceable name, a name that our mother would never allow to be shortened or turned into a nickname. (Okay. His name is only two syllables, and it was common where he was born, but I didn’t get that then.)

Of course, Tikki Tikki Tembo was yet another gruesome tale of kids falling down a deep, dark shaft and nearly dying. Twice.

When I got home, and did an internet search, all I could come up with were horror stories of wells being contaminated and killing or injuring entire communities. And, of course, more stories of children falling into them. You would have thought, based on those twenty minutes of searching, that no well has ever existed that hasn’t sucked up a child or spit out poison.

To this day, I still haven’t found a great story of a well. I’m sure stories about pleasant wells are out there, but wherever they are, the universe sure isn’t revealing them to me.

I know now why the universe never gave me light and happy stories of wells as a metaphor for the prophetic work we could do together. A lot of charismatic and evangelical theologies will have you believe that a prophet is a person who can see the future. A soothsayer. Someone who has the ear of God the Omnipotent.

But outside of the world of Christian evengelicals, being a prophet is something different. In the Bible, true prophets spoke out against injustice and exploitation of the powerless. False prophets professed to see the future.

And though we aren’t really Christtan – any more – Unitarian Universalists understand prophetic work to be the speaking truth to power: paying attention to what is going on in the world, and the abuses of leaders, and understanding it all well enough, deeply enough, that the outcomes become clear. Prophets are the people who point out the work of tyrants, at great personal risk, as James Luther Adams said, the ones who dwell “at the edge of a community’s experience and tradition, under the Great Taskmaster’s eye, viewing human life from a piercing perspective and bringing an imperative sense … of justice against injustice.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela. All struggled. All were beaten, imprisoned, or killed.

Like wells, prophetic work is ominous. Scary. The well, really, is the perfect image for it.

We want to put a positive spin on things. That’s natural. But, when we think of prophethood as something easy and cheerful, we are missing an opportunity to create real change, to make peace, liberty and justice in our time.

And the images we come up with aren’t easy. They may even challenge us in ways we don’t want to be challenged.

Black Lives Matter. Colin Kaepernick. Tarana Burke, who created the #MeToo 10 years ago. Rev. William Barber, who started the Moral Monday movement iin response to regressive legislation in North Carolina, and is now reviving Rev. ing’s Poor People’s campaign across the country.

These are the folks who are speaking truth to power. Asking the tough questions.

These are the people who make me feel humble, every single day.

I want to get back to this morning’s story, about the two brothers and the well. Because, in a simple way, they are prophets. They’re prophets because they point out the folly, the extravagances, the self-indulgence and the self-importance of the people who have the most power over them. Their parents. They do it by being earnest, absolutely sincere. Earnest people, in my mind, are those who haven’t yet become jaded or skeptical. The earnest are the people who still love the world.

And those kids were earnest. Like all little children, even children who are badly treated, they loved their parents without questioning, figuring that everything in their life is normal.

Shane and his older brother were just regular kids, doing what all kids do. but their play, and their near deaths showed to their parents, and to the whole community just how absurd their naming tradition was. They didn’t mean to.

Or maybe they did mean to fall into the well. Maybe it was a deliciously complicated plot to make a point without seeming to pass judgment. But probably not. And of course, that is precisely WHY their prophetic work was effective. They didn’t seem to have an agenda. They just showed up and did what they did, and when the worst thing imaginable happened, when one of them fell into the well and nearly drowned, they did what James Luther Adams says all prophets do. With fear and trembling, the boys, as prophets, announced crisis and demanded ethical decision – and action — right then and there.

When his older brother was drowning in the well, and he had to go through all the drama and pomp of tradition that his mother required, he didn’t have a lot of choices. He did what he had to do. And afterward, only after nearly losing her favorite son, did she realize the senselessness of her actions.

For a long time now, I hate to admit, I have thought that’s how really good prophethood works. Being nice. Playing by the rules. Gently showing the powers that be that perhaps their way of doing things, the ways that benefit them, are hurting people, and they don’t even know it.

Because my personal experience has shown me that I have the power to change hearts and minds by showing up in earnest, loving the world despite its problems, and announcing crisis. But instead of demanding ethical decisions, I’ve tried my best to be part of solutions.

By being nice to the people in my life, I’ve changed minds, I’ve helped people see controversial issues from a different angle. I’ve helped make same sex marriage legal. I’ve helped keep the death penalty out of one state and stem the tide of executions in two others. I’ve helped other men understand the dynamics of sexual abuse and harassment. I’ve even helped some people understand why saying “All lives matter,” minimizes and even negates the urgency of the assertion that Black Lives Matter.

By being nice.

But in the last 18 months or so, especially in the 12, I have found myself afraid to speak. As I’ve watched a president humiliate women, belittle protesters I agree with, condone the behavior of outspoken and aggressive racists and white nationalists, degrade whole classes of people while insulting anyone who disagrees with him, I’ve been afraid that naming the behavior might have unintended negative consequences.

I’ve been afraid that I might offend newcomers or long time members of this congregation. I’ve been afraid that I might be distanced or even shunned by family. I’ve even found myself worried that I might start a flame war on social media that turns ugly, draws a flood of negative attention, and affects my prospects for future jobs.

I’ve been afraid of naming the truth because of the repercussions that might be visited upon me, at the direction of those with power. I’m actually afraid of what the republican president could do to me personally. Which, really, is pretty ridiculous. Every president we’ve had until now has done something ‘ve thought was pretty awful, from lying about weapons of mass destruction in other countries, to using his office to fulfill sexual peccadilloes. I’ve spoken out. Named the behaviors, and labeled them as dangerous and destructive, demanded accountability.

But the current president engages in childish and mean-spirited vitriol as he attacks anyone who dares disagree with him, everyone from young women he’s never met, to rich men in his employ, to Goldstar families.

If he could attack Khizr and Ghazala Khan the way he did, after the acrifices their son Humayun made as an Army captain, I can’t even imagine what he would do to a lowly minister in a small denomination he has no respect for, for calling him on his behavior.

He sets a horrible tone for the country, not befitting his office.

But I’ve realized recently that until about a year ago, every time I’ve changed someone’s mind, every time I have earnestly done the work of the prophet by announcing the crisis and helping to respond ethically, I’ve done so….with people I love. My family. My friends. My congregations. Even when I’ve managed to be a bit prophetic with strangers, it’s always been in the context of communities that I love.

It doesn’t work any more. Being nice, showing up and announcing the crisis doesn’t work anymore. There doesn’t seem to be much love any more.

If any of us are afraid of losing the respect of the people we love, my family, my congregation, my community, because of speaking out prophetically in earnest, then what does that say of their love? Is there any? Is love based on the condition that we agree? Or turn a blind eye to injustice in order to pretend we agree?

Being agreeable isn’t working. Being nice isn’t working.

But I think being earnest still can work. Showing honest, sincere and intense conviction, coming from a place of still having the courage to love the world – despite all evidence that we shouldn’t – can still work.

In this time of rampant cynicism and open hatred for “the other,” the earnest are standouts. The earnest still love the world in their convictions against injustice and poor leadership.

But they aren’t quiet.

About a year and a half ago, Rev Barber brought a few dozen religious leaders in the Moral Revival Movement to Cleveland to deliver a statement to the Republican National Convention, a request that the plight of the poor and disenfranchised be reflected and addressed in their campaign platform. After they were nearly arrested just for showing up, they went to the UU Society in Cleveland Heights for a worship service. Many of us were there, as Rev Barber, James Forbes, Traci Blackmon and others spoke.

They weren’t quiet. They were loud. In fact, it was so important to them to be loud, that the organizers sent a scout out in advance to assess the sound system at the Society. Of course, he found it to be like the sound system in most UU congregations. Really pretty quiet. Their sound system, like ours, is designed to promote measured sermons, and quiet reflection, in services that value meditation and silence over boisterous praise.

But the Moral Revival folks don’t want meditation and silence when they gather. They want to elicit responses of Amen! And hallelulia, Sister! And Preach it, Reverend! They want everyone to hear every word, not just in the back row, but down the street! The speakers they brought in were huge! And there were a lot of them.

I noticed something in that crowd. The Unitarian Universalists were a little uncomfortable. Some were so uncomfortable with the volume and the raucousness, that they had to step outside for a while. One of our teenagers went out to the sidewalk for the whole service. He didn’t miss anything, because he could hear it all.

It’s no wonder he was uncomfortable. It’s so different from how we operate, isn’t it?

Last Sunday during our time together, a dozen or so members of East Shore shared poems they find inspiring. One after the other, they got up to the pulpit and shared incredible pieces from famous and obscure poets, even pieces they wrote. The poems were about overcoming adversity, appreciating the world we live in, and anticipating the way things could be. Some of them were profoundly prophetic, naming injustice and calling us to action.

If you were here, did you catch that?

Probably not, because afterward, I got a flood of complaints from people saying they couldn’t hear most readers.

I don’t want to blame the people reading. They did what we tend to do. They used their church voice, the voice we use in this place where we prefer worship that is quiet, introspective, meditative. They read from the core of their being, rather than speaking loudly to the back of the room. Because that’s what UUs like.

Maybe it’s time to rethink that.

Maybe it’s time to have the kind of sound system that would blow the doors off the place, so our words could be heard not just at the back of the room, but way up Chillicothe Rd, at the high school and town offices. Because we have something to say in earnest, something that shows our love for the world and demands ethical action.

It’s time to stop playing around the well. It’s time to show up and be heard. We have to start with being able to hear each other.