Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Lectionary 13A + Sunday, June 28, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts

Watch Here (Minute 23:10)

In the name of Jesus. Amen

Jeremiah certainly didn’t make many friends.

In last Sunday’s reading from the Book of Jeremiah, we read that he made an enemy in the chief of the temple police and was arrested and beaten. In today’s reading, [Jeremiah 28:5-9] we find Jeremiah years later, quarreling with the prophet Hananiah. The argument between Hananiah and Jeremiah is one we see played out today. It’s between prophets of the easy road, preaching what we want to hear, and prophets of the more difficult road, preaching what people need to hear.

To a broken, imprisoned, and defeated people, Hananiah prophesied homecoming, release from captivity, and happy days ahead. You can read Hananiah’s prophecy in the verses just prior to our reading this morning. Hananiah prophesied that in just two years all the people, the king and all his men, and all the sacred temple items would be returned to Jerusalem. Immediately after our reading, Hananiah even broke a figurative yoke that Jeremiah wore around his neck as Jeremiah’s sign to the people for their bondage to the Babylonian Empire.

Hananiah’s message sounded good. To the people, it must have sounded like the Lord’s Work! Yes, they agreed, the Lord does break the chains of slavery! Yes, the recalled, the Lord did lead the people out of slavery and into the promised land. Yes, they confessed in faith, God was more powerful than the Babylonian Empire.

Jeremiah, on the other hand, who certainly didn’t make many friends, had to say:  Not so fast. “Oh, I wish you were right,” Jeremiah said. “ I wish your prophecy would indeed come true. Who doesn’t want that?  Yes, absolutely! But, Jeremiah lamented and warned. “I think you are wrong. Time will tell.”

Professor Juliana Claassens notices something interesting in this quarrel between the prophets. Claassens sees that scripture identifies both Hananiah and Jeremiah as prophets.

There’s no reason to believe Hananiah’s motives were wrong.  Scripture does not call Hananiah a false prophet.  Applying Martin Luther’s teaching on the 8th Commandment, to be charitable in our words spoken about others, is to speak the truth that Hananiah did speak a true word ABOUT God even if the word wasn’t FROM God. Hananiah was right: God was more powerful than King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian empire. God easily had the power to break their bondage. God had the power to lead the people home. This was true talk about God.  But, it was the right message at the wrong time. A prophet before his time, as the saying goes. 

On the other hand, the interesting thing about Jeremiah’s message, is that he actually stood with the Babylonian captors. Jeremiah’s message was basically that God’s Work was found in the totalitarian regime. At this moment in time, God’s work was not found in release from the imperial power, but in ongoing subjugation to that imperial power. In this teaching, Jeremiah certainly wouldn’t make many friends today of those working for social justice or teaching liberation theology. For what his prophesy instructed, was that to oppose Empire at that moment in time, was to oppose God who used Empire to discipline the people for their past sin.

Professor Claassens summarizes the confrontation between Jeremiah and Hananiah in this way:  It’s “a good reminder of how complex figuring out the truth is, and discerning what is right and good and just, amid some of the very complex issues facing contemporary believers.”

Discerning God’s Word and work among us is the prophet’s task.  The prophets invites us to stop, think, and reflect on where God is found in the difficult and complex issues of the day. 

Jesus talked about prophets in the Gospel reading today [Matthew 10:40-42].   

Said Jesus: “Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet receives a prophet’s reward.”

Professor Holly Hearon offers this helpful definition of a prophet: “Prophets may be described as those who bring the word of God to bear on the life of the community in self-critical ways.”  

Prophets are those among us who force us to stop and think about our behaviors, expectations, and attitudes; about our life in Christ; and about our life with each other.   Prophets stop us in our tracks with difficult questions. A prophet is not a fortune teller – we don’t seek out prophets to know the future; instead, prophets today are truth tellers – we seek out prophets to know the truth.

While telling the truth does involve being real about future outcomes (e.g. bad and unhealthy behavior usually lead to bad and unhealthy outcomes, while good and healthy behaviors are more likely to lead to good and healthy outcomes), the goal of a prophet is NOT to turn our attention to the future. The goal of the prophet IS to turn our attention into our hearts and minds, into our attitudes and behaviors, for the sake of faith.   

To welcome the prophet among us, we learn in our gospel reading today, is to welcome Christ himself. To welcome the prophet is to receive a prophet’s reward. One scholar suggests the prophet’s reward is Matthew 10:32 “Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” Welcoming the prophet, engaging in prophetic work, has heavenly recognition and acknowledgment.

To welcome the prophet as individuals, as a congregation, and as a community is to welcome Christ into the difficult process of discerning what is true, right, good, and just, in the very complex issues facing believers. We welcome the prophets, we welcome Christ himself, when we stop, think, and reflect on our relationships with each other and with God.

Today, in the abundant grace of God, we have prophets all around us. 

  • As some of you know, the Congregational Council has engaged a coach to work with our Council. The self-reflective, self-critical work we do with this coach, focusing on how function as the leaders of this congregation is prophetic work.  This work is not tangential, it is prophetic work and as we welcome it we welcome Christ among us.
  • Even before this season of protesters demanding racial justice, ELCA Pastor Lenny Duncan was a prophet among us who wrote the book:  “Dear Church: A love letter from a black preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” (Click here for more info or to order). In his book, Pastor Duncan asks us to stop and think about the ways we do church, about the white Jesus we present in our stained glass windows and paintings, to the European-descent theologians we value and prize, to the images we use in our preaching and teaching, to the colors we use in church. Pastor Duncan asks us to think critically and carefully about the ways all of this contributes to welcoming white people and unwelcoming people of color.  To read, digest, and learn from Pastor Duncan’s prophetic work, is to welcome Christ himself.
  • My former pastoral intern, Pastor Tiffany Chaney, a mission developer pastor in Alabama, a Black woman, has written publicly her concerns about the depth of white interest in racial justice.  (Click here to access her writings on her blog: “Loving God, Living Life, Laughing Lots”). She is concerned that when the protests fade, that when the daily concerns of life come crushing back in, that when it becomes less trendy to join with the protests, that things will go back to normal. In her prophetic work, she asks us to look into our hearts and prepare to make a lifelong commitment to this work, not just when it’s easy and popular, but when it’s inconvenient, and disruptive, and painful.  To take Pastor Chaney’s challenge to a long term commitment to racial justice is to welcome Christ herself.

The Good News today, is that though prophets call us at times to face harsh truths, this work is not for punishment and condemnation, it is for the sake of life and healing.   

Prophets and prophetic work speak the truth of sin which prevents a deeper relationship with Christ through faith.   Prophets fearlessly and boldly identify obstacles to faith so that they can be removed, and so that all people may know the power of Jesus Christ in new ways.

In his teaching about baptism, from our Second Reading today, the Apostle Paul wrote that in baptism, we might “walk in the newness of life.” (Romans 6:4c) One commentator noted that the same Greek Word Paul uses here in Romans 6:4 is the same one found in 2 Corinthians 5:17 “So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And Galatians 6:15:  “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything: but a new creation is everything!”

In baptism, we are joined to the death of Christ as our old ways of sin are nailed with Christ to the cross. AND in baptism, we are joined to the resurrection of Christ as we walk with the resurrected Christ in the newness of life.  In welcoming the work of the prophets in the promise of baptism, we embrace the Christian pattern of life that is death and resurrection.

Prophetic work that identifies our old ways of sin – is for the sake of opening us up to the newness of life in Christ. Prophetic work that calls us to self-critical analysis – is for the sake of liberation, that we would be turned outward, and turned loose in the world, in new ways of healing, justice, and mercy. It is, as the Apostle Paul writes today, the way “We no longer let sin have dominion over us, but we present ourselves to God as those brought from death to life.”

The Good News of baptism, is the promise of Christ’s new life  is for EACH of us. In baptism the promise is proclaimed that none of us has a past that steals away our future life in Christ. In the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus, our past sin is forgiven, even the most heinous and awful sin we must face and confess is overcome by the grace and power of Jesus Christ – for the sake of newness of life and salvation!

Friends in Christ, let us welcome the prophets among us!

As disciples of Christ, let us engage in prophetic work as we fearlessly receive and tell the truth … as we boldly name and confess our sin … and as we courageously speak the words given by God for us to speak.

In so doing, may we walk with Christ into new relationships of justice and understanding, new systems of equality and inclusion, new experiences of grace, wholeness and welcome. 

Thanks be to God.