Saturday, July 31, 2010

A Day for Prophets

[From a Sermon for Friday July 30 (William Wilberforce); Jer 26:1-9; Ps 69:6-14; Matt 13:54-58]

The Judean prophet Jeremiah was a proverbial pessimist whose experience exemplifies one particular dimension of prophecy, namely the costly experience of divinely-mandated truth-telling. Jeremiah received little credit in his own time for accurately presenting God’s judgement of Judea and Jerusalem, surviving the invasion by the Babylonians and destruction of the Temple, only to die in exile in Egypt.

Jesus, like Jeremiah before him, was a prophet, as the parallelism between these two readings today shows clearly. Like his predecessor he invoked divine judgement, focused on the fate of Jerusalem, and like him was rejected by his own people.

William Wilberforce's  insistent opposition to the slave trade made him a prophet in his own time; but it was eighteen years between his first motion for the abolition of the trade and its eventual success, and another 27 years between that date and the abolition of slavery itself in the British colonies. Wilberforce was not a popular or well-regarded figure for much of his life.

Prophecy is not a task or ministry to be sought or claimed too quickly. Even leaving aside the fact that it is probably rather too rare for easy claims,  Jeremiah's story spells out in narrative what the Gospel  encapsulates in a memorable phrase; that prophets are not without honour, except in their own country and their own house.

Now there are many kinds of dysfunctional ministry, but none worse than the kind in which the new minister or leader, full of enthusiasm and theological acumen but perhaps not having spent quite enough time with Jeremiah in seminary, appropriates the office of a prophet. Believing they have somehow been anointed by education or ordination to bring good news to the poor parish, recovery of sophisticated hermeneutics to the biblically blind, superior arrangement of furniture for the liturgically broken-hearted, to set at liberty the conservative vestry meeting process, they proceed to inflict themselves and their insights on the unsuspecting.

When they fail, as such approaches inevitably will, it is tempting then to add a self-serving layer of interpretation to the minister’s doubtless genuine pain. Do our failures not make prophets of us?

Beyond the connection of apparent failure, the foibles of the ministerial false prophet — who is waiting in all of us, to break out and inflict him or herself on the unsuspecting — are not actually the same thing as real prophecy at all. For this false prophecy was of course always based on the notion that if the people repented from their habits and heard the good news of us, they and we would succeed. Yet God’s notion of success is not that simple.

Augustine of Hippo’s great work The City of God, written around the beginning of the fifth century, has been fundamental to Christian orthodoxy – a much-maligned term in the present! – on the meaning of history and human society ever since. Augustine, considering the ambiguity of the world he inhabited, suggested that while Jeremiah and Jesus had by God’s spirit been able to see and show the shape of history unfolding, now in the era after the formation of scripture, history itself was opaque to us. God works in human life and history, but we cannot draw glib conclusions about how apparent triumphs and tragedies really reflect the direction of history and the will of God. Of course one could also say this is the meaning of the Cross.

This is an important insight in a time when the Church is struggling as deeply as we know it to be. A bit of Church history does help; you can’t pretend that there haven’t been times at least this bad before! And there have been many occasions when apparent winners and losers in battles of faith and justice looked very different, only years or days after one outcome or meaning of an event seemed obvious.

Does this mean the prophetic example of Jeremiah – meaning not his pessimism, but his authenticity - lies only in the biblical past? Augustine did not think so, nor did Wilberforce much more recently.

John’s Gospel presents a different version of Synoptic narrative of his non-acceptance we heard, reduced to its essence in the remarkable prologue: “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”.

This re-casting of the conflict makes clearer the intimate connection between the prophet and the people. The character of Jesus’ ministry lies in his authenticity, and his gift of self. Like Jeremiah, Jesus dies and lives because of “his own”, and for “his own”, not for his ideas.

Prophecy is not first and foremost the mechanics of inspired information, but the costly gift of self.