What an eclectic set of readings… We have a despondent Jeremiah lamenting the pain he’s had to bear trying to draw his people back to Yahweh, a frustrated Jesus snapping at the man who only a week ago he praised as the rock upon which he would build his church, and finally Paul, for once not regaling us with all the hardships he’s had to bear, but basically proclaiming the good news. Thankfully we have the collect with which to tie these lessons together. “Increase in us true religion…” Apparently taken together these readings are supposed to increase our understanding of, and thereby our ability to, live out true religion, whatever that might be. Perhaps they do that by giving us a snapshot of what true religion has meant at different points in the history of God’s people, as a way to help us better understand how to live out our faith in the world today.
Obviously religion can be defined in many ways, but one definition that works for me is to think of it as the sum total of all that people do to maintain and carry out their relationship with their god. In all other religions of the ancient Near East religious obligations were considered to have been fulfilled if and when the proper cultic acts had been performed. That was not the case with Israel. The relationship Israel had with Yahweh called for the people to establish a society in which the righteousness of God was mirrored in their lives. This meant that the legal codes for Israel were more than ethical guides for human conduct, they were part of Israel’s religious activity. The Law, capital L, is a thoroughly religious body of commands. Love of God expressed in worship, and love of neighbor expressed in just relationships, together sum up the message of the Law.
When, over time, the emphasis on maintaining the Covenant in the eyes of God’s people became simply a matter of performing rituals without an emphasis on living justly, one prophet after another called the people to account. Each in his own way foretold the fall of Israel if the people didn’t change their ways and revert back to the ethical standards of the law upon which their religion was based. They did not. And so the Babylonians conquered Israel and eventually, after a failed rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar really tried his patience, he had his army destroy their temple. Now from the time of its construction the temple had been the ultimate symbol of the Hebrew people’s belief that Yahweh would never abandon Jerusalem, so the loss of this architectural center of their faith was truly catastrophic in their eyes. Jeremiah lived through all of this, and foretold most of it. Given the perpetually harsh tone of his prophesies, because he knew the fall of his people was imminent unless they changed their ways, no other known prophet has been so completely rejected by those he tried to save. Totally ignoring his message, the people did everything they could to shut him up, including putting him in stocks, behind bars, down an empty cistern, packing him off to Egypt, and finally, when he foretold the destruction of the temple, threatening to kill him. Yet, in spite of all they did to him Jeremiah never stopped loving the people to whom he preached. Nothing they could do stopped him from trying to save them. Still, a series of six laments in his writings, one of which we heard today, indicate the agony of despair he felt over the dread message he was compelled to deliver to Judah. In the anguish he felt for his people, Jeremiah has often been compared to Jesus.
Turning to Jesus, we have someone whose self-concept has always been a mystery, at least to me. Clearly Jesus knew at an early age that he was different. The average twelve year old wasn’t inclined to sit with the high priests in the temple discussing religion. Clearly he felt called, as the prophets before him had been, to try to lead his people back into a right relationship with God. But what did he understand about his divine nature? We really don’t know. We do know he recognized that once again, or perhaps still, the emphasis in being a faithful Jew was on ritual rather than right living. In his efforts to change that behavior, his message focused heavily on loving one’s neighbor, even to the point of sometimes violating ritual in order to be kind. The popularity of this message did not set well with the Jewish religious hierarchy. The status quo, with its emphasis on ritual offerings and the like, served them very well after all. Jesus knew that, and that by antagonizing them he was taking a real risk, but in the same way that people today will answer a call that puts them in harm’s way by joining the military, entering law enforcement, going off to a war torn area as a member of a medical team, Jesus felt compelled to follow through on what he had been called to do, even if it cost him his life. He wasn’t willing to let anything stand in his way. We believe Jesus was fully human, so whatever he understood about his divine nature, it still had to have been terribly frightening to sense that he was setting himself up to die. Surely just like any person today faced with making a potentially life threatening choice, he would have been experiencing the fully human desire for self-preservation that would have told him not to go to Jerusalem. Now you know if you’ve ever faced such a decision how much you didn’t need someone close to you begging you not to do it, telling you there are so many other ways to make a difference, that they don’t want to lose you. Just so, having Peter vocalize what was quite possibly Jesus’ own painfully powerful inner desire was just too much. It’s no wonder Jesus lashed out at Peter. He could not let fear overwhelm him, and it’s perfectly possible that it was close to doing just that.
Finally we have Paul. In his letter to the Romans Paul is not responding to a crisis situation in one of the churches he had founded that he needs to solve. Rather this is his attempt to explain his understanding of the gospel to a congregation he had never met. As a result, this letter is perhaps the best summary we have of how Paul came to understand theology during the years of his missionary career. Beginning with Chapter 12, Romans gives us Paul’s understanding of what it means to live out God’s righteousness as a member of the church. As we heard last week, life is a matter of choices; one can can choose to conform to the demands of the world, or to be transformed by working throughout our lives to discern what it is that God is calling us to do, and to be. Because that understanding may change over time, it isn’t enough to just follow the rules, because as was obvious in the time of Jeremiah, ritual correctness alone did not then and does not now, equate with living justly. No Paul tells us, to live as God intends, as Jesus described, means to make love, in all its manifestations, the guiding principle by which we live.
I’m sure I don’t need to point out that we do not seem to be living in loving times. Then again, I’m not sure there is any more hatred and violence in the world today than there has been in ages past, we just hear about it faster and in more detail. If you’ve ever taken the time to read the entire Old Testament, which takes you through the parts we don’t hear in church, then you know as well as I do that there is torture and cruelty described in those pages that is beyond belief. Read The Day Christ Died by Jim Bishop, and you’ll find a very detailed description of exactly what crucifixion, the Roman’s go to method of controlling captive populations, was actually like. Or read what Martin Luther had to say later in life about Jews. Oh, my. Most of the pre-World War II treatment of the Jews by the Nazis could have come right out of Luther. I mention all this not to excuse what’s happening around us in the world today, but simply to keep today’s problems in perspective. It’s awfully easy to become discouraged, to throw up our hands in despair, convinced things have never been this bad before, so clearly there’s no way we can ever make them right. As it happens there is a way, and as Paul’s letter makes clear, it begins with love.
“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good:…. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.” Love is the most powerful force on earth because it doesn’t have to conform to the laws of physics. A loving act does not require an equal and opposite act in return. If I act to make your life better, that does not mean that my life has to become correspondingly worse. For example, the world produces enough food to feed everyone alive today. The issue is not the supply of food, but a lack of universal access to it. There is enough food to feed the hungry. Our task is to find ways to get it to them, without worrying that if we do so we’re going to end up hungry ourselves.
So much of the hate in the world today, as it was in ages past, is rooted in fear, fear that has been perpetuated sometimes for generations over issues that may or may not even be relevant any more. I have a former roommate, a religious Jew whose son emigrated to Israel as a young man, where he lives in Jerusalem and works as a tour guide. His daughter has spent the past couple summers at camps in this country sponsored by an organization that brings Israeli and Palestinian teenagers together so that they can get to know each other as people rather than as the enemy, as a first step to bringing peace to the land where Jesus walked. The leaders behind those camps are clear that the best way to bring an end to generations-old conflict is to give people the chance to discover how much they have in common, no matter their ethnic background, their religious persuasion, or perhaps most importantly, what their parents’ fears may have taught them.
Quite possibly our greatest challenge, as Paul reminds us, is that to be truly loving we must be patient, and that is so hard for many of us to be. We can bring about change, but it won’t happen all at once. Christianity spread by word of mouth after all, beginning with a small group of individuals who knew Jesus personally, who committed their lives to teaching others what he had taught them. Their message spread first around the Mediterranean and eventually to the four corners of the world. The point of their message, which seems to be so hard for people in today’s world to keep in mind, is that love is not a zero sum game. No one has to lose for love to win. Yes, we have to be willing to share what we have, but I’ve heard more than one stewardship address in which people have stated that if they wait til the end of the month to write their check to the church, often there isn’t enough money to do so. But if they pay their pledge at the beginning of the month, somehow there’s still money available to pay their bills as the month goes by. Maybe that has to do with the fact that when we contribute to the needs of the saints, that is when our focus is on the needs of others, we find we don’t need nearly as much as we thought we did. We realize that we feel the richest when we know we’re making a difference, because making a difference is what we are called to do. If you believe as I do that God is Love, then true religion is making Love real, not by what we say, but by how we live. True religion is recognizing that fighting fire with fire, shouting back at those who shout at us, is not the answer, however satisfying that may feel in the moment. As Martin Luther King so eloquently explained, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Amen.