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Loud and Obstreperous: The Problem With Prophecy


A Sermon by Charley Lerrigo

June 28, 2015

Epworth UMC Berkeley

On Exodus 3:7-11 and Isaiah 6:1-8

I want to preach this morning on two topics that usually don’t treated together: Prophecy. And Privilege. I want to help us see how the Bible deals with prophecy and privilege.

I want to invite us to think of prophets not just as people who – usually loudly and obstreperously – get in our face about the wickedness of our day. They do that in the Bible, but that’s not the core of their message.

Let me begin by reading to you from Abraham Heschel, a Jewish Bible scholar who was a major force in linking institutional Judaism with the civil rights movement of a half-century ago.

We need to understand, he says, not just the prophetic words, but who they were as persons and the world in which lived.

“Three things ancient society cherished above all else: wisdom, wealth, and might.” “To the prophets,” Heschel observes, “such infatuation was ludicrous and idolatrous…(In Jeremiah) we find these words) “Let not the wise glory in their wisdom. Let not the mighty glory in their might. Let not the rich man glory in his riches. But let the one who glories, glory in this: That she or he understands and knows Me. I am God: I practice kindness, justice and righteousness -- in the earth.”

“We and the prophet have no language in common,” Heschel writes. “To us, the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful… The prophet makes no concession to human capacity…

“To us, our standards are modest. Our sense of injustice is tolerable, timid. Our moral indignation impermanent, (while) human violence (remains) interminable, unbearable, permanent. To us, life is often serene. In the prophet’s eye the world reels in confusion.”

Biblical prophecy is not an invitation to be nice. And I like to think that sometimes anger is part of what God gives us. Let’s celebrate that gift.

But here’s something else. The Biblical prophets tended to be, or at least become people of privilege.

If we had more time, I could amplify that assertion, but for the moment, let me just use one example: Moses, in the Jewish tradition, is not first a giver of law, but the first of the prophets. As you know, he was an “exceptional” minority person (you know what that means) who grew up in Pharaoh’s court, but he got so angry that he killed an Egyptian cop who had killed a Hebrew slave, and Moses had to leave his privilege and run away to a new land, where he married well, had a family, good job, until he ran into a burning bush. Where he heard a voice saying,“Hello there. I’m God. You might want to take your shoes off.” Moses was afraid.

And God said: I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated…I have heard them cry out to be rescued from their slave drivers.

God listens to the moans and shouts of those who suffer. “I know all about their suffering,” said the voice Moses heard. I have come down to rescue them.”

“And Moses? “Moses said, I’m nobody. How can I do this?

And God said: “I will be with you…And I -- the God of your ancestors -- have seen what the kings are doing. And I have decided that I will bring the people out of slavery.”

Shall we join the new exodus? Or be silent? Or will be more like Moses, a person of privilege, who didn’t trust the law. He trusted God, who led him and his people into a wilderness.

The prophets challenge not individuals, but challenge the whole country, kings, priests, false prophets, the whole entire nation. In other words, they think systemically. Correspondingly, those who talk just about individuals who have done wrong have missed the greater ill.

Dyllan Roof will probably be punished. The Confederate battle flag he loved has already been taken down. But it still grates on my soul that just a few weeks previous, we were confronted with how our society uses police power to protect the status quo. I’m more angry at the legal violence which continues to be justified by legal technicalities.

I will not be silent when 13 police officers in Cleveland chase down two African Americans in a car, firing 137 rounds into the vehicle after it stops! And standing by as one of their number climbs onto the hood of the car and fires not one or two but 15 shots at point blank range into the defenseless blacks inside.

Am I raging because – proportionately -- blacks gets killed and imprisoned more often than whites? Yes. I am. Am I worried because a very white judge acquits the Cleveland officer who killed them? Because the so-called “legal” system didn’t prove that his shots were the ones that killed them? Yes. I complain about the injustice in our legal system.

And I’m going to scream, because I fear for my country. I’m gobsmacked at the lawyer for the police in the Cleveland trial, who says he was “elated” the cop with gun got off, who blamed “an oppressive government” for bringing the charges, and who declared: “We stood tall. We stood firm. Because we didn’t do anything illegal. We didn’t do anything wrong.” Except surround and kill two unarmed blacks.

Now does it does me any good to rage like this?

Not if that’s the end of it. But the prophetic scream does not end with outrage. It leads us – NOT to self righteousness – but to love.

Let me share with this quote from Alana Simmons, whose grandfather was killed at Emmanuel Church in Charleston.

“We are here,” said Alana, to combat hate-filled actions with love-filled actions…And that’s (the message we want to give) to the world.”

To love our enemies, and to love those brothers and sisters with whom we so sharply disagree.

That’s a good perspective. But it doesn’t solve the reason for the prophetic moment. I think we need to be careful when we’re tempted to silence our prophetic voice.

One problem with prophecy is that it tends to rip the privilege which many of us have. As privileged folk, we can be sad, pretty easily, without much condemnation. But to be “angry” --- whoa. Not nice. Not effective.

Prophecy does not particularly care if you are unable to fix the world’s warring madness. But Biblical prophecy doesn’t allow us to hide our anger in silence. Lest the stones cry out.

Now there’s a problem with a Biblically prophetic shout: It does not depend on how righteous we are, but how outrageously loving we are.

The problem with Biblical prophecy is that it is rooted in what God declares, not in what we say.

How did Isaiah put it when he encountered the Living God? “Woe is ME. For I am a man of unclean lips. And I live among a people of unclean lips.”

Remember Isaiah?

Isaiah’s vision came in an encounter with a the heavenly host. He was seeing God power. Holy boldness. And the angels in his vision weren’t cute. They were large and fiery creatures.

And what did the angels (the mediators of the Holy Boldness) do? They flew to him not with sweetness but with a burning coal.

And the angel touched it to my lips and declared: “Now that this has touched your lips, your GUILT has been removed. And YOUR sin has been forgiven.”

Now Isaiah may have wanted to say: Hey. Don’t talk about my sin. I’m on your side. There are a lot of folk who do bad things. I’m a good guy.

He didn’t say that. He heard the voice of God saying, whom shall I send? Who will go for us?

And Isaiah said: Here I am. Send me.”

Let’s remember Isaiah was also a person of privilege. Heschel reminds us the prophets spoke not just to individuals, but to the whole country, kings, priests, false prophets, the entire nation. Prophets talk not only to the Dyllan Roots of their time, but to the “good” people they all know. They declare: Perhaps only a few are guilty, but all are responsible.

Let me, in conclusion, be more personal:

“My name is Charley Lerrigo. I am white. I am male. I’m not poor. I am a person of privilege.

Privilege has its dangers. Privilege likes to be invisible. But we profit from privilege. I do. Part of that privilege is being a member of this holy company. But how do read privilege? Not as an individual matter, but as a community benefit. I generally don’t worry about someone coming into one of Epworth’s bible studies and killing nine people.

In fact, last week, I spent an hour talking with some of you about how white privilege operates. I get, two Sundays ago, to hear Diane help our (rather privileged?) children understand what the word “slavery” means to her. Oh, do have to explain that? (Most churches do not have that kind of children’s time in their worship)

My privilege includes is being part of this holy company which last week broke the rules about the polite necessity of keeping our worship to about an hour. (And we didn’t apologize for going long. I thank pastor Linda for not apologizing as she turned the spirit loose.)

We shed tears, and Steed’s excellent sermon was amplified by our witnesses. We named the faithful who were killed in a Charleston church. We continue to keep them before us this morning. We lit candles to honor the dead, and to recommit ourselves to combat a racism which still seems to be with us.

We keep the candles lit today because, as the President of our country reminds us, despite some real advances in the struggle against racism, racism is still deeply imbedded in our country “as a part of our DNA.” That’s a prophetic – and systemic statement.

If you did not a light a candle last week, we invite you to light one during the offering.

A reminder, not of our individual witness, but a fire which allows us to confront what I believe is a soul cancer in our country. I’m talking about racism.

Racism is a soul cancer. Officially, in our United Methodist language it’s a “sin.” But some of us don’t like that word. “Sin.”. OK. Let’s call racism a soul cancer. A cancer is destroying our country.

We can admit our own fault without letting our shortcomings quiet the outrage our hearts feel. We can speak truth clearly, even if our individual rants fail to halt the violence aimed at persons of color. Because prophecy arises from an encounter with the Living Truth of all things.

And that that Living Loving truth wants to set us on fire for love, and for justice. To call the times and world in which we live to repentance.

If we see a child reaching for an open flame, and we do not say NO!!! Somebody’s going to get burned. And it will happen on our watch.

So we must become a company of prophets. Some more noisy than others, but all whose tongues have been loosed for God’s declaration. Sometimes we must say no. If we are silent, the very stones will cry out. Let our tears – and our rage – empower our witness. Not for our own sake, but so that God’s kindom will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

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