Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4:16-30
A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
January 22, 2017
The most difficult task a preacher faces is the task of standing in a pulpit and proclaiming God’s Word to a congregation the preacher loves when he or she knows that that Word runs counter to prevailing assumptions, convictions and practices. Well, actually, that is the second most difficult task. The most difficult task is hearing that Word for oneself and taking it to heart, knowing that the congregation’s assumptions and mores and convictions are often like one’s own.
You’ve heard me share the old truism that the preacher’s task is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, but any preacher will tell you that it is always more satisfying to do the former than the latter. My late friend and colleague K.C. Ptomey suggested that the reasons for our reticence to speak prophetically in the pulpit are simple enough. First, there’s the matter of discernment: how does one know that one is speaking God’s truth and not just one’s own opinion? I have there are pastors out there we might describe as “not always right, but seldom in doubt,” but my own take on myself is that I am always wrestling with doubts, or at least concerns, about whether I have it right. Humility before God’s Word is a good thing, I know, but it can at times lead to faithless cowardice and hesitancy in the pulpit.
Second, most preachers, like most people, want to be liked by their friends. That poses an especially problematic temptation for preachers if it leads them to hedge a bit rather than to speak boldly a corrective word of truth. The church needs backbone in matters of faith and practice, but backbone is a scarce commodity at times in the church. Before Reinhold Niebuhr became an eminent American theologian in the mid-Twentieth Century, he served as pastor of a congregation in Detroit. He kept a diary of those years, subsequently published, and it is one I make a practice to reread every couple of years. In that diary, Niebuhr said this about his preaching:
I catch myself weighing my words and gauging their possible effect upon this and that person. I think the real clue to the tameness of the preacher is the difficulty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love.
I nod my head every time I read those words. Elsewhere in his diary Niebuhr says,
Courage is a rare human achievement. It seems to me that preachers are more cowardly than other groups; that may be because I know myself. But I must confess that I haven’t discovered much courage in the ministry. The average [preacher] is characterized [more by] circumspection rather than by any robust fortitude. I do not intend to be mean in my criticism, because I am a coward myself and find it tremendously difficult to run counter to general opinion… But it does seem that the unique resource of [faith] ought to give at least a touch of daring to the religious community and the religious leader.
At least a touch of daring, he said. Well, we need look no further than the two passages we have read here this morning to find inspiration for such daring.
Consider the call of Jeremiah, and his powerful description of how it took root in him: “Now the Word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you to be a prophet to the nations.’” (Jer. 1:4-5) Jeremiah protests, “I am only a boy, I can’t be a prophet,” but the words are barely out of his mouth when he hears the Lord admonish him, “Do not say, I am only a boy, for I am sending you, and you will speak my words, and I will be with you.” Then the Lord said, “I have put my words in your mouth.”
Now, if that were all we knew about Jeremiah, we might find that description endearing… might hear these words as a fine example of an encounter with God’s supportive and empowering Word. But we know where that Word drove Jeremiah. We know it led to confrontation with his own nation over their disobedience, know the way God’s Word forced him to confront the nation’s political and religious leaders and challenge their assumption that they were in an irrevocable alliance with God. Before it was over, Jeremiah was charged and tried for sedition and was despised by those whom he loved the most. Jeremiah had swallowed the words God placed in his mouth. But later, in the wake of all the anger he stirred up, with great anguish and distress, Jeremiah would cry out,
If I say, “I will not mention the Lord or speak any more in his name,” then there is within me something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. (20:9)
In a time of turmoil, when all the people had turned against him, and he alone was left to speak a word from God, he cried out that he wanted to relinquish his calling as prophet. Every time he spoke, those words he had consumed kept coming back as a bad case of prophetic indigestion, what a friend once called “holy heartburn.” And all the Zantac in the world couldn’t touch it.
Or, consider Jesus in today’s reading from Luke’s Gospel in what we know as the inaugural address of his ministry. Jesus didn’t fare much better with his own friends and neighbors in Nazareth than Jeremiah did with his people in Jerusalem. True, when he first started speaking in his hometown synagogue, the locals were so proud. Everyone spoke well of him, says Luke. He read from the scroll of Isaiah words that framed the prophet’s mission: to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, when all the debts accrued by the poor of the land would be released. Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” announcing his plan for his first hundred days. And the people were so excited! “That’s Joe’s boy,” they said. If we’re honest, that’s the feeling all preachers want to have in our home church pulpits.
Every preacher, perhaps, except Jesus. After things got off to such a stellar start, he then spoke a very hard word to these people who had just expressed their pride in him.
The problem was that the folks in the Nazareth synagogue, like the people of Jerusalem in the time of Jeremiah the prophet, seemed to have the idea that God was their God and theirs alone – that “God loved them first, loved them best, loved them alone.” Jesus knew too well “the small compass of his own people’s understanding,” and how they assumed that their own little lives were “at the center of the wide world.” So, to these friendly and eager folks Jesus simply preached the Scripture; that’s what he did. That’s all he did. He read the Scripture and then interpreted it by reminding the congregation of two other Scripture stories in which it was clear that God’s mercy had been extended to others beyond the margins of acceptable Jewish culture – first to the widow from the wrong side of the tracks in Zarephath, and then to Naaman the Syrian, who was an officer in the army of Israel’s enemies. The Cotton Patch Gospel translation describes what happened next: “When they heard [him], the whole congregation blew a gasket.” They got so riled up that they grabbed Jesus and took him out to a cliff where they tried to throw him off.
Now, over the years I’ve known people to get excited and upset about sermons for a lot of different reasons. Some of the upset has been justified, and some of it has been just plain mystifying to me. But one true and tested way to create conflict from the pulpit is to suggest to people that their God is too small… that the God of creation, the God we know in Jesus Christ, is always bigger and more expansive than they may think, that God is the God of other people, too, and that God’s ways and God’s plans are always more inclusive than ours…indeed, that they are not necessarily linked with our ways and our plans at all.
That’s what Jeremiah did. Jeremiah said to a people who trusted God’s promises and who believed God was their God that God was the God of other people, too. Jeremiah issued a strong warning against anyone’s proprietary claim on God’s favor. It’s what Jesus did, too, in his inaugural address there in the synagogue at Nazareth, issuing a similarly strong warning against the people’s proprietary claim on God’s favor.
Any time… any time we read the Scriptures and think we have an exclusive claim on the love, mercy and protection of God, we have misread the Scriptures. Any time we read the Scriptures and believe that the Scriptures only confirm what we already think, only comfort us, only justify our prejudices, only pat us on the back, then we can be certain we have misread the Scriptures. God is our God, but God is also the God of the whole earth and of all people who on earth do dwell…even those we would rather exclude from such providence if it were up to us. It’s not up to us, thank God. It’s not up to us, even if we like to think it is.
God’s love and mercy and care are boundless, friends – that is, they are not bound by our narrow agendas or our own self-righteousness. We want to construct fences, while God is ever opening doors. We divide the world up between those who deserve and those who don’t deserve, but God’s demands for justice and equity transcend all such distinctions. We talk about greatness as an aim or a goal, but Jesus admonishes us that true greatness is measured by having child-like hearts, open to others. We weigh the distinctions between “takers” and “makers,” but the Scriptures teach us that we are all beneficiaries of God’s grace and abundance, and call us to lend particular attention to the needs of the least capable among us. We are polarized, divided, angry, at odds even with loved ones, but God calls us to see that we are intrinsically connected one to another as children of the same God. We pull into our enclaves and claim priority over everyone else, but God is always reminding us that the world is larger than that, that God’s own heart is always larger than we may think.
Some years ago, Barbara Brown Taylor wrote that it was “this whole prickly matter of community” that Jesus seemed to threaten in his inaugural sermon in Nazareth, and it almost got him killed. She said,
So far as we know, he did nothing… but remind them that God’s sense of community was bigger than theirs…. He offended them by telling them not one but two stories about how God had passed over them and their kind in order to minister to strangers…. He was not telling them anything new. He was telling them things that were right there in their own scriptures, only that was not how they used scripture. They used it to close ranks on outsiders, not to open them up, and they snapped shut on Jesus. The minute he denied their [exceptionalism] he went from favorite son to degenerate stranger, who offended them so badly they decided to kill him.
That is how sensitive we are to being told that our enemies are God’s friends. That is how mad we get when someone suggests that God loves the people we won’t sit next to – the people who disturb and offend us, [yet] who belong to God just as surely as we do. No matter how hard we try, we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries. God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or to get out of the way. The problem is not that we are loved any less. The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are, by a God with an upsetting sense of community [and a much wider view of the world].
That friends, is the Gospel truth. It is a hard truth to hear. It is an even harder truth to proclaim, especially to people who disagree, who happen to be people whom we love. For Jeremiah, proclaiming that message led to isolation and rejection; for Jesus, it almost got him killed that day….and would get him killed a couple of years later. Even today, for all our progress, it is a truth that still offends us. But God knows, in these days it is a truth we all need to hear.
 K.C. Ptomey, sermon preached at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Nashville, January 28, 2001.
 Niebuhr, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1965, 53, 109-110. I am grateful to Dean Thompson for the citation, contained in a paper he presented to the January 2001 meeting of the Moveable Feast in Princeton, New Jersey.
 I heard Old Testament scholar James Sanders use this phrase to describe Jeremiah.
 John Stendahl, “The Offense,” Christian Century, January 21, 1998, 53.
 I am indebted to K.C. Ptomey for much of the thought of this paragraph and for the Jordan citation. Cf. note 1.
 Ptomey; cf. note 1.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way, Boston, Cowley Publications, 1999, 44-45.