by the Reverend Matt Harbage

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-13; Psalm 69:8-11; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 10:24-39

May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sometimes the Bible really comes alive, and a passage like our Gospel today does so for me.

Maybe it’s the challenging talk of Jesus bringing a sword.

As a pacifist such imagery makes me uncomfortable, as I think the only good sword is a broken one.

But Jesus here says he brings a metaphorical sword: not a literal one. Jesus will divide people because he calls for a radical commitment.

He particularly highlights that being his follower will divide families and cause fallings out. I wonder whether your faith has ever caused tension in your family. Ironically for my family, some of us argue more about how best to follow Jesus than between atheist and Christian members.

I suppose I’m saying that I can resonate with Jesus’ words. For some of us, particularly those with a link to another part of the world, they know all too well the truth of Jesus’ words. Religious persecution of Christians is massive, and so rarely reported in our UK press.

Jesus tells us to expect persecution, because he says

“If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul [Satan], how much more will they malign those of his household!”

People maligned Jesus, so they will us too. It’s touching here that Jesus does not keep us at arm’s length. He sees his disciples as part of his household, part of his family. I don’t think that means we can all form one social bubble sadly but we are right to call ourselves a church family.

Some might wonder why Jesus faced such opposition. After all, he carried a message of love and acceptance. That is true, but that’s only half the picture:

Jesus stirred things up. Turning over the crooked money lender’s tables in the Temple will do that.

Telling the prostitutes that they will get into the Kingdom of Heaven before the well-to-do folk is going to get people’s backs up.

Healing on the Sabbath was just the start of his law breaking; along with touching those who were unclean and should be avoided, and striking up conversations with women at wells.

Who forges a family from outcast fishermen in order to overthrow an Empire as big as Rome’s, or start from a backwater like Nazareth to create a worldwide movement which would set people free from shame and guilt all across the earth?

Our parish book group met this week for the first time; it was really lively, but don’t worry if you missed the first one, we only looked at the first three chapters of the book so do join us in a fortnight.

I mention the group because some of us wondered how we would have experienced Jesus, if we had been living in the Holy Land 2000 years ago. Would we have been comforted by his message, or disturbed? Would we have accepted his radical call to commitment, or closed our ears?

I think the best definition of a prophet is someone who “Comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable”.

It’s true of Jesus and it’s true of Jeremiah. It’s also why we, as disciples of Jesus should also expect to be maligned and persecuted. Because by being baptised into Christ, we are called to become more and more like him: including sharing his prophetic nature.

Thus, although we each have different gifts and different callings, there’s something of an invitation and challenge here for all of us. Are we “Comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable”? Are we angered by injustice? Are we caring for those in need?

Going back to the Prophet Jeremiah: I have always felt a bit sorry for him.

While the Babylonians threatened to capture the city of Jerusalem, Jeremiah was called by God to declare to the people to flee, throw down their arms and give themselves up to the Babylonians because the city will fall but the enemy will have mercy.

~ “God,” he says, “has handed you over to them.”

In return the men of the city decide Jeremiah’s words are demoralizing the troops. An understandable conclusion. And therefore he should be killed. They throw him into a well, but before he is due to be executed, is rescued by a royal Ethiopian.

Sadly for Jeremiah, his lot (more often than not) was to disturb the comfortable, and face their displeasure and reproach. He wrote this:

For the word of the Lord has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
If I say, ‘I will not mention [God],
or speak any more in His name’,
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.”

Jeremiah’s words express a personal anguish, but also, I believe, expresses God’s own feelings too towards his people. They have become too comfortable. God doesn’t want to speak words of judgement over his people. He wants to keep his mouth shut, but can’t.

He cannot because he loves them, and wants to guide them away from harm if only they will listen.

As part of the worldwide Church today, we are to prayerfully listen to one another and test words of prophecy. Words that comfort, and words that disturb and challenge. We can all get things wrong when we listen – but God continues to speak to his people today, and we should be open to hearing from him.

In fact, we don’t always realise we frequently speak prophetically already: For example, every time we speak out against racism, and sexism, and economic equality.

Having raised the challenge of thinking and speaking more prophetically, and Jeremiah’s painful experiences, I want to end with some words of encouragement and comfort.

Because in the Gospel passage we heard, Jesus says no less than three times: Fear not.

Fear not: Because God is with us and loves his family.

Fear not: Because God is in control. Look at the birds of the air, God takes care of them, and are you not of more value than they?

As a bit of an aside, I really enjoy cartoons like Peanuts, and I have to mention one from Snoopy, where he and his little bird friend, Woodstock, are reading the scriptures:

I love the playfulness of this cartoon. It has depth too as we see the truth that a word of comfort can also disturb others. For example, by saying that all are welcome to follow Jesus, all are equal as we kneel at the altar; all need to repent from sin and be baptised– these things reject and critique all elitism, sexism, and racism.

So what an incredible place to start from when we pray. We are all equal before God: We are all invited to loose our life in following Jesus, so that we might find the best life of all.

So let us prayerfully go, share the good news. Disturbing the comfortable, and comforting the disturbed. Amen.