Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
June 21, 2020
Jeremiah 20:7-9, 12-13, and 22:1-5, 13-16; Matthew 13:10-17
Prophecy is not fortune telling or prediction. Biblical prophecy – especially the Hebrew prophets – is prompted by context and enabled by Spirit. It sees through the immediate context into what lies beneath, between, and beyond the moment. The true prophet sees, and says, and sighs. The prophet sees what is really going on. The prophet says what is really going on. And the prophet sighs – to God on behalf of the people and to the people on behalf of God – what is really going on. The word of the prophet unveils what really is – what is eternal. The mark of true prophecy is its enduring relevance – you might even say its eternal truth. As with the gospels, we can unroll the scroll of any true prophet to any place and find relevance to our own context. This is what makes the prophetic voice “Gospel” as well. And for followers of Jesus, this understanding is deeply endorsed by Jesus’ frequent and pointed quotation of prophetic texts. So, having said that, I’d like to share again the voice of Jeremiah that we have already heard today, and let you reflect for a moment before proceeding to Ronald Rolheiser’s invitation to mature discipleship for today, which is this: “Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.”[i]
Here’s Jeremiah speaking to the leaders of his nation about twenty-seven centuries ago:
YHWH Omnipotent, you who test the just, who probe both mind and heart, let me witness the vengeance you take on them, for to you I have entrusted my cause.
Sing to YHWH, praise to YHWH, for God has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the corrupt!
[In response] Thus says YHWH: “Go down to the house of Judah’s ruler with this message: ‘Ruler of Judah, who sits on David’s judgment seat – hear this word from YHWH. It is for you, your attendants, and your people who pass through these gates. YHWH God says: Act with justice and integrity: rescue the victim from the oppressor; do not oppress or mistreat resident aliens or the orphaned or widowed, and don’t shed innocent blood in this place.
If you carry out these commands, the rulers who will sit on David’s judgment seat will come through the gates of this house riding in chariots and on horses – they, their attendants, and their people. But I solemnly swear, says YHWH, that if you do not carry out these commands, this house will become a ruin.
Woe to the ruler who builds a house without integrity and its upper rooms with injustice, enslaving the citizenry, not paying for their labor!
Woe to the ruler who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house with airy upper rooms, and numerous open windows and cedar paneling painted in vermilion.’
Do you out-rival other rulers because you panel in cedar?
Did not your predecessor, like you, eat and drink?
He practiced justice and integrity, and all went well for him.
He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and all went well for him.
Is that not what it means to know me? says YHWH.
Just let that sink in to our context.
Sometimes scripture can simply speak for itself.
What does it mean to be human, and how are we to treat any other human. We, as a species, can’t seem to agree. Of course, there are many different meanings arising from different contexts. But, let’s just say we are looking for the prophetic meaning of “human” – the meaning that is prompted by context and enabled by Spirit – that sees through the immediate context into what lies beneath, between, and beyond the moment. The video that I shared for the Kid’s Zoom today suggested that to be human is to extend our circle of care beyond ourselves – to other humans, to other creatures, to the whole of creation. That’s a very good start. We can peel away layer after layer of meaning as we discover more and more about what is really going on – just as science has peeled away layer after layer of what we perceive on the surface to be real. The ancient Greeks suggested the idea of atoms. Today we have peeled away the layers far enough to suggest that both matter and energy arise from the same underlying wave phenomena, and that there are mysterious forces of attraction between all these phenomena. All the waves are connected by mutual attraction. Sounds a lot like love, doesn’t it. Perhaps there is some truth to our claim that God is Holy Being, and that all being is an outpouring of God’s essence, which is self-giving attraction. To be human is to have the capacity to live and love like that.
We might condense the entire Hebrew scripture to one command, found in Deuteronomy: “Choose life!” [ii] Deuteronomy means second law – not because it’s different from some first law, but because it is a synopsis and interpretation of the first four books of the Torah. It includes this instruction to the leader of the Hebrew people: “Today I have set before you life and success, or death and disaster. For today I command you to love YHWH, your God, to follow God’s ways …. But if your hearts stray and you do not listen to me, if you let yourself be drawn into the worship of other gods, and serve them, I tell you today, you will not survive…. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today: I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live, by loving YHWH, your God, by obeying God’s voice and by clinging to YHWH. For that will mean life for you.”
You might say the rest is commentary.
But we humans do tend to wander, don’t we? And we lose track of what it means to be human and who God commands us to include as human. We especially lose track of the fact that we cannot be human alone. To be human – at least in the prophetic definition – means to be together. There is no such thing as a single human being. From beginning to end, the story of creation and fulfillment of creation, is congregate. The end – the telos – the attractive force of God’s self-giving love – is drawing us together and beyond our separation. We cannot be followers of Jesus alone. We must be one body, with many parts that work together toward that end. Jesus encouraged this by elaborating the scriptural command “Choose life!” as “Choose love!”
Choose – Jesus style.
Rolheiser’s fourth invitation to mature discipleship, “Let suffering soften your heart rather than harden your soul.” [iii] suggests a fundamental characteristic of being human. Choice. Suffering seems to be a universal human condition as well – but I wouldn’t go as far as saying we must suffer to be human. Instead, the nearly universal human condition of suffering engages a more fundamental aspect of our nature – to choose. As so-called “free will,” choice has played an important and often misunderstood role in Christian theology. In the attempt to explain the phenomenon of evil – particularly the evil of suffering – the doctrine of free will suggests that it is our fault that evil exists, or at least our ignorance and fallibility that causes and allows evil to flourish. I struggle with that that thesis, but let’s leave that quibble for another day. For now, let us say that both some degree of suffering and some degree of choice have a role to play in our maturity as followers of Jesus and in the fulfillment of our humanity.
Rolheiser elaborates: “Suffering and humiliation find us all…. But how we respond to them will determine both the level of our maturity and [our humanity]. Suffering and humiliation will either soften our hearts or harden our souls…. There is no depth of soul without suffering. We attain depth primarily through suffering…. If any of us were to ask ourselves the question: What has given me depth? What has opened me up to deeper perception and deeper understanding? almost invariably, the answer would be one of which we were [loath] to speak: we were bullied as a child, we were abused in some way, something within our physical appearance makes us feel inferior, … we are socially awkward, the list goes on, but the truth is always the same. To the extent that we have depth we have also [suffered].” [iv] The full weight of Rolheiser’s invitation takes effect when we connect our individual experience of suffering to our participation in the body that is humanity. Like the mysterious force connecting all wave phenomena that we experience as matter and energy, we are part of one great exhalation of Spirit. We are one Adam – one creature of clay and Spirit. Suffering makes us deep, but “It can make us deep in understanding, empathy, and forgiveness, or it can make us deep in resentment, bitterness, and vengeance.” [v] The difference is our choice. Jesus lived one choice – to be utterly deepened in understanding, empathy, and forgiveness.
Neither our suffering, nor our choosing are ours alone. George Floyd’s suffering and death were not his alone. They belong to generations of crushing oppression on the necks of black people and to their continuing burden. They should belong to us as well, insofar as we choose to be human. We must all own the crushing weight of the police officer’s knee on his neck. The officer’s choice to kneel on his neck, to ignore the pleas of Mr. Floyd and the witnesses to that suffering, also were not solely his own. They belong to all of us, and to generations of white folks who choose patterns of privilege and separation over the attractive force of our humanity. We are part of the humanity that has chosen to keep our knee on the neck of people of color. This narrative – this living parable – has been set before us. Do we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to soften? Or, as we exercise our human capacity to choose, do we choose to look the other way, to silence the prophetic voice that speaks eternal truth from this context, to harden our collective soul?
It’s tough growing up.
Some of us never do.
Humanity is clearly still in its adolescence. Shall we suffer “to become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ? Let us then be children no longer, tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine, or by human trickery or crafty, deceitful schemes. Rather, let us speak the truth in love, and grow to the full maturity of Christ, the head. Through Christ, the whole body grows. With the proper functioning of each member, firmly joined together by each supporting ligament, the body builds itself up in love.” [vi]
So, beloved, let us choose.
Choose – Jesus style.