The Rev. Casey dunsworth

serves as Associate Campus Pastor to the Belfry, the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry to UC Davis

and as Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network.

Do Not Be Afraid -- A Sermon on Jeremiah and Jesus and You

Jeremiah 4:1-10
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.

Okay, so, you know how in Lord of the Rings, Frodo and the rest of the fellowship are always being hunted by orcs and other gross things? There’s one particular time, at the end of the first film, where Boromir is trying to take the ring from Frodo, so Frodo puts it on and disappears? And then there’s all this frenzy with the attack and nobody knows where Frodo is? But he’s just off on the journey without them? I always think of that scene when I read this Gospel text. I know, I know, nerd life. But like, as the story goes, “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” I think it works.

And because once I get rolling on a Lord of the Rings metaphor, I can’t let go, I think about little Frodo and his fear and disbelief that it’s he who will bear this ring, bear this responsibility across the known world. Sounds a bit like our dearest prophet Jeremiah, who said he could not possibly be a prophet of God, for he was only a boy. How often have we, in our young lives, thought that maybe God was asking too much of us? Maybe the world was too big? Too scary? Too heavy? Jeremiah knows that story. But God knows that story, too. I imagine that God chuckled warmly before saying, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” 

Michaela Bruzzese, who writes for Sojourners, wrote that, “God never asks us to be the most eloquent speakers, the most intelligent scholars, or the most prominent citizens. The only condition is that we have the courage to stop dwelling in fear.”[1]

Are any of y’all familiar with Brené Brown? She’s a professor of Social Work who researches shame. Her books are all about vulnerability, fear, anxiety, and how we can be liberated from the shame we feel in those things. I would have said that Jeremiah would have benefited from reading Dr. Brown’s work, but he had the voice of God telling him not to fear, so I think he ended up okay. Since we do not have quite the same direct line to the divine, but we do have each other, we can take a lot from Dr. Brown’s work.

She writes about how easy it is to see how good other people are, especially at things we want to be good at, but so hard to see ourselves as ever being good enough. “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us,” she writes. “We’re afraid that our truth isn't enough—that what we have to offer isn't enough.”[2] As Jeremiah’s call story--and Moses’ before him--tells us, God knows that we are more than enough.

And though God may not call each of us in the same way he called Jeremiah, we are called “to speak truth boldly, whatever the consequences. But always tempered by love. Not anger, not frustration, not the need to be grand or glorious.” God did not raise up prophets to be mean. “It was God’s great compassion for those who suffered that put words in the mouths of the prophets.”[3] But the prophets were definitely not anybody’s favorite. Hard to love your neighbor when your neighbor is yelling out “REPENT!” all the time.

Nobody really liked hearing from the Apostle Paul, either. He wrote the letter we read from because the community at Corinth was a hot mess. You know if Paul is writing to you that you need to get your act together. It seems that in their life together, they’d “become so fixated on the gifts of the spirit that the gifts were becoming ends in themselves, rather than a means of transmitting God’s love.”[4] They’d forgotten what Jesus had taught.

If we think about Jesus’ teaching around the greatest commandments—love your God, love your neighbor as you love yourself—how does this passage challenge us? It’s not easy to be patient and kind, not to be envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; we often insist on our own way; we’re irritable and resentful; it takes work not to rejoice in wrongdoing, but rather to rejoice in truth; we struggle to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, endure all things. It’s going to be tough. Do not be afraid.

Then we rewind to Jesus standing up in the synagogue in Nazareth. He grew up in Nazareth, but he grew out of Nazareth. Most of Jesus’ ministry takes places in bigger cities, most notably Capernaum, as the crowd mentions in the story. Nazareth is a town made up almost entirely of Jews, and it’s not very big. That’s in juxtaposition to the relative cosmopolitan center of the area, Capernaum, where Jews and Gentiles mingle, and where the temple is huge and opulent. A poor Nazarene like Jesus stood out, there. And Jesus’ ministry in Capernaum, was to gentiles as much as it was to Jews. Luke’s Gospel is really focused on this, as it was the “Gospel for the Gentiles” in the early Christian world. Jesus tells the folks in the synagogue that the prophet Elijah ended the drought for the widow at Zarephath, and the prophet Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian. They--and the readers of Luke’s Gospel--would know that those places and people are not Jewish.

Jesus read the words of the prophet Isaiah (last week’s lectionary text):

“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
    to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and release to the prisoners;
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,”

and then told the Nazarenes that “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Their smiles turn quickly to frowns when they realize that Jesus has not just declared their exclusive, chosen, city-on-a-hill freedom. Jesus has declared that his life--as the Word made flesh--has set in motion this spread of God’s love to the whole world. This “is not to be interpreted as a project completed. Rather, it is to say that [you] now, like those in the synagogue, are invited to participate in a world restoration that is under way.”[5]

Those of us who have been reading Faith-Rooted Organizing in anticipation of our lecture next month from The Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, have been chewing on these concepts of oppression and liberation, and the role that we all have to play in the love and justice of the coming kingdom.

Luke’s Gospel is keeping us on our toes. “Women, the lame, the hungry, and those deemed ‘other’ are brought to the forefront of Luke[‘s Gospel], presenting Jesus as one of and for the oppressed.”[6] As we investigate our roles in organizing and advocacy, we’re recognizing the two sides of this coin. “Lukan theology is grounded in a Jesus who comes not just to offer compassion to those who are wounded but to speak to the evil of those who wound.”[7] And that second piece, naming the injustice and naming the oppressor, that’s where prophets get into trouble. We know this in the story of Jesus, for sure. We and the Nazarenes know the stories of the prophets of old--they are unwelcome, to say the least.

Does this sound familiar in our modern world? Our prophets--Gandhi, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa--have faced opposition, at minimum. Most are murdered. In our society, for those who would protect the status quo, “prophets who preach locally but who comprehend the global implications of their work, must be silenced.”[8]

We started out this sermon talking about not being afraid. And somehow we ended up with a long list of things to be afraid of. Telling the truth, being vulnerable, being powerful, standing against injustice, using our voices, listening to the voices of the unheard, talking about our God in public--eek! But what God said to Jeremiah, God also says to you and to me. “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”

When you go out into the world, to love and to serve, God is with you. When you go out into the world and you struggle and you fail and you just kind of want to drop all your classes or quit your job or get out of that toxic friendship or whatever is weighing you down, God is with you. When you go out into the world, you are enough. You are necessary, and you are powerful, and your voice should be heard.

Do not be afraid. Amen.

[1] Michaela Bruzzese, “Which Do We Choose?”
[2] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, 2012.
[3] Joyce Hollyday, “Called to Truth”
[4] Michaela Bruzzese, “Prophet to the Nations”
[5] Kenyatta R. Gilbert “Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany” in Preaching God’s Transformative Justice (2012)
[6] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “The Gospel of Luke” in True to Our Native Land, (2007).
[7] Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, “The Gospel of Luke” in True to Our Native Land, (2007).
[8] Renita J. Weems, “Jeremiah” in Global Bible Commentary, (2004).

Ash to Ash, Dust to Dust -- A Sermon on Ash Wednesday

No epiphanies, actually.