Prophetic Words Tell Difficult Truths

God of the Exiles, when we find ourselves in strange times, in strange lands, remember us. Help us to sing your songs. Amen

There’s an old spiritual that comes from an old psalm. The words and music set the stage for today’s reading from Jeremiah well. I’m sure you know it: “By the waters of Babylon, where we set down. And there we wept, when we remembered Zion.”

For the past several weeks, we’ve had readings from Jeremiah, the character the rabbis call, “the weeping prophet.” How would you like those words on your headstone? “The weeping prophet?”

We’ve been reading Jeremiah for the last several weeks, and I’ve noticed that none of my colleagues have chosen to preach from the book of the prophet. In fairness, I didn’t either. Jeremiah is difficult. So I want to spend some time with Jeremiah today, because we finish the cycle of his prophecy this week. I don’t want to let him go without comment.

I think Jeremiah helps us to make sense of this difficult teaching from Jesus, the story of the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant tax-collector. We’ll get back there. For now, let’s talk about Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is the prophet of the exile. In the 6th century BCE, the people of Israel were taken by force from their Holy Land and brought to Babylon.

Jeremiah is the prophet who has to tell the people about the terms of their exile. His job is made harder by a number of false prophets.

False prophets make it important we understand what prophecy is, and what it is not. Often, I think, we associate “prophecy” with “fortune telling.” We imagine prophets were folks who could tell the future.

But a true Biblical prophet isn’t a fortune teller. That’s not what the Bible means by prophecy. The prophetic gift isn’t the power to see the future, it is about the power to see the present. A prophetic leader can take an honest look at the times at hand.

Prophecy is not about prognostication. Prophecy isn’t about guessing the future correctly. A prophetic word is a word about today. A prophetic word tells a truth about today in a way that can make a difference tomorrow.

Jeremiah’s competitors, the false prophets, they tend to tell folks what they want to hear about the future. First they say, “Babylon isn’t coming. Your neighbor Egypt will save you.” Once the city is surrounded, the forces of Babylon have arrived and they know they’re going to be removed, the false prophets say, “it won’t be that bad. Yes you’ll be carted away, but the exile won’t last very long.” In today’s reading, in the verses we skipped, false prophets told the people not to worry about the drought, not to worry about the suffering that will be visited upon them. But Jeremiah is God’s prophet, and real prophets tell the truth. Jeremiah doesn’t bring them false hope. Jeremiah’s prophetic gift is to see things as they are, to name the reality of the situation.

At one point in the story, the leaders of Jerusalem are so upset with Jeremiah, they toss him into an abandoned well. He’s sinking in the muck and pleading with his neighbors not to let him die. We learn, God’s words don’t tend to come from the powerful. God’s words aren’t often popular. It’s one of the difficult truths of the Bible: God tends to speak through those who get stuck in the muck.

God spoke through Abraham, an immigrant. God spoke through Joseph, the rainbow-wearing kid whose siblings sold him into slavery. God spoke through Moses, a revolutionary fleeing charges of murder. God spoke through Ruth, a Moabite, an ethnic outsider. God chose a little shepherd boy, the youngest son, to slay a giant and become king. God’s own Son, we learn, had no place to lay his head, and he spent his time with tax-collectors, sinners, women of ill-repute.

Prophetic words don’t tend to come from the top. Prophetic words are directed up from the bottom, up toward the powerful, up toward the folks who for the sake of their comfort, have insulated themselves from the world around them. Prophetic words tell the story of how things really are to those who need to re-learn to listen.

Congressman Elijah Cummings

This week, our nation buried a congressman, Elijah Cummings. Elijah was remembered for his prophetic voice. In Cumming’s case, the word prophetic is fitting, because came up from a difficult place. He was the son of sharecroppers. His family had to leave South Carolina so that he and his siblings could enroll in Baltimore’s desegregated schools. Cumming’s was a voice that came up from the bottom of society’s ladders, and he didn’t forget where he came from. As he rose in the halls of power, He had a voice that often spoke clearly about the realities of our day. He was remembered for his kindness across the political aisle, but also for his uncompromising commitment to folks who were suffering, to the people most deeply affected by cuts to programs like Medicaid and Food stamps. He called congress to account, with grace, with a sense of humor, but also with a unwavering sense of justice. Inasmuch as he stayed connected to his roots, to the voices of those who suffer, he brought a prophetic gift to his work as a people’s representative.

Prophets don’t simply guess the future. Prophets tell the difficult truth about the present.

Difficult truths are hard to hear. Laments like the one we encounter from Jeremiah today feature throughout the length of his book. The people cry out, but their cries come too late. The people will be captured. They will find themselves out by the rivers of Babylon, wandering in a strange land, living through strange and difficult times. The people will know exile.

So, what do God’s people do with exile?

In one of the most courageous chapters of his book, Jeremiah tells the people to put down roots. In the psalm I quoted, the people ask “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?” And Jeremiah gives us one of the most challenging lines I think, in all of scripture:

“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because your future depends on its welfare.”

Jeremiah’s words actually read “Promote the SHALOM of the city, for in its SHALOM you will find your SHALOM.” Shalom is not a shallow sense of peace. Shalom is the very peace of God.

Seeking God’s peace takes time, takes patience. Seeking God’s peace means planting gardens, planning feasts for produce that has not yet come to bud. Shalom is slow, patient, work. Shalom requires investment in the here and now, to knowing the injustice of the day, they it might not be the injustice of tomorrow. Shalom requires truth-telling, difficult truth telling. Shalom requires a commitment to the times in which we find ourselves.

Finding God’s peace means becoming acquainted with the present. Building God’s shalom invites an unflinching commitment to seeking out the voices of the vulnerable. Finding God’s peace means looking around your office, around your neighborhood, and seeking out the most vulnerable member. It means listening to those who are most at risk. Without the voices of those who are suffering, we cannot have a truthful accounting of our present times.

This is why Jeremiah is such an important companion for today’s Gospel story. Luke tells us, Jesus’ story is directed to “those who were convinced they were righteous, and who looked on others with disgust.” That disgust, that contempt, is key to understanding Jesus’ story. The parabolic Pharisee, and Jesus’ hearers, have cut themselves off from their supposedly lesser neighbors, and so they have cut themselves off from the truth. Jesus’ Pharisee can’t hear over his own self-congratulation the penitent words of the tax collector he has judged. In Jesus’ story the powerful have deceived themselves.

We have to be careful with stories like today’s Gospel. The priest and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor spoke with Terry Gross this year on NPR’s “Fresh Air,” about how she used to casually use “Pharisee” the way it has been used for centuries, as shorthand for folks who take religion too legalistically. Taylor said she learned from a Jewish reader that her easy use of the term ignored centuries of anti-Semitic readings of texts like these.

Often the church needed, often the church still needs, a prophetic word. Even a great preacher like Barbara Brown Taylor needs to be taught how words from the past can bring real pain in the present.

Reformation Sunday

Today is Reformation Sunday. This week we celebrate Martin Luther’s ongoing protest. I know a lot of Episcopalians identify as “diet Catholics” “Catholic-light.” But I celebrate our Protestant identity, because the church still needs our protest. The church, God bless it, still needs to hear prophetic words. The church writ large is still in need of reform. May the reformation continue. Many of you know our need to reform the church in your very bones.

A prophetic moments.

We don’t often enjoy prophetic moments. We don’t love to hear prophetic voices. Prophets like Jeremiah often must weep their way through the message they bring. But without prophets, who will tell the truth? Who will bring reality to light?

In recent days, I find myself returning to an word that The Rev. Dr. Starsky Wilson brought to us in August. Our assistant rector Laurie Anzilotti quoted him a few weeks ago in this pulpit. Dr. Wilson reminded us that St. Louis is America’s most philanthropic city, the most generous city in the country, and yet St. Louis remains one of the most segregated cities in America. This is a difficult truth, our laudable generosity is not ending our inequity.

I have had conversations with a number of folks at Holy Communion for whom Dr. Wilson’s forum and Laurie’s sermon have caused them to question where they are donating their money. Folks are asking, am I supporting organizations that are working to dismantle structural inequity?

That question is behind the bold asks your vestry and stewardship committee are asking of the congregation in this season of giving. We’re asking you to step out with us. We’re asking you to help us grow our capacity to tell difficult truths, to build shalom. We’re asking you to prioritize the work we are doing in this congregation, because we believe it is transformational. Prophetic work can be individual, but prophetic work can also come from scrappy communities.

Prophetic words tell the truth, in difficult moments. And one word is always prophetic. One word is always true. God is always with us, always, even in the roughest times. God is with us when we feel farthest from home. God is with us, and God asks us to be faithful, to put down roots, to build homes, to build relationships with our neighbors. God is looking for prophets, for folks willing to listen to the voices coming up from the bottom. God is looking for folks willing to tell difficult truths. God is looking for folks willing to stand together and to sing the Lord’s song.

We will pray for this city. We will promote its welfare. We will work for justice, for truth, for God’s Shalom, even here, even now. God is the God of the exiles. And we will sing the Lord’s songs in this strange land, until this land does not seem so strange.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

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