Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Sermon: Wormwood & Poison

Preached in class today. I preached it scriptless, but this is my first draft, which then I edited a bit thanks to my classmates' feedback. We're supposed to "take risks" in this class. Scriptless is definitely risky for me!

I teach Godly Play to children at church. In this curriculum we use small props to tell a sacred story. I am telling the story of the prophet Jeremiah next week, and when I got the story box out to prepare, I found a plate and a cup of wormwood and poison. I had some questions about that, so I decided to look into the context and to preach from that scripture for you today.
I found the wormwood and the poison in Jeremiah 23, in a tirade against the false prophets of Jerusalem. It seems there was competition between groups of prophets, and God may have had some punishments in mind. Listen now to verses 15-22:

We have been learning about prophets a lot in Godly Play. The children have heard it so many times that they can rattle the line off unprompted: “A prophet is someone who comes so close to God, and God comes so close to them, that they know what God wants them to say and do.”

Two weeks ago we had a real live prophet in worship. The Rev. Dr. Janie Spahr was there, who is an outspoken advocate and witness for the rights and full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the church.

Pastor Beth told the congregation we might have a prophet in worship. She invited the children up and asked if any of them would like to ask and find out if there was a prophet. Nory raised her hand and came up to the front, where Beth said – this is Janie – why don’t you introduce yourself – and ask her a question. Nory stared for a moment, the congregation got restless, Beth asked if she needed help. Nory said no, I want to think of my own question. She looked Janie in the eye and asked her, “what does God want us to do?” The congregation was dead silent as child and prophet looked at one another, and as Janie said, “to love justice, and love God, and love each other.”

Most of us did not have an experience like that at the age of nine. But imagine being that child. Imagine searching for a question in your soul, wanting to know what God wanted us to do, having the courage to ask, receiving that answer, nodding, saying thank you, sitting down. Remembering that – God wants us to love justice.
Janie is a wonderful prophet. She is a prophet of love, and inclusion – a prophet of “stop hurting other people” and a prophet of “be nicer to each other.” Although the moment may have been hugely serious and holy, Janie is not a scary prophet.

Another prophet comes to mind – one I haven’t met face to face, but I’ve only encountered through the internet. Her name is Annie Leonard and her prophetic platform is a video series called “the story of stuff.” It’s appropriate for children as well as adults, and is often shown in schools. She shows in vivid terms how the cycles of production, consumption, and disposal are ruining our planet, our health, our lives. She paints a picture – just a cartoon, but a good one – of the clouds of pollution encircling our planet, of fish going cross-eyed up in the rivers, of corporate barons sitting on piles of cash, and piles of garbage forming a floating island in the Pacific. She puts arrows between them all and makes it so direct – the things we buy and use and throw away are killing us.
And imagine being a child who encounters THAT prophet. That prophet is a little scary. Imagine going home after you watched this movie at school, and looking at your shelves and toy boxes and thinking. Look at all of my STUFF. Look at all those battery-powered toys. Annie said, “toxics in, toxics out.” Are batteries toxic? Who made them? Did their fish float belly-up in the river next to the factory? Where does it go when it breaks and I put it in the trash? Do I really need a whole set of legos? That prophet is a little scarier.

Imagine being a child who has met both of these two prophets – and maybe even one or two others, some nice, some scary... Imagine the question burning in the in-between – What does God want us to do? Is it okay to have a general idea or do I need clear instructions? Maybe I need to find another prophet who can give me specifics. And what then do you do when one prophet’s message is really different from another’s? Sometimes they don’t agree.

In Jeremiah’s time, the conflict between prophet of happiness and prophet of doom was so tense and so important that the issues rose to a pitch where they used fighting words like “God will feed you poison and wormwood” in their arguments against one another. This is not a light little issue. Prophets are people to be reckoned with. They affect many people’s lives. How do you know what God wants us to do?

Jeremiah says that in order to know what God wants us to do you have to stand in God’s council. You know, that throne room up in heaven where Yahweh-God calls all the other little gods to come and advise on heavy matters, or depending on your view, if we’re done with polytheism at this point, maybe they are just angels. Anyway, the idea is that Jeremiah, the true prophet, WAS there in the council, and that the false prophets weren’t. Jeremiah had a TRUE message – which was watch out, Jerusalem is going to be destroyed – while the other prophets were using a message that maybe wasn’t completely WRONG, it was just out of date – a message of peace and prosperity. That message works 95% of the time, but those prophets didn’t get the status update that let Jeremiah know the time was over, and that the people should be bracing for impact.
Being a prophet is different from being a faithful scholar, or a true mathematician, or a good preacher. It is not enough to find something that is true, and say it. Prophets must be so close to God as to be in the divine council – to get the updates – to be open, day by day, to news and revelation.

I wonder who is in the divine council. I don’t think they are angels and demi-gods in a divine throne room in the clouds. But if there is a divine council, who is there? Who are the true prophets listening to, these days?
I think if we could see into the divine council we’d see… the wind and the rain. They must be saying something… between the ridiculously warm weather here, and the equally mindboggling cold and storms on the east coast… the earth, and the weather, must be trying to deliver some message they’ve heard in the divine council. Trying to get us to pay attention to the painful cries of the earth we pollute, perhaps?
If we could see into the divine council, maybe we’d see… polar bears? I don’t know, it just seems to me that a species getting shuttled around from iceberg to ever-smaller iceberg, trying to find enough space to live, ought to deserve to send at least one or two representatives.
And along with the polar bears maybe some other special interest groups. Incarcerated African-Americans, people excluded from the church because of their sexuality, the disabled and the elderly, the people who keep getting swept off to the margins and ignored.
I’m just imagining, of course. I’m not up there myself. And I wonder what you think. I’m imagining a pretty large and open council, but it could be smaller. How we imagine these things affects who we think might be a prophet.

A prophet is someone who comes close to God, so close that they can stand in God’s council and hear the testimonies of God’s people and creatures and creation, hear these testimonies and KNOW what God wants us to do. Prophets can be boys, and prophets can be girls. They could even be grown-ups. May we find even today, that prophets are among us. Amen.

1 comment:

  1. I think prophets dance barefoot on the beach. And we should follow their lead. ;)