Sermon, 10.30am Sunday 15th July 2012
Amos 7: 7-15; Ephesians 1: 3-14; Mark 6: 14-29
The Inner Prophet
This Wednesday sees the end of this year’s summer lecture series. It’s grown enormously in popularity in recent years such that this year we sold out twice and had to turn people away at the door. One of the most popular speakers this year was Tony Benn. Now I realise that he is not everyone’s favourite politician but whatever your views there is something about sitting in the House of Commons for 51 years that is likely to provide a fascinating perspective on our public life and current situation. So indeed it proved to be.
One of his most interesting observations concerned his mother’s influence on his political formation. She was a notable theologian in her time as well as an early feminist who left the Church of England over its refusal to ordain women. She taught the young Tony that the bible was, at heart, all about the clash between prophets and kings, the prophets having both the inspiration and the courage to speak often uncomfortable truth to those in power. This struck me as absolutely correct and in my summing up I said I would pinch the idea for a sermon, little realising that the next set of bible readings on which I would be asked to preach would be all about prophets, in today’s case Amos and John the Baptist.
What is a prophet? Well, we tend to think of them as people who foresee the future. This is certainly true in part but they don’t foresee the future in the way that clairvoyants do as in reading tea leaves or some such activity. Rather, they discern the future by seeing the truth of what is happening in the present in a deeper way than anyone else. In other words, they see the way things are going and generally issue stern warnings about how if we don’t stop what we are doing and turn back – or repent- we’ll be in big trouble. Jesus, for instance, foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem because he saw more clearly than anyone else the hopelessness of the Jewish leadership’s desire for the political overthrow of the Romans. John the Baptist preached repentance on the basis that the kingdom of God was at hand in the person of Jesus. This was very unwelcome in Herod’s eyes because he wanted to be the widely acknowledged King of the Jews. Worse still, John told him directly that he shouldn’t have taken up with his brother’s wife and it was this more than anything that led to his grisly death.
Biblical prophets are generally – but not always – bringers of bad news and they speak with the authority of having received their truth from God. However, they do so with great humility because they know the true extent of their weakness and powerlessness. Take Amos for instance. He told the Israelites the unbridled truth about their disregard for the poor and their perversion of justice. But when the priest Amaziah tells him not to bother the king with his prophesies Amos makes it clear that he doesn’t even regard himself as a prophet:
“I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees.”
For all his modesty Amos is compelled to speak out because he knows that God has spoken to his heart. Such truthfulness hardly makes prophets popular. On the contrary they are usually pains in the neck who pay the penalty for their outspokenness. We don’t know what happened to Amos but just think of what happened to both John the Baptist and, of course, Jesus himself.
Now comes the difficult bit. We are all, as Christians, called upon to be prophets in some way. The early church particularly valued prophesy and saw it as the most valuable of gifts, one that was essential to the building of the church on sure foundations of truth. Now of course, we are not (generally! ) expected to be prophets in the way of Moses or Amos but we are required to discern the truth of the different situations in which we find ourselves and to speak about them honestly and openly. This is nothing less than essential to organisational and institutional health and as such something that we should consider as necessary in our places of work as those of our worship.
Take an example from the secular world. Some of you may drive Ford cars. Only a few years ago Ford was seen as a basket case – a company that was fast going down the pan with falling sales and market share. In 2006 a new Chief Executive arrived and was immediately assured by his most senior executives that despite appearances everything was in order and that they had things in hand. Despite such assurances he simply didn’t believe them and instead challenged them to tell him what wasn’t going right, to share with him the kinds of concerns that were keeping them awake at night. It took some time but at long last, at one meeting, one of his most senior team admitted that he had some deep concerns about a production line that was producing a new model. This executive’s courage led then to a cascade of admissions that in turn led to a remarkable corporate turn-around such that just six years later Ford is in rude good health again. It’s a remarkable story but only made possible by someone having the courage to speak truth to power.
In our current situation we have urgent and desperate need of such minor prophets. No aspect of our public life seems unaffected by what the American businesswoman and writer Margaret Heffernan calls “wilful blindness” – the refusal to acknowledge the truth that is in front of our noses. Just recently we have had the Libor-fixing scandal in the banking sector that has come on top of the routine mis-selling of policies to small businesses that has caused acute difficulties for many of them and bankruptcy for some. Just a few years ago we had the MP’s expenses scandal and in the world of journalism – my own past profession – we have the current extraordinary spectacle of the Leveson inquiry occasioned by shocking abuses of power at News International but far from confined to that organisation alone.
The trouble is it’s so easy to rationalise poor behaviour, especially when it seems sanctioned by those above you. For the bankers, their justification seems to be that everyone was at the same game and that we need to live in the real world in which profits must be made and banks have to compete. The MP’s argued that because if was politically unacceptable for them to be given sufficiently large pay rises they were entitled to make up the difference on expenses and that the authorities turned a blind eye to their doing so. And in the case of journalists, I know from experience that they can, on occasion, bend the rules and justify doing so in the public interest but it’s quite clear that so much of what has recently gone on has absolutely no public interest justification whatever. Clearly, the pressure to get a story, to beat the competition, impress the boss or get a promotion trumped every other consideration. The pathway to hell is, I fear, paved with such tiny steps such that in our short-sightedness we lose any sense of having crossed a line beyond which behaviour becomes not just unacceptable but downright destructive.
What is the answer to this all too human tendency? A study of the bible would suggest that we need to trust our guts and intuition rather more than we do. There is, after all, an inner prophet in all of us. It’s called our conscience. In our hearts we know when things are wrong. Now this is in many ways a deeply counter-cultural statement. As a society we revere cleverness and brain-power. And yet as Amos shows, you don’t need to be either brainy or sophisticated to tell right from wrong. On the contrary, we too often use our brains to justify actions that we know deep-down to be plain wrong: “everyone else is doing it”; “my boss says it’s OK”; we’ve got to earn a living you know”.
This is emphatically not to say that we should just act on our emotions. It is to say that we should honour and listen to what our hearts are telling us and to then reflect upon it carefully and prayerfully. In the first letter of John this is called “testing the spirits”. And once we’ve done this, reach a firm, considered conclusion that unites both head and heart. This knowing, this inner conviction, is what marks out the prophet – this and having the courage to speak the truth come what may, however futile it may seem.
To be sure, we live in a vastly complex world in which it’s easy to feel that we are constantly at the mercy of events and that the forces that shape our lives are way beyond us, whether they be the daily flows of unimaginable sums around the global money markets or the decisions taken by our political masters and by captains of industry in far away boardrooms.
And yet, if the story of the prophets tells us anything at all it’s that a word spoken with authority and truth from the heart – even, perhaps especially from a position of weakness and powerlessness – can nonetheless be transformative.
What other conclusion can we draw from the fact that the prophecies of a seemingly weak, powerless, uneducated man whose ministry lasted just 3 years in a backwater of the Roman empire are still used – as Tony Benn noted – to hold the powerful to account 2000 years later?
If we are to have any hope in our current, parlous situation, then it surely requires each one of us to follow that example, to search our hearts for what we know to be true and to then find the courage to speak it – and speak it out loud.