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Who Will We Listen To? Who Will We Welcome? Who Will We Serve?: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

June 28, 2020:
Jeremiah 28:5-9; Romans 6:12-23; Matthew 10:40-42

The prophet Jeremiah is with another prophet, Hananiah. And this other guy has good news. He says that the sacred stuff that had been stolen when their land was invaded and many people carted off to Babylon — all that stuff is going to be returned. And this rosy message strikes Jeremiah as quite unprophet-like.

“The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet.” (I’ll believe it when I see it, is what he’s saying.)

In that very, very tiny gospel reading Jesus says if you welcome a prophet, you’ll receive a prophet’s reward. There’s a connection between the mission of a prophet, or missionary, and the one who welcomes, who receives the word of the prophet, or missionary. If you welcome the one bringing the gospel, you welcome Jesus, and when you welcome Jesus, you welcome the living God. But that first reading reminds us that some work needs to be done in determining whether or not a message actually is from God, or not. A churchy word for that is “discernment.”

In difficult times, whether times of war, famine, pestilence or whatever it is that is interfering with security and our ability to flourish in life, we look for guidance from prophets. Or if we’re not turning to them, we’re coming across them, maybe even confronted by them on the street corner, or in the new public square that is social media. And those situations, like the readings today, pose the question: to whom do you listen? whom do you welcome? to whom do you provide a cup of water? Jeremiah reminds us that sometimes the message we need to see is not necessarily rosy; it might in fact be quite uncomfortable.

(This brings to mind something I came across recently, and I forget if it was mentioned in a sermon or not. It was that the orientation of the prophet, and really, the orientation of the Christian, is to be a person of hope; to proclaim the message of hope. But “hope” is not the same thing as optimism. Nor is it pessimism, for that matter. So through that lens, we would say that Jeremiah is judging Hananiah’s message as mere optimism. And he sees his own message, of the reality of suffering that will continue for some time, it certainly isn’t optimistic, but insofar as it calls people to trust in God, and God’s future, it is hopeful.)

I came across a remarkable quote on Facebook recently, and I liked it immediately, even though it is a challenging one. It was the kind of thing you see all the time, a background image, with the eye-catching font on top of it. It said that it was a quote from Brené Brown, so that caught my attention. She’s a very well-regarded speaker and author, especially on the topic of empathy, and its importance in our lives and communities. So this is the quote, about the current uncertainty we’re living through:
“We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

I still like this quote. And in the months since the quote started doing the rounds online, the Black Lives Matter movement has been taking deeper root than in the past, I think because during this time of societal pause, our minds are open to the idea that whenever we move toward ‘normal,’ whenever we put the building blocks back together, can we do so in a way that is more life-giving than before. We have an opportunity right now to look at those building blocks, and make some changes, before cementing them back into place.

BUT HERE’S THE THING: that awesome quote came back to me as my subconscious was sifting through the readings and starting to form a homily for today. And I said “that quote would probably fit.” And as I started to think more about Jeremiah’s call to discern the prophetic word, I said to myself that I had better double check that quote. And it took all of ten seconds to find out, from Brené Brown herself that IT ISN’T HER. She never said it, never wrote it. It’s a quote from the poet Sonya Renee Taylor. The content of the quote still stands, certainly. But isn’t that little discovery an interesting reminder that we need to be vigilant on the internet. Don’t swallow anything hook, line, and sinker. Discern. And as we’re becoming more consciously attuned to matters of race, isn’t it interesting that this amazing, beautiful, challenging, and powerful quotation has been misattributed to Brené Brown, rather than to its actual author, Sonya Renee Taylor, who is Black. So if your busy on Facebook posting about complicity in unjust systems, and unconscious, systemic evil, don’t post a quotation that erases its origination from a Black artist.

St. Paul, in that readings from Romans today, writes about how we have a choice before us. Not of optimism or pessimism, but of life or death. Of grace or law. Of serving God, or serving sin. We are all — each of us — caught up in a web of systems that intertwine and overlap, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. It’s a situation of differing and competing prophets, or at least voices (to echo the Jeremiah reading) that call for our attention, and demand our allegiance. In times of uncertainty the voices gain power and sway, and the loud ones become especially attractive to people looking for some stability, and a return to the normal, the comfortable, the known. As Christians one thing we can do is hear, and interpret, and judge these voices through the lens of the gospel. And that is a story not of false optimism, nor of pessimism; not of self-help, or nostalgia. But of hope; of death and resurrection. Of God’s re-creation of all things, of which Jesus’s resurrection was the first bud of that new life.

So, this being my last sermon for some time, with a holiday coming in July, and with many of us able to take at least some time for refreshment in the next couple of months, we might look ahead and enter into that time, seeing it not just as recreation, but as an opportunity to present ourselves to God, seeking personal and corporate re-creation. So that when our personal and corporate building blocks get put back together, it is done so in a way that is more life-giving for both humanity and nature. Amen.

© 2020 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter