Mere mortals

A sermon for the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio, in February 2019

According to Luke, Jesus is preaching from a place of even footing. Once again, he embodies the fulfillment of the prophets: the valleys have been raised up, and the mountains brought low, and he stands upon a level plain.

There was a great multitude of people from Lebanon to the north and Jerusalem to the south, several days’ journeys away, who had come to Jesus to hear him, and to be healed by him, because power was pouring out from him. They yearned to touch him, because God’s mercy, the power of God’s love was overflowing from him. He had no political power, no armour, no army, no armory. He didn’t hold the power of the purse, nor even the power of the pen. But the people recognized that Jesus had the power of life, and in his life, they found life, and healing, help, and hope, such as no one else had ever held it out to them before or since.

Jeremiah’s words deal with political realities that have apparently endured for well over two and a half millennia, from centuries before Jesus on the plain, to this day:

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

There is no politician, nor priest, nor folk hero who will save us from ourselves; no philosophy, nor manifesto that will guide us through the valley of the shadow of death. There is none, but only God. There is none, but only Jesus.

Jeremiah is not a prophet with a practical plan. He doesn’t offer a three-step solution to the mess in which the kingdom of Judah has found itself, besieged on all sides. He doesn’t offer, to be more specific, an alternative to the political alliances, compromises, and petitions by which Judah is attempting, unsuccessfully, to save herself.

Instead, Jeremiah says, “Until you change your heart. Until you turn your soul. Until you remember God, this will be your lot. Unless you look for an allegiance to God, all you will find is your own sinful mess looking back at you.”

Jesus says it a different way, on the plain:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

The false prophets: those court prophets who assured Judah that all would be well, if they would only hold their course, and not turn aside to anything so foolish as humility, repentance, or the kingdom of God, or any of those whims that Jeremiah preached. The court prophets who have always used flattering words and false arguments to beguile the politicians and the people into thinking that their greatest goal was to maintain the status quo: the layers of power and privilege and profit and poverty that sustained the society which favoured the few false prophets preaching to the choir of the king’s court.

I hadn’t intended preaching about our landscape of gun violence this weekend. Even with the anniversary of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Valentine’s Day. Even so. But I can’t. I can’t be part of propping up the status quo when this country is crying out for a change of heart.

“The heart,” says Jeremiah, “is devious above all else; it is perverse.”

I read parts of a report this week issued to shareholders by the parent company of gun manufacturer Smith & Wesson. I do not own shares in that company, to be clear; I was reporting a story about investor activism for the Episcopal Café. But I found, in doing so, that this company doesn’t like the term “gun violence.” It sees it as extreme language, designed

to create a perception that the presence of a gun, in itself, somehow creates the conditions for violence.

On Thursday’s anniversary, a statement from the White House extended sympathy to the Parkland families, and all victims of gun violence. Hours later, in a Tweet, “gun violence” was reframed as “school violence.” One can only imagine the conversations that might have taken place in between: calls from those false prophets who maintain that we do not have a gun violence problem, but a personal violence problem, a criminal violence problem, a school, workplace, yoga studio, nightclub, church, synagogue, movie theater violence problem.

The heart is devious above all else, and perverse. We have a major domestic violence problem. We have a perverse and peculiar problem with people seeing violence as their vindication. We have a problematic culture which celebrates vengeance. We need a change of heart.

Introducing our proliferation of guns magnifies that problem and its power. It allows the power of violence to spill over beyond the reach of arms-length relationships, beyond person-to-person contact. It is the opposite of the power pouring out of Jesus, the power to heal and to haul people together. Until we have a change of heart, we will remain trapped in cycles of our own construction, placing our trust in mere mortals and their metal, defending the deeply problematic status quo, at the expense of those who mourn, those who weep, those who are lost.

Jeremiah declined to offer an alternative alliance for Judah to fight its way out of the corner it was in. Instead, he only offered God.

Our answer to the problem of gun violence, while it may well take political engagement and alliances, cannot come from the well of the world. That’s one reason I am not in love with the activist investor model to engage with gun manufacturers: we cannot let mere mortals, false prophets, control the environment in which we do God’s work. We cannot let the landscape dictate our footsteps, when Jesus’ call is nothing less than to raise up the valleys and erase the mountains, and level the plains.

I don’t know that anyone here is satisfied with the status quo; but what are we willing to change in order to disrupt it? Will we push back against false prophets of fear, and demand instead to declare the love of God? Will we, instead of the power of the fortress and the citadel, look for the power pouring out of Jesus, without walls, out on the plain, for all to come and reach and touch? Will we, instead of the might of armies and the inventory of armories, arm ourselves with the love of God, and love for our neighbours, knowing that these, these alone, are the marching orders of the kingdom of God?

It’s a tall order, I know. But consider the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus offers: a world in which the poor have power; where the bereft are comforted. Where profits are harvested as food for the hungry, with ploughshares beaten out of pistols. Where the name Pulse has not been perverted to echo with death and anger, but resumes its resonance of life, and love. Where Aurora means the halo of light around the moon, giving glory to God with all the heavenly bodies, and we no longer ask, do you mean the one in Colorado, or the one in Illinois? Where the south side of Chicago is simply the sunny side of the street. Where the Tree of Life grows green in the Garden of Eden. A kingdom where the name Parkland conjures up, not the valley of the shadow of death, but a quiet place, green pastures beside still waters.

It is not a situation that will come about by accident. It will always be opposed by false prophets and fear. It is perhaps impossible for mere mortals to construct. But here’s our secret weapon: we are not mere mortals. We are created, and called, and commissioned in the image of God and by the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. By his power, the power of God’s love made manifest, made human, we can do more than we will ever imagine.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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