Jeremiah 23: 1-6: Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD. The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness.”
Luke 1: 67-80: Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown he mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
When you’re a fan of sci-fi, as I tend to be, you become very accostomed to the plot device of “Prophecy.” As far back as Oedipus Rex–maybe even farther–dramatists and authors of fantasy have used the device of a Prophecy–a statement predicting a series of future occurances–to explore whether humans really have free will or if it’s all predetermined. I have some favorite examples: The prophecy that foretells Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s death at the hands of The Master. Or, even better, the prophecy that foretells Buffy’s beau, Angel, the vampire with a soul, that says he can earn back his humanity. Harry Potter IS Harry Potter, it turns out, because a prophecy foretold his birth and his place in the fight against Lord Voldemort. In Battlestar Galactica, the suriving members of the human race travel across the universe in search of the legendary Planet Earth that is prophesied to await them with open arms and save them from extinction. Prophecy is a great plot device because there are so many layers to it. Do we have a free will, or is everything planned in advance? Or, even better, are we allowed to choose for ourselves to be PART of the divine plan if we are lucky enough to find out about it? If you were told that you were destined to be a hero, or a villain…would you live up to the hype? And time and time again, what we see is that those who run away from the prophecy (Oedipus and Buffy) are defined by it; and those who embrace the question and the challenge of prophecy, they end up finding themselves living lives that NO ONE could have foreseen. In both cases, we get a sense that prophecy is not a way of “knowing” the future, as much as it is an articulation of a perceived reality.
As Rev. Dr. Greg Mobley at Andover Newton Theological School says, “Prophecy is not about seeing forward, but seeing through.” In the Lectionary Text this week, we get two prophecies; one is Jeremiah prophesying from amidst chaos and injustice as Israel is conquered and exiled, and the other from Zeceriah–as written by the author of Luke–amidst the excitement, joy, and hope he finds in his newborn son who would come to be known as John the Baptist. The prophesies themselves have very different contexts and purposes, BUT they both fit Greg Mobley’s concept of prophecy as seeing through, in that they see through their present situation into an imagined future. That’s not to say a “fictional” future, but it is to say a future that does not exist at the time the words are spoken, a Hoped for future. Jeremiah has no proof that God will bring in new Shepherds for the people Israel, new Shepherds that will collect, unite, protect, and defend God’s precious flock rather than scatter them, but he invokes God’s voice to give voice to a possible future, a future promised by faith, that allows him to say, “The days are surely coming when” the Lord God WILL provide such Shepherds. Likewise, there’s no sensible reason why Zecheriah would be able to know that his newborn son is to pave the way for the work of The Messiah. And it seems a strange thing to wish for your child, that he would be a sort of crazy spiritual figure who lives a lot of his life “in the wilderness” only to emerge as a kind of hated wild man figure. We would do well to not try to make sense of prophecy as something that is DESTINED or PREORDAINED to come true, but as a prayer, as an articulation of an imagined reality, a reality that we have no reason to expect will come true, but that in our faith we can PROCLAIM as truth, regardless of the objective information at our disposal. As Dr. Cornel West says, “There’s no such thing as absolute certainty in human skin.”
So maybe the power of prophecy is not in predicting what will absolutely happen in the future, but about perceiving what is absolutely true in the moment. Perhaps prophecy is not an announcement about future events, but is a prayer for a hoped for reality. Hope is a bridge that takes us from where we are to where we believe God will bring us. Prophecy is a way of articulating that hope. Jeremiah’s prophecy builds a bridge between his present tragedy and a day when God’s divine justice reigns supreme, and the author of Luke articulates a prophecy that says that day of God’s victory is HERE thanks to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he/she then builds a bridge back through history to a time when that day was still being prepared. Hope and Preperation; that is the stuff of prophecy.
So, what does it mean to be a people of faith in the 21st Century? We have said for 2,000 years that following Christ is to love thy neighbor as thyself, all the way to the cross. Is that an imagined reality that is yet to come, or is that a tradition that we build from? In other words, do we see that as a bridge towards an imagined future, or a bridge to a perceived past event? Are we in a position to hope, or are we in a position to prepare?
I went to Trier yesterday. Trier is a city in Germany, right along the Luxembourg border. It is the oldest city in Germany, dating back to something-something BCE!
I had never heard of it, but it’s this crazy place that was established by the Roman Empire, and was a really big deal for awhile (5th largest Amphitheater of the empire, so how about ‘dem apples?). And because of its location, it has been under siege for the better part of its existence, so it is this crazy mix of cultures from the various peoples who conquered it: Roman, German, French, Persian, and British. It is the first place I’ve been to in Germany where I heard English spoken right alongside German. It’s an important site of the Christian Reformation, there’s a theological school there; and also, it’s the birth place of Karl Marx. I had no idea it existed, and it is this cauldron of culture and ideas that has produced or influenced most of the major movements in recent world history. Also, it has the pertiest bus stop I ever did see.
I could write quite a lot about the things I saw and learned there. But, that will come some other time. Partly because I want to go back sometime to see more of it, but MOSTLY because I had this kind of…epiphany there. I was walking along through the open market, and there were a few homeless people scattered about asking for money. I try very hard to give money to people on the street whenever I can, but when there are many people in close proximity to each other, it’s difficult to do that. And then I feel weird about giving some money to some people and no money to other people. Sometimes I just put my head down, give what I can to whom I can, and I keep moving. Other times I’m able to remember that I won’t actually miss ten cents and it could go a long way towards helping other people. So, anyway, I’m walking through Trier yesterday, and I’m giving away a few cents here, a few cents there…and I came across a man, probably about my age, sitting in the middle of the market. He was sitting because he was missing both legs from the knee down, and he only had one hand. He was sitting in the middle of the market, with a paper coffee cup in front of him, and people were doing their best to go around him, to ignore him. He had a cup sitting in front of him, and a lot of people were bending over and giving to him…but mostly, everyone seemed to be willing to trample each other to get as far away from this man as possible.
Why? What is it about coming into contact with the most needy, the most vulnerable that, all too often, sends us running away? This man was doing the only thing he knew to do in order to stay alive, he put himself, his broken body, out in the city square to ask for help…and a lot of people were helping….and a lot of people seemed very inconvenienced by his presence. And the truth is, this is how we treat all homeless people we come across. It’s usually easy for us to justify this position, we convince ourselves that the people begging are addicts, or they’re just out to get some free cash, and that is our reason for moving on and not giving them a second thought. People like this man in Trier make most of us stop, for at least a moment, and recognize that there are unfortunate people with no option other than begging on the street. But the truth is, we should not be asking people to prove that they DESERVE our generosity. If we are people of faith who believe in loving thy neighbor as thyself, then really it should be up to others to convince us to NOT give them our time, money, and affection. You would never make your child prove that they need food, you just feed them. What happens to us when we meet people on the street asking for money that allows us to demand reasons for feeding these people, all of whom are SOMEONE’S child?
I wish I could say that I went directly to this man and gave him money. Actually, I wish I could say that I went over and sat with him, and talked with him, and gave him money AND food AND paid for him to stay in a hotel for a night. But the truth is I kept walking. I didn’t scramble to get away from him or anything, I just kind of thought, “I’ve given away a lot of money today,” and I kept walking. But then I got about five feet down the road and felt really disgusted with myself and I went back and I gave him what I had. And the truth is, I could have given him more.
Hopefully the point that comes across here is that we ALL do this. We all see starving, suffering, broken people everyday; and we all have our own reasons for walking away and leaving them to it. We all do this. So it seems to me we have two options: We either accept that (“Huh, well there’s a lot of suffering in the world, and there’s always going to be poor people, and you can only do so much,”) or we can slowly, over time, take little steps toward changing that. This man on the street had nothing to offer, except himself. He sat in that square saying, “This is me, will you help?” It seems to me, the least I can do is follow suit. This is me: I would like it to be less easy to ignore the people in our society who need our attention the most. All I have in the world is this blog and the network of loving, amazing people in my life. So here’s what I’m proposing:
This Friday is known in the states as Black Friday. It’s called that because a lot of businesses depend on the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the entire year, to get out of the red and into the black by the end of the year. BUT, ever since I learned the term “Black Friday” it always struck me as rather…ominous. And illustrative. There’s something about following a day of Thanks, when we eat tons of food, with a day of spending tons of money on stuff we don’t really need….and giving it a dark and gloomy title like Black Friday. It seems pretty dark to me. It seems like we are saying, as a society, that the only way I can express my Thanks for what I have is to HAVE MORE. Why not, instead, express our Thanks by GIVING Thankfully? This year, I am inviting all of my Facebook friends, and anyone else who might end up reading this, to do just that and Brighten Up Black Friday.
What I’m proposing is pretty simple: This Friday, give away some money to someone who needs it more than you. I’m not saying skip Black Friday, I’m not saying cut back on your spending, I’m not even suggesting that there are certain things that would be better to buy than others. All I’m saying is that this Friday, I would appreciate it very much if you give away some money. Pretty much everyone I know gives generously to one organization or another already. So, I’m asking that this Friday, you give a little more. Whether it’s 1 cent, or 1 dollar or 5…just give away some money to someone who needs it more than you do; namely, the people on the street. If you don’t feel comfortable giving it directly to someone you see with their hand out, then give to an organisation that supports the Homeless Community in your area. I have 498 friends on Facebook, and if every one of those people gave $2.00 then the homeless community around the world is $1,000.00 richer that day (I’ll give $3.00, just to cover the difference). But maybe people give more than that, and maybe they have friends that they can invite to do the same. Maybe this Friday we can collectively give a few thousand dollars to Homeless Communities around the world, which is still a small fraction of the money we will all be giving to multi-billion dollar corporations on the same day.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The opposite of good is not evil; it is indifference.” If you take the time this Friday to give a little money, time, and/or attention to your brothers and sisters who are in need…it won’t solve any problems. It will not fix anyone’s situation. But it helps more than doing nothing. And maybe it shifts our consciousness a little bit. Maybe it brings us a little closer to not being INDIFFERENT to abject poverty and economic injustice in our world. If nothing else, perhaps giving some money away to the needy, on a day of indulgence for the well-to-do, can be a prophecy in its own right. Maybe it can be an act, a prayer, that bridges our moment of economic catastrophe and moral degradation to the days that are surely coming, when God’s love and justice reigns. Even Jesus needed someone to prepare the way. And if we can’t be the Body of Jesus…maybe we can at least help prepare the way. Amen.