Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Can You Handle the Truth?

(This sermon was preached at Messiah Lutheran Church on Sunday, October 21, 2012, on the occasion of the installation of the Reverend Pauline Pezzino as Associate Pastor. The sermon derives from the first reading for the occasion, Jeremiah 1:4-10.)

The theologian of rock music, Bono of the band U2, in the song, Magnificent, sings:

I was born, 
I was born 
to sing for you
I didn't have a choice 
but to lift you up
And sing whatever song 
you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
from the womb
My first cry, 
it was a joyful noise...1

I think you, Pauline, like U2’s Bono, were born to sing for God, to lift God up and sing the song God has called you to sing, to give back your voice, from the womb your first cry, a joyful noise. But this is no allusion to your gift for singing - as great as that gift is -but to your gift and calling for proclamation, the sharing of the gospel. 
Yes, preaching is a form of singing the song of the gospel. Most certainly Pauline, God has called you to be a joyful noise maker, a singer, preacher, proclaimer of his living word. 

Jeremiah, the prophet we hear of in today’s first reading, most certainly knew a little something about this proclaiming business. Jeremiah, who, like you Pauline, was a child of a preacher, Jeremiah initially resisted God’s call. Sound familiar?

But, who could blame him. Raised on the story of the Israelites, Jeremiah knew the fate of prophets. Early in their history, the Israelite people had asked God to send them prophets who would protect them and speak God's word to them. Moses was such a prophet, and God promised to raise up another after him, saying I will put my words in his mouth. God said, I will put my words in his mouth! 2

Yes, these prophets were expected to speak in God's name the very words of God. And God, according to the story, would demand a reckoning from those who did not listen to the prophet's voice. But also, and more importantly for the prophet, him or herself, God would demand a reckoning from the prophet if he or she attributed their own words to God or spoke on behalf of other gods. To do so, according to scripture would mean God would demand the life of the prophet. 

Such a calling, then - to stand between a fearful, fickle and harried people and the dangerous presence of God, speaking God’s word, speaking the truth God gives - well it’s no wonder Jeremiah resists. Shouldn’t all of us preacher types? Shouldn’t we all resist? Shouldn’t we all with fear and trembling carefully go about the task for which God calls? Shouldn’t we all be afraid, be very afraid to speak God’s truth? In a word, Yes! But, not just because God will demand a reckoning.  

We should be afraid, afraid to be proclaimers of God’s truth because, as Pastor Frank Honeycutt says in the title of his book, quoting Flannery O’Conner, The Truth Shall Make You Odd. In a culture and in lives that can’t handle the truth, we preachers are called to be prophetic truth tellers. Doing so may..., no, WILL make us odd, and put us at odds with the people and culture around us. But, we must do it anyway, as ones whose mouths the Lord has touched, putting his words upon us. 

Pastor Pauline, you have been called by God to speak the truth. Pastorally, yes. With love, yes. But no less, the truth. We need to hear it. 

In a culture of half truths and downright lies, a culture that likes to blithely rush on in ignorant bliss, a culture that blindly follows after those things that lead to death, we need to hear the surgical truth....of the law and the gospel. As Frank Honeycutt writes, “Martin Luther once likened preaching to surgery. Most people are not naturally inclined toward surgery, even when they know it is the best route. Telling the truth in a culture of deceit and lies is exhausting but ultimately healing work. We need,” concludes Honeycutt, “the Great Physician, even if he tells us things we don’t want to hear.” 3

We need you, Pastor Pauline, we need all of you rostered leaders, to preach the truth Even if it makes you odd. In fact, we need all of you - YOU, the church, to speak the truth. Even and in spite of the fact that it will make you odd. 

One of my favorite marketing slogans is the one used by the city of Austin, Texas. On bumper stickers all around Austin you see it: Keep Austin Weird! Someone borrowed the slogan and has begun printing bumper stickers that read: Keep Church Weird!

Turn to the person sitting next to you and tell them, “You are weird!”

Indeed! That is our calling, to be weird, to be odd, in that when we speak truth to a culture of half truths and downright lies, people will think we are weird. They may even...persecute us. 

This was most certainly true for Jeremiah. Speaking truth not only made him odd, but got him branded a heretic, and people thought he was insane. His friends and family turned their backs on him. Some even called for his death. Again, it is no wonder Jeremiah resisted God’s call. “Ah, Lord God!” he said. “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  (1:6)

And us modern day prophets, preachers, disciples of Jesus? We have some of those same fears, do we not? Ah, Lord God, Who am I to speak the truth. I am only ______________. (And we fill in the blank with any number of insecurities & excuses.)

But God will have nothing to do with it. God insists that Jeremiah's self-perception as "just a boy" – immature, inadequate, unlearned, or simply not ready — is either wrong or irrelevant, and God forbids Jeremiah to repeat it. Instead, God answers with emphatic promises that trump and reshape the prophet's self-understanding: "I am with you to deliver you" (1:8), God says. And, “I have put my words in your mouth.” (1:9)

God’s emphatic promises are for us also. And God’s emphatic promises will trump and reshape our self-understanding also. "I am with you to deliver you,” God says to us. And, “I have put my words in your mouth.” 

Yes, I know, many a self proclaimed prophet has taken liberty with God’s word. That danger certainly exists. But that is why God has given us,...well, us,....the Church! God has given to us the gift of each other, the Church.  

For the purposes of this installation, though, I want to speak to the rostered leaders here. To us rostered leaders....God has given us the grace of God’s Holy Spirit AND the grace of each other. No lone rangers, no lone preachers. We are called into accountability to and for one another, so that as we seek to stand between a fearful, fickle, and harried people and the dangerous presence of God, speaking God’s word, speaking the truth God gives, we can support one another and keep each other in the odd truth of God. 

In other words, you are not alone in your truth telling, Pastor Pauline. And you, rostered leaders of the Knoxville Area Ministerium and of the ELCA-Southeastern Synod, you are not alone in your truth telling. The call comes from God. The words come from God. And the power, strength and compassion to answer that call and speak the truth of those words comes from God. 

And together, as the church, the body of Christ, we are then able to support one another and encourage one another and together as one, speak the truth of the gospel, the good news of the love of God whose name is Jesus. 

In many ways, like Jeremiah, we no longer have any excuses....We don’t have a choice but to lift God up and sing the song that God is calling us to sing...To give God back our voices, from the womb our first cries, they are a joyful noise...a joyful, good news...noise...
In Jesus name. Amen.   

1 “Magnificent,” No Line on the Horizon, U2, 2009. 
2 Deuteronomy 18:18 (NRSV)
3 Frank G. Honeycutt, The Truth Shall Make You Odd: Speaking with Pastoral Integrity in Awkward Situations (Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2011), xvii.

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