DEEDS, NOT CREEDS: Words and Deeds of Prophetic Women and Men
Rev. Kit Ketcham, PUUF, Jan. 18, 2015
This fall and winter I’m speaking most months about one of the six Sources of Unitarian Universalism, part of what makes us so different from most other religious traditions, which basically have one source (the Bible or other sacred text) and one doctrine, dependent on the rules derived from the words and deeds of a particular deity or set of deities.
To begin today, I ask you to turn in the grey hymnal to the 5th or 6th page from the front, before the hymns begin, and let’s read together the second source, which is our topic today. Let’s read the headline first and then the wording of the source: The Living Tradition we share draws from many sources:
Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
Our service today includes quotations from many sources, women and men of vision and courage. In honor of the life of Martin Luther King Jr., we consider today the wisdom of those who for millennia have called humanity to our best selves.
I’ve been a fan of the Great Courses program for some time; they advertise in many popular magazines and are a great way to do some extra learning outside of a classroom. Once you’ve bought a course from them, of course, you’ll receive catalogs weekly and they’re always enticing.
I’ve bought several of their offerings, ranging from musical comedy and classical music to the wonders of the universe and I’ve learned about many sacred places revealed in depth by archaeological digs. I’ve eyed several other courses covetously and when I could get two sets of DVD lectures for less than half the price of one, I succumbed.
So for several weeks I’ve been watching a renowned Jewish scholar, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, explain the Old Testament in literary and cultural terms. This way of looking at a written text does not involve theological speculation or devotional usage. It is a method of critiquing the text in a literary way, the Bible as literature, if you will, and as a mirror of ancient culture.
Her lectures were fascinating, as she used archaeological and ancient literary finds like the Dead Sea Scrolls, to illuminate some of the historical questions that pop up in the Bible: was there such a person as King David? Did he really kill Goliath with a slingshot when he was a boy? Probably not, she says, and she gave the archaeological and historical evidence for her conclusion, which, of course, creates a new question---what was the purpose and the origin of these familiar characters and their stories? Another sermon for another day!
A lot of these tidbits I knew because of my seminary studies in the 90’s, but I was a little hazy on the Major and Minor Prophets, the ones whose diatribes and laments make up the last third of the compilation of the Old Testament, also known as the Hebrew Scriptures.
I’m kind of a Bible geek anyhow, probably because I was raised a Baptist preacher’s kid and always suspected there was more to those ancient stories than I was learning in Sunday School. I love finding out the real historical stories only hinted at or even ignored in those ancient texts.
And I like looking at the patterns of human behavior that seem to be consistent across the millennia: betrayal, anger, revenge, over and over; the efforts of prophet after prophet to get those early Israelites to pay attention to a God they’d never heard of before, whose commandments were strict and refused to allow them their private family deities.
So, in preparation for this service, I listened really hard when she talked about what a prophet was, in those ancient times. And basically, a prophet in the ancient world was not a foreteller of the future or an ancient wizard of some kind. This prophet or prophetess, because there were both male and female prophets, had the difficult job of calling the tribe or the nation back to its moral and ethical center, back to the tasks of thriving as a healthy interdependent community.
And the early Israelite prophets had a tough job. They were attempting to enforce the idea of One God, not many, and to implore their flock to obey that God’s commandments. This was a tough task, as you might suspect.
Prophets held an early leadership role in Israelite culture, a role that developed as the tribes of Israel struggled to survive, before Judaism became codified as a religion. For hundreds of years, they were a tiny cult, overpowered and enslaved by larger and more powerful nations, until (according to the Bible book of Exodus) they escaped miraculously from Egypt and went in search of the Promised Land.
And it’s still tough to be a prophet today, though our contemporary prophets are still trying to fulfill that role of reminding us that justice, compassion, and humility are our best chance of attaining a sustainable and peaceful world.
There’s an ancient OT text, Micah 6:verses 6-8, a passage in the Hebrew scripture which is so well-known and well-loved that it appears in our hymnal as a selected reading, #572. I like it a lot and feel a personal connection to it.
In the passage, a Hebrew seeker for truth is questioning the prophet Micah, and the guy sounds a bit annoyed at the complicated rituals of pleasing this God: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God? Shall I come before God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will God be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression? The fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
And the Hebrew prophet Micah answers the seeker almost tenderly: “God has told you, o mortal, what is good… and what is required of you (is) but to do justice and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”
Now, when I was a young girl in the 50’s, struggling to figure out what I believed---the fantastic stories of Jesus’s miracles or the Ten Commandments, or the small town norms prohibiting nice Baptist girls from dancing and movies---these words came as a huge relief when I discovered them. Even a teenager beset by boy troubles and zits could understand them: be fair, be kind, be humble.
It was what I needed---in a nutshell: a guide for living a moral and ethical life. I’m reminded these many years later of Unitarian Universalist minister Robert Fulghum’s small essay, “All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten”.
I didn’t know at the time any of the historical or literary significance of these prophetic words in the book of Micah. I didn’t know the Hebrew questioner had recited a prioritized list of the possible ways for the Jews to honor their God with sacrifice. I didn’t know that this was a reference to a famous judicial verdict based on a covenant between the Jews and their God. I hadn’t been listening hard enough in Sunday School up to that point to absorb the knowledge that this is a perfect summary of what prophets from many world religions, theistic and nontheistic, have said is true religion: to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly.
All I knew was that it was music to my ears. It answered a good many of my questions in language that was very clear to me. It said nothing about dancing or movies, but that was okay---at the time, nobody was asking me to dance or to go to a movie. However, people were inviting me to be unfair, unkind, arrogant and egotistic.
This passage became kind of a blueprint for my life. It was the internal plumbline that I came to depend upon as I made decisions. Later I added that famous quotation from the prophet Jesus in the Christian scriptures, when Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love our God with all our hearts and souls and minds and that the second greatest is to love our neighbor as ourselves.
This seemed to me to be a restating of Micah’s truth: that our relationships with the universe or God as we understand God, our relationships with our neighbor, and our relationships with ourselves must be of the highest and most loving quality. Hard to beat that for good advice; hard to be that in our increasingly greedy and conflict-ridden world.
We think differently about prophets in this day and age and often, we may only consider them weirdos or con artists, because we’ve seen plenty of gurus and other figures who are only out to make a buck with their snake oil or their deceptive religious or political practices.
But---there are skeptics who call out those guys for what they are: self-serving ideologues who do not have the best interests of humanity in mind. And it is they whom I consider our contemporary prophets.
It’s important to be discerning in who we listen to and what beliefs or ideas we choose to hold, and so we look for credible sources, people who have wisdom to share and a willingness to stick their necks out. Our UU sources, those prophetic women and men who challenge us and call us to be our best selves, come from a wide variety of backgrounds and religious traditions. Our service today honors their wisdom.
Who would you say are the true prophets in this, our greedy and conflicted world? Who calls our civilization, our society, our nation, the human race, back to its best self, the self that epitomizes all the good that we humans are capable of?
Who do we tend to pay attention to? Who are the prophets who command our respect and get us going, get us motivated to right the many wrongs in our world. Who would you suggest putting on our list of today’s true prophets? Let’s hear some of your thoughts. (cong resp) And why is that? What quality or qualities make them our true prophets? (cong resp)
There is also the concept of false prophets, those who would be self-serving in their admonitions to the nation, the society. Wanna take a shot at that, just for fun? And why do you consider them false? What qualities do they reveal that make them suspect in your eyes?
Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrate tomorrow, has been one of our most trusted prophetic voices of the 20th century. For most of his life, he called us Americans to a place of greater justice and equality, asking us to leave behind old traditions which enslaved and degraded others and to rethink our part in a ill-advised conflict in Vietnam.
You’ve mentioned several other wise women and men whose vision and wisdom you take seriously. And a couple of them are anything but serious in their delivery, but behind the humor there is always a serious topic. I’m speaking, of course, of the Jewish and Catholic prophets Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, whose humor is incisive and pointed and profane but inevitably draws our attention to the injustice in our nation, exhorting us to change the trajectory of our behavior toward others and toward our earth.
A few of my favorite Jon Stewart quotes: “Most world religions denounced war as a barbaric waste of human life. We treasured the teachings of these religions so dearly that we frequently had to wage war in order to impose them on other people.”
And: Religion is far more of a choice than homosexuality.
And: I celebrated Thanksgiving in an old-fashioned way. I invited everyone in my neighborhood to my house, we had an enormous feast, and then I killed them and took their land.”
Bill Moyers has a more somber tone. His career as a journalist and liberal political commentator has given him a stark view of the shenanigans of our political and religious leaders and he is sharply critical of those whose views and policies are detrimental to the world’s peoples. As a longtime Christian, he is also credible in his criticism of fundamentalist religion. My favorite Moyers quote is “what’s right and good doesn’t come naturally. You have to stand up and fight for it—as if the cause depends on you. Because it does.”
Pema Chodron is a Buddhist nun whose writings fuse humanistic principles with her Buddhist nontheistic faith. She has written: “Not causing harm obviously includes not killing or robbing or lying to people. It also includes not being aggressive—not being aggressive with our actions, our speech, or our minds. Learning not to cause harm to ourselves or others is a basic Buddhist teaching on the healing power of nonaggression. Not harming ourselves or others in the beginning, not harming ourselves or others in the middle, and not harming ourselves or others in the end is the basis of enlightened society.”
No matter what the nationality or religious tradition of our contemporary and ancient prophets, they all call us to change the world.
One of our Unitarian forbears, the Rev. John H. Dietrich, has written “The universe may be indifferent to our ideals and our virtues, but this is all the more reason why we must keep them alive. They are values created by humanity in its long struggle for a satisfactory life, and we must preserve and increase them.”
How are we responding to the call of women and men like Stewart, Moyers, Chodron, Dietrich, Micah, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, and all those who have fought so hard for justice of the centuries? As a religious community, we have strength together, greater strength than we have individually.
If UUism is a religion of Deeds not Creeds, we need to ask ourselves what we might do as a congregation. Most of us are involved in community action work to some extent, but PUUF isn’t just about church services with our friends, social hours and happy hours and koffee klatches. It’s about taking action to change the world for the better.
Recently in Moscow, ID, a shooting took place which killed members of the UU church of the Palouse, a tragedy which has shaken that congregation to the core. You may have heard about the event in the news and thought, gosh another shooting. What wasn’t immediately known was that the victim was an active member of that UU congregation and that the shooter was her son. What a tragedy! What can we do to help, was the immediate response of UUs all over the country.
And one of my colleagues, the Rev. Lisa Presley, who serves on the UUA’s trauma team (for this isn’t the first time nor will it be the last that we suffer this personal assault), Lisa sent this note to us all:
“My suggestion, when folks ask me, is that you do something in your own community to address the problem and then, in a month or two, write to the congregation which has suffered and let them know how you worked in your own community to try to make things better, and did it in honor of them. Heck, you could even get t-shirts made that say “I’m doing this for XX and wear those shirts while you’re doing the good work of making your local community better.”
Well, I have plenty of t-shirts and don’t need another, but I really like the idea of doing good work in our larger community in honor and memory of those who have experienced great injustice and cruelty.
Maybe it’s about aligning with a local agency to support their work and increasing the numbers of people involved in that effort. It might not have anything to do with gun violence but rather is intended to address the root causes of violence---poverty, undiagnosed, uncontrolled mental illness, addiction, and lack of education.
In the next weeks, starting with today’s service and the questionnaire you filled out earlier we are going to be investigating the many ways individuals at PUUF are involved in Social Action and how, as a congregation, we might get involved.
Because we have this long skinny parish, from the northern Long Beach peninsula south to Tillamook county, we will be examining how to encourage our most farflung members to get involved in their own local communities, as well as a project that we mutually agreed upon to service Clatsop County’s needs.
It’s exciting to me to see the growth in this area, as it has been awhile since PUUF actively engaged as a congregation in social action work. The Unitarian Universalist Association has had, for the past several years, a multi-faceted social action effort that is entitled “Standing on the side of love”, which started out as an advocacy campaign for Marriage Equality and has become a way of addressing a host of social justice inequalities.
As we make decisions about how we want to address the needs of our community, I hope that we can look at our work in this community as a way to get better acquainted with our neighbors and also with each other. Working together toward a common goal can help us transcend the occasional conflicts that arise in an organization, can enhance our sense of community, and make a difference in our world.
Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.
BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering that as inheritors of a long tradition which advocates deeds, not creeds, we are charged with bringing light, love, and life to a hurting world. May we faithfully carry out the work which has been entrusted to us. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.