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Voices from elsewhere: listening for the modern prophets

Ordinary Sunday 15: 15 July, 2018
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain

Taken on its own, the Gospel reading this morning might suggest that the mission of the disciples of Jesus was smooth sailing. "They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them." The mission even has a fail-safe clause for rejection — "shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them". But surrounding this vignette are examples of the rejection and hardship those who proclaim the word of God must endure. Just before this incident we hear of the rejection of Jesus by those who knew too well his human roots. In the verses that follow this morning's reading we are told that when Herod hears of the exploits of the disciples he was fearful that John the Baptist, whom Herod had executed, had risen again.

Throughout history those who see the injustices and inequalities that surround them, and are driven to speak out, have often been mistreated, shunned and even murdered for being courageous, honest and passionate. For every cry for change there are individuals and groups who have vested interests in the way things are.

Christian proclamation, by its nature is prophetic. There is a suspicion of prophecy on one level because of a confused association with end-of-world predictions. It is sobering to consider how many well respected Christian leaders tried to predict the end of the world. It is said Hilary of Poitiers, Martin of Tours, John Wesley, Martin Luther all failed, thank goodness, in their end of world prophesies.

There is a story that Sir Isaac Newton, in order to defuse the end-of-world fervour of his day, did some quick calculations from dates in Holy Scripture and said he could not see anything happening before 2060. While this seemed a safe distance from Newton's own time it is just around the corner for us and interest in his so-called predictions has now caused something of a sensation. These end-of-world predictions continue to fascinate people and overshadow the importance and value of true prophecy.

Take for example an unnamed and unknown vicar who was running a study group on prophecy. He asked the group, "What would you do if you knew the world was going to end in four weeks?" One man said, "I would go out into the streets and preach to those that have not yet accepted the Lord into their lives".
"Very good!" said the vicar, and everyone agreed.
Another person spoke up and said enthusiastically, "I would dedicate all of my remaining time to serving God and my neighbours with a greater conviction".
"That's wonderful too!" the vicar commented, and everyone agreed.
Then a third person spoke up, "I would find a quiet place and listen to recordings of the vicar's sermons for the whole four weeks".
‘Well that's very flattering," said the vicar, "But why would you do that?" "Because, that would make those last four weeks the longest four weeks of my life!" And everyone agreed!

These end-time predictions cheapen the real purpose of prophecy. This morning we heard from poor Amos. He thought himself no prophet, rather just a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. At the weekday Mass a couple of Friday's ago I took great delight in reading some words from Amos (8.4-5a, 11):

Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
    and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, "When will the new moon be over
    so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
    so that we may offer wheat for sale?"

The time is surely coming, says the Lord God,
    when I will send a famine on the land;
not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water,
    but of hearing the words of the Lord.

That's more like it! Powerful words indeed but words like these mean trouble for the prophets — because these words are aimed at those who have well and truly rationalised their privilege and their religion. Their wealth is a blessing from God their privilege is ordained. Those who side with the vulnerable call into question the behaviour of the establishment and so are labelled at best deluded and at worst malevolent and downright evil.

Walter Brueggemann is an Old Testament scholar who has spent a life-time among the prophets. Brueggemann tells us the prophets are "voices from elsewhere". They are by vocation critics of the powerful and comfortable and stand outside the dominant cultural ideals and aspirations. They are therefore open to ridicule and marginalisation. Brueggemann describes those called to the prophetic ministry as uncredentialed and unpedegreed. Their vocation, says Brueggemann, is to walk with us into impending disaster and to walk us out into the new possibilities beyond.

When we think of a modern day prophet we might call to mind Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Bishop Desmond Tutu. Closer to home and somewhat more whimsically, I remember one Michael Leunig cartoon that gave me great pause for thought. It was a picture of a man and, I assume, his young son watching TV — sharing some quality time. On the TV was a beautiful sunset scene — the man and his son were totally captivated. But then I noticed that above the TV there was a window. Through the window outside was the exact same scene that was on the TV — a real-life sunset. Most of us from time to time need to be shaken out of our comfortable worlds and pointed to possibilities beyond.

If we can discern the voices of our contemporary prophets we not only learn from them but also support them in their often lonely vocations. Wise guides like Brueggemann give us the lead — look for the voices from elsewhere and don't be surprised if they are uncredentialed and unpedegreed. However he is not suggesting that they are simply magicians or Gnostics acting on secret knowledge. They will have honed their vocations on acute social observation.

I had a lesson in this very early in ministry. Not long out of college in my first curacy I received a call from someone who wanted to come and talk with me about the book of Revelation. We agreed on a time to meet. I was primed — I knew about apocalyptic literature and I knew about the formation of the Canon of Holy Scripture — the book of Revelation almost didn't make it into the Bible. When we finally met I was greeted by a big, burly farmer.

What I remember most about the man was the size of his hands — they were huge. As we sat down he said he wanted to talk with me about some things he had been reading. He plucked a small New Testament from his shirt pocket. He began thumbing through the pages. I was moved by the care he took with these huge hands to find the verses he needed in this tiny New Testament. He read several verses to me. They were ones mentioning war, natural disaster and the like all pertaining to the end times. I sat and listened to him read — already humbled by the experience. Then finally he said, "I think these things are happening now".

I was left breathless by the matter-of-factness of his witness. He had found the meaning of this often difficult book. His prophetic message to me was that the disasters, the tragedies, wars and droughts signal that we live in the last days — and so does every generation and so will every generation until the end. We do not know exactly when — the point is that the time to respond to God is now!

We need to be alert for the prophets for two reasons. First because it is in our best interest to heed their warnings and follow their lead but secondly we can support them in their perilous mission, which is to walk us into the impending disaster and walk us into new possibilities. We hear these words from the prophet Amos (7.14-15):
"I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'"


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