Jeremiah

blow away the vapor

Last Tuesday Banu and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary.  On a similar occasion when we were in Jamestown over a decade ago, I commented in front of some parishioners, referring to her, “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized they could be taken in more than one way!  Trust me—it was not a lament; it was not a statement of regret!

1 jr{Dr. Horace Russell sees a shoe lace that needs attention}

But yes, I don’t know what I did to deserve her.  I’m not always sure what I continue to do to deserve her.  You notice I said, “not always sure.”  There are times when I’m pretty confident (probably arrogant) in that regard!  Having said that, let’s turn our attention to a story in which there is no doubt whatsoever.

That story appears in Jeremiah 2.  It is a story of betrayal.  It is a story of a lover spurned.  It is a story of an unfaithful spouse.

The chapter begins, “The word of the Lord came to me [that is, Jeremiah], saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the Lord: I remember   the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown” (vv. 1-2).  The Lord is grieved at the straying of a beloved bride—one who followed, even in the wilderness.  This is the bride who on the wedding day, heard the words, “for richer, for poorer,” and held onto that bit about “for poorer”: but only for a little while!

This is indeed a story about abandonment.  It’s a story about abandoning one’s source of joy, be it a devoted loving partner, a devoted loving spouse.  More fundamentally, it’s a story about abandoning the source of joy that is one’s God.  That’s the unfortunate word the prophet brings.

(As a side note, this is probably one of the earliest messages of Jeremiah.  But its being in chapter 2 doesn’t mean a whole lot.  The book isn’t exactly in chronological order.  It’s almost like someone arranged it by taking the pages, tossing them up in the air, and then waiting for them to fall.)

Jeremiah addresses the whole country.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel” (v. 4).  This is the basic complaint: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (v. 5).  That is the essence of the matter.  We become what we worship!

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The Lord asks, “Why did you go far from me?”  Why did you reject me?  The word for “reject” (רׇחַקוּ, raaq) can mean “become distant,” “remote,” “walk away”—pretend like you have cooties!

Remember, this is also a description of a loved one: becoming distant, becoming remote, becoming absent.

What happened when they became distant, when they walked away?  As we saw, they “went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves.”  That word “worthless” (הֶבֶל, hebel) is an interesting one.  For example, it appears numerous times in the book of Ecclesiastes.  (Here’s how it starts.)  “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity” (1:2).  The word has many nuances: vanity, futility, nothingness.  The primary meaning is “vapor” or “breath.”  “They went after vapor and became vapor themselves.”

Here’s how the New English Bible puts verse 5.  “What fault did your forefathers find in me, that they wandered far from me, pursuing empty phantoms and themselves becoming empty.”  I like that: pursuing empty phantoms.

(Last month, while talking about the “elemental spirits,” I noted that St. Paul calls them “only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col 2:17).  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  They’re only a shadow.  You know—don’t be scared of your shadow!)

In the same way, don’t go after those empty phantoms.  Don’t be awestruck by them; don’t fear them.  What are you—scared of ghosts?

The people have abandoned their one true love for something which doesn’t satisfy.  They’ve been seduced by someone who will not and cannot satisfy.  If this sounds insane to you, you’re probably right.  But then, there is much insanity within us, within all of us.

3 jr Bungishabaku Katho, a professor from the Democratic Republic of Congo, goes into how this could come about.  Referring to Jeremiah’s audience, he says, “Judah had grown accustomed to God: they were so at ease that God was taken for granted and ignored.  Yahweh was no longer the center of Judah’s life, and he was not called upon during the time of danger.  Instead, people chose to go after idols, which are ironically implied to be more helpful than Yahweh.”[1]

In her book From Stone to Living Word, Debbie Blue says, “Life, for most of us, is not full of clear paths and voices from heaven.  Idols help to make up for that deficiency.  Life is outrageous.  Idols help us know how to proceed.  So we form and fashion ideas, beliefs, rules to live by, ways of life, cultural codes.  Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”[2]

Our idols aren’t so very different from those of Jeremiah’s era.  We have our own loves and devotions, things seemingly much more realistic and useful than God, things that just make more sense.  Of course, there are things to do to make sure stuff gets done!  But how often do we wander from the source of our life and light and love?  How often do we trust in vapor?

The prophet speaks of the people being “brought…into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.”  However, the land has been “defiled” and made “an abomination” (v. 7).  There are symbolic and spiritual ramifications—how idolatry has led the people astray.  It also has quite visible consequences—the destruction of the environment, the invasion of habitats, the eradication of species of animals and plants.  It includes how we have fared in being the stewards of God’s good creation.

(The devastation of the Amazon rain forest is a case in point of land being defiled and made an abomination.  Thinking of defiling, we have hundreds of thousands of tons of radioactive waste in storage or buried underground: one more unwelcome gift our descendants will inherit from us!)

Jeremiah points in particular to those who should know better.  The priests, those who handle the law (the teachers), the rulers, and the prophets have all failed in their call to be faithful.

Our leaders often fail in their call to faithfulness.  We who are leaders, in whatever context, often fail in our call to faithfulness.  That being said, how much blame do we bear in perhaps allowing ourselves to be led astray?  How often do we follow with blind faith?  How often do we fail to actually investigate what our leaders tell us?  I understand very well there are things beyond our knowledge.  Ask me to describe abatement cost, generic securities, and tax-free spinoff, and I promise you will get a far from coherent answer.

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Verse 11 speaks of something that might hamper anyone.  “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods?  But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”  There’s the insanity again about exchanging the one true love, the one holy love, for a deception, for a counterfeit.

It can happen before we know it.  Am I so sure I have never changed my God for other gods?  We can be baptized into waters that become stagnant.  Our society has much to offer; it makes many promises.  Does a fish swimming in water know that it is wet?

Joan Chittister reflects, “No one lives in a tax-free world.  Life costs.  The values and kitsch and superficiality of it takes its toll on all of us.  No one walks through life unscathed.  It calls to us for our hearts and our minds and our very souls.  It calls to us to take life consciously, to put each trip, each turn of the motor, each trek to work in God’s hands.  Then, whatever happens there, we must remember to start over and start over and start over until, someday, we control life more than it controls us.”[3]

We become what we worship.

How do we see God?  Remember Debbie Blue’s comment: “Idols are understandings we cling to that end up taking the place of God.”  I’ve often said our concepts of God can become idols.

Do we see God as punitive?  Do we see God as petty?  Do we see God as a bully?  If so, then our God is an idol.  That is not the God of Jesus Christ.  If our God is a vengeful tyrant, then borrowing Jeremiah’s language about love and marriage, such a God is an abusive spouse.

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Our passage ends on an especially poignant note.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water” (vv. 12-13).

The heartbroken Lord reveals two crimes of which the people are guilty.  First, as we’ve seen, they have said no to the covenant, the bond of love.  Living water is fresh, running water.  It is not stagnant.  It doesn’t become the breeding ground of mosquitoes!  Algae doesn’t grow in it!  It doesn’t stink!  That cool, clear water doesn’t appeal to them.

Next, they have dug cisterns; they have dug wells.  Obviously, there’s nothing wrong in and of itself with digging cisterns.  We are dependent on falling rain to feed the streams and rivers.  We are dependent on ground water.  We can’t live without water!

However, that’s not the picture here.  The Lord is a never-failing fountain of running water.  God is an everlasting source of that precious liquid.  In this image, there’s no need to rely on the rain or the ground.  There’s no need to rely on the work of our own hands, but that’s what Jeremiah’s audience has chosen.

What’s worse, the cisterns are cracked.  They have become broken; the water is seeping out of them.

We might ask, “What’s the big deal about this living water, this running water, anyway?”  Jesus speaks of this in John’s gospel.  He says, “‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.”’  Now he said this about the Spirit” (Jn 7:37-39).

The living water is the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit can’t be held—not in a cistern, and certainly not in a cracked cistern!  It’s like trying the gather the wind with your hands.

Earlier I posed the question to myself about how often I exchange my God for those worthless gods, those idols.  How often do I trust in vapor, and then become vapor myself?  Well, I suppose the prophet would pose this question to me also.  How often do I try to grab, to hold onto the Spirit?  How often do I become content with past revelations, past experiences, of the Spirit—to the point I reject the living water and settle for stagnant water?  My guess is I might not be the only one who needs to hear that question.

Summer is nearing its end; fall is approaching.  I half-jokingly suggested to Banu we should take as a theme another scripture from Jeremiah: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (8:20).  She didn’t agree.  Still, that might not be altogether out of place.  We may feel lost, but the promise of God remains.

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Forget about building those cisterns!  Allow the Spirit to blow away the vapor.  Let’s allow ourselves to regain and reaffirm our first and true love.

 

[1] Bungishabaku Katho, “Idolatry and the Peril of the Nation: Reading Jeremiah 2 in an African Context” Anglican Theological Review, 99:4 (Fall 2017), 722.

[2] Debbie Blue, From Stone to Living Word (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 17.

[3] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York:  Crossroad, 1992), 172.

[The painting is Jeremiah the Prophet by Marc Chagall.]


the fox and the hen

When I was in seminary, one of my professors was talking about sermons.  (I confess, I don’t remember who it was!)  He was commenting on how the usual approach many people have is to make three points.  (There’s a saying some people quote on occasion: “three points and a poem.”)  He said he doesn’t bother with three points; he has enough to do with one point!  He figured if he could deliver a sermon with at least one thing to take away from it, then he did his job.

Our gospel reading in Luke has neither one nor three points; it has two points!  They involve a fox and a hen.  There’s another saying along the lines of a fox guarding the hen house.  (My inspiration for the sermon title.)  That would be an unfortunate scenario for those living in the house!

1 lk 13

{Foxy, our dog from long ago--not the "fox"}

As we begin with verse 31, we hear, “At that very hour some Pharisees” show up and give Jesus a warning.  What’s going on right before this?  According to Luke, Jesus is going “through one town and village after another, teaching as he [makes] his way to Jerusalem” (v. 22).  His theme is, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able” (v. 24).

The stage is set.  The Pharisees accost him after he enters the city.  They tell him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”

Herod has been hearing things about him.  We’re told “he was perplexed, because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the ancient prophets had arisen.  Herod said, ‘John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?’  And he tried to see him” (9:7-9).  I’m sure he has nothing but good intentions!

This Herod, Herod Antipas, is the son of Herod the Great.  This is the Herod who ordered the massacre of the Holy Innocents, the slain little boys of Bethlehem, in his mad attempt to stamp out the young Jesus.

Herod Antipas first had John the Baptist arrested because he denounced his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias (3:19-20).  That was a big no-no.  Later at his birthday party, when the daughter of Herodias was dancing, he drunkenly asked what she wanted.  After consulting with her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Mt 14:6-8).

It appears that bloodlust runs in the family!

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We don’t know if the Pharisees are giving Jesus a good faith warning.  Are they sincerely concerned about his safety?  Or do they want him to get the heck out of Dodge because, to put it lightly, they just don’t like him?  Herod having put Jesus on his hit list would be a convenient excuse.  Either way, that should be enough for Jesus to heed their warning, “Hit the road, Jack.”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work.  Jesus is undaunted.  He wants the Pharisees to give “that fox” a message.  Herod is a fox.  He is cunning and sly.  He’s one slippery devil.  He’s a sneaky one.  But calling someone a fox can also mean that they’re unimportant, not worth getting all hot and bothered.  It is not a compliment!

Jesus wants them to tell him he’s going to be “casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work” (v. 32).  I’m going to keep doing what I do.  Jesus refuses to be diverted, even though he probably knows this won’t end well.

The late Bruce Prewer said, “This is no pretty-boy Jesus, no sentimental dreamer.  Jesus knew the score.  He mourned the bloody death of cousin John.  But he was not going to be intimidated.  He was a man in charge of his own destiny.  A tough Jesus.  ‘Go tell that fox I will move on when I am ready.  Not before.’”[1]

I’m reminded of the apostle Paul in Philippi when he was unjustly arrested, beaten, and thrown in jail (Ac 16:35-40).  When the officials found out he was a Roman citizen, they were scared because they didn’t give him his due process.  As a citizen, he had rights they violated.  They sent word to have him released, but Paul demanded they come and tell him to his face.

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Maybe that’s enough about the fox.  Let’s move on to the hen!

In this section, Jesus begins by lamenting the history of Jerusalem—how it has seen the murder of so many prophets.  Here’s a little sample: Uriah (Jr 26:23), Zechariah (2 Ch 24:20-22), those killed by King Manasseh (2 Kg 21:16), and we could go on.  As Eugene Peterson puts it, “it’s not proper for a prophet to come to a bad end outside Jerusalem” (v. 33).

The heart of Jesus is broken.  He pours out his soul in sorrow.  He has longed to gather the people of Jerusalem; he has ached.  He has wanted to protect them under his wing.  Applying feminine imagery to himself, Jesus has wanted to be their mother hen.  To continue the metaphor, the people have been wayward chicks, refusing the care of mother.  This is a true picture of anguish.

A moment ago, I mentioned how I was reminded of the apostle Paul.  Now the prophet Jeremiah comes to mind.  He has been called “the weeping prophet.”

He cries out, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?  Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?  O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!” (8:22-9:1).

Jesus finishes by telling the disobedient people “your house is left to you” (v. 35).  There’s the suggestion that it’s been left desolate, in a state of disorder.  Some say he’s referring to the Temple, which was destroyed by the Romans.

It’s a picture of abandonment.  That’s what happens to us when we choose, so to speak, to reject the protection of the mother hen.  We are left at the mercy of the fox.

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{"Jeremiah" by Michelangelo}

I don’t know about you, but to me this scripture passage sounds rather grim.  We have threats, a city with a dark side, warnings of destruction, and oh yes, murder.  It might not be the best bedtime reading!

Luke has one more nugget of misfortune.  He ends the chapter with a dire prediction by Jesus.  He says they won’t see him “until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”  This is the line from Psalm 118 which the crowds cry out as Jesus makes his entry into Jerusalem.  That verse chanted on the first Palm Sunday is part of our liturgy.  Luke is giving us a little preview of things to come.

Palm Sunday is a strange holiday.  It has so much praising, and if you didn’t know what would unfold in the coming days, it would be a time of genuine celebration.

Still, Jesus’ pronouncement is about more than Palm Sunday.  It’s about a more fundamental reality.  It goes back to the rejection of the Lord in general.  I trust I’m not overstating this, but there is a very real sense of not being able to see the Lord until and unless our lives say, “Blessed is the one.”

Regarding this scripture reading, as you see, this is one that is used during Lent.  I described it as grim.  Many folks think of Lent as grim.

Benedictine sister Joan Chittister has a different take on it.  “Lent is the time for trimming the soul,” she says, “and scraping the sludge off a life turned slipshod…  Lent is about exercising the control that enables us to say no to ourselves so that when life turns hard of its own accord, we have the spiritual stamina to say yes to its twists and turns with faith and with hope…  Lent is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”[2]

More than any one single theme, the Lenten journey is about repentance.  We all need to repent.  The need for repentance doesn’t mean we’re bad.  The word “repentance” in Greek (μετανοια, metanoia) means “a change of mind” or “a turning around.”  It’s a turning from death to life.

5 lk 13How does the image of the fox and the hen figure into that?  Earlier I said a fox guarding the hen house would be unfortunate—at least for the chickens!

Between the fox and the hen, the fox is clearly the strong one.  The hen is the weak one.  The hen is no match for the fox.  And yet, despite the determination (and the hunger) of the fox, the mother hen still defends her young as best she can.  The odds are seriously stacked against her.

The mother hen is the picture of weakness and sorrow.  It’s kind of like Jesus surveying Jerusalem.  He is helpless in the face of intransigence.

If he wanted to, Jesus could have chosen a different image to represent himself.  Instead of a mother hen, he could have been a dread warrior, wielding a battle axe—I dare you to defy me!  But that isn’t the way of Jesus.  Like Jesus, Lent calls us to lay down our arms, to be unguarded, vulnerable, to indeed, repent.  I’m not saying to forswear certain physical things during these forty days, but allowing ourselves to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, to lower our defenses—that really is a challenge.

Still, remember who our Lord is.  He reigns in weakness.  He is the lamb upon the throne.  (Sure, that’s the image we all have of a king: a helpless lamb on a throne!)  He upends our usual expectations.  He is the very picture of vulnerability.  He ignores the fox, be it Herod or anyone else.  He is the mother hen, willing to sacrifice himself (or herself?) to protect the baby chicks.

That is the challenge of Lent.  That is the reward of Lent.  If you haven’t already fully entered into the Lenten season, it isn’t too late.  Remember, it “is the time to make new efforts to be what we say we want to be.”

 

[1] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C21lent2.htm

[2] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 136.


keep Herod in Christmas

We’re familiar with the calls to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Those calls are often spurred by an overemphasis on the jolly old man in the red suit, as well as a certain reindeer with a shiny nose that also happens to be red.  Some people point to more serious concerns, like the commercialization of Christmas, although if we’re honest, the vast majority of us have contributed to the commercialization of Christmas, in one way or another!

1 mt I’ve never heard anyone argue that we should keep Herod in Christmas.  I guess that’s to be expected.  Herod, who serves at the leisure of the Roman Empire, is just another insecure tyrant who rules with an iron fist.  What business does he have with Christmas?  Actually, as we see in our gospel reading in Matthew, Herod has quite a bit to do with Christmas.

This is the story of what the church has come to call the Holy Innocents.  We just celebrated their feast day.  They are the little boys in and around Bethlehem that Herod, in his paranoid fear and rage, ordered to be (euphemistically speaking) taken out.  This follows the visit of the Magi earlier in the chapter, which is the story for Epiphany.

(Their visit is believed to have come roughly two years after the birth of Jesus, but the date of the feast of the Holy Innocents provides the connection to Christmas—well, that and the meaning of the event!)

Anyway, Herod learns of these dignitaries from the East, who claim to have seen a star of great importance.  They’ve been talking about a child who has been born King of the Jews.  That kind of talk terrifies Herod.  He doesn’t need the Romans hearing about this.  All of Jerusalem is in an uproar.  So he arranges a secret interview with the Magi.  He tells them that when they find the young king, let him know about it.  Herod says, with all the sincerity he can muster, “so that I too may go and honor him” (v. 8, Common English Bible).

As it turns out, they are warned in a dream to return home by a different route, completely bypassing Herod.  This is what’s behind verse 16: “When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated.”  Make a fool of me, will they?  I’ll show them!

Herod employs the “sledgehammer to swat a fly” approach.  The numbers are hard to calculate, but probably twenty or thirty innocent families are victimized by his cruelty.

Getting back to the beginning of the sermon, I mentioned keeping Herod in Christmas.  I asked: what does he have to do with Christmas?  Jesus is born into a violent world.  His homeland is under military rule.  Many Roman provinces aren’t the headache that Judea is.  They don’t constantly stir up rebellion.

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The main reason the Romans even bother with it is its strategic location—the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and Europe.  For centuries, the Promised Land has been a blessing and a curse; conquerors simply use it as a highway, heading toward more attractive destinations.

So it’s entirely appropriate for Herod, and his assassins, to be part of the Christmas story.  We’re told that “we also have echoes of the attempt of the Pharaoh to kill Hebrew infants which led to Moses being set among the bulrushes.  Jewish legends about this event also have dream warnings just as we have here and it is very likely that these were known to Matthew in composing the story.”[1]  So Herod is the new Pharaoh, and Jesus is the new Moses.

Angels seem to speak in dreams to Joseph on a frequent basis.  An angel warns him of Herod’s plan.  As a result, he “got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.”  Matthew adds, “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (vv. 14-15).

The Holy Family shares the fate of so many in our world today.  Bill Long describes it this way: “the Savior of the world…was none other than a displaced person, a refugee, whose parents fled for their lives because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution,’ to use the language of…21st century asylum law.”[2]

He draws out the image even more.  “Matthew uses the same verb several times to stress the fear felt by people—[αναχωρεω, anachōreō].  Though it literally means simply ‘to withdraw,’ in the context of Matthew it [also] carries with it the notion of fleeing for one’s life.  The wise men fled.  Jesus’ family fled…  It has a haunting similarity to life in the 21st century.”  It has a haunting similarity to our own country.

Jesus is not only the new Moses; though he’s a refugee, some would also use the unfortunate term “illegal alien”!  And according to Luke, the family is also poor.  When Mary undergoes the purification ritual after Jesus’ birth, she and Joseph make their offering by using a provision designed for the poor: “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2:24, Lv 12:8).

3 mtI hope no one will think of me as morbid in pointing out the fear that is built into Christmas.  It’s right there in the Bible.  In fact, the second day of Christmas, December 26, is the feast of St. Stephen.  In the book of Acts, he’s the first Christian to be martyred.

Regarding the atmosphere of fear, we’re reminded that there is “a refugee mentality here touched in the story, not [simply] because Jesus…went down to Egypt, but because the life of grace must dodge between the powers.”[3]  As Christians, our lives, our lives of grace, must also dodge between the powers.

Those powers can be represented by Herod—and the Herods of our day—those insecure tyrants.  Those Herods, those new Pharaohs, inhabit the political world in which people, especially children, are turned into refugees and trapped in poverty.  But those powers can be other types of Herods, such as insecure tyrants who seem bent on wreaking havoc in the family!

I like the way Caryll Houselander describes the Holy Innocents.[4]

“Baptized in blood, those little children were among the first comers to heaven.  Fittingly they, with their tiny King, are the founders of the Kingdom of Children.  We celebrate their feast with joy; it is the most lyrical in the year.  They reach down their small hands to comfort every father or mother bereaved of a child.  They are the first who have proved that the Passion of the Christ can be lived in a tiny span by little ones...

“Herod ordered the children to be killed because he was afraid that any one of them might be Christ.  Any Child might be Christ!—the fear of Herod is the fear of every tyrant, the hope of every Christian, and the most significant fact of the modern world.”

There is the reality that we can’t embrace the joy of Christmas while ignoring the suffering that goes with it.  Matthew quotes Jeremiah (31:15), “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (v. 18).  The prophet, who lived during the Babylonian exile, is referring to Ramah, a sort of transit point, where the Babylonians gathered captives for sending into exile.  Rachel symbolizes the grief over the generations for all of the lost children.

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Clearly, I think we’re all aware of how Christmas stirs up a mixture of feelings.  While being bathed—beginning in November!—with festoons and wishes of a “holly jolly Christmas,” this time of year is also one of depression.  That’s the idea behind Blue Christmas, a worship service which often happens during the winter solstice, the longest night.

It is a recognition of the grief that Christmas brings with it.  It could be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, the loss of a relationship—there can be many different kinds of losses.  We all have mini-deaths in our lives.

Thankfully, our story does not end with Herod.  Joseph has another dream of divine origin, letting him know Herod and his crew are dead and gone.  However, Herod’s son has taken the reins, so Bethlehem still isn’t safe.  Joseph has one more dream, directing him to his new destination, Galilee.  The family settles in Nazareth.

So, our story does not end with Herod.  Still, do we in any way reflect the spirit of Herod?

Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus speaks of the need to change and become like children (18:3).  We easily fall prey to imitating the insanity of Herod.  We crush the child within us, the part which carries the wholly innocent spirit that is open to wonder, open to joyous creativity—believing that anything is possible.  We can crush the child within each other, within our society, and God forbid, within the church.  (Maybe especially within the church!)

Knowing who and what Herod is, why indeed should we seek to keep him in Christmas?  Is it enough to know he’s already there?  Is it enough to stand with our sisters and brothers for whom this time is a struggle?  Is it enough to remember the children for whom our world is a struggle?  Perhaps.

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But thanks be to God, those little children, those Holy Innocents, keep witnessing, though their time was short.  They are constantly reborn in us.  Maybe that’s a lesson from Christmas, the little child who is born for all of us.

 

[1] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[2] www.drbilllong.com/LectionaryIII/Matt2.html

[3] wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MtChristmas1.htm

[4] Caryll Houselander, A Child in Winter, ed. Thomas Hoffman (Franklin, WI: Sheed & Ward, 2000), 109-110.


the state of the union, imho

I checked, and the title of my sermon this time last year was “Independence Day Theological Reflections of One American.”  Quite a mouthful.  This year, “The State of the Union” is a bit shorter.  And if delivering a “state of the union” address means I’m getting too big for my britches, I do add “in my humble opinion.”

1 independence

Right away, I freely admit hearing the prophet Jeremiah chew people out at the temple and hearing Jesus telling us to love our enemies is not your typical Independence Day sermon.  However, I do have an explanation.  But we’ll get back to it in a few moments!

I can’t resist tossing something in about paying your taxes.  Did you know it’s a spiritual discipline?  Well, sort of.  In Romans 13, St. Paul says, “Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (v. 7).  And that, coming from a guy who knew all about being persecuted by the government!

So there is that political dimension, which makes sense.  Words like “Lord” (κυριος, kurios) and “Savior” (σωτηρ, sōtēr), in the first century, are not just theological, but they’re also political.  The terms “Lord” and “Savior” are titles attributed to the emperor of Rome.  Nero and Domitian, a couple of emperors with really big egos and serious self-esteem issues (which are qualities bullies possess), are especially insistent about it.  They crave adoration with a vengeance.

2 independence

When the early Christians call Jesus “Lord and Savior,” they are well aware of what they’re doing.  For them, it isn’t an empty phrase.  It’s not something to put on Facebook and hope that you’ll get plenty of “likes.”  They are saying “no” to the arrogance of empire.  They risk losing their jobs, their freedom, or something even worse.

Neither the northern kingdom of Israel nor the southern kingdom of Judah had empires.  Still, like most countries, they had their own brands of patriotism.  Banu has told me on several occasions when she was growing up she was taught, “There’s nothing more glorious than being a Turk!”

Jeremiah faces a situation in which the temple is being used as a tool of the state.  It has been co-opted by patriotism gone wild.  The temple has been turned into an idol.  The threat of the Babylonians, who have been gobbling up countries right and left, has the people of Judah fearing for their lives.  And that’s understandable.  But in times of fear, even paranoia, the temptation to grab easy answers can be almost irresistible.

That is what’s going on here.  There is a belief that God will not allow Jerusalem and the temple to be destroyed.  In the midst of uncertainly, while the winds are howling, there’s a safe haven in the storm—and it’s the symbol of national pride and where the priests do business.

Unfortunately, as the prophet points out, if your conduct is criminal, if you disregard the distressed, if you neglect the needy, the temple won’t protect you.  But talk like that flies in the face of the official line.  Jeremiah is tired of the propaganda, the empty slogans, and he makes fun of them.  “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (v. 4).

3 independenceAnd he’s saying all of this at the temple of the Lord!  The prophet calls out the political and religious powers-that-be, and he does it in plain sight.  (Or as my mom told me when I was a kid, “Before God and everybody!”)  He issues his protest, “Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail” (v. 8).

As you might expect, Jeremiah is labeled a traitor, and all kinds of bad stuff happens to him—but we can leave that for another day.

Distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be a tricky thing.  Love of country is part of the love of God’s good creation, though caution is warranted, lest it divide us.  Loving the gift of God is right and praiseworthy.  Still, too often we love the gift more than the Giver.

We might put some questions to the fellows we just looked at.  Do we go along with Paul and pay taxes, even if they’re used for an evil purpose?  The Romans ruled with an iron fist.  Of course, Jesus also paid taxes, and he wound up getting the death penalty.

What about Jeremiah?  Is he a whistleblower, or is he endangering the country?  Is he a precursor to Edward Snowden—though not many people would call Snowden a prophet!

I think there are more questions than answers when we look at this stuff, but questions are a good thing.

I just said distinguishing between patriotism and idolatry can be tricky.  For those of us who would maintain that Christ and Caesar are not the same thing, we do have to tread carefully.  An Independence Day sermon can be tricky!  Choosing to do one can be tricky.  Talk about treading carefully.

Something that came to mind this past week was an experience in 1991, just as the first Gulf War was beginning.  My pastor made it quite clear he was in favor of the war.  I was not, but that’s really not my point here.  The Sunday after the war started, I knew it would be the theme for worship.  And I knew I would be miserable, so I attended church elsewhere.  At the big Methodist church in town, the war was mentioned in prayer, but that was it.

I went back to my church during the week, and the red, white, and blue bunting that adorned the stage was still there.  I thought it looked more like an election campaign headquarters than a church.  Recognizing the difference between Christ and Caesar can indeed be difficult.

4 independence

The apostle Paul says paying taxes is an act of faithfulness.  At the same time, the prophet Jeremiah speaks truth to power.  Now, here comes Jesus, with his call to love our enemies.

Melissa Bane Sevier has interesting thoughts on the matter.[1]  She notices how Jesus expands on loving our enemies, especially in verses 46 and 47.  “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

5 independenceShe says, “I can say I love someone while not really liking that person, right?  Avoiding them helps with the illusion that I don’t hate them, and if I don’t hate them, I must love them.”  That must be it!  Problem solved.

Still, she continues, “Avoidance doesn’t seem to be an option with Jesus.  I am required to greet all people, whether I love/like them or not.  And if I only love/like the people who love/like me, I’m not being the person I need to be.  That’s more difficult than I thought.”

I don’t know about anyone else, but I believe she is speaking to me.  I believe Jesus is speaking to me.  And it is something I recognize.

I’m no fan of the big cable news networks.  They’re more interested in entertainment than journalism, in my humble opinion.  That’s a reflection of our society and its dualistic, simplistic view of reality.  It’s us and them, winners and losers, black and white.  To be honest, it’s too often a reflection of the church.

Greeting those with whom I disagree is more than not getting into an argument.  It actually involves engaging with them, even if it seems so tiresome!

6 independenceSevier notes, “Praying for them is so much more difficult than not-hating them.  Not-hate is passive; prayer is far more active.”  And it’s not simply praying for their hearts to change.  I’ve been guilty of that one!  When we pray for our enemies, it’s most of all, our heart that changes.  Maybe you’ve heard the saying, “Your enemy is your best teacher”?

She concludes, “Praying won’t make me less convinced of the rightness of justice, but it will help me see the person on the other side as a real person, not as someone I want to defeat…

“For the next week, I’m going to choose one public figure a day—one who I think is really wrong-headed…and pray for that person.  I expect I will be changed.  Not in my convictions, but in my humanity.”

Imagine the state of the union if that were our measure of faithfulness.

Imagine the state of the union among us if that were our measure of faithfulness.

7 independence

[1] melissabanesevier.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/praying-for-enemies


wish you would hear

Has anyone here ever been exiled?  I wouldn’t suppose that any of us have been banished, or taken by force, to a foreign land.  I suppose it might be possible that someone has been taken from their home.  Perhaps I should rephrase it to say, “Has anyone here ever felt like they had been exiled?”

FightMaybe someone has had to go to a Thanksgiving dinner with that certain family member present who likes to air his or her annoying opinions.  It could be political or religious ideas.  Maybe it’s the one who makes inappropriate remarks.  Is there someone who chastises you on your life decisions?  “You know, if I were you…”  “I don’t want to be critical, but…”

For four or five hours, you might feel like you’re living in exile!

Banu and I had a sort of exile last year.  Please understand, my mom had nothing to do with that!  I’m just talking about my wife and me!

We felt compelled to make the trip to Tennessee, largely to help with my mother’s health needs and some house repair.  In effect, we took a hiatus from the Presbyterian Church; we were sent from our “homeland.”  In our “exile,” we tried other options: among them, pursuing chaplaincy at an urban community center, substitute teaching, even ordination in the Episcopal Church.  In one way or another, the doors remained closed.

We realized that, for right then, we needed to settle down, at least as far as our direction in life was going.  Jeremiah says something like that in his letter to the exiles in Babylon (chapter 29).  They need to make a home for themselves there.  And in reality, our calling to ministry had not changed.  It was simply the venue, the location, the nature of it.

In time, Banu and I were called out of exile.  It came in the form of a certain congregation looking for interim pastors!

The text from Jeremiah deals with people who actually are in exile.  That relates to some stuff I’ve said since we came here.

On several occasions, I’ve spoken about people in transition, congregations in transition, especially as it relates to the interim process.  I did that last week, using a term referring to the middle part of transition, the neutral zone.  Being in the midst of that in-between state, we’re like a life form in a cocoon at a certain point of its development.  We are transitional goo!

The exiles taken from Judah, the Babylonian captivity, are an excellent example of people in transition.  They certainly didn’t choose this transition; this is transition, big time!  Or maybe there’s another way to look at it.

There is something that deals with change and transition.  It’s from William Bridges, the one who uses the term “neutral zone” (though not in the Star Trek sense).  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.”[1]

The exiles definitely don’t choose this change.  They’re presented with some radically new events, whether they like it or not!  (Of course, I know none of us have ever had that experience.)

So they have this change.  The fact that it’s seriously dramatic, heartbreaking, and historic clearly make it more intense.  The question is how will they experience this change.  Their transition, if you go along with Bridges, can happen in many different ways.  They’ve been plopped down in the thick of it.  Now what?  That’s where the prophet Jeremiah steps in.

You might recall that Jeremiah has long been warning his fellow Judahites about the imminent threat of exile.  Well that day has come and gone, although we who are on the other side of history know that even more folks will be taking that road to Babylon.

Jeremiah 32 deals with the time the prophet bought some land while the country was being invaded—not the best time to purchase real estate!  Still, God promised him, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15).  There will be people who return from exile.

And on this occasion, he’s writing a letter to the exiles.  Here is where he suggests the transition that can be their experience of change.

One writer sums it up like this:[2]

“The opening words of a pastoral letter sent to the exiles in Babylon: Get used to it; build a life in exile.  Adjust: build, plant, marry.  Create a communal infrastructure in exile.  Your task: seek the shalom (welfare) of the city…  The mission is not to overthrow a hostile regime, but to hold the regime to its own best promises.  The empire can practice shalom.  The exiled church [so to speak] can influence the empire.  Close your ears to liars who say we’re going back to normalcy.  Dismiss such illusions of escape.  Instead, make do, witness in your situation.”

We can see some themes here.  First, there’s Jeremiah in a pastoral role.  It might be hard to imagine that party-pooping prophet as a pastor, but he really does love the people.

Then there’s the instruction that they should stay put and build a life for themselves.  Don’t start guerrilla warfare!  Love your neighbor.  Invite them over for dinner.

And thirdly, they are reminded that they won’t simply be living there, but they also have a mission.  Their job is to witness—to testify!—that their God is still with them, even in the far away land of Babylon.

It’s possible to see Jeremiah’s letter in terms of developmental tasks for congregations in an interim period.  Typically, five tasks are mentioned.

They are (and they go by various names): Listening to History and Celebrating Heritage, Discovering a New Identity, Leadership Changes and Empowering New Leaders, Rethinking Denominational Linkages, and Commitment to New Leadership and to a New Future.  I want to especially focus on that second one, Discovering a New Identity.

Discovering a new identity can be really tricky.  There can be a fine line between holding on to what is still relevant and life-giving from the past and saying goodbye to what no longer is.  We learn from the exiles that in saying goodbye, there is loss to be grieved.

Our loss doesn’t begin to compare with that of the exiles, but there has been loss nonetheless.  There is a call for mourning.  Without acknowledging grief, without facilitating the process of mourning, we can hold on to what has already faded away.  Making room for grief is essential for spiritual, mental, and even physical health.

Sometimes it helps to just have a good cry!

Seek the peace

Jeremiah says God wants them to discover a new identity, to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (v. 7).  This is how they need to witness.  Exercise some holy defiance (not ill-tempered defiance, mind you!).  Show those around you that you lovingly claim the future into which God is leading you.

Still, some will say this is not necessary.  Don’t believe it!  Don’t listen to that hogwash!  Don’t say goodbye to the past, go back in time and reclaim it.  Sometimes they might claim God told them to say this.

God says of them, “Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord” (vv. 8-9).

Jeremiah must be going crazy about this.  He must want to tell them not, “I wish you were here,” but “I wish you would hear.”

This business of rebuking false prophets is a bit extreme for our situation, but it can be difficult to take the step of discovering a new identity.  As I hope I made clear, there doesn’t have to be (and probably shouldn’t be) a sharp break with the past.  But the willingness to let go opens us to that new identity, God’s new name for us.  And that helps in our witness.  It helps to form and clarify our mission.

image from 1.bp.blogspot.com

I like something Walter Brueggemann says about the exiles’ staying put, seeking the well-being of the place where they’ve been sent, and doing the difficult work on a new identity.  It all places on “this vulnerable, small community a large missional responsibility.  In this way, the community is invited into the larger public process of the empire.  [This] prevents the exilic community from withdrawing into its own safe…existence, and gives it work to do and responsibility for the larger community.”[3]

That’s a fancy way of saying that daring to ask ourselves, “Who do we want to be?”  “How do we adapt to our changing world?”  “Where is the Spirit leading us?”  All of that makes us vulnerable.  As with the exiles in Babylon, our mission reminds us to not withdraw into our own narrow concerns.  Don’t hunker down into a fortress or scarcity mentality.

Something that came out in a session on the interim process was about that very thing.  This congregation is, Banu and I believe, ahead of the curve in avoiding that fortress / build a wall / dig-out-a-moat-and-fill-it-with-alligators mentality.  One comment was “a current of receiving and giving” is evident here.

Keep that current flowing, and your mission will flow out of it.

Ending with verse 11 of our chapter, we see the promise to the exiles and to us.  “Surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  That’s a rock solid guide during all of the interims and exiles of our lives.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] Handbook for the Revised Common Lectionary, Peter C. Bower, ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 257.

[3] Walter Brueggemann, A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 257-258.


have I got an investment for you!

I’m sure we’ve all had someone come to us and say (or maybe we’ve said to someone else), “I’ve got good news and bad news.  Which do you want to hear first?”  Is it the good news or the bad news?

Here’s my guess.  Those who want the good news first might want to soften the blow for the bad news.  The idea is that the good news will put them in a good enough mood to deal with the bad news.

On the other hand, those who want the bad news first might see the value of delayed gratification.  Getting the bad news out of the way, steeling oneself to weather the storm, seems to be a good way of getting ready for relief.

Cat

Of course, it also depends on what the other person considers to be good news and bad news!

And then there can be the situation of deciding between the lesser of two evils, or the good problem of deciding between two happy alternatives.

Today’s Old Testament reading comes from the book of Jeremiah.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, that book has very few happy alternatives.  It has a lot of bad news!  The life of the prophet Jeremiah is filled with bad news.  Today’s passage has plenty of bad news.  But don’t worry, good news is on the way.  We’ll look at that in a few moments.

Here’s a quick look at Jeremiah and his world.

He lives in the late 7th century and early 6th century B.C.  (That’s the 600s to the 500s.)  The Babylonians are replacing the Assyrians as the superpower in the Middle East.  The northern kingdom of Israel has already been conquered by Assyria, but the southern kingdom of Judah, where Jeremiah lives, is still ripe for the picking.

Thanks to the call of God, which he tries to refuse, Jeremiah sees the writing on the wall.  The Babylonians are on the way.  So there’s some bad news.  He speaks against the corruption that has infected religious and political leadership alike. He does the prophetic job of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

And boy, does he pay for that.  He is mocked, made a laughing stock, physically abused, and even tossed in jail.  On more than one occasion, Jeremiah blames God for tricking him and betraying him.  It’s not for nothing that he’s been called “the weeping prophet.”

Jeremiah’s relationship with King Zedekiah can best be described as “complicated.”  (That sounds like a lot of romantic relationships!)  Unlike a previous king, Jehoiakim, who clearly hated the ground Jeremiah walked on, Zedekiah is torn.  He wants to listen to him, but he’s too afraid of what his enemies might do.  So he keeps going to Jeremiah, hoping he’ll change his tune.  “Come on, throw me a bone!  Tell me everything’s going to be fine!”  And Jeremiah would love to do that, but he can’t resist the call of God.

As a result, the prophet keeps on with the bad news: arming against the Babylonians is a no-win scenario.

I don’t know if she mentioned this to you, but Banu and I love vampires.  We love those bloodsuckers!  In fact, it was a TV show about vampires that helped bring us together in the first place.  It was the show Forever Knight, which was about a vampire police officer in Toronto.  We even like the Twilight movies, but my big complaint is that sunlight is supposed to burn vampires, not cause them to sparkle dreamily and take your breath away!

There’s a current TV show called The Strain, which is about people in New York City fighting an army of vampire-like creatures.  (It is not at all romantic!)  In the last episode, there was a quote that I think could easily be directed at Jeremiah.  The quote comes from a member of the city council to a reporter who is questioning police tactics.  People in jails are being gathered up and conscripted.  They’re being sent into the tunnels under the city to fight the vampires—and without a great deal of success, I might add.

Here’s what the council member says to the reporter: “Faith in the war effort is paramount.  And what you’re doing here undercuts all that.  Your work does nothing but serve your ego and cause me and my people more harm.”  After that, all of the equipment gets confiscated.

Obviously, the enemies Jeremiah warns about are not a horde of vampires!  But he is considered a traitor, and he is arrested for treason.  He’s said to be damaging the morale of the nation.  There seems to be a silent minority who agree with Jeremiah, but they’re too intimidated to speak out.  We’re only told about one person who publicly stands with Jeremiah, his secretary and friend, Baruch.  Zedekiah the king would like to release the prophet, but as I said earlier, he’s too scared.

In today’s scripture reading, he’s puzzled and terrified when he says to Jeremiah, “Why do you prophesy and say: Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall take it; King Zedekiah of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hands of the king of Babylon?” (vv. 3-4).

It’s while he’s in prison that God makes him a sales pitch.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Glengarry glen ross

I’m sure those of you who’ve been involved in real estate have always conducted yourselves above board.  You wouldn’t stoop to shady practices that some realtors use as their business model.  There’s none of the conveniently forgetting some repairs that need to be made.

Jeremiah is told that his cousin, Hanamel, is on his way to visit him in jail, and he has a proposition.  “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours” (v. 7).  That “right of redemption” refers to Leviticus 25.  It’s a way to keep ownership of property within the family.

Put yourself in Jeremiah’s place.  He’s in jail for pronouncing national destruction, and then he gets this message.  Binyamin Lau says it must seem like “a surreal hallucination.”[1]  Am I hearing voices, and what are those voices telling me to do?

When your country is being invaded, when it’s a time of war, when people are being sent into exile, real estate prices tend to take a nosedive.  God had already warned him that his cousin was going to offer him land—land that Jeremiah had to know would be insanely overpriced.  Hanamel was about to make a killing off this sale!  And yet, he was compelled to make the purchase.

(By the way, Hanamel will have quite a story to tell at the next family reunion.)

God isn’t bound by what we consider to be immutable laws of economics.  Laws of supply and demand aren’t a high priority for God.

So while he’s going through the business of payment and signing deeds, Jeremiah must feel like he’s being a fool.  So there’s some more bad news.  But in verse 15, we get some good news.  “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  There will be people who return from exile.

Even so, that’s not good enough for Jeremiah.  “Lord, I know you can do anything, but how in the world is this going to happen?”  The rest of chapter 32 is taken up with explanations.

Have we ever been in that situation?  Have we ever been given what feels like an albatross around the neck, and thought, what the heck am I going to do with this?  Why did I volunteer for this?  Or why did I let myself get drafted into this?  In life, so many decisions are beyond our control.  I think all of us understand that.  Jeremiah certainly does.

As congregations, we understand that.  You folks understand that.  You have some real estate questions of your own.  Some of you might feel like you have an albatross around your neck!

But like I just said, whatever “piece of land,” whatever call from God we’ve had to answer, can give us that feeling of the bottom dropping out.  We can feel like we’re left out on a limb.  There’s something in the pit of our stomach that’s doing somersaults.  And friends, that is bad news!

In case you haven’t guessed by now, I’m one of those people who wants the bad news first.  Just hit me with it!  I want the bad news first, because then I know the good news is right around the corner!

You might not realize it, but you’re sitting on a gold mine.  And I’m not just talking about bricks and mortar.  I’m not just talking about a piece of land.  That’s a discovery Jeremiah made.  When he bought that field from his cousin, it came with a promise from his God.  Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.  There are many layers of truth in that promise.  Still, unless Jeremiah takes that step of faith, he won’t be part of that good news.

On another occasion, when Jeremiah writes a letter to the exiles in Babylon, he reminds them of God’s word, in that “surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11).  That’s a pledge we also can, and should, claim.

Australian pastor Bruce Prewer puts a question to us.  “Isn’t this a very good time to buy a block of Jeremiah’s land?”[2]

Jeremiah icon

From the darkness of prison, God shows Jeremiah the light of the good news.  It’s right around the corner.  Prewer adds, “Jeremiah would not live to see the new day, but it was promised by a God whose word was never broken.”  Some people say that Jeremiah is the most Christ-like of the prophets.  Like Jesus, he doesn’t welcome all the suffering that’s dished out to him, but he holds true.

Friends, Jeremiah might not have seen that new day, but it is dawning upon us.  The field of the prophet is again up for sale.  God is again making the promise to us.  “Have I got an investment for you!”

Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 

[1] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Part 3, section 3, sub-section 11, paragraph 5.

[2] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C55sun26.htm


we’re not worthy! (are you sure?)

There’s a TV show that’s been on since the 70s, and it’s had its ups and downs through the years, depending on the cast members.  I’m talking about Saturday Night Live, and when I was a kid, I was familiar with the original cast, but I really didn’t start paying attention to the show until the 90s.

During those years, there was a recurring skit called “Wayne’s World,” featuring Mike Myers as Wayne and Dana Carvey as Garth.  They were two goofy guys with their own show on public cable access.  Their conversations would often be centered on “babes” and rock music.  On occasion, they would meet rock stars.  Being in the very presence of their idols would prompt Wayne and Garth to bow the knee and proclaim with outstretched arms, “We’re not worthy!  We’re not worthy!”

image from www.dohiy.com

That act of worship (which is what they were doing) would be cast aside by the celebrity with the reassurance to Wayne and Garth that yes, you are worthy.

Would it surprise you to know that those two knuckleheads have something in common with the prophet Jeremiah?  (More about that in a few moments.)

Last week when I was preaching on the call of Jeremiah—and the call from God to all of us—I included some stuff from our Book of Order that seemed especially fitting.  Well, guess what?  I found some more good stuff!

There’s a section that talks about our confessions of the faith as expressing the Reformed tradition (F-2.05).  Now if by chance that term “Reformed tradition” isn’t in your everyday vocabulary, some “great themes of the Reformed tradition” are listed in it.  Among them are:

“The election of the people of God for service as well as for salvation;

“Covenant life marked by a disciplined concern for order in the church according to the Word of God;

“A faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation and seeks proper use of the gifts of God’s creation; and

“The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God.”

All of that is a bit of a mouthful, but I like the one about “faithful stewardship that shuns ostentation.”  If there’s something that needs to be shunned, it’s ostentation!  We can think of ostentatious as being flashy and pretentious, but there’s a little phrase that also does the job: “puttin’ on the dog”!  In Luke’s gospel, Jesus has something to say about being worthy, ostentation, and puttin’ on the dog.  But again, let’s put that on hold for right now.

Getting back to Jeremiah, in chapter 1 there is the assurance from God, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (v. 8).  Jeremiah is told he’s going to be saying stuff that will have people quaking with rage.  The young prophet tries to decline the opportunity to bring such wonderful news—sadly, to no avail!

In chapter 2, we get a little taste of why his recruitment is met with something less than enthusiasm.  “Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel.  Thus says the Lord: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” (vv. 4-5).

Here’s where we come back to Wayne and Garth and Jeremiah.  Wayne and Garth, by worshiping that which they feel unworthy of, demonstrate the link between worthiness and worship.  Our word “worship” comes from the Old English weorþ (weorth), “worthy”—and sciepe, “quality, state of being.”  It’s a quality of being worthy.

The prophet is saying if you worship something worthless, you become worthless.  We imitate what we worship.  What we consider to be the worthiest is what we worship.

Closely related to this idea of ostentation is “the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny,” which is one of those themes in the Book of Order.  It really is a human tendency.  We all have within ourselves the idolater and the tyrant.  The early Christians recognized the danger.  The final verse of 1 John is, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (5:21).  Don’t feed the idolater within you.  St. Paul warns the church about behaving in a tyrannical fashion, even to the point of biting and devouring each other, with the danger “that you are not consumed by one another” (Ga 5:15).  Instead, “through love become slaves to one another” (v. 13).

There is a story told by Zen masters about wealthy donors who invited Master Ikkyu to a lavish banquet.[1]  “The Master arrived there dressed in beggar’s robes.  His host, not recognizing him in this garb, hustled him away: ‘We cannot have you here at the doorstep.  We are expecting the famous Master Ikkyu any moment.’  The Master went home, changed into his ceremonial robe of purple brocade, and again presented himself at his host’s doorstep where he was received with great respect and ushered into the banquet room.  There, he took off his stiff robe, sat it upright at the dinner table and said, ‘I presume that it is my robe you have invited since when I first arrived without it a little while ago, you [turned] me away.’”  You said, “Hit the road, Jack!”

Ostentatious

We humans often have strange ideas about worthiness.  In Luke 14, Jesus seems to have a similar thought.

He’s having lunch on the sabbath with one of the top dogs among the Pharisees.  Folks are showing up, and he notices something.  He sees how the guests are elbowing to get the best seats in the house.  You can’t blame them; they want to look important.  What’s wrong with that?

I realize that many people don’t see humor in Jesus’ stories, but watching this display, I can’t help but think that Jesus is laughing to himself.

Eventually, he has to say something!  So he pipes up and says, “Listen everyone, I’ve got a story that I just have to tell you.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

Jesus tells them that there was a banquet, kind of like the one they’re at today.  Those invited started jostling with each other, trying to get the best spots.  Rumor has it there were even a few angry looks and insulting remarks.  Apparently one fellow’s mother was described in a derogatory fashion.

They should have known this behavior was going to come back and bite them in the rear end.  There was a good chance that the host would ask someone to vacate their spot at the table, because somebody more important would be showing up any minute now.

Jesus said the moral of the story is don’t act like them.  Don’t act like a jackass who pushes and shoves and tramples their way to the top, because from there, the only way to go is down.

And addressing the host, he said the story’s not quite over.  Jesus said the fellow throwing the party has a lesson to learn, too.  Don’t invite your friends and family and the rich folks you’re trying to suck up to.  Instead, send that RSVP to the outcasts and the people you turn your nose up to.  They can’t repay you, and that’s where you find the real treasure.  That’s where you find what’s worthy.

Now I must admit, I haven’t done a great deal of trouble knocking myself out looking for that particular treasure!

But if we take it one step at a time, we can learn to stretch ourselves.  We learn to not rely on our own sense of worthiness.  That requires meaningful self-examination, reflection, and prayer.

Later in his passage, the prophet Jeremiah speaks of the people changing their gods for something that “are no gods.”  They “have changed their glory for something that does not profit” (v. 11).  The Lord commands the heavens to be “appalled,” to “be shocked, be utterly desolate” (v. 12).

David Garland says, “In addition to being appalled, the heavens were commanded to “bristle with horror,” shacarû.  In the Arabic the concept was ‘to be shaggy, hairy.’  [There would be] a convulsive shrinking of the skin in sudden terror which had an effect upon the hair.  [It would make] the hair…‘stand on end”…  So, in light of the folly of the people, ‘heaven’s hair was to stand on end.’”[2]

According to this, when we turn to other gods, when we worship what is not worthy, we give heaven the willies!  We give heaven a celestial case of the creeps.

Remember what Jeremiah says happens when we worship something worthless.  We become worthless.  That should give us a case of the creeps!

Most humble
Sometimes we equate worthiness with size and quantity and even ability.  That can provide a ready-made excuse for saying why something cannot be done, why we’re not good enough.  That can easily devolve into a false humility, a humility that takes itself too seriously!  That is not being humble; that’s a different thing.  False humility is humility turned upside down.  It is the flip side of self-importance, which itself is idolatrous.

But thanks be to God, it’s not our job to decide who’s worthy and who’s not.  God decides our worthiness in and through Jesus Christ.  When, as with Jesus, all pretense and ostentation and tyranny are laid aside—when even claims of worthiness are laid aside—we witness “those who humble themselves [being] exalted” (Lk 14:11).

The next time we encounter (or think) “We’re not worthy!” be aware that God replies, “Are you sure?”

 

[1] Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict:  Insights for the Ages (New York: Crossroad, 1992), 163.

[2] D. David Garland, “Exegesis of Jeremiah 2:10-13,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 2:2 (Apr 1960): 30.


imagination and love

I want to begin with some quick stories about my own calling, about vocation.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com
Two of them go back to when I was in the Assemblies of God.  The first one involves my pastor.  He told me one time that if I could possibly avoid becoming a pastor, then I shouldn’t do it.  I thought to myself that’s some easy advice to take!  I had absolutely no intention of doing his job.  The idea of pastoral ministry was not at all appealing to me.

I still felt the same way when I went to the Assemblies of God Bible college.  I just wanted to study the Bible and learn some theology.  My second story comes from a conversation I had at that school.

One of my professors had an autistic son.  (By the way, it was his class on Jeremiah that helped sparked my love of the prophet!)  He contacted the denominational headquarters to see if they had something along the lines of Sunday school lessons or any material he could use with his son.  When they responded “no” to him, he took it pretty hard.

Now, he had graduated from the Presbyterian seminary near Atlanta.  His advice to me was that, if I ever sought ordination, I should do so with the Presbyterian Church.  Again, that was easy advice to take and reject, because I still didn’t give a fig about being a pastor.

The third story comes from when I was at seminary in Philadelphia.  Again, I still was not interested in being a pastor!  I was in a two-year program, the Master of Arts with an emphasis on Faith and Public Policy.  I liked the idea of a combination of spirituality and politics.  As the time for graduation approached, no doors for opportunity were open.  I was feeling a bit depressed.

One night, Banu and I were going to have dinner with some friends of hers.  On the way, I was telling her my sob story.  She suggested that I go into the Master of Divinity program, which is the one for pastors.  Suddenly, everything made sense.  Of course I had always wanted to be a pastor; I just didn’t want to admit it!

For someone who claimed that he was not at all interested in pastoral ministry, I was certainly taking deliberate steps in that direction.  God has a wonderful sense of humor.

If it seems that I resisted my calling, it’s nothing compared to what we see with Jeremiah.  He has been appointed a prophet, not only to his own people, but also “to the nations.”  The Lord tells him that this has been the plan since before he was even born (v. 5).

How does Jeremiah react?  Is he jumping for joy?  Does he say, “Sign me up!”?  Not exactly.  “I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”  We’re reminded of Moses at the burning bush.  Moses tries to explain to God that he isn’t the right guy for the job, and he even provides a laundry list of excuses to make his case! (Ex 3-4).  Surprisingly, God isn’t convinced.

Still, the sense of inability—the feeling that we’ll just screw it up—when asked to do something for God can actually be a good thing.  Bruce Epperly says that, in the Bible, “one mark of an authentic prophet is a protest of inadequacy when she or he is called to speak [on] behalf of God.  People don’t run for prophetic leadership as they do for public office; they are called, often against their will, to speak on God’s behalf in challenging situations.”[1]

That sense of inability, of failure, might be a pretty good sign of “faithfulness and spiritual well-being.”  Author Madeleine L’Engle when asked, “‘Do you believe in God without any doubts?’ [is quoted as replying], ‘I believe in God with all of my doubts.’”[2]

Jeremiah lives at a time when the Babylonian hammer is about to fall on Judah.  People are nervous.  And at the same time, corruption and idolatry are everywhere.  As the prophet of the Lord, Jeremiah is given the task of opposing injustice—speaking truth to power.  As true prophets do, his job is to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.

One of the things I really love about this book is Jeremiah’s brutal honesty about his calling and ministry.  In verse 8, we get a little taste of things to come when the Lord says to him, “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.”  I like the way Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: “I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there.  I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you” (vv. 7b-8).  I’ll be your teleprompter; stick to the script.

Jeremiah knows that trouble is in store for him.  It’s not for nothing that he has been called “the weeping prophet.”

image from mshowalter.files.wordpress.com

I think that hearing about Jeremiah and his struggles opens the door to questions we don’t often entertain.  What have been our own conflicts, our own struggles, in God’s call on our lives?  Have we been able to put it into words?  Do we understand what it means to be called?

Going back to what I said earlier about calling: at the most basic level, we are called to hear the word of God, however it comes to us, and to respond.  That response must be in love and clothed in prayer.  Jeremiah loves his people.  That’s one reason why it is so agonizing for him to say what he does.

Think of how different it is among us today.  Binyamin Lau speaks of this when he says that true prophets must indeed “love [their] people.  Even when the harshest reproach is called for, [prophets] must consider [themselves divine emissaries] whose role is to help redeem the people, not to stand aloof and condemn.”[3]  (Not to stay at a safe distance and lob hand grenades!)

He goes on with something I think we all see.  “Indeed, journalists today take on the role of moral and social critics, though more often than not their criticism is laced with the venom of loathing.  Criticism based on love, of the kind that distinguished Jeremiah, is not often found.”  I fear that I find myself too often playing that role.

Too often, I find myself lacking in imagination and love.  And what a good segue to my title!

In our Presbyterian Book of Order, there are questions posed to those being ordained and installed (W-4.4003).  This goes for ruling elders, deacons, or teaching elders (also known as ministers of the Word and Sacrament).  Among the questions are trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior, receiving the essential tenets of the Reformed faith, and promising to abide by our church’s polity.  My title points to the final one: “Will you pray for and seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?”

Will we pray for and seek to serve the people with energy—with desire and passion, and not in a lackluster way?

…with intelligence—with our best thinking, and not just going with the flow?  And then those last two:

…with imagination—with our creativity, and not being afraid to dream?

…with love—which sums everything up, everything that is good and faithful and, indeed, holy?

Will we serve lovingly as a privilege, and not grudgingly as a burden?  (Although to be honest, at times “lovingly” might not be foremost in our minds!)

As I suggested earlier, all of us are called, whether or not we’ve been ordained to a position within the church.  In the life of faith, each one of us is called by God.

Again, there’s some good stuff in our Book of Order on this.  “[We] respond to God’s call to honor and serve God in every aspect of human life…  God hallows daily life, and daily life provides opportunity for holy living.  As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.  For Christians, work and worship cannot be separated.” (W-5.6002-3)

As Christians honor and serve God in daily life, they worship God.

Bruce Prewer tells the story of a woman who cleaned city offices in downtown Melbourne.[4]  She worked long nights, with her shift ending at 7am.  She would be bone tired, exhausted, as she headed down the busy street to catch her train home.

“Although weary, she walked with a perky step, for she was one of those special people who believed she was called to [be] Christ’s cleaner in those offices where she spent the long hours of night.

“She knew herself as called by Jesus and she hoped she had done him proud.  As she encountered hordes of people [pouring out] from the station to start work, many of them impatient, sour and grumbling, she held her head high with a dignity only the God of Jesus Christ could bestow.  She cherished her vocation.”

This is a woman who knew she was called, and she answered her call with imagination and love.

We here in this congregation are called by God, and we have the opportunity and privilege to respond with imagination and love.  Especially in this interim time, there is the chance to dream of untapped potential.  We can ask, “Why do we do this?  Do we still need to do this?  Is there another way to do this?  Is there a better way to serve that holy spirit of imagination and love?” image from thecostaricanews.com

Sometimes we might get impatient.  We get impatient with this business of proceeding with a deliberate and intentional process.  We might not see the wisdom in it.  We might think it’s useless.  “What are we waiting for?  Let’s get on with finding our new pastor!”

Would it surprise you to realize we’re more like Jeremiah than we think?  We can chafe and grumble about our call.  Of course, the comparison with Jeremiah might be overstated a bit.  God probably doesn’t need to say, “I am with you to deliver you.  Don’t be afraid of a soul.  I’ll be right there, looking after you.”

Having said that, whether it’s impatience with the interim process as a congregation or our own individual calls, God is there.  Whether it’s our call as a community to move ahead in faith—or our very real concerns about reaching out to that certain person, about gut-wrenching decisions on health or employment, about knowing that there’s something we really don’t want to do—God is still there, looking after us.

As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to destroy and to overthrow whatever hold those dark forces have on our faith.  As with the prophet, all of us are called, in the power of God in Christ, to build and to plant whatever makes for imagination and love.

 

[1] Bruce Epperly, “Living the Word,” Christian Century 127:2 (26 January 2010):  20.

[2] Epperly, 20.

[3] Binyamin Lau, Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, trans. Sara Daniel (Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2013), Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 6.

[4] www.bruceprewer.com/DocC/C50sun21.htm


transitioning terror to tranquility

Nicknames can be tricky things. Sometimes a nickname can be a compliment, a reference to something positive. On the other hand, nicknames are often unfortunate; they can be demeaning or embarrassing. This has been my own observation: I’ve noticed that if someone answers to an embarrassing nickname, then that thing is locked in place. It might as well be tattooed on their forehead.

An example of a nickname gone wrong was featured on an episode of Seinfeld. George Costanza, played by Jason Alexander, is telling his best friend, Jerry Seinfeld, while eating at their favorite diner, that he wants a nickname. He wants to be known as “T-Bone.”

The next day at the office, as people are ordering lunch, George says that he wants a T-Bone steak, because he’s a T-Bone kind of guy. His co-worker sitting next to him says that he also wants a T-Bone. Their boss, whose name is Kruger, says, “Well then, we should call you ‘T-Bone.’”

George is upset, and the next day, he’s chewing out his co-worker for stealing his nickname. Kruger and a couple of the other employees are watching George through a window. They can’t hear what he’s saying, but they can see him flailing his arms around, and in one hand, he’s holding a banana.

Kruger says that he’s jumping around like a monkey, and he asks the others, “What was the name of that monkey that could read sign language?” (It was actually a gorilla, but we’ll let it slide.) So when George enters the room he says, “I have an announcement to make. From now on, I will be known as…” Kruger cuts him off, “…Koko the monkey.”

Just in case you were wondering, that’s an example of an unfortunate nickname!

In Jeremiah 20:1-13, we have another example of an unfortunate nickname, one that the prophet relays from God to “the priest Pashhur son of Immer…chief officer in the house of the Lord” (v. 1). It’s his job to keep order, to make sure things are running smoothly at the temple.

He is not at all happy with the things that Jeremiah has said. We see this in chapter 19. Jeremiah engages in some performance art. He purchases and then breaks an earthenware jug, proclaiming that the country itself will be broken. But he’s gone much farther than that. He has said that, because of the corruption and idolatry, Jerusalem is ritually unclean. It is as unclean as a burial ground. And he’s saying all of this in the temple precincts!

If you’re the guy in charge of running the place, that might make you upset.

As a result, in chapter 20, Pashhur has Jeremiah beaten; he has him flogged. After that, he has him locked in stocks, a device that holds the hands and feet in an agonizing position. So, following his flogging, the prophet is forced to remain in painful position all night long.

The next morning Pashhur has Jeremiah released, and here’s where we get to the unfortunate nickname! The Hebrew phrase that’s used (magor missabib) has nuances of meaning, but it’s usually translated as “Terror-all-around,” or “Terror on every side.” It appears five times in the book. William Holladay tells us that it not only refers to space, “on every side,” but also to perception, “from every point of view.” (544) So Jeremiah is telling Pashhur that, no matter which way you look at it, he is terror—and terror is what awaits him. According to Jeremiah, terror is what defines Pashhur.

Sadly for the prophet, that nickname takes on a life of its own. In verse 10, he laments how it’s been thrown back in his face. This is in one of the poems known as the Confessions of Jeremiah. In these poems, he complains to God about his fate. He says, “I hear many whispering: ‘Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!’ All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.”

What has happened is that some people have started associating that phrase with Jeremiah. “Hey, here comes old ‘Terror on every side’! Let’s mess with him!” In a sense, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. His world becomes populated with terrorists. And to his way of thinking, that sometimes includes God!

image from scripturalstudies.files.wordpress.com

This might seem difficult to believe, but sometimes the church becomes populated with terrorists. (Imagine such a thing!) Sometimes, we terrorize ourselves.

The late Edwin Friedman wrote a book entitled, A Failure of Nerve. When I read it, there was something that especially caught my attention. He’s talking about how terrorism affects emotional systems, the church being a type of emotional system. He says a terrorist could be “a bomber, a client, an employee, or a child.” (Kindle edition, Introduction, section 2, paragraph 14.)

After thinking about it, I can see how a child could be a terrorist! If we ourselves are childish (please note that I say “childish,” not “childlike”—there is a difference), we also can be terrorists or bullies!

I have a question. What is it that inspires this terror? I’m speaking first of all about the terror that Jeremiah encounters. Why is Pashhur so terrified? Why are the powers-that-be so terrified? Certainly, we can point to their idolatrous disobedience of God. That’s something the human race constantly struggles with. But I suspect there’s something more.

By insisting that the Babylonians will invade and that there’s no point in fighting them, Jeremiah is presenting a future that Pashhur and his friends strongly reject. To be honest, it is hard to blame them. If we were in their shoes, I wonder how we would behave.

But this isn’t just about them. Often, when we envision the future, we ourselves are inspired with terror—or at least, a wee bit of anxiety! And it’s not always helpful when people ask, “Well, where’s your faith in God?” or “Why aren’t you just focusing on Jesus?”

Sometimes it might feel like we’re standing on the edge of a precipice, looking down at the canyon below. It might especially feel that way if someone else is there, someone who’s about to give a not-so-friendly shove!

No one likes being shoved; no one likes being pressured. I know that I don’t. One time in the office, I got a phone call from someone selling Bible studies on some particular topic. I was told it comes with workbooks and DVDs and a free gift just for giving it a twenty-five day trial and “can I verify your address so we can get that in the mail today”? Nowhere in that monologue was the question “Is this something you think you could use?”

As interim pastors, we do bear in mind that no one likes being pressured. As intentional transitional ministers, we work on certain things during the interim period. That way, the next called pastor won’t need to fool with it. He, she, or in the case of co-pastors, they, will have a better starting point. And you will have a better starting point.

We don’t want to go in the direction of insisting on our way. That doesn’t do honor to the process—or to anyone. This intentional interim period is a gift from God—a gift of grace and mercy. The goal for this time of transition is to move along with the process, suggesting any necessary changes slowly, clearly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully.

That last one, prayerfully, is especially important. Sisters and brothers, we have to pray for each other. That is not an option. We have to learn to trust and love each other, at least, to remain on the path. (Which is a serious challenge!) But if we stay true to that, we are much less likely to heighten the level of anxiety. I, for one, am not interested in getting the nickname “Terror-all-around”!

After all of the terror and horror in our scripture text, verse 13 strikes a very different tone. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.” I wonder if that verse provides a way out. I wonder if it provides a way to transition terror to tranquility.

It’s difficult to have a heart that sings and is filled with praise, while at the same time is filled with anxiety and fear. It isn’t magic, but when we can find ways to praise the Lord, we regain our perspective. Our imagination is opened to see new possibilities, where before, we couldn’t see any.

In his book, Friedman talks about the effect of anxiety, the toll of terror. “What also contributes to this loss of perspective,” he says, “is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals… You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures.” (2.4.8.)

Our friend Pashhur, “Terror-all-around,” needs to work on his sense of humor. He needs to learn how to be playful.

Friedman continues, saying that chronically anxious people “tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem storming sessions.” (2.4.9.)

He says, “In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective.” (2.4.10)

Jeremiah’s world is literally falling apart, but verse 13 shows us that he doesn’t forget who he is. He is the prophet of God, the one at the center of a singularity and the one who pervades the cosmos. The God of peace, the God of shalom, lifts the heaviest of hearts.

We can face the future, not with terror, but with tranquility when we make time to play and laugh with each other. Bonds in the Spirit of Christ are strengthened, and trust is engendered. We recognize the church as not just a place to go, but as a people to be.

Again, it isn’t magic, but that singing and praising and playful nicknaming delivers us from a lot of terrible stuff!

[originally posted on 22 Sep 2013]


sign on the dotted line

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In Jeremiah 32, we encounter what is probably the most detailed business transaction described in the Bible.  The prophet is exercising his “right of redemption” in purchasing a field.  This is based on the law in Leviticus 25 which enables the next of kin to purchase, or “redeem,” property which has passed out of the family.  It’s one of the mechanisms, including the year of Jubilee, which is intended to avoid the concentration of wealth in a few hands.  Our society today, with the 1% versus the 99%, could learn something from this!
 
But this isn’t just about economics.  This story is profoundly theological.  Walter Brueggemann says in A Commentary on Jeremiah: Exile and Homecoming, “In the exercise of family economic responsibility, the prophet enacts the long-term fidelity of God as well.  Jeremiah invests in God’s promised future exactly when that future seems completely closed off.” (303)
 
Why does the future seem closed off?  Well, the Babylonian army is at the gates of Jerusalem, about to destroy it.  During wartime, real estate prices are not exactly hitting the ceiling!  And what about Jeremiah’s future?  He’s been almost alone in saying that we shouldn’t be surprised that the Babylonians will make us pay dearly.  He even says that we shouldn’t fight against them, which gets him labeled as a traitor—and he gets treated as harshly as that label suggests.
 
Suffice to say, Jeremiah doesn’t have a future.  That is, outside of the promise of God.  Even though Judah will be punished severely, there will be something glorious on the other side.  The promise of God is that “houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” (v. 15). 
 
Jeremiah puts his money where his mouth has been, even when his actions seem to be madness.