Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 14, 2016
“What has straw in common with wheat?”
Or so asks the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah this morning. What has straw in common with wheat? Jeremiah is railing against false prophets in this passage. He is drawing a comparison between those prophets who truly have the word of the Lord, and those that are just promoting their own agenda. In the middle of this comparison he asks this interesting question: what has straw in common with wheat?
It is an interesting question, because the truth is, straw actually has a lot in common with wheat. Straw and wheat are the same plant. It’s a type of grass. When it grows and becomes ripe it is harvested. The seed, or the grain, is separated from the stalk and the leaves. The seed is wheat, the stalk is straw. So really, between one part of the plant and another there is quite a lot in common: it grows in a common field, it has a common look and smell, a common life really. There is so much in common between wheat and straw, and yet only the wheat has life within it. It is only the wheat, the grain, that can be planted again and create new life, and it is only the wheat, that can be crushed, transformed into flour and worked into bread; bread that can nourish us and sustain our lives. Humans can’t live on straw; horses can, their bodies our built to digest it, but ours aren’t. If we could manage to chew it, it might fill us up, but it can’t nourish us. We need wheat.
So this is how Jeremiah wants us to look at these two types of prophets and two types of prophecies: they may look alike and smell alike, they may in fact have a lot in common, but at the end of the day only one has the power to give life. Only one can nourish us.
So what are these two different types of prophecies or prophets that Jeremiah is talking about? Well the prophets of the true God, and there are many more than just Jeremiah, as he points out, the true prophets challenge God’s people. They preach a word that convicts them, calls them to change, calls them to put aside the false Gods that they have made by their own hands, to put aside idolatry and to return to the one, true, living God, who alone has the power to give life. Those are the true prophets; they may not be a barrel of laughs or much fun at a party, but they are the ones that help us to grow.
The other prophets? Jeremiah points out that God is well aware of them. He hears what they preach and yet can’t remember saying it himself. They are preaching from their own imaginations and dreams. They aren’t challenging the false Gods of the people; the people aren’t being asked to change their ways. Since the people are not being continually redirected to the true and living God, they are gradually turning away from him; moving further and further away, until eventually they even forget his name. Now let’s not kid ourselves here: we like these prophets; we like them because they make us feel good about ourselves, they don’t challenge us to change anything in our lives, we don’t have to examine our motives; they tell us that it is ok to stay just as we are: no need to grow, no need to change, no need to repent. Perfect for a party, but perhaps not so good for growing closer to the true God. Their words are straw: filling perhaps, maybe even comforting, but there is no life in them.
There is so much straw in the church today. Not just our church, not just the Episcopal Church, but in all churches there is straw; different types of straw maybe, but straw nonetheless. We have a lot of false Gods out there that we keep running after. We have made a lot of false Jesus’s, or perhaps not false, but at least incomplete. We cut out the words of scripture that challenge us. We dispense with any image of God that isn’t warm and fuzzy and we create (to quote the old Depeche Mode song) our own personal Jesus. We have liberal Jesus, the guy who only cares about the poor and the environment and convincing the world to take a big group hug. We have conservative Jesus, the Jesus of family values, who lets you keep your money, but makes you feel compelled to spend it on statues of him playing sports with your kids.
The problem with both of these Jesus’ is that they are straw men. They are one-sided caricatures of Jesus that don’t challenge us. They are easy and comforting and they ask very little of us. They aren’t the real Jesus. If you spend enough time reading scripture, and reading all of it, not just the happy parts, not just the warm and fuzzy parts, if you read all of it, at some point you are going to encounter a tough word from God. At some point Jesus is going to say something that you won’t like, and you can choose to either wrestle with it, or you can skip over it, walk away and ignore it and chase after the Jesus that makes you feel righteous without actually having to be better than you are.
This morning we get one of those tough words from Jesus. If you think that Jesus is all about peace, love and happiness: you are in for a surprise. If you think that Jesus is all about family values: you are also in for a surprise. This morning, Our Lord Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, says to us:
Do you think I have come to bring peace to the word? No, I tell you, but rather division.
And it’s not just going to be about one nation against another: it is a division that can separate our very families: the most intimate bonds. That is a tough word to swallow. It isn’t comforting, but if you have lived long enough in this world you will recognize that it is truth. Sometimes following God can mean making choices that you don’t want to make. This is the wheat of our faith. This is wheat because passages that challenge us and make us question our assumptions about ourselves and about God, those passages are the ones that put real life in our faith; those passages are the ones that make us grow. Whenever we read something that makes us question our own righteousness, that is when we are growing in our walk with God. Yes, sometimes we need God to embrace us, to pick us up and to love us in all our brokenness. We believe he does that, and thank you God for doing that, but sometimes we also need a kick in the pants; sometimes we need God to challenge us to do better, to be better. Sometimes we need to be redirected away from the idols of our own making and back to the God who actually saves us. Sometimes we need to be reminded that maybe God doesn’t always make the same choices we do, and just maybe, God doesn’t always vote the way we do. Last time I checked, Jesus was neither a Democrat nor a Republican, but we love to pick and choose his words to make him always agree with us. It is so easy to try to avoid being challenged by God, and it has gotten even easier in a world of Facebook, wherein you can just turn off the voices that say things you disagree with. I’m guilty of that too, I admit it.
The lesson from this morning’s gospel, and from the prophet Jeremiah, is that if you are looking to God for a pat on the back only, you may be sorely disappointed. God loves us, yes, but he is calling us to be better than we are. He is calling us to be more. Recognizing that is to lay hold onto the wheat of our faith; there is new life to be had in that truth.
As Christians we are continually surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses to the faith. Saints, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs and martyrs, so many individual stories of people who found in God and in Christ a call to follow; a call to grow and to change; a call to forsake sin and to seek the redeeming love of Jesus. That is what our faith is about: not platitudes and sentimentality, but a God that is willing to suffer death in order to save us from ourselves. This isn’t cheap grace. We can’t turn away from the tough words of Jesus, we must embrace them, because there is truth there that we probably need to hear. That cloud of witnesses isn’t filled with people that had it all figured out; it isn’t filled with people that understood every utterance of God, and it isn’t filled with people that made all the right decisions. It is filled with people that knew that they couldn’t get through this life on their own and that turned to God for help whenever the storm clouds formed on the horizon.
We don’t come here to worship a straw man, or a caricature of Jesus: we come here to worship the living God, who sometimes comforts us and sometimes convicts us. Sometimes his words go down like honey, sometimes it is a bitter pill. There always have been and always will be false prophets. There will be ministers and churches that will focus on one aspect of Jesus and not the whole Jesus. There will be ministers that try to explain away miracles and there will be ministers that try to perform fake ones. There will be ministers who choose to skip over any Bible passages where God gets angry, and there will be ministers that revel in God’s anger and direct it at everyone else but themselves. Episcopal, Baptist, Catholic, it doesn’t matter, we all have our share of false prophets who promise you peace, even though Jesus promises us quite the opposite. Beware of them, beware of anyone who tries to over-simplfy God, or cheat you of the life-giving wheat of our faith, because what they are selling you is, to put it bluntly, horse manure, and as someone that has been knee deep in it, both figuratively and literally, I can attest that it is mostly straw.