Saturday, September 28, 2013

"Buying into the Future" - September 29, 2013

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

            I’ve heard about land being available pretty cheaply these days.  You just have to know where to buy it and to be willing to hold onto it for a little while.  One spot would be the northeastern corner of Japan, near the town of Fukushima.  In 2011, the Japanese government announced that the area would be off-limits for the next several decades.[1]  You might want to give it a little more time than that, to be safe, but if you buy now your great-great-great-great-grandchildren may be able to make a few yen on the deal.  Along those same lines, there are some bargains to be had in the Ukraine.  Advance planning is required, because

“Those who want to [go] to the exclusion zone of Chernobyl have to file documents for a permit two weeks before their visit.  Then they are instructed at the checkpoint: visitors are not allowed to smoke, eat in the open air, take any plants or items away from the zone, drink water from the wells, rivers, or any other ground sources.  Bodies should be covered with clothes leaving as few exposed areas as possible.” [2]

Again, you may need to keep the deed to the land carefully and make arrangements to have it translated and reconfirmed every so often because the land is not expected to be safe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years.[3]

            All that makes Jeremiah’s decision to exercise his option on the family farm, buying it from his cousin while it was in occupied territory, [Jeremiah 32:6] seem like a sure thing.  Jeremiah did feel certain that the time would come when the Babylonians would no longer control the land, and he spoke in the Lord’s name when he said,

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” [Jeremiah 32:15]

On the other hand, he also made sure that there were multiple witnesses to the sale, and multiple copies of the deed, and ordered his assistant to

“Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time.” [Jeremiah 32:14] 

He trusted that there would be a bright future, even while recognizing that the restoration would take place beyond his own lifetime.

            We’re at one of those weird junctures of history where enormous changes are taking place, and the Church, kind of like Jeremiah, gets caught in the middle of it.  Phyllis Tickle, who is both a journalist and a scholar of religion, has compared Christianity to a lobster.  She writes,

“…about every 500 years the empowered structures of institutionalized Christianity, whatever they may be at that time, become an intolerable carapace, or hard shell, that must be shattered in order that renewal and new growth may occur.”
In her book The Great Emergence, she points out that it is a difficult and even painful time for the people who live through it, however that the ultimate future depends on the Jeremiahs of those days and their willingness to invest in a future that they may only glimpse. 

            It occurs to me that it isn’t always the great, visionary leaders who see things through.  It may be the stubborn people like Jeremiah who simply refuse to give up, who insist that God is at work and that the rest of us may have to get over ourselves and our demands to know everything he plans to do and when he plans to do it. 

            There’s this myth we deal with that renewal has always come easily or quickly.  The martyrs go to the lions and – presto! – the Roman Empire is converted or Martin Luther nails his challenges to medieval superstition and – bam! – the Reformation restores the faith of millions.  In fact, if you look at the Reformation at the level of parish life, it often meant trouble for the church building and the church budget.  A BBC documentary on that subject said that

“Only 19 churches were built or restored in Elizabeth's reign and 'damp green walls, rotting earth floors, and gaping windows' were sometimes reported. Allowing for inflation, religious benefactions dropped from a total of over £80,000 in 1501-10 to under £2,000 in 1591-1600.”[4]
It may be that the solid and eternal core of faith is carried through the years mostly by people who don’t get to wrestle with major theological issues because they’re busy with stewardship campaigns, but who trust that God cares as much about their grandchildren as God cared about their grandparents. 

It takes someone like Jeremiah to give an example of that kind of trust, buying a field that he would never plant, but adamant that it would one day be farmed in peace.  It takes someone with the optimism and the long view of a Phyllis Tickle to remind us in times when the Church is living with the same turbulent change as the world around us, that in the end it will be for the best.

“When that mighty upheaval happens, history shows us, there are always at least three consistent results or corollary events.
First, a new, more vital form of Christianity does indeed emerge. Second, the organized expression of Christianity that up until then had been the dominant one is reconstituted into a more pure and less ossified expression of its former self. …[and]
The third result is of equal, if not greater, significance. Every time the incrustations of an overly established Christianity have been broken open, the faith has spread—and been spread—dramatically into new geographic and demographic areas, thereby increasing exponentially the range and depth of Christianity’s reach as a result of its time of unease and distress. Thus, for example, the birth of Protestantism not only established a new, powerful way of being Christian, but it also forced Roman Catholicism to make changes in its own structures and praxis. As a result of both those changes, Christianity was spread over far more of the earth’s territories than had ever been true in the past.”[5]
I believe she’s onto something in all of this.  When I look at the way we do church I have to admit that it isn’t conveying the gospel to the world the way that it used to do.  If it were, the pews would be full. 

On the other hand, I believe wholeheartedly that the Spirit of the Lord will find a way, that Jesus’ news of God’s kingdom is just too good not to get through.  I believe that the message of what Jesus has done to transform human life is just too wonderful not to change the world.

            So here are you and I, being asked to live like our mothers and fathers in the faith, to live by faith, to buy into a future that may be a generation or two away,

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

[3] Time: Disasters that Shook the World (New York City: Time Home Entertainment, 2012) cited at
[4] Bruce Robinson, The Human Reformation, Feb. 17, 2011
[5] The quotations here are from the author’s summary of her own book in Sojourner’s Magazine found at

Saturday, September 21, 2013

“Do You Hear That?” - September 22, 2013

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Every year I fill out forms for the District Superintendent, my boss, where I’m asked how many new members the church has welcomed in the past year and how many of those people have joined on “Profession of Faith”.  In other words, how many people have decided (because of what we do and say around here) to realign their lives with Jesus’ way of living?  Do you have any idea what it means to take that question seriously? 

Yet what does it mean not to ask that question?

Listen, if you will, to the lives of people who want nothing to do with God.  Now, I admit that I really enjoy the Beatles’ music and consider John Lennon to have been a genius, especially when he was working with Paul McCartney.  They wrote a song about life without God that everybody here over thirty would recognize – and the music is great, but the words are deceptive.

“Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say 
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say 
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one.”

The fact is that there have been places in the world where people have attempted to live as if God could be replaced by a vague loyalty to humankind.  It has always ended horribly.  The Russian Revolution started out with that ideal in 1917 and by the 1930s Josef Stalin was in charge and implementing policies that would kill, by conservative estimate, between twenty and sixty million people.[1]  Mao-tse-tong’s rule in China, giving lip service to the same ideas, led to around fifty to eighty million deaths.[2]

            Do away with God and what you are left with is a culture of death, where life is not valued because people are a means to an end and therefore expendable.  Jeremiah gives voice to a well-founded apprehension among the people. 

Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” [Jeremiah 8:19]

What happens when God is not a valued presence in people’s lives is not necessarily the wholesale horror of the Communist paradise, but it does lead to a hollowness that can take over a society like ours in other ways.

            When God is not a valued presence in people’s lives, they try to manufacture other heroes, little godlings, to fill his place.  What we have been coming up with recently has been the central characters of reality shows: the Kardashians and the “Real Housewives”, Honey Boo-Boo and her family.  Jeremiah spoke God’s word to his people:
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”[Jeremiah 8:19]
We don’t set up our statues, but we do plaster images all over T-shirts and web sites.  We put stars into the sidewalk in Hollywood.   Those images are, for so many people, falsely powerful.  They tell people how to behave and what to reach for.

            A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of buzz about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards.  No argument that it was way out of line.  It’s possible to criticize her for the show she gave, and while we’re at it to remember Robin Thicke’s role in the display.  Beyond that, though, why don’t we also ask about why there’s a market for such pageantry?  Entertainers, after all, give the audience what they have reason to believe it wants.  So is this what we want?  Is this what our society teaches its teenagers that they should aspire to become?
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” [Jeremiah 8:21]
            What it takes to heal a society that faces this situation is to present an alternative.  There are ways of life that are not all razzle-dazzle and flash, that in the long run are more satisfying and richer.  There is a God who is real, who does not lead his followers into the frantic posturing that shows up on TV in the guise of “real life”, but instead leads to the quiet, steady life of integrity that creates people of true character, not characters.

            The people who can offer that healing are the people who know that God in their own lives and who understand that it isn’t only the religious equivalent of the rock star who is responsible for faith-sharing, the Joyce Meyerses and the Joel Osteens and the Billy Grahams and the Rick Warrenses and the Adam Hamiltons.  It’s also the people who don’t feel a particular gift for eloquence and who get the words wrong.  It’s even for people with hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (that’s the fear of long words).  Faith-sharing is for anyone who just happens to be listening to someone who is questioning what they see around them. 

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” [Jeremiah 8:22]
The old spiritual answers that:

“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sinsick soul:
If you can’t pray like Peter, if you can’t preach like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.”

Maybe then “the health of my poor people” [Jeremiah 8:22] will be restored.

[1] Palash Ghosh, “How Many People Did Joseph Stalin Kill?”, International Business Times, March 5, 2013.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

“Foolishness” - September 15, 2013

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

The schedule of Bible readings that we use every week is on a three-year cycle.  That means that this passage from Jeremiah was the one that came up at this time twelve years ago.  The date then was September 16, 2001.  Five days earlier, the World Trade Center had fallen, the Pentagon had been attacked, and another plane had been brought down by courageous passengers over western Pennsylvania.  Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble.  Air traffic was still restricted.  People were stranded in foreign lands.  Part of Manhattan was deserted.  Washington was being guarded.  War was in the air, but nobody was certain who the enemy was.  Most of us here remember those days.

“I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”  [Jeremiah 4:25-26]
I cannot hear the words of Jeremiah that I read out that morning without feeling again their sheer weight:

“A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— a wind too strong for that.”  [Jeremiah 4:11-12]
I cannot hear this passage without sorrow at how human beings take our tremendous abilities and twist them to horrible purposes.

“For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” [Jeremiah 4:22]
            Very good friends of mine were waiting at that time for the birth of their first child.  Her father was working in the Capitol Building when the Pentagon was attacked and the Capitol Police came through, telling everyone to evacuate immediately.  He started back to his office, and then turned around and headed home, walking miles and miles to Maryland, all the time (he later told me) thinking, “I’ve got to live to see my daughter born.”

            Now she is twelve, soon to be thirteen, and I’ve seen her grow from the tiny thing she was when she was born the next month, to learn how to walk and to speak and to reason, until now she’s at the edge of adolescence.  I would never have called her “stupid”, but in twelve years she has gained all kinds of understanding and has left behind the “childish” stage.  She’s moved on from unicorns and “My Little Pony” to whatever the latest boy band is and an interest in real horses.

            So, if in the years since the attacks, a human being, and millions like her around the whole world, can go from birth to the point of responsibility that we assign to someone who is not quite an adult but still expected to know the difference between right and wrong and to be able in large part to govern her actions and decisions, then what has humanity as a whole learned, or how have we grown in that time?  Surely that cannot be an unreasonable expectation, can it, that we move forward?  But I look at the history of war and terrorism and faction fighting against faction that the past twelve years have held and again I hear the voice of God speaking through Jeremiah:

“my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.” [Jeremiah 4:22]
Two years ago, on the tenth anniversary, September 11th was a Sunday, and I was at church talking with the parents of a little girl whose birthday was that very day, and by that I mean that while the towers were trembling and firefighters were rushing into the smoke, this girl’s mother was in labor.  Like all parents, they had discussed names and had chosen before that day, but when the moment came to write on the birth certificate, they gave her a middle name they hadn’t planned on until that moment.  Her middle name, they said, would be Hope.

There is hope.  There is hope for those two little girls, not so little anymore, and hope for the kids born after them.  I believe there is even hope for those of us born decades before them.  Despite the history of the last twelve years, despite the history of the 2600 years since Jeremiah, I believe that there is hope.  What Jeremiah saw at the base of our troubles was, as he called it, “foolishness”.  The opposite of that would be “wisdom”.

If I look into the scriptures, what I see there is that

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.”
[Proverbs 9:10]
That’s what the book of Proverbs, compiled even before Jeremiah’s lifetime, declared.  Interestingly, when I was in college and took Arabic, and we had to translate portions of the Quran, one of the verses that I read there was “Ra’as ulhikmati makhafat ’ullahi” which means (guess what?): “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.”  “Fear” in both cases, means less the unreasoning fear that grips, for instance, a nation under attack than a healthy awareness mixed with respect and honor.  That has to be learned, however, and all too often the hard way.  It has to be learned, too, generation by generation, over and over.  Or maybe I should say, “It has to be taught,” or even, “It has to be taught by example.”

            I have hope for that wisdom to prevail because there is a community where that respect is taught and learned and lived out.  We ourselves embody hope.  Here we are as God’s people, gathered together again, yet another week, doing what we do, which is to confess our sins, recognize our inadequacies, learn about God as he came to us in the life of Jesus, and accept with joy the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 

I have hope because I get to stand next to the baptismal font and on behalf of the whole Church ask questions that invariably receive the answer “I do”:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,
reject the evil powers of this world,
and repent of your sin?

I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you
to resist evil, injustice, and oppression
in whatever forms they present themselves?

I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,
put your whole trust in his grace,
and promise to serve him as your Lord,
in union with the Church which Christ has opened
to people of all ages, nations, and races?

I do.

I have hope because Christ calls together and creates a community that is freed from the bondage to sin.  We recognize it as a reality in our lives, but no longer as an inevitability, and certainly not the last word.  That last word is always forgiveness.  That last word is always God’s love.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

"God the Potter" - September 8, 2013

Jeremiah 18:1-11

One of the most vexatious questions anybody has ever asked me was, “Does God really control the weather?”

“Of course,” I want to say.  “Of course.  God is all-powerful.  Nothing is beyond God’s control.”  But I also know that Jesus himself pointed out what happens when human beings try to sort out the intricacies of God’s sovereignty.  If you want to give God credit for a beautiful fall day or a soft, spring shower I’m right there to say, “Amen.”  Can you really do that, though, without attributing tornadoes and hurricanes and drought just as directly?  Jesus warned that the Almighty

“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” [Matthew 5:45]
So when you get someone like Pat Robertson who is very quick to declare every natural disaster as God’s vengeance on the United States or (even worse) the Westboro Baptist crazies rejoicing in it, you have to ask whether it rings at all true with your own conscience, your own reading of the scriptures, and your own understanding of God as revealed in Jesus.

Having said that, a prophet like Jeremiah is still to be taken seriously as one who truly did speak for God, and Jeremiah did declare God’s hand visible not only in personal but also in national events. Hear again these words:

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.” [Jeremiah 18:7-10]
Let me say this, though: there’s a real danger interpreting any passage in the Bible that talks in national terms.  In the Old Testament, the nation and the community of faith were the same thing.  Israel was the people of God.  But then came the exile and suddenly some of God’s people were living elsewhere.  Israel, in fact, was no longer a political reality.  The kingdom of Judah, around Jerusalem, hung on and continued to speak of itself in both political and religious terms without any break between the two.  Eventually, though, they were also overrun by their enemies.  Psalm 137 is the voice of someone who saw that terrible day and lived with its horrors and an aftermath of exile.

“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of
Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you
have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and
dash them against the rock!”

Was that legacy of bitterness the hand of God?  I tremble to think of it that way.  Perhaps that is not God’s hand shaping the nation, but what happens when God’s guiding hand, the shaping hand of the potter, is withdrawn.  Perhaps that is what happens when the potter decides to begin again.

Jeremiah could speak of the nation and the people of God as one.  After his day, it could not be done.  The people continued but the nation was no more.  So when approaching a passage now that talks about God judging a nation or working through a nation, it isn’t right to equate the people of God with any particular country, but with the people of God within it, wherever they are, scattered among all the nations of the earth. 

That puts a great responsibility on us, because what Jeremiah saw when God sent him to observe the potter at his wheel was that

“The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” [Jeremiah 18:4]
Jeremiah didn’t live to see the new vessel that would be shaped when the potter returned his hand to the clay.  He did, however, advise the survivors how to begin again in their new circumstances.  It was not by looking forward to revenge.  Instead, he told them,

“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.” [Jeremiah 29:7]
That was a message that still speaks directly to us, the people of God living across the world. 

It means that we have a special role in the life of any nation where we find ourselves.  It is to speak, like Jeremiah, as those who recognize that there is a God who goes beyond the gods of the nations, whose interest is in the good of all people, who cannot be claimed by one language or culture.

            I saw something at Shady Maple a few weeks ago that disturbed me greatly.  It was a cross that was painted with stars and stripes.  The word “America” was written across the base, and an eagle was at the center with its wings spread out along the arms.  The eagle had taken the position that the figure of the suffering Christ would have on a crucifix.  This is a great nation, and has done great things in the world, and is worthy of great honor.  Uncle Sam, however, did not die for your sins, and the eagle is not the source of salvation.  A nation’s status begins to wobble and even to collapse precisely when the people of God within it fail to let the hand of God guide them, and when they allow any other hand to take its place. 

This nation is going through some ugly, ugly times right now and we are in deep disagreement with one another on many points.  Marriage, tax policy, gun control, education, abortion, the environment, how to prevent terrorism – all of those are being argued about and friendships of long standing are strained, or maintained only by avoiding whatever the sore subject is.  I have no doubt that somebody somewhere is preaching on this same text this morning, saying that because of some social policy or another the Lord is about to smash the United States into a formless lump of clay.  I have no doubt that at this moment someone is thundering,

“Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”  [Jeremiah 18:11]
For all I know, they may be right. I am no prophet.

            The thing is, and in this I find hope, both the conservatives and the liberals appeal to the issue, not of what is most useful or expedient, but what is right.  As long as that question is asked, then we are all seeking how we can best allow the hand of God to shape this or any other nation.  It may not be our role to give all the answers about the ways and means, but it is our role to keep that kind of goal in everyone’s thoughts. 

It takes the people of God to do that.  No one else will be bothered, because no matter where we are we alone have a loyalty to someone greater than any nation or culture.  We alone can point beyond self-interest to a savior of all, one who laid down his own life freely.  We alone are in a position to declare how

“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  [Matthew 20:28]
In that there is hope for any nation.  As long as self-interest is not the rule, as long as greed does not control the day, as long as there is consideration for the common good, things will work out.  It will take time, and it may get ugly, but as Theodore Parker observed, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. repeated, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[1] 

            Call me a fool, if you wish, but I believe that God is no amateur, but a skilled artisan who understands the clay on the wheel and knows how to turn it around and around and around until it rises up the right way, all in God’s own time.