A myth was well known among the Cherokee about some hunters who set out long ago toward the land of the sun. Along the way, they came across two large gray birds. Whenever the hunters shot arrows at these birds, sparks would fly off of them. They trapped them in nets and brought them back to their camp. At night, the birds began to glow brighter and brighter until they burned through the nets. At last they flew into the sky shining brightly but getting smaller and smaller until they were two tiny white dots among a sky full of other tiny white dots. This, according to the myth, was how the Cherokee came to know what stars were. 

This myth was probably in the lazy hunter’s head when he wandered from his party and happened on a white settlement. There at the settlement, he laid eyes for the first time on a strange European bird called a peacock. Immediately, the lazy hunter traded his belongings with the white settlers in exchange for the peacock. The hunter then killed the peacock and stripped it of all its strange and beautiful feathers. He took them to an old beaver lodge near the camp that only he knew about, and that could only be reached by diving under a lake. There, in private, he made a great headdress out of all the peacock feathers.

The other members of his tribe began to wonder what had become of him. It wasn’t until several weeks later that the lazy hunter showed up suddenly at a dance night with his new headdress and claimed to have been among the stars. He showed them the “star feathers” from his headdress as proof of his tale and began to tell the people secrets that the stars had told him. The people were entranced by his story. Then just as soon as he arrived, he disappeared into the night, claiming he was returning to the heavens (but really he was going back to his little beaver lodge).

Soon the man came to be known as the Star Prophet and he would show up weekly at their dances and tell more stories and issue more proclamations from the heavens. The people revered him and always sent him gifts of food, pelts, beads, and other offerings to give to the stars in return for their guidance. This went on for many seasons and the Star Prophet grew fat and rich off of the offerings.

One afternoon, a hunting party was out past their normal route when they happened upon a white settlement. There, they too discovered the peacock. It was then that they knew the Star Prophet was a fraud. They were afraid that no one would believe them because the people had grown to love and respect the Star Prophet. So they decided to expose him the next time he showed up at one of their dances.

Sure enough, the Star Prophet returned a couple nights later with a message from the heavens and collected generous offerings from the people before disappearing into the night. After the Prophet disappeared, one of the hunters stood up and said, “Come, let us follow the wise prophet into the heavens so we can worship the stars with him!”

So all the men went from the camp and followed the Star Prophet at a distance. When they saw him dive into the water and not come up, one of the hunters proclaimed that the way to heaven must be through the lake and said, “Let us go find the door to the sky!” So all the men jumped into the lake where the prophet had jumped in and found the opening to the old beaver lodge. There they found the lazy hunter in his hole surrounded by gifts and peacock feathers.

As long as human beings have brushed up against the divine and had genuine religious experiences, there have been charlatans all to willing to take advantage of the faithful. As this playful Cherokee story warns us, it is not always easy to tell the difference between star feathers and peacock feathers. So how DO you tell a false prophet. According to Jesus, you know them by their fruit. By closely examining our leaders and looking for signs of integrity and good works we can judge whether their charisma is the result of the work of God in their lives or something else. A good question to always ask is “does this person’s ministry benefit the world or himself?”  Jesus admonishes us to be on our guard against false prophets. Such people, like wolves masquerading as sheep, prey on the vulnerable and cash in on people’s trust. Today, televangelists smooth talk old ladies out of their social security checks to pay for their extravagant lifestyles and to what end? It is an unfortunate reality that to many of these people are not producing much in the way of fruit, just a lot of peacock feathers.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

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