In this week’s readings, we are confronted repeatedly by the prophetic word of God through a variety of means. God speaks to and through people to teach us about the divine way, modeling for us how we are to live. This God speaking to and through us reminded me of a poem I read recently by Rainer Maria Rilke from his work the Book of Hours. It goes like this;
God speaks to each of us as he makes us
Then he walks with us, silently, out of the night
These are the words we dimly hear
You, sent out beyond your recall
Go to the limits of your longing
Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you; beauty & terror
Just keep going, no feeling is final
Don’t let yourself lose me
Nearby is the country called life
You will know it by its seriousness
Give me your hand
In our Hebrew Scripture reading today, we find God speaking through young Jeremiah to deliver hard truth to the Israelites, to warn them of coming danger, to call them to repent. In our New Testament reading, God speaks to us through Paul and his hard truths for the congregation at Corinth. In our Gospel reading, Jesus speaks to us through his hard truths at the Nazarene synagogue.
Jeremiah, we read, was sent to pluck up and to pull down; destroy and overthrow; to build and to plant.
What exactly was Jeremiah to destroy, what was he to build up? Are we, as a faith community, we as a society, like the Israel in Jeremiah? I cannot say, but what I do see is that we have the most privileged lives in the whole world. We have everything we could ever want or need at our fingertips. We have it so good, what did we do to deserve such luck? My fear is that such privilege makes us comfortable. Having attained our own security and prosperity we risk becoming blind to the sufferings of those around us and those hidden away from us. We risk being blind to our own shortcomings as individuals and as a community. The Israelites from our readings were so self-assured they could not hear the voice of God crying out through Jeremiah. For these reasons among many, we need to continue to wrestle with the words of the prophets, and listen for those prophets who are hidden among us.
Today’s readings reveal that the Word of God often comes to us in the most unexpected places. In Jeremiah God comes through a young boy, and I ask you this; what message is God trying to tell us through our children? and do we have ears to hear it?
Are we called to tear down manifested evil in our world and build from the heart? Build through God’s love? The scripture tells us that Jeremiah’s message is not just for the Israelites, but all the nations. Let us not grow so comfortable that we grow blind to the Love of God and the love of our neighbour. We too can cultivate the prophetic Word in our lives and in our community. What seeds will we choose to plant? Jeremiah teaches us that if we are not proactive in transforming ourselves through God’s love, God will make the necessary changes for us.
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians speaks a great deal about God’s Love. Love does not insist on its own way. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, to name but a few characteristics. In preparation for this week’s message, it struck me that Love is itself complete fulfilment, there is no loving a little bit. I can’t tell my wife or daughter, oh, I only love you 87% today, or last week I was upset with you so I only loved you 55%. I generally don’t like to deal in black and white but love either is or it isn’t. Similarly, God either is or isn’t.
People say God does not exist, that there is no scientific evidence to prove it, we cannot see it, they say. I ask you, can you see the wind? No, but we can see the leaves blow. Can you see Love? Can it be quantified? Can it be proven? Not scientifically. Yet each and every human being knows that Love is, and its fullness is beyond our comprehension, making us do completely irrational things. Paul tells us that love never ends. This is the best analogy for God that the human mind is capable of understanding, but it works. Think of your children, your parents, your partner, your friends. We see love mirrored in our words, thoughts and actions towards those who we love. We cannot see love, only its effects on the heart, the mind, the spirit. We cannot see the wind, only its effects on the leaf. We cannot see God, only the wonder of creation. We just feel it, and know it is there.
So what do we do with love, having received it? Do we hoard it to ourselves? Do we cling to every scrap we can find at the risk of suffocating it, at the risk of extinguishing that love? No, we give it away, and in so doing receive back immeasurably much more love than is quantifiable, we attain fulfillment, our hearts spill over into others.
But love is not always easy or comfortable. Love often pushes us to be vulnerable, to be uncertain, to go beyond our comfort zone. It is not easy to stand here before you and deliver this message. Paul said that Love bears all and that it never ends. Love sometimes comes to us in the form of the hard truths of Christ. We live out God’s love when we help each other see where we have erred. Not in the spirit of putting each other down, but in the spirit of lifting each other up. That is what gives strength to the community.
Steel sharpens steel and people sharpen people. We gather here as a community in service of God’s Love. This means we must together share the burden of truth telling. Love and truth are inseparable. When we neglect truth, conflict grows among us, tensions rise. People leave the church. On and on. When we share truth we promote understanding and create the opportunity to be heard, and in doing so, are able to understand and hear others. The renewal circle following the service today is a great time and place to get into the habit of communicating with one another about what it means to be a part of the St. Matthew’s community. We can’t grow together if we don’t know what your needs are. Each of us must stand up and be counted, stand up for what you believe in. Only then we can have an honest and productive conversation about who we want to be.
Today’s Gospel reading is a bit cryptic. It begins with Jesus saying “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” You might be wondering, “what exactly has been fulfilled?”
Jesus went to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath, as was his custom, Luke tells us. The scroll of Isiah was given to him and he read aloud these words,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
No wonder the people spoke well of him because they thought he was talking about them. They were oppressed by the Roman Empire after all, surely he meant them, to be set free as children of the Lord.
Then the passage takes a dark turn for the people in the synagogue. Jesus exercises his prophetic voice to rebuke the people, saying that the oppressed of the oppressed is where God’s Good News reveals itself, not among those gathered in the synagogue. The crowd erupts in anger and they try to throw him off of a cliff. What then are we to make of Jesus’ proclamation? Who among us is Zarephath in Sidon? Who among us is Naaman the Syrian?
Last May, as a part of my studies at the seminary, I engaged in a study tour to the Holy Land. The trip was the payoff for having endured the seminary for more than two years. On the final day of the trip, we climbed up to the very brow of the hill where the people had taken Jesus and tried to throw him off. As our eyes cast out over the valley below we relived this passage in our minds. As we looked back toward the city of Nazareth we could feel the Bible jump off the page and come to life. We all had a good laugh when we took turns pretending to pass through the midst of the crowd, but reading this passage now I have a better appreciation for the gravity of the events it contains. Jesus really offended people. What does that mean for us a followers of Christ? Do you ever wonder what Jesus might have said or did to still the crowds as they raged around him? We cannot say for sure, be whatever he said must have been grounded in truth and the Love of God.
Who are we in this reading? It is often tough being a follower of Christ. Sometimes the words of Jesus cut deep, right to the heart. His hard truths can completely upend our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. We know very well that none of us are the leper in Syria, we are the congregation that gathered at the synagogue every week. This is a room full of good people doing good things every day. There is no question that the Holy Spirit is among us. This is not a judgement against this congregation, rather a reminder that God continues to call us out beyond what we are comfortable with. Jeremiah makes clear that if we do not want to transform ourselves, God will transform us. As we go forward in a renewing spirit, ask yourself, who are we and what do we want to be?