Texts: Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17.
In 1988 I was privileged to meet a remarkable woman. Her name is Rose Ruiz Durendez, and she is a Filipino from the island province of Mindinao. I had opportunity to speak with Rose because she was one of the speakers at a conference on Phillip Island, and I'd somehow scored the job of driving her there from Melbourne. She told me about life in the Philippines under the political leadership of 'the people's president', Corazon Aquino. Though Aquino had been swept to power on a wave of 'people power' and of democratic protest at the martial rule of President Marcos, Rose reported that very little had changed in the Philippines since the changeover. While Western governments were congratulating each other on yet another victory for 'democracy', the people of the Philippines were still being repressed by a fundamentally corrupt and cruel regime. Most of the region's arable land was stilled owned by a few aristocratic families, of which the Aquino family was one. Most of the people were still desperately poor, and their labour was still being exploited to boost the profits of unscrupulous multinational companies. The Filipino army was still waging a war against any who questioned government policy. And privately hired 'death squads' still roamed the countryside, killing and raping anyone who tried to organise the people to resist the rich oligarchies, the multinationals or the government.
Rose is a Christian teacher and theologian from the United Church of Christ. Her husband is a Christian also, a lawyer specializing in the defence of human rights. As we drove down the Princes Highway, I learned that Rose's husband was in prison for speaking out against the human rights abuses of Aquino's army. I learned that Rose herself was accustomed to receiving daily threats on her life. I learned of her friends and colleagues who had been arrested and tortured. Or captured, raped and murdered by death squads in the dead of night. All because of their Christian belief that the poor were beloved of God, and deserved a better deal. In listening to Rose Ruiz Durendes, in witnessing her tears and her passion, I became aware that I was in the presence of one of God's holy prophets. She had been given a word from the Lord, and she was willing to speak that word even though doing so put her very life in danger.
Jeremiah, too, was one of God's holy prophets. He was consecrated for the task before his birth - so says our text for today. Now Jeremiah knew very well what a prophet was called to do: to stand before rulers and authorities and kings and call their self-serving policies into question; to critique the ethical practices of Hebrew society in the light of the covenant made with them by God; to call its priests and rulers to account for their treatment of the widow, the orphan and the refugee. Not surprisingly, Jeremiah was not too keen on the job when the Lord called him. He'd seen what Hebrew kings and landowners had done to other prophets. Besides, he was set for a comfortable career amongst the prestigious priestly classes of Jerusalem. Why would he want to exchange certainty and security for uncertainty and danger? In the end, it seems, Jeremiah had very little choice. He loved Yahweh, his God, and Yahweh had asked him to be a prophet. His excuses about being too young for the job were never really going to cut it with God. That was never the real issue. In his heart of hearts, he was just afraid. Afraid of what God's enemies might do to him. Afraid of losing his life. Afraid of being ignored. But God knows his fear and gives him this assurance: 'Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you'.
What is it that changes an ordinary person into a Jeremiah? How is that deep down fear of losing one's life overcome? That's a question I've been asking myself for years. How does a school teacher become a prophet who is willing to lay her life on the line? How does the average pew-sitter become a disciple? Well, I suspect the answer has something to do with little word which signifies a big revolution: and that word is compassion. Compassion is what Jesus has plenty of when he cures a crippled woman on the Sabbath. Imagine this woman's life. For 18 years she has been bent and misshapen. We are not told why, except that it was a 'spirit'. 'Spirit' or 'demon' is first-century shorthand for some kind of oppression. Perhaps she was a woman under the heavy yoke of a cruel husband, or a slave-master. Perhaps she had been forced to work with broom or needle until her spine would no longer straighten? Whatever the cause, it seems that Jesus was sufficiently moved by the misery of her condition to put himself in danger.
For Jesus indeed had everything to lose in healing this woman. He was a promising and innovative young rabbi. That's why he'd got the gig in the Synagogue. If he'd stuck to his guns there could have been a very rewarding career ahead. Social prestige, comfortable living, moral security. But no, when Jesus saw this woman all of that was put away for good. So moved was he, that Jesus broke the rabbi code of ethics in order to heal her. He interrupted his sermon mid-way through. He touched a woman who was clearly ill, which made him ritually unclean. He healed her on the Sabbath day, which was a big no-no at the time. Jesus, it seems, allowed his com/passion (literally, 'suffering-with') to take the reigns. Fear, no doubt was strongly present at that moment: the fear of being censured by the Synagogue authorities; the fear of losing his future. But compassion took the reigns. For Jesus, it seems, loving someone is far more important that keeping yourself nice. That's what makes the difference. A prophet is an ordinary person who has been moved by love to give themselves away. To take up their cross and follow the way of the crucified one. To love, and not count the cost. To love prophetically.
You and I are called to love like this as well! The prophetic vocation is not just for the Jeremiah's and the Jesus's and the Rose's of this world. It's for all of us. To be a prophet, to follow after the way of Jesus, is fundamentally about giving yourself away for the sake of love. It's about loving another so much that nothing else, not even one's own life, really matters anymore. There is a story from Auchwitz about a young woman who was chosen one day for the gas chambers. As her name was read out, she broke down before the whole company of assembled prisoners, sobbing and shrieking with fear. But a young nun, a Russian woman named Elizabeth Pilenko, stepped forward to comfort her. 'Don't be afraid', she said, 'I'll take your place'. Stories like that shake me to the very core. They pull apart the fabric of my mediocrity and remind me that I belong to God, not to myself. And God has called me to love.
What will you do with this call of God? Will you clamber into your cocoon of fears and pray that the urge will pass? I'm afraid that will never do. For God has said that only those willing to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel will save it. In the end, the cocoon of fear becomes a tomb from which there is no escape. The one who clings to their fears is eventually strangled by them. But I promise you this: the one who makes the brave journey out from themselves into love, the one who is willing to suffer for another's liberation, will discover a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And there you will meet a God who has, himself, loved - even unto death; a crucified God, who bears in his body the unspeakable crimes of humanity. A God scarred . . . by love.
This homily was first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in September 1998.
This homily was first preached at Devonport Uniting Church in September 1998.