A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, CT on The Third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 7, Year A (June 22, 2014)
Fire in the bones. Have you ever believed in something so strongly, or have been in a conversation with someone who has a different opinion than you, that you’ve felt the heat rise within in you? Perhaps you’ve held it in, not fully releasing your feelings in fear of spewing out harsh words or creating a breach in the relationship that would be irreparable. Even if you have entered the fray fully, your heart is racing long after the exchange is over.
All of today’s readings remind us of the cost of discipleship. The biblical narrative in the Old and New Testament are filled with stories about the choices we have. Over and over again the people of God – including us – are given choices of life over death. Metaphorically, physically, and spiritually.
In the place of death, the resources for life are mediated to us in ways we rarely understand. Biblical faith is the bet that the narratives we are given, from such sources as Jeremiah, the psalms, and Jesus’ teachings, gives us better futures than the narrative of the powers and principalities that surround us. God’s dream of reconciliation and restoration are visible all around us. We are given an invitation to join in the crusade to follow a new life that is counter-cultural.
Two weeks ago I was privileged to spend several hours with Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament biblical scholar who is a prolific writer and I believe a contemporary prophet for our times. He speaks of two narratives in Holy Scripture – the narrative of Pharaoh, in which God’s people are enslaved to always produce more bricks. Pharaoh is a symbol of greed, wealth, accumulation and always wanting more – bigger and better. The Hebrews slave away to help him build his empire and are forced to make bricks with less – less clay, less straw, less, less, less while still needing to create more, more, more – bigger, bigger pyramids. All for the god of the empire.
Let’s skip several hundred years to the time when these same Hebrew people (who had been freed, but “recaptured”) are living in exile in Babylonia). This time it is Jeremiah who speaks to the “Pharaoh” narrative. The people have again strayed from YHWH, and Jeremiah receives his call from God to speak out. We hear his voice crying out against war, poverty, hunger, labor, and crime – against King Zedekiah’s enticements and power. Jeremiah’s audience is plagued with self-interest tangled up in issues of justice. Peace is confused with national security. Hearing God’s truth is difficult amidst the clamor of fear and greed. Our psalmist feels this also. Feeling abandoned and alone, we hear a cry for help to the Lord. Psalm 69 is a song of lament, in which the psalmist prays for deliverance from persecution and taunts – even from family members and friends.
For the cost of following YHWH is going against the status quo. Going against the powers that dominate the culture of self-preservation, the accumulation of things that comfort us and protect us from being vulnerable to those who are not like us.
Jesus offers a new narrative. It is a challenging one. Jesus says he came to bring a sword – but certainly he doesn’t mean we should go out there and stir up trouble. This is the same person who later (in Matthew 26:52) tells his disciples to put away their swords. Speaking God’s truth has a tendency to stir things up. Jesus’ words in today’s reading ring more of a readiness in the face of resistance than they do of preemptive strikes against an enemy. It’s a call to put some fire in our belly. Jesus calls us to make a decision – will you really follow me? Will you take up your cross and follow me? Will you be my disciple?
In our Christian tradition we have many examples of those we took up their cross and followed Jesus. There are many early Christian martyrs and stories from missionaries about those who suffered for their faith. A more contemporary example is of a man who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. When he fell in love with the daughter of a Methodist minister and became a Christian, his family said “Shiva,” mourned his “death,” and never had contact with him again. Grandparents, cousins, his whole extended family, were lost to this man. That was the price he paid for becoming a Christian. That wasn’t a real death, but for that man, it felt like a death.
As a people baptized, we have signed onto a new narrative. It’s a narrative that is rooted in compassion, God’s reconciling love, and reparation. Brueggemann says that we are given new bread in the wilderness – in the story of the Exodus and in the story of Jesus. Do we want Pharoah’s bread of anxiety, scarcity, violence, and oppression of wanting more, more, more? The bread that God gives us defies the ideology of accumulation and monopoly. He says,
“The bread of Pharaoh never nourishes. Beware the bread of the Pharisees – beware of the junk food.”
If you recall, the bread in the wilderness of the Exodus came in the form of “manna” to the people of God. When the people started to accumulate it because they feared they would not have enough, it went bad. Manna is the bread of life – it is the bread we receive each Sunday as we gather at this table. That little wafer, that little piece of bread – it is enough.
Our Eucharist is a giving of thanks for what is given to us in the wilderness in which we live. It calls us away from Pharaoh, Herod, the Pharisees, and the things that keep us slaves to the powers that be. Jesus’ performance of abundance scared the willies out of the society of scarcity in his time. He was executed because he was the enemy of the totalizing narrative of Pharaoh. Every time we come to the table we are defying the principalities of our society that tells us we need more, we need better, and we need to protect what we have. We don’t need more bread. This is the food for the world in the hope that the world does not need to starve like Pharaoh wants to starve people who do not produce.
Being a Christian means that we believe that only God can claim the kind of power over others that so many – emperors, dictators, the family patriarch “master” who owned his family (wife, children, and slaves) – desire to control us with. And to follow that path of discipleship is costly. It was in Jeremiah’s time, Jesus’ and Paul’s time, and certainly in our own time.
Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador assassinated in 1980 said,
“Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives – that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us – they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially – lacking nothing having everything. To what good? They will lose their lives.”
Jeremiah diagnosed the distribution of wealth as a major contributor to the evils of his society. He accused the politicians of misplaced alliances chosen for short-term prosperity rather than long-term security. It does sound familiar. But not clear.
And we, as inheritors of the new life in Christ, are challenged daily to give up the things of this world that hold us back in order to live the resurrected life. We are assured that we will not be alone in following Jesus. As Matthew states, “God’s loving care for every sparrow that falls will be even greater for each of them.” And God’s love will abide with us beyond this world, if only we turned our back on Pharaoh and followed Jesus.
What will give us the resolve to speak with Jeremiahs’ confidence?
What will it take for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus?
Readiness for this kind of discipleship requires a fair amount of fire in the bones.
Where is your passion?
Where is God calling you?
Where is the fire in your bones?