Sunday, October 16, 2016

Sermon: Written on Our Hearts

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 16, 2016, Pentecost 22C
Jeremiah 31:27-34

Written On Our Hearts

Hope is one of the most elusive things we humans ever try to describe.
The poet Emily Dickinson was rather fond of hope as a theme in her poetry. Perhaps most famously she wrote:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all…

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. also spoke of hope many times, even if the word itself was not always apparent. Particularly striking is the terse sentence “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
This is an important point about hope; it’s not really at its most valuable or important or even noticeable in times of ease and comfort, but stands out in sharpest relief in times of adversity – or, to cite another quote attributed to Dr. King, “Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”
Again, Jeremiah is writing to exiles in today’s reading, those who were carried away to Babylon before the final destruction of Jerusalem. You will remember in last week’s reading Jeremiah gave the exiles the surprising and counter-intuitive counsel of God to “build houses,” “plant gardens,” and “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you.”
The problem was, that Jeremiah wasn’t the only prophet delivering messages to the exiles. Furthermore, some of those other prophets were giving messages that were directly contrary to the word God gave to Jeremiah.
Jeremiah had already come into conflict with one such prophet, a man named Hananiah. You can read in chapter 28 of this book how Hananiah directly challenged Jeremiah in the Temple, prophesying that the exile would be broken within two years. Hananiah not only ended up being proved wrong (the exile ended up lasting seventy years), but also ended up dead for his intransigence.
Nonetheless, there were still plenty of prophets about who sought to tell the exiles what they wanted to hear. Hananiah’s two-year exile story refused to die with him. As a result, Jeremiah has to deliver a hard message to those exiles, one which would not be popular and would likely be opposed and rejected by many of them, their ears still attuned to the words of those false prophets and their promises of a quick fix, overthrowing the hated Babylonian rulers and restoring the now-broken kingdoms of Israel and Judah to the peace and safety the exiles remembered (in spite of all evidence to the contrary).
Amidst what looks like bad news, though, Jeremiah is in fact preaching a word of hope, to those whose perceptions have not been so distorted by years of idolatry in Israel and Judah or by the words of those false prophets. It wasn’t an instant-gratification kind of hope, not by a long shot. Indeed, many of those who were taken into exile would not live to see Israel and Judah’s return from exile in the seventy years Jeremiah proclaimed. All of that building houses and planting gardens no doubt seemed a bitter pill to swallow for those who knew their days would end in this foreign land, even if they took to heart God’s instruction through Jeremiah.
But the scripture we read for today stretches the idea of long-term hope to an extreme. Through Jeremiah’s words, God is preparing the people of the covenant for something much farther into the future, even in the midst of their current struggles.
You might have noticed, if you were reading this scripture in your pew Bibles, that the layout of this text as it has been edited for this publication gives away something about it, something that is different. It is set apart from the surrounding text by being rendered as ordinary prose, rather than as more lofty-sounding poetry. We’re being tipped off that the tone is changing here—while much of Jeremiah’s text has poetic quality and content to it, this bit of instruction is blunt and direct. It’s also set off by that repeated introductory phrase “The days are surely coming, says the Lord…”. If nothing else we are being told to pay attention, even if our minds have wandered somehow at this point. This is a Thing That Will Happen; listen up.
The first portion of this scripture seems odd, unless we consider that Jeremiah’s words are overturning a long-held belief in Temple-era Judaism about how sin rippled out from those who committed it, to the point that later generations would “be punished” or suffer for the sins of their ancestors. No longer, says Jeremiah; your sin is your own responsibility, and you alone will bear the consequences.
It is the second half of this passage, though (introduced by another “the days are surely coming…”), that signals something quite new to Jeremiah’s hearers.
I wonder how many of you have seen a painting, or probably a reproduction of that painting, which depicts a very pale, long-haired Jesus standing at a door and knocking. Clearly the painting plays off the verse from the book of Revelation:

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock; if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.

It’s pretty familiar to us, but would have sounded quite alien to Jeremiah’s hearers or readers. Images of God coming into an individual’s heart, while common from that Revelation verse and numerous gospel hymns, would not have made sense at all in Temple-era Jerusalem. “God’s people” was a communal concept, not an individual one.
Furthermore, if we read Jeremiah’s proclamation correctly (particularly around verse 33), that Revelation passage doesn’t really capture what Jeremiah is telling his listeners or readers either. God’s instruction through Jeremiah speaks of God’s law as being written on “their hearts.” Not “your heart” or “his heart” or “her heart”; their hearts. While there is more of an individual dimension than perhaps the covenant people might have ever experienced before, it is still the community, the covenant people together, for whom this covenant is written. It happens to God’s people together. It happens in the community. And it happens entirely at God’s doing.
We modern Christians tend to get hung up pretty often on the individual nature of faith (rendering Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, for example) and forget that where that faith is forged is here, in the community, in the people of God, in the body of Christ.
Of course, if we’re honest, we just might have to admit that Jeremiah’s prophecy seems to be yet forthcoming. We don’t always act or talk or live like people with God’s law written on our hearts. We are still easily seduced by the false prophets of our day, whether they be the false prophets who promise you that “you can lose five pounds a week with no dieting and with no exercise!” or the false prophets (frequently religious leaders these days) who push all our buttons by telling you it’s somebody else’s fault that your life isn’t exactly the way you want it, and promise to fix it for you by punishing those people.
The world out there can hardly be blamed for being uninterested in the church when the church seems more venomous and hateful than just about any other part of society. Really, who needs that? If all the church is going to do is make people more hateful and even violent, it’s no wonder nobody wants in.
We have a lot to do, friends. We in the church, the big church, have really given very little evidence that God’s law is written on our hearts, or that it’s a good thing if it is. But think about it; think about what that would mean. Jeremiah’s readers would not be thinking of God writing on our hearts with a really nice pen-and-paper set with elegant penmanship. Remember how they knew the law to have been written first; carved into stone tablets, written by no less than the finger of God. Not an easy thing, not something that could be washed away. Not like writing a note to yourself on your palm because you don’t have a piece of paper; more like being tattooed, or maybe even being branded. Being marked by God in such a way that it can’t be washed away or rubbed off. Being marked indelibly, permanently. Possibly even painfully – tattoos hurt, I’m told, and I can only imagine the pain involved in being branded.
To be marked or branded in such a way is to be so in thrall to God that those false prophets all around us can’t sway us. To be marked that way is to be unmistakably in service to no one or no thing that is not God, no matter how much it wants you to think it is God. It is to be so unswerving in our following God in Christ that the world out there would just have to stop and look, desperate to know more.
Yeah, there’s a long way to go. But this is our hope and God’s promise to us. We might want to examine ourselves in light of this hope, just in case there’s a world out there watching. Because there is.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

 Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#645            Sing Praise to God, Who Reigns Above
#45              I to the Hills Will Lift My Eyes
#53              O God Who Gives Us Life
#833            O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Sermon: Seek the Welfare of THIS City

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 9, 2016, Pentecost 21C
Jeremiah 29:1-7

Seek the Welfare of THIS City

I’m going to tell you all a little secret. I don’t want you to take this wrong, seeing that I’ve been here in Gainesville a little less than two years at this point. Actually I don’t feel that bad about saying it, really, because I know some of y’all have a similar experience to which you might be able to relate.
I miss Lawrence.
Mass Street (short for Massachusetts). Man, I loved Mass Street.

No, Lawrence is not a person (I'm not talking about missing Lawrence Welk). Lawrence is a place, the city in Kansas in which Julia and I lived while I was teaching at the University of Kansas. It’s a quintessentially cool college town. It has an amazing variety of restaurants for a city its size, representing a wealth of different cuisines. It was beautiful in the fall. (I miss fall, too.) I was working in one of the best public-university schools of music in the country, with great colleagues and outstanding students. The cost of living was pretty reasonable. We had a good church.
...ah, the ol' workplace...

I should hope you understand that is not meant as an insult to Gainesville to say that I miss Lawrence. (I even got it in writing. See? hold up shirt)
...and yes, I did hold up a shirt pretty much exactly like this.

But truthfully, I also miss Richmond. There are things I miss about West Palm Beach as well, and I even miss Tallahassee. (Now that’s probably the one to get Gainesville folk on edge, I guess.)
In short, I am as prone to nostalgia as anybody. And I know many of you are too – I’ve overheard some of y’all talking about the things you used to be able to do in places where you lived before, and even in the churches you used to attend when you lived in those places in the past. And you know what? At root there’s nothing wrong with that.
In our cases, for the most part, our leaving those places was voluntary; you weren’t rounded up and hauled away from your old hometown and deposited in the enemy capital of Gainesville, I’m guessing. In other words, your nostalgia is not like that of the people of Israel and Judah who had been carried away to Babylon, the ones to whom Jeremiah writes in today’s reading from that book.
This reading falls somewhat in the middle of the readings we’ve done so far; the exiles to whom Jeremiah writes here are the “first wave,” taken some years before the final conquest and destruction of Jerusalem. The king here mentioned as taken, Jeconiah, was the next to last king of Judah, predecessor to the short-termed King Zedekiah mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago. Jeremiah is still in Jerusalem, but a large number of Jerusalem’s people have been taken captive and held in Babylon, and to those exiles Jeremiah is writing a letter, a prophetic letter at that.
The “nostalgia” felt by these exiles is of a different quality than what I was acknowledging earlier; after all, I could pull up and move back to Lawrence if I really wanted to (although I might be doing so without my very happy Florida-native wife). These exiles can’t do that. They are in every significant way being held prisoner, even if they aren’t being held in a prison.
You hear some of this anguish and frustration in Psalm 137, some of which might sound familiar:
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.

To be honest, the tone turns a lot darker after that, particularly by the time you get to verse 9 of that chapter. But here the sadness, the despair, the lament of the exiles is expressed in both beautiful poetry and great emotional depth.
Now, we know Jeremiah is capable of lament, and capable of pronouncing harsh judgment. But that’s not what happens here.
Instead, Jeremiah (relaying the word of the Lord) tells them to build houses.
Build houses and live in them,” he says. “Plant gardens,” he says, and eat what grows in them. Let your sons and daughters get married—encourage them to do so. Live there. Be there.
Now a few verses down, starting in verse 10, Jeremiah relays God’s promise that God’s covenant children would indeed return to Jerusalem, which indeed does happen. But in the meantime, the Lord is quite specific: live where you are.
And even more, in verse 7:

…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.

Your well-being is tied up in the well-being of the city where you live, says the Lord. Pray for it, the Lord says through Jeremiah. Seek what is good for this city – THIS city, the city where you are.
Notice what God doesn’t say. There’s nothing about overthrowing it – a rebellion would probably be little more than a good way to die, but God doesn’t order that. No being separate or withdrawing. Live there. No trying to turn Babylon into some clone of good ol’ Jerusalem. But also no “giving in” – don’t fall for the idols of that city, the way you fell for foreign idols even in Jerusalem. Live there. Maybe even pick up those harps and sing again.
Now it might seem less than obvious how this applies to us. As noted before, we aren’t exiles; we don’t have to live here. We can move. We can leave Gainesville.
But think about that nostalgia we were talking about earlier, back at the beginning of this sermon. That was mostly about individual nostalgia, me remembering living in Lawrence or Richmond or wherever, or you living where you might have lived before you came to Gainesville.
But nostalgia can happen communally as well, and sometimes that kind of nostalgia can be a problem. Churches are particularly prone to this, I fear. I’m pretty sure you know where I’m going with this; we pine for a time when the church was full – not just this church but all the churches were full-up every Sunday and maybe even twice on Sunday. I have no idea if that’s how it was here, but I’m going to guess that’s how we remember it. We remember how you couldn’t really get anywhere in this town if you didn’t belong to the right church, for that matter.
We look around and the city is not what we remember. We remember when we knew everybody who owned the restaurants or shops or businesses or manufacturing or anything of importance in the city. It was comfortable, and we liked it. It’s not comfortable now, and we don’t like it.
That kind of nostalgia can become its own form of exile. It’s not a familiar place anymore, and we don’t understand why there are Jamaican restaurants or Israeli restaurants in town, with food that’s too spicy. We don’t understand how the university got so unbelievably big and takes up so much space in town and creates so much traffic.
We also don’t remember that the simpler time for which we might get caught pining was Hell for some of the folks who lived here then. Hell for those who weren’t the right color, or the right religion, or the right gender or the right sexual orientation or the right income level or even just from the right family. One person’s paradise is too often another’s torture chamber, and regrettably that hasn’t changed as much as we would wish.
But it was comfortable for us, and we liked it, and we don’t recognize the city around us now and we pull back and take ourselves into exile. And we might just be guilty of tolerating or even encouraging all kinds of vileness and hatefulness and unchristlikeness, as long as it’s directed at what we’re uncomfortable with. And through Jeremiah, God tells us to STOP IT.
Seek the welfare of this city – THIS city. Not the one we nostalgically conjure up in our minds, but this city, the one we live in now, with all of the diversity it entails. Six thousand – six THOUSAND international students just through the university, plus I don’t know how many faculty. People who profess religions we’ve never heard of before, or none at all, and don’t feel particularly conflicted about it, and might even run for office. People who at this point don’t even know we exist.
And God is just as surely telling us that our well-being is bound up in this city just as much as the well-being of the Jerusalem exiles is bound up in the well-being of Babylon, as horrifying as that must have sounded to them.
Part of what we are doing in the various missions and outreaches we support as a church in this community is just exactly this – looking after, as much as lies within us, the welfare of Gainesville or Alachua County. Only when things are better for those in Gainesville or Alachua County is our lot going to be better, God says.
Build houses, plant your gardens and eat what grows in them, and seek the well-being of this city of Gainesville. Our call is to find out what that means. But that’s another sermon.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#49            The God of Abraham Praise
#54            Make a Joyful Noise to God
#351          All Who Love and Serve Your City
#432          How Clear is Our Vocation, Lord

THIS city...

THIS city...

THIS city...

...and (ugh) even *this* city.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sermon: Out of our Brokenness, Out of our Hope

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 2, 2016, Pentecost 19C
Lamentations 1:1-6, 3:19-26

Out of Our Brokenness, Out of Our Hope

The first funeral I ever attended, or at least the first I remember, was in the church in which I grew up, when I was about fifteen years old. It was for a boy in our congregation, about a year older than me, who had been killed in a particularly horrific car crash. I can’t say that I knew him that well or that we were the best of friends, but I knew him well enough and we got along fine, all of which only magnified the shock for me.
I would say that it was a terribly emotional experience, but for the most part it wasn’t. One of my great weaknesses is my fear of my own emotions, and that was something that instilled itself in me from a very early age. So as best as I can figure, I somehow walled off that part of myself for that funeral, and busily preoccupied myself with examining an experience that (again, as best as I can remember) I had never seen before, and how it was different from what usually happened in that sanctuary on Sunday morning.
All the flowers. So, so many flowers. The casket placed at the front of the sanctuary, directly below the centrally-placed pulpit, open. The procession into the sanctuary, much more formal than one ever saw at that Southern Baptist church. The overflow of people, even more than on an Easter Sunday.
The service order was slightly different. The sermon was much more subdued than usual from our pastor, who despite being pastor of a relatively large downtown church in a small town, aspired mostly to be an old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone country preacher. And then the procession at the close of the service, again very different from the usual Sunday morning, was where I was finally undone.
My emotional guard was finally wrecked at the sight of the boy’s parents.
I knew them well enough to see, even at my callow age, how their utter grief was undoing them even at that moment. He was their only child, you see, and he had come relatively late in life. I had never seen the father look so beaten, so crushed, so … old. And the mother – normally a very proper Southern lady – was inconsolable, weeping without reservation and unable to make it down the aisle of the church to its back door without help from the preacher and other gentlemen of the church.
I suspect most of us have been in the place of that father and mother, weeping and mourning without consolation. But I also suspect many of us have been in the place where I was in that funeral, keeping emotions carefully locked away until they could no longer be suppressed in the face of the inconsolable sorrow of others. I doubt most of us have ever been in the place of the two speakers we hear in the two readings from Lamentations today.
To grasp the state of the Jerusalem of Lamentations we might need to go to Aleppo, the city in Syria that has been utterly devastated time and time again in the seemingly endless Syrian war, in which parties ranging from the Syrian regime to Daesh (what some call Islamic State) to Russia and others have sought to take it over or drive out others, leaving a city that is virtually no longer a city, but a blasted and ravaged ruin. We might need to hear and see the plight of those trapped in this blasted and ruined city, with no place to go to escape the ruin and no country in the world willing to accept them as refugees. We might need to see a truly hopeless situation to understand what the Daughter of Zion is singing in that first chapter of Lamentations. Even in the third chapter, where a tiny bubble of hope comes through, the hopelessness is still palpable.
Most of us have never experienced anything quite like this, like the ruined despair of Daughter of Zion, Jerusalem personified, altogether ready to blame God for their suffering no matter how many times Jeremiah (the presumed author of Lamentations) had warned them against their idolatry and sinfulness. I certainly cannot claim to know all of you well enough to know that for sure, but it doesn’t seem likely.
We still know ourselves to be broken, though, if we’re honest. We know, if we’re really being truthful with ourselves, what it is to be like my friend’s parents, no reserves left to cope or bear up under the grief. Most of us have been there, and if we’re honest we don’t kid ourselves that we’re ever truly very far from being in that place again. A death or grave illness for a loved one, a career reversal or loss, any number of other events that might lay us low and reveal to us our insufficiency and helplessness and (if we’re paying attention at all) our utter and complete reliance on the grace of God even to function.
We are actually marking two special occasions in the life of the church universal and this particular church, events that might not seem to have much in common. It is World Communion Sunday, in which we mark how the church, for all its diversity and even fractiousness, is still united around the table of the Lord; we are also marking in this congregation the beginning of our campaign to support the ministries and mission of this congregation, seeking to commit to the stewardship of our resources (yes, including financial resources, but also our physical resources and our time) in order to continue seeking out how to do Christ’s work in this particular corner of God’s world. To be honest, for a while there I was rather disturbed at feeling the need to connect those two events, particularly in the midst of a series of sermons from the weeping prophet Jeremiah. How in the world do all those elements make sense together?
Well, duh, preacher.
It is this very thing – our knowledge of our brokenness and utter reliance on God’s grace – that lies at the heart of both of these things.
We are driven to this table – we need this table – because we need God’s grace. We don’t come to the Lord’s Supper to congratulate ourselves on being such good Christians. Or if we do, we’re doing it wrong. The table is about our need for God’s grace, most strongly shown in the life of Christ, the healing and teaching and living and dying and living again that is our reason for being the church. Coming to the table is not about our lording it over others, reassuring ourselves that we’ve somehow “earned” God’s grace (pro tip, folks: that’s not “grace.”). The very act of the Lord’s Supper is all about the fact that we share with all the church the utter brokenness and need for grace that is the Table’s message and gift to us, the thing we share with sisters and brothers in the faith whether in Cuba or Colombia or Curacao or Cameroon or Cambodia. We way mark this particular Sunday as World Communion Sunday, but anytime we come to this table we share the inexplicable grace of God with the church in all the world.
But our stewardship is also rooted in this knowledge of our need for grace. It’s a bit like coming to the table; if we’re giving of our time or our money or of anything because we are convinced we’ve got our act together and we can be so benevolent as to give the church a hand, we’re doing it wrong. It is out our brokenness, the unshakable knowledge of our utter helplessness before God and need for God, that we give of ourselves or our treasure. We don’t give because we are convinced we’re going to save the world, or even fix our town; we give because we know the only One who can, and we simply want to be ready to be used for God’s purposes.
We don’t have to know the experience of conquered and ruined Jerusalem, the lamenting Daughter of Zion, to know our own brokenness, our own need for grace. We don’t have to be amidst the devastation of modern warfare to know how close we are to despair and utter grief without the sustaining of our Lord, and even sometimes with it. We may not be comfortable with it and certainly not comfortable admitting it, but we know it. But it is in that knowledge that grace can move in us and move through us, healing us and using us to heal. Whether at the table or in the offering plate, may we be ever coveting the grace of God to move within us, and then to move through us, for the healing of a broken world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#317            In Christ There Is No East Or West
#203            Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#508            Come to the Table
#526            Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ

The devastation of Aleppo. You don't have to experience this, though,
to know what it is to be broken.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Sermon: Ridiculous Hope in a Real Estate Transaction

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 25, 2016, Pentecost 19C
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Ridiculous Hope in a Real Estate Transaction

"...There remains for us only the very narrow way, often extremely difficult to find, of living every day as if it were our last, and yet living in faith and responsibility as though there were to be a great future. It is not easy to be brave and keep that spirit alive, but it is imperative."

These words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and pastor. He wrote these words in January 1943, at about the same time he became engaged to Maria von Wedemayer, daughter of a close friend. Three months later, as he knew was inevitable, Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis due to his resistance activities, who would keep him in various prisons for two years before finally executing him in April 1945, as the Reich collapsed around him. Bonhoeffer’s dark ending would seem to make a mockery of those words of hope (not to mention his engagement). Nevertheless not only were these deliberately maintained and included in the collection Letters and Papers From Prison, but even to the every end of his life he refused to relinquish or refute that hope. As he was taken from the makeshift chapel at FlossenbΓΌrg concentration camp, he relayed a message through an English prisoner to an Anglican clergyman with whom he had worked. It was a simple yet starkly profound message: “This is the end – to me the beginning of life.”
It is no stretch to compare Bonhoeffer’s plight with that of Jeremiah at the time of today’s reading. Jeremiah was also imprisoned, or at least under a form of “palace arrest” for not toeing the party line and continuing to prophesy Judah’s impending defeat as God ordered, His nation crumbled around him; in Judah’s case the Babylonians, who had long been besieging Jerusalem, were on the cusp of completing the deal. Many were in exile already, others were about to be taken, and Jerusalem itself would soon be destroyed.
And Jeremiah, in the face of all this utter doom and defeat, buys a plot of land.
Mind you, Jeremiah did so mostly because God told him to do it. Otherwise, how could someone who had been in the business of alternately fiercely pronouncing doom on Judah and weeping about it (as the last two weeks’ readings show) suddenly do something so radically, irrationally optimistic as buy a piece of land?
This is, after all, the one stray prophet in the land who won’t make his prophetic utterances conform to the wishes of the king. He is being detained, after all, because of the order of Zedekiah, the current (and soon to be last) king of Judah. It seems as though Jeremiah had this bad habit of kneeling in prayer rather than snapping to attention at the king’s oh-so-solemn civic rituals, in a manner of speaking. See, when all the other prophets were busy telling Zedekiah that Judah was special and that God would never let those nasty Babylonians win, Jeremiah is being held prisoner because he prophesied that Jerusalem would fall and that the king himself would be taken into exile in Babylon, confronted and held in exile by his royal counterpart, face to face. In short, he said what was happening – what was plain as the nose on your face to anyone with eyes to look out the window and see the massed Babylonian troops making ready to march into the city – and was being punished for it. Let those with ears to hear, hear.
King Zedekiah could have had Jeremiah executed at any time, but unlike Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jeremiah would survive his imprisonment, only to see all those dire prophecies come true. Jerusalem would fall and be destroyed, and Jeremiah would see many of his people carried off to exile in Babylon.
And yet Jeremiah buys a piece of land.
Now clearly God is setting something up. In verses 6 and 7 we hear how God tells Jeremiah to look for cousin Hanamel to come asking Jeremiah (still prisoner in the king’s court, mind you) to buy a piece of land according to the very old “right of redemption” rule, by which family members (in a predetermined priority order) were first offered the opportunity to buy property that would be offered for sale. (It’s the same rule that is applied in the story of Ruth, a clever application of which enables Boaz to marry Ruth at the culmination of that book.)
And sure enough, in verse 8 here comes cousin Hanamel proposing exactly as the Lord had said he would. Jeremiah quickly understands that this isn’t just a real estate transaction; it’s an example of symbolic action as prophecy. So Jeremiah not only makes the transaction, but also takes all the right steps to ensure its legality – properly weighing out the payment, having witnesses attest to the purchase, and having the documents of sale stored in clay pots for long-term safekeeping, an act that would compare to putting all the records in a safe deposit box at the local bank. Jeremiah is very precise about all this, and gives his scribe Baruch very clear and very specific instructions to make sure that these documents about the transaction were handled with the utmost care and preserved to the greatest degree possible at that time. And all this, remember, with the enemy army about ready to burst through the city gates.
Not only this, but here in the very text we’re reading today, Jeremiah is being very meticulous to record all this, not only for his current readers or hearers but for whatever posterity might be coming along to read this in years to come. Along with all the jeremiads and laments recorded in this book, we have been given this extremely detailed description of this real estate transaction.
For the love of God – literally, for the love of God – why?
Of course, we see it in verse 15:

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

No matter what the Babylonians did, no matter how much they wrought destruction and death upon the land and people, no matter how many of Judah’s people were carried off into exile to join those from the Northern Kingdom of Israel who had been carried off before; no matter what happened next, God would still be the only One who would write the end of the story, and the Babylonian conquest was not going to be the end of the story.
If you are inclined to read a little extra, you might finish out this chapter of Jeremiah. First Jeremiah reveals that even he is a bit baffled as to what exactly God is up to in this situation, even as he has been very faithful in carrying out the word that God gave him to give. Then, starting with verse 26, we get God’s response to Jeremiah. God, as happens a lot in this book, reiterates the evil done both by the people of Israel, the Northern Kingdom already conquered and exiled, and by the people of Judah now under imminent conquest. And then God makes clear; what is about to be destroyed, I will restore. Those about to be exiled, I will return. Then God makes another proclamation of that restoration, all the way through chapter 33.
We are good at despair.
We are good at seeing what has gone wrong, what has declined, what has fallen apart, and deciding it will never be restored. It’s beyond hope. You get a lot of that in political rants these days. And frankly, the church is way worse sometimes. We look at the empty pews and the large number of folks out there who just don’t care, and we despair, and we assume the church, individual or universal, is doomed.
But God is no more interested in our writing the end of the story than he was in the unfaithful people of Israel and Judah, or the Babylonians for that matter, writing its end. No matter what may be destroyed, no matter what may fall away or fall into disrepair, God is the only one who gets to write the end of the story.
God will restore what God chooses to restore, no matter how destroyed it might be.
Now it would be good if we would listen to those prophets who are warning us about the idols we set up for our adoration, and perhaps pull back from our sins before we suffer the inevitable consequence of such false allegiance. But even if we don’t, even if what we see as “civilization” or “culture” or “society” utterly collapses upon itself in destruction, God is the only one who gets to write the end of the story. And that is our hope, no matter how ridiculous or even ‘hopeless’ it might seem. Even the destruction of what we think we know is not the negation of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, and that is good news.
So in the end we don’t get to despair. We don’t get to live in fear. We don’t get to go into that defensive crouch and point fingers of blame and lash out and tell those who suffer that they deserve it. If we truly claim to be children of God, members of the body of Christ, well, guess what? We remain faithful no matter what. No matter how bad it seems we don’t get to give up. We remain faithful. Or maybe we figure out how we’ve not been faithful, and change. But, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, nothing in death or life or destruction or exile or imprisonment or ruin can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
            And in God’s time, God will restore what God will restore. And only God gets to write the end of the story. Not us, no matter how bad things seem.
For a God who promises restoration even at the edge of destruction, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#637            O Sing to the Lord
#806            I’ll Praise My Maker
#320            The Church of Christ In Every Age
#541            God Be With You Till We Meet Again

It's probably just as well that the land was not identified as agricultural.
It would be very different to say that Jeremiah "bought the farm"...

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon: Weep Together

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 18, 2016, Pentecost 18C
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; 1 Timothy 2:1-7

Weep Together

The reputation of the prophet Jeremiah has contributed two different turns of phrase to the English language. The word “jeremiad” refers to a speech, whether written or extemporaneous, characterized by stern criticism, judgment, or warning of impending harm. The passage we heard last week, from the fourth chapter of the book of Jeremiah, would be an example of the kind of speech that inspired that word.
But the prophet has also inspired the phrase “weeping Jeremiah.” Such a phrase can describe the prophet himself or one who engages in a sustained lament, with weeping and sorrowing made evident both in word and action. That’s the Jeremiah we find in today’s reading.
Last week’s reading was remarkable for calling the people “stupid” (4:22) and for depicting a world in which the very act of creation was undone, blow by blow, due to the people’s unfaithfulness and God’s judgment. To be sure, there’s a lot of that kind of thing in Jeremiah, including in the verses of chapter 8 that precede today’s reading, and in the verses beginning with 9:2 as well. Here, though, for these few moments, the prophet turns aside from pronouncing God’s denunciation and divine judgment on the people, and instead weeps for them.
Or possibly weeps with them.
Or it might be God doing the weeping.
Or it could be basically everybody weeping together.
Let’s try to sort this out.
You’ll notice that at the very end of verse seventeen, just before today’s reading, the speaker of that previous section of denunciation was clearly identified as the Lord. The next time we see such a phrase, is 9:3, by which time Jeremiah’s lament has clearly passed, and the tone of denunciation and judgment has clearly returned. That shift of tone seems to start with 9:2, when weeping for “the slain of my poor people” (9:1) gives way to denouncing the people as “adulterers” and “traitors” and the weeping is pretty clearly over.
In short, this passage of lament sits in the middle of, and interrupts, an extended jeremiad. But within the lament it’s not always easy to tell who is lamenting.
A few places are clear; the passage in verse 19 (it might be in parentheses in your Bible) about provoking to anger with their idols is pretty clearly a sentiment being expressed by God, with its first-person point of view. The surrounding passages in verses 19 and 20, which might be in quotation marks, are similarly clear in being a sentiment being expressed by the people of Judah more specifically.
But verses 18 and 22, as well as verse 1 of chapter 9? That’s harder to tell. One could stretch it to represent the cries of the people, but the more obvious answer would be that Jeremiah is here laying aside his prophetic sternness and grieving for the people and their suffering, however self-inflicted it might be.
This isn’t a lesson that many modern-day would-be Jeremiahs seem to have learned.
It’s altogether too easy to find those who are all set to pronounce judgment who are, to put it delicately, entirely too happy about doing so. And sadly, this particular condition is pretty widespread among preachers. Politicians can be bad about it too, but this kind of gleeful reveling in the anticipated suffering of the judged is pretty endemic among a certain class of preacher.
You know the type. Good chance they have a “TV ministry,” giving them a nice big platform for their pronouncements. At minimum they’re preaching to a congregation much larger than this, if they aren’t set up on a cozy looking set with cushy chairs and couches. They cherry-pick bits of scripture from hither and yon and stitch them up into a prediction of dire judgment on the social groups they just happen to hate, or retroactively pronounce the latest natural disaster as God’s judgment on the afflicted city or state (except, curiously, when it happens to be their own). And they couldn’t be happier about it. Gloating, practically, that some city is underwater or that fifty people were shot dead, or whatever disaster might have befallen us that we haven't heard yet this morning.
Jeremiah would not understand these people, I think, and he might be prompted to unleash a jeremiad of his own upon them. The man who writes “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” literally the sentence after saying “See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the Lord” is not a person who rejoices in the judgment it is his calling to proclaim. That judgment is sure, and it is unrelenting as we heard in last week’s reading, but it is no cause for joy. It is cause for weeping, for grief, for mourning. It is cause to weep with the ones who suffer, no matter how much it is true that they might have brought that judgment on themselves.
Jeremiah was pronouncing judgment right up to the beginning of this lament, and he launched right back into pronouncing judgment immediately after this lament, but all of that judgment did not negate his sorrow for his people. That seems a fairly obvious way of reading this passage, but it may not be the only one.
It is possible, on the other hand, that the grief being pronounced here is not only Jeremiah’s. The sorrow, the weeping that Jeremiah is pronouncing may well be that of none other than God.
It is Jeremiah’s habit to interject “says the Lord” every so often, as we heard in verse 17, as if to remind his readers and hearers that Jeremiah isn’t just blowing off steam or making up these dire judgments just for kicks. It is a harsh word he is called to proclaim to God’s covenant people, one that promises pain; one that promises that God’s covenant people, who have for so long assumed that God would always cover for them no matter how much wickedness they indulged themselves in, are about to find out how wrong they have been; one that will establish to them once and for all that God is not a “get out of jail free” card for whatever spiritual crimes they may commit. But there is no joy for Jeremiah in proclaiming this hard word, and it seems very much that there is no joy for God in having Jeremiah proclaim it, either.
The people’s laments recorded here are those of a people who do not understand. Jeremiah’s laments (and God’s possibly) are on the other hand quite clear on what is going on. Even the legendary healing balm found in the distant region of Gilead are of no help to the people to ease the sorrow that is to come. Yes, this is the scriptural reference that gives us the spiritual we will sing at the end of this service today, but I’m not sure that Jeremiah would agree with the way the spiritual answers his question.
What then of us, in the face of this portrait of weeping?
We modern-day Christians, or some anyway, have a pretty good knack for imagining ourselves to be persecuted, to be suffering when those we imagine as “evildoers” prosper. And it’s not too hard for us to find someone on whom to pin that “evildoers” label upon. But what happens when the tables turn and our “enemies,” the "bad guys," are the ones who suffer?
If we take today’s lament seriously, we weep with them.
We don’t gloat, we don’t get all triumphalistic and rub it in their faces. We weep with them. We weep together.
If we want to call ourselves followers of God, we’d better find a way to mourn with those who mourn, whether they are “our kind” or not. We’d better be able to weep with those who weep, rather than recoiling from them or reassuring ourselves that they deserve it. We can be on our knees in prayer, or flat on our faces in weeping, but the defensive crouch is never an appropriate position for the child of God.
Come, let us weep together.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal)
#634            To God Be the Glory
#440            Jesus, Lover of My Soul
#787            God Weeps With Us Who Weep and Mourn
#792            There Is a Balm in Gilead

"Weeping Jeremiah"

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sermon: De-Creation

Grace Presbyterian Church
September 11, 2016, Pentecost 17C
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28; Psalm 14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17


If you pick up a newspaper today, or turn on your television or radio, you will most likely be reminded that today is the fifteenth anniversary of one of the most incomprehensible acts of human cruelty any of us has witnessed in our lifetimes. It’s hard to avoid on a day like today.
Of course, there are several in this sanctuary today whose lives extend far enough back to encompass a different evil, one of monstrous scope and one whose effects also continue to reverberate through history, the indescribable horror known as the Holocaust.
Aside from the horrors of such acts themselves (which are awful enough), the trouble is that, despite the clear biblical warnings of verses like Romans 12:21 (“do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”) or 1 Peter 3:9 (“do not repay evil for evil, … but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing”), humanity is altogether too practiced at the repaying of evil with evil. We multiply it. The effect of the evil snowballs and multiplies seemingly – seemingly – beyond our control. War refuses to be confined to one neat and tidy space on the globe, but slips out and spreads into locations we don’t understand. “Justice” becomes a code word for “vengeance.” Violence becomes a default mode of responding to perceived slights, taking up arms against “the forces of evil” becomes a first option rather than a last resort, and such responses are met with … even more evil. It is, in the most explicit sense of the phrase, a death spiral.
And this is the world into which the prophet Jeremiah invites us – no, demands us – to look in today’s reading.
Jeremiah was a dark prophet for a dark time in the history of God’s covenant people. His prophetic term extended from a period in which Judah was under threat from hostile neighbors, with Jerusalem under siege, to a period of exile and displacement, with Jerusalem also being destroyed. In other words, there was plenty to be lamented, and Jeremiah didn’t miss an opportunity.
Today’s reading comes from the earlier part of Jeremiah’s prophetic career, with Jerusalem under a long and grinding siege. And Jeremiah was hardly the only prophet in town; plenty of more “official” prophets, sometimes directly connected to the royal court establishment, were quite happy to “prophesy” outcomes that were far more appealing to the people and The Powers That Be: how Jerusalem could not possibly fall, or how their God would not betray them – somehow not taking into account how the people and the king had horribly betrayed God. Jeremiah, on the other hand, had no interest in sugar-coated prophecies, and was more than willing to remind the people of their sin.
Even taking all that into account, this is one dark prophecy, and particularly unflinching in its assessment of the people, particularly in verse 22. The word “foolish” or its root “fool” is not so uncommon in scripture; you might have noticed it at the very front of today’s responsive reading of Psalm 14, in which it is the fool whose heart denies God. You don’t, however, see too many scriptures in which the people are called “stupid,” but there it is right there in the same verse; “stupid children” with “no understanding.”
If the language is particularly harsh, the offense is not new; once again, the people of God’s covenant had forsaken that covenant and turned to the worship of idols. It is a recurring theme in Hebrew Scripture, whether one is reading the histories like the books of Samuel, Kings, or Chronicles, or the prophetic books that constitute the final chunk of our Old Testament. The people turn to idols and away from God; God’s judgment comes upon them and they are conquered or taken into exile. Repent, and repeat.
In this case, the prophetic response Jeremiah issues at God’s prompting is unrelenting, both in the bleakness of its vision and in the promise, so to speak, of its fulfillment. In fact, it is so bleak that it does, very specifically in its language, promise nothing less than the undoing of creation.
Note the language of verse 23, in which the prophet looks and – see! behold! – the earth is “waste and void.” That is very specific language; in fact the Hebrew words, tovu vavohu, are found in that combination only one other time in scripture, at the beginning of Genesis, when the earth is described as being “a formless void.” This is such a rare and specific phrasing that it’s hard to believe it’s accidental; Jeremiah is specifically evoking the “formless void” of pre-creation chaos to describe the earth in the wake of the people’s faithlessness and God's judgment.
The echo of the creation account continues; the prophet looks to the heavens and they have no light, undoing "let there be light". The mountains and hills are quaking and shaking, no longer stable and solid; the earth is devoid of life, human or animal, and all vegetation and plant life is turned into desert, before the “fierce anger" of the Lord. So says the Lord, “the whole land will be a desolation,” and even if the Lord also promises not to “make a full end,” the Lord also promises not to relent or turn back.
Now one thing to keep in mind about these prophetic writings taken from Hebrew Scripture is that the worst interpretive thing we can do with them is forget that they were written, first and foremost, for their immediate readers – in this case the people of Judah, having strayed from the worship of Yahweh and turned to idols, now seeing their capital city under siege. Fro them such a vision as described by Jeremiah didn’t have to be read literally to have the desired effect. They understood desolation when they saw it, or heard it described in prophetic oracle. Jerusalem destroyed, all life driven out of it, the land laid waste – all was clear enough.
This, though, is a prophecy that works for modern readers or listeners as well, and almost requires less of a metaphorical ear that it might have in Jeremiah’s day. Two news items that came out this week point to the degree to which Jeremiah’s vision could sound chillingly literal. In one, new research indicates that the planet has undergone “catastrophic” loss of wilderness in the past two decades, to the point that only about twenty percent of the earth can still be considered “wilderness” – a catastrophic development indeed for the planet’s biodiversity in both animal and plant life.[i] Ongoing human degradation both of earth and climate was, not surprisingly, the major factor in such loss.
The other story, which might have gotten more attention generally, was of another nuclear test conducted by North Korea. If we were tempted to forget about our capacity to destroy the planet and ourselves many times over with nuclear weapons, such events serve as a chilling reminder. Between such stories and others, Jeremiah’s prophecy sounds more literal than it should – the very de-creation of our world.
Now how in the world does one preach hope in the face of such bleakness?
On one level, you don’t.
There are times when it would be a sin on my part to varnish over the harshness of scripture. There are times when the only decent response is to be challenged to look without flinching at the world, and what we have done with, and to, it.
For one, we have not been good stewards of our planet, a conclusion that is more inescapable daily. Whether one looks at the thousand-year flood events that happen on a yearly basis now, or the aforementioned degradation of the planet’s unspoiled places, or simply the latest news from our new earthquake capital of Oklahoma, we have done harm to God’s creation. And yet so many – even in the church – somehow see such degradation as God’s will for us, a damnable statement if anything.
Stepping further back, perhaps we also need to examine our fidelity to our God more broadly. The surface answer suggests that we, unlike the people of Judah in Jeremiah’s time, obviously don’t worship idols, and if you’re being extremely technical and literal, you are correct, I guess. Still, we only deceive ourselves if we pretend that we as a people, and even as the church, doesn’t have its own particular kinds of idols. The church, or some corners of it, seems awfully power-hungry these days, and has for a long time (many centuries) had a preoccupation with wealth. We get obsessed with regaining the status we once had. To be blunt, we can – and often do – make idols out of virtually anything. We can – and often do – make idols out of these flags, or this building, or even this Bible, when we insist on using it for anything but seeking God’s will for us as the body of Christ.
It is not that we will or choose to do evil, not most of the time. We are, however, quite complicit in choosing the comfortable, the easy, the popular over what is right or good or just. Our consumption choices, for example, may well lock in poverty conditions or environmental degradation for others (and frequently both, and in the same places), whether on the other side of the world or the other side of town, but we’re o.k. with that as long as we don’t have to look too close. Ill will or not, we’re still contributing to that de-creation that Jeremiah demands we look at.
On the other hand, there is one hope, even if we find it elsewhere in scripture. As Paul reminds us in the epistle reading for the day, we follow a Christ of grace. We follow a Christ who ministers forgiveness to us, no matter how bleak our sin, as Paul (a man all too familiar with making an idol of his religion) was highly aware.  
Living in grace and knowing forgiveness, though, cannot be an excuse to shy away from confronting the harm that we do. Whether it be the continued degradation of God’s creation, the human penchant for acts of cruelty, our unwillingness to face up to the injustices that are too much a part of everyday life for too many in the world and in this country, our continued pursuit of things other than the things of Christ, or any other sin (and that is the right word), we make a mockery of the grace that saves us if we do not face the wrong that we do – the harm we cause, intentional or not – and  its consequences for the world and for each other.
We must, with Jeremiah, look without flinching at the “void and waste” which which we threaten the world and each other. We must face the consequences of our idolatries, our selfishness, and our failure to live up to the grace God bestows upon us. And we must act to change; to lay aside those idols and selfishness and follow only Christ, the one who saves, the one who redeems, the one who shows us grace, even in the face of God’s judgment. For indeed, God will judge, but God will not abandon.
And for a God who does not abandon, even in judgment, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#17              Sing Praise to God, You Heavens!
#435            There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy
#713            Touch the Earth Lightly
#739            O For a Closer Walk With God

[1] “The Planet Is Going Through a ‘Catastrophic’ Wilderness Loss, Study Says,” (accessed 9/9/16).

There are times I wish Google Images would just admit "nope, I got nothin'" when I enter a scripture reference; but for images of desolation, sadly, World War I is always a good place to look...