Sermons

Isaiah’s Vineyard and Ours

October 8th, 2017

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on October 8, 2017.

Forty years ago my wife and I bought some land. It was, in the words of the prophet, “on a very fertile hill. (And I) dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines . . .” Well, actually, I planted it with apple trees and peach trees and corn and potatoes. But I tilled the soil and I pruned the trees and I established an asparagus bed, and I looked for it to produce good crops and by and large it did. I had a much better experience than Isaiah in the first reading – or, actually, God; it’s God speaking through the prophet about a bad experience God had with the people of God. But I had a good experience.

Eventually the time came to sell it and move on, to move west, and so we entrusted our land to new hands, a new owner, and unlike God’s experience with Israel, I have not been disappointed in the new owners either. I think he’s done better with it than I did. He sent me some apples once from my trees and some asparagus by overnight express. I’m very happy with what’s happened.

God has not been so lucky. God plants vineyards and it doesn’t work out very well.. We read about it in today’s first reading and it’s echoed in the Psalm and the Gospel. God planted a garden. God has been doing gardening from the beginning. And God has been disappointed again and again by the caretakers sent to take care of it, by the lack of a good harvest.

God also, come to think of it, planted a garden in North America. We sing about it and it always brings tears to my eyes:
O beautiful for spacious skies
For amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain . . .

That’s what we’ve been given. That’s what was entrusted to us. And we were challenged to build a shining city on a hill, to draw others and inspire others.

We sing about it still: “O beautiful for spacious skies . . .” We sing about it, and we wake up in the morning to hear how many died in the latest killing spree and how badly we have failed to help those whose lives have been destroyed by a hurricane and we continue to pour carbon dioxide into the air and to warm the seas. And one plus one is still two. If you pollute the air and warm the seas, they will spawn ever fiercer storms and trees will be uprooted and farm land and gardens and homes will be washed away and human lives will be lost.

And yet we choose leaders who make false promises and are intent on their own power and wealth and have no notion, not the slightest notion, of a vision like that of Isaiah, like that of Jesus, leaders who have forgotten, as we have forgotten,
“the heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved
And mercy more than life!

Why is there such an apparent shortage of leaders and followers
Who more than self their country love
And mercy – and mercy – more than life – more than life.

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting; he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!

The Hebrew has a little play on words there:
He looked for righteousness but heard a cry.
The King James says, “He looked for righteousness but behold oppression.”
In Hebrew it says:
Vayikáv lamishpát, v’hinéy mispách; litz’dakáh, v’hiney tza’akáh.
He looked for mishpat but behold mispach, for dakah but behold za-akah

or to make a similar play on words in English:

he looked for right but behold riot;
for equity, but behold, iniquity.

God looked for righteousness.
God had expectations.
America! America!
May God thy gold refine. . .
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to watch the news and despair. How can I make a difference? I can see what needs doing but the people in power are blind, blind, self-obsessed, willing to take actions that destroy our future, blind and deaf to the things that need to be done.

We ought to know what God hopes for in this western vineyard, this city on a hill, this America. We know we ought to create a health care system that works for everyone. We know we ought to rid the nation of guns, take action to reduce air and water pollution, teach tolerance and self-sacrifice. And doesn’t it seem hopeless?

It’s easy to say, “I’ve done what I could: I voted right; I give to environmental and justice causes and I pledge to the church. I try to have an influence on others but I don’t personally know anyone who has an influence in city hall or Sacramento or Washington., so there’s nothing I can do.”

I’m just one small voice, right? But the world is made up of small voices. There are more of us than there are of them. And if I truly care, I and millions of others can make a difference. Yes, we can.

Do you tithe? Do you contribute to justice causes and the environment? If not, it’s no wonder the world’s a mess.

I’m working on the biography of a man who had been reading about coral reefs and he said, “I must have had a coral insect for a millio-millio-grandfather, loving to work beneath the tide in a superstructure that someday when the laborer is long dead and forgotten, may rear itself above the waves and afford rest and habitation for the creatures of the Good, Good Father of all.”

I like that picture: building a coral reef, century after century, a durable, lasting beautiful structure, grain by grain, grain by grain.

God didn’t call the apostle Paul to convert the world; but just to preach the gospel and Paul probably spoke to hundreds, but those hundreds became thousands, and those thousands became millions. And the world has been changed.

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

Have you seen those cities, alabaster cities undimmed by human tears? I haven’t. I don’t expect to. So shall we change the hymn?

O pretty nice for modest hopes
Where we would like to see
A city that’s not halfway bad
And not much misery.

It doesn’t sing, does it? It doesn’t grab me either. I stand with Isaiah. I want to know why we aren’t getting better crops and I want to be sure the weeds don’t grow where I can pull them up. Have you pledged a tithe to the church? That’s the standard the Episcopal Church formally adopted years ago. How can we make a difference without commitment. Have you contributed to the Sierra Club or an organization working for the environment? Do you make an annual contribution to a group working for social justice? There are things we can do. We can make a difference. or we can sit home and complain that nothing ever changes, that the vineyard still produces the same wild grapes.

O beautiful – potentially –
God grant us grace to be
A fruitful vine:  justice and peace,
Fulfilling prophecy.

A Letter to Us

August 19th, 2017

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on August 20, 2017, by Christopher L. Webber.

NOTE:  This sermon supposes St. Paul writing letters to American DearFriendscities.  Those letters have been written and published in “Dear Friends:  Letters of St. Paul to American Christians” available from Amazon and other book dealers.

Suppose St. Paul were alive today and suppose he were still writing letters. Of course, he would use a computer and I think he would write a series of letters (e-mails, of course) to American cities: Washington, Dallas, San Francisco. I think the one we would all be waiting for would be the letter to Washington. That letter would cover all sorts of subjects – some I will not get into – and one of them, I think, would be inter-faith relations.

Almost 2000 years ago Paul wrote a letter to Christians in Rome, the Washington of the ancient world, and he didn’t write about the emperor but he did write about inter-faith relationships. He wrote about the relationship between Christians and Jews. He agonized about it. That there should even be a division was a grief to Paul. It seemed so clear to him that the ancient Paulpurpose of God had been fulfilled in Jesus. Everything the Jews had been waiting for had been fulfilled in Jesus. For three chapters Paul wrestled with the issue and last week, this week, and next week we get brief excerpts from a passage in which Paul is agonizing about why the majority of the Jews have not accepted the Messiah and how it could be that God would have let it happen.

By the time he wrote that letter, Paul had had years to think about it and in writing to the Romans he gives them his theory. That’s what we’re reading for these three weeks. And what Paul says is, God is wiser than we. God is able to take that rejection and use it to accomplish far more than God’s people could ever imagine. Did the Jews reject Jesus? Yes, but look at the result: Gentiles turning to God in record numbers. And if Paul were writing now he could feel well justified in his logic. Look it up on the web, there are about 13 million Jews in the world today, but about 2 billion Christians. That’s what God accomplished out of human failure.

So what could God do for an encore? Paul thought about that and when Paul wrote to Rome he imagined a time when Jews and Christians would be brought back together, separate branches with a common root and all to the glory of God. And you can really begin to imagine it today with Jews and Christians talking together at more depth than ever and a greater desire to understand.

I think that if Paul were writing to Washington today and felt that the people there needed some guidance – and they might – he could certainly begin with the same analysis he brought to the question of Christians and Jews 2000 years ago. We’ll hear a little more about this next week but you really ought to take time with your Bible to read chapters 9-11 of Romans yourself to get the full impact. In brief, what Paul says is God has used the Jewish failure to accept Christ to make the gospel known to the Gentiles. His own words are: “a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved . . .” God has, so to speak, put 13 million on hold until billions more are gathered.

But now go back to the 7th century. Christianity had become the established religion of the Roman Empire but the Roman Empire had fallen and Christianity in the west was struggling to survive in what have been called “the Dark Ages.” But into this situation came a man named Mohammed with enormous energy and organizational skill and a vision of one God and a pattern of life centered in prayer and alms giving, and concern for the poor. Paul didn’t know about that, of course, but if he had, I think he might have fit that also into his vision. If that Islamic zeal in less than a hundred years could carry this new monotheism from Spain to India and bring into its fold spaceearthmillions upon millions, why could that also not be fitted into God’s final plan? Jews and Christians in Paul’s day were utterly irreconcilable. Christians and Muslims from Mohammed’s time to our own have been utterly irreconcilable but Paul had faith that God could do more than even he could imagine. Why can’t the same faith be ours?

Listen again to today’s epistle: “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’”

Now, there’s a simplistic version of this that you often hear: stuff about “all roads lead to Rome” and “we all believe in the same God” and “we’re all going to the same place eventually” and so on. If Paul thought that, he could have stayed home and been a successful rabbi. Instead he gave it all up to endure enormous hardship: “Thrice was I beaten with rods,” he writes, “once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.” Paul didn’t endure that because he thought it made no difference. It did make a difference. It still does.

Christianity today, for all its divisions, for all its failures, is light years ahead of Islam in terms of dealing with the 21st century world, light years ahead in terms of working through issues of sexuality and human relationships. And I believe that’s true simply because at the heart of the Christian faith is a knowledge of the triune God and a belief in the incarnation that requires us to approach this world in a very different way and a way that makes a vitally important difference.

But would it have been better for the world if Islam had never come to be? I can’t see that it would. As it is, the vast majority of the world’s peoples have come to believe in one God, a merciful God, a God who works to give all people a knowledge of the God who created us and cares for us. That’s a lot to have in common. I think St. Paul could write to Washington that “There is no distinction in God’s sight between Jew and Greek, between American and Arab; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.”

Well, but isn’t the present state of the world a messy way for God to be working? Was God really at work in the American invasion of Iraq and the endless war in Afghanistan? Absolutely. Not to say that God would have deliberately chosen Plan A or Plan B as worked out in the Pentagon as the ideal way to proceed, no; probably not; but it is to say that God is able to bring out of this chaos far more good than any of us could ever imagine. The fifty year confrontation between east and west over politics and power, communism and capitalism, has been replaced by something far more important and yes, oil, and politics is still very much at the center of it but so is faith, so is faith. When the television news shows us again and again prayer13pictures of Muslims at prayer that demands our attention. Faith matters. Faith may divide, but only faith can bridge that divide. Only faith, only a deep understanding of who we are and what God calls us to be, can ever unite us. And it still can. It still can. God is able to use even this for the unity of God’s people and the ultimate glory of God. That’s the hope Paul held out to the Romans 2000 years ago and it’s the hope still held out to us today.

Through the Torii

August 5th, 2017

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saint’s Church, Haight-Asbury, San Francisco, on August 6, 2017.

I wonder whether any of you have climbed Mt Fuji – Fujiyama – Fuji-san? I did it many years ago and I bring it up because this morning’s gospel takes us to a mountaintop in Israel and I’ve been there too. But when I climbed Fuji-san, I walked. When I went up the mount of vision in Israel, I got there in a car driven by a man who had done it so often that he went zooming around hairpin curves as if he were dealing with Interstate 80 in Kansas.

So there are two mountains, each with a commanding view, and how you get there can make a big difference in your experience of it. I wonder whether for most people It isn’t the climb that matters more than the view. People don’t come back from Everest talking about the view but about how they survived a land slide or had their tent blown away. The view, when you get there, isn’t that different from the view from any other peak in Tibet and you can get a better view much more easily from an airplane. I didn’t come back from Israel talking about the view from the top but the kamikaze driver who got us there.

This morning we hear nothing about the climb. It’s what happens on top that’s critical. But there’s a more important difference, I think, in the way you approach the mountain in the first place. Again and again as you approach the summit of Fuji-san, you encounter torii, the traditional gateways that snowy-mount-fuji-view-through-torii-shinto-shrine-gate-at-fuji-sengen-D8B3G9frame not simply the entrance to a sacred site but often the site itself so you have it framed to contemplate as in the picture in your bulletin. The torii asks you to look at the mountain as if through a doorway, a window. It concentrates your vision. It asks you to look at this scene, look at it deeply, and appreciate what it is. This is not just a mountain, not just a pile of rock, but a place capable of speaking to you, showing you something more than itself, something beyond itself, something you ought to see more deeply with an inner eye of vision. To call it Fujiyama is to say “Mt Fuji” but to call it Fuji-san, as they often do, is to call it “Lord Fuji.”

What the torii does, as I understand it, is to recognize that Lord-ship: to give definition to something basic to being human. Human beings seem to have an innate sense of something more to life than biology. We live, we reproduce, we die. So do other animals. But so far as we can tell, other animals generally go about their assigned job without worrying a lot about questions like “Why?” We have a cat that eats two meals a day, lies in the sun when she can find it, climbs into my lap occasionally – most often when I’m working on my lap top – tears paper apart if she can find some, and otherwise just naps. Dogs do what dogs do and cats do what cats do and whales do what whales do but human beings do zillions of things that have nothing to do with our material, animal existence. We play golf, we listen to music, We read books. We go to church. We climb mountains. We do things that are inexplicable, counter-intuitive, and really useless in terms of their contribution to our animal existence, our material well-being. We elect Presidents and members of Congress. What does that do for our well-being? But I digress.

The point is that very often we do things hard to explain logically but we do these things because they are satisfying in some strange way. They appeal to us in a way we often find hard to explain. Human beings apparently have a sense of something more, something beyond, something other, something that gives life a larger meaning.

Now, the torii, as I understand it, frame places, objects, scenes that awaken that sense of something more. Some use the word “numinous” or the more familiar word “holy.” The torii frames an entrance to the holy. It can, of Erlangen-botanical-garden-toriicourse, be simply the gateway to a shrine, but also it may frame a scene that is somehow evocative: it evokes, it “calls out” some other aspect of your being, that holds your attention, that makes you thoughtful. The snow-capped volcano, Fuji-san, rising out of the plains is a place that inspires awe and wonder. They say it’s a wise man who climbs Fuji once; it’s a fool who climbs it twice. But the vision inspires. So does a tree, especially a gnarled and twisted tree or a bonsai, or a lake or a rough stone. So the instinct is to frame it. Erect a torii. Call attention to it. Challenge others to see what you see.

Every human society, so far as I know, has developed some way of responding to that sense of something more—a pattern of worship, a building with a spire or minaret—some way of recognizing, developing, and institutionalizing that sense of what we call “the holy.” “Kami” is the Japanese word and that’s a word that has a broad range of meaning. It troubled the early missionaries in Japan because in translating their faith into Japanese they needed a word for “God” and kami seemed too vague, too impersonal, too general. The God of the Bible is not vague at all. The Biblical God gets involved very specifically in human events, acts in history.

The first Roman Catholic missionaries to Japan tried to import the word “deus” from the Latin because it was specific – but deus has problems too. All the Greek and Roman deities were “deuses,” dei. So, yes, it’s specific but it can be specifically wrong. It might just mean one of those mythical deities that the Hebrews refused to honor even if it cost them their lives. So the Anglican missionaries and most other churches have been content to go with “kami.” It has its problems, but it can be redefined to connect with the God of the Bible, to take on more specific meaning. And also it creates common ground with Shinto and that’s important. After all, the kami of Japanese tradition is a sense of the holy and the sense of the holy connects us also to the God of the Bible who calls us to be holy also.

Christians and Jews and Moslems and Buddhists and Shinto respond in various ways to the holiness of God. It is, I would say, a universal instinct. So “kami” can be Fuji-san but it can also be Jesus. We use a cross or crucifix to concentrate our thought on the revelation of holiness In the life and death of Jesus. The point is that we have a sense of something beyond and it’s as if you were in a closed room and had a sense of something outside and needed a window to see it. The torii is such a window; it frames some earthly thing that has the ability to point beyond, to open our minds, our souls, our selves, to the other whatever you want to call it – “the wholly other” – the numinous – 1024px-Shitennoji-toriithe holy – the transcendent – the ultimate reality – the ground of being – or just plain “God.”

God, the ultimate reality, is always visible in some way here in this life, this world – more so, perhaps, in some places than others, more evidently to some people than others. Some people talk about “thin places” where the separation between this world and another is less thick, less opaque. I don’t like that myself because I don’t like to imagine any division between this world and another. It might be better to say that a torii reminds us of a holiness that is in all things but too easily lost sight of, forgotten. The torii reminds us of an ultimate reality we might otherwise forget. It says, “Stop, and look, and remember.”

In the west, I think we are likelier to build a church or a cathedral to remind us, to create a holy place rather than recognize one. But many of the ancient cathedrals in Europe were built on top of pagan holy places. The first cathedral at Salisbury in England was built near Stonehenge. I think they couldn’t move Stonehenge – they’d lost the ability to move stones that big – but that area seemed as thin to the Christians as it had to the pagans. Salisbury plain was a place where a sense of the holy was strong so they built a cathedral not far from those ancient stones and people still go there and are moved by the mystery of it. I wonder how people felt when they moved this church off the noisy, main street through Haight-Asbury to the nice, quiet side street where it’s hard to find. I wonder how people felt when they moved from the place this congregation once used to this place. Was there a sense that however necessary it was, this place lacked the holiness of the other? That would be understandable. I think that sense of holiness can be built up in places that have been used for prayer. TS Eliot wrote about such a place in England in his poem Four Quartets, a place called Little Gidding where a small group of men and women kept up a pattern of prayer for many years in the seventeenth century and made it a place of pilgrimage and prayer – which it still is. There’s not much to see when you go there now—just a very small Little-Gidding-8920chapel and, of course, a souvenir shop—but Eliot says: “You are not here to verify, Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity or carry report. You are here to kneel where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more than an order of words, the conscious occupation of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.” “Prayer is more. . . “ Yes, prayer, of course, is communication with the holy and it takes place at Shinto shrines as well as in churches and it’s why we’re here. But it’s more than places, and the gospel today moves us from a place to a person. The place is a mountain somewhere in the mid-east. One gospel account places it just north of Israel but another puts it in the center of Israel. Either way, it’s a commanding height, the kind of place that literally changes you, transforms, transfigures. I think you can get something of that sense even in San Francisco – or is it that I’m still new here? – but I know when I’m in a car or bus and come over a rise, a hill, and see a part of the city laid out below me it makes an impact. Or look at the city from where I live: I can climb Golden Gate Heights just a few blocks away and see the ocean to the west and the city to the east and the Golden Gate Bridge to the north. And that’s somehow very special. There ought to be a torii there framing the view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Can you be blasé about it? Maybe you can. Maybe after a while you stop really seeing it and responding to it with some sense of awe and amazement. But the higher and more dominating the mountain the greater that sense of being raised upGolden Gate Bridge – and we may know intellectually that heaven is not up but we can’t help feeling that somehow it is, that somehow. whatever the tensions and problems of the world may be, we can rise above it all to a place of serenity and peace. It’s no wonder we instinctively talk about heaven as “up.”

But the gospel this morning is about more than a mountain climb and a sense of exhilaration, separation, bring lifted up and separated, because the three apostles in the story are not looking down at the world or even up toward heaven. No, they are looking at Jesus and seeing him, seeing who he is, as if for the first time. It’s as if he becomes for them in that moment the gateway, the torii, the door through which, or through whom, we come closer to the kami, the very specific holy God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, Savior.

And this is critical. Yes, there are places and buildings that give us a sense of the holy but the holy God we worship is not an object or a “force” as some like to say, but a personal being, a God most fully revealed and known in a human life, in Jesus, who calls us to respond with the full offering of our life to a living God whom we can call Father, or Mother if you prefer, but to a being beyond any idea of person we can have and yet, none the less, at the very least also personal – a God to whom we respond as person to person – possibly more than that, probably more than that, but nothing less than that, personal at the very least and made known most fully in the person of Jesus Christ.

It’s too bad, I think, that we can’t put the gospel reading this morning in context by reading on to see what came next. When they came down from the mountain, two things happened: they came to Jesus with a paralytic boy and asked for healing and they came with a question about taxes. The next two stories in the gospel are about taxes and health care. If that sounds like the evening news, that’s exactly the point. If God is present to be encountered in Jesus, then Jesus is not here to separate us from the world, to give us a break from all that, but to transform that too by entering it, coming into it to heal and transform – to transfigure not Jesus alone but this world also with all its narrow and limited agenda. Can you imagine what would happen if the members of Congress would pause for a moment and think about what they are doing in the light of the Transfiguration?

And what difference would it make if we did? What difference would it make if we tried more consciously to live in that light and not just on Sunday morning where we have shaped this place to make it easier but on the street and in stores, in Safeway and Walgreen’s. Try thinking of the check out counter or parking lot as one of those thin places where the glory of God is visible. Think of the glory of God in the Safeway parking lot. The gospel, after all, is not primarily a story of magic moments like the one in the gospel this morning but of gritty, day to day encounters with suffering and doubt and death and it is not at last the mount of transfiguration that best expresses our faith but the mount of Calvary, Jesus lifted up not on a mountain top but a hill top on a wooden cross. “I, if I be lifted up, he said, will draw all people to myself.”

And we are called to be his agents. What we are called to do is to be people who carry God’s light and peace down from the mountain top, out of our churches and places of prayer, into the dark places, the hard places, where the holy God is most needed and also very often found. So we ground our lives, yes, in times like this when we can come away briefly from all that, but we go back out through the doors of this place as if we turned the torii around or as if we passed through it from the other side with the kami, the special gloryholy place, not only behind us but moving out in us into the world, coming through the torii in the other direction so that what is framed now is not the set apart sacred space but the everyday world – the cars going by, the stores open, the buses and taxis, and Jesus there, the kami there, divinity there, God present there, as truly as God is here, the holy God, present, incarnate, in you.

Making Sense of Snippets

July 1st, 2017

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on July 2, 2017, in the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco.

Today’s sermon has three points to make:
1) the inadequacy of snippets
2) the role of a prophet
3) the ultimate value of an act

Suppose we had a fourth reading this morning and it came from the prophet Hamlet. Suppose some one stood up and read:

“To be or not to be; that is the question.
Whether tis nobler in the mind
to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
or to take arms against a sea of troubles
and by opposing end them.”

I could then preach you a sermon about the value of suffering “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or maybe I could preach about taking “arms against a sea of troubles.” But I doubt you would get very much sense of Shakespeare’s play from short snippets like that.

Well, we don’t have a snippet of Shakespeare all out of context this morning. Instead we have a snippet of Jeremiah and a snippet of the gospel, both completely out of context, and we are supposed to see the relationship between them and find instruction in them just the same. I think it’s about like trying to make sense of a few lines of Hamlet out of context. I really think we’ve gotten into a world of Sunday snippets with the current assigned readings and I think it’s often more puzzling than helpful.

Do you remember Trinity Sunday? That was three weeks ago and we had the world’s record longest first reading – 863 words – and followed it up with a world record for the shortest snippets from the epistle and gospel: 66 words for an epistle 93 words for the gospel It takes longer than that to say, “Good morning!”

All of which is background for trying to understand the Old Testament reading this morning. It’s supposed to illuminate the Gospel – one snippet illuminating another – but both of them are too brief and too far out of context to be much help to anybody. But here we are, so let’s focus on the Old Testament and see whether we can figure out what’s happening.

We begin with two prophets, Jeremiah and Hananiah, and Jeremiah is saying to Hananiah, “I hope you’re right, but I doubt it.” Hananiah has been prophesying peace, an end to the exile in Babylon, just what people wanted to hear. Prophets of peace can make a good income by telling people what they want to hear. Preachers of the “prosperity gospel” drive fancy cars and own grim-reaperprivate jets. So Hananiah prophesies peace and Jeremiah says to Hananiah, “I hope you’re right – but I doubt it.” The passage goes on – what we didn’t hear because the reading was so short – to find Jeremiah saying to Hananiah: “Don’t count on it. Two years from now, you’ll be dead.” And two years later Hananiah died. And peace did not come. So much for the vision of peace.

Here we are on 4th of July weekend and the world as usual is a mess. North Korea has atomic weapons and Donald Trump has atomic weapons and we have no clue about how either one makes decisions. So I’d like to come to church and hear from Hananiah. I’d like a promise of peace. But what Jeremiah is saying is, “Don’t count on it.” Jeremiah says, “When God calls a prophet, it’s not usually to talk about peace. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times,” says Jeremiah, “usually prophesied war, famine, and pestilence.”

Well, think about it: if God sends a prophet, it’s because God has a message people need to hear and the message is that God is often at work in hard times. When good times roll around, we assume that’s God at work, and we talk about our blessings. We know good things come from God. We know it instinctively. We don’t need a prophet to tell us. But hard times, we don’t know about. And that’s why prophets are needed. I can think of a time or two when the prophets had good news but lots and lots of times when the news was bad. it may be a long hard road to where we want to be and we need prophets to tell us that God is also at work here, today, in the midst of chaos and confusion if only to teach us what a mess we make of it when we try to go it alone.

We are still in God’s hands even when there is no peace. Think of Washington at Valley Forge or think of Lincoln again and again confronting disaster. They needed a prophet like Jeremiah to point to God at work in hard times. stormRoosevelt after Pearl Harbor needed that kind of prophet. All of us on this July 4th weekend need that kind of prophet: not one who promises an easy road and no cost or hardship.

As a country, we are heading into uncharted waters with an ignorant, undisciplined man in the White House, and a prophet who says things are going to be fine can’t be trusted. Things may not be fine but what we need to know is that God will still be with us and maybe help us grow by confronting the evil around us. That’s our faith and we need that faith now. Jeremiah is saying to Hananiah, “You with your talk of peace and prosperity don’t sound like a prophet to me.”

So that’s the Old Testament snippet. How does that connect to the Gospel snippet? Remember, in the reading plan we’re following the Old Testament and Gospel are theoretically connected and the one should shed light on the other. So the Gospel does talk about prophets but not so much the role of a prophet as the reward of a prophet. A modern translation puts it this way: “If you welcome a prophet because he is a man of God, you will be given the same reward a prophet gets.” Well, we don’t read much about rewards for prophets in the Old Testament. They were likelier to get stuck in prison on bread and water. There’s not a big demand for a prophetic message of hard times; the pay isn’t good. But if you welcome the prophet as a man of God, says Jesus, you will get the same reward as the prophet.

Jesus isn’t talking about issues of war and peace; he’s talking about sharing rewards. If you stand with the prophet, you will get what the prophet gets – like it or not – and if you stand with those who are righteous and faithful, you will get what they get, and if you give someone in need a cup of cold water, you will have your reward. So let that be connection enough: Times of trouble will come; the prophets remind us of that. And actions have consequences; Jesus reminds us of that. What you do for those in need makes a difference. So in the midst of trouble keep your eye on the task at hand. Above all, keep your eye on the human need around you that you may be able to touch.