Sermon from Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Mankato, MN
November 20, 2016
Two weeks ago, we talked about Isaiah, and I told you that the northern kingdom was being threatened at that time by the Assyrian empire. In 721, the kingdom of Israel fell. Now in Jeremiah’s time, the situation looks even worse for Israel, who has continued to disobey God’s commands and ignore the prophets’ call to repent. By the time this story takes place, with King Jehoikim, the remainder of the land of God’s people is under threat of conquer too. This time by the Babylonians, who will sack Jerusalem and destroy Solomon’s temple in 587.
Now into the midst of this mess and heartache comes Jeremiah. He is called as a young boy into his role as prophet, and God warns him from the beginning that his job will be hard. Through many symbolic actions, Jeremiah calls the people of God to repent of their sin, warning that they will not escape judgement much longer. He breaks jars to announce that God is about to break the people. He puts a yoke around his neck to announce that God’s people are about to become slaves again. He buys property in Babylon to tell God’s people that they will live as a conquered people for generations to come.
You can imagine how popular he was in saying and doing things like this! His friends abandoned him, his life was threatened. By the time this story from chapter 26 happens, Jeremiah has been banned from speaking in the temple or the presence of the king. Nobody wants to hear his voice anymore, even if it is the voice of the Lord.
Yet again, despite all this rejection, the word of the Lord comes again to Jeremiah. God wants to give these stubborn people another chance to hear. “It may be that when the house of Judah hears all the disasters I intend to do to them, all of them may turn from their evil ways, so that I may forgive their sin.”
So the Lord commands Jeremiah to write down all the words that have been given to him so far in a scroll, which he does through with the help of his trusty scribe Baruch. Then, because Jeremiah isn’t allowed to go himself, Baruch takes the scroll and reads it to the people in the temple.
The king’s advisors get wind of this and decide the king needs to hear what Jeremiah is up to, so they bring the scroll to the palace and read it to the king.
In a brazen act of defiance against God, the king cuts pieces off the scroll as the words are read to him, and throws them in the fire. He is absolutely determined not to hear what God has to say.
This refusal to listen really struck me this week, because it seems so parallel to the actions I’ve been seeing across our country since Donald Trump was elected. I’ve felt it myself, that urge to unfriend or block the people I disagree with on social media, the desire to surround myself only with voices like mine, to draw my circles closer around me and ignore the rest of the world. And it’s okay to do that, for a time, to feel what you need to, to grieve what you need to, to care for yourself.
But our unwillingness to listen to voices different than our own, voices that challenge what we believe and how we live, is part of what has gotten our church and our country to this painful place we’re in. It may not always be the case, but sometimes God’s voice comes to us through those we least want to hear. What if some the voices that you’ve blocked out are the prophets of our day? What if the word of the Lord is somewhere out in the realm of those who make you uncomfortable?
I want to tell you about one way that I’ve found that to be true in my own faith life this year. As this partnership between downtown Mankato churches, now officially operating at Connections Ministry, has developed, new voices have emerged in my life. Those voices belong to the “invisible homeless” of Mankato, the cardboard cut-out of whom you’ve seen around Mankato this week. Thanks for Partners for Affordable Housing from bringing one to Bethlehem tonight as part of their National Hunger and Homeless Awareness Week.
Last spring, I started volunteering at Holy Grounds breakfast ministry at Centenary, as an attempt to starting hearing first hand the experience of the people our churches are trying to help. I remember the first day I walked in, not knowing anyone, not knowing what I was supposed to do. It was scary and uncomfortable, and I’m thankful to Pastor Erica and Holy Grounds host Jaime for being my guides to the community gathered for breakfast.
As I began to talk to people, learn their names and their stories, it only got more uncomfortable. Not because of the people themselves, but because their stories started to inscribe themselves on my heart. Now when I go home at night, I think of those who have no home to go to. When I sit down with my family around a table heaped with food, I think of the man who told me he went 4 days without food because all the free meals served in Mankato conflicted with the scheduled hours for the new job he can’t afford to lose. When I snuggle into my cozy bed each night, I think about the mother, father and 18 month old child who are sleeping in their car. That little child is one of 300 children in Mankato who are homeless right now. 300!
My life was easier before I started listening to these prophetic voices of the homeless in our community, and my heart was lighter. But in listening, I’ve discovered God speaking to me and I think to our congregation about changing the lives of these prophets for the better. I’ve heard a call to ministry in Mankato in a new and powerful way.
I think God has done in my life these last few months what God promises to for the people of Israel in Jeremiah chapter 31. “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband,[g] says the Lord. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
God knows that we are stubborn people, unwilling or unable to listen to the voices which tell us God is not pleased with us, or challenge us to change the way we believe or live. So God gets to our hearts through other people’s stories, and speaks the promises that lead to new life through those others. God did this better through Jesus than through anyone else, for he is the embodiment of this new covenant God promises.
And what did Jesus do in his time among us? He hung out with those whose voices were banned or minimized, and listened to their need. He reached into uncomfortable places like leper colonies and allowed his heart and body to be touched by those considered unclean. He sat around dinner tables with the worst and the least and together they talked about how God’s kingdom actually looks. He promised forgiveness to the very one who betrayed him on the night that betrayal happened.
Through every conflict with religious leaders and the others in power, through the betrayal of his hometown, his friends and his religious community, through the sin that met him in every person he healed and taught, Jesus spoke to the hearts of God’s people. He spoke of God’s love and mercy, of a new kingdom that turns our systems upside down, in which Jeremiah’s words come true: “They shall all know me from the least of the them to the greatest.”
Jesus is still at the work of writing on the hearts of God’s people today. Jesus is still calling all who will listen to enter this new covenant, in which we find forgiveness in a forgetful God, and a community that is wider and more inclusive than we ever imagined.
I don’t know what prophetic word Jesus wants to speak to you today, but I know that if you will listen to the people God has placed in your life, especially those who make you uncomfortable and bring challenges, you will find out. Open your heart to the inscribing hand of the God who loves you enough to never stop trying to call you back, who is willing to forget every bad thing you’ve ever done. The lives of both Jeremiah and Jesus are testimony to a God who is able to use his people to make this broken world whole again. As you come to communion, and hear again the promise of a new covenant which is for you, may God begin to write in a new way upon your heart. Amen.