Doing the Right Thing: Sermon for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 2008

Lectionary 22 / Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Sunday, August 31

Jeremiah 15:15-21

Psalm 26:1-8
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen

First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA

Sermon podcast

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a banner that hangs over the door to the gym in Talmadge Middle School in Independence, Oregon. It’s one of many inspirational quotes and slogans that decorate the halls of that school. It says: “What is right is not always popular; what is popular is not always right.” The banner was there every day of the three years I went to school there, but few of the students ever bothered to read it, or apply it to their lives if they did. I know I read it, decided it was true, and promptly forgot about it.

Doing the right thing is hard, when it’s not the popular thing. It’s much easier, not to mention a lot more fun, to go with the flow and do what everyone else is doing. It’s safer, too—no danger of looking stupid or preachy or offending people. And let’s face it: most of the choices we have to make every day, most of the things we do, aren’t exactly life-shattering choices. Nobody lives or dies, nobody gets rich or poor, nobody’s soul is saved or lost. We may not always do things that are exactly right, but they’re not exactly wrong, either. The banner above the gym door is true, but it’s not what we want to hear.

Jeremiah lived by that truth. He’d been called by God to be a prophet, to bring God’s word to the people of Israel. It’s been said that a prophet’s job is to speak truth to power, even when that’s not what the power wants to hear. Jeremiah went one better: he spoke the truth to everyone. And no one wanted to hear it. Our first lesson today comes from one of Jeremiah’s laments. He complains that people are persecuting him because he’s speaking the words God has told him to speak. Jeremiah was attacked and accused of treason for doing what God wanted him to. But in today’s lesson, God tells him that this persecution isn’t going to last forever; in the end, God’s will will be done, and Jeremiah will be saved. More than that, eventually the people of Israel will heed Isaiah’s words and return to doing the right thing, to behaving like the people of God, and not just paying lip service to their faith while doing the easy thing, the popular thing.

It must have seemed an incredible, almost unbelievable, idea. Israel had been doing the popular thing for a long time. They’d demanded that God give them a king so they could be “like their neighbors,” and although David and Solomon and a few others had been good rulers, most had been utter disasters. Israel had focused on trade and their economy, and they’d produced an upper class that could rival the neighboring countries in wealth, but at the cost of trampling on the poor and oppressed. They’d learned to play power-politics, staking their safety and freedom on military alliances and power blocs, playing one neighboring nation off against another. Some of them had even adopted the gods of the nations around them. Most people worshipped as God had commanded, gave lip service to God’s laws, and went on with their daily lives as if it made no difference. Their minds were set on human things. God had brought them out of Egypt and freed them from slavery to be a chosen people, holy, a royal priesthood, but they behaved no differently than anybody else.

It’s no wonder they didn’t like Jeremiah; he called them on everything they were doing wrong, and told them that this time, they weren’t going to escape the consequences of their actions. It wasn’t what they wanted to hear, and it wasn’t what they wanted to believe. Most of the Israelites weren’t bad people, after all, and most of them worshipped God according to Israel’s traditions. Surely they hadn’t done anything bad enough to warrant conquest. Surely something would happen to turn the tide and restore Israel to safety and prominence. It’s true, the northern kingdom of Judah had already been conquered, and the Babylonians were right outside their gates; there was still a good chance they might be bribed, or perhaps an alliance with Egypt would provide the military might to drive the invaders from their lands.

I’m sure the people of Israel felt they had many good reasons to disregard Jeremiah’s warnings. What good would repentance and changing their way of life, their way of thinking, do against an invading army? They went about their business as usual, ignored the word of God in their midst, and hoped for the best. But in the end, all their power politics and riches couldn’t save them. They were conquered by Babylon and taken into exile. Many fled to Egypt to escape; Jeremiah wanted to stay in Israel but was forced to leave his homeland for Egypt. God’s assurances that all would be well in the end must have been even more unbelievable then than they had been when they were made.

Like the Israelites of Jeremiah’s day, Peter, too, had his mind set on human things. You may recall from last week’s Gospel that Peter has just confessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the living God. It’s a profound insight; it’s the first time in Matthew’s gospel that anyone but the narrator has called Jesus that. You’d think that the person who is spiritually-minded enough to realize that just a few verses earlier would get what Jesus is trying to say now, but Peter is still too focused on human things. According to the beliefs of the time, the Messiah was supposed to be a political figure, a king just like his ancestor David who would drive out the Romans and their puppet-kings and restore Israel to its former glory as a nation. True, there would be some religious changes, but in support of the political restoration, not in place of it. Suffering? Death? What kind of revolutionary goes in predicting that ahead of time? What kind of revolutionary counts that as success? And even if you ignore the political aspects of the Messiah’s coming, how could suffering and death possibly be according to the will of God?

Peter’s not alone in thinking that, of course; how many people today assume that when something bad happens, it means God has abandoned us? How many people assume that if God loves you and you have the right faith, you’ll always be happy and healthy and rich? How many people assume that faith is nothing more than coming to church on Sunday, and ignoring it the rest of the week, as if God was a decoration you could take out on Sunday and store in a box the rest of the time? How many people who believe that are sitting in our pews right now?

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” We tend to think of the cross sentimentally, today. We sing hymns about it, we create beautiful artwork, we wear it as jewelry. If we think about “bearing our crosses,” we tend to think about things like arthritis, having to deal with annoying people, the kinds of problems everyone deals with all the time. That’s not what the disciples were thinking about when they heard Jesus say those words.

This is what they were thinking about: crucifixion was the ugliest, most painful, most shameful death the Roman Empire could come up with—and remember that this is a people who considered fights to the death to be a form of public entertainment. Criminals condemned to crucifixion were dragged naked through town, carrying a part of the thing that was going to kill them on their back, mocked by everyone who saw them. Then they were nailed to their cross—heavy, iron spikes driven through their hands and feet—and hung up in the air by those wounds for hours in the hot sun. They didn’t die from blood loss or pain, they died when their bodies became too weak and tired to hold their chest up to breathe anymore and they suffocated. And it took a long time, while the whole city watched and jeered. Take up your cross? What kind of insanity is that? Who would follow a Messiah who promised that as the reward?

Someone who had their mind set, not on human things, but on divine. Paul gives us a brief outline of what this mindset looks like in our second lesson: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Paul’s words give us a pretty picture of what life as a Christian is supposed to be like. It’s not as easy as he makes it sound of course, particularly in days like our own when hate and fear and evil seem to be everywhere, from local crime to national politics to international terrorists and wars. But oh, God, think of what life could be like if we could all genuinely live the way Paul tells us to, lives full of love and compassion and joy and harmony, a peace of mind and spirit too deep to be explained, even in times of trouble. Think of what life could be like, if we truly put our trust and our faith in Christ Jesus our Lord, the true Messiah who comes not for political or military revolution, but to save us from our sins, make us children of God, and show us how to live lives of truth and justice and grace. Think of what we could be if we put our faith in God, instead of our money and our power and our politics. If we were ruled by hope instead of fear. If we did what was right, instead of what was popular.

Living that way means that you can’t always take the easy way out. It means you can’t hide behind the excuse that everyone else is doing it. It also means that people aren’t always going to like what you have to say, or what you do. Few people in America risk death or imprisonment on account of their faith as Jeremiah did, but ridicule and discrimination, both obvious and not, are certainly possible. Focusing on divine things instead of human things doesn’t mean everything in your life will go well, or that God will reward your faith with material prosperity. But it does mean that no matter where you go, no matter what happens to you, God will be with you, to guide and protect and care for you.

Jeremiah died in exile in Egypt. We don’t know how he died; we do know that he never stopped calling the people of God to repentance and new lives of faith, and that once the worst had happened, his words turned to comfort and hope for the future. Peter was crucified in Rome, after years of working tirelessly to spread the Gospel. Yet they were never alone, for God was with them, and when they died, God was waiting to welcome them into the rooms prepared for them. May we, like them and all the saints that came before us, learn to keep our minds on God’s will, instead of our own. Amen.

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