Today’s scripture readings:
Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2
Right off the bat, let’s clear something up: Jesus didn’t come to bring division or to pit family members against one another. I know. It says it right there in the gospel lesson. Father against son, mother against daughter. Jesus’ words seem pretty clear. And yet, we miss the point completely if we take this passage at face value. Almost every week one of us gets up here and talks about Jesus as the source of comfort, the one who loves us unconditionally, and yes, the one who brings peace—because that’s what everything else in the gospels tells us about Jesus. So what are we supposed to make of today’s lesson?
Maybe you remember how Jesus’ ministry began, just eight chapters earlier in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is in the synagogue in his hometown, Nazareth. An attendant brings him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he begins reading: “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus gives the scroll back and tells the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is his inaugural sermon: Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. Recovery of sight to the blind. The oppressed set free. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled.” Do you remember how this story ends? The congregation is filled with rage. They chase him out of the synagogue to a hill on the edge of town, where they try to hurl him off the cliff to his death. The text mysteriously tells us that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
Jesus’ guiding principle is love. His mission is compassion. Jesus comes to proclaim the kingdom of God, to announce restoration. But it turns out the people don’t always like restoration. Sometimes restoration is disruptive. Jesus doesn’t come to be adversarial or to cause division, but sometimes that’s the result. Luther Seminary professor Matthew Skinner said this week that Jesus understands himself as someone “who stands at the turn of an age, bringing in something new. Conflict is a part of that—not because conflict in itself is a good thing or is necessary for change, but because he is unseating another power structure from this world.” When Jesus breaks into our world, those who are satisfied with the status quo, who benefit from the world as it is, they aren’t going to like what comes next.
Let’s talk about Jeremiah. He was a prophet in Jerusalem right around the time that the Babylonian Empire was flexing its muscles and threatening to invade Judea, the southern part of Israel. At that time, it was common for the Judean king to surround himself with a whole court full of royal prophets—people whose job was to interpret the will of God for the royal administration. But they were paid by the king. Far from being independent observers who truly spoke the word of God, they were bought men. They were expected to tell the king exactly what he wanted to hear, or risk losing their jobs. So imagine the scene. Babylon is closing in on Jerusalem, threatening to do the city in. The king summons his royal prophets to weigh in on the situation and speak the word of God. “Thus says the Lord,” they may have said, “you, oh king, are doing a great job! With a leader as strong and wise as you, Jerusalem can’t possibly be defeated. Keep up the good work, your royal highness!”
Jeremiah, on the other hand, is not one of these royal prophets. He’s not paid by the king. He’s an honest-to-God prophet, someone who speaks the truth, come what may. He sees what’s going on and he’s livid. That’s the setting for today’s first reading. “I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies,” he says. “How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart?” He’s fed up with these so-called prophets who preach soothing words in a time of crisis. Jeremiah has a harder word for the king and all the people of Jerusalem: Because you have turned away from God, because you perpetuate injustice, Jerusalem is about to be destroyed. The word of the Lord is not the word of the paid prophets who tell the king what the king wants to hear; the word of God is a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces.
For those in Jerusalem who benefited from the status quo, Jeremiah was a threat. In fact, throughout the book of Jeremiah we hear the prophet complaining to God that others are devising schemes to have him killed. He grumbles about the message God has sent him to deliver, telling God he feels like a lamb led to the slaughter. His was not an easy job. Jeremiah spoke the truth and called the people back to the basics of faith—to love of God and love of neighbor. But none of them wanted to hear it. Jeremiah’s prophecies challenged the world as it is. His mission was to confront God’s people with the truth. Jeremiah came not to proclaim the peace of the status quo, but to bring conflict and disruption.
That’s really how we should think about Jesus’ words in today’s gospel lesson. Jesus comes not to proclaim the peace of the status quo, but to disrupt the status quo and to challenge the world as it is. And that is going to create conflict.
Not too long ago there was a beautiful quote making the rounds on social media, originally posted on Instagram by Adrienne Maree Brown: “Things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.” Karoline Lewis, a professor of preaching at Luther Seminary, said this week that “when the truth is heard, it will set you free—but first it’s going to make you mad.” It’s going to make you uncomfortable. It might feel like things are getting worse. But things are not getting worse, they are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.
In the past few years, as the untimely deaths of too many young, black men have seized our country’s attention, many of us have wondered, “What’s going on? How did things get so bad all of a sudden?” The black folk I’ve talked to have pushed back hard. “All of a sudden? This has been our daily experience our whole lives. It’s just now you’re beginning to notice.” The veil is being pulled back, and things are getting uncovered. Some of us are “waking up” to our whiteness and having our eyes opened to the reality of racism. We’re beginning to see the truth, and the truth hurts. It makes us mad. It makes us uncomfortable, even defensive. Pulling back the veil on racism in American society does threaten to tear us apart, to create divisions—between black and white, between civilians and police, between Republicans and Democrats, even within our own families. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.
There are all sorts of ways each of us fail to see the truth that’s right before our eyes. Sarah Smarsh, a columnist for Krista Tippet’s On Being website, shared a piece of her own story. As more and more women in recent years began opening up on social media about their experience of sexual harassment, rape, and misogyny, she says, “it wasn’t their stories that surprised me. What shocked me was how shocked men were… How could [they] not already know all this? I wondered. Where have they been? Then I remembered ex-partners who invariably missed something some man did to me in public—say, a stranger groping me in a bar or a pack of men yelling at me on a sidewalk when my partner was a few feet away and I appeared to be alone. ‘You didn’t see that?’ I’d ask…. No, they didn’t see it. They hadn’t had to maintain a hypervigilance against male strangers their entire lives…. Privilege can cast a veil.”
In our modern world, cell phone cameras and social media are making it impossible to hide from the truth. As Smarsh says, this is “an opportunity both for wounded groups to receive justice and for the rest of the country to wake up from its convenient, collective nap…. As individuals, we are each awake and asleep in different ways, depending on our life experiences. As a country, though, we carry every injustice together in one ancestral, social DNA. Let’s open our eyes in order to open our hearts. Let’s rejoice that the skeletons are marching right out of our country’s closet. Let’s finally face them together with bravery.” Let’s hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.
Adrienne Marie Brown, Facebook post, July 9, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/adriennemaree/posts/10157330216250314
Karoline Lewis, Matt Skinner, et al., “Sermon Brainwave #497 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost,” August 6, 2016, on WorkingPreacher.org, https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=785.
Sarah Smarsh, “Seeing Injustice with Bravery,” on On Being with Krista Tippett, July 26, 2016, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/sarah-smarsh-seeing-injustice-with-bravery/8840.