A Matter of Death and Life
Today, scripture lays before us a matter of life and death. The prophet Jeremiah begins with “woes” to those who scatter God’s sheep. In the Old Testament, whenever a passage begins with “woe unto you ...” it is describing a path that leads to death. Through Jeremiah, God is warning the faithless leaders of Israel to be mindful of how they lead the chosen people. God is working to bring the exiled people home, and will judge those who work against these efforts. We often hope to soften God’s character by ignoring the judgment part, preferring to focus on love. But judgement is part of God’s nature. We are in covenant with God and willful disobedience is frowned upon.
Yet Jeremiah’s prophecy is not an oracle of death, but an invitation to life. God’s judgement is not a threat. The focus of God’s call to us all is not the “or else”, coercing us into obedience with suffering, violence, and death. The popular sermon theme of “turn before you burn” is an incomplete message. God desires unity with humanity and among humanity. The necessity for reconciliation acknowledges a world where sin exists, where humanity seeks God in people and places and powers that are not God. Perhaps the country song should be rewritten, “Looking for God in all the wrong places.”
Through the prophet Jeremiah, God is calling us to life! We are called to participate. “Be fruitful and multiply” is not the invitation of a God who is angry and vengeful, but a God who affirms life and abundance. This echoes promises to Abraham and Jacob ... God has been inviting us to abundant life all along. God will raise up a people and leaders that will not be afraid, nor dismayed, and none shall be missing. Jeremiah’s prophecy predicts the coming of a future king who will rule wisely and establish justice, and rule in such a way that demonstrates that “The Lord is our righteousness.” This prophecy offer a vision of God’s breaking into the corrupt flow of human history, bringing that corruption to an end through God’s anointed one, and establishing paradise in the kingdom for which the people long. This breaking in and transformation and establishment are ongoing. We are called to participate. We are called to life!
The fully human Jesus demonstrates life fully lived. Fully engaged in mission, Jesus has sent out the twelve to preach and teach and heal, and they have returned to share their stories of everything “that they had done and taught.” This must be a scene of celebration, and affirms our understating of discipleship. Following and being with Jesus means doing the things of Jesus, teaching and healing and works of power. Well done, good and faithful servants. Now it is time to rest. Jesus often went away by himself to rest and pray, and bids us the same. We all must take Sabbath time to be with God and be refreshed. Yet there is much work to do. Christian life is based in calling, is compelling, even demanding.
Jesus notices the gathering crowds, and has divine compassion. The word compassion finds its roots in the words “with suffering.” This is clearly distinguished from pity. Pity can be managed from afar, once removed. Compassion involves engagement and presence. We do not really have compassion unless we suffer with those we have compassion for. Compassion requires living in solidarity with the ones for whom you feel it. We should take note that created in God’s image, humanity also has the capacity for compassion, even if we do not always practice it.
As Jesus and his companions move to a new venue, seeking peace and quiet, ordinary, needy people, even among the Gentiles, recognize the power at work in Jesus and seek him out in faith. A needy humanity is pressing in on Jesus, then as now. Obviously in great need of healing, people are grabbing at Jesus’ cloak, echoing the earlier healing of the hemorrhaging woman. There is no threat. There is no judgement. All who reached out and touched Jesus were healed, made whole, given life.
God repairs the brokenness in the world in community, broken people reaching out to each other in mutual need ... reaching out for healing, reaching out for wholeness, reaching out for life. We find this unity in Christ. Paul proclaims the oneness of humanity, Jews and Gentiles alike, in Christ. To teach us how to live in unity with God, Jesus has “broken down the dividing wall.”
With poet Robert Frost, we could argue “good fences make good neighbors.” We could argue strong walls make for more peace. Just ask two children who have had to share a bedroom. This is your side, this is mine. Don’t touch anything on my side! Strong locks and alarm systems prevent break-ins, security checks prevent violent acts, and good fences prevent the smuggling of weapons, drugs, and enemies. One could argue that the laws and commandments were peacekeeping fences. Human beings need boundaries for self protection and to prevent malicious interference with their neighbor’s life. “Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery” are all setting boundaries. But the boundaries themselves are not peace. Eliminating boundaries will not create peace. Peace comes in eliminating the hostilities behind the dividing walls. God is not for or against physical walls, but is in the business of tearing down the spiritual walls, uniting humanity through Christ, who is our peace.
Jesus has broken down barriers to “create in himself one new humanity in place of the two” and “reconcile both groups to God in one body.” How are we living into this life God calls us to? Are we working together, supporting and lifting up? Or are we still playing the childhood game “king of the mountain,” where the rules of the game are to knock another down in order to lift ourself up? It is worth self examination in all areas of our lives, in politics, in our community, in our families, in church. Are we knocking others off the mountain to be king? Or are are we climbing the mountain together, encouraging and helping one another, reaching back for those lagging behind, working our way up the mountain with the king who invites all, loves all, and shares his kingdom with all?
God calls us all to the full abundance of life. All have access to God. There are no strangers and aliens, no outsiders. Those estranged from God are invited and included in the New Covenant. They claimed and are united with those in covenant with God, even if they do not realize it. This unity brings peace into a world where there seems to be no peace. All are to be lifted up!
The Church is meant to be a living, united community, a continuing revelation to humanity, and to the cosmic powers of God’s work in the world. As Paul states, “The whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord ... we are built together into the dwelling place for God.” This is the call of the baptized, to die to self and sin, and be reborn to new life in Christ. We do this in community. We do this in unity. This is what the life of the baptized is all about. We are called to share our knowledge and experience of God’s powerful promise by word and deed. We are called to support one another. We are called to lift each other up. We are called to hold each other accountable. We are called to journey together through the woes, and return to the path of life. We cannot lose our zeal when our efforts fall short. We stand together, faithful, strong in the community of God’s redeeming work, inviting the world to live. Let us begin and continue to seek life together, marked as Christ’s own forever. Amen.