Worship at Home for Sunday 28th June

Welcome to our Worship at Home for this week. I hope that you are all keeping safe and well and that your enjoy our fellowship at a distance at this time.

Year A: 13th in Ordinary time

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

An Uncomfortable Message

If you have you ever been in the position of having to deliver bad or unwelcome news you will know how excruciating it can be to be the bearer, and how you are very likely be on the blunt end of any response. If the message is not going to be popular then you can be pretty sure that the one conveying the message will not be popular either.  And those whom God calls to deliver a message on his behalf often find that it is a message that people don’t want to hear. They rarely have an easy time of it. We might think of Moses, for example in the Old Testament story in the book of Exodus – sent by God to tell Pharaoh that he must set free the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Not a message that Pharaoh wanted to hear. It took a series of plagues to persuade him and even then he changed his mind at the last minute and sent his army to bring them back, and God parted the Red Sea to allow them to escape.

The prophet Jeremiah, part of whose story we read today, complained of being ridiculed and derided. Stephen – an apostle in the New Testament was stoned to death, much later John Wesley faced angry mobs and many other preachers and Christian pioneers have faced persecution and death for their faith. 

Jesus was well aware of the power of his message, of God’s message, to stir up strong feelings against the bearer. As he sent disciples his disciples out to take his message without him, he told them that he was sending them out as “Sheep amongst wolves”. He told them that their message would be so unpopular that it would split families and attract violent opposition. Its a message for which Jesus himself was crucified

In today’s reading Jeremiah is in the middle of a confrontational situation with another so called prophet: Hananiah. The context is that Judah, the southern kingdom, had fallen to the Babylonians. The Temple had been ransacked and looted and its treasures taken away. Judah’s king had been carried off into exile and many of the people had also been forcibly sent away. Jeremiah was very good at using visual aids to get his message across and he had earlier adopted the practice of wearing a wooden yoke around his neck symbolising the oppression of Judah by the Babylonians. 

The message that Jeremiah brought from God was that Babylon would continue to dominate the region for some time to come, that the people of Judah must accept it as God’s will and that if they did not, the Babylonians would return and wreak even more  havoc and terrible destruction. This would continue until the people changed their ways to listen to God and live how he commanded and until he decided in his own time to notice them. 

Hananiah though brings an alternative and much more hopeful message that the Temple in Jerusalem would soon be restored and that the people would return from exile in just a few years. So when Hananiah proclaims  that the yoke of the King of Babylon will be broken, he demonstrates it forcefully by taking the yoke from around Jeremiah’s neck and breaking it in front of the people, humiliating Jeremiah in the process. You can understand Jeremiah’s anger at God for putting him in that position.

The message that Hananiah brings – is a message that the people want to hear and it is not surprising that they were more willing to hear it and accept it than Jeremiah’s message of prolonged exile and even worse to come if people failed to heed him. Later Jeremiah rebukes Hananiah for making the people believe a lie, and Hananiah dies an early death. 

Today we are no better at receiving messages that we don’t want to hear, that are uncomfortable for us to accept, or accepting that we need to make changes to our outlook, our culture, our way of life and adopt different attitudes. The people didn’t want to hear Jeremiah. What messages today do we close our ears to because they are difficult to hear, inconvenient to our purse or way of life? 

Perhaps one example is the message recently delivered through demonstrations in cities across the world with the message “Black Lives Matter”.  This seems to have begun as a spontaneous outpouring of emotion that followed the death of George Floyd.

Many people have responded to the message positively with support. Others have found the message hard to take or understand. I must admit that when I saw the statue of Edward Colston being toppled in Bristol I was a bit shocked. Bristol is my home city and I have passed and, frankly not really noticed that statue many times. I couldn’t have told you who it was to be honest, but the sight of it being pulled down by what appeared to be an angry mob was a bit frighting. 

But having read articles written since, and having researched him myself I would say that it was long past time to take him down – it should have been done earlier through the democratic processes and it wasn’t for want of trying. It seems that years of representations had been ignored and promises or assurances not acted upon. And this is what can happen when there is under-representation in our governing structures, when the views and priorities of all parts of our community  are not adequately represented, and the reason that they are not represented is part of the structural racism that black and other ethnic groups of people experience and suffer and are fighting against.

I have seen some people respond to “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All lives Matter”. This is true, of course, but it misses the point. Saying Black Lives Matter is not saying that others lives don’t matter, or that they matter more than others, it’s saying that at this moment in time enough is enough for the racism suffered by black people. That at this moment that is where we need to focus, to take seriously the consequences of centuries of oppression and racism suffered by Black people and which they continue to experience today.  As we read in Ecclesiastes “For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven:”. This is the season, far too late in coming, when this purpose needs to be taken seriously and acted upon for the greater benefit of all of us. It’s not just Black Lives that will benefit from a more equal society.

And if we think that racism is not a problem because we don’t see or experience it ourselves, then that is just a measure of the privilege we experience. I remember being shocked not too many years ago when I was at college. A fellow student came into a seminar and burst into tears. He explained that he and his girlfriend had just experienced a racist attack while on the bus in town. I could hardly believe that what he described could happen in that city and yet it did and does. Just because we don’t see or experience it personally, does not mean it’s not happening.

And it needs to stop happening, and that is why we need to take it seriously and make whatever changes are needed to our attitudes, our practices, our culture to make the place we live a place where Black Lives feel safe, equally represented and loved as much as other lives.

It’s no good us listening to and believing the Hananiah’s of our day – those who tell us not to worry, everything is going to be fine, when we know that unless we listen to the hard message of the Jeremiah’s and take action for change it won’t be. 

Last week, we heard the passage from Matthew’s gospel that often causes consternation. Jesus says “Do not think I have come to bring peace but a sword”. This is not Jesus advocating violence, but Jesus sending the disciples out with his message, and knowing what they will face in consequence. Jesus is sending them out with the message he has been teaching: Blessed are the poor, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for what is right and good, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those who are persecuted. A message he sums up as “love your neighbour as yourself” and “love as I have loved you”. A message they are to promote through action and example as much as through word. 

But he tells the disciples that this message of love , peace, equality, is not going to be popular with everyone and will lead to them facing hostility possibly even between members of the same family.  It is a message that will soon lead to Jesus himself being put to death upon the cross. 

But  for those who do listen, those who do welcome them, they welcome also the one who sent them.  When we welcome the stranger, the oppressed, the marginalised, the poor, those whom Jesus stood alongside and spent his time with, then we welcome him also and we bring the Kingdom that little bit closer. Amen.

Andrew Biggs 27th June 2020

Published by andrewpbiggs

Methodist minister currently serving the Gloucestershire Circuit. Married to Julie. Enjoy reading and playing the guitar badly.

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