Jeremiah 23: 23-32; Luke 12: 49-56; Hebrews 11:29 – 12: 2
******** United Church of Christ
August 19, 2007
This morning’s lessons from the lectionary are not easy ones to hear nor are we to shy away from them. Jeremiah speaks the word of God to the priests and rulers of his time, warning them that they are propagating the lies of false prophets, that there are no secrets to be hid from God, and that all this can only lead to ruin. In Luke we see Jesus on fire with righteous anger, declaring that he came to bring division, not peace, imposing a choice upon his followers, calling the crowd hypocrites. In the letter to the Hebrews we are given a brief history lesson of those who suffered for their faith and service to God, who did not receive what was promised yet still witnessed with their lives to the real presence of God.
I included all these passages because I think it is high time, actually past time, that the prophets are preached from the pulpit with renewed vigor, that the Church risk peace by exposing the lies and myths we live by and its complicity in them, that we make the choice to live by God’s truth, that we remember the lives of those who told the truth before us, so that we might be healed and able to run that race that God has set before us.
The main reason we avoid doing any of this in the Church is the risk of conflict and upheaval. But we all know that a peace that subverts conflict is not really peace at all; it’s a crisis waiting to happen. And crisis is pervasive in nearly ever corner of the Church.
In the Catholic Church there is the sex abuse scandal and the payouts of huge sums of money to the victims, plus the questionable accountability of priests. There is also the Pope’s latest statement reinforcing the doctrine that salvation can only be found in the one true Church, creating conflict between Protestants and Catholics. In the Anglican and Episcopal churches, as in many other denominations such as the United Methodist, Presbyterian, and the Evangelical Lutheran churches, there is conflict over homosexuality and whether the communion of Episcopalians and Anglicans can remain as one. At General Synod this summer the delegates of the United Church of Christ voted to take no action on two resolutions, a Reaffirmation of Marriage based on the Word of God and a Reaffirmation of the Historic and Ecumenical Christian Perspective on Marriage, rather than bringing them to the floor for what would hopefully be a resounding ‘no’ vote to the restrictive underpinnings of those resolutions. And there are local churches that are at a point of crisis in their finances, in their overall ability to function as a church, and in their identity as a UCC church.
Within the past ten years or so, a positive spin was put on the word ‘crisis’. The Chinese language was brought into play, showing the two characters that comprise the logograph for ‘crisis’: danger and opportunity. Many business analysts, executives, and pundits seized on this interpretation of crisis. Many self-help books were written on the subject. Recently I came upon an article written by Victor Mair, a professor of language and Chinese literature at the University of Pennsylvania, who exposed the untruth behind this positive spin.
The first character does indeed mean danger but when the second character, opportunity, is linked with danger, it no longer means opportunity but “an incipient moment, a crucial point when something begins or changes.” Mair writes, “[It] is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. [This word for crisis] indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one's skin and neck! Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his/her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.”
Jeremiah prophesied to the kings and priests of Judah that they were indeed at a crisis, an incipient moment, a crucial point for change, a tipping point toward danger and ruin. For all his faithfulness to God, Jeremiah was at best ignored and at worst he was imprisoned, thrown down a well, beaten, given death threats, and declared a traitor. In the end, though, Babylon conquered Jerusalem and Judah, despite Jeremiah’s warning, because of the comfort of lies that were fed to the people.
Every organization, every group of people, has some basic myths to it, some hidden secrets within it, a shadow side. A webzine article by Daniel Clendenin entitled “False Hopes, Bad Dreams, and Reckless Lies” talks about the false hopes, dreams, and lies we tell ourselves, that guide our living and our organizations.
Here’s a short list of my own personal false hopes and reckless lies that I have told myself over the years:
- My husband should be able to empathize and understand all my struggles.
- My children will learn to like a clean bedroom and keep it that way.
- I should be able to not exercise as much and not floss my teeth, yet live as long as I want and keep my teeth.
- I work better under pressure.
- Somewhere, out there, the perfect church for me is waiting.
- Now that I’m making a little more money, it’s okay to spend a little more. I deserve to have what I didn’t get when I was growing up.
- God has the future under control OR God isn’t there—he’s an idea we’ve become addicted to, to avoid responsibility for our personal and collective realities.
- God knows what I’m thinking and feeling, so why do I have to pray?
The false hope of Jesus’ time was that the Messiah would bring peace; a peace that would still allow the status quo. Jesus decries this bad dream, filled with fire, baptism, and the Holy Spirit, saying that he has come to bring division, that is, he is imposing a choice: will we, God’s people, live by our lies and the lies of empire or will we live God’s truth? Living God’s truth does not create inclusivity, not at first. Author Sue Monk Kidd wrote, “The truth may set you free, but first it will shatter the safe, sweet way you live.”
Some of you already know this. You have paid a price, perhaps a high one, for choosing to live God’s truth rather than a safe, comforting lie. Some of us are considering the price and wondering if there is enough in our spiritual savings account to survive. Yet we cannot serve the reckless lies, the false hopes, the bad dreams and serve God at the same time. We cannot serve the many voices in our heads telling us what to do, how to behave, what is acceptable in society, and serve God at the same time. We cannot serve both the lies of empire and the truth of God. Our society, our nation is at a crisis, an incipient moment, a crucial point of danger where change can begin, for better or for worse. It is past time to be safe, to be peaceful, to be politically correct. Jesus is righteously angry and demands of us, “Why aren’t YOU?”
Every day we encounter the false hopes, bad dreams, and reckless lies that are setting the course not only for our nation but also for the world. Here are, in my opinion, the three big lies of the United States:
- Everyone can achieve the American Dream, that is, home ownership, if they just work hard enough.
- We can win the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and we can win the war on terrorism.
- Global warming is a hoax, due to natural climate change, and it is nothing to worry about.
Jesus says to us, you are frauds! You know how to forecast the weather but you cannot tell a lie from a truth, the truth that the Christ is in your midst.
For Jesus, the dividing issue, the truth of God, was this: have we fed the hungry, quenched a thirst, welcomed outcasts and strangers as though they were family, have we clothed the naked not with our hand-me-downs but with our best, have we visited the sick and the imprisoned? The ministry of Jesus, which is beloved community, is juxtaposed against the supposed values of the world of empire. We cannot live with one foot in the witness of our faith and the other in the comfort empire gives us. Jesus cries out to us, I am here-and-now, when you do these things, I am in your midst, the beloved community becomes reality, and the reckless lies begin to fall away.
Christ is in our midst in the illegal immigrant, the migrant worker, the working poor; in the child without health care, a home, good nutrition or an education; in the insurgent, in the soldier, and in the civilian; in Christians, and Muslims, and Jews; in Palestinians and Israelis and Arabs; in the detainees at Guantanamo and all those in prison; in the refugee camps and killing fields of Darfur; in hospitals and clinics, nursing homes and hospices; in heat waves and floods, forest fires and hurricanes, drought and rising sea temperatures, in every creature, in every growing thing, in the very earth itself.
The price of peace is our sweet safety but also the comfort of our lies. In Hebrews we hear of the suffering of those who lived out the truth of God, that though they were commended by God, they did not receive what was promised. Joy was coming but not in their lifetime. The price we pay today for tomorrow’s peace is that we may not live to see the fruits of our sacrifice. And this is the highest price, that like Moses, the promised land may be in our sight but it will be our descendants who will inhabit it. It took thousands of years for empire to become entrenched in our world. It will take a gargantuan effort on the part of humanity working together to uproot it.
So let us pray, and pray hard, for faith, faith that is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. We are promised a great cloud of witnesses, those who have gone before us, God’s witnesses who, though dead, still speak to us of God’s strength and enduring love; who speak to us of Jesus who endured the cross for the joy to come; who speak to us of the Holy Spirit who comforts us yet also baptizes us with fire and with power that we might persevere in our faith and not surrender to the false hopes and reckless lies of our time. Perhaps we ought to also include St. Augustine’s prayer: "Lord Jesus, don’t let me lie when I say that I love you…and protect me, for today I could betray you." God knows that the price of peace has become increasingly steep but through Jesus, God has promised to be with us through it all.
And so, ******** United Church of Christ, what are some of the false hopes, the bad dreams, the reckless lies under which you presently live? What makes you angry about the world we live in and what are you doing with your anger? And if you’re not angry, why not? What scares you most about living out the truth of God? How do you acknowledge conflict in your midst? How do you handle crises as a congregation? What choices has your belief in Christ imposed upon you? Who are the powerful witnesses of faith who speak to you and give you courage? There is a cost of discipleship—what gives you joy?
Thanks be to God for those prophets and truthtellers who risk danger and violence to dispel our reckless lies and encourage us to do the same. Thanks be to God for righteous anger that fuels our ability to survive division and to be faithful witnesses to God’s truth of peace and justice. Thanks be to God for the promised land to come and for the blessing of working for its reality. We are being called to be the answer to our own prayers. God grant us courage for the living of our faith. Amen.