GOD’s CALL Jeremiah 15:15-20; Matthew 16:21-28 9-3-17
Darleen & took a trip to Norway, my 1st since living there some 20 years prior & Darleen’s 1st ever. We saw my family, sights, my former parish in Fredrikstad.
One of the trips was to a little place called Flåm, at the tip of one of the fingers of the breathtaking 127 mile long Sognefjord. There is a famous quaint hotel located by the water.
We were going to spend one night & then take the railroad spur in Flåm that rises up dramatically up to the main railroad line to Bergen. We arrived by hydrofoil & walked to the hotel.
Ahead of us was an elderly American checking in & was informed by the receptionist that he & his wife were bumped. In as mild mannered voice I’ve ever heard, the gentleman said, “Why, this has never happened to us. Where will we stay? How will we get there?” To which all of his queries were answered. He had apparently booked this 3 weeks ago & I’m thinking that we should be ok since we booked this 5 months ago.
I approach & in my most fluent Norwegian to check in only to discover that we too had been bumped! I pressed a little further, in Norwegian, only to discover that a tour group had taken over the entire hotel. I looked around & said to the American family behind me, “You’re next!” Upon reflecting on this I snappped, Brooklyn style, “This stinks!” Whereupon the gentleman, previously ahead of me, comes over & says, Sir, it serves no purpose to get angry. You will regret it in the morning.” And then, in an act of consoling me, he gently takes my arm & says, “Trust me; i know what I am talking about; I am a pastor.” And I say, “So am I! Let me be angry! I’ll get over it! But this still stinks!”
The portrayal of the person who exhibits a facility to calmly diffuse any & every tense situation, who exhibits serenity and peace, leaves the best of us feeling unsatisfied and frustrated because we cannot be like that! The picture of Jeremiah may come close to the ambiguities and frustrations of our lives in our efforts to be faithful.
Oh, I know we’re not called to be prophets like Jeremiah, & most of us will never reach either the heights or the depths, which dogged his life. But we do glimpse in him something of the dynamic of God’s relationships to persons. What we see in Jeremiah does relate to our own experiences of faith & doubt, of peace & turmoil, of certainty & confusion.
What kind of man is Jeremiah? He is a man who is scared, lonely, hurt & angry. This is how he prays. He complains; he vacillates wildly in his dealings with his enemies – in one breath asking God to get even with them & in the next breath pleading with God on their behalf. In a lovely image he talks of eating the words of God. The words became a part of him & nourished his life. In that process the words of God became a joy & a delight to him. He knows himself to have been called by God & that too brought joy to him.
On the other hand, he complains bitterly about what God has brought upon him, luring him into a vocation that seemed promising at first but has brought him nothing but misery. With intense feeling he wants to know if god is like a brook that fails just when the people are in desperate need of water. What he says, in effect, is “God, you tricked me! You promised, but did not deliver! Make good on your commitments!” And God took it.
I think our anger can be a measure of our faith, sometimes. Believers argue with God; skeptics argue with each other. That is Jeremiah at prayer: scared, lonely, hurt angry. A surprise? A man who would not accept defeat, praying like that? All of us experience these things. No one alive is a stranger to them. But do we pray them; Jeremiah prayed them.
Everything he experienced and thought he set in relationship to a living, knowing, saving God. And the moment these things are set in relationship to God something begins to happen. In this case, God urges Jeremiah to hang in there, not to turn away from God and from the words that must be said. There’s no consoling here – “There, there, Jeremiah; I know it’s been tough.” Instead, there’s a confirmation of Jeremiah’s mission, repeating the terms of his first call when he was just a kid. God’s not backing off.
God does not say that it will be easy. God does not reject Jeremiah, but God does not leave Jeremiah to wallow in his self-pity Jeremiah is encouraged to speak precious words, not worthless ones; true words, not false ones. There is a final word to Jeremiah & to us, the word that whatever comes, God will be there with us: “For I am with you to save you & deliver you, says the Lord.”
What does this reading say to us? For one thing, I think it says to lament is legitimate. It is OK to hurl complaints at God. This has been very troublesome for many Christians, especially Lutheran Christians. I mean, what will God think? God wants to know what is on our hearts & minds. God can take whatever we have to dish out. Remember, even our laments & complaints are set in relationship to God.
The other thing this reading says is that there is a place for lament in our lives. As with Jeremiah, our prayer should be honest, & if we have a case to make with or against God, we should do it. We have good resource material in the bible that gives us an invitation to dare to talk straight about what’s happening in our lives & not to pretend we are better off than we really are.
Did you know that 50 of the 150 psalms are laments, and some of them are real “downers”? Then there’s Moses in Numbers 11 angry at God, blowing his top, tired of being nursemaid to this rabble, and at one time saying to God, “If this is how you are going to treat me, kill me at once!”
And you get the strange picture that Moses loved the people of God more than god loved the people of God! I’ve read some of those lament Psalms during visits to shut-ins, hospitalized & terminally ill, because they spoke to them & in their pain & discomfort they’ve said, Somebody finally understands!”
We hope that we do not get into a situation like Jeremiah’s where such a prayer is necessary. If it is, however, better to let it out than to deny reality. When we speak to God about such things, we will find assurance that there is no enemy too strong to defeat us, that God will be with us, that God will never be anything else for us than love – love without strings, who loves us not because God sees something in us others don’t, who loves us for no earthly reason but only with the heart & mind of God. That great heart of God ached & suffered by the death of Jesus. God knows pain – been there; done that.
Similarly, in our gospel reading Jesus promised his followers 3 things: they would be entirely fearless; they would be absurdly happy; and they would always be in trouble. Hmmmm, sounds like Jeremiah.
Specifically, Jesus says, “You need to deny yourself, take up your cross & follow me.” Denying yourself doesn’t mean giving up chocolate, steak or Manhattans! No, not that!! It doesn’t mean self-denigration, self-defamation either. But it does mean getting oneself out of the center, sort of a “disowning” yourself – a hard move to make for all of us. He talked about the call for persons to take up the cross. For some that has been done literally. For many of us we only tend to understand that in terms of burdens & suffering.
No one is called to suffering . . . but one may bear one’s cross. Bearing the cross is done in healthy times as well in the suffering times. The cross we are called to take up is there for the sake of others. It is not some suffering we accept so that people will pity us, or praise us for our endurance. It is not some act of penance we engage in, hoping for personal spiritual growth.
To be afflicted with cancer or other terminal illnesses, for example, is not the cross, of which Jesus speaks, tortuous as those diseases are. But the cross is carried by those who willingly minister to persons living with cancer, when they could avoid it.
To be Gay, Transgender or a Person of Color is not the cross, which results from distasteful, bigoted comments. How can that be, when those who are figuratively & literally spat upon are created by a loving, caring God who delights in those who have been created? But, in this case, the cross is carried by those who publically show compassion & advocacy to Gay or Transgender persons, whom they do not even know; the cross is carried by those who accept the scorn of others who think most Gay or Transgender persons or Persons of Color deserve no support, understanding or special treatment.
To be poverty-stricken is not the cross, of which Jesus speaks, unfortunate as such deprivation is. But the cross is borne by those who do not to need to work in soup kitchens, such as Community Lunch at Central Lutheran Church, or shelters for the homeless, or build Habitat houses, but choose to do so.
The cross is borne by those who call for taxes for the sake of social services, better education, better health care for those on limited incomes and stand up for those who suffer racial discrimination at the hands of racist groups, as recently witnessed in Charlotesville, VA. To have a child on drugs or unmarried & pregnant is not to take up the cross. But taking up the cross may mean loving them when we might instead kick them out the door, telling them to suffer the consequences of their own action without any sympathy from us.
Taking up one’s cross should be seen less as a project than as the character of discipleship. We follow because we trust God will complete what God has begun at our baptism. And if our calling is to care for our neighbor, Martin Luther insisted, we will not need to seek out suffering. It will routinely find us.
When people are faithful to the call of God their lives seem to be complex & tumultuous rather than simple, calm & serene. We were never promised a rose garden. Because Jesus was raised from the dead we were promised a resurrection, and God will make good on that promise. Like Jeremiah, we are encouraged, with all the spit & vinegar we have, to muster & hold God to those promises made through Christ’s cross & resurrection. Be assured, God always makes good on those promises.
We have this Word, this water and this bread & wine to signal it; the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead to guarantee it; the one Holy catholic & apostolic church to witness to it; almost 2000 years worth of saints, martyrs & confessors, to well over hundreds of sisters & brothers from University Lutheran Church alone during these 100 years in the U District, and the kingdom & the power & the glory at the end.
Whew, that’s a mouthful, but it’s true, dear friends, it’s all true. Thanks be to God!
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 9-3-17” name of the sermon.