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This morning, I want to invite us into a different type of reflection, given what we continue to face in our world. There is such a tendency to fill space with words, with some idea that will relieve anxiety or seek to fix a problem, to make a claim.
I continue to wonder how we are called to listen to the still, small voice of the Spirit in the midst of our lives. I also continue to remember that the church, as an institution, has done a poor job of teaching folks the practices of prayer that will nurture the transformation of our hearts. So this morning, if you will, let us begin with a time of silence. After that, I will guide us through a reflection on the story from Jeremiah appointed for today that will give us more time to listen in the silence and stillness for what the Spirit may be saying to God’s people.
This morning, rather than give you more of my commentary on the story, I want to leave you with the story itself and see what the Spirit is stirring up in you. What do you hear? How are you convicted to live in a different way? How are you challenged? Encouraged? How is your perspective, your understanding of God’s grace expanded?
Some may think this is a “cop out” from engaging the text with you; however, I would disagree. I think we can “take it to the next level,” as it were. Rather than just listen to me say what I think, maybe it’s time for us all to step up and do more or our own inner work, letting these stories shape us and challenge us.
It is so easy to fall back into a posture that thinks that we have to figure this all out. And while we are most definitely called to embody compassion in this world, we are first called to cultivate a trust in the living Spirit’s presence in our lives. If we think that the struggles we face in the world are enormous, would it shock you if I claimed that the struggles we face in our inner hearts dwarf the external ones? And until we engage on that level, the level of our integrated mind-in-heart, do we ever stand a chance to face the problems of the world?
Friends, this is what the texts help us do, as they challenge us and open our eyes to wider perspectives. Some have offered a helpful image that we do our Bible studies, our devotions, with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, recognizing the way that the texts broaden our understanding of how we live in the world. I agree that this is a great image, but I think it leaves one crucial piece out. While we do study with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another, we must also pay attention to how we are standing. We are called to cultivate a posture of prayer that helps ground us and open our hearts so that the insights of the Spirit can actually seep into those rigid corners of our souls and do its work in our lives.
So, this morning, let us practice this together, taking a moment of stillness and silence as we intentionally place ourselves in such a posture of prayer. Then, I will “simply” tell you this story from today’s text from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, after working with Cynthia on details and images. And I will leave you with the story itself, to see what the Spirit has stirred up in you today.
So, let us take a moment to breathe together.
Imagine, if you will, two public figures standing in the midst of the people. These people had been removed from their normal way of living and worshiping. They found themselves in a drastically altered state of being, with every pattern and comfort they had long depended on removed from them. They were angry and frustrated, and, being the humans they were, they wanted somewhere for that volatile emotionality to land.
Into that space stepped one of the figures, Hananiah. Hananiah spoke to the people and assured them that they would soon go back to normal. “I have heard from the Lord,” he tells them. I have a message and it is that in two short years, we will gather up all our supplies for worship, all the scattered pieces of what we remember, and we will return to the way things were before. We will go back, in this timeframe. The pestilence that we struggle with (in their case Nebudchanezzer the Babylonian) will be defeated, and we will be victorious. We will defeat this enemy.
Next steps Jeremiah into that space, with words that begin with, “Oh that it may be what you say, Hananiah. However. I wonder if our prior way of understanding messages, of being a prophet, the assumptions we made about the way things are, I wonder if we are being called into a different way of understanding just how God works in our lives?”
At which point Hananiah reached over and created a spectacle to keep the people’s attention focused on his claim, to make sure that they believe what he is telling him that this would all be over soon. The prophets, those in this public role, had constructed for themselves wooden markers that they wore to signify their position–while avoiding the attention of the captors around them. Like Elijah, they would have worn a mantle, or cloak, but that would have made them stand out in this context. So, they imagined different ways of demonstrating their position.
Hananiah reached over and broke Jeremiah’s wooden yoke in front of everyone, seemingly shaming him in this shallow spectacle. And Jeremiah leaves in that moment, with Hananiah standing there, seeming to be triumphant in his claim.
But, or and, in his time away, Jeremiah receives a message: Hananiah’s claim is not true. It is not based in the reality of the situation, and it is not based in a deeper trust in God’s presence in this moment of the peoples’ lives. Do the people need to learn something about God’s presence here and now, in this moment?
Jeremiah returns to the group and speaks to them and says that while Hananiah may have broken the wooden yoke, there is an iron one that you cannot break. There is the reality of the situation that will continue, no matter how much you may think otherwise or seek to create spectacles to distract and manipulate.
Jeremiah goes so far as to give this message: “Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, but you make his people trust in a lie.” And, on top of this, Hananiah, because you persist in your assertion, “I will cast you off from the face of the earth.” And Hananiah died that same year.
After his death, Jeremiah continued to gather the people to give thanks for God’s presence among them in this strange place. Rather than trying to convince them that this would all be over soon, and that they would go back to “normal,” the message from God that Jeremiah gave the people was to build houses, grow crops, raise families there, and live your lives fully in this new space, in this new way, confident that God’s presence is among you.
Rather than convince themselves that the point was to go back–as if God could only be found there and as if they weren’t called to reorient their lives here and now–Jeremiah led the people into a new way of being, focusing on how God was transforming their lives to live in a new way.
Now, let’s take a moment of silence and listen together.
Here ends the lesson.
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 28, 2020