Of Preachers and Prophets

April 14, 1996

Summary

Of Preachers and Prophets

This is not a good Sunday morning to start a new series of sermons, since we are between last week’s Easter celebration and next week’s communion service, so I’ll use it to share some thoughts about gullible faith and a Dallas con-man who takes advantage of it, about the difference between priests and prophets, and about the role of experience in human life. Here are some thoughts from recent meditation and recent reading:
ITEM 1: When I was in Dallas the other day I read a newspaper story about Robert Tilton, one-time Texas TV evangelist now fallen from grace and primetime but still up to his old tricks. He was exposed a few years ago on a television documentary for dumping hundreds of prayer-request letters without bothering to read them after he had removed the checks. This cramped his luxurious lifestyle for a couple of years, but the Rev. Tilton has now come up with a new way of separating the faithful from their money. It may make you wonder once again why some people are so vulnerable to religious scamming. In an envelope made of transparent plastic so that a message can be read on both front and back before you open the letter, this is what you see first: “John, I am sending you this special message inside this clear, see-through envelope for a reason. But do not open it yet! Read the other side.”
Who could resist? You flip the envelope over and through the back side transparency you get your next set of instructions in this unholy scavenger hunt: “John….This is a sealed message of the heavenly world with a direct line to glory.” [The newspaper columnist remarked at this point that the message may be from heaven, but the return address is Dallas ]. The Rev. Tilton continues: “If for any reason you will not be able to answer this message within 48 hours, it will need to be destroyed, unopened, because it is of a highly spiritual nature….Please go where you can be alone and be prepared for the Holy Spirit to speak with you.”
That’s quite a promise, so you rip open the letter without waiting to find a private place, but it’s just Mr. Tilton again and not the Holy Spirit at all: “John, I’m happy for you that you got into faith and opened this ….. message! Are you alone where the Lord can speak to your spirit? (All capital letters now): IT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO BE ALONE BEFORE YOU FINISH READING THIS.” Then, assuming you have finally obeyed, Mr. Tilton springs the big surprise: “I must minister to you, John, in a very personal way…..I feel you are standing on the brink of an incredible money-miracle blessing big enough to walk you out of financial stress….God wants to put you on the path to the financial proliferation needed in your life to free you from [worry].” And how is this to be done? Easy. Inside the envelope are two shiny pennies, and the following pitch! “John, place….these two….coins in your pocketbook….tonight. As you follow God in faith, your financial miracle can begin…..Tomorrow, John, without fail….place your seed faith offering of $53, $43 or $33 on this prayer page” and mail it back “before sunset tomorrow, or no later than 11 a.m. the next day. Timing is important….”
The amazing thing about this is not Mr. Tilton’s gimmick — it’s the kind of creative hijacking one has learned to expect from him (his greed counting on our greed, and all in the name of God). No, the amazing thing is how many people are ready to respond when Christianity meets Publishers Clearinghouse, when preachers promise God will get them a raise or a promotion if they will only support the television ministry. When I read about the Robert Tiltons, and think about the lonely senior citizens who fall for their sleazy sideshows, I have to repeat what I said to you once before: Every college in America should have a required course entitled Logic 101: How to Recognize a Con-Man.
Tilton, of course, is a bizarre kind of carnival freak whose personal greed is so obvious that he is no great danger to mainstream religion. But that is not true of a new breed of quite respectable preachers who yoke capitalism and Christianity and preach the good news that God wants us all to be rich. Never mind Christ’s quaint warning about how hard it may be for the rich to enter the kingdom, nor his advice that instead of piling up treasures on earth we are to use whatever wealth we earn or inherit to lay up treasures in heaven. More and more American Christians are sidestepping those unfashionable warnings in favor of sermons that tell them there is a biblical imperative to making money.
My friend Arden Bradshaw mailed me a copy of a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about this new gospel of wealth with its irresistible theme that “God Wants You To Be Rich.” That is, in fact, the title of a book by a man named Paul Pilzer, who not long ago drew 500 people at $50 per ticket into Seattle’s Christian Faith Center to hear the gospel of the 90’s. Some sceptics thought his message was more than a little crass, a sort of convergence of “I want more money, so Jesus must want me to have more.” But Mr. Pilzer says he gets about 100 letters a week from people all over the country who want to know more about his “theology of economics,” and churches in a frantic competition to pull in new members have been putting on seminars in how to make faith pay off. Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois, which claims to be one of America’s largest congregations with 15,000 at the Sunday service, offers classes to help their flock move successfully through the world of money and business. These are not preachers, by the way, who are looking for lavish lifestyles like Mr. Tilton of Dallas; they are simply leaders of the flock who have found a great new way to get people to come to church. Their message is that God is eager to put the faithful on the high road to riches. Or, as theWall Street Journal article describes this new trend in American religion: God has a new co-pilot, whose name is Midas.”
One prominent minister of this new persuasion whose name is Catherine Ponder serves a church in Palm Desert — where I should think this new gospel would be warmly welcomed. She points out helpfully that you don’t have to be poor to be devout. Using a variation of the old “Dial-a-Prayer” gimmick for busy people who just didn’t have time to think up their own words, Ms. Ponder’s group offer what they call a “prosperity dial-a-thought.” After all, she says, “There are a number of millionaries among the great leaders of the Bible.” She has standing-room-only attendance at her seminars. Would I go if she mailed free tickets? Not on your life. Would I like to be rich? Just as much as any of you! But not for one greedy moment do I believe that God runs a celestial lottery in which Christian character becomes the winning ticket to financial fortune. What I really suspect.is that for most of us it may be just the opposite.
ITEM 2: One of you said last Fall, “No hurry, but sometime when it fits, talk about the difference between a priest and a prophet.” This seems a good time, so let’s think about how radically different those two religious professions are. First, the priest. Organized religion always expresses itself in ceremony and ritual: we sing, we say the Lord’s Prayer in unison, we count beads, light candles, christen babies, commune at the Lord’s Table. Anyone who presides over these rituals — explaining their significance, concerned that they be done properly — is functioning in a priestly role. This person tends to be conservative, simply because of the nature of that responsibility. After all, the forms of worship are usually quite old, with a long and hallowed history, and people with a priestly conscience resist changing them. Their motto is: “This is how we’ve always done it.”
The trouble is that the forms which express truth in one age may only obscure it in another. The English poet Tennyson said it perfectly: “The old order changeth, yielding place to new;/ And God fulfills himself in many ways,/ Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” But change is painful for traditionalists. It’s much more comfortable to do things out of habit because there’s no need to think about them. We don’t have to ask, “Does this still make sense?” We just do it — and the repetition itself is a kind of comfort. But in deeply important things, like religion, somebody has to ask from time to time, “Does this still make sense?” and that person is the prophet — stirring things up, forcing us think.
Obviously, when one person says, “This is how we’ve always done it,” and another says, “Yes, but does it still make sense?” we have tension — which is why Catholicism split into two great branches, Eastern and Roman, and why out of the Roman Church came several hundred Protestant churches, dividing over and over again because of conflict between conservative and liberal, priest and prophet. The prophetic mind is always aware that forms and ceremonies, no matter how useful and full of meaning they once were, may become habitual, empty, and lifeless. It’s not easy sometimes to distinguish between worship, which is an attitude of the heart, and the forms by which that feeling is expressed. When we fail, we make the forms sacred instead of the living faith behind them.
When prophets suggest that new wine may cause old wineskins to burst, priests get very nervous. It has become a proverb through the centuries that most people can hardly tolerate their prophets. Jesus had the mind of a prophet, and he knew what often happened to prophets. In the final days of his life he insisted on going into Jerusalem because, as he put it with biting irony, that city had killed so many of its prophets that it simply wouldn’t do for a prophet to die anywhere else.
As it turned out, Jerusalem did put Jesus to death, calling him a false prophet. We think he was a true prophet — and there is the dilemma we always face when prophets come among us. Are they true or false? Many of you still remember when the Sydney Harris columns were a taste of good wine amidst the mediocrity of so much that appears in print. Here is how he described the difference between false prophets and true ones. You can apply it, while you listen, either to religion or to politics, because it works for both. The false Messiah, or prophet, says what we want to hear, appeals to our prejudices, caters to our fears and hates. The true prophet, instead of telling us what we want to hear, tells us what we ought to hear — rebukes us, points out our mistakes, asks us to sacrifice for the common good. Not many follow such a person, who is usually put on the shelf or in a grave by the majority, only to be taken seriously after he or she has been safely dead for a long time. I consider Bill Moyers, whose program some of us watched the other night, a true prophet, unafraid to be a gadfly like Socrates in ancient Athens and criticize the malaise in American life.
Most of us prefer a false prophet: one who will give us over-simplified answers to complex problems, who will justify what we are doing already and want to keep on doing, who will castigate our enemies and tell us we are the real heroes of our time, who will vindicate our selfishness and pander to our greed. We like all these things because we want a leader who will promise us a world where we can go on being as narrow and envious and greedy and shortsighted as we like without suffering the consequences. In short, we want magic. Like some of Dorothy’s friends in the land of Oz we believe in the Wizard who will fix things without expecting our help.
But there is no wizard. Only false prophets, all of whom can be distinguished by the same sign: they make us feel better by promising short cuts to whatever we want. The true prophets, from whatever religion, make us feel uncomfortable. They tell us the trouble is not with our enemies, but with ourselves. No wonder true prophets have not fared well. If in our more sophisticated society we do not kill them, we find ways to avoid them or to shut them up. And then we look for prophets who will bless what we want. They can always be found.
Am I too harsh? Perhaps you will recognize these words and recall who said them: “Be on your guard against false religious teachers, who come to you dressed up as sheep but are really ravenous wolves. By their fruits you shall know them.” Or, in modern parlance, you can identify them not by their talk, which is easy, but by the way they live. By that test, I found myself in wholehearted approval a few days ago when I read a list of the ten best preachers in America. I have heard half of them in person, and I have read the sermons of the other half, and they have two important things in common. First, they are people of good character who do not take advantage of the ignorant and the gullible to enrich themselve, and second, they are true prophets who refuse to pander to our selfishness. Fred Craddock, Jim Forbes, Will Willimon, Barbara Brown Taylor…..I think of them when some of the TV hucksters put a bad taste in my mouth.
What you and I must remember when we read about the preaching celebrities and the preaching scumbags is that the church survives neither because of nor in spite of that small group. The church survives because quiet, conscientious men and women in thousands of small churches in big cities and small towns like Newton and Haven and Andover not only try to the limit of their talents to speak some useful truth from the pulpit, but join hopeful people in marriage, celebrate the birth of their babies, visit the sick, and walk with grieving people through their final goodbyes. Unsung, unheard of by most of us, they honor the faith they preach…..and I have never thought there was a higher honor than to be part of their company. I have intended this sermon as a tribute to them.

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