A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Pentecost +4 – Following Christ

The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator (Saint Catherine’s Monastery) 

Pentecost +4 2023
Melody Fagan
Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69, Romans 5:15-19, Matthew 10:16-33

At first listen, it could be difficult to find hope, to take the courage needed to bear witness to the truth as Jeremiah and the disciples were explicitly charged to do and to spread the good news without fear. For myself, it is easier to focus on that bad news, even to the exclusion of the good news. This was a wrestle in preparing today’s homily, but in the meditation, listening, and searching I learned otherwise-what a precious gift! Yes, there is bad news; clearly Jeremiah was crying out in anguish, and Jesus was predicting troubles that would beset his disciples, but also I want to remind you before we get started that there is good news in each passage, and we can take courage!

Now for the obligatory object lesson. You need to make yet another online account. Maybe it is for a high-yield savings account because there are some pretty incredible deals out there right now, perhaps it is a streaming service that has that tv show you’d like to binge before canceling the subscription, or maybe it’s for a healthcare portal so that you can see your lab results and pay your bills online. In trying to finalize basically any account you make, you must check that pesky box. Sometimes it is big and bold; sometimes it is tucked away at the bottom of the page with some small print. Either way, by checking this box, you are agreeing to the “terms & conditions” of the account. Now if you’re like me, sometimes you go to the link to skim the legalese for something that might obviously indicate that you are somewhere signing away your precious rights, like the right to privacy if they are one of those unsavory groups that sells your information. If I may, the “terms & conditions” of subscribing to God’s eternal life in Him plan seem to be a sizeable hangup for Jeremiah and the disciples that Jesus warns in today’s readings.

Let us build up a little context. As Paul reminds us in our second lesson, we already signed the terms & conditions with the devil and the powers of this world at the very beginning. Did you miss it? I certainly did! It was over in a flash, and that’s because we humans definitely didn’t double-click, zoom in on the fine print, and weigh which rights we would be signing away. I took the bait, hook, line, and sinker. Do you know why? Those ads were so beautiful, so enticing, “See for yourself! Choose for yourself! Be like God! Be gods!” Even now, I feel the draw. I’ll continue to use the first person here because I am an auditory person, which means I have to hear myself say it to know with certainty that it is how I think. It’s also where I realize the error of how I think and the distortions of my motives and emotions.

But I often forget how I traded my humanity for something broken; how natural it is to chase comfort and idolize an easy, happy life. It is easy to forget that I am already sold out. In my weakness and forgetfulness I question if it is really that bad to live the life of forfeited rights-a distorted and empty image-bearer, pursuing hedonism, craving any meaning at all, no matter how fleeting or fabricated? Even as a believer, I can be tempted to consider that the set of “terms & conditions” for following Christ as His disciple is the set of conditions that is really worth inspecting. In truth, some days I’d rather lie to myself that I am comfortable the way that I am than to be made whole in pursuit of Christ, that the immanent mirrage is more beautiful that the true oasis in the distance. Yet Jesus has paid the price to buy me back, to buy you back, if we would believe. While His gift of life is free, following Him has a cost-everything I have and everything I am. This cost is one that Jesus commands me not to fear. And to be honest, the rewards for signing up for this lifetime program are utterly and unbelievably unreal. Let us see how this truth informs our understanding of the other readings.

Our first reading finds Jeremiah, crying out to God. He had just been released from a day in the stocks and a sound beating for prophesying the Lord’s destruction and exile of Israel. This message from the Lord was a difficult one because His people had forsaken their God and become a stiff-necked people. Long ago, God had made a covenant with His people, the Israelites, that contained conditionals-if they followed Him, He would bless them; if they forsook Him, He would turn them over to their evil desires and cast them out of the promised land. Every law-abiding Israelite would have known what God required and what He promised to do; the terms and conditions were clear.

His cry? Jeremiah begins with what can only be understood as an accusation of God, “O Lord, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.” Another translation goes “Lord, you enticed me, and I was taken in. You were too strong for me, and you prevailed.” Oh, the guts he has to accuse God! Further down in chapter 20, Jeremiah goes so far as to express his desire that he had never been born, that it would have been better if perhaps he had been miscarried or even stillborn. What an incredible anguish! For me, it is important to notice, as a sidebar, here that God did not punish him for saying what he felt; He had mercy on Jeremiah. God can handle my emotions; He can handle our emotions.

Yet the message God repeatedly commanded Jeremiah to speak was “violence and destruction!” and understandably nobody, not even his friends, liked that message. They were the people of God; nothing bad was ever going to happen to them! What’s worse is that these so-called “close friends” were scheming to trap him because he was compelled to speak such convicting and damning words. Understandably, Jeremiah agonized that every word he said was so watched and weighed, scrutinized to find offense, to find a mistake! This surely is a familiar feeling for those who are living their faith openly today on any social media platform, at any election, and at any public place where someone has a smartphone.

Perhaps Jeremiah was saying that all of these circumstances, the messages of doom and gloom, the loss of his friends, the torture, and the suffering he was enduring weren’t really what he signed up for, that he didn’t know that these terms & conditions were tucked away somewhere in the fine print when God signed him up for the class “Becoming a Prophet 101”. While Jeremiah was beaten, tortured, and killed; today and in this country, we are more likely to be shamed, ostracized, or canceled. I’d say that even on a good day that I am not excited to be signing up for that.

Back to Jeremiah. As a prophet bearing bad news he experienced a foretaste of what Jesus’ disciples are told they would experience in our Gospel reading. In fact, Jeremiah’s origin story foreshadows what Jesus would say to His disciples. Let’s go back to Jeremiah 1:

The Lord’s word came to me:
“Before I created you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart;
I made you a prophet to the nations.”
“Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak because I’m only a child.” the Lord responded,
“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
Where I send you, you must go; what I tell you, you must say.
Don’t be afraid of them,
because I’m with you to rescue you,”
declares the Lord.
Then the Lord stretched out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me,
“I’m putting my words in your mouth.
This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
To dig up and pull down,to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.”

Last week our Gospel reading told of Jesus sending out the 12 disciples saying “Go…to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” He also gave them power to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”

After providing some more details about how they are to carry out this command, Jesus tells them about what kinds of hardships will happen to them and how to bear up under it. These “terms & conditions” are a bit more descriptive than what Jeremiah seems to have gotten, none of which are detailed in Jeremiah. As the Lord tells Jeremiah that His words will be in his mouth, so Jesus tells His disciples that the Spirit will speak through them. As the Lord tells Jeremiah that he is appointed to dig up and destroy, Jesus continues with a warning that He did not come to bring peace but the sword, and so will His disciples. While this seems bad, it gets worse because we know the end of these people’s stories too. We know that so many of his disciples over the centuries have been tortured in abhorrent and unbelievable ways and even martyred for the sake of the Kingdom. While this was certainly true for His initial disciples, it was also true for the prophet Jeremiah.

All of this really just sounds like bad news and a pretty poor PR strategy, if you ask me! Honestly, I don’t want to sign up for this. At first glance, I’d take the hedonic treadmill instead, please. I don’t want Jeremiah’s life, and I certainly don’t want what Jesus said would happen to His disciples. In their respective situations, I would be overcome with fear and paranoia. How then can Jesus command His disciples not to fear three times and not to be anxious one time? Of what the disciples would say in a crucial moment, He said “do not be anxious,” of those who maligned them and put them on trial, He said “have no fear of them;” again of those who made them martyrs “do not fear;” and again of anything that happened to their bodies, “Fear not.” How is this possible? Jesus says that instead, we are to fear the one who can destroy both the body and the soul in gehenna (this is often translated as “hell”). Ok the bit about gehenna is pretty scary, but what’s happening now in my life, in our lives, is just so big that I can’t be bothered to fear one more thing, especially something that feels further away (at least for me as a relatively healthy young person). Maybe if my problems were solved or even reduced a little, I could get a handle on my fear. Since that doesn’t seem to be happening, how am I to take courage and spread the good news without fear? Is there even good news? It doesn’t look like God just poofed away the pain or canceled the censure. It looks like Jeremiah and the disciples suffered more because they followed the Lord! Then what is this all about? What does it matter that Jesus values His disciples over many sparrows but still lets these horrible things happen to them? How am I supposed to want to follow Jesus now? What is the lesson?

As Bishop Robert Barron puts it, we are to prioritize our fears. Speaking of Jeremiah, “but then in the midst of his fears, he senses something of extraordinary power. He says, ‘but the Lord is with me like a mighty champion. Sing to the Lord. Praise the Lord! For He has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked.’ Now notice here, it’s not a game of either/or. It’s not, ‘oh, look! My troubles have all disappeared, and all that’s left is the grace of God!’ Rather, it’s ‘In my struggles and during my conflicts and anxieties, I sense a power greater than all of them.’ One of the most fundamental teachings in the whole Bible is right there. It’s not, ‘God is with me; therefore, I have no problems’ but rather ‘In my struggles and in my troubles, I still sense a power that is greater.”

Let’s go back. In the middle of his cry, Jeremiah remembers that God is with him, and in the Gospel reading, Jesus reminds His disciples of the same:

“Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

My best defense against improper fear that would endeavor to keep me from following Christ-whether it be the fear of derision, the fear of public shame, the fear of strained relationships, the fear of discrimination, the fear of physical pain, the fear of emotional pain, the fear of man-is to refocus and remember what the Good News actually is. It’s not an easy life, a comfortable life, and great relationships. Paul says that good news is that God gives me multiplied grace and the gift of righteousness. He restores my humanity, empowers my life with meaning, charges me with love, and gives me a new chance at life. In the last day, He will have brought justice to each wrongdoing, those I have committed and those that have been committed against me. I can take courage, we can take courage in knowing that God does care about us much more comprehensively than to focus exclusively on the immediate issues that beset and preoccupy us today, that He is with us much more faithfully than the people we consider even our close friends, that He is invested in us much more confidently than to put an immediate end to all suffering when something better lies on the other side. It seems our options are 1) a cheap and empty life that may be comfortable at times or 2) a full and meaningful life that may be uncomfortable at times. The body is fleeting; may we live with our fears in the proper order.

Let us end with this prayer by Ted Loder called “Sometimes it just seems to be too much”

Sometimes, Lord, it just seems to be too much:

too much violence, too much fear; too much of demands and problems; too much of broken dreams and broken lives; too much of war and slums and dying; too much of greed and squishy fatness and the sounds of people devouring each other and the earth;

too much of stale routines and quarrels, unpaid bills and dead ends; too much of words lobbed in to explode and leaving shredded hearts and lacerated souls; too much of turned-away backs and yellow silence, red rage and the bitter taste of ashes in my mouth.

Sometimes the very air seems scorched by threats and rejection and decay until there is nothing but to inhale pain and exhale confusion.

Too much of darkness, Lord, too much of cruelty and selfishness and indifference…

Too much, Lord, too much, too bloody, bruising brain-washing much.

Or is it too little,
too little of compassion,
too little of courage,
of daring,
of persistence
of sacrifice;
too little of music
and laughter
and celebration?

O God,
make of me some nourishment
for these starved times,
some food for my brothers and sisters
who are hungry for gladness and hope,
that, being bread for them,
may also be fed and full.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


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