The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15c)
14 August 2016
Almighty God, who hast given thy only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one
God, now and for ever. Amen.
Hebrews 12:1-7, 11-14
Today’s lessons are not easy. We have Jeremiah’s tough criticism of false prophets, the letter to the Hebrews’ comparison of God to a father who painfully disciplines his son, and Luke’s vision of a family divided by the dynamic change Jesus brings to the world. It would be easy for some to preach a fire and brimstone message that pits those on the inside, the few, the chosen faithful, against a world that seeks to destroy them. It would be equally easy for others—and you know me well enough to know that I could easily fall into this camp—to preach against the text and present a warmer and fuzzier vision.
The take away from today’s Scripture, however, is more complex and worth a bit of struggle. Ultimately I think what our texts are telling us is that God is ever present and cares deeply for us and that God is always and everywhere making something new and tearing down old structures and calling out the self-interested in order to bring about the Kingdom of God.
In the lesson from Jeremiah, we hear God asking us, “Am I a God at hand, says the Lord, and not a God afar off? .... Do I not fill heaven and earth?” God, our God, is close to us, knows us, and sees what we do. We could easily hear this as a kind of divine culture of surveillance and use this vision, as many have, to control people’s actions and beliefs through fear. Perhaps, however, this notion is better understood as an answer to those who worry that God is a remote, uncaring figure, who simply sits in judgement against us. God cares about us, and what we do matters, matters to the ultimate reality of all that is. This is a God who calls us into relationship and asks us to do difficult things, things that may be unpopular or hard, things that run counter to many of the messages about success and value that we encounter in the world.
The false prophets whom God, through Jeremiah’s narrative, is deriding (and make no mistake, God is making fun of them and their claims to “have dreamed”), these prophets are hypocrites (23:14), acting in their own self interest. They “keep saying to those who despise the world of the Lord, 'It shall be well with you;’ and to all who stubbornly follow their own stubborn hearts, they say, ‘No calamity shall come upon you.’” They are complicit in a culture of complacency, telling people what they want to hear, and keeping people from following God and God’s vision.
In stark contrast, Jeremiah prophesies, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch; and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (23:5). God’s movement will not come without major upheavals in the social order. This is not good news to those who appreciate the false vision of those dreamers. This movement towards justice and righteousness will not suit the interests of those who keep power to themselves and rule and act in their own interests. Therefore, those who speak of this change, this movement, will need courage. It is easy to tell people what they want to hear. It is much harder to speak of the coming reign of God in which the values of love and justice will overturn the forces that abuse power and accumulate wealth without regard for the welfare of all. Indeed, Jeremiah reminds us, “Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?”
This is what Jesus means when he says, “I have come to cast fire upon the earth” and asks, “Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No I tell you, but rather division.” Jesus has just told the crowd the story of the rich man who built the barns and then died before he could enjoy what he had saved. Jesus warned the people about putting all their energy into amassing wealth and focussing on their material possessions, rather than being “rich toward God.” What matters is how we live, not what we have and he exhorted them to “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out” (12:33). He is calling on the people, on us, to be alert and ready to respond to the great changes that are coming, to the oncoming storm: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.”
Jesus, like Jeremiah, knows he is asking a great deal of us. They both know that this message of great change is hard for us to hear and if we follow the call and go where it leads, we might have to give things up like our privilege or our power. As I have discussed before, Luke knew his audience. Luke knew he was writing to a cosmopolitan elite, the kind of people who would buy a two volume book in Greek, like his, in a port city like Antoich and read it on their return journey to Rome or Ephesus or Alexandria or Corinth or wherever their business was taking them. Luke knew he was speaking to people with power and privilege who had something to lose by following Jesus and listening to his call to prioritise love over possessions. Luke knew he was writing to people like many of us here today.
Luke and Jeremiah’s harsh words remind us that the life in which we align our purpose with God’s purpose is making the difficult choice. Following Jesus means following him to Jerusalem, accompany him through his passion, and walking to the foot of the cross. It calls us to be both humble and wary of our own hypocrisy and to be bold in our naming injustice when we see it and be open to criticism our self. It means running the risk of making people angry or upset with us.
The good news is we do not do this alone. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.
We are strengthened by Jesus’ own supreme act of Love that showed us that even death fails to have sway in the face of God’s redeeming work. We are surrounded by all who have come before us and done their best to conform their lives with Jesus’ call to radical Love. Most immediately, we are surrounded and strengthened by everyone here, in this place, now, who shares this journey with us and who struggles as we do, who messes up and stumbles, just as we do, and who gets up again. We are part of a community that stands up here at mass to take the very body of Christ into our bodies and leaves this place made one with the whole body of Christ transformed into bearers of God’s very presence into the world. In the face of that oncoming storm, we will leave this place, full of Christ’s love, and do our part.
Andrew C. Blume✠
Jeremy Taylor, Bishop, 13 August 2016
© 2016 Andrew Charles Blume