Ordinary Time (Proper 15)
Earlier this week a friend in Washington state posted on Facebook a short description of a breaking news story: “Homemade cockroach-killer flamethrower starts apartment fire. Fortunately, the fire was extinguished and no one was injured, including the roaches.”
On one level, of course, that story is both absurd and funny. But then one has to acknowledge that at some point somebody thought killing cockroaches with a flamethrower was a good idea! Really? How did the mind of that person work? Or was the brain involved at all in the decision?
By sheer coincidence this week’s lectionary scriptures includes at least one reference to fire and destruction. Thank you, Jeremiah!
Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off? Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them? says the Lord. Do I not fill heaven and earth? says the Lord. I have heard what the prophets have said who prophesy lies in my name, saying, “I have dreamed, I have dreamed!” How long? Will the hearts of the prophets ever turn back—those who prophesy lies, and who prophesy the deceit of their own heart? They plan to make my people forget my name by their dreams that they tell one another, just as their ancestors forgot my name for Baal. Let the prophet who has a dream tell the dream, but let the one who has my word speak my word faithfully. What has straw in common with wheat? says the Lord. Is not my word like fire, says the Lord, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? –Jeremiah 23:23-29 NRSV
The Hebrew prophets typically are divided into one of three categories: before, during, or after the Exile. Jeremiah is a fascinating and unusual case, however, because he fit into all three. And that was just the beginning of the many challenges he faced during a long, difficult lifetime. Much of his prophetic ministry was an answer to the question: How do you proclaim the word of the Lord to people who not only don’t want to hear it but refuse to face the reality of their situation and the centrality of God in their nation’s history and, in essence, the broad arc of the history of civilization?
Jeremiah was a radical at a time when it was anything but popular and advisable to be one. The greatest superpower of the day, Babylon, was massing on Judah’s borders and would soon destroy Jerusalem and its temple, level the surrounding towns and countryside, and cart what was left of the nation’s leaders and elites off to exile for what would turn out to be seven decades. Nobody wanted to listen to Jeremiah. Frankly, Jeremiah wasn’t all that pleased to have to bring that message anyway. There are good reasons why he’s still known as the weeping prophet. But he did respond to God’s call, because he was God’s chosen prophet.
One faction in Jerusalem held out hope that Egypt would come to Judah’s rescue–a foolish and vain hope certainly. In the end Jeremiah most likely was kidnapped by some of them and would live out his final days in Egyptian exile.
The people of Judah wanted to hear easy words, soothing rhetoric, hope without substance. The kind of substantive hope that Jeremiah preached was unwelcome and highly criticized. But he preached it nonetheless.
The example of Jeremiah should probably give pause to those of us who so easily say in the 21st century that we are called as disciples of Jesus Christ to be a prophetic people. While that may mean bringing comforting ministry such as serving up food in a soup kitchen or offering temporary housing for the homeless or something similar (and don’t get me wrong: those kinds of activities are indeed appropriate and necessary!), our discipleship may well call us into much more radical territory. A “word of the Lord” we are challenged to proclaim may well be as unwelcome as Jeremiah’s or as potentially destructive as a fire or a hammer. That shouldn’t mean we don’t engage in those ways, just that we enter with our eyes open and our brains engaged.
Unlike that person who tried killing cockroaches with a flamethrower.