"The past is not over,” said Odessa Woolfolk of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Speaking to my divinity school class, Woolfolk spoke of systems that continue to oppress and seriously limit access to resources that are basic to any human being. With slavery a thing of the past, with segregation banned, with the right to vote for everyone, what is the problem? It is access.
After an attempted coup in Indonesia in 1965, headlines reported that 500,000 people were killed. What did not make the headlines was the quiet revolution that began as the wind of the Spirit began to move into a collapsed intellectual and moral vacuum. There was no ballyhoo or promotion, but simply the response of untold numbers who found in the churches a haven.
There is an odd reticence about the healings in the lessons for this Sunday—there’s an expectation of big-bang pyrotechnics, followed by a matter-of-factness in the healings that seems to disappoint. The haughty Naaman is downright offended by the simplicity of Elisha’s prescription for curing his leprosy. I thought he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place . . . But nothing that glamorous is planned.
Isaiah faced a challenge. How was he to awaken an exiled community from the lethargy of despair? The people’s confidence had been shattered; their entire worldview was drained of its mimetic properties. Former glories lay in ruins. Now the people lived in the land of the dreaded enemy, a people who goaded them with “Sing us some of those songs of Zion, miserable losers!"
Holy Moses! The first surprise in this passage from Deuteronomy is that the biblical lawgiver par excellence is also the prototypical prophet. In 21st-century America, prophets ares not so easily disguised as senators and members of Congress.
I don’t carry a beeper or a cell phone. The services of professional biblical scholars rarely require that level of immediate access. No emergency calls to interpret an obscure passage. No rushing to the scene of a textual corruption. Yet it could happen. We are rapidly becoming a society “on call.” Technology provides us with a constant flow of information.
Many human encounters with the divine word are fraught with irony: Balaam's talking ass; the promise of a patriarchal heir so long overdue that the child is named for the ensuing hilarity; the messianic Savior born in a hovel and killed like a common criminal. The mutant ministry of the prophet Jonah is another case in point.
I agree with Bill Moyers, who says that poetry is the most honest language he hears today. Poetry is the instrument of the prophet. If you want to discover the real news of the day, turn off the cable news networks and take a trip to your bookshelf or the local library and read some poetry. Poetry exposes truth and stays anchored to it.
As a child, I studied many different images of the Good Shepherd. I saw the official version every Sunday in the stained glass window above the altar at First Congregational Church in Tempe, Arizona. That shepherd was a tall, friendly-looking, 30-something man dressed in a full-length white robe. The image is probably the most familiar representation of the Good Shepherd. Yet the beautiful and peaceful image didn’t jibe with my own experience.