Rev. Susan’s Sermon, Proper 8 2020
Jeremiah 28:5-9, Matthew 10:40-42
This is one of those times where I’m grateful for the visual on the screen, so I don’t have to ask you to imagine it. I’m talking about the sign outside most of our churches, the one with the shield and the bold words: “the Episcopal Church welcomes you.”
The one we have is the ‘updated’ sign. The older one was a bit more straightforward, the shield was vertical. I don’t care for this one because of the peek-a-boo shield that I think sends the wrong message. It’s like a hip, wink and a nod, instead of a declarative statement. Of course none of this is obvious to people who walk through our doors. We hope they join us because they believe us when we say “welcome.”
The idea of hospitality and welcome however, is more than just a friendly disposition toward newcomers and visitors. If taken seriously, as we must, it means we must confront, and be confronted with, what God is doing in the world and our part in it.
We are at the end of a lengthy discourse that Jesus gives as he sends out his disciples to spread the good news. He has given them a wonderful mission, but brutal working conditions. He has warned that terrible things may happen to them on their journey: their work and words will sow division even among their families, they may get heckled and jeered, and thrown out of town. He tells them to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Today, he doubles down on his warning –even though he frames it as a reward.
He calls it a “prophet’s reward.” That’s what they get, even when they are welcomed. What is a prophet’s reward? Well, let’s just say it’s not easy being one of God’s earthly messengers.
Borrowing from Eugene Peterson’s Introduction to his translation of the prophetic works in the Bible, he writes:
“[The prophets] delivered God’s commands and promises and living presence to communities and nations who had been living on god-fantasies and god-lies… most of us do our best to keep God on the margins of our lives, or failing that, [we] refashion God to suit our convenience. Prophets insist that God is the sovereign center, not off in the wings awaiting our beck and call… Prophets insist that we deal with God as God reveals himself, not as we imagine him to be… these men and women woke people up to the sovereign presence of God in their lives. They yelled, they wept, they rebuked, they soothed, they challenged, they comforted… the prophets purge our imaginations of this world’s assumptions on how life is lived and what counts in life…” (The Message,The Old Testament Prophets p 7,ff)
In a word, a prophet seeks to reorder your life, to reclaim it for God. I don’t know of anyone who wants a prophet in their life or anyone who wants to be a prophet, either. And yet, there is Jesus wrapping up his whole discipleship call with this image.
Peterson goes on to write: “The reality is that prophets don’t fit in our way of life… for people who are accustomed to ‘fitting God’ into their lives… the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. “ (ibid). So, it seems, there’s not much reward in being a prophet at all.
Take that snippet of the Old Testament appointed for today, you can’t really tell because it’s so short, but it’s a showdown between Jeremiah and Hananaiah.
Sometimes called the ‘weeping prophet’ because of his pessimistic outlook, Jeremiah never sugar coated what was happening to the Hebrew people. He lived in a time of tremendous upheaval, the first Temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed, and the majority of the people taken in captivity to Babylon. To the faithful remnant, Jeremiah prophesied that things were bad, eventually would get worse, but that did not mean God had abandoned them.
His words were not welcomed. Who wanted to listen to that? Better to consider the sweet words of Hananiah: “Everything’s going to be fine. Soon we will triumph, everyone is coming home!”
Within a year of this statement Hananiah would be dead, labeled a false prophet. But because it is a prophet’s job is to dare to tell God’s people hard and holy truths, Jeremiah’s words would make him one of the major prophets of the Old Testament.
That’s a prophet’s reward. Bearing God’s word in a broken world is hard and thankless work. I think sometimes we suffer from that reticence illustrated in our welcome sign, peeking out from the side, unwilling to stand front and center. The welcome sign wasn’t meant to protect us, it is meant to empower us to engage the world and all it has to offer.
It doesn’t have to be a showdown, and if it seems like one, maybe it’s time to question who we are listening to, who has our attention.
Are we listening to the warning that we have relegated God to the margins, instead of making God the center of our lives? Are hearing how God may be calling us through others? Whose words are we dismissing because they don’t fit, they don’t square, with our set way of thinking? Are we willing to welcome the witness and lived experience of others, the LGBTQ, people of color, the undocumented and poor, if only because it may bring us closer to God?
We are living in a time of tremendous upheaval. The prophets indeed are hard to take and easy to dismiss, but they are like signs pointing to God. Can we welcome God’s hard and holy truths in our time?
Who even dares speak for God now?
It may not be who you think.
“ For the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls…”
In Jesus’ name. Amen.