The Prophet Motive


Isaiah 58: 6-12

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. 



From Amos, chapter 5, verses 21-24: 

     I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn
     assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain
     offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your
     fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your
     songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down
     like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

Amos was one of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, as was Isaiah, to whom the words of our (first) reading this morning are attributed.  When we think of the word prophet, we might think of someone who predicts the future. The ancient prophets were no fortune tellers though.  They told, not what the future held but what was apparent to them in the present. When those around them simply accepted the status quo, the prophets were those who saw more keenly and honestly into their reality.  They saw the injustice around them. Amos and Isaiah called their own people hypocrites.  They railed against the empty fasts, festivals, and assemblies that assuaged guilty consciences but left inequities intact and ignored.  They harangued the people for making offerings to God without being truly religious people.  All of the sacrifices and other gestures meant nothing, they said, without acting for justice.  It meant nothing without righteousness.  

     “… share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into
     your house”  

     “Offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,”  “Let
     justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing

Beautiful words… powerful words…  Words that still offer strength in today’s struggles for justice.  

But, you should know that there was no glory in being a prophet.  No person or society or ruler wants to be told that they are unjust. No one wants to be called on their hypocrisy.  And so the Hebrew prophets were about as welcome in their society as a porcupine at a nudist retreat. 

Forty years ago, a modern-day prophet – Martin Luther King Jr. – was assassinated.   We remember King today as a man of peace, a man who worked tirelessly to bring justice to the disadvantaged and the downtrodden.  In his time, he was hated by many.  Martin Luther King saw the injustice that others were quick to ignore – and he decried the way society “adjusted” to inequality so that it began to seem normal.

“But” he said, “there are some things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon you to be maladjusted. I never intend to adjust myself to segregation and discrimination… I never intend to adjust myself to the tragic effects of the methods of physical violence and to tragic militarism. I call upon you to be maladjusted to such things.”  

Martin Luther King had the painfully clear vision of a prophet.

Religion can be spoken of with reference to two different traditions – the priestly and the prophetic.  These are two different ways of being religious, and they are nearly always found together, although individual religions and religious communities may lean one way or the other.

The priestly tradition concerns itself with preserving and strengthening traditions and institutions. It is about the important work of caring for our community.  When we share our joys and sorrows together, when we sing together, when we work out how we are going to fix our buildings, and when we pray or meditate together, the priestly tradition is in place.

But when we speak out against injustice and inequality and when we do what we can to change the word for the better, then we are engaging with the prophetic tradition.

In a healthy spiritual community or indeed for a healthy spiritual individual life, the priestly and prophetic impulses need to be balanced.  Alone, the priestly nature can lead us to be introverted and self-absorbed.  It makes us comfortable.  But the prophetic without the priestly would make us strident. It would disengage us from our spiritual grounding and weaken the community from which we draw strength.

In this congregation, we have long leaned towards the priestly side of religious tradition – we had to, as we have been renewing ourselves after years of fragility and exhaustion.  Recently, however, we have taken a decisive step in the prophetic direction. If you haven’t seen Friday’s issue of the Islington Tribune, the cover story (along with a very bad picture of me) is about our Newington Green Committee’s decision in support of equal rights for same-sex couples.

Briefly, the background is this.  In 2004, the Civil Partnership Act was passed. It provided same-sex couples with the same legal rights as heterosexual couples have.  But, this law – which was a great step forward – also includes a great injustice: It imposed a ban on religion in Civil Partnership ceremonies.  Unlike weddings, Civil Partnerships are not permitted to take place in places of worship. And, when a Civil Partnership is registered at Town Hall, the law specifies that it is forbidden – it is against the law – to include a single religious or spiritual word whatsoever.  

To me and many others, this ban on the religion in civil partnership contains within it a strong message of condemnation.  It says that same-sex couples are to be accepted, but that they are somehow inferior and too unholy to be allowed to speak their love before God.  This is unequal treatment and it is unjust. For religious same-sex couples, it is deeply wounding. It denies them the chance to celebrate their union where it means most to them – in the heart of their spiritual community.

Less than two weeks ago, at the National meeting of the Unitarian General Assembly, the Oxford Unitarian congregation put forward a motion calling on the government to lift this unfair prohibition.  I had the honour of being invited to second Oxford’s motion.  Happily, the motion was overwhelmingly approved.  The only opposition among the several hundred delegates was that many wanted to vote on an even stronger, more sweeping motion!

The Newington Green Committee considered Oxford’s draft motion at its February meeting. The members of that Committee thought about the injustice of the current law. They thought about what this congregation stands for. They thought about your strong commitment to diversity and to inclusiveness.  They thought about your enthusiasm for the notion that we want to be “a beacon of inclusiveness in our community.” They thought about these things and they decided to go a step further than the Oxford motion had.  

Under current law, the state authorises religious institutions and religious leaders to form legal marriages. But, they – we – are forbidden to form legal Civil Partnerships. If we take part in legal marriages, we become agents of the state and are compelled to follow its discriminatory policies.  

The Newington Green Committee chose to stop participating in this unjust system.  The Newington Green Unitarian Church will continue to host ceremonies of blessing for weddings and Civil Partnerships, but will not participate in legal weddings until we are permitted to treat all couples equally.  

The Newington Green Committee has stepped into the prophetic role and I am proud to stand there along with them.

[Music: ‘On Green Lanes’ - original composition by a member of the congregation]

The biblical prophets did not volunteer willingly. At the beginning of nearly every prophesy story, God shows up to commission a new prophet and the poor man or woman says something like “who me?  I think you’ve got the wrong guy.  There must be some mistake here!”

It’s only after some serious divine convincing that our poor “volunteer” finally, reluctantly, steps into the role.

And now that we have stepped into our own little corner of the prophetic tradition, there may well be times we want to say “who me?  There must be some mistake here!” 

The step that Newington Green has taken is a bold one.  We are, as far as I know, the first congregation in the country to take such a stance. There will be many who do not want to hear our criticism of injustice – even within our own movement.  It is far more comfortable to be adjusted to the inequity around us.  People will be angry. I would be lying if I said I felt no discomfort about this decision. After all, it is my picture on the front page.

But, we, with our commitment to inclusiveness, to openness, to equality, to a unifying love… we are maladjusted to injustice.  We can’t simply ignore it and it is somehow not enough for us to pray and meditate for justice – to speak seriously but privately – to engage in the festivals, songs and fasting that the prophets spoke of.

Perhaps we did not literally hear the word of God commissioning us to prophesy, but we heard something. It was something like that steady, persistent bass line in 'Green Lanes.' There is a steady melody under our reality that speaks of love and inclusion.  It reminds of the deep unity that cradles all beings in its endlessly varied fabric.  As we look to the world around us, as we improvise our actions in this life, that steady foundation is there calling us to seek justice and equity.

Some will say that our action is futile – that it is too small to make a difference. No, we will not change the law tomorrow. But it will change someday – and that day may be just a bit sooner for what we have done. 

A 19th century Unitarian – Theodore Parker – said this: “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Justice does not come about in great leaps led by great people.  Behind the big changes are thousands – millions of small acts – done one at a time.  The moral arc of the universe bends ever so gradually toward justice, and it is the human hand – our hands – that create that justice-seeking sweep.

Whatever may come of our action, if one gay or lesbian person read Friday’s paper and smiled or shed a tear to learn that there is a religious community that is fighting for their rights, a religious community that welcomes them as equals, a religious community prepared to offer them love and support, then – as the starfish thrower said, it made a difference to that one.  And that’s enough for me.

May it be so.