Making Sense of Snippets

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.

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