Jerry Folk’s Homily from August 18, 2019

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August 18, 2019

Holy Wisdom, Madison, WI

In today’s first reading, Jeremiah denounces the false prophets of his
time. These people are not prophets of Baal like those Elijah
confronted 150 years earlier. They claim to be prophets of Yahweh, the
God of Israel and to have a message from Yahweh for the people.  “God
is pleased with you,” they tell the people. “You are so religious. You
visit the temple, you pray, you perform you daily rituals. Just keep
doing what you’re doing and living like you’re living and everything
will be alright.” Here is Jahweh’s message to you. ‘You shall not see
the sword nor have famine…I will give you true peace,” says Jahweh.
(‘ “Jer. 14:13)

This message is popular with the people, because there’s
nothing disruptive about it. It’s also popular with the ruling
classes, because it defends the status quo in God’s name and that
serves their interests. This is why Old Testament scholars sometimes
refer to these men as “court prophets.”

Jeremiah thundered, “this message does not come from
Jahweh. Jahweh has quite a different message for the people. The
nation may be very religious, but that is not God’s main concern. “Of
what use to me is frankincense from Sheba? Your burnt offerings are
not acceptable nor are you sacrifices pleasing to me,”  God declares.
And to Jehoiakim, the tyrannical King, Jahweh thunders, “Woe to him
who builds his house by unrighteousness, who makes his neighbor work
for nothing… Did not you your father, (King Josiah) …do  justice…He
judged the cause of the poor and needy. Is not this (what it means) to
know me? (Jer. 22:13-16).

The court prophets whom Jeremiah denounces are not unique
to ancient Israel. They have always existed and there are plenty of
them today. Rex mentioned the Prosperity Prophets last week.
Prosperity prophets see the Bible as a contract between God and
humans, the terms which are these. If you have faith, speak
positively, and donate to religious causes, God will increase your
material wealth and health.  Today Nationalistic prophets like Jerry
Falwell, Jr. are very prominent. In a recent  tweet Rev. Falwell
wrote,  “Finally a leader in the White House. Jobs returning, North
Korea backing down, bold, truthful statement about the Charlottesville
tragedy. So proud of Donald Trump.” In the prophecies of these
Nationalistic prophets, God endorses the nation’s claim to
exceptionalism. This endorsement provides religious legitimation for a
country’s claim that it is entitled, even called to dominate the
world. Such claims blatantly conflict with the message of the Hebrew
prophets and with what Paul Knitter calls “the non-dualistic or
unitive heart of Christian experience” that Jesus revealed.

Our churches often fail to speak out as boldly,
unequivocally, and publicly as I wish they would against these false
religious claims. We want to be nice and not offend anyone, so we are
overly cautious. Oscar Romero commented on this caution of the
churches in one of his sermons. He said,  “A church that doesn’t
provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that
doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the
real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed—what gospel is
that?”

We and our churches may shy away from bold denunciations
of false prophecy, but Jesus didn’t. “I come to bring fire to the
earth…Don’t think I’ve come to bring peace but rather division,” he
says in today’s Gospel. This doesn’t sound like Jesus. What does he
mean?

I find Martin Luther King, Jr’s distinction between the
false peace of the Devil and God’s true peace helpful when pondering
this question. Peace that is imposed by force and maintained by
violence, fear and oppression is false peace. Peace that upholds an
unjust social order is false peace. Whenever Jesus enters a situation
where this kind of peace prevails, he brings fire and division.

From the very beginning of the Christian Movement, Jesus’
most faithful followers have experienced this division in the family
and in society. In the first three Christian centuries, many were
tortured and executed because they were disturbing the religious,
economic, and political status quo. Sometimes they were turned in by
their own family. Today’s reading from Hebrews refers to a few of
these early divisions, beginning in pre-Christian times. They
continued throughout the centuries. One  famous example occurred in
the 12th century. After his conversion, young St. Francis of Assisi
began giving his father’s expensive cloth away to the poor. This led
to a confrontation with his father. In the public square, in the
presence of the bishop, Francis renounced his father. Then he took off
all his clothes, lay them at his father’s feet and stood naked in the
city square. The bishop covered Francis’ nakedness with his cope.

What Jesus is saying in today’s Gospel is
incontrovertible. When he comes into our world and our lives, he
kindles a fire within and around us and we experience painful and
sometimes dangerous divisions, often even within ourselves.  20th
century theologian Karl Barth acknowledges this in a sermon on today’s
Gospel. But  he goes on to say this. “That Jesus came into the world
to bring about the ruin of anyone is a thought that is wholly foreign
to the New Testament.” On the contrary, Jesus came not to divide but
to reconcile reconcile all things in God by revealing the
non-dualistic or unitive heart of reality. But, the world being what
it it, we must expect and be prepared for fire and division along the
way because the barriers which separate us from one another must be
removed.

In seminary I read a lot of early church theologians. One
to whom I was especially drawn

was Origin of Alexandria. Origin speculated that in the end even Satan
would be reconciled.

I  close with a poem about this radical reconciliation by Irish poet,
James Stephens.

On a rusty iron throne

Past the furthest star of space

I saw Satan sit alone,

Old and haggard was his face;

For his work was done and he

Rested in eternity.

And to him from out the sun

Came his father and his friend

Saying, now the work is done

Enmity is at and end;

And he guided Satan to

Paradises that he knew.

Gabriel without a frown,

Uriel without a spear,

Raphael came singing down

Welcoming their ancient peer,

And they seated him beside

One that had been crucified.

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