Sunday, February 24, 2013

Lent 2

Luke 13
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me,* “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when* you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”’

Tonight the red carpet is rolled out once more, and while you watch, or maybe while you watch and wonder why you are watching, I want you to meditate on a few names:

Peter O’Toole, Alfred Hitchcock, Deborah Kerr, Richard Burton and Norman Jewison.

For an academy that attempts to reward excellence in film, it sure seems off that the people on this list have never won an Oscar. They were nominated (eight times for Peter O’Toole), but no bling. Some were give ‘lifetime achievement’ statuettes, but for the serious actor I’m sure that feels worse: here’s a prize that says ‘we love you, but we’ve loved others more.‘ Detailed analysis might reveal some overall pattern of bad timing or bad luck, but our time tonight might be better spend enjoying the clothing and the charming banter.

It seems “Saturday Night at the Movies” (TVO) has the same sense of outrage, choosing last night to show “In the Heat of the Night” starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger, and directed by Toronto’s own Norman Jewison. It tells the story of a black cop from Philadelphia who ends up in small-town Mississippi in the middle of a murder investigation. And in 1967, with racial tension at an all time high in America, it was very brave film to make. The film received a handful of Oscars, but none for Jewison.

He returned to the theme of racism in America on two more occasions (A Soldier’s Story, The Hurricane), along with some much lighter films, but it seems the mantle of ‘prophetic filmmaker’ has stuck to Jewison, which somehow doesn’t please Oscar. America likes to look at itself, but might rather do it through the eyes of Forrest Gump rather than Detective Virgil Tibbs.

Now that I’ve ruined the Oscars for you, it might be time to take a deeper look at the role of prophet. First of all, the role of the prophet is more than simply saying ‘you are going to watch something tonight that you really shouldn’t enjoy.’ But that is part of it. No, the prophet is a more timeless character, appearing throughout the Bible, from Abraham and Moses all the way down to Job and with all the ‘usual suspects’ in between.

So what do prophets do? And why are they so wildly unpopular, prompting Jesus himself to say “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” At first glance it would seem that as soon as someone is reported to be speaking for God we would lean in, and we might welcome the words, being religious, and seemingly more open to what God has to say. So why are they so unpopular?

To begin, we must turn to our source of all wisdom of all matters related to the Old Testament: Walter Brueggemann. Prof. Brueggemann begins his look at prophets by saying they have “uncommon access to matters of God’s will and purpose that are hidden to other humans.” (Reverberations, 158). So far, so good. The prophets hear what we cannot hear, and the message that God shares with them, they in turn must share.

Early on, this job was easier. God says to Abraham ‘look up at the night sky and try to count the stars, so shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15.4) Seems like a message anyone can share. And even when the other half of the covenant appears, the mark that each male will bear to prove their obedience to God, it is only the adult males that might hear the message with some alarm and discomfort.

No, the real heroes of the prophetic world are the Isaiah’s of the Bible, who receive the burden of God’s words in the midst of powerful people who do the things that powerful people have always done when God has other ideas. And if you want to illustrate the kind of message that Jesus insists will get you killed in Jerusalem, look no further than Isaiah 5:

7 The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.
8 Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.
9 The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
“Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.
13 Therefore my people will go into exile
for lack of understanding;
those of high rank will die of hunger
and the common people will be parched with thirst.
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who put darkness for light
and light for darkness,
21 Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine
and champions at mixing drinks,
23 who acquit the guilty for a bribe,
but deny justice to the innocent.

And these writings, written when the people were already in exile, formed a kind of divine ‘I told you so’ to a the very people Isaiah was speaking to. The elite were carried off to Babylon, and there they remained and tried to remember what warnings came before and what they could have done to save themselves.

And ironically, it was precisely because they were carried off, and spent time reflecting on the heart of their religion, that they were able to record these and other words and ultimately save everything. It is in exile they discovered what being faithful means, something that Prophet Jesus will bring up 500 years later when the next disaster is set to unfold. But that would be jumping ahead, because we need to look closer to home first.

In the United Church we pride ourselves on being a prophetic voice in Canadian society, and a transformating presence in neighbourhoods, and it goes back to the very beginning. You no doubt tire of being told that Toronto Conference voted in 1930 to abolish capitalism (there, I said it again), that we ordained women in 1936 and reminded everyone in 1988 that anyone can be a member and any member can be a minister, and that sexual orientation is a gift God gave us.

We apologized to First Nations 20 years sooner than the Government of Canada, in spite of what the insurance companies were warning us, and even in the 1950‘s and 60’s—when prophecy hit a low ebb in the United Church—we were welcoming alcoholics into our basements and allowing divorced people to marry in church.

Now that I have you all puffed up with denominational pride (still a deadly sin) I’m going to go back to first principles and pop your little United Church balloons.

In the United Church we long ago began to conflate the idea of prophecy with social activism. Brueggemann mentions it too, so we know it happened to all the mainline denominations: that railing against injustice, as appropriate as that remains, became the only mode of prophecy that we could recognize, and they only one we could focus on.

Remember the wise professor said prophecy is “uncommon access to matters of God’s will and purpose that are hidden to other humans.” And then Jesus said (in a summary of his entire project “Love the Lord you God with all heart and mind and soul; and love your neighbour as yourself.” This is Jesus’ prophetic message, the ‘will and purpose’ hidden and then revealed to us.

Then what did we do? We took the party of the second part (neighbour) and called that our prophetic duty and the focus of our denominational project and began to ignore the party of the first part (God). We forgot that telling people that loving God is the key to a happy life is a prophetic message—our message—and a message that is desperately needed in the streets that surround this church. We forgot that forgiveness and mercy are deeply counter-cultural and therefore part of the prophetic ministry that we are called to do. We forgot who we are.

But God did not forget. God did not forget and decided in God’s infinite wisdom to send us a new generation of prophets, one of whom Lang and I heard speak just yesterday. The Rev. Charles Olango, minister of the Uganda Martyrs United Church, located here in Weston, thanked the presbytery for the gift of a location to gather, for having the insight to twin their congregation with Riverside-Emery, and most of all for giving them a place to glorify God.

And this is prophetic speech. There are a few of us history geeks that know that the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) begins by listing that the goal of human life is to “Glorify God and enjoy God every day,” but it became obvious yesterday that Rev. Charles and his congregation are living this everyday. Ironic that we sent missionaries to far off places so that someday believers could come from far off places and become modern-day prophets reminding us why we exist and speaking words that went out of fashion in the United Church long ago.

So we continue on to Jerusalem, with the prophet Jesus as our guide, knowing full-well that the message of glorifying God and honouring neighbour will be difficult for many to hear, and harder still to live out, yet the message remains. Amen.


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