Posted by: owizblog | June 29, 2014

Made you look! Sermon, UCB, 29 6 2014

Jeremiah 28:5-9; Matthew 10:40-42

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Jeremiah 28:5-9 Then the prophet Jeremiah replied to the prophet Hananiah before the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord. He said, “Amen! May the Lord do so! May the Lord fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the Lord’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: From early times the prophets who preceded you and me have prophesied war, disaster and plague against many countries and great kingdoms. But the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the Lord only if his prediction comes true.”

It’s been bad. Really bad. But it will all be fine now. That’s what the institutional prophets, the voices of the establishment, have been saying to the leaders of Judah. It’s a desperate, dangerous time. The Babylonians are in charge of everything. Judah, the tiny wee kingdom that by the beginning of the sixth century BC has been swithering between grovelling and foolish expressions of defiance towards the Babylonian Empire, has just suffered a huge reverse; the dragging away of the king, the despoliation of the Temple, the imposition of a puppet on the throne… But Zedekiah is beginning to think that he can be more than a puppet; and his court circle are listening to people who are prophesying dangerous things. If God is God, and we are God’s people, why don’t we trust God to do the great things?

It’s a seductive line, isn’t it? God is great, so God will give us what we want, God will make happen what we want to happen. All we need to do is say it, and that’s what God will do.

Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD’s house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon… carried to Babylon. I will also bring back… all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the LORD, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon.

It’s going to be great!

And Jeremiah says: no, it’s not

He said, “Amen! May the LORD do so! May the LORD fulfill the words you have prophesied by bringing the articles of the LORD’s house and all the exiles back to this place from Babylon. Nevertheless, listen to what I have to say in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people: …the prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by the LORD only if his prediction comes true.”

In other words: you’d better be right.

Because that isn’t the reality that Jeremiah is looking at. Jeremiah is looking at a world that’s completely dominated by huge, horrible reality that won’t go away. A world of things that aren’t the way anyone in Judah would want them to be. Circumstances, facts, chiels that winna’ ding… And there’s something deeply immoral about using talk of God as an excuse for not facing things the way they are.

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I’ll say that again.

There’s something deeply immoral about using talk of God as an excuse for not facing things the way they are.

That’s what what Jeremiah has to say amounts to. Do you remember Karl Marx, saying that religion is the opium of the people? Freud talking of religion as an illusion? Atheists, both of them, who were not unsympathetic to what religion means to people whose lives are hard, and harsh, and who live in a cruel, unfair world that treats them very badly indeed. Marx understood the need of people to have their pain taken away, Freud could see why an illusion could be preferable to the reality that is too hard to live with.

But isn’t it interesting that it’s Jeremiah, the man of religion, the prophet, who is sayong to all these other prophets, these comfortable, institutional prophets, that there’s something deeply immoral about using talk of God as an excuse for not facing things the way they are.

Because for Jeremiah, there is no escape from reality in God. For Jeremiah, it is in reality, and only in reality, that you find God. Because that’s where God is.

“You really want to talk about peace?” says Jeremiah. “You really want to talk about a world the way it ought to be, beyond the way it is?” Then you had better be talking about reality. You had better be telling the truth. You had better be committed to the truth of the way things are, because if you aren’t committed to the truth, you will not find God…

It’s in life, as it is, where you are.

It’s in the reality of circumstance, of the things you didn’t choose, and can’t easily change.

It’s in the things that hem you in, that trip you up.

For the leaders of Judah, in the sixth century BC, it was the Babylonian Empire. For us, for the people round us, it’s health, or the lack of it, it’s money or the lack of it, and the opportunity that brings, or denies. It’s the choices we made, which cut down the choices open to us now. It’s the circumstances of those we love. It’s Bute on a lovely summmer’s day, and just as much as that, it’s Bute when the ferries are off again.

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It’s the way things really are.

Faith isn’t about a sudden leap from here to a magical, wonderful, perfect “there.” That’s what Jeremiah alleges the in-house prophets of the establishment, the people who are there to spout good news, to jack up the feelgood factor, are proclaiming. And faith isn’t about a sudden leap from here to a magical, wonderful, perfect “there.”

It’s about the trust that, if we live here, and now, in complete commitment to God, that this is where hope will appear, because this is where God is. In the difficult things, with us. In the things which hedge us about, which hem us in, which mean that our world is not completely in our control, sometimes, it seems, not at all in our control.

If we face reality, as it is, if we refuse to substitute our dreams for reality, if we bear with reality, God will be there. Because that’s where God is. And to substitute our dreams for reality is to miss where God is.

Says Jeremiah to the feelgood prophets of sixth-century Judah: God isn’t in the marvellous victory you are dreaming of, the incredible making-right of all those things currently wrong with your world. Because the corollary of that would be that God isn’t in the unsatisfactory present, isn’t in the frustrations, the reverses, the difficult things. If the sign of God’s being there is that all our frustrations, and reverses, and difficult things go away, then what happens when they don’t? Wouldn’t we be saying that God isn’t there for us? And that, says Jeremiah, is not how it is.

This reality isn’t going to go away. For now, it’s how things are. But God’s in it, because you are. This is where God is. That’s what any true prophet, any honest proclaimer of God’s truth, will tell you. And because of that, when he tells you that things are going to change, that there is hope, that there is a “beyond” to all of this – you’ll be able to believe him, because that, too, will be the truth.

[Break: hymn]

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Matthew 10:40-42 40 “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

I’d like you to look at a painting. It’s by the great Belgian Surrealist artist Rene Magritte. What do you see?

 Image

It’s a view. But look at what’s in the foreground. It may take you a second or two to realize what it is.

What’s in the foreground is a painting of the view that’s in the background. But it’s a painting that completely covers that part of the view that it represents. The bit of the view that the canvas blots out from your sight is put back by the painting that’s on the canvas.

And then you realize something else. This would only work if you were placed exactly where you are by the painting. If you moved a few centimetres one way or the other, the painting and the view wouldn’t overlap like that! You’d lose the effect. It’s something mathematicians call parallax. Move, and the relationships between things at different distances change their position with respect to each other in your view. Close one eye, and hold up your thumb so that it covers me, here in the pulpit. Now, keep your thumb where it is, close your open eye, and open the other one. And you can see me again! You’ve changed your point of view, in a tiny way.

And I know you know that, because some of you do that during the sermon most Sundays!

That’s what Magritte is doing. He’s giving you a point of view, a unique point of view, from which you can see the painting covering just the right bit of the landscape.

And then you realize something else.

This whole thing is a painting!

If you were to move your head, the painted canvas wouldn’t move with respect to the painted landscape.

What Magritte has done is to capture a particular point of view, and make you see it as he sees it. If that were a real window, with a real view, with a real painting of part of the view on an easel in front of it, you would only be able to see the effect he’s after if you stood where he wants you to stand.

But this is all in a painting. You have to stand and see things from his perspective. He confronts you with the way he sees things.

He makes you look…

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What does it mean, that reading we just heard?

“Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

A prophet is someone who brings a challenge. To accept that this person is a prophet is to accept the challenge of what they say, what they face you with. It’s to accept the validity of what they say, what they represent. It means to step into a point, to adopt a perspective, from which things look different.

And it means to take this new viewpoint, this new perspective as your own.

Likewise with a righteous person. What does that even mean,a “righteous person”? Well, in the New Testament, as in the Old, it means someone who lives as they understand they should live, before God. It means someone whose living, the whole logic of whose living, only makes sense with reference to God. To accept the validity – and, yes, the challenge, of such a person’s way of living, to “welcome a righteous person as a righteous person” means to step in a significant way, into their viewpoint, their perspective, to see things as they see them. Which also means trying to see things in terms of God, and God’s demand.

And that’s what the lives of these people are actually all about.

They “make you look”…

For a moment, they make you see that, in God, there are other ways of understanding our existence, our being. The “righteous person” is the person whose life is lived in reference to God, to an understanding of God as demanding truth, and justice, and compassion, and forgiveness, and the laying-aside of vengeance and the settling of scores. The righteous person is a person whose life revolves around a different centre – is literally an ec-centric, someone who is off-centre. Or has a different centre. But she also invites us to take seriously for a moment what our lives might look like if they revolved round that centre. She invites, challenges, us to stand where she stands. She “makes us look…”

And she may very well not be aware of it.

And the prophet?

Well, think back to what we said of Jeremiah.

The prophet – the true prophet – isn’t the person who says what’s convenient, or pleasant, or lifts people’s spirits. The true prophet is the one who looks at things as they are, and says “This is where you find God. This is where God is…” And that’s why the prophet – the true prophet, the person whose life is grounded in the truth of God – is a pointer to God’s presence with us in things as we are. And the prophet, too, issues an invitation. Come and stand where I stand. Come and see what it looks like from here. Come and get a new perspective on things as they are. You and I are looking at the same world, the same reality. But from here, you can see God, in truth, in faith and in hope.

And, indeed, in love.

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“And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Because wherever human need invites a response, God is there. And there on both sides of the encounter, in the hands that help, but also in the need, the emergency, and the challenge to see things from the point of view of someone who is, compared to me, vulnerable, hurting, in pain or need, and someone whose need I can understand. Compassion. The ability to understand what it’s like. To see things from that perspective, from that person’s perspective.

But notice this. The righteous person, the prophet, the person in need, and representing need and vulnerability; that’s us. That’s the Church in the world. It’s our calling, yours and mine, to live lives centred on a different meaning, different valuations of what’s really important, what matters, different responses. We are called – there’s no getting away from it – to be eccentrics, to be fruitcake loopy in living lives that orbit around the reality of God, not the transient realities of a selfish, narcissistic society.

And we’re called to be prophets. A prophetic community, speaking God and Christ to the world. Saying, in effect: stop dreaming. Stop concocting and proclaiming fantasies about how everything will turn out as we want it to. God isn’t in an imagined future full of dreams-come-true – and thank God for that! God fills the present, the difficult, intractable present, and is there not in dreams, but in hope – in the impossible possibility that suddenly opens for us, and that we must watch for, because it leads us from where we are now to where God will have us be next. And next after that.

And we’re called to represent the presence of God in the vulnerability of the world. That God who hung on a cross and died, and was found among the victims of this world, and is still there among the ignored, and the voiceless. We are called to represent the truth that God is not found among the powerful, and the influential, because they are just people who think they are God. God is found where Jesus always was. And still is. That’s why he says of us – but only when we share the vulnerability of the outcast, the lost and the broken:

“Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

In other words, Jesus says:

Come here.

Stand with me.

See what it’s like from this perspective.

Made you look…

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