Here’s a sermon that I preached yesterday (June 22nd, 2014) for my church-community, the Jeremiah Community of Parkdale, Toronto.
I hope you like it!
Do Not Be Afraid: a Sermon on Boldness for River, June 22nd, 2014
Jesus says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.”
Do not fear. Or, the way we say it sometimes: do not be afraid.
Don’t be afraid. For me, this is by far the hardest Biblical command to live up to. I may as well admit it: I’m afraid of almost everything. I detest heights and roller coasters; I hate needles; I was afraid to come to Toronto in 2006 for school; I was afraid to fly in a small propeller plane above the city in August 2011; and I am deeply afraid of showing my heart to others. I fear being hurt so deeply that sometimes, I can hardly speak. Don’t be afraid, Mike; this’ll just hurt a bit. Don’t be afraid, it’ll be over in forty-five seconds. After all, “There is nothing to fear but fear itself.” That’s true, Mr. Roosevelt, but sometimes, even that preliminary fear is enough to keep us from doing or saying what we need to do or say.
Plus—just as I’ve said before in this space—I often acknowledge that I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, even when I know God does. God acknowledges my fear—our fear—and asks that I, and we, speak and act anyway. Yes, God acknowledges the immense suffering that can come when we are ostracized and hurt by others, and when others mock us; as we’ll see, Jesus even addresses the catastrophic pain that his life and message can cause in family situations. But God wants us to speak his word and to do the things God does, precisely because doing them offers us great joy and the fullness of real and lasting life.
I’ll start with Jeremiah and David, proceed to Paul, and end with Jesus. First, Jeremiah comes to boldness, to God’s command to speak and not be afraid, from a very interesting place: according to one translation, the prophet claims, “You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived” (7). You lied to me, God, AND I LET YOU LIE. God is here cast as the bad guy: God allowed Jeremiah to think that his life was going to be sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, and then God let Jeremiah have it. Moreover: “You have overpowered me, and you have prevailed” (7). To Jeremiah, who’s been thrown into prison, tossed down a well, and forced to watch his people go into exile, God is not only a liar, but a bully too. God forces Jeremiah to cry out, proclaiming “violence and destruction” (8). Jeremiah is saying that the Babylonians will come and overwhelm the Israelites; that the Syrian government is killing its own people; that the greed of the global North wreaks havoc on the forests, fields and seas of the world…and people mock him, and show him “reproach and derision” all day long, in response (8).
So what does Jeremiah do? He shuts his mouth against God. “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name” (9). Problem is, he can’t contain the Word of the Lord any more than…well, I’ll let him say it: “there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” (9). Jeremiah must speak: he has to proclaim the truth that he sees—that, because of the Israelites’ idolatry against YHWH, and because of their oppression of poor people in the land, God’s people must and will go into exile. And even though his “close friends” plot his ruin (10), Jeremiah trusts in God’s delivering power—and even portrays God, whom he’s just called a liar, as a “dread warrior” who will rescue him (perhaps by force?) from the clutches of his “persecutors” (11).
Second, David undergoes something very similar to Jeremiah. Because he loves the Lord’s “house”—the place where God’s presence dwells—(69.9), the “insults” of unrighteous people “fall” on him (9). He even experiences isolation from his family, because he follows God’s Law; David’s so unlucky that even drunkards make fun of him (12).The Psalmist speaks, and sings, of “shame and dishonour” (19), and cries out because the “insults” of his oppressors have “broken his heart” (20). David clamours for release, for deliverance, from the shame brought on him by joining God in solidarity against unrighteousness. We don’t read far enough to see his liberation in verses 33-36.
How do we, as a community, relate to Jeremiah’s schizoid relationship to the God in whose name he speaks, and to David’s shame and dishonour? We too often feel what Jeremiah calls the “reproach and dishonour” brought on us by those who don’t share our ideals or our postures towards this world: we cry out in vain as Mr. Harper makes plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline and other oily endeavours. We hear, with heartache and resignation, the deathly silence that dogs those who perish without housing on the streets of Toronto. We strive to live simply and peaceably in the face of inexorable climate change and the wars in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere, and we read with bitterness of the killing of civilians by robotic drones. We too know the shame of following Jesus to the Cross, and following God’s commands amidst the cacophony of corporate chaos.
I can relate, too. I know that shame and dishonour, both because I live with an ambiguous, frustrating body, and because I am bound, by the One who bids me speak, to tell the truth at all times. I know the shame of not being efficient, economically speaking: I can’t “
“produce” as much as my brothers—both of whom are engineers—both because my relative lack of left-brain neurons makes math and physics hard for me, and because our current culture (read: the Harper government) does not value the arts, at which I am, to understate, remarkably adept. Plus, I’m physically weak(er). I am strong, yes: I can lift one hundred pounds with my shoulders. That said, I cannot also climb a pair of stairs without consistently stopping for balance, and leaning on my left side. I am off-kilter at all times, and so often I shout at God, “You lied to me! Dammit, you LIED! Why? Why is my body this way? You have overpowered me, and you have prevailed!”
I also know dishonour in the eyes of the world: some people close to me (happily, none of those seated here) disagree with my stance for peace. Even in the face of atrocity, some people I love claim that war is always necessary, and sometimes they do not listen to all the proof I can offer that that is not so. I must say what God has bid me say, for I cannot lie. Those who love me know I have no guile…and that I will argue for peace and justice until I am blue in the face. I relate both to Jeremiah’s humiliation, and to the Psalmist’s shame.
Third, in the midst of the prophet’s and Psalmist’s shouts of humiliation, we encounter Paul talking about baptism into Jesus’ death. Paul has just said that Jesus has reversed the curse of sin that Adam and Eve brought into the world (chapter 5), and he’s about to go into the Roman congregation’s former slavery to sin (6:12ff). Here, he asserts forcefully that being within the covenant of grace does not allow people to submit to the rule of sin anymore (6:3). He’s adamant that everyone who is baptized begins a new life, a life that is free from sin (6:3, 6), and he explains his knowledge, and his great hope, that Christians will experience a resurrection into a new orientation towards life, a life where we are free to live in joy, and not to fear death (9). When we conform our lives to Christ’s, we rise into that new life: we experience God’s transformative love in our bodies and our spirits. Both now and in the world to come, we live Jesus’ risen life.
Paul’s words can resonate with us, whether we are baptized with water or not. All those gathered here have undergone metanoia, transformation or conversion, from the powers of the world—capitalistic narcissism, anger, pride, fear, shame—to God’s love and joy. Because we have chosen to join the struggle for peace and justice, we now live new lives in Christ…and we are promised even greater newness of life in the world to come. We become different when we put aside our needs for privacy in order to attend a Saturday-morning community meeting, when we protest the persecution of undocumented persons and others on May Day, and when we welcome more and more people from the neighbourhood to eat with us and to weed our garden, on a Wednesday night. When we act with the love and justice that God gives to us, we can experience God’s resurrection.
I can relate, too. I too have experienced that slow, and sometimes painful, transformation from fear and pain to love and joy. I have always had a very strong sense of my own needs—for affirmation, for friendship, for love, for security in my person, my possessions, and my relationships…and I often fear that I will not have my needs met. Nonetheless, by God’s mercy, and under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, I am undergoing a baptism into death, a death to self. I’m learning to step back from my own desires. For instance, as you’re all aware, I love to talk, and I enjoy being able to tell people why I do things. I’m learning, very slowly, to hold my own conviction more lightly than I did, and not to overpower others’ desires to speak, to be silent, to have their own space. When I really live into that way of being, I feel God’s pleasure, and I know the joy of healthy relationship…a joy that spills over, for me, in celebration.
Fourth, before we get there, to that celebratory impulse, we encounter Jesus’ words. He tells his friends that they’ll be treated the exact same way as he will (Matthew 10:24-25): after all, the Pharisees will shortly assert that he is possessed by Beelzebul (11:24), so they’ll likely accuse the disciples of the exact same thing. Jesus’ first- and twenty-first-century followers are to reveal all that’s been hidden, and to shout from the rooftops of Capernaum, Jerusalem, and Toronto all that is whispered in the alleyways (10:26-27), both in the dark and the light (verse 25). Jesus assures his followers that they—we!—are all of individual worth to God the Creator (29-31), and states that he will acknowledge all those who acknowledge him. Here the Gospel-writer puts the word homologeo in Jesus’ mouth, a Greek word that denotes one’s public profession of allegiance to something or someone…in this case, our allegiance to Jesus, and to the way of peace and justice that Jesus lives out.
It is in that context that we confess Jesus: before other people, including our parents and parents-in-law, our children, our friends and neighbours, who don’t understand Jesus’ way of life, or his corresponding message. That’s a crucial way for us to understand this passage: Jesus has given us what Paul elsewhere calls the “message of reconciliation,” a message that seems like foolishness to people who believe the ways of the world, but that we believe and know is just, right, and sustainable. We can act out, and speak, Jesus’ love to the world, even though those who hold power do not like to question their own positions. And we continue to proclaim Jesus’ love precisely because Jesus offers us his acknowledgement: the joy that comes from living in his presence, treating all people as equals, and loving the Earth of which we are a part.
That’s true for me too. I experience so much cognitive dissonance from some members of my family because I believe that Jesus came to call humankind back to God’s peace and justice. Some people I love will tell me that only poor people shop at thrift-stores, and mock the Occupy movement to my face…but they can’t always see what I see. I believe that God calls us to a way of radical solidarity with God’s purposes. We stand against the structures of “violence and destruction,” and against the powers whose primary weapons are “shame and dishonour”; we wait in impatient expectation for the Kingdom called Love. We wait to lose the lives that we know—the lives tied to fear and shame—and to find the lives bound to God’s abundance and joy.
Do not be afraid, dear friends, for that time is coming…in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sustainer. Amen!