Texts: Jeremiah 20:7-13, Matthew 10:24-39
Jews divide the Hebrew Bible, Christianity’s Old Testament, into three sections—the Torah (the so-called five books of Moses), the Prophets, and the Wisdom writings like Job and the Psalms, placing very great emphasis on the religious inheritance of the prophets. Every university student taking a Western Religions course learns that the prophetic literature is one of the great and lasting legacies of the Western religious tradition. And liturgical Christianity’s three-year lectionary series pays ample notice to the prophets.
Listen to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of today’s reading:
You pushed me into this God, and I let you do it.
You were too much for me. Now I’m a public joke. They all
poke fun at me.
Every time I open my mouth I’m shouting Murder or Rape.
And all I get for all my God-warnings are insults and contempt.
But if I say, Forget it, I’m shutting up. No more God-Messages
from me--then your Words become fire in my belly and a burning in my bones.
I’m worn out trying to hold it in. I can’t do it any longer.
Then I hear whispering behind my back: There goes old
“Danger-Everywhere.” Shut him up. Report him.
Old friends watch, hoping I’ll fall flat on my face. One misstep
and we’ll have him. We’ll get rid of him for good.
Jeremiah has given his name to the word jeremiad, a long, mournful complaint or lamentation; a list of woes. This sermon, by the way, is not a jeremiad, though I might be capable of preaching one.
What do you make of prophets? It is often remarked that history remembers the names of the prophets long after the names of kings they opposed have been forgotten. Have you ever met a prophet? Is it your heart’s desire to be in their company? Well, there’s Jesus—more of him in a minute. And in the 2nd century as Christianity was beginning to take root in the Roman Empire, Christian martyrs would not stop proclaiming Jesus is Lord, when state and society were demanding that people confess, Caesar is lord. It can’t be an accident that the lordship of Christ vs the lordship of the state is a very big deal in contemporary New Testament studies. And so the early confessors, and many throughout history, were tortured and killed for it.
In the 12th century came Thomas Beckett, about whom an English King said, “Will no one deliver me from this turbulent priest” and who was shortly murdered in his own Canterbury cathedral for putting Church above nation. Thousands still flock to where he was slain to this day, even when they can’t remember the name of the king who was complicit. (Henry II) In the 16th century came Martin Luther, whom the Roman Pope called a wild boar loose in a German vineyard. We’re spending this year honoring the 500th anniversary of the time he nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg—an act of prophetic boldness. A prophet who arose during the Nazi period in Germany was the Lutheran Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who helped mobilize the Protestant Confessing Church to counter the so-called German Christians who sold out the Church to the State. Bonhoeffer was martyred just three weeks before the war came to an end, April 9, 1945, whose date we celebrate in the Lutheran calendar.
In our age there was Martin Luther King—assassinated by a racist—a prophet whose birthday surprisingly became a national holiday. The anti-war and social justice activist Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, astonishingly, was on the FBI’s most wanted list for quite a long time—something the Hebrew prophets or Bonhoeffer would have understood but made most American Christians extremely uneasy.
Prophets typically interact with the state in ways which make the state very unhappy. Jeremiah regularly denounced Israel’s southern kingdom, Judah—both its citizens and its kings. As I wrote this sermon I wondered if a modern Jeremiah would pledge allegiance to the United States using the words under God--added during the Cold War as a stick in the eye to the Soviet Union. I think prophets might pledge allegiance, but they would add two more words: one nation under the judgment of God.
The Hebrew prophets always got caught between the call of God and the demands of the so-called royal theology, which puts nation at the top of the values hierarchy. In royal theology God exists to legitimize the predominance of the state or an economic system. To help resist the temptation to use God for one’s own purposes, all Israelites were taught to confess the First Commandment: You shall have no other gods before me; to which Luther added: We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
So you can see what difficult people prophets are. In retrospect we admire them, but not usually during their lifetimes. In Seminary we used to debate whether a parish pastor could or must be a prophet; but what congregation would put such a person on salary—always stirring up the crowds, disturbing local or national order, often offending even church people? The pastor’s job, surely, is to feed the flock and hold it together. And make a good impression. But prophets invariably take God’s side by speaking truth to power. People in power are not amused. They see prophets as trouble-makers. Who is making trouble today?
Jesus is our Master. He gently reminds the twelve that disciples are not greater than their master. We could display a sign in the narthex for all our neighbors to see: Jesus is the master of this house, and we are his disciples. This is the place where we learn his platform. We are to go out the door and share Jesus’ agenda with the neighborhood. Maybe they’ll like it right away, maybe not. Look at our country right now. Look at ourselves. Not everyone is enthusiastic about Jesus’ approach. But God’s eye is on the sparrows.
The assignment to gather the harvest may be hard. There is a cost to discipleship. There will be conflict. Jesus even says that his message may divide people, even divide us against each other. But let’s not revel in divisiveness. Consider this advice from the Christian writer Madeleine L’Engle when you take the Jesus you meet here out to the people on Harbor Hill: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Do you see? We go out to the harvest and shine a light in the fields. And when people ask, “where did that light come from?” we tell them. We also mention the sparrows.
Could Agnus Dei become a pivot point for all the growth within a two-mile radius of this church? Every Sunday, and sometimes during the week, we drive up here. We’d have to be blind, on our way to church, not to see the harvest that is waiting for our light. And for news about the sparrows.
When I was in my first two years of ministry in the East Bay of California we would have regular regional meetings of the pastors. We were all jealous of a Lutheran Church in Santa Clara County, the southern tip of what would become Silicon Valley. It was the fastest growing church any of us knew about. Finally we asked the pastor what was his secret. His secret was that the entire congregation was paying attention to the fastest growing county in northern California. His only secret was having his eyes on the neighborhood. Of course this church made sure they understood who Jesus really is and that discipleship consists in going out to gather the harvest.
Maybe this is a pivotal time for Agnus Dei, in Gig Harbor. It’s clear this country is at some kind of crossroads, with everyone yelling at each other and people dreaming up ways to protect the economy from Jesus’ claims. Maybe aggressive prophetic congregations will alarm their neighbors and bring criticism upon themselves. But that may not be where we need to start. When we’ve shined our light and people ask about it, when we’ve re-envisioned the neighborhood as a great harvest that is God’s assigned responsibility to us, when people start inquiring, we don’t have to begin with how wrong most people are and how right we are, and how everyone on Facebook is going to hell in a handbasket.
No, as they come to ask about the light they’ve seen, as they eventually come through the door, just say, “Have you seen the light we shined on this hill? Have you heard about the sparrows?” Who knows where the road ahead in this society will take us, but we want you to be confident that God watches over you. Don’t forget the sparrows every day of your life. And come back next Sunday. We know even more about the sparrows.