Rev. Teri Peterson
Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church
Sticks and Stones
Jeremiah 1.4-10, Luke 4.16-30
Ordinary 4 C
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.’ But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.’
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.
See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.’
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Can you think of someone who reminds you of Jesus? Someone who has been really Christ-like? How about someone who has really represented God to you, personally?
Now, be honest. Raise your hand if you thought of someone who was really kind, who comforted you, who helped you out when you were in need, or who is just really nice.
Now raise your hand if your first thought was of someone like Mother Teresa. Did any of you actually think the words “Mother Teresa”?
Now raise your hand if you thought of someone who said things you didn’t want to hear, who was kind of obnoxious, who hung out with all the wrong people. Someone who angered you so much by what they said and did that you would not have minded joining a mob stoning them—with actual stones or with words. Since, of course, we don’t really stone people today, but we all know that sticks and stones break bones, but words….well, words can hurt even more than stones.
Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of a woman who, when asked to do this same exercise, said, “when I heard this question, I tried to think of a person who told me the truth so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it.” Taylor goes on to say, “She burst our bubble, but she was onto something vitally important that most of us would be glad to forget: namely, that the Christ is not ONLY the one who comforts and rescues us. The Christ is ALSO the one who challenges and upsets us, telling us the truth so clearly that we will do appalling things to make him shut up. If you do not believe that, maybe that is because you have not recognized Christ in some of the offensive people God has sent your way. Not all of them, mind you, but some of them—people sent to yank our chains and upset our equilibrium so we do not confuse our own ideas of God with God.”
The thing about Jesus, you see, is that in the gospels he doesn’t often look much like that first group: the nice, comforting, helpful Jesus. Yes, sometimes he’s like that. But most of the time he is out just narrowly avoiding getting himself killed. Why? Not because he offered someone a tissue, but because he says things. He does things. Not the good, popular thing, but the right, unpopular thing. He sees the image of God even in the annoying, the unclean, the wrong people. He talks to women. He touches lepers. He tells religious leaders that they may look righteous on the outside but they’re sinners on the inside. He says things like “blessed are the poor” and “take up your cross” and “your sins are forgiven” and “back in the time of the prophets, the outsiders from Lebanon and Syria got healed, but no Jews did.” It may not sound like it to us, but these are fighting words…especially since everyone listening knows that they are the truth, but no one wants to hear it. Jesus says to these people, sitting in his home church, “you think you’re special because you’re God’s chosen people, you think you can use me for whatever I’ll do for you, but you’re wrong. God has chosen a whole bunch of people, not just you—the circle is wider than you imagine.” And boy do they not want to hear this. They move from adoration and applause to anger and assault in the blink of an eye. Surely no one speaking for God would ever be like him?!!?
A couple of years ago there was a tv show called Joan of Arcadia. Joan is a normal teenage girl…except that she talks to God. Not like she prays a lot…I mean, she actually talks to God. God appears in totally random people—convenience store clerks, custodians, creepy guys at the cemetery, nurses, teachers… So Joan is constantly on the lookout for God, sometimes even mistaking ordinary people for God. The thing is, even when she turns out to be talking to an ordinary person, she hears God’s messages through them anyway. When God does show up, it’s often to ask her to do something—God has her join the chess team, take AP chemistry, go to a dance with a nerd, and even build a boat. Her parents think she’s gone crazy, but Joan learns not only about following when she’s called but also about her own hidden gifts, among which are boat-building! It’s an interesting show—I recommend it. The best part is watching Joan as she learns to recognize God in the most random ordinary people, even social outcasts, weirdos, and people who always say the thing no one wants to hear. She eventually learns to see God everywhere. I suspect that’s a part of our own calling too—to look for and see God in everyone we meet.
But how do we know when people are being Christ-like by saying things we don’t want to hear and when they’re just mean-spirited? Well, I suspect we can find some clues in today’s readings. Jesus tells good upstanding synagogue-goers that the woman from Lebanon and the man from Syria are worth just as much as they, the Jews, are, and the congregation tries to throw him off a cliff. Jeremiah is told he is being sent to the nations and kingdoms, not only to the Israelites, and ultimately his message gets him tossed in prison and dragged off to Egypt. It seems that whenever the thing we don’t want to hear is a widening of the circle, an opening of the door, a breaking down of barriers—perhaps that’s one place where we should look a little deeper for God’s image in the people who bring that message.
Recognizing God is one side of Joan’s calling, and ours. The other side of the coin, for both Joan and for us, is to be the one who says or does those things that need to be said and done. And often that second side is the harder part of our call—to speak truth with love, to do the unpopular thing. Sometimes we don’t know how to do it, what to say. Sometimes when we do it, we get words and stones thrown at us. Speaking the truth in love is not an easy thing to do, but it is a Christ-like thing to do.
There are lots of examples of people who try to do this. Sometimes they’re horribly unpopular, sometimes their stories make the news, sometimes they get labeled with unsavory words. I’m sure you know some. Here are some I’ve been thinking of lately.
I’ve been thinking about the couple who put a wreath shaped like a peace symbol on their house in Colorado this past Christmas. They were threatened, the neighborhood association ordered them to take it down, they were called traitors—because they put up a symbol of peace in a time of war.
I’ve been thinking about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian during World War II, who stood against the German churches that were going along with Hitler’s plan. Ultimately he spoke out too much and he also got caught in a plan to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was killed in a concentration camp.
I’ve been thinking about protestors who converge on Washington to beg for a culture of life for all people—for the lives of Iraqis, the lives of people on welfare, the lives of unborn children, the lives of the Sudanese, the lives of would-be immigrants. Each of them tells us something about ourselves, about our country, our culture, our politics—and often they are things we don’t like hearing about ourselves. They get labeled “radical” and “partisan” but they continue to pray and work for what they know is right.
I’ve been thinking about Jimmy Carter, who has been working for peace and justice his whole career. Sometimes he’s popular, sometimes he’s unpopular. Right now he’s pretty unpopular because of the title of his new book. I haven’t read it yet so I can’t say much about it, but I can say that the storm surrounding it sounds an awful lot like he touched a nerve…like he said something that no one wants to hear.
I’ve even been thinking of Mother Teresa, actually. Yes, she was kind and caring and wonderful, and she eventually became popular and beloved. But in the beginning, she was doing the thing no one else wanted to do, she advocated for the unpopular and unclean, hung out with the wrong people, and spoke up for the right thing even when no one wanted to hear about it.
I’ve been thinking about some people here in this congregation who have said things about our life together that needed to be said…and there are others who don’t want to hear…and ultimately, we are the body of Christ together, the image of God is in each of us, and our task is to meet Christ in one another.
And, like Jeremiah and like these modern-day prophets, our task is sometimes also to be the one who says the hard thing, who does the right thing, to be the unpopular one, to tell the truth in love. When I was growing up, we had a phrase that got used a lot in my family. You’ve probably heard it: “What’s popular is not always right, and what’s right is almost never popular.” It’s hard to do what’s right, to speak truth with love. It often leads to getting stoned with words. For the prophets and for Jesus, it often led to real sticks and stones. Jesus didn’t say it would be easy. In fact, he said we’d be persecuted, but blessed. And God tells us through Jeremiah not to be afraid: though the way will be difficult, God will be with us the whole time.
Indeed, God puts God’s own words into Jeremiah’s mouth. How great it would be if that were the case for us! It would be so much easier to say the right thing if we knew they were God’s words. But since we don’t, we often keep our mouths closed. We pass by on the other side for fear of doing the wrong thing or of not being good enough. But, as I was reminded by Becky Fischer, the pastor in the movie Jesus Camp, “If you don’t open your mouth, the Holy Spirit can’t speak!” We are called to be Christ-like in both the “usual” caring, kind, and helpful way and also in the more difficult speaking-the-truth-in-love way. And that means we have to open our mouths sometimes and trust that the Holy Spirit is going to do the speaking.
In the words of William Sloane Coffin: May God give you grace never to sell yourself short, grace to risk something big for something good, and grace to remember that the world is now too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love.