Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Prophetic Love — Sermon by the Rev. David Pyle

Last preached on February 26th, 2012


I have come before you this morning to confess a love.

It is only appropriate that this is so,

as our theme for this month has been love…

It is not a common love that I confess this morning,

or at least not a common love

that I have found shared among UU ministers.

In light of the earlier sermons of this month,

I will let you know that it is Phillia that I come to confess…

a love of an ideal…

not the romantic love of Eros

or the Communal love of Agape.

And it is a love that has been kind of tough for me at times,

as I think that this is actually the 4th sermon

I’ve written that centers on this object of my love…


So, as past experience shows it is likely to come up again,

I might as well confess it now…

I love the Hebrew prophet Isaiah.


There are probably only a few Science Fiction novels

I’ve read more times than I’ve read

the Book of Isaiah from the Hebrew Scriptures.

I’ve studied commentaries on the book

from both Jewish and Christian scholars,

and I’ve agreed with some and found others wanting.


My favorite verse from the entire Bible

comes from Isaiah… Isaiah 40, vs. 31.

“For they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength…

they shall mount up with wings as eagles,

they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint”.

Let us just say it was an important verse to me

in my early days in the U.S. Army.


What is most important to me though

is not any particular verse of the book of Isaiah,

or even any particular theme of what Isaiah said or predicted.

No, what has captivated me for these many years

is that the book of Isaiah gives us a guide

to what it means to be a Prophet…

and what it means for a Prophet to love a people.

Now, this is seen in many of the different Hebrew prophets,

but in none so clearly as it is in Isaiah.


Our reading this morning was from

a Unitarian Theologian of the mid 20th century.

His name was James Luther Adams,

and his writings remain one of the works

we require all UU Ministers to have read

before they can receive fellowship

as Unitarian Universalist ministers.


James Luther Adams had a vision

for what Unitarian Universalism would become,

in a world that was changing after WWII…

and it is a vision that has in many ways come true.

Now, in part that is because he spent years

teaching generations of UU Ministers,

first as a professor at the

Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, …

and then he later taught more UU Ministers as Harvard Divinity.


In one essay, Adams proffered a vision

of what would make our radical faith unique

among other liberal protestant denominations of his time.

He called upon us to go beyond the Priesthood of all believers,

or the idea that you did not need a priest

to intercede with you in order to connect

with the sacred and the holy…

the idea that began the protestant reformation.


No, James Luther Adams saw in our radical faith

a Prophethood of all Believers…

or that each of us can be inspired

to a vision of the world as it could be, as it should be…

and then be able to share that vision

with passion and commitment in such a way

as to bring about hope and transformation.

Our reading this morning was from that essay.


Adams called upon us to be

“the church in which persons think and work together

to interpret the signs of the times in the light of their faith,

to make explicit through discussion

the epochal thinking that the times demand.

The prophetic liberal church is the church

in which all members share the common responsibility

to attempt to foresee the consequences of human behavior

(both individual and institutional),

with the intention of making history

in place of merely being pushed around by it.”


What a powerful vision of Unitarian Universalism that is!

What a vision of a radically different kind of religious movement

than this world has ever seen before.

And, what a different interpretation

on what it means to be a Prophet

that I encountered growing up in conservative Christianity.


When we look back at the history of our liberal faith tradition,

what strikes me is that the times we remember most

in our shared Unitarian Universalist history

are those times when we were indeed

a prophethood of all believers.


I think back to the way that both Unitarians and Universalists

stood up to the culture of their day

to say prophetically that slavery was wrong.

I think back to the Universalists and then the Unitarians

being the first two denominations in America

to ordain women to our ministry.


I think back to Unitarians and Universalists

who called publically for the mistreatment

of Native Americans to end.

I think back to Universalists arguing for the rights of immigrants

and for Unitarians who have fought

for the religious liberty of other religious traditions.

I think back to Unitarians and Universalists

who have opposed every single war this country has fought

since the Revolutionary War,

with the exception of many whose support of Abolition

called them to support the Civil War.

I think back to the Unitarian Universalists,

ministers and lay members alike,

who marched in Selma and throughout the south

for Civil Rights… and the few who died for that prophetic witness.


I think of those Unitarian Universalists

that have been a prophetic voice for economic justice,

for the rights of LGBTQ persons,

for women’s’ rights and suffrage,

for the care of our planet,

and for so, so much more.

I think back to this congregation’s prophetic commitment

to ending homelessness in our community

through action and advocacy.


And yet, I believe our tradition does not really understand

what it means to be a Prophet.


The vision that James Luther Adams had for our faith

was not of us being a “prophetic religious tradition”,

nor of our ministers being able to speak

with a prophetic voice on issues of social justice…

but of each and every Unitarian Universalist

understanding themselves as a prophet in their own right…

as someone who sees a vision of a world made whole,

notices the difference between that world

and the one we now live in,

and speaks and acts through love

to transform one into the other.


That is a tall order.

That is an expectation of Unitarian Universalism

that I don’t think I could live up to all the time…

and I’m the one standing up here in the stole.

Besides how many other expectations

we have in our lives,

Prophets are notoriously hard to live with…

and I think my wife Sandy puts up with enough from me already…


So, what do we do with this tension?

We have the expectation as a part of our liberal faith

that we will speak prophetically about our vision of the world,

and yet that seems a daunting and impossible task to many of us.

This is where I turn back to my love of the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah.


What I believe that Isaiah has to teach us

is not the core of the vision he experienced.

That vision was for a different time,

for a different people than the society and culture

that we live in and serve today.

At the core of the prophetic critique of Isaiah

was the reality that the Hebrew Leadership of his day,

and in particular the priests of the Temple,

were not following the law

as God had commanded them to in their sacred scriptures…

but the issues of his prophetic vision are,

I believe, of secondary relevance to us today.

What is important is what he did with that vision.


First, he went to speak truth to power.


Isaiah told those who were not obeying the law of the scriptures

that if they did not change their ways,

it was going to go very badly for them.

They might even be conquered by a foreign power

and taken into captivity.

For Isaiah this revelation came from his God,

but it was probably also quite an easy prediction to make…

there were indeed foreign powers

who wanted control of Israel and Jerusalem.


Just as I might make a prediction

that if we continue on with our current trend

of increasing the gap between the haves

and the have not’s in our society,

we will at some point face another economic collapse.


Now, this is one of the places

where I am most in love with the example of Isaiah…

in that many other prophets are

at this point thrown out of society…

because people tend not to like it

when the prophet tells them

that what they are doing is wrong,

and that it will lead to dire consequences.

These other prophets then live

in sack cloth and ashes at the fringes of society…

where they can be easily ignored.


No, Isaiah stays within the center of his society and culture,

speaking truth as he can to his people…

because he loves them.

When some of them are taken into Captivity in Babylon,

he goes with them…

hoping that they will be better able to hear his vision

than those who remain behind.


Then, the worst happens… what Isaiah had predicted.

Jerusalem has been captured, and the temple has fallen.

A messenger comes to deliver the news to Isaiah

that his prophesy has come true…

and Isaiah has a choice to make.

He can either revel in the fact that he was right,

and issue one of the loudest “I told you so!”’s

in the history of humanity…

or he can choose to give hope to his people.

The vision that he brings the people of Israel,

now in captivity in Babylon,

is that God has shared with him that the temple will be rebuilt,

and that the Hebrew people will be restored to Jerusalem.

Isaiah spends the rest of his days

sharing a dream among his people, the people of Israel,

what the temple would look like when it is rebuilt,

how God would return to it,

and how the people of Israel would return.


Now, as you’ve heard me say before…

I don’t know if the vision came from God,

or if Isaiah saw what his people needed to survive captivity

and crafted the vision for them.

I was not there.

But I do know this… whichever of those is true…

the temple was indeed rebuilt just a few generations later.

The Hebrew people were indeed released from captivity,

and found their home again.

Did the rebuilt temple create the vision,

or did the vision create the rebuilt temple?


What I do know is this.

Isaiah saw how his society was less than it needed to be.

He spoke truth to power,

and some listened and some did not.

He stayed in community with those who could hear his vision,

and he built strength and love among them.

He continued to try and convince those who would not listen

up until the very last moment.


When the worst happened,

and what he had predicted came true,

he accepted the reality

and saw what his people needed more than anything else.

They needed hope.

And so, Isaiah shared with them

a vision of hope that inspired them,

that encouraged them in their trials,

and then, long after he was gone,

those inspired, hope filled people turned his vision into a reality.


That is what it means to be a prophet…

and it is what it means to practice prophetic voice

and to share prophetic love.

It is more than being an activist or an advocate.

It is more than being a person of liberal faith.

And it is what James Luther Adams envisioned

for each and every one of us,

when he called us a Prophethood of All Believers…


So may it be, blessed be, and Amen.


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