A sermon for Epiphany 4; Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, 1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Luke 4:21-30
I was surprised that the phrase today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down. It is not the missional or love based thought Christians associate with the Bible. It is not about justice and reconciliation you often hear preached. It doesn’t sound like it meshes with the Jesus movement and the preaching of our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, I find so powerful. Perhaps the context of the reading will help.
Jeremiah lives in tumultuous times. The Babylonian Empire is on the rise. Israel splits, some seek to associate with the rising power, others seek to stay loyal to Egypt. In 597 BC Israel revolts against Babylon, triggering three invasions, that result in the deportation and exile of most of her people. The book of Jeremiah is a conversation between communal voices seeking to come to terms with the tragedy that destroyed so much of their life. It is intensely political. It is very focused on rejecting the thought that God abandoned Israel. It is biased towards exiles over those loyal to Egypt and those who were left behind. The first half of the book explains why Israel fell; the second half reveals how Israel can survive, indeed how they can prosper. The verses we heard this morning reveal that Jeremiah is not a self-proclaimed prophet, he is called by God, over his objections, just as Moses was. We hear how he will be a destroyer and a rebuilder (Harrelson).
At some point in my ponderings, I wondered how Jesus would go about pulling down and building up. You are familiar enough with the Gospel story to know he challenges many of the existing Jewish traditions. You know about his tirade in the Temple. You know he predicts that the Temple, the center of Jewish life, will be destroyed. You know this prediction includes it’s being rebuilt in three days. But how does Jesus actually go about tearing down and building up?
Today’s Gospel story and its first half from last week are an example. One trick is to see that the order is reversed, first Jesus builds up first, and then tears down. Last week Jesus read from Isaiah, how he is bringing: good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and the year of Jubilee. It’s all heard with welcome ears, at last, God is acting to restore Israel. As one commentator notes, if only Jesus had stopped talking. His didn’t.
Today we hear that at first everyone is excited. We also hear him talk about Elijah being sent to the widow of Zarephath in a time of a great drought. He goes on to say that in Elisha’s day, of all the lepers in Israel, only Naaman is cured. Suddenly the crowd ruthlessly turns against Jesus. It reminds me of the shift in Holy Week from the jubilant welcome on Palm Sunday to the brutal “Crucify him!” on Good Friday. What we may miss, is the divine blessings Jesus names explicitly go to outsiders, by God’s direct action, tearing down Jesus’ hometown expectation of divinely selected privilege, right along with the ruling classes expectation for divine privilege. So now we see, specifically, how Jesus tears down and builds up, in a particular instance. However, it is important for us to understand the principles Jesus stands on from which his action emerges. It is not motivation nor justification I’m pondering; it is his state of being from which Jesus acts that has my attention. Every now and again you look to the future to understand the past. So it is this morning.
The first remembrance is a training conference. I don’t recall where, or what the training was for. I’m not even sure I was there or if this is a story I heard. It doesn’t matter; it makes it the point. The trainer walks out onto the stage. There is no superlative greeting. There is no introduction of who he is. There is no announcing what the training is all about. The very first words spoken are: “If you not here because you love these people, leave!” There was an uncomfortable profound silence. I don’t recall anyone leaving. And the trainer did have our everyone’s attention.
And the trainer raises a good point. When we go, into the world, to minister to the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the poor, the oppressed, the blind, or the prisoners, why are we there? Are we there to punch our good deed card? Are we there to help someone? or to meet a need? Are we there to be in a mutual relationship with another of God’s children? Are we there because we love them, as God loves us, a gift unearned and unmerited?
You can hear how all this emerges from Paul’s letter to the quibbling church in Corinth. Last week we heard him argue that all gifts are from the Spirit, that all gifts are intended for the common good, that all gifts are equally important. This morning we heard him proclaim that all gifts are useless ~ unless we use them in love. Paul is not referring to the romantic relationship between spouses, or the paternal love for children, nor the friendship love of fraternity, sorority members, or between fishing, hunting, gaming or other friendships. No, Paul is referring to love written in the scripture as ‘agape.’ It’s Old Testament roots are: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself (Deut. 6:5 & Lev. 19:18) (Sakenfeld). It’s New Testament roots are: love of neighbor (Matt. 22:40), love of enemy (Matt 5:44), loving each other as Jesus loves his disciples (John 14:23) and love of God (Sakenfeld). As a familiar hymn says, love how deep, how broad, how high … that the Son of God should take our mortal form for mortals’ sake (Hymnal 1982, 448). [pause]
Today our challenge is not so much who we welcome. After his visit Bishop Benfield remarked that we are the most diverse congregation in the Diocese. We are welcoming to people of all sorts and in all conditions. I’ve seen rich and poor, folks of all political stripe, folks in varying states of mental and physical health, you name the variation and I expect they have been welcomed by St. Stephen’s. The challenge we face is. How many of you know what I’m going to say? [pause] You are right. The challenge we face is: how are we going to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here right now? That is a building up question. The hard bit is the addition of a preface: As our financial resources are playing out, how are we going to proclaim the Kingdom of God right here right now? In the context of today’s reading, how do we go about this discerning in love?
Way later in Jeremiah’s story, in the middle of a siege, that will lead to the conquering hoards once again ravaging Jerusalem, Jeremiah has a vision to purchase a piece of property from his cousin. He makes the purchase. And he does so because he knows God sees what he cannot see (Epperly). He does so because he loves God and his love engenders trust. The Greek word translated ‘belief’ also means ‘faith’ and also implies ‘trust.’ To love God is to trust God, especially when we cannot, for the life us, see the future.
In our annual meeting, you will be invited into a conversation the vestry, and I have just begun. For the moment know it will involve some tearing down, and it will include some building up. We may well experience an emotional surge similar to Jesus’ neighbors. My prayer is that what is spoken is spoken in love; that what is heard is heard in love; and that over the time to come, and it will be a fair length of time, our love for God engenders trust of God, that enables us to hear God’s call. It is my prayer that as we have lived through our baptism in our hospitality, that we will live through our baptism in our discernment (Bates). My prayer is we do not fear plucking down and building up, rather that we trust God to lead us into the life to come.
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