Bishop Eastman: “Restless Prophets Who Will Not Keep Quiet”
Today’s reading from Isaiah opens with these words, “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest.”
Throughout history God has raised up prophets to challenge an erring and recalcitrant people. They are relentless naggers. They are outspoken loudmouths.
These meddlesome troublemakers confront our complacency. They irritate us. They arouse our defenses. They make us anxious and angry.
For the most part, we wish they would just shut up and go away. Sometimes we shut them up ourselves — forcibly. Sometimes we make them go away — for good.
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One of the greatest and most enduring of God’s prophets is the biblical figure named Isaiah, who we now believe was actually more than just one person. Through the modern sciences of historical and linguistic analysis, biblical scholars have concluded that the Book of Isaiah, as it appears in our Bible, comprises the work of two distinct persons — perhaps even three. Their writings were joined together through editorial processes lost in the mists of distant history.
Chapters 1 through 39 belong to the first Isaiah who lived in the second half of the eighth century BCE. Chapters 40 through 66 belong to the second Isaiah and were produced somewhere within the fifth to sixth centuries BCE.
First Isaiah deals with the moral and social misbehaviors of the elite in Jerusalem and contains extensive prophesies of woe and judgment. Second Isaiah, written during the period of the exile following the fall of Jerusalem, understandably contains words of comfort and encouragement. This morning’s reading belongs to Second Isaiah.
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Some twenty-eight centuries after the first Isaiah was at work in Jerusalem there appeared in Montgomery, Alabama, another restless prophet who would not keep silent. Tomorrow is the annual holiday when the nation remembers his birth and honors his remarkable contribution to our history. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last sermon from this very pulpit on March 31, 1968, almost 36 years ago. He was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee, four days later.
In his new book with the intriguing title, 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, Mark Kurlansky writes, “The thrilling thing about the year 1968 was that it was a time when significant segments of population all over the globe refused to be silent about the many things that were wrong with the world…And this gave the world a sense of hope that it has rarely had, a sense that where there is wrong there are always people who will expose it and try to change it.”
Martin Luther King was part of the powerful surge of people in the 50s and 60s who refused to be silent. Indeed, he was personally responsible for much of the momentum of that time of revolution and reform.
I found excerpts of Dr. King’s last sermon in an old issue of the Cathedral Age. Much of it reads as if it were written to be preached in 2004. The themes he touched on then are just as pertinent now: the need for global unity; the necessity to eradicate the vestiges of racism; the imperative to close the widening, morally reprehensible chasm between the rich and the poor; and — in the midst of another war — the urgent need to find an alternative to violence as a way of solving political disputes. He was roundly castigated for weighing in against the war in Viet Nam. He was criticized — even by some of his friends — for straying from his central message. But he was resolute: “Mankind must put an end to war,” he said in that 1968 sermon, “or war will put an end to mankind. It is no longer a choice…between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence. This is why I [feel] the need of raising my voice against [the] war and working wherever I can to arouse the conscience of our nation on it.” Like Second Isaiah, King could neither rest nor remain silent.
The thing about prophetic figures like Isaiah and King is that their inability to remain silent in the face of wrong is paradoxically linked to its opposite — the humble capacity to be silent and to listen to God. That is what makes them credible and enduring prophets.
In the dramatic vision in which he was called by God to be a prophet, First Isaiah declared, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” It was in that state of humility, that he was able to hear the voice of God speaking to him: “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” To which Isaiah replied, “Here am I; send me!” From that time forth throughout his entire ministry the first Isaiah was attentive to the promptings of God’s still small voice. Again and again he prefaced his pronouncements by saying that the Lord had spoken to him, that the Lord had given him what to say.
By contrast, Martin Luther King’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Baptist minister was totally undramatic. In his recent biography of King, Marshall Frady writes, “The summer before his last year at Morehouse [College], in 1947, when he was still only eighteen, he elected to enter the ministry…It was a curiously heatless decision, ‘not a miraculous or supernatural something,’ as he later related, but a conclusion that the church still offered the most promising way to answer ‘an inner urge to serve humanity.’”
The costs of serving humanity became apparent in the mid-1950s when he was reluctantly drawn into a leadership role in the famous Montgomery bus boycott. As he endured police harassment, venomous phone calls and reports of plots to kill him, King’s commitment began to waver. After a threatening phone call late one night, he couldn’t get back to sleep. So he went into the kitchen of his modest home to make a cup of coffee and found himself at the pivotal point in his life. Frady, the biographer, tells what happened that night: “As he sat with his cup at the kitchen table, he was overwhelmed with woe over his own unworthiness [echoes of Isaiah], his life of bourgeois privilege…and…the superficiality of his ‘inherited’ call into the ministry….As he later recalled…‘I couldn’t take it any longer’ and ‘tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.’ Dropping his head into his hands, he suddenly realized he was praying aloud in the midnight hush of the kitchen: ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right…But, Lord, I’m faltering, I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let people see me like this…But I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’ And at that moment, as King would tell it, he seemed to hear ‘an inner voice…the voice of Jesus,’ answering him: ‘Martin, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And, lo, I will be with you even unto the end of the world.’
“And with that, King would report, all his despairs vanished. It may well have been from that midnight epiphany,” Frady observes, “that King would maintain through all the turmoils of the years afterward his peculiar mien of almost galactic remoteness, as if the deepest center of him were lost in a secret communion with something far beyond the furors of the moment.”
The prophets Isaiah and Martin teach us that the calling to speak for God with authenticity and power is rooted in the ability to be silent before God in humility and expectation. This is what distinguishes prophets from charismatic charlatans, magnetic demagogues or other persuasive persons with private or political agendas.
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This cathedral takes these two complementary aspects of prophetic ministry seriously. The pulpit in which I stand is the symbol of our commitment to be a place where the biblical vision of God’s righteousness, justice and truth will be proclaimed with passion and clarity in the context of specific moments in history. Many prophetic voices have spoken freely from this pulpit without any external restraints or conditions placed upon them. We remember one of those voices especially today, but I also think of more recent prophetic preachers like William Sloane Coffin, James Wallis and our own Canon Alan Geyer. Many unnamed others will be heard from this vantage point at appropriate moments in decades to come.
What happens in this pulpit, however, is only one aspect of the broader educational endeavors of the cathedral, manifested in many challenging and informative lectures, seminars, workshops and pilgrimages. Flyers which describe current and projected offerings may be found at the rear of the nave.
The internal constraints of wisdom and pertinence that guide our preachers and teachers are rooted in an integrated and trustworthy spirituality. Beneath the floor on which this pulpit stands, just over there under the south transept, is the cathedral’s Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. It is the embodiment of our commitment to provide both a place and a range of methodologies through which persons, lay and ordained, may learn how to be quiet before God in a way that will enable them to discern directions for their lives and vocations.
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These two physical places in this great cathedral are signs to all of us of what it means to be an engaged Christian. Not everyone is called to be a prophet. That is a very rare and special vocation. But all are called to proclaim the good news of Christ in both word and deed. And all are called to discern how to do that by being humbly silent and expectant before God, who will then equip us and send us forth as he sent forth our spiritual forbears Isaiah I & II and blessed Martin Luther King, Jr.
1. The Washington Post Book World, January 11, 2004, p. 6
2. The Cathedral Age, Summer 1968
3. Isaiah 6:1-8
4. Marshall Frady, Martin Luther King, Jr., Viking, 2002, p. 18.
5. Ibid, pp. 45-46