Prophecy and Heresy

Sunday, Jan 28, 2018

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
January 28, 2018
Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28



How do you spell “prof-et”?  A clergy friend of mine likes to ask this of people he doesn’t know well.  Our own answers right now are probably influenced by the fact that we’ve just heard a biblical passage about people who speak God’s truth – prophets. But perhaps what did pop first into your mind was material gain – profit.  The words rhyme in English, yet they have such different meanings.  I appreciate my friend’s bemused question and its gentle suggestion that our allegiances – our priorities – align with whichever way we instinctively answer the question.  Both the Hebrew and Greek scriptures in the Bible caution us to avoid those who say they are prophets but whose goal seems to be profit.

Our passage from Deuteronomy is one of those, an admonition to the Israelites to discern carefully amongst those who present themselves as prophets, and to we, the 21st century hearers, to do the same.  I was interested to learn this week of a CNN report on how some American Christians believe that our current president is a prophet, particularly because of his intention to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  This action, they believe, helps to fulfill a prophecy about the restoration of Israel, something that they believe will usher in the second coming of Christ.  Time will tell if Mr. Trump is a prophet, and if so, of what.  Meanwhile, he was been very clear (and proudly so) to be wholeheartedly committed to profit.

There’s a saying that goes, “The difference between a heretic and a prophet is time.”  Indeed, how often have nations and also Christians written someone off as wrong or even dangerous, only to realize with the passage of years that they had been speaking God’s truth all along.  Several weeks ago, we observed the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  He spoke twice from this pulpit, once in 1960 and again in 1962.  A plaque on the wall by the south entrance to this sanctuary proudly notes this fact.  But I’m sorry to say that when Dr. King came here, he was not welcomed by many at Princeton.  They were opposed to him and to his work.  They did not consider him to be speaking God’s truth about human equality or social justice.  They disagreed vehemently with his Gospel-based interpretation of these things. They did not think that his ideas deserved to be delivered from this pulpit.  The Dean of the Chapel, Ernest Gordon, did not back down, but very ugly sentiments were shared.  Today King leaps to mind first for most in this country – and at Princeton – when we ask ourselves who is a modern prophet.  “The difference between a heretic and a prophet is time.”

The same experience was had by Jesus of Nazareth, of course: vilified, then worshipped; Christians now believe him not only to be truly a prophet of God but even the Son of God.  In our Gospel passage appointed for today, we see that it is a demon, an unclean spirit - that is the only entity then who recognizes Jesus for who he is – the Christ.  Jesus is teaching in the synagogue.  His newly selected disciples are there.  He has amazing knowledge and authority – he is a magnificent teacher!  The disciples must be feeling better about the risk they took to drop their nets and follow him around.  The demon doesn’t see Jesus and rejoice; the demon is terrified, and perhaps it is fear that provides such clarity of perception.  The demon is afraid of being destroyed, and it is right. In Jesus Christ, all that is evil, and that is demonic, has met its match.  They will kill him to stop him, and it won’t work.  He is the prophet of God’s peace, love, justice, and mercy, the strongest forces in the universe.  This little demon should be very afraid.  Later Christ will commission his followers to go forth and be prophets themselves – to teach, to heal, to reconcile all people to their God.  They will be imperfect prophets, challenged by the culture around them, challenged by their own addictions to what they’ve always been told comprises success.  They will be vexed in their commitment as to how to spell “prof-et.”

They had grown up hearing the words of Deuteronomy explained in their synagogues, words recorded hundreds of years earlier so that their forebears, too, could keep their faith unpolluted by the beliefs and practices around them.  The biblical record testifies repeatedly to infringement of other religious practices upon Judaism, and of syncretism – mixing.  Samuel, such a great prophet of God, is shown to visit the “medium of Endor.”  There are diviners, necromancers, prophets of other gods.  The people of Israel were constantly weaving other practices, and even beliefs, into their own.  Syncretism is inevitable part of religious experience, it seems to me.  On trips to Guatemala, I’ve met people who are devout Christians while also practitioners of Mayan religious rituals.  A Catholic priest I spoke with there responded with a shrug – he said that the Mayan rituals don’t compete with Christianity but complement it.  “They meet different needs,” he said, “one for closeness to God and the other for cultural strength, the grounded connection that’s kept us alive for the last 500 years.” 

We are syncretists, too - perhaps not mixing Christianity with other religions but with other competing truth claims about what is to be valued, even worshiped. 

We would do well to take our Deuteronomic scripture to heart and to investigate just which other gods we have permitted to inform us.  Many of us in the U.S. have been listening to the prophets of the other profit.  It’s everywhere – the surface or the subtext – to the infinite messages around us.  Sometimes, we mix our faith with professional advancement, social success, even academic achievement.  The medium of Endor is everywhere! 

And yet, Christ sends every one of his disciples forth to share God’s truth with a hurting and sometimes vicious world.  We share the call to prophecy with all who have gone before in the faith.  We needn’t change our world, like Moses, Samuel, and Martin.  But every one of our words and deeds testifies to something – what shall we make that be?  All people are prophets of whatever gods they believe in.  How shall we testify to our God?  The words we share at work, the deeds we do at home, in the car, the grocery – all of this is testimony.  Let us make them testimonies of hope, for our faith gives us endless cause for hope.  Let us make them testimonies of joy, for even in the most awful of experiences, our faith gives us reason for joy.  Let us testify to love, for God is love.  Let us testify to compassion, to honesty, to fairness, to gentleness.  When there is anger, let our testimony be to understanding.  When there is violence, let our testimony be to healing.  When there is fear, let our testimony be to comfort.  In all things, let our testimony be to peace – the deep peace within that is each person’s profoundest yearning, and the peace between persons that comes with right-relationship, which is fairness, neutrality, and justice.  We can prophesy each of these things without ever uttering a formally religious word!   We can testify to each of these things without performing what anyone would consider a Christian deed.  We inhabit these Gospel tenets wherever we find ourselves.  We don’t need to preach them but to practice them.  As one of my favorite communion hymns proclaims, “All our meals and all our living, make as sacraments of you, that by caring, helping, giving, we may be disciples true.”  We may indeed be prophets true!

From the prophet Micah, we read that what God requires of all who love God is simple – to do justice, practice mercy, and live with humility before God.  This is simple indeed to grasp, but challenging to do.  I think of mercy and humility as the balance provided to our contested notions of justice.  Americans, for instance, disagree heartily on whether it is justice or injustice to deport Salvadorans, Haitians, Dreamers and others, but Christians just can’t call that mercy or an act of humility.  Our prophetic presence is needed very much right now.  It may be called heresy by some, but acts of mercy, humility, and faithful love are always vindicated.  The difference between heresy and prophesy will be time.  Prophets move their communities in the direction of God – towards the Promised Land as in Deuteronomy, towards goodness in every era and place.  Justice, mercy, and humility in the service of the God who is love – this is the simple work of God’s prophets in every place and age.


Sermon School Year
2017-18 Sermons