When God is Hard

Proper 13                                  June 28th, 2020

Jeremiah 28:5-9                   Matthew 10:34-42


Sometimes God is hard. Sometimes our faith is not the feel-good warmth of a family gathering, but an uncomfortable, jarring call to confront difficult realities. Sometimes God is not gentle Jesus, meek and mild, but, seemingly, a harsh and demanding task-master.

So it is with today’s readings. These are passages to make us squirm. At one point in my preaching career I probably would have been tempted to spend a lot of mental energy massaging these readings into something more comfortable, explaining that God isn’t the stern tyrant these readings suggest. Not any more. Not because I believe God is a stern tyrant. You know, and I know, that God is always loving, always good. Perhaps because I rest more secure in that knowledge, I am freer from the anxious need to reassure myself – and so, paradoxically, I am more willing to face the harshness of readings like these and take them on the chin.

From Jeremiah, we hear the tale of Jeremiah’s clash with the prophet Hananiah. On the one side, Hananiah, speaking for the ancient tribe of court prophets, who are with us in every age: those who tell the powers that be what they want to hear, and in that way provide them with a religious justification for whatever they want to do. On the other side, Jeremiah, a man who carries on his shoulders all the loneliness of the true prophet, the teller of unpopular truths.

So far very inspiring – and not without contemporary relevance in our age of Covid- and climate deniers. But let’s look more closely at what is at stake. It is the beginning of the Babylonian exile. We think of the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of the Israelites as one simple event, but of course it was more complex than that. In 598 Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon captured Jerusalem. He looted the temple (but did not destroy it); he took King Jehoiakim and a portion of the ruling elite away as captives to Babylon, and installed his uncle Zedekiah to rule Judah as a client state of Babylon. Ten years later, after Zedekiah revolted, the Babylonians returned. This time they razed Jerusalem to the ground and led away many more people into exile.

And this little spat between the two prophets takes place between these two defeats at the hands of the Babylonians. Hananiah’s message is one of hope and victory: God will defend us, and lead us to vindication, liberation, and prosperity. Clearly the kind of message that not only the king, but most people wanted to hear. Jeremiah is less of a cheer-leader. “Sure, may it be so, these things that you prophesy.” Except it won’t happen that way. God will not protect us, we are facing defeat and death and hardship – and we are best to accept these things as God’s will for us at this time.

That is harsh! These words were hard for Jeremiah’s contemporaries to hear, and they are especially hard for us, I think. We are part of a North American church that is in love with victory, addicted to triumph. Believe in God, join our church, and good things will happen to you. We may not be thinking as crassly materialistically as the Prosperity Gospel, but really it’s the same message. Not: God’s will for you is defeat, failure, disappointment. Try putting that on a church sign, and watch the people come pouring in!

So does God hate us? Is God a sadist? No. God is the force that underlies the world and all our lives, and that force is goodness and love. But that doesn’t guarantee that we will win. Sometimes we need to lose, sometimes it’s other people’s turn to win.

I think of the position of the German churches in 1945. What message to preach to a defeated people? That God would never let them be defeated, that another saviour would come to drive out the occupying armies and set them free? Fortunately, that fever dream was long played out. The task was to rebuild a people spiritually; and that could only begin by the churches taking the lead in repentance, deep, heart-felt, ongoing repentance, looking their shame in the face and not looking away or making excuses. Yes, of course there were all kinds of failures of leadership, cowardice and equivocation and compromise. But on the whole, there were enough people of integrity to lead the nation in a moral transformation into a humane social democracy. But only by accepting the defeat as good.

Jesus in the gospel reading is equally harsh. “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” Children set against their parents, strife tearing families apart. How can this be coming from the Prince of Peace? What do we do with this, but to ignore it, or even deny it outright. Surely peace is always better than strife, surely that is what Jesus taught us.

I’m not so sure of that, not so quick to assume that as I once was. As the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps across North America, I find we are in a context where Jesus’s words make a bit more sense. Maybe at this precise moment in our history, peace is not the most important thing. This is not to excuse violence or looting or rioting – these things are not good when they happen. The point is, there is something more important at stake. For millions of decent, law-abiding people it has become clear: the killing must stop. The casual racism at so many levels that makes the routine shooting of black people acceptable needs to change. This is more important even than peace, and there will be no peace until that starts to change.

This moment is a challenge to us predominately white churches. Not just to the white racists, but to us too, the liberal churches of good will. It is a challenge to take on the full moral seriousness of this moment in history: to listen to the stories of others, Blacks and in this country especially First Nations people; to analyse and repent of the privilege that we enjoy, beginning with the privilege of forgetting about racism; and to speak and act to signal our solidarity and demand change. And the thing is, we need to do these things not once in a while, on a special Sunday, and then go back to normal. We need to commit to the ongoing work of changing the soul of this nation, beginning with our own soul.

One of my teachers, the theologian Douglas John Hall, used to speak of the irony of suburban white churches singing “We shall Overcome”. “We have overcome,” he would say: “that is precisely the problem.” What we need to do, is to learn to overcome less. If racism is to be overcome, we need to step down a bit.

The first thing is to learn to deal with our white fragility: with the discomfort that makes us so resistant to hearing about racism. We need to listen to the stories and experiences and history of people of colour. We need to listen not just as an unpleasant duty we need to get over with, but as a commitment to ongoing listening and learning and caring and praying.

Sure, it is painful. But we should always remember, our discomfort is nothing like the pain suffered by Black and Aboriginal people, over generations. We are simply being asked to carry a little – a very little – bit of the pain of racism. And that is what Christians do: we willingly carry some of the pain that is around us in the world. Because it makes other people’s load a little lighter; and because it’s the only way to heal the pain of this world, by bearing it together.

Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Take up your cross – I think this is the hardest verse in the Bible. Hard to understand: what is my cross, and does it mean I need to accept every bad thing that comes my way? And hard to accept: how does adding more pain to the world help me or anyone else.

But here’s the thing: Jesus’s cross does not add more pain to the world. It’s not some cruel invention of the Father, as some theologies suggest. Jesus picks up the cross that is already there: the cross of countless slaves and hungry and oppressed people throughout the Roman world; the pain of millions of marginalized and exploited people throughout history. Because that pain is already there, Jesus picks it up to share it, to bear a bit of the load and in so doing begin to overcome and heal it. And he is inviting us – no, commanding us – to do the same. To shoulder a bit of someone else’s pain, to let it break our hearts, and not to flinch from sharing it.

And that is hard. There is no way one can make taking up the cross fun and warm and enjoyable. It’s a long ways from what we want to get out of church. Well, God doesn’t begrudge us the nice things we get out of church, the comfort and joy and strength. But he does insist on this one thing, too. Take up the cross and follow me. We’re not fooling around here.