Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7A), June 19, 2005. Delivered by the Rev. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, Grace Church, Amherst, Massachusetts.

Jeremiah 20:7-13Romans 5:15b-19
Psalm 69:7-10, 16-18Matthew 10:24-33

A fire in the bones

What would it be like to be so fired with a vision of God’s justice and mercy that you just couldn’t help but speak about it?  What if your experience of God was so vivid and so visceral that you couldn’t contain it, couldn’t keep it to yourself, but you had to express it, had to share it, had to bring it forth into the world?  Apparently that’s what happened to Jeremiah 1500 years ago, for he sounds like a man so possessed by God, so gripped by God’s presence, that he is actually compelled to speak. “If I say ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot” [bbllink]Jeremiah 20:9[/bbllink].

This may be a rather irreverent analogy, but Jeremiah’s situation reminds me of the movie “Liar Liar” that came out a while back.  Maybe you remember it: Jim Carrey plays a slick, manipulative lawyer who for one painful and hilarious 24-hour period becomes completely incapable of telling a lie.  However much he tries to restrain himself, however hard he scrunches up his face or twists himself into knots trying to say something that’s not true to his boss, his secretary, his client, his son – even to himself – he simply can’t do it.  The only words that can come out of his mouth are words that are true.  Of course total havoc ensues, and that’s what makes the movie so funny and so telling: being forced to tell the truth turns the man’s life upside down, makes him vulnerable to being mocked and humiliated, and yet in the end restores him to right-relationship with his son and with himself.

That’s rather like the case of Jeremiah, who is similarly unable to speak anything but the deepest truth he knows.  He’s not one to go along and get along.  He’s not one to accept the lie that injustice doesn’t matter or that cruelty is acceptable.  He can’t help but see that his country is running after false gods.  He can’t help but see that his country’s policies are creating violence and destruction.  Forget any governmental or corporate campaign of disinformation – Jeremiah would see right through it.  He’s a man who can’t help but stand up again and again, speaking out day after day for God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s truth. 

Obviously this is not a comfortable place in which to live.  Jeremiah is by turns ignored, taunted, and persecuted.  As he tells us in this passage, he’s “become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks [him]” – even his close friends.  That is also the experience of the psalmist, who like Jeremiah, laments to God, “Surely, for your sake I have suffered reproach, and shame has covered my face… Zeal for your house has eaten me up; the scorn of those who scorn you has fallen upon me” [bbllink]Psalm 69: 8, 10[/bbllink].  Today’s Gospel similarly emphasizes that Jesus himself faced conflict and opposition.  So, too, will those who follow him.  “A disciple,” says Jesus, “is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master” [bbllink]Matthew 10:24[/bbllink].  Just as Jesus was contemptuously derided as Beelzebul, an Aramaic name for Satan, so too will his followers be insulted and misrepresented, even when our message is one of authentic love.

So what are we to make of this?  What might the Spirit be saying to us this morning in these unsettling words of Scripture?  The first thing I hear is this: protect the fire in your bones.  Hold fast to your perception of a God who loves mercy and creates justice and speaks truth.  Trust your longing for a society that makes room for everyone – the lonely, the left-out, and the lost, the poor and the marginalized – for this longing has been planted in you by God.  We need people of fire, people who are not afraid to listen deeply to God and then to speak out as clearly and persuasively as we can our vision of a world that is marked by justice rather than oppression, by inclusion rather than division, by truthfulness rather than lies.

A second word I hear is this: Expect opposition.  Don’t be surprised if your efforts are met by conflict or contempt.  Giving voice to the needs of the poor, of racial and ethnic minorities, of the powerless and the forgotten, will very likely provoke friction with the powers-that-be.  Speaking up for social justice or for protecting God’s green earth often begins by provoking scorn, or worse, so don’t be surprised.  That’s the way of the world.

The third word I hear is this: don’t be afraid.  Three times Jesus says this in the short Gospel passage we just heard. “Have no fear,” he says.  And again he says, “Do not fear.”  And yet again, “Do not be afraid.”  And why not?  Because we are loved by God.  Because we belong to a God who knows and loves us, through and through.  “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” [bbllink]Mt 10:29-30[/bbllink].  

Listen to that voice of love, the voice we hear in Scripture and in the quiet of our own hearts.  Especially now, in a time of anxiety, violence, and uncertainty, we need the willingness, the discipline, to listen to that voice of love, not to the voices of bitterness and hate.  The inner voice of love may be very quiet and subtle, and in prayer we listen for it attentively and patiently. 

“I have called you by name,” God says to us in the secret center of the self.  “I have redeemed you.  I will not forget you.   I have carved you in the palm of my hand.  I know your sitting down and your rising up.  I am acquainted with all your ways.  I have loved you since before time began.  I give myself to you in every Eucharist and I will be with you every step of the way until I welcome you home at your journey’s end. With me, you can meet whatever comes with your head held high.  Do not be afraid.”

That is the bedrock of our faith, what today’s Collect calls “the sure foundation of [God’s] loving-kindness.”  Touch that bedrock, and you know you are safe.  Touch that bedrock, and you feel God’s passion for a world in which beauty is defined as creating the conditions in which life can flourish.  Touch that bedrock, and you know in your own bones that God longs not for hatred and revenge, not for privilege for the few and deprivation for the many, but for a world marked by compassion and justice.

Like Jeremiah, we may grow weary sometimes, but if it’s the wind of God that is blowing through us, the breath of the Spirit that is animating our efforts, we can take heart.  We are exactly where we’re called to be.  Sure, it’s a risky business, listening to the voice of love and bearing witness to that love in the world.  Bearing God’s word can be a painful path; it is the way of the Cross.  But it is also a path of joy, for it is what we were made for.  We were created to love and to be loved, created to take part in God’s project of reconciliation.  We each have some way we can serve, some way our own lives can make a difference.

Let me close with an email message that a friend sent me not long after 9/11.  He is not a religious man, nor a churchgoer, but after the enormity of those events he felt moved to begin a search that I can only name as spiritual. “All week,” he writes, “I’ve been living with a sense that we are called upon to find something inside we may not have thought we’d ever need, may fear to seek, may dread to find, may fail to acknowledge once found, may doubt is even there.”  

What are we called to seek for and to find, however much we may dread it or want to doubt its reality?  We might call it courage or inner strength; we might call it a fire in the bones.  I would call it God. 

I treasure you, this Grace Church community that I’ve been blessed to be part of for these past ten months.  Together we are creating a space in which the Spirit can move and speak among us, a space in which we can honor the fire in our bones, support each other when our efforts face opposition, and encourage each other not to be afraid.  In these days of stewardship and of the Restoration Project, we have a chance to acknowledge how much it means to us to follow Jesus, how much this community means, and how much we have to offer people like my searching friend who are looking for something they can barely name, the same Holy Presence that long ago inspired and sustained Jeremiah in his own ardent quest for justice and peace.