“Prophets” Colchester Federated Church, October 8, 2017 (Matthew 21:33-46), Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

A popular place to visit in the greater Boston area is Walden Pond.  One can swim, hike the trails, or just sit and read on the beach, contemplating Thoreau’s pivotal work Walden.  Henry David Thoreau lived in his tiny cabin at Walden Pond for two years.  Though a great story often shared about him didn’t occur on the serene shores of the pond, it took place when he ventured into downtown Concord and got arrested.  On July 23, 1846 Thoreau went on an errand and encountered Sam Staples (Concord’s constable, tax collector, and jailer.)  Staples asked Thoreau to pay his taxes, even offering to cover them for him if he didn’t have the money.  But Thoreau was an abolitionist and opposed the Mexican-American War, refusing to pay his poll tax because of his moral convictions.  The tax was imposed on all males from 20-70 years of age and Thoreau hadn’t paid in six years.  He politely maintained his stance on the matter and Sam Staples politely escorted him to jail in Concord.

The legend is that Ralph Waldo Emerson (who had similar moral convictions) visited Thoreau in jail and asked, “Henry, why are you in here?”  Not missing a beat, Thoreau replied, “Why are you not here?”  Rather anti-climactically, someone ended up paying Thoreau’s tax for him.  Some say it was a relative though others say that he never knew who paid the tax.  At any rate, he was released from jail the next day feeling resentful that someone interfered with his ongoing moral protest.  And out of this night in jail for refusing to pay his taxes, Thoreau wrote a powerful lecture which was published as “Resistance to Civil Government” (more commonly known as “Civil Disobedience.”)  Thoreau’s words would one day inspire and influence Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. among many others.[1]

As he further clarified his position, Henry David Thoreau maintained that to right a moral wrong, one has to employ a type of disobedience that will disrupt the workings of society and dramatize the issues at hand without resorting to violence.  When people stage these acts of civil disobedience the hope is that the consciousness of society will be awakened to see, understand, and act to right these wrongs.[2]  It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said that violence is a downward spiral, that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”[3]

Now we may think that acts of civil disobedience advocated by Thoreau and then by Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. among others are impractical.  Or we might find them admirable.  Either way, these ideas about how to address moral wrongs without resorting to violence are still important as we continue to live in a violent society.  We live in a society with wars, mass shootings, abuse, bullying, and other hateful acts we hear about daily if we can bear to hear the news at all.  One could contend that these admirable people served as prophets whose ideas and actions influence our society here and now.

It’s impossible to read this morning’s Parable of the Wicked Tenants in the Gospel of Matthew and not think about prophets.  We hear Jesus tell his audience, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing and it was amazing in our eyes’?”[4]  He’s quoting from Psalm 118 and emphasizing that though he’s being rejected for his words and deeds by some people, he will be the cornerstone on which God builds God’s kingdom.  In telling this parable to the crowds (including the chief priests and the Pharisees who were present and not open to his teachings very often), Jesus is living into the prophetic tradition of his Jewish ancestors.

Here’s another example—think of the time that Jesus got angry in the Temple and drove out all who were selling and buying and overturned the tables of the money changers right around Passover.  There are traditions of righteous anger that Jesus was drawing upon when he made his public display of indignation in the Temple.  We do a real disservice to Jesus’ actions in the Temple that day if we don’t put him in line with the prophetic tradition.  He wasn’t just having a hissy fit.  After all, Jesus probably traveled to Jerusalem with his disciples every year for Passover.  This event (if we are to believe the timeline of the Synoptic Gospels) happened at the end of his third year of ministry.  Jesus had witnessed how the Temple operated before that fateful day.  We can assume that this display of righteous anger was purposeful and deliberate because Jesus knew exactly what he was doing.  The time had now come to take a stand and be that prophetic witness to the injustice carried out against his own people.  For the Temple sacrificial system was used to exploit the poor and vulnerable.  Jesus took a stand as the prophet he was.

If we keep in mind that Jesus was rooted in the Jewish prophetic tradition, we can even see similarities with other prophetic figures.  Moses got so mad at the Golden Calf incident that he smashed the tablets from God on the ground and had to go back up the mountain to receive them again.  John the Baptist used to call people “broods of vipers”—vipers are venomous snakes that eat each other sometimes.  Not exactly a nice sentiment to express.[5]  And the prophet Jeremiah was sent by God to announce that God was no longer proud of the people, so Jeremiah dramatically bought a new pair of undergarments, wore them every day without washing them, and buried them in the wet sand by a river.  He then dug them up, put them back on, and “shouted that this is what has happened to the people who were God’s pride.”[6]  That story is so gross, but it shows the actions these prophets would take to call out the people when they weren’t treating one another with compassion and honoring our God who loves us and wants us to be reconciled with God and each other.  Prophets would get mad when they saw injustice, and they weren’t afraid to do something to bring the message home.

Professor Greg Mobley who taught us the Hebrew Bible at Andover Newton was big on the prophets.  We even had an important assignment of making a Prophets Chart to literally chart out periods of prophecy and when certain Hebrew Bible books were written and what the writer was responding to when authoring their book.  Greg taught us that prophets embodied several ways of being.  Prophets could be messengers and that’s why they would often say “thus says the Lord” in their messages to the people.  Some were seers or visionaries and so you may hear the phrase repeatedly “I saw” when reading their works.  Prophets sometimes acted like sentries who stood on a city wall looking out over the horizon and saw an enemy approaching or they acted like military runners who ran from one leader to another to warn them.  Sometimes the prophets acted like intercessors and asked for God to have mercy on the community.  Other times they occupied a legal function and represented God against the community.  Prophets could be singers singing songs of lament—funeral songs for those still alive who were seeing their own demise before them.  Finally, prophets could be like masons who wanted to repair city walls, urged repentance, and got walls in shape to defend against divine wrath.[7]  Bottom line, prophets were not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon since 5 books are considered the Major Prophets and 12 books are considered the Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Bible.  There’s a rich and varied tradition that Jesus was drawing upon when talking to the people about being the cornerstone the builders were rejecting.

At the end of the day, we’re living in tough times just like Jesus and his people were living in tough times.  The images of the mass shooting in Las Vegas have been all over the news, and we are perhaps beginning to have meaningful conversations about what can be done to prevent these mass shootings from happening over and over again.  Because it’s a sad day when people gather for a country music concert and are killed or wounded by a man with 23 guns designed to inflict maximum casualties.  We can’t become numb to these tragedies or normalize them as just the way it is in our country no matter how many we may experience.  One mass shooting is too many.  In the not too distant future we may see acts of civil disobedience.  We will hear people call into question the gun violence in our society.  We may have politicians taking stands.  We may feel the need to do something ourselves, and that’s not going to look the same.

So we can start asking who are the prophets among our people who are calling for compassion and nonviolence?  That’s an important question.  Who isn’t afraid to speak truth to power?  We can keep the teachings of Jesus at the forefront of our minds, his teachings of compassion and nonviolence, his teachings to even love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  These aren’t easy teachings.  And we can look to the helpers, to people who are embodying the teachings of Jesus Christ for courage to understand how living into Christ’s Way can lead to concrete actions.  Actions used to live out the realm of God in our world now and not become numb or cynical in the face of tragic violence.

Because prophets challenge us.  Prophets aren’t always popular.  Prophets even get persecuted because they’re not afraid to speak the hard truths that human beings need to hear but aren’t always ready or willing to hear.  Prophets do use types of civil disobedience that disrupt the workings of society and dramatize issues without resorting to violence.  Prophets call us to do justice.  Jesus was and is many things, and he was a Jewish prophet—the stone that the builders rejected that became the cornerstone.  The tradition of prophecy continues.  This was God’s doing and is amazing in our eyes.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Mass Moments, http://www.massmoments.org/moment.cfm?mid=214 and “Henry David Thoreau on Civil Disobedience,” http://www.upa.pdx.edu/IMS/currentprojects/TAHv3/Content/PDFs/Thoreau_Civil_Disobedience.pdf
[2] “Henry David Thoreau on Civil Disobedience,” http://www.upa.pdx.edu/IMS/currentprojects/TAHv3/Content/PDFs/Thoreau_Civil_Disobedience.pdf
[3] Martin Luther King Jr., as quoted by Robin Meyers in The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus, 90.
[4] Matthew 21:42.
[5] Exodus 32:19 and Luke 3:7, NRSV.
[6] Quinn Caldwell and Curtis Preston, The Unofficial Handbook of the United Church of Christ, 147.
[7] Dr. Gregory Mobley, Hebrew Bible II, Andover Newton Theological School, Spring 2009.