July 2nd Sermon: False News or God’s News? (Rev. Zollfrank)

Matthew 10: 40-42

Bethesda Lutheran Church

July 2, 2017

 

Holy One of Blessing, may we welcome the truth of your word for us. Let us find reward in the welcome we extend. Satisfy our thirst to feel and share your love now among us. Amen.

 

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

 

I don’t know about you, but in the last months and weeks when I read the news or engage the information that floods us all, I have found myself asking often: really? Can this be true? I am sure, just like you, I discern carefully the source of any news. Which website and who is behind it? Are there any quotes and who is quoted? If there is an image, I check to see if it is really associated with the text. Yet, sometimes a lingering thought persists: Is it true or false?

 

The theme of our Matthew text today is that of “welcome”. I want to share a few blips of news with you on the topic of “welcome”. Can you tell – is it false or true?

 

Fouad Dagoum fled Sudan after his village was ransacked by militia members who captured, detained, and tortured him until his body was limp. He escaped to Egypt, where he was “parked for more than ten years”, and then got the green light to resettle in the United States with his wife and daughter. Two years ago, the family arrived in New Haven. “It was hard. When we arrive, we don’t know anyone. We don’t have friends. We don’t speak English. But we are safe, and we got help.” False or true?

True. A refuge resettlement agency found the Dagoum family an apartment signed them up for benefits, and enrolled their daughter in school.

 

Try this one: refugees, who can show a “bona fide relationship” with “a person or entity” in the United States, will not be affected by the 90-day travel ban from six majority Muslim countries. However, whether a relationship to entities like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service counts as a “bona fide relationship” is now unclear. Their ability to help families like that of Fouad Dagoum is in question. False or true? – True.

Last year the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service resettled more than 13,000 refugees.

 

Muslims celebrated the month of Ramadan between May 26 and June 24. During the Holy Month of Ramadan, Muslims abstain from any food or drink from sunrise to sundown. Since 1996 the White House has hosted a dinner, called Iftar that breaks Muslims’ daily fast. Iftar was celebrated at the White House even in 2001. This year for the first time the President and the First Lady have broken with this tradition. The State Department, which also has a tradition of hosting an Iftar dinner decided not to host one this year as well. The Pentagon’s Iftar tradition (alive and well since 1998) continued. False or true? True.

The “jungle”… this was the name of a refugee camp in Calais, France, which was demolished in 2016. The “jungle” had a population of about 3000 people, none of them Christian. False or true? False!

 

The population of the ”jungle” included many Christians from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Syria. In the jungle migrants built a mosque and also an Orthodox Christian Church, St. Michael’s, complete with pulpit, candles, and images of St. Michael. Pictures show woman and men sitting separated by the middle isle, focused in deep and desperate prayer. Both, mosque and church were also demolished in 2016. True story.

 

“Congregations in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America celebrate the liturgy in 33 languages.” The social teaching statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on immigration states that “newcomers are increasingly assuming leadership roles in our congregations, synods, affiliated educational and social ministry agencies, and churchwide ministries.” A true story of welcoming one another.

“The ministry
of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Immigration and Resettlement Services resettles refugees, advocates on behalf
of detained asylum seekers, assists
unaccompanied children, offers
pastoral and legal counsel to persons without legal status, aides persons with the citizenship process, and helps newcomers learn to live in a new country. This ministry requires compassion and competence, is time-consuming, sometimes heart-breaking, and frequently unrecognized.” Quoted word for word from the Social Statement on Immigration of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

In his life Jesus modeled for us one-on-one encounters with strangers. Texts like the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman suggest that strangers are God-bearers and life-bringers. There are many, many, many biblical verses that talk about welcoming the stranger in our midst. True!

In El Paso, Texas, in the dry, rugged, sun-scorched terrain where many immigrants lose their lives, bishops, priests, and lay people come together annually to celebrate the Eucharist. Like at other liturgies, they pray and worship together. Unlike other liturgies, a sixteen-foot-high iron fence divides this community in half, with one side in Mexico and the other in the U.S. (Daniel C Grody, Yale Reflections, Who is My Neighbor? Facing Immigration, Issue Year 2008) True story.

 

The resolution brought before the Synod Assembly in June to make the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Synod a sanctuary Synod “does not require or demand” anything from congregations. Rather it “encourages study, engagement, and it invites support for immigration reform” in our country, so an email from Bishop Hazelwood this week to Synod leaders. The resolution does invite us to discern what God’s welcome for us means, here at Bethesda. —

So, back to where I started today. In recent weeks and months I have often wondered how I can discern the difference between false news and real news. But now I wonder if scripture is a guide for us? For example, can our lectionary texts today inoculate us against the infectious spread of uncertainty and unreality? Can our Jeremiah and our Matthew passage teach us to tell false news from God’s news?

 

You might say, “distinguishing false news from God’s news? Nothing easier than that! God’s news is good news!”

 

“Not necessarily”, Jeremiah teaches us. He can get quite passionate, incensed, burdened and outraged over those who spread false good news. ‘These people make it sound like they are sharing God’s news, but they spread untruths and lead the people astray! They are fake prophets, who seduce people and bring the curse of poverty. They are false prophets who treat women poorly, they have doubtful sexual morals, and they live a lie’ (Look it up in Jeremiah 23:13).

 

Not surprisingly, through the years Jeremiah had a rocky relationship with those in power. When he is intermittently banned from public speaking, he leaks his prophecies through his secretary, and when he gets very upset with the king, he delivers speeches starting with “woe to him”, meaning the king, “who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice….” (check it out – Jeremiah 22:12).

 

If you can recognize Jeremiah’s words here as God’s news, then you passed the test for the first level of training in discerning God’s voice from other voices. Are you ready for the advanced course in telling what is God’s news and what is false news? Ok, let’s get to work. This will be a bit trickier…

 

Our Jeremiah text today is part of a narrative of a time, when the prophet Jeremiah and prophet Hananiah are in a tiff exactly over the very question we asked this morning. What’s fake news and what is God’s news? Hananiah’s prophecy channel sounds much more satisfying, “All will be well. God’, – so Hananiah – ‘says, I will break the yoke of the king and before two years are up, everything that was undone, replaced, displaced, repealed, and taken away will be back. There will be peace and all those who are in exile now will be home again.”

 

“False”, Jeremiah thinks. And to Hananiah he simply replies, “I believe it when I see it” and Jeremiah points out that God’s word given to the prophets is not usually good news. He calls Hananiah’s news false news and says, “The prophet who prophesies peace will be recognized as one truly sent by God only if his prediction comes true.” – “The Lord has not sent you, yet you have persuaded this nation to trust in lies.” (Jeremiah 28:15)

 

And then Jeremiah goes on to deliver a much tougher message, “You will be exiles in this place for seventy years and you need to make your piece with it.” – And even harder to hear, Jeremiah tells the people that God will leave them to their own devices for a good while and they will leave God. “This is God’s news for you: You messed up. And now you will need to live with it for a time. The people are exiled and under the yoke of the Babylonian king and therefore they are exiled from God. God is not in Babylon and therefore the country is exiled from God. This is God’s news for you and it is up to you, whether it is also good news. False news or God’s news?

 

This is how I understand what Jeremiah says to us. “Sometimes God decides to leave us to our own devices. He deserts us or hides out (whatever you believe about that one, it ends up being the same experience) because we behaved so foolishly that he leaves us to deal with the consequences.” That experience is one of being exiled.

 

What this means for us today, is that we must discern God’s word for us. We know we are welcome by God, loved by God, and embraced with all of our downfalls. Now it is time for a new welcome extended to those who welcome us, to those who are prophets and those who are righteous.

 

And it is time to do our part. We must be informed. And in taking in all kinds of news we must discern how to speak of God’s news and how to make it come true. It’s time to have dialogue and share our thoughts and feelings. It’s time to risk honesty and vulnerability. It is time to embrace the discomfort that this may cause us. It’s time to be engaged. We must welcome discomfort and passion, fear and anxiety, frustration and despair, in order to hope again and extend our welcome to all of who we are and to all of God’s people on this planet equally. We must be God fearing and trusting in God alone. God made us his saints in the light by his grace and his welcome. It is up to us now to welcome others.

 

To tell you the truth I am terrible at this. My ability to welcome another was recently tested when an Imam who joined our ministry at the hospital in my training program for nine months. Between his accent and mine, his language of faith and mine, his educational background and mine, we had quite the time to learn to understand each other better. His compassion with patients and families was beyond words and his ministry much appreciated. In his final reflection on his time with us he shared a Muslim story of wisdom.

 

The prophet Mohammed walked by a woman’s house every day. And every day, when she saw him, she would sweep her garbage from the roof of the house on his head. One day, she did not show. The prophet asked about her and found out that the woman had fallen ill. Form that day on he entered her house every day. He swept the floor, cleaned her room, and attended to her every need.

 

“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple – truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Amen.

 

 

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