Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 11)
Sunday, June 21, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Jeremiah was in jail because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.
It’s fitting that in this season of protests for racial justice in light of the killings of unarmed black men and women in police custody …in this season of calls for new ways to think about funding police departments …in this season where peaceful protestors are threatened, shot with rubber bullets, and tear gassed … that our scriptures today present us with this story of the arrest, beating, and imprisonment of Jeremiah.
Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke God’s judgment upon the people, who felt God’s Word burning in his bones, so that even as he tried to be quiet, he grew tired and weary of holding in the Word he was given to speak.
In the chapter before our first reading this morning, God spoke this word to Jeremiah (19:10): “Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: so will I break this people, and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended.”
The images in this message were multiple and clear. God is the potter, the people the vessel. The potter, who creates the vessel, reserves the right to destroy the vessel. The breaking of the vessel, the jug, an explicit and classic sign of destruction of a city or nation.
It was this painful and difficult message Jeremiah tried to hold in, he tried not to speak, because he knew the price he would pay! But God’s Word burned within him, burned deep in his bones, as if God’s Word inside of him had a life of its own reading to burst out. And so this is the message Jeremiah spoke to the people:
“I am now bringing upon this city and upon all its towns all the disaster that I have pronounced against it, because they have stiffened their necks, refusing to hear my words.” (19:15)
Professor Juliana Claasens suggests Jeremiah’s judgment is primarily against the kings and priests – the ruling class who had led the people away from God politically and theologically. And yet, the judgment would come against all people, the entire nation who had turned away from God and disobeyed God’s vision for humanity.
One commentator suggested that when Jeremiah spoke, the people understood his message of judgment was not just a slap on the wrist. Instead, according to the commentator, when the people heard Jeremiah’s message, it recalled images of slaughter and starvation. Jeremiah’s words were about total societal destruction.
And so, the priest in charge of the Temple Police, whose name was Passhur, the one called to preserve and defend the status quo and the powers that be, arrested Jeremiah.
Not only did Passhur, who Jeremiah renamed “Terror-all-Around”, another prophecy of the total destruction to come, not only did “Terror-all-Around” arrest Jeremiah, but he had him beaten.
Jeremiah was arrested, and then beaten, and then put in stocks. That’s the context for our reading from Jeremiah this morning [Jeremiah 20:7-13]. This reading is Jeremiah’s reflection on his suffering for speaking God’s word. Jeremiah spoke the Word God had given him to speak, and he paid a heavy physical, spiritual, and social price as a consequence.
He suffered physically: he was beaten, placed in stocks, and imprisoned.
He suffered spiritually: he questioned God’s intentions. “Lord, you have enticed me and I was enticed,” Jeremiah cried out as recorded in verse 7, “you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.” Some scholars point out this language suggests rape. While careful not to trivialize anyone’s real experience of physical rape, there is a sense here that Jeremiah he had no choice – that he was forced to do things against his will that ended up hurting him.
He suffered socially: “Denounce him! Let us denounce him” Jeremiah heard them whispering in response to his message. ”All my close friends are watching for me to stumble” he lamented. “Perhaps we can prevail against him and take our revenge upon him,” he heard the crowds say.
The uncomfortable truth in today’s scriptures, is the truth of the times God’s Word burning within us leads us to speak in ways that have consequences – in ways that will piss people off, rub people the wrong way, and lead to rebuke and rejection.
Jesus himself affirmed this in the Gospel reading for today. Said Jesus: “Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matthew 10:34 And then, rather inconveniently for us on this Father’s Day, Jesus said he came to set a man against his father … that one’s foes will be members of one’s own household … and that Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.
Now, to be clear, Jesus’s teaching here does not overturn the Fourth Commandment that we Honor our Father and Mother. This is not an invitation to go tell off our families and to be jerks about it. If you have a father and haven’t called him, call your Father and wish him a Happy Father’s Day.
But this does invite us to consider the times, like Jeremiah, we are given a word to speak, a word of God’s love, a word of God’s tough love, a Word that burns in our bones that we cannot hold in. But a Word, nevertheless, that has consequences when we speak it, perhaps even consequences in our own households.
“The incarnate Word of God inevitably creates division, where God’s unconditional grace is denied and God’s unyielding demand for justice is ignored and dishonored,” writes Pastor Stacey Nalean-Carlson. “The Word of God is NOT good news for those who determine their worth by devaluing the worth of others. The Word of God is NOT good news for those invested in systems that maintain a high quality of life for some while so many others suffer.”
Into our world of sin and pain, into the reality of systemic racism and white supremacy in this country …to us on planet earth more concerned about our convenience than lowering our carbon emissions …God speaks rebuke, judgment, and repentance. And this speech, spoken NOT in a booming voice from heaven, but in earthly prophets like you and me, will feel painful, may feel excessive, may feel too political, when it rubs up against the places we are comfortable in our sin.
Over the past several weeks there have been many references to the teachings of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Here’s an interesting thing about Dr. King: King’s popularity among the American people was at its highest when he was farthest South. When he was in the deep South protesting the overt racism of Southerners his popularity was at its highest levels. When he moved North, however, when he pointed out Northern racism in Chicago, it is reported that he said the anger in the white mobs he experienced there, were more hateful than any he had experienced in Mississippi or Alabama.
And then when King started speaking out against this country’s militarism and war in Vietnam …when he started speaking out against this country’ greed that enriches some while impoverishing others … when he proposed $50 billion worth of reparations for the African American community …when God’s Word speaking through him poked directly into the comforts of all American, his approval ratings plummeted. By the time of his assassination 75% of all Americans disapproved of him and his teachings.
So, pastor, what’s the point of all this? What’s the Good News for today? The Good News is that God continues to speak! The Good News is the same word burning in Jeremiah is the same hunger, and fire, and passion burns deep within our Triune God.
The Good News today is that God is not silent in response to the suffering of God’s people. God speaks today in prophets like Jeremiah, like Martin Luther King, Jr, like the protestors on the streets today demanding racial justice. God speaks through fathers and mothers, disciplining and teaching their children right and wrong, teaching their children God’s Word and raising them in communities of faith. God speaks through policy makers and public servants and those dedicated to making the world a better place.
And yes, there are costs to living in this Word and speaking this word. But, as Pastor Stacey Nalean-Carlson writes: “No follower of Jesus Christ needs to seek out self-sacrifice. Jesus has sacrificed himself for the world. To take up the cross and follow Jesus is not to deny our own belovedness, but to affirm God’s naming of all this world as beloved. Standing up to systems of injustice may cost us more than we care to imagine. But to do any less will cost us even more.”
“Those who find their life will lose it,” said Jesus in today’s gospel. “And those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
In faith today, we are invited to find our life in God’s Word. In faith, we are invited to trust the Good News that any temporary pain experienced in speaking and receiving God’s Word is nothing compared to the gain of living in God’s Word of power, justice, and liberation. In faith, we are invited to find our life today, life that really is life, in God who speaks, who speaks breath into the community of God, in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
With that in mind, friends:
- What difficult Word has God given you, that is burning in your bones to speak today?
- What painful word has God spoken to you that you need to receive today?
- In what ways are you called to see the pain in both speaking and hearing God’s word not as punishment today, but as the growing pains into the life of healing, wholeness, and grace that Jesus Christ speaks to the world?
Along with Jeremiah and the prophets …joined with Christ and the apostles …alive in the power of the Holy Spirit: SPEAK GOD’s WORD and RECEIVE GOD’s WORD today. In God’s Word live the life to which you are called. To do any less will cost even more.
Indeed may it be so.