SERMON: 11 Pentecost c 8 25 19
When we read of the conversation between God and Jeremiah in our Hebrew Bible reading this morning we are stopped in our tracks. We think to ourselves how wonderful it would be to have such a clear sense of what God has in mind for us. We admire Jeremiah's honesty evidenced in his reluctance. And we accept and we appreciate that Jeremiah felt completely empowered by his interaction with God, even though it took place in a dream or in his imagination.
A day or two before I met anyone from St. Paul's in 2006 I had a "hearing God's voice" conversation. I was in Maine on a different job interview. After the interview one of the search committee members took me aside and told me he thought I had said I knew the will of God. I'm sure I noticeably blanched. I took a deep breath. And I said, "I don't remember saying that specifically, but I believe that I can test my own ideas against God's will by asking myself if they are or are not compatible with the will of God. If they are, I enjoy a comfortable sensation. If they are not, I get a queasy sensation. That's how I know."
So I didn't say I heard God's voice, which might have disqualified me, but I admitted I believed I could discern God's reaction to my notions and schemes. But don't we think: how awesome it would be to believe we had heard the voice of God speaking to us! We wonder what does God's voice sound like. When God assures Jeremiah that he shouldn't say "I am only a boy," and try to get out of being a prophet we agree. This interaction is too rich, too credible for Jeremiah to back away from it. We want to know more.
Jeremiah's biography is not a happy one, As great as it might sound to be the one to get the word from God, it definitely caused Jeremiah beatings, jailings, public humiliations and rejection. Generally Jeremiah was preaching repentance because the people turned to idolatry rather than worshiping God. Jeremiah travelled far and wide reminding people of their infidelity to God and the opportunity and necessity to return. He is known as the weeping prophet, so distressed was he by the endless failure of his countrymen to worship God.
How well do we draw the attention of people back to God? How well do you and I bring them back to God from whatever distraction or entertainment has lured them astray? Do you think God speaks to us at all? As clearly as God spoke to Jeremiah? Are we listening for words, signals even, of what God would have us do?
This is the direction my thoughts took me when I came upon this week's readings. I think it's because I believe we are called to share the good news. After all, it's in the baptismal covenant:
Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
It is both more important and, for that matter, more awkward, to share the good news in troubled times, and if we aren't living in troubled times, I don't know who is.
No, our capital isn't utterly wrecked like Damascus. No, our people aren't fleeing the country to escape gangs and other danger, like Central America. No, our economy isn't so poor that it's driving people to migrate somewhere else. But we do have some serious problems and there is no sure end in sight. For one thing we have a social media system that is not constrained by the truth. In days gone by we could rely on the news media to tell us what was going on and when they got it wrong they'd tell us. Or one of their competitors would tell us. With the wide array of partisan news and social media, facts have come to be treated as irrelevant by some, alternate facts being found sufficiently useful instead. This of course has deepened the political wounds in the US and has widened the partisan divide.
Happily, the good news can be shared without inciting kneejerk partisan reactions. Because the good news that you and I are empowered to share concerns our faith and what we learn from it. It reflects our understanding of Jesus being available to us, ever present with us, reminding us of his soul-saving formula to love God and love our neighbor. This is how he lived his earthly life and how he invites us to live ours.
What we are empowered to tell others is how that has changed our lives and changed us. If our faith has given us the courage to face something and make changes it is good news worth sharing, especially if we know someone who struggles with making needed changes. If our faith has gotten us through something difficult we can talk about and share with others it is a valuable experience to both us and to them. Because when we tell our faith story, when we talk about God's presence and movement in our lives, we lift up not only the other person. We get spiritually uplifted ourselves.
You might notice that none of the examples I mentioned involve taking others to task. I have a seminary classmate in Portland Oregon who has been quite outspoken about the white nationalist rally there last weekend. He has let everyone know where he stands and the reasons his faith demands he take these stands. That, of course, is prophetic also, reminding everyone that hate is contrary to the gospel. But there is a big difference between telling someone how much our faith has done for us and telling people what to do. In fact telling people what to do in any context, not just the faith context, is just a bad idea. Since it's not a good idea to tell someone what to do, tell them instead why. "I'm going to the gun control rally because I want to stand with the victims and their surviving families the only way I know how," is an example of how that might be done. Then, and only then, "Would you like to come with me?"
I think that formulation works because in between the words is the love of our neighbor, the victims and their survivors. If that care and concern for others isn't clear, if all we've got to show is anger at those we consider miscreants, well, that's not the good news. Evangelism is all about telling the good news and the good news --one more time--is what Jesus taught. If you manage to keep your head when everybody else is losing theirs over the state of politics in our country, tell a friend how you do it. It probably has something to do with that business of peace that Jesus is always going on about. "Peace be with you." "Be not afraid." And my favorite, "The peace that passes all understanding..."
The presiding bishop of our church, The Most Rev. Michael Curry, is evangelism incarnate. This man is such a fine representation of what Jesus taught that he's been invited to lead a revival in the Mid Hudson Region of New York next March. I have a vision of the Presiding Bishop coming to the Civic Center--no, it's not set as the venue--and thrilling people the way he did at the wedding of Prince Harry and Megan Markle. Yes, you could see some people squirm. You could also see some folks lean forward in their plush seats, their faces bright, their eyes animated. Because our presiding bishop knows how to tell folks of the vast value of faith, the saving grace of faith, the joy of being at peace and being in communion with Jesus.
You know, I wouldn't kid about this. This is both serious business and its sharp-edged business. Some people relate a revival with some uncomfortable or even terrible experience in their pasts. Being told what to believe or being told they had to make an altar call and confess a faith they didn't really have. I don't know how Michael Curry organizes a revival, but I'll bet my bottom dollar there's nothing coercive about it and absolutely everything caring and loving about it. I can hardly wait!
Meanwhile, each of us has a story to tell. We have stories of God working in our lives, filling us with new hope and confidence, saving us from despair and the power of negativity. We can talk about the feeling that God is with us as we pray for guidance, that God informs our consciences as we make our plans, that God wants to be in touch with us, available to hear us as we seek to do God's will. Please remember that you might be the only sign of God another person sees all day, maybe all week. Some people are so shut off from prayer and meditation that they don't know how to access spiritual power. That is where the good news comes in especially handy: we can bring others the knowledge and love of God through our own experience and faith. That, as we say in the words of the Baptismal Covenant at each baptism, is proclaiming
by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.
A sermon preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Aug. 25, 2019, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Poughkeepsie NY, by The Rev. Tyler Jones, Rector