Start Where You Are

Sermon by Sue Browning
Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Easton



Sojourner Truth was born a slave in 1797 in New York south of Albany. Our reading picks up a description of her life’s journey in 1844, when she would have been in her late 40s. From the book, “Sojourner Truth: Slave, Prophet, Legend” by Carleton Mabee:

As Truth grew up, she experienced the degradation of slave women. After she was freed, she knew the demoralization of poor women who worked for other families at the neglect of their own. After she had already begun to develop her talents as a preacher she fell under the spell of an authoritarian cult leader who would not allow women to preach.

She eventually emerged from slavery, poverty, scandal, and a sense of failure, as a survivor, strengthened by faith, determined to improve herself and the world. By the time she joined the Northhampton Association, her deep voice and strong frame, her having worked in the fields and wandered alone as an evangelist, had already set her in opposition to the Victorian ideal of a delicate, submissive woman whose place was in the home. In the association she found that her own unique experiences resonated with what she heard there of progressive reform, including the movement for women’s rights. Within the next few years, continuing to believe it was God who had called her to speak and told her what do say, she became a formidable advocate for women.

She remembered later that the early opposition to women’s rights scared some women. The “simple announcement” that a women’s rights meeting was being held, she recalled, “was notice for all the minsters, lawyers and doctors to commence to whine and bark and growl” so that the women who came to the meeting “were so frightened that they wanted to go home.” But she felt, as she looked back on it, that she faced the opposition forthrightly. She “never got frightened at any face of clay and gave it back to dem better dan dey sent.”(172-3)


Start Where You Are

Last week we had a unique Sunday service. We had coffee, a sermon on video, breakfast and conversation. Today is our first traditional service, and as it’s working out, we’ve tweaked our plans to meet with the reality of Nature’s gift of beautiful snow. So welcome to our first ‘almost regular’ service of 2017.

The less-than-fully-predicted snow is a good lead in to the sermon. We didn’t have a choice this morning about all this snow. Wherever you woke up, the snow and ice and temperature were givens. Your choice – head to UUFE or not?

We are where we are, in time, and place. A core question for each of us is ‘what’s next?’

And what are the roles of prophets in guiding us in these ‘what’s next’ times? Who are the prophets who guide?

Would Sojourner Truth qualify as one of these prophets? My take is she does.

Shortly we’ll talk of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible who named the dire realities of their day, and who held on robustly to their role as Gods messenger long enough to be heard, ok and then were often exiled. Prophets speak truth, often to power, and do so from a deep moral center. They guide communities to action.

Virtually every list of modern day prophets includes Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King. Stories about each name their gifts of truth telling. They, like Sojourner Truth, were at the ‘most effective’ end of the spectrum when it comes to insight on the human condition, particularly the struggling parts, and their clarity of message about these realities.

These prophets saw the deepest challenges, especially for groups that they were a part of. They saw the moral choices which could be the next step. They could communicate about those steps in inspirational ways. Most significantly each had a dogged determination to share their vision and were ready to take risks to live into the vision.

Prophets meeting these standards are rare. They are benders of the big arc toward justice.

I want to know where today’s prophets are.

Likely had I lived in the 1800s, I likely wouldn’t have looked at Sojourner Truth and imagined this slave woman would be a prophet. I likely wouldn’t have seen Martin Luther King, a young Baptist minister in Atlanta as an arising prophet.

I yearn for a clear prophet or two today, as both prod and inspirer. How might we spot such a prophet?

Though context has of course changed, some clues for effective prophet-hood are in the Hebrew Bible. Most recognized prophets are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and there are others.

A few clues. Prophets don’t get to self-proclaim, at least not the real ones. A prophet, with the vocation of prophecy, is not a job one applies for. Prophet status is a perspective others have of your actions as you live and change into your role day-in and day-out.

Looking for a prophet? They are likely not in the inner circles of politics or organized religion, or other institutions of power. In ancient times they were outside these boundaries. From the outside they could offer challenge to kings and priests. Sojourner Truth talks of the panic by lawyers, doctors and ministers – the establishment if you will.

These prophets of yore weren’t perfect holy people. They at times screwed up, and changed course, and even overreacted. They ‘were carriers’ of the voice of God, but they were real, fallible folks.

In his book on prophets “Hearing the Voice of God: In Search of Prophecy” author Mordecai Schreiber says of prophets, “They confronted kings and they put their life on the line, but they were not physical warriors. What animated them was not physical courage but an overwhelming sense of right and wrong. Hypersensitive souls that they were, they were not able to keep silent in the face of injustice.” (101) Rather than being disciplined, calm, wise old souls possibly they were more ranting souls trying forcefully to be heard.

UU minister Rev. John Buehrens in his book “Understanding the Bible: An Introduction for Skeptics, Seekers and Religious Liberals” describes the focus of a prophet this way: “Prophets interpret the present. Read signs of the times and show consequences from God’s perspective.”

Put another way, Episcopalian minster Bishop John Shelby Spong (UU’s favorite Episcopalian) finds, “Prophets are those who are in touch with values, truth and God. They see the issues of our life more deeply than other people see them. Thus…they can perceive the future trends and speak to them before others see them developing”

These different theologians tell us prophets are ‘first observers.’ They don’t know the future, but can make some guesses. They are aware that whatever got folks into the circumstances of the day, whether under their control or not. A major role of a prophet is to shed light on pain, not to eliminate it or deny it, but to understand it.

But what makes a prophet a unique voice among many? Where and how was God speaking to them? Off in a corner? Maybe. But Schreiber’s sense of a common thread among prophets and their connection to God he describes this way:  

“Hearing the divine voice is not a function of human intelligence. Instead, it is the deep-seated feeling we referred to …as moral compulsion, which reaches beyond reasoning and all categories of human knowledge. It comes from a place beyond our conscious mind, the same place from where we derive our faith, our dreams, our hopes, the place where we know there is something greater than our own self, something many of us call God and others may call by other names. It is from that place that the prophet hears a voice, either a “still small voice” or one accompanied by thunder and lightning. (106)

Prophets listen deeply. Feel deeply. Their own experiences matter. Sojourner Truth passed through many phases – gaining in voice and commitment, and most importantly a sense of courage grounded in a sense of being or the right side of the issues. Prophets see the errors of our ways. They see patterns and consequences and give warnings – God inspired warnings. .

It’s not easy to find prophets, yet it’s worth being on alert.

Others compete for these roles. There were false prophets of old, and misguided ones are still in our midst. Of old, diviners and fortunetellers. Today, pundits and talk show hosts – those making predictions and warning without the sincere moral compulsion or integrity.

One current-day voice I’m keeping an eye on is Rev. William Barber. He’s on the national NAACP Board and leads the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina. He has said over and over on the issues of justice:

“We do not believe that these are left or right issues. They are right or wrong issues. And while we know no human being is perfect, we wish to speak with you about these moral issues…”

He spoke at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly this past summer, and will be in DC this coming Monday. He’s walking in prophetic shoes, and he finds there is overlap with the political messages. While there is value to being outside the boundary, and to get results there too can be value being inside. These struggles were true for the ancient prophets, and Sojourner Truth, and Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela.

A prophet who understands problems deeply, and from a moral perspective, not a political one, has a chance of getting the attention of those in power. And it’s not about volume or frequency. It is about a message that connects.

There is no perfect prophetic high ground. It is a messy vocation this work of prophecy.

Prophets don’t do this work just to hear themselves talk. They do so believing that our next choices matters. Prophets are not believers that are lives are already fated. They are messengers who see history as open-ended, and humanity anything but hopeless. Flawed to be sure. History gives us challenged starting points, but we can only start where we are. They believe with every ounce of their being, that next actions taken from a morally grounded perspective matter.

Learn from the past. Then act.

Prophets, in all shapes and sizes, have helped societies turn big corners. Of old, they moved people from a tribal to a universal view; from individual survival ( at its worst survival of the fittest) to a longer term, more collective view of common good. Prophets helped move to beliefs of equality, and in time with laws that match.

Behind moral principles we will have differences, but these are places worthy of delving deeper.

What do you see as just and fair?

That question can help us explore our truth and the truth of another. We don’t all see justice the same way. Yet, we may share in a sense that justice needs to be a litmus test for prophets. We may vary in our sense of what is compassion looks like in the ideal world. True prophets would concur a compassionate society is a goal. What does compassion look like? And from there we might find prophets.

In short, prophets listen hard to the truths around us and from there offer insight and direction. I wonder, might a prophet be here today?

May It Be So

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