Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

‘hearing the prophet’
Reflection by Anne Stewart

Was anyone inspired when Linda was talking about being a prophet? Any takers? It’s not always a popular job but then the point of the task is not popularity. We’re not always good at hearing uncomfortable things though, are we? We tend to shy away from subjects when they start to bite. The other night I was listening to the beginning of a talk given by Brené Brown. If you haven’t come across Brené, she is an American research professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host. She is known in particular for her research on shame, vulnerability, and leadership. In this talk she told the story of being invited to speak at a country club somewhere in America. She was excited at the prospect because at that time she had only ever talked within university circles with academics and she saw this invitation as an opportunity to talk with ‘real’ people. As she was setting up for the talk a very well-dressed woman with her hair in a bun held so tightly that Brené feared her face might crack, was organising things at the podium. Brené introduced herself and the woman looked her up and down and asked what she would be speaking about. Brené, by now feeling very small and insignificant said her subject was shame. The woman was aghast and said very clearly that that would not be happening, and what else could she speak about. Knowing she was by now greatly at risk, and fearing the worst, Brené said she could also talk about vulnerability. Oh no, the woman said, there will be none of that talk here, we only talk about happy things. And so, the illusion that all the world is only nice, or already as we might want it to be, continues…

Prophets don’t have it easy. Nice people in nice places generally don’t want to hear them. They don’t want their nice lives sullied by anything of the real world, where things are not always clean and tidy or, nice. Prophets have to speak up and speak clearly and be very, very brave when they do it.

The prophet Isaiah had a bit to say about how the people of his time were expressing their faith. He felt strongly that God was less interested in their posturing than in what they could be doing to help those in need. There are 66 chapters attributed to Isaiah, he had a lot to say and he started as he meant to go on, not mincing his words. He needed to get his point across and quickly, so that changes could be made. Maybe that’s the only way for a prophet to be heard – give it to them straight!

In Isaiah’s time it was believed that prophets had the ear of God. They were unique people who had earned the right to speak the truth of God. They could hear God speak and it was their task to make God’s words known to the people. Isaiah heard God say that it wasn’t sacrifices or burnt offerings that God desired, but that the people ‘wash themselves; make themselves clean; remove the evil of their doings, cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’

I find prophets fascinating. Their utterances give us a unique lens into the mind of God in those times and maybe in our times too! I am intrigued by those in our times, who are seeing and hearing things that they feel the need to call our attention to. In these times of mis-truth and opinions expressed as facts, the prophet has an even more difficult task! How are they to be heard amongst all of the noise? Who are the prophets and who are the false-prophets? What do we do with the ones who make us uncomfortable? Is there a kernel of truth that we need to hear and act on?

I wonder what God is trying to say to us today? How do we listen? For my part, I’m particularly drawn to the prophetic language expressed in music where both the lyrics and the music have a message; alerting me in a raw, real and inspiring way. There is a song that easily comes to mind when I think of this. It was written by Bruce Springsteen in 1995 in reaction to what was going on in America at the time. When the politics of the time seemed to be enabling people with money to get more while forgetting about those who had very little. A time which he names as ‘high times on Wall St and hard times on Main St.’ A time when a new world order was being talked about, but one that he could see was never going to help the little, the last, the least and the lost.

The song is called The Ghost of Tom Joad. Those of you who are familiar with John Steinbeck’s book, The Grapes of Wrath will know that Tom Joad was the protagonist of that story. Joad was a man of action, embodying one of the novel’s main philosophical strands, pragmatism, standing in contrast to the idealistic and talkative Jim Casy. Tom is a doer. In the song Springsteen calls on the ghost of Tom Joad to come and do something because this new world order is not making the first last and the last first, and it is not helping to lead those in need to the promised land. Springsteen is alerting people to the reality of many lives and pleading for the idealistic talking to stop so something can be done. Let’s listen for a bit.

Men walking ‘long the railroad tracks
Going someplace and there’s no going back
Highway patrol choppers coming up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretching ’round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleeping in their cars in the southwest
No home, no job, no peace, no rest

Well the highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kidding nobody about where it goes
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad

He pulls a prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and he takes a drag
Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
You got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and a gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathing in the city aqueduct

And the highway is alive tonight…

Tom said, “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beating a guy
Wherever a hungry, new-born baby cries
Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me, Mom, I’ll be there
Where there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helping hand
Wherever somebody’s struggling to be free
Look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me”

The highway is alive tonight…

There is lament and despair in the words and in the music. This is someone who is seeing what many were blind to and is using his medium to cry out, to name the pain for those without the voice to do it themselves. The American dream of a new world order was not delivering as promised and lives were being broken as a result. A man sits by the campfire under a bridge, waiting on the ghost of Tom Joad. Waiting on the ghost of someone who can get something done, knowing that any hopes of salvation in the mid-1990s aren’t really much more palpable than ghosts, and you understand that the man sitting and praying by the fire will wait a long time before his deliverance comes. Music magazine Rolling Stone said this in a review of the song, “The story is told bluntly and sparsely, and the poetry is broken and colloquial — like the speech of a man telling the story he feels compelled to tell if only to try to be free of it. By climbing into their hearts and minds, Springsteen has given voice to people who rarely have one in this culture. As we move into the rough times and Badlands that lie ahead, such acts will count for more than ever before.”

Rough times and Badlands. This feels like a good description of our world today; both here and beyond our shores. The slide away from understanding ourselves collectively and toward ‘what my rights entitle me to’ has disturbing outcomes for those without the luxury of ‘rights’ and who need the collective to live well. What are the prophets telling us today? Is Isaiah’s call to the people of his time to stop with those old ways of worshipping God and look after those who need something done still relevant for us today? Isn’t that what worship is all about; being fed in order to mobilise and do something useful for others? Liturgy, the shape of our worship is actually defined as the ‘work of the people’, it is to equip us for life in God’s world. Isn’t the doing how we express our thanks for all that is done for us? Isn’t our sacrifice for the sake of the one who sacrificed it all for us? Over the years I have been questioned at times about my involvement in the toenail cutting service here at The Village. Clients have recoiled at the thought that the minister should be cutting their toenails. Others question if this is the appropriate way for a minister to spend her time. I find it all a bit mystifying. To me ministry is more than lofty sermons from on high, words with no action can soon become empty. The action is where the love of God is played out and without that essential ingredient, Paul tells us, our words can quickly turn into noisy gongs or clanging cymbals.

Prophets call us when we wander from our path and comfort has blinded us to the discomfort of others. Where will we be when there’s somebody fighting for a place to stand, or a decent job or a helping hand, when somebody’s struggling to be free, look in their eyes, Ma, will you see me?”