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Sermon – “My Words in Your Mouth” – August 25, 2013

Sunday, August 25, 2013 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

My Words in Your Mouth

Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Hebrews 12: 18 – 29; Luke 13: 10-17

Early in 1977, The Rev. Janani Luwum, Anglican archbishop of the Metropolitan province of Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and a small portion of Zaire, personally brought a letter to Ugandan president Idi Amin protesting Aminʼs use of nonjudicial killings and the unexplained disappearances of citizens who in some way had offended him. In February the archbishop was arrested, and, along with a couple of Aminʼs opponents within the government, accused of treason. Soon after the story was released that the prisoners had died in a car accident caused by their efforts to overpower their captors while in transit. When the body was returned to the family, however, Archbishop Luwum had bullet wounds, one in the head and at least three in the chest.

There is a phrase which the prophetic wing of Christianity uses: “speaking truth to power.” In our history The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is the last most prominent example of this calling. Naturally remembered as a civil rights activist, King used his stature and eloquence to address economic hardships as well, and was beginning involvement in antiwar activism at the time of his assassination. It is perhaps a result of this countryʼs dedication to the principle of the separation of church and state, but KIngʼs killing in the midst of his opposition to the political realities of his time is not considered a matter of Christian martyrdom, though I think his expanded vision of the possibilities of social and political reform reveals him to have been more motivated by his discipleship to Jesus Christ than by his role as a leader in the civil rights movement. A second-nature American reaction to questions of race likewise has limited the light in which he has been portrayed ever since.

Many believers, in order to encompass acceptance of miracles in the Bible stories or as part of a principle that Biblical truth is established differently than any other truth, separate scriptural accounts from other kinds of narratives about the past. When, however, church people are able to put aside the mental box in which they think about the time of the gospels it is possible to see John the Baptist and Jesus as acting very much like Archbishop Luwum or The Rev. Dr. King. All of them fall into a category of persons of God feeling a responsibility to address what they believed are violations of the life God intends human beings to have. All vocally criticized those in positions of leadership in their society for their contribution to, or indifference to, wrongs.

Now, there are alternate ways to react to a world which practices injustice. Withdrawal is a common strategy, variations of it in the cloistered life or communities like those of the Plain People. Whatʼs wrong with the world is regarded as something incapable of effective reform, and the only choice is whether to be a part of it or distinct from it. Buddhism, too, has sought an answer to life by aligning oneʼs individual life– or a community life, in a monastic setting–with truth, and living consciously at odds with the way of the wider world.

Some Christians attempt what might be called “constructive engagement.” This is working within the existing system, raising funds and lobbying for legislation which approaches the ideals believed to be the gospelʼs. Church groups have offices in New York and Washington, in the neighborhood of power, and try both to appeal to the conscience of lawmakers and executives and persuade them that there is political benefit to paying at least some attention to religious bodies.

Most of us fall somewhat between these two approaches, scrupling at approving our complicity with the injustices of the world, and actively offsetting it with altruistic efforts. Some things we ignore, which isnʼt the same as separating ourselves from them, but itʼs on the same continuum of doing nothing to change things but resisting being associated with them. Other times we attempt to reform the world by a narrow focus on some sufficiently deplorable or adequately easy-to-resolve problem, and in those cases we are apt to use the tools at hand, like writing checks to advocacy groups, or writing letters to elected officials.

I donʼt want to discourage anyone from responding to the mismatch between what God wants the world to be and what we collectively make it by whatever means makes sense to that person. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Life requires a working approach, and what that is has something to do with oneʼs circumstances. What to do about the mess the world is in often falls victim to that truism, that the perfect is the enemy of the good– people recognize they canʼt bring in the Kingdom of God by boycotting some product associated with contempt for whatʼs good for people, and so they give up. I think itʼs better to persist in what seem like futile efforts. That involves sacrifice, which is always a spiritual tonic.

We do, however, have to consider those people whose understanding of speaking for God gets them killed. I donʼt so much want to focus on their martyrdom, but on the question of why it is dangerous to speak for God, and what effect it may have.

Jeremiah, when he is called in the Old Testament account to his life as a prophet, is told that despite his feelings of inadequacy, God will use him to change the society around him. He will announce, and in some sense, bring about, the decline of some politicians, and the rise of others. Merely by saying what the word of the Lord is, even when his version of that is different from the official line– even when it is at odds with other religious spokespersons–he will be part of Godʼs project of humbling the arrogant and raising up better shepherds for the people.

Jeremiah survives this assignment, partly because the disasters he predicts come quickly enough to give him some credibility with the class he criticizes. He does, however, get thrown in prison for his pains. Like John the Baptist in the New Testament, he is regarded both with displeasure and apprehension–his claim to be speaking for God gives his opponents pause at simply doing away with him. They do, however, hope to contain the damage his criticisms might do, and of course they realize that jailing him will intimidate others disposed to making similar remarks.

This might seem like it has little to do with us, and I think thatʼs because we believe that in Jeremiahʼs day– or in Jesusʼ day– there was enough sincere faith in God that a person speaking up for God really did threaten the way things were. Even if the prophet were wrong, enough people would believe the teaching to energize change of some kind. It would work the way the Ghost Dance movement seemed to give the Plains Indians, already effectively suppressed militarily, the potential to attempt a comeback.

Power in the world still is sensitive to religious approval or disapproval. It is not only those dealing with people we regard as unsophisticated, due to our prejudices about the past, or naive, because of our prejudices about other races, who fear public statements of religious principles. Leaders never are content to possess their position merely by force. They want to be regarded as legitimate rulers. They are like the Emperor who recognizes the need for new clothes to impress his authority upon the multitude, but unlike the Emperor in the story, they are shrewd enough to cover themselves.

It unnerves such people is when the traditions which support them are criticized. This happens in the gospel story. Jesus finds at the synagogue a woman who has suffered from a severely bent back, and by Godʼs power she is healed. The leader of the synagogue is upset that a person is effectively coming for a medical appointment on the only day of the week when, out of respect for God, no human work is to be done. Thatʼs a central principle in the life of the synagogue, and in fact the synagogue counts on the suspension of other pursuits in order to have a worshiping congregation– just like American churches once counted on there being no childrenʼs sport team practices Sunday mornings.

Jesusʼ word to the ruler of the synagogue, however, exposes that everyone engages in some small bits of constructive work on the sabbath, and then asks whether or not helping the victim of a crippling condition isnʼt as important as those things. The leader of the synagogue is ashamed.

When you stand at the grocery store check-out, in front of the tabloids, and when you read the world news in even the best papers, you can conclude that nobody feels shame any more. However, people still are anxious to be in the right, and a reminder of the requirements of God, still makes a difference. The power that God said would be in the words God put in Jeremiahʼs mouth still is there, and the world still fears the exposure of selfish motives and irresponsible deeds.

In small ways, such as the types of humor we permit in our presence, we can express our displeasure at cruelty and carelessness. With regard to larger things, we can persist in such expression of our faith to legislators and others as our conscience dictates, and take from the example of Jeremiah hope that Godʼs priorities always will matter, and that the worldʼs hostility to talk of kindness and mercy, justice and peace betrays the insecurity of worldly thinking in a cosmos ruled by God.

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