Sunday, August 22, 2010

Jeremiah and the Long Haul

Proper 16 C August 22, 2010
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6
Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
We live in a youth culture, don’t we? A culture of instant gratification. A culture of let’s have it now or it’s not worth having. It’s all about the celebrity of the moment. How about that Jet Blue flight attendant who proclaimed that he’d had enough and he wasn’t going to take it anymore, before he grabbed two beers from the airplane galley and headed down the emergency landing chute? Instant celebrity – last week. This week, I haven’t heard anything about him. We live in a culture of NOW.

So when we read this passage from Jeremiah, about God calling him to be a prophet, we read it as, this must be happening to this young boy, now. This is the story of a young person’s call, about a young person’s life – a life blessed by this close relationship with God.

We are embarking on several weeks of reading passages from the Book of Jeremiah, and we will soon see that this book is not just about blessings of the young prophet’s life. It is a long, troubling book of prophecy, some of it angry, some of it full of the disappointments Jeremiah felt when his 40 years of preaching the Word of God seemed to fall on deaf ears – except when the people to whom he was sent to preach abused him and scorned what he was saying. The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, we shall see, is not the book of a young whippersnapper, but the account of “a seasoned prophet,” a “mature, battle-scarred veteran looking back over a long and tortuous journey.”[1] Over the next few weeks, we “people of a certain age” can read this prophet, and perhaps read some of our own life experience in his words.

Jeremiah lived in the midst of the greatest crisis faced by the people of Israel – the crisis which has defined who they would become as God’s people. Their kingdom in Judah was caught between Egypt and Babylon, the superpowers of their day, and Babylon won. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the people of Israel were marched off into captivity in Babylon. Everything they had worked, hoped, dreamed for, was shattered. Their very identity as the people of God was apparently gone. They were done for – now mere stateless slaves, weeping for their past in a foreign land. Why, why, why, did this happen to them? Did the glories of their past, and how much God loved them, then count for nothing? Where was God now?

In the midst of this horrible crisis of death, destruction and displacement, two great prophets arise: Isaiah and Jeremiah. They speak for God, and begin to tell the people of Israel how to make sense of this terrible calamity. Unfortunately, the people of Israel don’t want to hear the answers to their questions, “Why us? Why now?” As we read Jeremiah over the next few weeks, we’ll get a lot of those answers, and we’ll hear Jeremiah’s anger at not being listened to. But today, in this first chapter, we read of his call by God to this thankless job. What does this text say?

The first few verses we read are powerful and poignant. They affirm God’s care and faithfulness. God has known Jeremiah, and each of us, from the moment of creation. And in contrast to this mighty God, who would not feel utterly inadequate? Jeremiah is not inhabiting that celebrity culture that is so familiar to us, that “me first; I am great” culture of stars and success stories we know all too well from our tabloid press, the blogosphere, and talk radio and tv. Jeremiah does not have “self-esteem” issues that just have to be cleared up with a little positive thinking. Jeremiah and each of us ARE dwarfed in every way by the majesty of God.

And yet look what God says: “Do not be afraid, for I am with you to deliver you.” And why? Not just because God loves Jeremiah, just as he loves us, but because God has given Jeremiah the Word of God to speak. Jeremiah is not just making it up as he goes along. “You shall speak whatever I command you,” God tells him. Who would not be inadequate to such a purpose? And of course, if God wants something to get done in this world, then God seems to have no choice but to work through the people God has created – people like us: thoroughly inadequate. Think about this impossible scenario: Jerusalem is shattered; the people are crushed and sent into exile far away, and God sends Jeremiah the Word to tell these people that what has happened to them is also, somehow, their fault. The people do not want to hear what Jeremiah has to say; who would be adequate to this task?

Look again at the text, where God sums up this Word that Jeremiah must deliver: pluck up and pull down, destroy and overthrow. What a shattering message. Can this really mean, the people of Israel think, that God sent this terrible thing to happen to us, that our kingdom, our city, our temple is destroyed? That what we were doing there all those years was somehow not what God wanted us to do? Why would God do such a thing?

Look again at the end of the passage. God appoints Jeremiah to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, but also to build and to plant. That is the key to understanding the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah. The destruction of everything the people of Israel had worked so hard to create was necessary in order for the Word of God to build and to plant what God had in mind for them. God’s last Word is not the destruction that the people would see all around them, but new life. New hope. A renewed and re-created world.

Think about your own life and times. What in your life has been shattered and scattered? What destruction has happened to you out of the blue? And what Word did God send to you, to help you understand it? A Word that perhaps at the time you did not recognize or embrace? A messenger you dismissed as a crackpot or irrelevant? A stumbling block you thought was just an irritant in your smooth trajectory to success? Perhaps it is only now that you can look back and see what it meant, and that out of that experience in which you were shattered and overthrown, God was indeed beginning to build and to plant something new and wonderful inside of you.


Saints and Superheroes

Proper 15 C August 15, 2010 Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18 Hebrews 11:29-12:2; Luke 12:49-56

We are making a saint today. And all around us are a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on.

Several years ago, Hillary Clinton wrote a book: It Takes a Village. She got the title from an African proverb: it takes a village to raise a child. It takes all the people who love a child, who care for the child’s future, to support that child into maturity. It’s not just the parents, the little nuclear family, who have to carry this burden alone: it takes a village. Or in our modern American context, it takes all of our extended family, the people we are born related to and the people we choose to be related to – our special friends – to support and love a child, and help him or her grow up to be the adult they want him to be.

We are all here today for Ernesto Jose. We are that modern village, a collection of family and friends – some very close to Ernesto Jose indeed, and some of us who maybe are just meeting him today for the first time. It takes all of us to raise this child, or in the words of the baptismal service, it takes all of us to see that Ernesto Jose is brought up in the Christian life and faith. Parents and godparents have the intimate, day-to-day responsibilities, but all of us here today in this church have a stake in how Ernesto Jose grows up. Today, we are making a saint.

What is wonderful about the church is that there are many more saints with us here today, cheering Ernesto Jose on – the Communion of Saints – the great cloud of witnesses, the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. There are those saints who are known only to us – parents, grandparents, loved ones who have died and gone before us. They are with us today. There are those great saints whose names everyone knows – great superheroes in the faith: they are with us today, as well. Today is also the feast day of Our Lady, St. Mary the Virgin, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Yes, indeed, all the saints in heaven and earth are here with us today.

Those saints are like superheroes to us – the examples of wise and brave ones who help us in our everyday lives. When we wonder if we are making the right decision about something important, when we need help with our family, or raising our children, or worrying about what is around the next corner, we can just call those superheroes to our minds, for help and guidance and wisdom. How would we make it without those special personal saints of ours, those superheroes known perhaps only to us alone?

So, as we baptize Ernesto Jose today, we may be making a new saint, but we are also making some new superheroes: you who love Ernesto Jose the most – you parents and godparents and dear friends: you are being made into superheroes today. To Ernesto Jose you will be those great and wise ones to whom he will look for love and guidance. If it takes a village to raise a child, well, in today’s world it takes a village of superheroes to raise a child. We all know the stresses and strains on family life, and no, no one can do it alone. No two parents can do it alone, no matter how superheroic. It takes friends, family, teachers, counselors, fellow church-goers, neighbors. All of us here are cheering you on.

The bible tells us we are running a great race: a race toward God, really, toward our home, toward our hopes for a world in which all children are as beloved and cared for as Ernesto Jose. There are times when that race is tough, the course is bumpy, when we slow down or get side tracked. Sometimes we think we’ll never get to the end, we’re discouraged or troubled. But it is just at those times when the going gets rough that the superheroes really start to cheer us on. That’s when the saints earn their stars and the cloud of witnesses work up a head of steam. They are not going to leave us to run this race alone. Listen. Can you hear? They are with us.

Ernesto Jose, welcome to the company of the saints in light.

Our own personal Gulf of Mexico

Proper 13 C August 1, 2010
Hosea 11:1-11;
Psalm 107
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures in heaven …”

When I was a child, the priest switched around the words of that verse from the Gospel of Matthew. He quickly rectified his mistake, we all laughed, and he continued with the offertory sentence in the familiar way:

“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”[i]

I think one of the reasons we laughed is that many of us probably wanted to lay up treasures on earth, despite all those risks Jesus mentioned. We would nod sagely at the prospect of the true treasure that would lie in our hearts, but isn’t the desire to accumulate things just built in to human nature? A dictionary search on the word “greed” reveals the Old English word grædig, meaning “voracious” or “covetous.” The root is found Old Saxon and Old Norse, in words meaning hunger, or eager. In Greek, the word was philargyros, literally, “money-loving.” A German word for it is habsüchtig, from haben “to have” + sucht “sickness, disease,” with sense tending toward “passion for.” The word “greed” has long conveyed, in many languages, the power of just how eagerly we desire things – indeed greed “is a sickness to have something.”[ii]

Or, in the words of Gordon Gekko, the anti-hero of the 1987 film, Wall Street, “Greed is good.” If such a tendency toward greed is an old human trait, so too do equally ancient sacred texts urge us to turn from these wicked ways. Jesus is very much in this very real world here, with his conversation with the unnamed man he calls, “Friend.” Jesus is not particularly nice to this “friend,” teasing him ironically, and then denouncing the man’s concerns with the wealth he seems to be assuming is rightfully his.

Humans just seem to have a hard time with having enough. We all want to have more. And as St. Paul reminds us, that act of “wanting more – and more, and more” takes us away from God. The act of wanting becomes our god; we idolize greed. We worship it. We end up choosing all those things that money can buy over God. Amazingly God wants us anyway. Even with all that greed-worship, God still chooses … us.

The whole book of the prophet Hoses is about that love affair God has with us wayward humans who over and over again make the wrong choices. Hosea reminds the people of all the things they have done, and how angry this has made God. But in one of the most poignant verses in all of scripture, Hosea uses the intimate language of home and family to describe just how deep God’s love is for us:

When Israel was a child I loved him … It was I who taught Ephraim to walk. I took them up in my arms … I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down and fed them …

The people of Israel have been faithless and foolish. They have worshipped other gods, they have not followed the law God gave them through Moses. They have been greedy, unjust, selfish, murderous, adulterous – you name it. You know the drill. But through it all, this is how God talks about these people: with words of poignant passion, with the never-ending love of a parent for a child.

But as for us – well, there are some lessons that we never learn. Somewhere in all of our lives is a place like the Gulf of Mexico, a place that absorbs all of our baser instincts. I have heard that as terrible as this oil spill is, it is just the last assault in a long line of problems: pollution, excessive drilling, over-fishing. The dead spot in the Gulf is the result of fertilizer run-off from the upper Mississippi. The levees on the Mississippi keep the river in its banks (mostly) but also cause the erosion of the fertile and protective wetlands. The Gulf has been the place where if we wanted more, we just got it, no matter what the consequences. We greedy human beings know that place well; somewhere in all of our lives is a place like the Gulf of Mexico.

But also somewhere in our lives is a place where the love of God is known, a place where we know just how much God loves us in spite of our tendency to be greedy. There is always a chance to turn around. Even in the Gulf of Mexico many people are saying, Now, maybe, we can start really to clean it up, to figure out ways to end the complicated chain events that so pollutes that body of water and hurts the heart of God. If we can begin to turn things around there, don’t you think we can begin to turn things around here? God is waiting. Like a parent teaching a child to walk, God is cheering us on.