Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-31, Mark 4:26-34
Today we continue our study of the book of Jeremiah. To give the background of this passage, Jehoiakim was one of Josiah’s sons. And while Josiah and Jeremiah were on the same page in terms of what God wanted and therefore how to lead the people, Jehoiakim, the King, did not agree with the prophet Jeremiah about how the country of Israel should be run. Jeremiah was really clear about what God wanted: God wanted the lying the stop, God wanted justice for the poorest of the poor, God wanted kindness to the “least of these”. But Jehoiakim was not listening and he resented everything that Jeremiah had to say about it. He tried to arrest Jeremiah, unsuccessfully. And then when Jeremiah continued to proclaim the message that the behavior of this king HAD to change, that he HAD to repent, that he had to stop the lying, the denying of the word of God as spoken through Jeremiah, Jeremiah said that if he did not change his behavior, his injustices, his acts of cruelty, that there would be consequences. God was angry, and destruction would come if the behavior continued. Jehoiakim’s reaction then was to destroy the words that Jeremiah had had Baruch write down. His reaction was denial, was the ostrich putting its head in the sand, “If I just make these words go away, then the prophecy will end.” His response was censorship. But instead of succeeding in destroying the words, the words Jeremiah spoke on behalf of God moved from being conditional, “If you don’t stop this injustice and lying, you will be destroyed” to absolute, “You have gone past the point of no return and the consequences are coming. You cannot turn back now.” In addition, the words were expanded, including all that was said before and much, much more. Unfortunately, the consequences for Jehoiakim’s actions extended beyond himself, too. As a leader, his mis-steps were not only destroying himself, but would come down on all the people as well. Jehoiakim’s reaction was not repentance, and it was not an offer to change. He felt that if he just destroyed the words of God’s prophet, they would no longer have an affect. But this is false. We can deny the past all we want, but it still affects every single thing about the present. Denying it, squashing it, trying to destroy the realities of what happened before, of our history, as ugly as it is, does not undo what has been done. It does not change that past. Instead, our denial of it cements the consequences that result from our past actions. Rather than opening us up to change, to repentance, and therefore to healing and new life, both as individuals, but more importantly as communities, as countries, as nations, our denial of what has gone before simply ensures our doom, ensures we will not grow, ensures we will not change, ensures that we will continue to act with injustice and ensures that the consequences for those behaviors will take place.
These are very hard words for us to hear. VERY hard words for us to hear. How many times have I heard people say, “I don’t like the God of the Old Testament because that God seems to very violent!” But I want to be clear here. This is not about punishment. This is about consequences. Our actions have consequences. There isn’t any way to get around that. There are consequences for our actions. And, while it is especially hard to hear the words from Jeremiah today in which Jeremiah moves from the place of saying “you must repent” to, “there is no going back,” there is truth that we must understand in which there comes a point when change is too late, when we cannot undo what we have done. While I deeply believe that God is a God of second and third, fourth, fifth chances, at some point, there is no escaping the reality that the world has been built in such a way that there are consequences of our behaviors.
Many scientist are now saying, for example, that we have reached that point of no return in terms of the environment. That we have crossed a line in terms of the rape and damage we have done to our world, to our environment. The climate change that is a consequence of the destruction of our ozone, the build up of carbon in our atmosphere creating a greenhouse effect from which we cannot return. As an article written in November on EcoWatch said it, “The only way to have prevented runaway climate change would have been to have stopped burning fossil fuels between 1960 and 1970, the model found, as USA TODAY reported. In order to stop temperatures and sea levels from rising now, we would have to remove at least 33 gigatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year starting this one.”
The eight year drought that our damage has caused in the northern triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala is the single most cause of the influx of immigrants into this country. The drought means the people can’t farm their own lands and they can’t feed their families. This is driving folk here. We are reaping the consequences of being the largest historic emitter of carbon.
UN did a study a few years back that said that there would be 100 million ecological refugees by 2100 in large part as a consequence of droughts in African pushing people towards Europe. But more recently they have renewed the study taking into account the domino affects of conflict, war, and water scarcity. The new estimate as a result is that there will now be two billion ecological refugees by year 2100. Population closer to 10 billion by then. That means 1/5 will be internally and externally displaced people. Again, these are the consequences of choices we have made as nations.
But we, too, like to deny truth, like to squish it in the hopes that it will just go away. I think about the fact that Oklahoma has declared it will not include in its history the Tulsa riots, that others are proclaiming they will not change the history books to include the horrible things that we have done to African Americans, to Native peoples, to the Japanese and the Chinese in this country. They will not include these historical facts. Why? It is just like Jehoiakim: if they don’t write it down they believe it can’t hurt them. But burning the scrolls of life, the truths of our history does not change the central, scary and challenging message to “love your enemies”. Instead, it cements our fate in horrible ways. Perhaps if we had been honest about our history from the beginning we would not be experiencing the great racial strife that we face now. But people fear the truth, they fear the stories and in doing so, they seal the fate of our country, of our people, of the world.
Howard Thurman in his book The Mood of Christmas wrote an essay called “The Great Incarnate Words” (P 111-118),
But the word would not be stilled:
Let your motive be simple;
Your words, yea, yea; naysay.
Hypocrisy for self-defense—
Is that the sinless sin?
Does it degrade the soul at last
And sweep the raft against the rocks?
Deceive, and live for yet another day!
Declare, and run the risk of sure destruction!
The Word knew:
There is a point beyond which (humans) cannot go,
Without yielding (their) right to try again.
To play God false to save one’s skin,
May jeopardize all there is that makes (humans, Human).
“What would a person give in exchange for (their) soul?”
This is the great Decision!
Even death becomes a little thing.
To survive with inner cleanness;
To compromise where ground forsook can be retrieved;
To stand unyielding when the moment comes;
This is the meaning of the Word!
Love. The word—LOVE.
Hate is the last great fortress of the weak.
The moving current of resentment flows through the channels
of the heart,
When overarching wrong inflicts its bitter lash,
But this may pass.
So then we come to the New Testament reading, the story of the mustard seed. We know this story. We here in CA also know mustard. We know that we do nothing, not a thing, and every spring the mustard plants spring up all over the Bay Area with carpets of yellow. They can’t be stopped, they can’t be controlled. They are wild and they live on their own. They grow tall and big and expansive and there is little to nothing that can be done to prevent it. But this is a word of hope from God: mustard does not have to be planted, and mustard is not controlled. So, too, is the word of God. And so too, are the stories of truth.
Despite the attempts to block history, to confine history, to rewrite history, cell phones catching things like the murder of George Floyd can no longer be stopped. People writing the history that is out there, in the underground sometimes, can no longer be stopped. We think that we can control things in this way, but we can’t. God’s work for truth, for justice, is unstoppable.
I think about the movie, “Two Weeks Notice”. In the Movie, Sandra Bullock plays a character who has actively followed on “the way” as she understands it. She has stood up for the oppressed, been a voice for the voiceless, fought against injustice at every level. But there comes a moment at which she hits a place of despair. She is done. Her father is upset by her decision to no longer live a life of action. And he confronts her saying, “we didn’t teach you to sit on the sidelines.” She argues that what she does makes no difference. To which he responds, “Then you change your tactics. As long as people can change, the world can change.” She says, “But what if people can’t change?”
The father in the movie I just quoted paused for a moment in consideration, “Let me put it this way. I am eating a piece of cheesecake made entirely of soy. I hate it. But because of my health issues, I am doing it.”
He didn’t like it. But he did it, and that started with truth. His change in behavior started with being unable to deny the truth about his health conditions, the truth about what he needed to do to stay well. It did not stem from hiding from the realities of his situation. It did not come about from burying his head, like an ostrich, in the sand. He didn’t like it, but truth is powerful, it is unstoppable.
The word of God is like that. It spreads despite what people try to do, despite what people try to hide, despite the lies. It is like mustard that sprouts up regardless.
As the commentator David Jacobsen wrote, ““As I wrote these words, the court testimony of the sidewalk bystanders in the George Floyd killing seemed empty of hope. In their cell phone videos, you too can see them: the EMT, the youth, the martial arts expert, and the convenience store cashier lined up pleading with the white policeman kneeling on a Black man’s neck to stop and render assistance to George Floyd. As you watched their own videos, it seemed even to the bystanders themselves that all they could do from the sidewalk was to cry out and plead, but effect nothing. One teenager on the sidewalk even testified in court how she apologizes over and over again to George Floyd at night. She asks herself whether she could have done more. And why did her pleading or their yelling not suffice? Her haunting words make Jesus’ mysterious parable hard to hear. What about Mark’s seedy hope of an automatic Kingdom of God can survive her tearful testimony? And then came the verdict on April 20. As many said, while justice did not come that day, accountability did. How did the lead prosecutor put it?: the bystanders were a “bouquet of humanity.” The very people who cried out from the sidewalk and made videos with smartphones were a surprise flowering of what it means to be human. The bystanders did not save George Floyd’s life, but they were a mysterious, living, testifying, bouquet of humanity. And in a moment, something of our view of Mark’s seed parable changes. What it offers now is a glimpse of change, a germination that flowers right there on a cracked sidewalk at 38th and Chicago. Now that is mysterious and even a little revealing. Even so, there is one thing I now lay hold of. There may well be an arc of the moral universe that bends toward justice, but that modern view is for us both a promise and a goal. The famous quote from Parker and King and Obama uses the intransitive verb, “bend.” But there is no one who says that we can’t lay hold of that arc and in the name of the promise bend it a little bit ourselves with a little transitive joy. For we, thanks to Mark, are people who even now glimpse germinating seeds yielding bouquets of humanity: a surprising, sudden, fragile yield of the Kingdom’s mysterious grace and justice.” – Working Preacher, David Jacobsen.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The kingdom of God is a seed that grounds our hope that eventually things can change. To remember that Mark’s gospel was written close to the time of the destruction of the temple in 70CE, that the context of that time was public chaos, control, confusion, oppression and pain. And that it was in the midst of that that we hear the words of hope from today’s Gospel reading. These are powerful stories of possibility. And that possibility is in our midst as well.
The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: it is not planted, it is not sown. And yet it takes off, it grows big and expansive and wild. While we may hinder it for a while, we cannot stop it. The word of Love, the word of hope, the word of healing and possibility: these are the words of God’s kingdom. Yesterday, today and tomorrow. Thanks be to God. Amen.