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The Blessed Curse – 4/13/2014

In the Buddhist tradition’s understanding of itself – in that religion’s story about how it came to exist as a religion – the pivotal moment takes place in quiet and stillness. At the instant when he became the Buddha – the Awakened One – Gautama was sitting under a tree, seeking the truth through meditation. And then it came to him. He understood the nature of existence at its deepest level and became liberated from hatred, greed, and fear. The essential religious conundrum of Gautama’s place and time – 2500 years ago in northern India – had to do with a cycle of death and rebirth. That people were reborn into new lives after dying was taken for granted, and so many theologians and philosophers and other just thoughtful people began to see this as a terrible fate – like being locked into a prison from which there could be no escape. The Buddha’s enlightenment meant that he had solved this critical question of his age: he had found a way to break out of that prison.

This is the axial moment in Buddhism, its central ideas bursting forth into the mind of Gautama. And it was followed, soon after by the beginning of the religion itself, as the Buddha left his tree behind and went to the city of Varanasi. There he preached is first sermon, made his first converts, and began to form the first sangha, the first community devoted to the mutual practice of his teachings. The beginning of the idea and the beginning of the community happen right next to each other, which is what makes the story of what happened in between so fascinating. It is said that the first person Gautama met after attaining enlightenment was a fellow traveler on the road, just a few miles from his tree. That man, whose name was Upaka, stopped him. He could see that Gautama had a look of clarity and serenity about him, as though he had just discovered something important. He asked what it was.

So for the first time, to the first person, the Buddha explained himself: that he had come to see the truth behind the illusion of existence had transcended the frailties and imperfections of his own mortal form. Upaka asked if this meant that he had found what others had sought and no one else had achieved: a way to escape the cycle of death and rebirth. “Indeed, friend,” responded the Buddha. “And now I go to Varanasi, to beat the drum of deathlessness.” To this grand pronouncement, the solving of a cosmic riddle that vexed entire generations of wise and holy people, Upaka simply said, “Well, maybe so,” and then, shaking his head, he travelled on by another road.

It is attractive to think that if an idea is profound enough or a message true enough, the world will simply sit up and recognize it. Opposition will melt away, and the insight will be embraced by the sheer force of its rightness. But the story of Upaka, the first person to hear the message of the Buddha, points in a different direction entirely: there is no wisdom so great that the human will is incapable of ignoring it. Prophets and teachers from the beginning of human history to the present have learned this the hard way.

In the mythic history of ancient Greece, Cassandra was a princess of the city of Troy. She was blessed with the gift of foreseeing the future, and cursed that no one would ever believe her predictions. She saw that her brother was about to cause the Trojan war, but he ignored her warning. She knew that her city would be destroyed, but no one listened to her cries. And according to one play by Aeschylus, Cassandra went to her death, fully aware of her fate but unable to stop it.

It is a heavy burden to be a prophet. This could easily be the tagline of the current Hollywood blockbuster Noah. It tells its own version of the biblical story you’re no doubt already familiar with, if only from that children’s song about the animals in twosies, twosies and the elephants and [clap] kangaroosies, roosies. In the sanitized picture-book version, it’s a nice-enough story about animals and boats. Even in the biblical account, details are recounted in a very matter-of-fact way – no reference is made to Noah’s internal psychology. The movie, though, puts the imagined inner life of a prophet front and center, and it is a grueling ordeal. I’m not particularly encouraging anyone to see this film – I still haven’t decided what to think of it as a film, but it was extremely difficult to watch. Some of the scenes and images were more grotesque than the stuff of the average horror movie. Though the film departed radically from the biblical text, much of that horror was true to the original story, which is, after all, about the obliteration of an entire world’s worth of people. In one particularly chilling moment, Noah sits inside his ark as the waters rise and the screams of those clinging to the last bit of dry land can be heard from outside. The man looks broken by his appointed task: to rescue an uncountable number of animals, but only a tiny handful of the human variety. No wonder he eventually turns to drink – a character insight that actually is in the bible.

As the differences between the stories of Gautama, Cassandra, and Noah suggest, the term prophet has a range of possible meanings. Probably the most common meaning in modern speech is the ability to see, predict, or otherwise know the future. It’s a term that gets thrown around and applied to a whole range of figures, from the Oracle at Delphi to political pop-statistician Nate Silver, and from Nostradamus to Paul the Octopus – the German cephalopod who predicted the winner of the 2010 World Cup. This is the classical understanding of prophesy in the Greek and Roman cultures, and it strongly influences the term’s use in orthodox Christianity. But even more important to the Christian meaning is the model of prophesy established in the Hebrew bible.

According to the reckoning presented by the ancient rabbis in the Talmud, there are fifty-five prophets mentioned by name in the Tanakh – the Hebrew name for the Hebrew bible. Predicting or anticipating the future is still a common theme for many of these figures, but not for all of them. And there are also biblical characters granted visions of the future who nonetheless are not considered prophets. Instead, the uniting factor between all fifty-five prophets was their role as spokespeople for the Holy; their words or actions particularly serve the Divine in some way. For most of these prophets, this meant some sort of special relationship with or closeness to God. Abraham and Moses are both described as talking regularly with God, even to the point of arguing with divine judgments. And so many stories of the biblical prophets involve miraculous visions received during sleep that the Book of Jeremiah mocks a corruption of this convention: “I have heard what the prophets say who prophesy falsely in My name: “I had a dream, I had a dream.”[i]

Rev. Dr. James Forbes, who led New York City’s progressive Riverside Church for many years, explains the model of biblical prophecy in three syllables: ‘Ho, Go, and Lo.’ ‘Ho’ is like ‘hey’ or ‘yo’ – it’s an interjection meant to get someone’s attention. A prophet’s career begins with a ‘ho’ – a moment when the Divine seizes her attention. The ‘go’ that follows is a purpose or a mission: do something, say something, go somewhere. And the last component, ‘lo’ means ‘look’ or ‘pay attention’.[ii] It introduces the heavenly promise of accompaniment: the prophet doesn’t do his work alone, she is a coworker with God.

Our tradition as Unitarian Universalists tends towards a third way of understanding what it means to be a prophet. It is not exclusive to us, and it does not preclude the other two types of prophecy. It is pointed towards in the second source called out by the covenant between our congregations: “The words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.” Whenever I quote this source, I point out that there is no reason why we ought not to replace “prophetic women and men” with “prophetic persons” – there are people for whom the gender binary does not describe their place in the world, and they are as capable of being prophets as anyone else – and perhaps just a little bit more so. But I’m getting ahead of myself: that’s a sermon for later this month. Prophetic words challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil. Prophecy stirs others to action in the service of justice and love. A vision of the future or a transcendent experience of God is optional. Prophesy is declaring the truth – or otherwise acting based on the truth – when it is difficult, dangerous, or inconvenient to do so. When there is a wrong to be answered, or an error to correct.

This is intentionally a very inclusive definition, and it focuses more on the action than the actor. In fact, it might be fair to say that as Unitarian Universalists we don’t necessarily believe in prophets – though certainly many of us do – what we believe in is prophesy itself, the act of meeting wrong with right. In this sense, each of us has the prophetic potential not just in the course of our lives, but inside every moment. The salient questions are, ‘are you acting from the truth?’ and ‘how far are you willing to follow it?’

The Muslim mystical poet Hafiz described an exchange with a man who believed he had seen God. But he sought Hafiz for confirmation asking, ‘Are these wondrous dreams true?’ Hafiz answered with a series of his own questions:

          “’How many rose bushes in your garden,

          How many children,

          Are your parents still alive,

          Do you feed the birds in winter?’”

The man was perplexed by these questions, so the poet explained:

          “’You asked me if I thought your visions were true,

          I would say that they were if they make you become

          More human,

          More kind to every creature and plant

          That you know.”

One of the classic questions of prophecy – whether the visionary gift, the divine calling, or the simple confrontation of evil with truth – has always been how the prophet can know it is real. How can we recognize the real prophetic dream, the legitimate sacred mission, the true truth? The standard proposed by Hafiz seems to me the finest and clearest answer to this question: the impulse that leads to magnify humanity, and produce the greatest kindness – this is the truest sort of prophecy.

One of the essential ideas of Christian Protestantism, tracing back to Martin Luther, is the priesthood of all believers: The spiritual authority and responsibility which is universal to humankind, rather than being limited to a particular class of religious officials. This idea, incidentally, like many other elements of Protestantism, draws from the Jewish tradition “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”[iii] James Luther Adams, one of the most crucial voices in Unitarian Universalist theology, expanded this understanding to the priesthood and prophethood of all believers: adding an entire mode of spiritual authority and responsibility, as well as a far more expansive understanding of belief than Martin Luther’s. We are called as human beings, by anything and everything greater than our individual selves, towards the confrontation between what is, and what ought to be. And the duty of the religious congregation – ours or anybody else’s, whatever religion you like – is to spur us on and strengthen us, compassionately and creatively, in this confrontation.

I’ll offer a prophetic example, then, not from ancient and treasured story, but from our own present. Tim DeChristopher is a Unitarian Universalist. In 2008 he was living in Salt Lake City, attending the University of Utah and the First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake.  In mid-December of that year, there was an auction held in Salt Lake City, and not the good kind. The auction was for oil and gas rights on federal lands across the American west and adjacent to several national parks. The auction was a rushed affair – a virtual give-away to major energy companies designed to ink sweetheart deals just before the handover from one administration to the next. It drew protest from folks committed to the preservation of natural spaces and opposed to the slow-motion self-destruction of fossil fuels. Tim was one of those protestors. But when he got to the place where the auction was being held, he decided that the people inside weren’t going to notice or care about him and the other people opposing them unless they went inside. So he did just that. And apparently he looked just enough like someone who might be there to participate rather than to disrupt, because they offered him a bidding paddle. Caught off guard by the offer, and with no plan or preparation, he took it and sat down.

There saw a friend from his church, Krista Bowers, who was there to observe the proceedings. She was already crying over what she saw: the right to despoil and exploit public land was going very cheap – it would all be sold in short order. So Tim, a penniless undergraduate, raised his paddle, and he started bidding. At first, he thought he would just drive up the prices a bit and cut in slightly on a few bottom lines. But then he kept winning, so that by the end he had agreed to purchase leases on 22,500 acres of federal land, at the price of $1.8 million. He might as well have bought all the water in the ocean for the price of the moon – he had no intention to use the leases, and no ability to pay for them.

As you might guess, Tim’s next stop was court, and after that, jail. For the crime of disrupting the auction, he was sentenced to two years in prison. His disruption had gummed up the process enough and brought enough negative attention to it that when the new administration came in months later it annulled the entire thing. Tim served out his time, and catalyzed a network of activists seeking to confront the powerful, interconnected forces of climate crisis. Tim’s choices were his own, and their consequences were born by him alone, but they also took place in a context. There was the moral influence of his fellow congregant Kim Bowers, the encouragement by his congregation’s witness work on environmental issues before the auction, and their support of him throughout his trial and incarceration that followed. The individual prophet arises from a community, and their work can be sustained and magnified by that community. As the Jewish festival of Pesach and the Holy Week of the Christian tradition begin, we should be mindful that often prophets pay more dearly for their prophecy than with a two-year sentence, but also that a prophetic community can carry on a message whatever might happen to the prophet. “If I die,” Archbishop Oscar Romero said, “I will be resurrected in the people.” His violent death later proved his statement true: tragedy and triumph are woven fine in the cloth of prophecy.

There is a second half to the tale of Upaka, the man who shrugged off the Buddha’s enlightenment. And that is that he went on after that chance meeting to lead his life, to fall in love and marry and start a family. And yet, the possibility of the insight from the man he had met on the road lingered with him. Eventually he set out to find him again. Years later he found the Buddha, who recognized him immediately, and welcomed him into the sangha. Often the prophet is defamed, ignored, persecuted or destroyed. The truth is powerful, and therefore dangerous. You will not always be heard, all you who are potential prophets by dint of being human. But sometimes, some holy times, somebody does hear and answer. Even if it takes a while.

[i] Jeremiah 23:25

[ii] You can watch Rev. Forbes explain his idea much more fulsomely and engagingly in a sermon he delivered to members of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association in  a video found here:

[iii] Exodus 19:6


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