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.+

Truth Times Three

Three half-truths crack open three whole truths.

Note: audio is missing the first few lines... sorry!

Lent 1c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.

As is the case on the first Sunday in Lent every year, our gospel passage tells of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. This is a very dramatic episode; in fact, screenwriters have found it to be among the easiest episodes from the life of Christ to portray on film. The script practically writes itself: Saint Luke in particular sets the time and the scene the way any screenwriter or storyteller would do, right at the top of the page. It is after the baptism of Jesus, and the spirit has led him into the wilderness. There he has spent forty days, being tempted by the devil. We are only presented with the last three temptations, but Luke says this has been going on for forty days, during which time Jesus has eaten nothing — and if you want to get a sense of what that might have been like I suggest you try going for forty hours and see how it feels.

So the scene is set and the dialogue very quickly ensues. In fact the dialogue happens so quickly that I fear we are likely to lose the impact and the import of these three temptations; so I would like to take a little time this morning to look at each of them in greater detail. These three temptations point to three half-truths. Jesus transforms these halves, doubling them into three full truths: truth times three.

The first temptation is a natural: Jesus is famished and so the devil tempts him with food, in particular with bread — but note that he does not simply present him with a nice freshly baked loaf of bread; he urges him to make it himself by transforming a stone into bread. Jesus responds by quoting the Scripture, Deuteronomy 8:3, “One does not live by bread alone.” You know there is more to that citation, that verse; but Jesus, quoting the Scripture in this way, is doing something that the rabbis of his time often did — that is, they relied on the scriptural literacy of their students, and at the same time tested that literacy, by only giving half the verse, to see if they would come up with the second half on their own; to test the understanding of the hearer. They would know the rest, as I’m sure you do — after all, that’s why the rabbinical students were studying, and as far as the devil goes, there’s an old saying that the devil can quote scripture to his purpose — which we will see in a moment. So in this case, you all remember the other half of this verse: “but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

To those who know that Scripture, this unspoken half of the verse should resonate with great power: for not just what but who is the word that comes from the mouth of the Lord? It is not just the Law that comes from God, the written word given on Mount Sinai; but it is also the Son of God himself — Jesus — the living word of God, spoken from before time and forever; the one who comes forth from the Father, the Only-Begotten Word of God. Moreover, he is also, as we will see later in the gospel, the one who gives himself as bread, for the life of the world. So the half-truth that the devil presents is that the son of God can transform stone into bread; but just as at the wedding in Cana of Galilee Jesus showed that there was a far more to his mission than a mere magic act, so too here he shows the whole truth: that life itself is not merely something that comes from eating earthly bread but from heavenly bread and from the word of God, living and true.

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The devil’s next temptation involves a change of scene and a vision of all the world’s kingdoms. With this comes the half-truth that the devil can arrange for Jesus to come to power in these earthly lands if he will devote himself to the devil’s agenda. Anyone who reads the newspaper or watches CNN can see the stories of politicians whose rise to power was built on betraying the very principles they were called upon to defend. Dare I mention using campaign funds to buy yourself a watch that’s worth more than what most people make in a whole year?

Jesus once again responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:13, substituting one word, “worship” for “fear.” And if in the first response Jesus gave part of a quote to imply the rest of it, here he alters one word, picking up on the devil’s offer that if Jesus will worship him the devil will give him authority over the nations of the world. This altering of a single word is another rabbinic tool: bending a text by substituting a close synonym to make a point, as Jesus does here to show a greater truth: there is no cause either to worship or to fear the devil. God alone is the source of all right judgment and truth. To rely upon the devil to come to power is to build on a very shaky foundation indeed — as we have seen when countless tyrants, liars and hypocrites, and politicians, topple from power when they are exposed for their betrayal of the truth and their failure to fear the judgment of God — for we are all answerable to that power.

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Finally there is one more change of scene, and also a change in tactics. Perhaps a bit annoyed at having had Scripture quoted at him, the devil decides to quote Scripture himself, offering not just one but two quotations from it — in this case both from Psalm 91. Once more Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy 6:16. Obviously there is some truth in the devil’s challenge; after all it comes from Scripture: God does indeed protect his own. But Jesus wisely points out the whole truth: that God’s protection does not mean we are to test or challenge God by putting ourselves at risk just to show that God is God. God doesn’t need us to prove that God is God. God is God whether we prove it or not!

But another and more important truth in this last challenge and response lies in the last verse of the passage: Jesus says, “do not put the Lord your God to the test,” and the gospel concludes, “when the devil had finished every test he went away, awaiting an opportune time.” “When the devil had finished every test.” This is Luke’s way of highlighting what in fact has been taking place here in the whole scene: the devil has been testing Jesus, but in doing so he has also been testing God — for Jesus is the Son of God incarnate, and the devil knows that full well, just as he knows his Scripture; but he has gotten so caught up in the coils of his own lies that he has forgotten who it is he is speaking to. He may think he is only preying upon the human weakness that Jesus has embraced in becoming human — the human weaknesses of hunger, ambition, and fear — but the devil has forgotten — as he so often does, poor fool that he is and always has been — that in spite of his human weakness Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, he is the bread of heaven, he is the true power and authority of all creation by whom all things were made, and not someone who can be put to the test by one who lost his legs in the Garden of Eden, condemned to spend the rest of his life belly-squirming in the dust.

So it is no wonder the devil chooses this moment to slither away and bide his time. Jesus’ last response might just as well have been, “Just who do you think you are talking to!” You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. The devil has gotten so tied up with his own charms that he has forgotten just who Jesus is — and that sudden reminder is enough to send him slithering back to his snake-hole. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” For all his talk, the devil is an awful coward.

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And so my friends let us take away these three important whole truths from this short drama: First, Jesus is the word of God and the bread from heaven, and it is by him, in him, and through him that we are called and invited to live. Second, he and he alone is and ought to be the only object of our worship and our service — any power or glory that comes from any other source is to be rejected for the worthless and undependable trash that it is. Third and finally, we are called upon not to test, but to trust, and to bear in mind who it is with whom we will have to deal at the end — the devil will not be our judge. The devil may be our accuser, but our judge, who shared our life as we share his, will also be our advocate, and redeemer, and he will speak on our behalf. What does Saint Paul say? “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved.” We have heard this day three precious truths, to support that confession and that faith, my friends, three precious truths from the heart of the wilderness and from the heart of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sweet Talk

Can hard words be made softer with love?

Epiphany 4c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
All in the synagogue spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.

Our second reading this morning is one of the most beloved passages of Scripture. One might say, as Katharine Hepburn famously said of calla lilies, that it is suitable for any occasion. In addition to its use in regular Sunday worship, it is also read at weddings and funerals alike. Given the many people only attend church at weddings and funerals, this may be one of the few texts of Scripture that such unchurched people hear, the only portion of Scripture they are likely to know when at all. Who can forget Prime Minister Tony Blair’s reading of this very passage at Princess Diana’s funeral. That was seen by millions on television around the world, some of whom never darkened the doors of a church after their baptism, or will again until they are carried in and out by the staff of a funeral home.

But to return to our text, it is indeed a particularly beautiful passage, and in addition to its beauty it carries an extremely important message, similar to that from last week’s reading about how an apostle speaks — whether in preaching, teaching, or prophecy — must be imbued with love. Otherwise, a message delivered without love will be like the disruptive clamor of a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. In short, the teacher or preacher is advised to sweet-talk: to speak with gentleness and patience and grace — and above all, love.

The problem, of course, is that the message a preacher is sometimes called to deliver is not in itself very sweet. There are times when difficult things have to be said. Adding a spoonful of sugar to a batch of nasty medicine is not always easy. This is a perilous balancing act — even for one who is the soul of diplomacy and tact.

You may of heard the old story of the three old Cajun fellows who were out one night in the bayou, driving their backwoods Lincoln Continental — a pickup truck — after they’d all had rather a bit too much to drink. Although it’s hard to tell sometimes how much is too much to drink, when you’re dealing with an old Cajun fellow. At one point the truck swerved but the tree didn’t and the driver, one Boudreaux by name, went to meet his maker rather sooner than he thought he might. The other two were shaken up but drunk enough to stagger away from the wreck. René said to Pierre, “This is terrible. Who’s going to tell Mrs. Boudreaux?” Whereupon Pierre volunteered, “I will handle this. I am the soul of diplomacy and tact.” And so the pair staggered off to Boudreaux’s house.

Pierre stepped up and knocked on the door and Mrs. Boudreaux answered. Said Pierre, “Are you the widow Boudreaux?” The startled woman replied, “Why I am Mrs. Boudreaux, but I’m not a widow.” To which Pierre, summoning all of his diplomacy and tact, said, “The hell you ain’t!”

Surely preachers are called upon to deliver their messages in a truly more tactful and loving way. But sometimes, sometimes the word the preacher is called to preach, the word placed in his mouth by God himself — as we saw God do in the case of young Jeremiah — sometimes that word will be a word of plucking up or pulling down, a word of destruction and overthrow, as well as building up and planting. As you likely know Jeremiah did have some hard things to say to the people to whom God sent him, and for his thanks got thrown down a well and later put into prison.

And let’s face it, even our Lord Jesus Christ himself did not fare much better when he went to his hometown of Nazareth and began to preach in their synagogue. And if you’ve ever wondered why more isn’t said about Nazareth in the Gospels — this is why. He received no welcome and once he left he left it for good. Oh, it all started off fine, as the people observed how nicely he spoke and how gracious were his words — but then of course a few of them began to say, “Isn’t that Joseph’s son?” — as if to say, “Where did this carpenter’s boy get to talk so fancy?” Jesus of course saw through this at once and challenged that congregation with a reminder of the fact that the greatest miracles and the most powerful prophecies are not worked or spoken in the hometown setting — in large part because of the doubt those in the hometown hold about the one who would work miracles — if the people would only believe and trust instead of doubting. So Jesus reminds them of figures from Jewish history — foreigners for whom miracles were worked by the greatest of the prophets, Elijah and Elisha. He’s only telling them the truth, mind — it’s all in the Scriptures, it’s just the history — and he’s still doing it graciously, not calling anybody names — and yet they are thrown into a rage of anger and set to throw him, not just down a well, but off the cliff at the edge of town. As I said, if you wonder why he never went back to Nazareth...

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So how does one sweet talk when the things one needs to say may be received as bitter? How does a preacher preach the truth if people would rather hear sweet lies and comforting words that do them no good? How do you sweeten bitter medicine that might save a sick soul’s life?

I answer that it is in the “doing good,” it is in the “saving” that provide the clue. For it all depends on what you think love is. There is, as novelist Iris Murdoch noted, a vast difference between being “nice” being “good.” Loving words are loving because you love the one to whom you speak — not because the message itself is sweet and nice and pleasant. The medicine you need to survive an illness might taste awful, but it will do you more good than the sweet-tasting stuff that does nothing for you. Love may have to say some difficult things sometimes, but can do so with patience and kindness; without envy or boasting or arrogance or rudeness. Love does not insist on its own way, nor is it irritable or resentful — but nor does it rejoice in wrongdoing, for it rejoices in the truth. And so it is that sometimes love must speak a hard truth but in a loving way in order to reach the one who needs to hear that word — for the good of his or her soul — perhaps a word of challenge or of reformation, or of repentance. And if that word is spoken in and out of love and concern for the salvation and well-being of the one to whom it is spoken, and if it is received with that same spirit, then truly even a hard word can be spoken with love and heard and received with love.

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Once in the early 19th century, Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright was told that President Andrew Jackson was going to attend worship at his church that morning, and he was advised not to be provocative — contrary to his reputation. This was an era of hellfire and brimstone preaching, and Cartwright was known to be able to make the sparks fly.

When the sermon time came, Cartwright mounted the pulpit and began, “I have been told that President Jackson is here this morning; and I have been asked to be subdued in my remarks. But I would not be true to my God and to the commission placed upon me, were I to guard my words with anything other than the truth itself. And the truth is that President Jackson — much as any sinner in this place — will go to hell if he does not repent.”

You likely could have heard a pin drop at that point as all eyes in the congregation turned to look at Jackson, sitting stony faced in his pew. But after the worship Jackson, as he left the church warmly took Cartwright’s hand, shook it fervently and said to him, “Sir, with a regiment of men like you I could whip this world into shape.”

Sometimes a hard word has to be spoken; sometimes a hard word has to be heard. But speaking the truth in love does not mean speaking lies with love — in fact, if you’re lying you cannot be loving. But hard things can be said if they come out of love for the one to whom you speak, and it they are said in love for the one to whom you speak, and if the hearer knows as well that love is where those words come from, and receives those words with love. And if their ears are tuned to the notes of love they will hear your words with the intent and purpose to build up rather than to destroy.

May all our words of truth be spoken in love and heard with love, that good may come of them, and God’s name be glorified, to who, as is most justly due, be ascribed all might, majesty, power and dominion, henceforth and forever more.

A Dangerous Trade

Being a prophet means telling the truth, and telling the truth can get you into trouble; but telling the truth can set you right with God -- and who do we think we are fooling anywy? -- a sermon for Proper 10b

Proper 10b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’”

All of us here, I’m sure, were brought up with the lesson always to tell the truth. Although I’m sure it has fallen out of fashion by now, I can recall being brought up with the stories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln — both famous truth-tellers. Washington, as a six-year-old child, simply “could not tell a lie” — even when it meant that he had to incriminate himself about having used his little hatchet to debark his father’s favorite cherry tree. This was before the U.S. Constitution and its fifth amendment barring self-incrimination. It is a little hard to picture six-year-old George Washington calmly saying, “I decline to answer on the grounds that it might tend to incriminate me,” instead of, “I cannot tell a lie.”

And of course “Honest Abe” was renowned for his straight-from-the-shoulder directness, both in his early days working in a general store and later as an attorney, and later still as President. It is said that once when he realized he’d short-changed a customer in the general store when he was a young man, he traveled all the way out to their farm to bring them the proper change, which amounted to a few pennies. Of course, in the case of Lincoln it is about greater truths, and truth-telling, than that for which he is most remembered. Truths such as, “A house divided against itself cannot stand. This government cannot endure... half slave and half free.” That was a powerful truth, and Lincoln a powerful truth-teller in his willingness to tell such a truth when others counseled a go-along get-along, easy-peasy sort of accommodation of a diversity of opinions on the question of slavery.

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The problem is that telling the truth or being a truthful person can be dangerous — when what you say is a challenge to the Powers That Be; when some truth you reveal is an embarrassment to those in high positions; when the uncomfortable truth does not incriminate you, but possibly charges others with serious crimes; when a truth you proclaim undermines the power-base of some entrenched authority — all of these are situations in which the truth will not set you free, but may end you up in prison or on the scaffold.

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Lincoln spoke about a house divided against itself, quoting the Scripture; and Amos the prophet describes a similarly troubled construction, a house whose walls are no longer upright, but tilting dangerously. God himself stands in judgment against the house of Israel, holding up the plumb-line of his truth against its tottering walls. It is a kingdom whose king Jereboam has introduced a golden calf into the sanctuary at Bethel, and for good measure — or perhaps I should say, bad measure — another golden calf at a temple in Dan. God holds up the measure of his plumb-line against this tilting, tottering wall, and calls on Amos to warn that the house is doomed to collapse — for if a house divided against itself cannot stand, what hope is there for a house divided against God! Jereboam has done the unthinkable — he has forgotten what happened when Aaron made a golden calf for Israel while Moses was on Sinai meeting with God to obtain the law written with God’s own hand on tablets of stone. And yet Jereboam has not only installed one golden calf, but set up two of them: one at Bethel near the southern border with Judah, and the other at Dan in the far north, two golden calves in temples at opposite ends of his kingdom. And Jereboam has committed the ultimate blasphemy, telling the people, “These are your gods who brought you out of Egypt.”

Amos tells the uncomfortable truth about this blasphemous idolatry, in words that the people, the priests, and the rulers cannot bear to hear. But, all things considered, he gets off with a warning, as the priest Amaziah urges him to flee from the king’s temple, to head down south to Judah, to flee the country and earn his bread down there, far away from the king of Israel. Truly the people and their rulers in the north have turned from God and no longer even want to hear the truth, let alone act upon it; but Amos is given the chance to flee for his life.

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Our gospel passage, on the other hand, shows us what befalls a truth-teller who persists in proclaiming a truth, in spite of warnings. It is hundreds of years later, and the issues are different, but it is still a king and a prophet who are at odds. John the Baptist castigates Herod the king for having married his sister-in-law. In doing so, John has made many enemies: not so much Herod himself, who is intrigued by this prophet and even interested in what he has to say. But Herod’s illegitimate wife has a serious grudge, as the Scripture says, and she finds a way to force Herod into silencing the prophet once and for all, tricking the ruler into doing what he would do on his own by simple persuasion. It isn’t enough that the prophet has been slapped in prison — no, he must be silenced, and in the most brutal way possible, by having his head cut off. Only his death will satisfy the anger of Herodias.

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Yes, telling the truth can get you into trouble. You see the warning given to Amos, and the fate of John the Baptist. I don’t think I need to remind you about what happened to Abraham Lincoln. And how many other tellers of truth down through the centuries have suffered at the hands of those who would rather believe a comfortable lie? If human beings were cruel enough to lay their hands upon the one who was Truth Himself — the Son of God come to deliver us from the lies that Satan wove around us — if the Word of God himself suffered and died, nailed to a cross in spite of having done nothing wrong — it is evident that truth comes with a price, a high price.

Yet this is the price we know that God demands. Though human beings may be bought off with a lie, God cannot be so cheated. God stands with his plumb-line poised against every person and community, against every corporation and country, against every individual and institution, poised with that plumb-line to test how upright it is. For that is what a plumb-line does: it shows how true and on the square and level stands the house, whether our own personal house or household, or the household of our state or of our church.

Honesty, truth, and clarity are what God demands of us — no deception or delusion, as if God could be fooled, but a willing engagement with the truth of his Word and his promise. As the Apostle Paul assures us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.” So let us, then, when we fail, not try to conceal our failures under a cloak of comfortable lies from the one who sees through all our pretense anyway. Let’s take the example of young George Washington, and incriminate ourselves willingly — for it is only in admitting our guilt and confessing our sins that we will find mercy and forgiveness through the amazing grace of God. God stands with his plumb-line against our hearts; let us, my friends, be honest with him who is so ready to forgive.+

Minor Prophet

The truth may well be in the minority --- but with the power of God can turn the worlds upside down. A sermon for Proper 26a.

SJF • Proper 26a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The sun shall go down upon the prophets, and the day shall be black over them; the seers shall be disgraced and the diviners put to shame....

We heard a reading this morning from the book of the prophet Micah. He is one of the “Minor Prophets” — one of the twelve whose much shorter works are gathered together at the end of the Old Testament after the big-league heavy-hitters Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel — each of whose works alone is longer than the twelve others put together. But they are none the less important.

Micah is one of these Twelve Minor Prophets, but in today’s reading he also appears to be in the minority among the other prophets of his own time — the ones whom he accuses of leading the people astray. These are the prophets for hire, who cry out “Peace” when they have something to eat, but declare war against those who put nothing in their mouths.

This stand-off among the prophets is not all that unusual — oftentimes in Israel’s history there was disagreement among those called prophets: some said one thing and some another, and it was often the case that the one telling the truth — the true prophet — was in the minority.

You may recall the story of Elijah at Mount Carmel, when he alone faced off against several hundred prophets of the false god Baal — ridiculing them as they danced about and cut and gashed themselves in an effort to induce their god to show himself. Or you might recall that Amos (another of the Twelve Minor Prophets) prophesied in the minority and was chided for doing so. At that he protested that he wasn’t even a prophet — just a shepherd who lived off the fruit of the land— until God called him to speak the truth to the people of that land.

Another early prophet, Micaiah — not to be confused with Micah — like Elijah also had to bring bad news of defeat to Ahab king of Israel, noting that God had sent a lying spirit into the mouths of four hundred other prophets who told Ahab that he would be successful. Talk about a minority of one! — and yet he was the only one who told the truth.

The sad fact is that there were often false prophets, like those against whom Micah protests in our reading this morning: prophets at a price, prophets who thought in terms of personal profit — with an “F I” instead of “P H E” — and who would give you what you wanted to hear, for a price — like the fortune-tellers who will always give good news so long as you cross their palms with silver.

For those against whom Micah speaks, it is all about the money: not just the prophets, but the rulers who take bribes to hand out the desired judgment; priests who teach falsely for a price, or prophets who give pleasing oracles of peace in exchange for silver or gold. Micah stands in opposition to all of this. Although the prophets and princes and priests can be bought, God will not be bought off, and will bring his truth, will bring his rule, and his judgment upon all who turn aside to evil ways. As Micah says in another passage from his writing: you cannot buy God off with sacrifices and burnt offerings — even going so far as to imagine that God would accept your own children in a human sacrifice. No, Micah says: what the Lord God requires of you — in that ringing phrase — “is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

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The situation is not all that different by the time of Christ. The authorities — in this case the scribes and the Pharisees — enjoy the privilege of their station. They sit in the seat of Moses — giving authoritative interpretations of the Law — but they fail to follow through on the Law’s harder teachings about justice, fairness and equity. The return they garner in exchange is not so plainly financial, but rather the literal “fringe benefits” — like those fringes that decorate their prayer shawls in an ostentatious show of self-righteous piety. They have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at the banquets, and the respectful bows and curtsies in the street and the marketplace, as people nod to them and humble themselves and call them “rabbi.”

Jesus, like Micah before him, stands as a minority of one against this comfortable establishment. He knows — as indeed only the Word of God can know, as the one who sent the prophets in the first place — he knows that a prophet’s task is not to cozy up to power and prestige, but as Finley Peter Dunne once famously put it, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

Those in the seats of power would later accuse the Christians of trying to turn the world upside-down. And indeed that is what they did, and what they were meant to do. A world in which even one child goes hungry or perishes from a treatable disease is a world that needs to be turned upside-down.

Our Gospel passage this morning closes with Jesus almost quoting his mother, Blessed Mary of Nazareth, who had herself spoken prophetically when she visited her cousin Elizabeth and said, “He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.” This is what happens when the minority has God on its side — when the truth that they proclaim is not something they speak for what they can get out of it, or to please others or to gain their support from it, or to exalt themselves — but simply because it is the truth.

Telling the truth will often not win you friends or earn you praise or reward. It can get you into trouble, as it did Elijah and Amos and Micaiah and Micah... and Jesus — and as it did for the Apostles who spread the word of Jesus and his teaching, and turned the world upside-down, so that the rich and comfortable might slip from their seats — whether the seat of Moses or the prince’s throne — and come to learn what it is to be among the poor and disenfranchised of this world.

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Jesus ends his words in this morning’s Gospel with a warning to his followers. They are not to purchase honor with flattery, to take upon themselves high titles and the best seats in the places of earthly pomp and circumstance. No, they are to turn their hearts and minds — and ears — to the one in heaven, who is their Father, and to Jesus Christ who is their teacher and instructor.

We are called to be like the true prophets of old, who listened for the word of God — both for the unfolding of the written word of God, and for the teaching of the living Word of God in our hearts. The ancient prophets saw his day, far off and as in a vision, and were glad. We are fortunate enough to live in the days since his coming, and what is more, to continue to welcome him among us in Word and Sacrament. No better seat of honor, or more prestigious banquet exists than the one to which we have been invited and at which we are nowseated — not because of our worthiness, but by his grace. To him be the glory, now and for ever.