“The Prophet” © Hollis Huston 2011
a sermon preached
at Muttontown Unitarian Universalist Congregtion
on June 12, 2011
To whom shall I speak or give warning,
that they may hear?
See, their ears are closed,
they cannot listen.
The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn;
they take no pleasure in it.
But I am full of the wrath of the Lord;
I am weary of holding it in.
Pour it out on the children in the street,
and on the gatherings of young men as well;
both husband and wife shall be taken,
the old folk and the very aged.
Their houses shall be turned over to others,
their fields and wives together;
for I will stretch out my hand against the inhabitants of the land,
says the Lord.
For from the least to the greatest of them,
everyone is greedy for unjust gain;
And from prophet to priest,
everyone deals falsely.
They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,
saying, “Peace, peace,”
when there is no peace.
They acted shamefully, they committed abomination;
yet they were not ashamed,
they did not know how to blush.
Therefore they shall fall among those who fall;
at the time that I punish them,
they shall be overthrown.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Divinity School Address,” 1838
Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am divine. Through me God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think” . . . . Thus was he a true man. Having seen that the law in us is commanding, he would not suffer it to be commanded. Boldly, with hand, and heart, and life, he declared it was God. Thus is he, as I think, the only soul in history who has appreciated the worth of a man.
I stand before you this morning for the last time of this church year, in the position of preacher. A lot of things will have changed for me by the time we might see each other again. I’ll no longer be the spouse of an active Unitarian Universalist minister. I’ll no longer be a resident of Westchester County. I’ll be a Manhattanite. My household will have begun the process and the station of life called retirement (though I, for a combination of reasons and with a number of effects both pleasant and unpleasant, will not be retiring). I haven’t been able at this time to schedule engagements for next year with you, because of the many yet undecided factors that will together determine what is possible.
So this is a good time, a good moment, to look back on our association which dates back, I think, to 2007. And I must thank you for inviting me to appear among you so often. I’ve told you before that your frequent invitations, more frequent than those of any other congregation, have compelled me to keep coming up with new material -- a demand that isn’t always made of a circuit rider like me, who has the luxury in many cases of repeating and refining an old composition. Many times you have heard the first version of a message, and at some later time I would come back to it and improve on it for another congregation. Some of the messages I have brought to you have not been heard anywhere else. That might be for a number of reasons. Perhaps I just haven’t found the occasion to work a particular message up for a different congregation. Perhaps I just didn’t like the message, and won’t be repeating it and adding it to my published collection. Perhaps I’ve like parts of it and cannibalized it in another message with a different name. Perhaps I’ve revised it out of all recognition. In any case, you’ve often been my experimental laboratory, and I thank you for offering me this free range of experimentation; because you have both compelled and allowed me to develop a body of work.
And I might very well never have developed a body of work, because I occupy a strange place in the landscape of ministry. Unlike my good wife, who has now ended twenty years of service as settled minister to Unitarian Universalist congregations -- and unlike our beloved Lillias, who appeared here many times and now heads a congregation in Massachusetts -- I have no congregation and am unlikely ever to have one. This is my preaching life, the life of a circuit rider. So if you like what I have brought to you, and your invitations seem to indicate that you do, you should understand that you have helped to create a ministry that without you might not exist. You get that credit, and you bear that responsibility.
So this is a good time to think about what this ministry of preaching is.
When I told my father, the retired United Church of Christ minister of fifty years, that I was going to enter seminary, he said three words to me. And they are the only three words we ever exchanged about my “call” to ministry. He said, “Be a prophet.”
I really didn’t know how to take that. My dad had poured his heart into the ministry, in his radical and learned way, had prophesied about freedom of speech and about civil rights for African-Americans and about the social gospel, and he had been voted out of his congregation at about the time I was graduating from college; and he was never the same after that. Ministry called him and broke him; the “call” to ministry is an equivocal thing, hard to understand and hard to hear and hard to follow. It ain’t no Disney movie.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Christian martyr who studied briefly at my seminary and then went back to Germany, eventually to die at the hands of the Nazis after leaving us a distinctive theology and a body of poems and meditations from his prison cell -- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose presence I have felt because the grandest room in my seminary is named for him -- wrote these words about the call to ministry and prophecy: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Well, there was something in my dad that died at the First Church Congregational in Windsor, Connecticut. And I didn’t want to follow him.
I wanted to follow the demand of my faith, but the call to prophecy is a duplicitous voice, flattering and seductive, promising joys of achievement and recognition that turn into their opposites when one least expects. This is not a new perception on my part. The prophet Jeremiah had moods of melancholy and anger at God, for putting him in a position of alienation, rejected and despised by those he had thought to serve.
“Oh Lord, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
everyone mocks me. .
. . Cursed by the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed! . .
. . Why did I come forth from the womb
to see toil and sorrow
and spend my days in shame?”
And Isaiah left us his picture of the prophet’s condition, in the character of the Suffering Servant, tricked by God into an ungrateful role.
“He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one who from others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Surely he has born our infirmities and carried our diseases. .
. . He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. .
. . Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
So. “Be a prophet:” that was my father’s advice. For him, there wasn’t any point in preaching unless it was prophecy. And by that he meant something something exceptional, something above and beyond . . . But above and beyond what? Thanks, Dad. Been there, done that. I went through it with you.
A few weeks ago as I drove my car on an errand I was listening to public radio -- which of course means that what I heard was true -- and I heard a profile of Mike Huckabee, who, it was then rumored, was about to become a presidential candidate. So some one of our geeky talking heads was giving a thumbnail biography of the gentleman, and mentioned that in addition to being a TV star on Fox, he had been a governor of Arkansas and before that a Baptist minister. And the geeky commentator asked the rhetorical question, why would Mike Huckabee leave the safety and security of ministry to a congregation for the rough and tumble of politics?
“Safety and security of ministry to a congregation”? It’s good that I wasn’t sipping coffee at that moment, because I would have done a spit-take all over the interior of my car.
What does it mean to be a prophet? Particularly to Unitarian Universalists. Emerson left us the most severe charge to all ministers, in his Divinity School Address of 1838; but while he serves as inspiration to all of our ministers, he has by this very act given aid and comfort to those who hate our ministers.
Listen to the nobility of his charge to ministry. We should all of us, we who presume to inhabit a pulpit on Sunday mornings, be “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost. Cast behind you,” he says, “all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity. . . . The true preacher can be known by this, that he deals out to the people his life. . . . It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake. . . . Discharge to men the priestly office, and, present or absent, you shall be followed with their love as by an angel.” But we must also remember that this paeon to the noble call of prophecy is the end product of a savage rejection of actual ministers. Many of us will remember these words, describing not only Emerson’s rejection of a minister but of all ministry, and of the Unitarian church. “I once heard a preacher who sorely tempted me to say, I would go to church no more. . . . A snow storm was falling around us. The snow storm was real; the preacher merely spectral; and the eye felt the sad contrast in looking at him, into the beautiful meteor of the snow. He had lived in vain. He had no one word intimating that he had laughed or wept, was married or in love, had been commended, or cheated, or chagrined.”
And so in this one person, Ralph Waldo Emerson, we meet our taunting teacher who both holds up an impossible standard of ministry and encourages our lay people to revile and reject us whenever they don’t feel “inspired.” And if we wonder why we both exalt and hate our preachers, it has a lot to do with Emerson’s flight from, and fight with, the Unitarian church.
“It is not instruction, but provocation, that I can receive from another soul.” Again, that’s Emerson, from the Divinity School Address. So let’s look at what preaching is, and at what it should be. And how it ought to “provoke” our souls.
A preacher is not fundamentally an entertainer. If you want entertainment, go to the city where you can see professional theatre -- or watch TV.
A preacher is not fundamentally a teacher, of civics or of history or of philosophy or of ethics. When you want to learn these things, read a book or take a course.
A preacher is not here to “inspire” you. What the sam hill does that mean? Make you feel good? Feel good about what? Yourself? Maybe you don’t deserve to feel good today. Maybe what you need today is a knock upside the head.
A preacher is here, in Emerson’s words, to “provoke” you. Provoke you with what? With his experience of what is of ultimate importance. The preacher is a witness to the appearance of what is of transcending importance, to the thing that if necessary you would give up all for. We come to church to engage together in the desperate struggle for life in the midst of deathly force; and the preacher is here to help you engage in that struggle, whether you enjoy it or not. You might not, on a given Sunday, find this fight entertaining, or amusing, or inspiring, or even interesting. But it’s what you come here for.
A journalist named Finley Peter Dunne once said “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Well of course we’ve all heard that phrase used as a description of ministry, and I wish I could say that it had been created by some great spiritual figure, like for instance Jesus or Emerson or Dr. King. But it’s just a saying, not even original to ministry.
And yet it’s true. So let’s explore what it means. Your preacher, your local prophet, is obliged to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and if he isn’t trying his level best to do so, he’s not worth his salt. Or, as Yeshua is reported to have said, “Congratulations, you poor! But damn you rich!” Now the tricky part in a congregation is that each one of us is sometimes afflicted and sometimes comfortable, sometimes poor in spirit and sometimes rich. So the prophet’s obligation is to comfort each of us when we are afflicted, and to afflict each of us when we are comfortable. And that means that if, in a reasonable amount of time, say a year or two, your prophet has not at some moment comforted you and at some moment afflicted you, then your relationship with your minister has not been what it could be. This might be the minister’s fault, but it might be your fault, or both your faults, or nobody’s fault because of some extraordinary circumstance. But if your minister has not both comforted and afflicted you, there is a yet unexplored territory between you
But if you plan to get the most out of your minister, your local prophet, you can’t be expecting any of the following things.
You can’t be expecting that your minister will always make you feel good. It’s not about what you want, it’s about what you need.
You can’t be expecting that your minister will always be perfectly understood by you. It’s the prophet’s duty sometimes to challenge the limits of your thinking. And remember that refusing to understand is one of the ways human beings resist unpleasant truths.
You can’t expect your minister to represent all the interest groups and theological factions of the congregation. It’s the prophet’s duty to testify to the vision of sacredness that is hers and hers alone; the voicing of your vision, if it is still unvoiced, is your responsibility.
You can’t expect your minister to operate a political column. We all read the New York Times, and the competition is overwhelming. If you want a political column on Sunday morning, do what we did for the first ten years of married life -- stay home on Sunday morning, get your bagels and read the Times.
What can you expect of your local prophet? I leave you with some words of Walter Brueggeman, a leading critical scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. He says (The Prophetic Imagination) that “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Ministry and prophecy are counter-cultural. The minister is here to represent, to inspire in you, to provoke you to, to model for you, the counter-culture of life -- in resistance to the forces of deathliness, selfishness, greed and aggression that surround and infect us. This is not another business. This is not a school, or a club, or a corporation. This is a church. And it stands for something other than “regular” life. And that is sometimes perplexing for you, sometimes overwhelming for the person who has taken covenant with you to represent it. You don’t succeed all the time in being worthy of the word. Your minister, your local prophet, doesn’t always succeed either. Both you and the minister need to get over your momentary disappointment. Your minister is pledged to take pity on you, forgive you, wait for you to hear and respond. And you should take pity on your local prophet sometimes. Like Jeremiah he will sometimes be protesting to the call that betrays him: “Lord, you have seduced me, and I was seduced.” And remember that you also are bound by a covenant. Your minister doesn’t abandon you just because you are obnoxious and recalcitrant on a given day. You have no right under the covenant to abandon your prophet because he annoys or disappoints you on a given day. It’s not like the corporate world, where a quick firing, combined with a golden parachute, answers all questions. For one thing, you’re not going to be offering a golden parachute to your minister, are you? And for another, the dismissal will likely do as much harm as good.
Your prophet, if she’s what she’s supposed to be, will disappoint you sometimes. First because he is human, and second because the sacred dimension, the life force that sustains us against deathliness, is an untidy and inconvenient thing. And when you point your finger at the prophet, three other fingers point back at you.