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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 06/28/2020

Let me set the scene for you, the scene for chapters 27 and 28 of Jeremiah: the year was 594 BCE, Before Common Era as we say these days. The army of Babylon had conquered the city of Jerusalem and many of the best and the brightest, the leaders of the city had been captured and taken into exile. Keep in mind that exile wasn’t slavery; the exiles were free to live and work, they just couldn’t leave and, separated from the Temple, they couldn’t worship as they were accustomed. King Zedekiah of Judah however, was still in Jerusalem and with him was a congregation of the faithful who would gather in the Temple. Included among those people was the prophet Jeremiah, a weird and frequently unwelcome presence.

The word of the Lord had previously come to Jeremiah telling him that all this would happen if the people didn’t change their ways and now Jeremiah was told to make a yoke of straps and bars and to put it on his neck the way a yoke is put on the necks of cattle or oxen. Besides speaking words that were often symbolic, prophets also sometimes performed symbolic acts and Jeremiah’s wearing of this yoke was such an act, one intended to symbolize that he was yoked to the servant of the Lord. The thing was, the servant he was symbolically yoked to was not King Zedekiah of Judah; it was the conquering enemy king, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

The message of this symbolic act was that the people who remained in Jerusalem and the exiles in Babylon should also submit to the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar because the Lord was using Nebuchadnezzar and the army of Babylon to try and change the hearts and minds of the people. Jeremiah’s call was to again urge repentance and a return to the ways of the Lord. If such repentance took place, it would ultimately cause the Lord to restore the fortunes of the people; they would be able to return to Jerusalem.

But, it wasn’t going to happen any time soon. Seventy years it would take according to Jeremiah; in the meantime, the exiles in Babylon were encouraged to keep living, to build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produced, get married, have children and work for the welfare of Babylon. That was Jeremiah’s message, and it wasn’t well received.

Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet in Jerusalem though. Among the others was Hananiah. Hananiah was what you might call a house prophet, serving as something more like a press secretary, in this case the press secretary for King Zedekiah. Hananiah’s job was to spin things out in a more positive way so he told the people that this had happened before, that 130 or so years earlier they had been conquered by the Assyrians and exiles were taken then too, but it didn’t last long and this one he said, won’t last long either. Two years he said, as opposed to Jeremiah’s seventy; two years and then everyone will come home. Things will return to normal so, no need to panic, just hang in there.

That’s the background for today’s verses, verses that don’t make much sense without that background as they are Jeremiah’s response to Hananiah’s counter prophecy. What Jeremiah basically says in his response is, “I hope you’re right. I hope the Lord fulfills the words you have prophesied.” Then he adds, “As for the prophet who prophecies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet.”

With that, Hananiah took the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck and broke it, his symbolic act intending to say that the yoke of Babylon is already broken. Jeremiah then rebuked Hananiah saying, “Listen, the Lord has not sent you, and you make this people trust in a lie.” Chapter 28 then ends with, “In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.”

This lesson is here today because it’s intended to connect with the gospel reading which has to do with welcoming a prophet. The trouble is, the prophet we might most like to welcome today is Hananiah, not Jeremiah. Hananiah is the prophet of the status quo, the prophet of everything’s OK, the prophet who denies that anything is wrong. Jeremiah, on the other hand, is the prophet who announces that there is something wrong, something that we’d better pay attention to, something that calls for repentance and the hard work around repentance, work that takes time. It wasn’t a message that would win many friends for Jeremiah.

I can’t help but connect the dots of this story to what is going on in the country and in the church these days. Because the video was so graphic and disturbing, the killing of George Floyd seems to have been a tipping point concerning the fact that there is something wrong in our society, that racial injustice persists, the result being that more and more people are now saying, “Enough is enough.” It’s something however, that many of us have been in denial about for a long time.

That denial comes in a variety of forms. I suspect the most common form for us is the “I’m not racist” form. We tell ourselves that we live in an area where there is very little racial diversity and so this is someone else’s problem but I’m not racist. I may not be part of the solution but that’s just because of where I live, but I’m not part of the problem. As ELCA Lutherans we’re part of the whitest denomination in the country but we tell ourselves that that’s because so many of our churches are in places that are mostly or all white (which is true) but we’d have no problem if a black or Hispanic family showed up in fact, we wish they would! In this case it’s not so much denial that there’s a problem, just a sense that I or we can’t do much about it. So, there might be a problem, but it’s not really mine. It’s kind of a benign denial and I will confess that it has tended to be my default position.

There was a letter in the Mining Journal last week that I think represents another kind of denial. The writer of the letter used the Black Lives Matter situation to highlight his opposition to abortion, saying that those lives matter too. For this person and for many others, those lives do matter. Abortion is an important issue and I respect that. In this case though, for me anyway, the letter came across as an effort to take the focus off the problem at hand and move it down the list. It wasn’t a denial concerning issues of racism, but it was a deflection.

Somewhat similar to that was a yard sign I saw that said “Police Lives Matter” to which I say, yes, absolutely. I don’t like the fact that suddenly all police officers are bad and that police departments shouldn’t be funded; (remember how they were all heroes after 9/11?) Any police officers I know or have known are not just decent people but admirable public servants. They do a job that is often difficult and dangerous and they deserve to be able to get home safely at the end of the day. Saying that Black lives matter though, doesn’t mean that others don’t matter. Again, it’s not denial that there’s a problem but another example of deflection.

All of these though, are Hananiah like responses when what is needed is a Jeremiah like response that acknowledges that something is wrong and that there isn’t a quick fix; it will take hard work and time. In something I was reading I came across an unattributed quote and when I checked the footnotes, I found out it was from my old friend Walter Brueggemann; I should have known. This was 15 years ago, but he said, “There are two great pathologies in our culture today. One of them is denial. The only antidote for denial is radical truth telling. The other great pathology is despair. The only antidote for despair is radical hope, grounded in community.”

That pretty much describes the Jeremiah/Hananiah dynamic. In the face of Hananiah’s denial, Jeremiah spoke the truth. He wasn’t however, a prophet of despair, but of hope. Ultimately his words were about the beginning of a new world brought about by the will of God. His words were a call for the people to embrace God’s vision for newness and to act in ways that supported that vision.

It would seem that that is exactly where we are relative to the situation of racial injustice. Against various forms of denial that say that there isn’t a problem or that it’s not that bad, or that it’s getting better, or that it isn’t my problem, radical truth is being spoken on many fronts including many church fronts, many such church fronts that have previously been in Hananiah like denial choosing to look the other way or not wanting to take a stand for fear of upsetting someone. Telling the truth and acknowledging there’s a problem is the first step and from there the hard work begins and to be honest, I don’t know exactly what that work looks like or how people who live in places like the UP get involved when it does feel like we’re pretty distant from it.

Following the lead of the prophets though, I would suggest that involvement begins with changing a destructive and divisive narrative and creating a different vision. That’s what the prophets did as they helped people to imagine new possibilities. As Christians we have such a narrative and such a vision. It’s a vision of cross and resurrection, a vision of new life out of brokenness which is actually a thread that runs throughout the Bible. It’s a vision that trusts that God can and will do something that is radically new. It is a vision of radical hope grounded in community.

Jeremiah invited people to hope and to respond to possibilities that seemed impossible. In a different place and a different time, that invitation is extended to us.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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