Can you imagine having to preach a homily that you didn’t want to preach? If so, maybe you can sympathize with me this morning. Like you, I like to be liked -- guess we all do, even Jeremiah; and both he and I don’t like to say things that might upset folk. Yet in today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah does just that. The scene begins with the prophet Jeremiah surrounded by the princes of Israel who are screaming to the King, “Jeremiah ought to be put to death!” You see, the situation in Jerusalem was bleak -- the enemy troops had laid siege to the city -- but what does Jeremiah do? He demoralizing everyone by prophesizing that God’s will is that the Israeli troops should surrender, that the people should open the gates of the city, let the enemy in, and be willing to be led away in chains.
Can you hear this? Understandably the leaders are accusing Jeremiah of downright treason! Yet Jeremiah believes that what he is proclaiming is nothing less than God’s judgment upon Israel for their grievous sins. Which is it, treason or faithfulness? -- it can’t be both.
The King feels powerless in being confronted by the mob -- so like Pilate washing his hands over responsibility for Jesus, so the king hands Jeremiah over to the mob -- and they throw him into a cistern to die. Later Jeremiah is pulled out so the King can ask him again, hoping for a better prophesy -- “What shall I do?” he asks Jeremiah. Poor Jeremiah, damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t -- and even with his life at stake, Jeremiah courageously tells the truth as he sees it. The King rejects his prophecy, and the siege finally forces his troops to surrender, and the people are led away into captivity in an alien land.
Reading this story this week was hard, let alone having to preach about -- because it brought back vividly something of what I went through in the 1960’s and 1970’s. It was the time of the Vietnam War -- and I came to believe that God was bringing me to the painful conclusion that our bloody military involvement in Vietnam was immoral, needing to be stopped, and that my Christian faith demanded that I protest. The price I paid for this stand was time in prison, loss of some friends; and persons coming to the President of the Seminary where I was a professor, demanding that I be fired for treason.
When they left, I shall never forget what the President said to me: “Paul, I ask of you only two things -- that when you protest on behalf of social justice, you tell me in advance; and that you can defend your action with the Gospel.” I responded: “I agree, as long as members of the faculty who don’t take stands are prepared to defend their non-action with the gospel.”
Perhaps you can imagine my feelings when years later, we invited a monastery in Vietnam to begin the process of adopting Assumption Abbey as their own -- a process completed three days ago. I was joyous because, as one monk put it, the gift of our monastery can be a reparation to Vietnam for all they have had to endure. So when my Vietnamese brothers came here, even though they were from South Vietnam and were too young to have experienced the War, I felt the need one Sunday morning to kneel at the feet of Fr. Peter as their Elder and ask forgiveness for what my country had done to theirs.
You Vietnamese who were present probably hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing, or why, or how important it was for me to bring closure to my pained heart -- like Jeremiah, caught between the charge of treason and the Gospel as I understood it.
This brings us face-to-face with today’s gospel from Matthew: “Do you think I have come to bring peace,” asks Jesus. No, to the contrary. Because of the gospel, households will be divided; father against son; mother against daughter, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. The gospel does divide, and central in Jesus’ ministry was helping persons to understand the radical price that is entailed in following him. For the disciples themselves, it meant a violent death.
The Christian faith IS radical, and how hard it is to preach it honestly in today’s society, divided as we are in anger over so many issues -- refusing to negotiate, compromise, or transcend our opinions for the sake of the common good. Even the Church is split into hostile factions. The difference between innocuous preaching and prophetic preaching is the concreteness of one’s illustrations. So I might evoke anger by suggesting that being pro-life means more than being anti-abortion -- that it means protesting everywhere that human life is being tortured, mistreated, neglected, or violated -- from life’s beginning to its very end -- doing so with the innocence of dove and the strategy of serpents.
In the end, I think Jesus is asking each of us this one question: “On what cross are you willing to risk death?
--Fr. W. Paul Jones