Surprising Prophets

July 7, 2019 — Rev. Nancy Parent Bancroft


2 Kings 5:1-14
John 1:43-46
Luke 10:1-2

Jeremiah, Hosea, John the Baptist, Jesus, Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Samantha Smith, Denise Kenney, Greta Thunberg, Jen Comeau – What do these  people have in common? They are prophets.

What is a prophet? Although some prophets seemed to have special abilities as prognosticators or healers, like Elisha who we heard about this morning, most prophets are simply inspired teachers, proclaimers of Divine Wisdom. I say “simply” meaning that it is the only thing that is required to be a prophet. Not “simple” in that it’s an easy role. And not “simply” as it’s no big deal. Prophets are an enormous gift to all who hear their message. The Spirit stirs the prophet in such a profound way that as a result he or she is moved to share their inspiration. Sometimes a prophet is aware that his or her inspiration is of Divine origin, but not always. The root of the word prophet in Hebrew means “to bubble forth, as from a fountain.” Prophets bubble forth their understanding of what has moved them.

Prophets have existed in most if not all world religions and cultures throughout history.

Surprising Prophet Jeremiah was the son of a Jewish priest from northern Israel. The difficulties he encountered in his life, as described in the books of Jeremiah and Lamentations, have prompted scholars to refer to him as “the weeping prophet”. According to the first chapter of Jeremiah, Yahweh called him to prophetic ministry but Jeremiah resisted this call by complaining that he was only a child and did not know how to speak. However, the Lord insisted that Jeremiah go and speak, and he touched Jeremiah’s mouth to place the word of the Lord there. God told Jeremiah to “Get yourself ready!” The character traits and practices Jeremiah was to acquire include not being afraid, standing up to speak, speaking as told, and going where sent – all characteristics of a good prophet.

Hosea was a prophet from the same region of Israel as Jeremiah. According to the Book of Hosea, he married Gomer, but she proved to be unfaithful. She broke his heart. But even though Gomer ran away from Hosea and slept with another man, he loved her anyway and forgave her.  Hosea came to realize his devastating life experience mirrored the relationship between God and God’s people Israel. Hosea realized and thus preached that even though the people of Israel worshipped false gods, God continued to love them and did not abandon his covenant with them. Just as Hosea brought back his adulterous wife and loved her again, in an even greater way, God would not forget his love for Israel and Judah, nor His promises to them. God would bring them back to their land. He would restore them to Himself.

Jeremiah and Hosea are examples of how prophets often experience the Divine in their life situations, through their own difficult times and then are moved to proclaim their understanding of God and how we are called to live.

Theologian, Martin Luther King wrestled for years with his feelings about racial injustice. In his struggle he was inspired with the principle of true pacifism. He described his own “pilgrimage to nonviolence” in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. “True pacifism,” or “nonviolent resistance,” King wrote, is “a courageous confrontation of evil by the power of love”.  This book delineates racial conditions in Montgomery Alabama before, during, and after the year-long bus boycott started in 1955 and chronicles the 50,000 black people who took to heart the principles of nonviolence, who learned to fight for their rights with the weapon of love , and who in the process acquired a new estimate of their own human worth.

Through his activism and inspirational speeches, Dr King played a pivotal role in ending the then legal segregation of African-American citizens in the United States, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  He was a fierce advocate for working people and America’s labor movement and a strong protester of the Viet Nam War. Of it he wrote, “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam’.”

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address inspired children and adults to see the importance of civic action and public service. His historic words, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” challenged every American to contribute in some way to the public good. As newly elected president he issued an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. During the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Americans—especially young people—flocked to serve in dozens of nations. Working side by side with the people of these nations, Peace Corps volunteers helped build sewer and water systems; constructed and taught in schools; assisted in developing new crops and agricultural methods to increase productivity; and participated in numerous other projects. The program continues to function, and thousands of Americans each year are drawn to the humanitarian mission and sense of adventure that characterizes the Peace Corps.

Looking at the personal lives of Dr. King and President Kennedy, we see that prophets are not perfect people. Like us, they have flaws, make mistakes and sometimes act badly. Yet God works through them using their gifts to bring us closer to God’s vision of what we and our world can be. Surprising Prophets.

Samantha Reed Smith and Greta Thunberg, who I talked about with the children, show that prophets need not be old. Surprising Prophets.

In addition to what I said about her earlier with the children, Greta Thunberg has a history of severe depression and has a diagnosis of Asperger’s, ADHD, and selective mutism, a disorder that interferes with speech. . “I have always been that girl in the back who doesn’t say anything,” she’s said.  Her depression was so severe at one time that she stopped going to school, stopped talking and even stopped eating – stunting her growth.  Unfortunately, most neuro typical people, like most of us can live with the cognitive dissonance that comes with accepting the reality of climate change and doing nothing about it. People with Asperger’s on the other hand tend to be very literal and ruthlessly logical.  For her not doing anything about what she knew about climate change was intolerable. She is relentless in her marshaling of science, logic and morality to make her case.  Her first converts were her parents who have adopted her veganism and traded their car for an electric model. Her mother, a famous Swedish opera singer, has given up flying because of the carbon-intensive exhaust that planes emit, even though that decision has limited her career.

Greta has been criticized and mocked for her stern appearance and monotone voice, characteristics shared by many on the autism spectrum.  Her response? “To be different is not a weakness,” she says. “It’s a strength in many ways, because you stand out from the crowd.” And “If all people can do is mock you, or talk about your appearance or personality, it means they have no argument, or nothing else to say. I’m not going to let that stop me.”  Surprising Prophet.

Many prophets throughout history have had real physical and even mental limitations and this has not limited their effectiveness.

Denise Kenny, a member of our church family, was diagnosed with dementia two years ago. In talking openly about it she has said,” It has been a journey in ways I did not expect. Dementia has been a teacher and guide for me; helping me live my best life.”  Though her condition has required that she leave her profession as a nurse, it hasn’t stopped her from helping others. She has become an advocate for the Alzheimer’s Association in Maine and has been asked to speak extensively on the subject to persons with the same diagnosis and their loved ones. She has even helped change legislation at the state level and continues to fight at the federal level for those with Alzheimer’s and all forms of dementia. Denise has helped me and many others cope with the fear of this dreaded disease, and to appreciate how memory loss does in no way lessen a person’s dignity and value.

Jen Comeau, also a member of Union Church, has harnessed several initiatives over the years to capture our imagination and inspire us to care for the earth.

Prophets need not be from away, though, like with Jesus, it may be harder for us to take their prophetic messages seriously when we know these prophets well.

Despite Jesus’ great reception in Galilee he was rejected in Judea, by people in his hometown of Nazareth. In today’s Gospel we heard that when told about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael responded “What good can come from Nazareth?”  How can someone who we’ve known from childhood, who grew up here, who is one of us be a prophet? When people are up close, when we know them, we are more apt to discount any prophetic messages from them.

Prophets are generally surprising. They may not look like or, act like Elisha in our first reading, not act the way we would expect them to. They are often unpopular because they prick our conscience and we are challenged to change. They can make us uncomfortable.

When Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip replied, “Come and see.” And that is what we are asked to do. We are invited to be open to prophesy from wherever and whoever it surfaces. And even more, we are invited to be open God’s action in our own lives and to not hide those encounters under a bushel basket, but in our own way, through writing, through words, through actions – through whatever gifts we’ve been given to be a light to others: To bring hope, encouragement, to challenge wrong behavior, to inspire good. If we remain open and if we have the courage to let ourselves know what we know, we will hear God’s call. There are surprising prophets all around us, and one of them is you.