July 2, 2017
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Scripture: Jeremiah 28:5-9
There is a lot of prophesying going on these days. Turn on the TV or the radio or read Facebook or your email, and people will tell you that the current President will or won’t be impeached; there will or won’t be widespread destruction from climate change; there will or won’t be war with North Korea or Russia or some other country; millions will or will not lose their access to health care; this or that bill will or won’t be enacted by Congress; this or that law will or will not be struck down by the Supreme Court; and on and on and on. Some mornings when I read the newspaper there are more articles about what might happen than any actual news about what has already happened.
Who should we believe? Whose voices should we listen to? How do we know who is a false prophet, and who is speaking the true Word of God?
Often, when I start working with scripture, I get backed into a theological corner that I didn’t anticipate. When I sat down to write this sermon, I wanted to claim that Celebration Circle’s choice of “It’s Still Good” was prophetic, that we were speaking an important truth in the midst of all the doom-saying and hand-wringing that is going on all around us. In saying “It’s Still Good” we were proclaiming that God’s creation was still as good as God proclaimed it to be in the beginning.
Of course, we were aware that there is an awful lot of bad stuff going on. The notes from our preparatory brainstorm session about what we thought would be happening in the world at this time include items like severe weather events, the escalating tension with North Korea, the battle over health care, and more.
At the same time, our examination of the scriptures we would be reading during the season brought forth these ideas:
- Creation Story
- Good seed, good soil, good harvest
- I will bear you on eagle’s wings
- Goodness (“God saw that it was good”)
- Kingdom of Heaven
- Sower & seed
- Sayings of Jesus
- I have not come to bring peace but a sword
- Song of Solomon: My beloved is coming
- Judgment Day
- Paul: I don’t do what I want to do
- Do not be afraid
- My yoke is easy, my burden is light
- Sin vs. Spirit
- Willfulness vs. Will of God
- Lose yourself in order to find yourself
- You shall go out in joy and come back in peace
- Now is time for singing
- I want to do what is good. Evil lies close at hand
Yes, some of those are hard to understand, like Jesus saying that he comes to bring not peace but a sword. On the whole, though, the message we heard in our reading from Scripture was reassuring. Even when life is hard, even when the world around us is full of turmoil and uncertainty, even when the political situation is dire, the creation that God called good at the very beginning is still good.
Now, it’s easy to dismiss that as a pious platitude. Look, you might say, human activity is destroying entire ecological systems, leading to the extinction of both animal and plant species at a terrifying rate. Our greed and overuse of the earth’s resources lead to increasingly extreme weather events in response to global warming, threatening the very existence of life on earth. Our political discourse becomes coarser and more vulgar every day, and real people’s lives and livelihoods are being threatened by new laws and regulations that favor the rich and powerful over those with few resources, especially Muslims and other religious minorities, people of color, LGBTQ people – and heaven help those who fit all three of those categories. And then there is the ordinary, ongoing war and terrorism and domestic violence and random violence on the street, as well as fire and flood and earthquake and all manner of other natural disasters that have been with us since time began. When I think about all this, I just feel exhausted and defeated. It’s all too much. Like Jeremiah, I find myself weeping all the time, thinking “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” [Jeremiah 9:1 NRSV]
In an effort to save my own sanity and not fall off the deep end into depression, I try to pay as little attention as possible to all the pundits and soothsayers. When I mention this to more activist friends, acquaintances, or colleagues, I’ve been chastised more than once by someone telling me that I am simply sticking my head in the sand when I turn my attention to all the other things that interest me or that I think are at least equally important not only to my sanity, but to that of the world. Indeed, I am constantly invited, cajoled, and seduced into thinking that it is my duty to make art about matters of conscience, to make sure that I include this or that particular area of injustice in my teaching, to spend great amounts of time demonstrating or writing letters to my congress-people (or if not mine, then yours, since I live in the unrepresented District of Columbia), or signing petitions or going to meetings or teach-ins or other worthy events, rather than staying peacefully in my newly-renovated studio, writing about performance and worship, or making art that delights the senses and invites viewers to dream of what might be.
Because, despite all the evidence to the contrary, I do still want to say, “It’s still Good.” I want to follow Paul’s advice to the Philippians, in which he tells them to concentrate on the good stuff, no matter what else is going on. Instead of murmuring and arguing and following false teachers, he recommends that they keep their minds on better things, advising them with “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” [Philippians 4:8 NRSV]
But that’s not today’s text. In fact, that’s pretty much the opposite of what today’s readings tell us. So now, I’m having second thoughts about claiming our choice as prophetic, and – like John in his talk two weeks ago – worrying about whether my personal choices and concerns have any validity at all. Maybe I should set aside all of the things that have occupied my intellectual and creative life and devote myself full-time to at least one of the many causes that are so pressing and so very real. Should it be LGBTQ rights? Ending mass incarceration? Refugee resettlement? Health care legislation? Interfaith dialogue? Strip mining? Nuclear non-proliferation? Or maybe I should just volunteer in a soup kitchen, or teach art to children at risk, or teach English to speakers of other languages, or … well, you get the idea. A lot of you are doing a lot of those things and more. My hat is off to you for it, particularly on those days when I wonder if the voice that I hear calling is not from God at all, but from some other source.
In today’s reading from Jeremiah, the prophet contends with his colleague Hananiah, who, like Jeremiah, claims to be speaking the Word of God. Hananiah, against all the evidence, keeps saying that everything is going to be all right, that the exiles will return and all the stolen Temple vessels will be restored within 2 years. Scholars tell us reassurances like this were not unusual in other times of peril. Indeed, just 100 years earlier, Isaiah had given much the same kind of assurance to the king when the Assyrians threatened to conquer Jerusalem.
So why is this time different? What makes Hananiah a false prophet? Why is his confident prophecy that God is about to restore all that was lost a problem? Jeremiah says, Yes, it would be great if God was going to fix everything right away, but that’s not going to happen. God is punishing us for our collective misdeeds. We have broken our covenant relationship with God by not taking care of poor people, of immigrants, of outcasts; and by not protecting victims of violence and exploitation. Someone is known as a true prophet, Jeremiah says, by whether their prophecies come true. And we know today — with the clarity of hindsight — that the exiled Israelites remained captive in Babylon for at least 50 years, so clearly Jeremiah was the true representative of the Word of God and Hananiah’s prophecy was false.
When we introduce our preachers each week, we say that we believe that the Word of God comes to all of us in one way or another. Our founding documents tell us that we named ourselves Seekers because our founding members, Sonya Dyer and Fred Taylor, were taken with a passage from Robert Greenleaf’s 1976 book, Servant Leaders. You’ve heard it before – quite a few Seekers have used it in sermons over the years; it is frequently referred to in School for Christian Growth classes (yes, that’s the new name for what used to be the School of Christian Living); from time to time Celebration Circle prints it on the back of the lectionary; and, of course, it’s in our Core Document, Guide to Seekers Church, easily available under the Life Together tab on our newly-redesigned web site. Nonetheless, it bears repeating. Here’s what Greenleaf said:
I now embrace the theory of prophecy which holds that prophetic voices of great clarity, and with a quality of insight equal to that of any age, are speaking cogently all of the time. Men and women of a stature equal to the greatest of the past are with us now, addressing the problems of the day, and pointing to a better way …to live fully and serenely in these times. The variable that marks some periods as barren and some as rich in prophetic vision is in the interest, the level of seeking, the responsiveness of the hearers. The variable is not in the presence or absence or the relative quality and force of the prophetic voices. Prophets grow in stature as people respond to their message. If their early attempts are ignored or spurned, their talent may wither away. It is seekers, then, who make prophets, and the initiative of any one of us in searching for and responding to the voice of contemporary prophets may mark the turning point in their growth and service. [Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership, page 22]
Following this passage, our Guide comments that Sonya and Fred “decided we should take our name from it, because we are a people who are intentionally on the way and committed to bringing forth prophetic leadership from the gathered community.” [Guide to Seekers Church, p 1, https://seekerschurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2007/12/2015_Seekers_Guid_ 8th_Edition_for_Web.pdf]
That’s all good and well, but how do we know which prophets to listen to when we don’t have the benefit of hindsight? Greenleaf gives us a clue – he suggests that a true prophet does not just note the problems of the day, but points to a better way, helping us “to live fully and serenely in these times.” And, he says, prophets are either stunted or nurtured as people do do do not respond to their message.
These days, it’s almost too easy to note the problems. Helping one another to live fully and serenely in these times is much more difficult. At every 12 Step meeting I attend, we begin with prayer, asking God to give us the courage to change the things we can, the serenity to accept the things we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference. It seems to me that in proclaiming that It’s Still Good, Celebration Circle is pointing to that better way, not just a way of accepting the things that we cannot change and the wisdom to know whether we can or should make a change or not, but also a way of celebrating all that is still good.
As for me, I expect that you will let me know if I am a false prophet like Hananiah, shutting my ears to the cries of the people, pretending that God will save us from the trials before us. I certainly hope not. Rather, it seems to me that in the work that I do in the refuge of my studio, I am bearing witness to the essential goodness of creation, celebrating the spirit that continues to animate our lives as we strive together for peace and justice. For without celebration and delight in all that is still good, we would all be weeping day and night.