State of the Union

How do we discern the state of things, and how do we act on what we discern?

Proper 15c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back — those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another. Let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully.

Article 2 of the Constitution of United States instructs that the President “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.” For just about a century — since the days of President Woodrow Wilson — this has taken the form of a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress, often with additional guests such as the Justices of the Supreme Court and the military leaders of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. By tradition the speech is delivered early in the year; and as the Constitution requires it normally consists not only in an assessment of the state of the nation, but also as a way for the President to give an outline of possible or desired legislation for Congress to consider.

All of our readings today present us with a kind of State of the Spiritual Union — about how things have been, how they are and how they ought to be. To carry the analogy further, all three of these readings are a bit like the speeches a President might make in wartime!

Jeremiah in particular delivers the word of an impatient Lord and God. Jeremiah lets the people know that God is not happy with the state of things: in particular not happy with those prophets who are relying on their dreams instead of upon his word. They are leading the people astray with their dreamy promises, and Jeremiah as much as says, “Who do they think they’re fooling? Don’t they know that I can hear every word they say?” “Who,” says the Lord, “can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? Do I not fill heaven and earth? I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name.” The spiritual state of things is unhealthy when those charged with speaking truth — for that is what a prophet is, or is supposed to be — when a prophet who is supposed to speak the truth is speaking lies; and God is not pleased with this state of affairs.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has a more upbeat message — a message of encouragement for the church to persevere in the midst of difficulties. This writer does not play down the difficulties — in fact the whole first part of the reading is a catalog of how the great heroes of the faith of the past, men and women, persevered and endured in the midst of sometimes terrible persecutions and suffering — and still, in spite of that perseverance and heroic action, they did not receive the reward that is yet to be bestowed upon all who are faithful in running with perseverance the race that is set before them. This author pictures these heroes of the past as if they were the cheering section in a great stadium, urging the present participants in life’s struggles onward and upward with their cheers and their applause, the cheers and applause of that great cloud of witnesses. The state of the world, this author seems to say, is still full of peril and persecution, but the promise of the future is there, with Jesus who is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and who has run the race before us and taken up his place at the right hand of the throne of God. And the agenda for action for the future, is to persevere and run the race with faithfulness, those of us who are still on our feet and running, with our eyes fixed on the prize, which we too can share if we run faithfully in the footsteps of Jesus, who has gone before.

Finally, Jesus himself has the last word, and he paints a picture of a state of things that is hard to hear. Just as the Lord spoke through Jeremiah and Ezekiel that it does no good to speak peace when there is no peace, so too Jesus assures his hearers that he has not come to bring peace to the earth, but rather division. And this isn’t just division such as we now seem to find inescapable — between Democrats and Republicans, between the rich 1% and the 99% of the rest of us, between people of different races, nationalities and religions — but this division will come right home, right into each household. Fathers and sons will be against each other; mothers and daughters will be against each other; and let’s not get started on the in-laws!

Then, with a rhetorical flourish, Jesus gets back to the state of things in an abrupt assault upon his audience — something no President would be quite so bold to do. (Although I do recall, not too long ago, a bold comment that I saw from one President in recent years, when President Obama, in a State of the Union address, disagreed with a ruling of the Supreme Court, and the cameras zoomed right in on one of the Justices angrily shaking his head and frowning!)

Well Jesus does more than shake his head and frown! Jesus gets on their case because they seem to be adept at speaking the truth about the future when it comes to trivial things like the weather, by interpreting the appearance of the earth and the sky; but they don’t seem to understand how to interpret the really important signs of their times. For it is these signs — the state of things — that will shape both their immediate future and the future of the world — the world to which Jesus has come not to bring peace but rather division.

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And are we any better? We are surrounded by those willing to debate whether global warming or climate change are real or not, or whether they are caused by human activity, as they see the signs of the ice caps melting and the waters rising and the storms becoming more severe. But how often do you hear anyone talking about the spiritual climate in which we live? For surely the signs are just as clear that there is a crisis in faith as much as there is a crisis in the climate. Prophets of prosperity keep sharing their dreams that all will be well — at least for those who are already well off — and some of them peddle their snake oil of “succeed by greed,” to a populace eager to hear good news for the few at the expense of the many, and so unwilling to open their eyes to the collapse of society around them. Politicians will wave a Bible in one hand, proclaiming themselves as virtuous believers, while advancing policies that turn away the stranger or the refugee, cut back help to the sick or the suffering, and take the means to find food and drink from those who hunger and thirst. And all of this while apparently forgetting the one who said that it was in welcoming the stranger, comforting the sick and the prisoner, and feeding the hungry, that you did it unto him. I don’t want to go all Jeremiah on them, but, “Woe to you, false prophets!” seems to be an appropriate thing to say.

What is the state of our spiritual union? Dare we look closely at the signs of the times in our own lives, and find there places that need that cleansing fire and washing baptism that Jesus promises to bring us? Beloved, Christ gives us the opportunity, while there is still time, to lay aside the weight of sin that clings so closely and obstructs our view from the realities before us. When we do this we will be able to run the race with perseverance and courage. Countless throngs have gone before us and they cheer us on. Listen — you can hear their voices echo in the walls of this church, you can see their testimony in its windows. They urge us on, my sisters and brothers in the faith, they urge us on in the call to a truly abundant life. May we have the courage boldly to proclaim what we believe, to run the race, and to claim the promise.+