Normally our Old Testament and Gospel readings are the kind of passages I typically gloss over. I’ve tended to be something of a peacekeeper in my relationships, so things like violence, destruction, and swords don’t really fit into my self-understanding, to say the least. I prefer when things are steady, when nobody is upset - lions laying down with lambs kind of stuff.
“Violence and destruction!” shouts Jeremiah. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” declares Jesus. “Um, no thank you?” says Kenzi.
Except, in these times in which we find ourselves, when the history and present reality of American racism and particularly police brutality is all but unavoidable in the public square, I unexpectedly can see where these men are coming from. Jesus is in the beginning of his ministry, having just called the disciples, and he is preparing them for the seriousness of his task. His call is not to something superficial. Doing the work of Jesus brings substantive change, so much so that it can shift family dynamics. Fear in the face of this task is not unreasonable.
Jeremiah is addressing people who have forgotten their God, have gotten distracted from their call to care for the poor and the marginalized in their society. Jeremiah is proclaiming violence and destruction against a contented nation because they were not living according to their covenant with God by worshiping other gods and spilling the blood of the innocent. His words were so offensive to the leaders that, when we encounter in our reading, Jeremiah had just spent the night in the stocks as an, ultimately ineffective, attempt to silence him.
To look at the news in recent weeks is to be confronted with a similar reality. Across the country, and particularly within our own city, there is a fire in the bones of the people. After generations of oppression and violence, people are making demands which cannot be quieted. Truth is being spoken to power, and it is causing disruption. The spilling of innocent blood can no longer go on in silence.
In our passage from Jeremiah, between the silence of the oppressors and the shouting of the prophet are the whispers of the people. All around Jeremiah, people are whispering. They see the terror around them, and they want to denounce Jeremiah rather than the evil being done. It’s not quite an exact parallel, but when I read of these whisperers, I keep imagining white mothers in the grocery store, shushing their children when they ask a question about a person of color. Rather than to name a difference or perhaps acknowledge an historical system, often the move is to quiet the question. The problem with quieting the question and turning a blind eye to the underlying issue is that such a response only creates a facade of peace. Avoiding conflict, or even just an awkward conversation, allows systems of injustice to continue uninterrupted. This turn of events might seem fine, or even preferred, for the people who hold privilege within the system being questioned, but as Jeremiah reminds us, an unjust system cannot stand forever.
As the people of God, we are called to step outside of the unjust systems of the world. Jesus offers a sword, Moses offered forty years in the desert, but either way, getting the values of Empire out of our persons is no easy task. Everything around us teaches the values of Empire: wealth, instant gratification, personal comfort. The powers of this world do not take kindly to valuing every human life and fight hard to continue in oppression, both in obvious and subtle ways. Living into the kingdom of God means struggling to see, name, and work against both our own oppression and the oppression of others. Like the resetting of a broken bone, this might at times feel like violence, but speaking truth and agitating for justice are necessary for creating the kind of peace God desires for us.
Stepping into the role of a truth speaking prophet bears similarities to how Juneteenth is celebrated, a holiday I only really learned about this year. June 19, 1865 - emancipation was announced in Texas, the last state to officially have slaves. The proclamation came two and a half years late, and did not immediately bring about relief for the folks who were enslaved, and yet reality was changed. As Christians, when we gather, especially when we come together for the Eucharist, we are gathering to remember the historical moment when everything changed. Even as we work and wait for the end of oppression, we celebrate that God has already lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.
God has acted in history, and God is the one who will step in again to bring about the complete healing of creation. In the meanwhile, it is for us to lean into the way God is calling us to move towards this healing. We shout in protests, we donate money, we study, we pray, and we have hard conversations in response to a God who is present and has taught us the value of every human being, especially those who have been marked for oppression. It is from this understanding of God’s work in creation that we can join with Jeremiah in singing, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord, for he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of the evildoers.”