For the first several hundred years of Israel’s history, there were no kings to rule over the people. When people needed guidance they turned to “judges,” who were both warriors and prophets. Israel was led by seventeen different judges with one of the very first being a woman named Deborah. The last of the Judges was the Prophet Samuel, born somewhere around 1100 BCE. You might think that sounds like a pretty risky arrangement, but it wasn’t; the vast majority of Jews at that time were totally dedicated to Torah and were making decisions in the right way; they didn’t need someone tell them what to do. A stronger leadership was needed only when the nation was threatened by an external enemy, and by the time of Samuel there were many external enemies. Samuel was opposed to the idea of a king, but the people demanded one and so God told him to find one. This led to Saul being anointed as the first king of Israel.
Now it’s true enough that Saul made some early mistakes, but to be fair, God’s punishments were extremely severe. Because Saul showed mercy instead of butchering every single one of his enemies, God stripped Saul of his kingdom and told him that “someone better” would be taking over. Saul became paranoid, and by the time David was installed, the country was war-torn and divided. Later, interpreters chalked it up to the fact that the people had demanded a king instead of trusting that God would deliver them from their enemies.
Three-hundred years of leadership by kings took its toll. Prophets such as Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah were kept busy speaking truth to power and condemning hypocritical worship, complacency, and the failure to act justly for the poor. Prophecy has two core traits; the first is that of being God’s voice, and second is being a champion for justice. When the prophets ruled, they enforced justice in God’s name; when the prophets did not rule, they spoke truth to power and demanded justice – in God’s name. Those in power didn’t care much about justice though; they were living very well off the sweat of the peasants. They recruited their own prophets who prophesied against the real prophets and a lot of prophets wound up dead. But despite the danger, prophecy endured; it endured through Malachi and right on through to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. Today there are many who believe that prophecy is the primary role of the Church…as well as that of the individual believer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor who spoke out against Hitler and was executed for it, maintained that the church is obligated to speak up and remind other entities such as government, family, work, and culture of their role to uphold justice.
You know, I can’t argue with Bonhoeffer, but I wonder what happens, when there are so many people willing to be champions for justice, that it makes it difficult to sort out how many are actually speaking on God’s behalf? Today prophecy is a booming business. There is no limit to the number of people who are willing to speak up. Social media has given everyone their own personal soapbox to stand on. And not only do we have gobs of false prophets running around, but we also have a wide assortment of opinions on what justice looks like, and what it is defined as.
Two weeks ago, it was all over the news that nine worshipers at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina had been killed by Dylan Roof – a self-proclaimed prophet. It was devastating news for Christians all over the world – regardless of their politics. But before anyone could fully process what had happened, reports were coming in that the rebel flag was being taken down from the capital in South Carolina, while at the same time same-sex marriage was being recognized once and for all nationally. Nearly everyone in my Facebook list of friends broke into cheers. We were all rejoicing and saying “love wins” and writing opinions right and left patting ourselves on the back. Our prophetic voices had made a difference; justice was being upheld, and if felt mighty fine. I believe that by the way. I truly believe that love wins in this case. Just when we thought our hearts could not break open any further, I think love shoved its way in and overcame the rotten stench of death.
But, you see, here is the rub…there are people I know; people I love…who prophetically speak out against the things I speak prophetically in favor of. We, all of us, feel that we are right and the other perspective is wrong. We, all of us, feel it just as keenly as each other. We, all of us, feel as though our truths are mandated by God. We, all of us, earnestly believe that we stand on the side of justice, mercy and compassion. It is not a matter of good vs. evil…I don’t know what it is…but I do know that very few of our hearts are actually corrupt…we are all doing what we believe to be right.
And that makes it hard for me to be in your face excited. Repeatedly, I ask myself, how can “they” possibly see things that way? How can these people that I have known and loved all my life – people that I know are good people, how can “they” possibly see things that way? And what is even more troubling is that they are looking at me and asking the same question. There are a lot of really good people who are deeply hurt right now. I feel hurt by laws that make it possible for lunatics to purchase assault weapons and then go out and gun down church members or school children or movie goers. Others feel hurt by laws that expand the definition of marriage. A lot of people believe that we have failed as a nation to be accountable to God. A lot of people are reeling and scared.
In all honesty, I’m not a very good prophetic voice – not really. I show up when and where I can and I speak in a way that I believe is faithful, but for the most part I’m not at all sure that I have the right answers or that I am even asking the right questions. What I do know though is that being a Christian means a whole lot more than just making a stand for justice. What good is justice if we are not attending to the spiritual and emotional needs of each other? And is it really justice if we leave a bunch of scared people in our wake? I am not talking about the crazy people who go out and shoot up churches just so they can be heard; I’m talking about people we encounter every day who are our friends and families but who also happen to have a different perspective on what it means to be faithful to God.
In 2 Corinthians Paul talks about a ministry of reconciliation. He wrote that through Jesus Christ we are reconciled to God and to each other. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was a re-creation event that restored us to God’s original intention of a united and reconciled human family built on just and healthy relationships. Most of the time we don’t appear to be very reconciled, yet the core of our Christian faith is founded upon God’s intervention into human history releasing the power of reconciliation. Think about that…” the core of our Christian faith is founded upon God’s intervention into human history releasing—the power of reconciliation.” What is more important? Justice or reconciliation? How about both? Do we still look for reconciliation? Or are we focused only on justice? What if there’s no such thing as justice without reconciliation? And what if reconciliation is actually to be found right in the middle of our struggle for justice? Can reconciliation even exist without struggle, and vice versa? Rumi said: “Out beyond ideas of right and wrong doing there is a field…I’ll meet you there.”
I’ve been absent from this pulpit for three weeks and it feels like three years. I have tried to make the last couple of weeks a time of learning so that I could come back having grown some. In Washington D.C., our nation’s capital, I learned a few things about prophecy. I learned that while some prophetic voices speak truth to power – at the level of power – other voices speak at a different level entirely; other voices get down in the dirt and pray with their hands and feet; they get dirty; and it seems like there’s a lot of holiness, compassion and reconciliation to be found in those moments. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with celebrating a victory in human policy, but when people are left lying in the dirt, it’s time to pray with our hands and feet. We have the power to do that. We have the power to attend to each other and treat each other with compassion.
In the Jewish tradition, when bad things happen to Jews it’s never by chance; it’s always a consequence of Jewish actions. Today, most people believe that the challenges and disasters we face are just a part of life – not punishments doled out by an angry God. But the Old Testament is full of “angry God,” and I sometimes wonder if perhaps God was learning how to be God at the same time humans were learning how to be human. Old Testament prophecy might have rocked it in its time, but we are alive in the still-unfolding time of the Good News – the Gospel. God is still-speaking – still-calling us – still reaching for us – still longing to be in relationship with us, and always, always, still doing a new thing! Everything blooms out of itself – including God and we are better than we’ve ever been because we are continuously recreating, reconciling and unfolding into a new creation. In this time of change, things happen so fast that it’s easy to get caught up in it and forget about each other, but if we want justice to prevail then we must learn how to live in shalom with each other. May it be so…Amen