Author: Robert Cornwall

Bloom Where You’re Planted — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 18C (Jeremiah 29)

Amsterdam
 

29 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But 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.

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                The Word of the Lord was delivered by letter to the exiles living in Babylon. The mediator of this word was the prophet Jeremiah, who remained, at the time, in Jerusalem. Verse 2 tells us that this letter was written to the first wave of exiles, who were taken by the Babylonians along with King Jeconiah and the queen mother. It was before the revolt under Zedekiah led to the razing of the city, along with the Temple, but this word is a reminder to the exiles that they would be living in their new locale for a very long time. So, as the slogan that dates back to the 1960s declares: “Bloom where you are planted.”

                You can imagine how these exiled might have felt as they took up residence in a foreign land. They might have been wondering if their God had traveled with them. Did Yahweh dwell only in Judea and Israel? Were they in foreign territory, where different gods had control? Yes, this could be and probably was a rather depressing situation for the exiles. It’s good to remember that in the ancient world “church and state” were inextricably linked. So, had their god been overthrown? So, how might the exiles have heard Jeremiah’s word to them?

                I can imagine some of them hearing this word as permission to blend into the culture. When in Rome, does as the Romans do. Right? Now that they were in Babylon, why not simply become one of the Babylonians? If they worshiped Yahweh in Jerusalem, might they want to go to services at the Temple of Marduk? I don’t think this is what Jeremiah has in mind. The words we hear about settling in for the long haul by building houses, getting married, and having kids, doesn’t involve abandoning their calling as children of Abraham, Moses, and David. The monarchy might be teetering on the edge of collapse (remember that Zedekiah was simply a vassal placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar’s regime). For all intents and purposes, the monarchy had come to an end. 

 

                Blooming where you’re planted could involve blending into the surrounding culture. It is an enticement that is readily available in every generation, including the one we are inhabiting. The lure of power and influence, on one hand, can be intoxicating, of course, but so can the cultural benefits of blending in. Why not eat, drink, and be merry like everyone else? Could there be another way?

                The word of the Lord as delivered by Jeremiah seems to offer that third way. In counseling them to settle in by building homes, getting married, and having kids, Jeremiah is telling the exiles not to get depressed by their situation. Don’t despair. Make the best of things, but most of all remain faithful to their covenant relationship with God. While they may have once put their faith in a royal ideology centered on the monarchy, that was gone. So, a new vision is required for their engagement with the future. As Song Mi Suzie Park notes, “in the face of this religious upheaval, Jeremiah encourages the community to continue to have faith in God’s larger plan—a plan that seems utterly impossible, but which Jeremiah hints is possible for God. They are to hope and know that God can and will bring God’s promises to pass” [Connections, p. 377]. At this point, the Temple still stands, but soon that will be gone as well. Things have changed. There is need for a new covenant, and in time Jeremiah will reveal that covenant (Jeremiah 31). I should note that it is the promise of a new covenant that will give birth to the Christian movement. That is, in Christ we will be drawn into the covenant work of God that is no longer (if ever it was) tethered to the monarchy.

                The key to this passage is found in verse 7. It’s a verse that I find powerfully relevant for today, especially for those of us who live in large urban/suburban metroplexes. Jeremiah counsels the exiles to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

Here is where blooming where you’re planted comes in. This is not a call for separatism? This is not a call for the people to go out into the desert and plant a colony that is faithful to God but not infected by engagement with the surrounding culture. No, this is a call to engage the community, without letting the ways of the world determining the nature of that work. This engagement can come in a variety of ways. I will admit to finding the idea of God transforming culture attractive. I have engaged in community activism. For instance, I’m a police chaplain, and in that guise and simply as a pastor I’ve offered prayers at community events. I’ve tried to call on our better angels and call for doing what is right and not simply blessing the status quo, but I’m sure some might hope for a more “patriotic” form of prayer, while others might question why I participate in such events. In seeking the welfare of the city, we might want to make use of our rights as citizens (if we are citizens) to register and vote not only in national elections but local ones. We might even go further in that, but it is important to keep watch on our motives. There are other ways in which we might engage. Faith-based community organizing is an important contributor to the welfare of the city (and other spaces/places). The same could be said of faith-based community renewal organizations. My congregation supports two such entities, one in Detroit and another in nearby Pontiac. These entities have their roots in the faith community, but they are making the welfare of the community as a whole their primary purpose.

The promise here is that if we pursue the welfare of the city—the place where we have been planted—then we will be blessed as well. In fact, our welfare is tied in with the welfare of the larger community. The point is not engagement, but the form that this engagement takes. Is it defined by notions of worldly power or by the power of faith? Are we engaged in this work because we believe it is of God, or because we desire power?

We might want to sing Eric Routley’s hymn “All Who Love and Serve Your City” as we contemplate Jeremiah’s words, the second verse of which offers us a word of invitation: “In your day of loss and sorrow, in your day of helpless strife, honor, peace and love retreating, seek the Lord, who is your life.” We might feel as if this is a time of sorrow and strife and wonder if God is present in the midst of this moment. The counsel of the hymn, and I think Jeremiah, is to seek the Lord, “who is your life.” Regarding the city in specifics, the hymn ends with this word of promise:

 
Risen Lord! Shall yet the city be the city of despair?
Come today, our Joy, our Glory: be its name, “the Lord is here.”   

“The Lord is here.” Even in Babylon. That is good news. It doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for the city. Instead, it reminds us that we are not alone in this work, and the way we engage in this work out to reflect the relationship we have with the Living God who is present not only in Jerusalem but also in Babylon and beyond.

             This word is sent to exiles, refugees (perhaps?). From a North American Christian perspective, I have tended to read this as a word to how I should engage the city/culture around me. That is, I identify with the exiles. But, what if I’m not part of the exile community? What if I’m a citizen of the land in which the exiles are sent? What if this word is sent to exiles/refugees/immigrants who have made a home in my backyard? What if my welfare is entangled with their welfare? It is good to remember as Miguel De La Torre notes, Jeremiah isn’t asking the exiles to forsake their identity or heritage or their God. This isn’t a counsel of assimilation.

Jeremiah does not call the exiles to stop being Jewish or worshipping their God. Rather, as foreigners, we are to work for the common good of all who also inhabit the land where we find ourselves. Foreigners should be willing to learn from the land’s inhabitants, in the same way that the natives of the land can learn from the stranger in their midst. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, pp. 427-428].

                I have tended to read the passage from the perspective of the exiles, but what if I’m the host? Can we be both guest and host at the same time, and thus be equally blessed?    

 

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It’s a Ghost Town – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 17C (Lamentations 1)

 
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
they have become her enemies.
Judah has gone into exile with suffering
and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
in the midst of her distress.
The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter.
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has made her suffer
for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
From daughter Zion has departed
all her majesty.
Her princes have become like stags
that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
before the pursuer.
 
 
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                My first thought when reading this took me back to my childhood visits to “Ghost Towns” like Virginia City, Nevada. All through the American West one will find “Ghost Towns,” towns that are now abandoned or largely abandoned that once thrived on Gold and Silver strikes. Virginia City today is a tourist site, but once it was a thriving metropolis with mansions, saloons, and even a couple of churches, serving a fairly large population. Other such towns haven’t had the same luck as Virginia City in becoming a tourist mecca, but the image seems appropriate. Jerusalem has become a Ghost Town. What was once a thriving city, full of people, commerce, and glory, is now abandoned.

The words that begin the Book of Lamentations, words that are traditionally attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, invite us to consider the fate of Jerusalem as it experienced destruction, desolation, and the exile of its leading people. It is unlikely that Jeremiah is the author (while it follows Jeremiah in the Christian canon, in the Hebrew Bible it is found in the third section, The Writings (Kethuvim). Most likely the poet/prophet who wrote these powerful words was reflecting on the exile of Judah and grieving the destruction of the city and state.

The book begins with the words “How lonely sits the city” (NRSV). In the Tanakh (JPS) the phrase is “Alas! Lonely sits the city.” That word “alas” might be more powerful than “how.” It carries a sense of grief and mourning. The tone is that of a sigh. Yes, “alas! Lonely sits the city.” Ron Allen and Clark Williamson note that the Hebrew eka “is frequently used in laments to signal a tragic change of circumstance from joy to sorrow.” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 275]. With this opening word we get drawn into the grief of the moment. We might even begin to connect it with our own moments of tragedy and grief. Might we think of the events of September 11, 2001, and all that has followed? Is this not a moment where the word “alas” fits? Have we not experienced a fall from glory and a season of exile that seems unending? Do we not still sing the laments, liturgies of grief on anniversaries or as we ponder the unending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which likely spawned the war in Syria. “Alas! Lonely sits the city.”

In the words of the poet, Jerusalem is a princess who has become a widow who weeps bitterly in the night. Not only does she weep, but there is no one there to comfort her. All her lovers, her allies, have abandoned her. She is all alone in this city once filled with people. She feels betrayed by former friends who have betrayed her. In other words, her allies have turned against her and sided with her enemy—Babylon.

Now that she is in exile, living among the nations, finding no rest, with her pursuers overtaking here, she cries out in anguish. Indeed, we’re told that “Zion’s roads are in mourning, Empty of festival pilgrims; all her gates are deserted” [Lam. 1:4 Tanakh]. Allen and Williamson comment that the poet is reflecting here “an ancient Jewish view that nature itself was animated, ‘the roads to Zion mourn’ because the Temple is destroyed and people no longer come for the major religious observances.” Thus, “the priests groan not only because of the loss of vocation but because they depended upon the Temple offerings for food and livelihood.”  Even the young women grieve. [Allen and Williamson, p. 275]. It’s good to remember that Jerusalem was not only a political center—Judah’s capital—but it was a sacred site. It was the center of the universe, where God’s Temple could be found, and thus God could be encountered in tangible ways. All of this is now gone, and those who sing the lament do so wondering why. What sins had transpired that led to this situation where the sacred city is now ruled by its enemies. The answer must be that the Lord “has afflicted her for her many transgressions” (Lam. 1:5 Tanakh).

 

Our passage doesn’t end on a positive note. After all, this is a lament. It is meant to give voice to one’s grief, confusion, and possibly repentance. The future now lives in exile and its “young male rulers have become like stags without pasture, that is, without sources to sustain fullness of life and procreation (1:6)” [Allen and Williamson, p. 275]. We conclude with this sense that the future is uncertain at best. So, what do we make of our situation?

Laments like this are generally used in times of national crisis, and lectionary wise that situation might not always coincide. So, as we ponder the text, we might use this as an opportunity to reflect on grief and how we deal with it in personal and corporate ways. On the other hand, we may find ourselves in times where lament seems to be the appropriate response to the situation we find ourselves in. As I write this reflection, the United States has entered a period of uncertainty as the House of Representatives begins impeachment proceedings against the President. No matter how you feel about the President there is nothing about this situation that should give one glee. Indeed, this is a moment of lament for the nation. We might cry out that “gone from Fair Zion are all that were her glory.” The challenges of gun violence, whether mass shootings at schools and places of worship or simply random violence in cities and towns across the nation—these could give rise to laments. What of climate change and the continuing extinction of species? Yes, there is much to lament.

The lament begins: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” My first thought upon reading these words was the ghost towns I visited as a youth—towns like Virginia City—but these are symbolic of other cities. We might see this word as an invitation to consider the way we process grief, and that would be a worthy effort. We can turn to Lamentations as an invitation to lament national tragedies, whether a mass shooting at a school or a shopping center or a moment of national despair when it seems as if our government is failing. These would be good, but the lament begins with a word about the city.

If my first thought was the ghost towns of my youth, my second thought when I read this was the great cities of this country that are struggling today, as well as the great cities of the world that are facing myriads of challenges, including the devastation of war. Think of Aleppo in Syria or Kabul in Afghanistan. Closer to home, I’m reminded of the challenges faced by the city of Detroit, a city that once had nearly two million residents and now has less than 700,000. It’s not a ghost town, but vast swathes of the city are abandoned. Detroit is not alone. Flint to the north has lost half its population. I think of my own hometown of Klamath Falls. The population has remained somewhat constant but the lumber mills are gone along with most of the major employers of my youth. I’ve not been back in over a dozen years, but everyone says it’s not the same. I hear the laments for once was a great city.

We ask why? Why has Detroit lost so many people? We know that one reason for Detroit’s slide was “white flight” that began in the late 1950s and picked up steam in the 1960s and 1970s. As the city declined, the suburbs flourished. Yet, we lament. The church I serve as pastor had its glory years in the city of Detroit, but like most predominantly white congregations in the city, it eventually followed its people to the suburbs, but not without a great deal of grief. Whether it is Detroit, Youngstown, Klamath Falls, or Aleppo, the laments continue. We ask why? Could it be as William McClain suggests: “When people are oppressed, desolation comes. Those who should be prospering have been betrayed by corrupt political systems and have become slaves of the very system that should give them hope. But God speaks to us in exile, and God has not abandoned the city. The city is the place where the temple of God has always been—the center of things, at the heart of the people.” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 412].

How do we find hope in the lament? Although Jeremiah isn’t like the author of this lament, we might find a word of hope and purpose in Jeremiah’s word of guidance to the exiles in Babylon, whom he called upon to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer. 29:7). Thus, William McClain writes:

When we begin to understand that our future is tied to the future of the city, we will welcome the strangers (foreigners, visitors) and invite them to gather with us around a common table, a community bound by a common Creator, Redeemer, and Host! And the table will be the “Welcome Table” that my grandmother believed in and sang about. In these in-between times, it is a table where all of God’s children can gather around in one Communion, at a common earthly meal aw a rehearsal for the eschatological banquet. [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, pp. 412-413].

It is good and right to grieve what has been lost, but it is also important to embrace the present and future by praying for the city and thus gather together at the welcome table of restoration.

               
           
Picture attribution:   Circle of Juan de la Corte, 1580-1663. Burning of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar’s Army, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55724 [retrieved September 27, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Circle_of_Juan_de_la_Corte_-_The_Burning_of_Jerusalem_by_Nebuchadnezzar%E2%80%99s_Army_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

There Will Be a Future — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16C

32 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. 2 At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, 3 where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.

6 Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: 7 Hanamel, son of your uncle Shallum, is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” 8 Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord

9 And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. 10 I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. 11 Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; 12 and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. 13 In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, 14 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: 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. 15 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.

 

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            At first glance, this is an odd text. Preachers will wonder what to do with it. We know the context. Jeremiah is essentially in jail at the request of the king, Zedekiah, the last of the kings of Judah. He was himself placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, who according to Jeremiah 32 is besieging Jerusalem. That is because Zedekiah had rebelled against the Babylonian ruler (2 Kings 25:1). In fact, according to 2 Kings 25:1ff., Zedekiah had his eyes put out before being taken to Babylon in chains. It was after Zedekiah’s fall that the city and the Temple were destroyed. At this point in the story of Jeremiah, Zedekiah was still “ruling” but in rebellion. Jeremiah had warned him that things would not work out well for him. In the passage omitted by the lectionary creators, Zedekiah is told that he shall be taken to Babylon. His rebellion will not succeed (vs. 4-5). That is the setting for our passage designated for the first reading for the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Year C). So, what would a preacher do with a text like this?

 

            We are told that Jeremiah received a word from the Lord, and this word involved a person named Hanamel, the son of Shallum, who apparently is Jeremiah’s uncle. Hanamel will come to Jeremiah and offer him a piece of land in Anathoth because Jeremiah is next in line to purchase the property. That is, he has first right of refusal. Just like the Lord had said to Jeremiah, Hanamel came to him with the proposition to buy the land. Now, remember, Jeremiah is currently in custody and Nebuchadnezzar’s troops are at the gate. Hanamel is a bit insistent, it would seem. He suggests that Jeremiah has a duty to purchase the land (assumedly to keep it in the family). Jeremiah recounts that when he heard this, he knew it was a word from the Lord.

 

            Jeremiah purchases the property for seventeen shekels of silver. This is a prophetic action. It’s meaning will be revealed shortly, but Jeremiah takes it as a sign from God. It might seem odd to us—it may have seemed odd at first to Jeremiah—but it was a prophetic sign and Jeremiah couldn’t say no. Thus, he purchased the land. He took the deed and gave it to his assistant Baruch in the presence of Hanamel, who was one of the witnesses to the deed. It seems so run-of-the-mill. How is it prophetic?

 

            The answer comes in the instructions given to Baruch. Jeremiah told him to go and place the sealed deed in an earthen jar so they might be preserved over time. They needed to last a long time. Why? Because it would be a while before things got better for Judah. Yet, there is a word of hope here: “For thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: “Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.” (Jer. 32:15). That is it. This is the promise of this passage. It alone makes some sense of the story.

 

            There are times when the future looks dark. I recently read a biography of Franklin Roosevelt. As President, he faced difficult times (and I’m not talking about World War II). He became President as the country was mired in the Great Depression. While he created a variety of programs to put people back to work, most important was giving the people a sense of hope for the future. You can imagine the fear that permeated the land. FDR had a different position in the world than did Jeremiah, but Jeremiah wanted to give the people a sense of hope for the future. Buying a piece of land from a family member, and then placing the deed in an earthen jar that would preserve it, served as a sign that as bad as things might be at the moment, there will come a time when things will get better. People will again buy land. This piece of property, which I’m assuming Jeremiah didn’t live to see bear fruit, was just that sign of hope for the exiles in Babylon and those living in the besieged city.

           We should note that this word of the Lord follows the one in Jeremiah 31:31-34 that speaks of a new covenant. This is but one more reminder that God will fulfill the promise of a new covenant, a time when the people will be restored to the land. Still, what word do we hear in the world in which we live?

 

            I was flying home from Europe. We passed over Greenland—just the southern tip, but enough to get a sense of the land. I saw lakes and the ice sheet. I wondered, are these lakes the result of climate change. Will Greenland’s ice sheet turn into a great lake? Or is this just the natural order of things. I don’t really know, but it did make me think about the future of our planet. Should we purchase land for our descendants? Is there any hope? When it comes to climate change and the warming of the planet, there are grave concerns. Is it too late? Have we reached the point of no return? Should we purchase that piece of property, so it stays in the family for future generations?

 

            Jeremiah’s word of hope is given to exiles. They will return home someday. They will have the opportunity to again buy property in the land of their ancestors. But, remember that the jar must last a long time. It will be some time before things return to their previous state. But there is hope! Leonora Tubbs Tisdale notes that “it is often easier in prophetic witness to criticize the old order than it is to come up with creative avenues for purchasing and planting fields of hope in the very communities where we live and work. Jeremiah calls us to do both—even if our hope-filled acts seem absolutely foolish to the rest of the world.” [Connections, p. 340].

 

So, what prophetic actions might we take as signs of hope in our time? How might we embody hope for the future? What might be our down payment?


  Allston, Washington, 1779-1843. Jeremiah Dictating His Prophecy of the Destruction of Jerusalem to Baruch the Scribe, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55713 [retrieved September 23, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jeremiah_Dictating_His_Prophecy_by_Washington_Allston_1820.jpeg.

 

A Prophet of Doom? A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 14C (Jeremiah 4)

 

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
11 At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— 12 a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
22 “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.”
23 I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
    and to the heavens, and they had no light.
24 I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
    and all the hills moved to and fro.
25 I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
    and all the birds of the air had fled.
26 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.
27 For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
28 Because of this the earth shall mourn,
    and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
    I have not relented nor will I turn back.
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                Chicken Little was known for going around proclaiming that “the sky is falling.” He was proven wrong in his prognostication. The sky didn’t fall. Though plenty of so-called prophets of doom have arisen over time, no one really wants to be thought of as a version of Chicken Little. Nevertheless, messages of doom continue to be broadcast (now by way of social media). Sometimes these messages need to be ignored, but at other times they should be heeded. When the Weather Service forecasts a hurricane, you ought to take it seriously. Get out of the way, if you can.

The prophet Jeremiah, as we’ve seen in recent posts, had a penchant for his messages of impending doom. From the very beginning of the book, messages of judgment and impending destruction were revealed. If the people persist in their wickedness, they will perish (at least the nation as a nation will perish. That message proved correct. The Babylonians swept in, destroying the city of Jerusalem together with the Temple, after which they carted off into exile the king and leading members of society (along with, we’re assuming, lots of loot, especially gold from the Temple). These readings from Jeremiah are being heard, if chosen, as churches begin their fall seasons. So, are you ready to hear the word of the Lord as delivered by Jeremiah?

                A week past, the lectionary invited us to consider a reading from Jeremiah 18. Now, we find ourselves in chapter 4. It appears that we’re going backward. Why? I’m not sure, but such is the course set before us. As before, Jeremiah has a word of judgment to share with us. We’re not reading from verses 5 and 6 of Jeremiah 4, but it does set up what we’re about to consider. Jeremiah hears the word of the Lord: “Proclaim in Judah, announce in Jerusalem, and say: ‘Blow the horn in the land!’ Shout aloud and say: ‘Assemble, and let us go into the fortified cities!’ Set up a signpost: To Zion. Take refuge, do not delay! For I bring evil from the north, and great disaster” (Jer. 4:5-6 Tanakh). Yes, take cover, right now. Don’t wait any longer, for disaster is at hand.

When we come to the reading for the day from Jeremiah 4, we hear a word of judgment. The prophet, speaking for God, promises that a hot wind will come off the desert not to cleanse, but as a sign of judgment. What will that wind look like? Could it be the Babylonians? Having spent time in Jeremiah, we know that he promises judgment on the people if the nation doesn’t turn from evil. Though not part of the assigned reading, in verse 14, the word of the Lord declares: “Wash your heart clean of wickedness, O Jerusalem, that you may be rescued” (Jer. 4:14 Tanakh). Of course, we know the rest of the story. If there was repentance, it didn’t forestall the judgment that was visited upon Jerusalem and the nation.

                The core of our reading begins with the declaration “For my people are foolish,” therefore they don’t know God. In a parallel statement, Jeremiah declares on behalf of God “they are stupid children.” Yes, they are foolish and stupid, and thus don’t know or understand God. What they do seem skilled at, however, is doing evil. In other words, when God looks at the people, what he sees is a total mess. Foolish and stupid people who know not God but do know evil.

                Here the text takes a cosmic turn. Before this, the prophet is giving attention to Jerusalem, but now it’s creation. God has looked upon the earth and what God sees is something that is “waste and void.” The Hebrew is tohu wa bohu. These words are found at the beginning of Genesis 1, when the earth was “formless and void” (Gen. 1:2). The earth, it seems, has reverted to its original state. It is formless and void. The light has disappeared from the skies. The mountains are quaking. Not only that but humanity is gone, and the birds have fled. Farmland has turned to desert, while towns lay in ruin.  All of this is due to God’s “blazing anger.” Creation has reverted to its original state.  

                So, what word do we hear in this passage? Is there a call for repentance? When we read words of judgment, we often think of God acting unilaterally sending destruction down upon us. But might judgment come in the form of consequences? The judgment that came upon Jerusalem and Judah didn’t come in the form of lightning bolts. It came in the form of a conquering army. So, might the judgment coming upon us in our day be the consequences of our own actions?

                The word we hear in Jeremiah 4 is directed at foolish and stupid people who give no heed to God. Allie Utley responds that with regard to this word, “The reader must wrestle with the idea that when the people of God do not know God, all of creation will suffer.” Might we understand this word in light of the current climate crisis? Allie Utley invites us to use this passage as a “lens to think about ecojustice.” She writes that “our human actions have a direct impact on the earthly, both in our local communities and on a grand scale” [Connections, p. 306]. Hurricanes, floods, fires, drought. They are becoming more common. Island nations face the prospect that their islands could disappear in rising seas. Glaciers that feed river systems are shrinking. Unfortunately, there are those who wish to deny the message of the vast majority of scientists (this includes the current American administration and that of the president of Brazil, where fires are raging destroying the Amazon rainforests, which provide so much of the earth’s oxygen). They deny that the climate is changing, and seem hell-bent on rolling back every rule and regulation designed to protect the environment, and thus our future as a species. If we embrace these policies and the politicians who promise us good tidings if we ignore the warnings, should we not be counted among those whom Jeremiah calls stupid and foolish?

                There is no word of grace or hope in this passage as it lies before us, or so it seems. But then, isn’t that the point of a prophetic word like this?  If you don’t get your act together bad things will happen. The choice is yours. In this there is hope. If we heed the warnings of our contemporary prophets, perhaps we can avoid disaster.  

Picture attribution: Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. Starry Night, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55682 [retrieved September 7, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

 

Clay in the Potter’s Hand — A lectionary reflection for Pentecost 13C (Jeremiah 18)

Potter by Else Berg
Jeremiah 18:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 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.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. 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, 10 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. 11 Now, therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: 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.

 

 
******

                Most of us, at one point or another, have worked with clay. Perhaps when we were children we experienced playdough. It gave us an opportunity to express our creativity without making too much of a mess. When we were done, we could fold it all up and put it back in the can and try some different the next day. Later on, we might have worked with clay for a school art project. I have on my bookshelf a rather interesting-looking fish that my son created at some point. I can’t find a date so I’m not sure what he age he was, but I like it. Otherwise, I might not display it quite so prominently in my home study. Maybe, if we’re crafty enough, we might sit down at a potter’s wheel and create something beautiful and useful. As long as the clay is wet and malleable, we can do whatever we wish with it. If it doesn’t appear to be what we want, then we can throw it down and start over and create something else. The goal is to form something we find to be to our liking. We are the potter, and the clay is the material we use to create that item of delight.  According to Jeremiah, God is the potter and Judah is clay.

                Jeremiah doesn’t beat around the bush. He has a message for Judah. It’s a rather harsh word, but the times seemed to warrant it. When he delivered this word, it would do no good to suggest that all is well, when disaster is on the near horizon. It’s sort of like a hurricane warning. When you hear word that a hurricane is coming, you better figure out what you’re going to do quickly. Such is the case for Judah as the age of the Davidic monarchy is nearing its end.

Yes, God is the potter and Judah is the clay. God is attempting to form Judah into something that might lead to God’s delight. Unfortunately, this batch of clay resists God’s handiwork. It doesn’t want to be formed into something of beauty and value. If things don’t change soon, God may choose to throw it down and start over. Now, if Judah obliges God and lets God form it into something God desires, then all will be well. However, if Judah persists in doing evil, then God will throw it down and make something new. What do you think of that?

This is not the kind of message most preachers would want to take up (if it was me, I might choose a different lectionary passage).  Yet, it is a word to be considered. We can agree or disagree with the prophet. We might even decide to ignore the message. But, if we take it seriously, then what is the message God would have us hear?

We might want to start with Jeremiah’s context. He’s speaking to a community that is experiencing a traumatic moment. The nation of Judah is facing annihilation. Jeremiah was active in the closing years of Judah’s existence as a relatively independent nation. Before long everything will come crashing down as Jerusalem and its Temple are destroyed by the armies of King Nebuchadnezzar, while the leading members of society will be carted off into exile in Babylon. That things still hang in the balance suggests that Jeremiah and Judah are still experiencing that pre-fall position, but Jeremiah could see the writing on the wall. He sees what is coming, as do the people. They want to know why it’s about to happen.

The reading from Jeremiah is accompanied by a reading from Deuteronomy 30. Deuteronomy provides a context for understanding Jeremiah’s message to Judah. Consider this word from Deuteronomy:   

 

16 If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17 But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18 I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.  [Deut.30:16-18 NRSV]

If you obey the covenant stipulations, then things will work out for you. If not, if you choose to do evil, then you will be cursed. Bad things will befall you. Now, we moderns tend to read this individualistically, but Jeremiah is speaking to the community as a whole. This is a corporate message. Depending on whether the community obeys or disobeys, it will either prosper or be cursed. It’s pretty straightforward, at least in theory. Of course, life rarely works this way. The rain falls on both the good and the bad, and so does famine. This Deuteronomic vision is comforting but it doesn’t always work. Fortunately, the makers of the biblical canon may have understood this, because they provided us a Bible with the Book of Job to offer us an alternate view of things.

                In this word from Jeremiah, it appears at one level that there are choices to be made. Do what is right, and you will prosper. If you do evil, you will be cursed. The problem is that Jeremiah uses the image of clay, and clay is a passive object. It can be molded by another, but it has no ability to define itself.  So, could this suggest that maybe God has some responsibility here? Joseph Clifford, notes that “it was God who brought Israel into being in the first place. Can the potter blame the clay for its shape?” [Connections, p. 287]. What is at this point is the clay remains malleable. It can be formed and reformed. Once it hardens, it will simply break, and all is lost. So maybe what is clay is not Judah, but God’s plans for Judah.

                Like I said before, Jeremiah was not one to pull punches. His words were often harsh. But, he had good intentions. His job was to warn Judah of their impending doom if they didn’t change their ways. This was a moment of crisis. The hurricane (a major hurricane is afoot as I write this reflection) is heading your way. Evacuate now. Don’t wait until the water is at your door. The word is strong and pointed because the Potter wants to shape Judah into a faithful and just people. As Barbara Lundblad suggests: “Like the potter, God’s intent is not to destroy the people but to reshape them in faithfulness and justice. The final words of this text can be heard as an invitation: ‘Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.’” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 377].

                It is worth noting that the Psalm for today is Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18. It offers the word of comfort that’s not as apparent in Jeremiah. Reading from the Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society), verses 13-14 declare:

                It was You who created my conscience,
                                You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.
                I praise You,
                                For I am awesomely, wondrously made;
                                Your Work is wonderful;
                                I know it very well.
 

The Potter knows us well, and wants what is best for us, because as the Psalmist declares: “For I am awesomely, wondrously made.” The key is to do what is right before the Lord, to walk with God faithfully and with justice always abiding.

This is a word for us at this moment in time when the church is being tested. The world is watching to see what we will do in the face of the challenges of the moment. How will we deal with issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, immigration, health care? Yes, these are political issues, but they are also faith issues. As Jeremiah declares: “Turn back, each of you, from your wicked ways, and mend your ways and your actions!” [Jer. 18:11 Tanakh]. This is a word that is worth hearing. It is a reminder that God desires justice and mercy on our part. Besides, if we are created in the image of God, then we too are potters and there is clay set before us ready to be molded. What will we do with that clay?

                 
Picture Attribution: Berg, Else, 1877-1942. Potter, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55636 [retrieved September 2, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Else_Berg_A_potter.jpg.

 

Going Astray — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 12C (Jeremiah 2)

Jeremiah2:4-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the Lord:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
    that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
They did not say, “Where is the Lord
    who brought us up from the land of Egypt,
who led us in the wilderness,
    in a land of deserts and pits,
in a land of drought and deep darkness,
    in a land that no one passes through,
    where no one lives?”
I brought you into a plentiful land
    to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land
    and made my heritage an abomination.
The priests did not say, “Where is the Lord?”
    Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
    the prophets prophesied by Baal
    and went after things that do not profit.
Therefore once more I accuse you,
says the Lord,
    and I accuse your children’s children.
10 Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
    send to Kedar and examine with care;
    see if there has ever been such a thing.
11 Has a nation changed its gods,
    even though they are no gods?
But my people have changed their glory
    for something that does not profit.
12 Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
    be shocked, be utterly desolate,
says the Lord,
13 for my people have committed two evils:
    they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
    and dug out cisterns for themselves,
cracked cisterns
    that can hold no water.
*************************


If we define sin in terms of straying from the ways of God, then the prophetic literature in the Hebrew Bible is concerned with sin. Of course, in this case, sin is defined corporately and not individually. If you spend any time with prophets such as Jeremiah, you will hear a great deal about Israel’s (here I am thinking of both the northern and southern kingdoms though by Jeremiah’s time the northern kingdom is long gone) tendency to abandon the covenant relationship God had established with these people when God redeemed the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. While God is faithful to the covenant relationship, Israel seems unable to fulfill its side of the covenant. So, why is it that Israel continually fails to meet its responsibilities to the covenant? Did God set the bar too high, or do they seem unwilling to even try? Could it be that the offers made by other deities are just too good to pass up? It might seem like that is the answer, but according to Jeremiah, the promises made by these other gods fall far short of expectations.

 

In Jeremiah 2, the word of the Lord comes to the people. This word from God asks a pertinent question: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” This question is posed in a way that suggests that God has been wounded by Israel’s tendency to wander away from the relationship. God asks plaintively: What did I do wrong that your ancestors chose not to be faithful? Why did they pursue worthless things? Why seek baubles when you can have the real thing? That question continues to speak to us. Why do we choose lesser things?  

 

There is a second related question that gets asked twice in this passage. God asks why no one bothers to ask, “Where is the Lord?” The people don’t ask, but neither do the priests. It’s not that God was absent, but the people led by the priests simply ignored the God of Israel as they pursued other gods, including Baal. Do they think they’ll get a better deal from these other deities? After all, who brought the people out of Egypt? Who led the people through the wilderness? Who brought the people to a place with good farmland so they could “enjoy its fruit and its bounty”? Why did they not ask where is the Lord? Why weren’t they looking? Indeed, the Lord asks why the “guardians of the Teaching ignored me” (Tanakh). Why do we so often fail to heed the words of God?

 

The Word we hear in Jeremiah 2 comes in the form of an indictment. God is taking Israel to court. The prophet asks, on behalf of God, why do the people exchange their God—Yahweh—for what are in essence no gods? Indeed, Jeremiah shares the word of God: “But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” Why would you do this? Why would you exchange God’s glory for the dross of false religion? Yet, how often do we choose that which is contrary to the essence of faith?

 

As I pondered Jeremiah’s words about Israel’s tendency to ignore the ways of God—their failure to ask: “where is God?” —I thought of the American tendency to embrace forms of civil religion that contradict our faith. I think of the defenses made of slavery in the antebellum American south. The Bible was quoted, but in a way that contradicted the ways of God. I think of the current situation in my country, where a portion of the Christian community has linked itself to a political figure who has demonstrated no understanding of the teachings of Jesus, whose morals are far from that of the faith, and seems to believe that he is chosen of God because he promises to protect them from their perceived enemies. They seem intent on pursuing political power at all costs. Of course, this is a tendency that many fall victim to. As it is often said: politics makes for strange bedfellows. In other words, they have given themselves over to foreign gods, rather than giving themselves over to the God who brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

 

What causes confusion here, at least as Jeremiah presents the indictment, is why the people of God are doing what no other people would do. That is exchanging their God for other gods. Why do they abandon God who has demonstrated faithfulness? In doing this, they have forsaken the “fount of living waters.” Remember that in ancient Israel, water was scarce so you wanted to make sure you had plenty of water. The also dug out cisterns for themselves, but these cisterns were cracked and couldn’t hold any water. Why do this?  Why won’t they give their allegiance to the one who has proven to be faithful?  There is something of a parallel here to the question of Joshua to the people of Israel. The question posed by Joshua to the people concerned who they would serve. The answer that God desired to here was simply this “I and my household will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:14-15 Tanakh).  Will that be our answer?

 

Picture Attribution: Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319. Prophet Jeremiah, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46451 [retrieved August 25, 2019]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.

 

 

 

 

 

The Prophetic Call — A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 11C (Jeremiah 1)

God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth – Winchester Bible (12th century)
 
Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,
to pluck up and to pull down,
to destroy and to overthrow,
to build and to plant.”
***************
                I was ordained some thirty-four years ago, the day after I received my M.Div. degree. Even though hands were laid on me that day in June and I received the marks of the profession, I never expected to serve as a full-time pastor. I thought my call to ministry would lead elsewhere. I might not have envisioned the way things turned out, but you never know for sure where a calling will take you. Even if we sense a call to ministry, how do we know if it’s the correct course?  Should we expect to hear God speak to us verbally? Will there be other signs that will confirm the call? I wrote a book on spiritual gifts because I believe we are all gifted by God for service in God’s realm. Such service might entail ordained ministry, but more likely than not, it won’t. While these gifts might be rooted in our very being, I’m convinced that they can be used in a variety of ways both inside and outside the church. So how do you know where, when, and how gifts might be used in service to God’s realm?
                There are examples of rather dramatic calls to ministry to be found in Scripture. Moses sees a burning bush and Paul is knocked off a horse. Sometimes prophetic calls come in the midst of dreams and visions. Some, like Isaiah’s, are rather vivid. Others, like Jeremiah’s, are equally powerful, but may not be as visually dramatic. In most prophetic calls, the one called will resist. Moses did and so did Isaiah. The same is true of Jeremiah, as we see here in Jeremiah 1. In the verses preceding our text (Jeremiah 1:1-3), the narrator tells us something about the one whose call we read about in this passage. We learn that Jeremiah is a PK (a priest’s kid) who first heard the word of the Lord during the reign of King Josiah, Judah’s last great king. The Word of the Lord would continue to speak through him during the reigns of Jehoiakim and Zedekiah (both sons of Josiah) and continue on until Judah and Jerusalem went into exile. Jeremiah ministered to the people as they fell from glory into despair.  This is the context in which Jeremiah heard the call to prophetic ministry. While he resisted, he would, in the end, embrace it.  
 
                The Word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah in the days of Josiah revealed to the young son of the priest Hilkiah, serving at Anathoth in Benjamin, begins with the declaration that Jeremiah was born—while he was still in the womb—God selected him for this job. The word that came to Jeremiah declared: “Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.” A passage like this is powerful. How can you say no if God intended that you follow this path even before birth? At the same time, it can lead to problematic conclusions. If we take this too far, we will have to understand the trajectories of our lives to be predetermined. If God intended for Jeremiah to follow this path, could he have done something else with his life? That leads to the question of whether I could have taken a different path in life. Do I have a choice in the direction my life takes? Because I have embraced an open and relational understanding of God, I do believe we have choices. While God issues calls, we can choose how to answer that call. In Protestant circles, the idea of cooperation with God often has been deemed heretical. I’ve come to see things in a different light, so how might we read this passage in a non-deterministic fashion?  
 
                I think we can start with Jeremiah’s word of resistance. Jeremiah wanted to make sure he was hearing God correctly. Besides, like Moses before him, he complains he’s not much of a speaker. He’s not been to seminary or taken homiletics. He doesn’t know if he’s a deductive or an inductive preacher. He’s not read Tom Long or Fred Craddock. He’s just a boy. While there have been lots of boy preachers down through the ages, who take homiletics before they took up their calling, I’m not sure that’s the point. Jeremiah wasn’t sure what to make of this calling. He wanted to make sure this fit with who he was.  
 
                Jeremiah might not have unclean lips (that was Isaiah’s defense), but he was young. Nevertheless, God was undeterred. He had chosen Jeremiah for this work, and God wouldn’t take no for an answer. God said to Jeremiah, don’t say to me “I’m just a boy.” I’ve got work for you to do. You’re the one I want to do this, so go and do it. Don’t be afraid of your audience, for I am with you. There is a passage in the New Testament that seems to echo this word. In the first letter to Timothy we hear this word of advice given by an older mentor to a protégé:

 12 Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I arrive, give attention to the public reading of scripture, to exhorting, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift that is in you, which was given to you through prophecy with the laying on of hands by the council of elders.  [1 Timothy 4:12-14].

It is a common complaint by young pastors that their abilities are discounted due to their “youth.” Timothy is told to ignore the complaints and instead tend to the work set before him. Jeremiah is given the same word of advice, though here it’s God and not a mentor.
                Having issued the call and answered Jeremiah’s questions, God provides the message. In Jeremiah 1:9, we watch as God puts a hand on Jeremiah’s mouth and says to Jeremiah: “Now I have put my words in your mouth.” Don’t worry about what you’re going to say, for the words will be provided. Once again, we need to be careful about how we read this. If you’re a preacher, does this mean that you can simply stand in the pulpit and without any preparation start talking? Does this mean that three years of seminary training are not needed or are irrelevant?  I hope that’s not the case! At the same time, the word here is simply a reminder that Jeremiah won’t be going out on his own. God will be with him by the Spirit.
                As Jeremiah goes out into the world, with the Spirit guiding and encouraging him, he has a job to do. God appoints him over nations and kingdoms. Jeremiah will pluck up and pull down. He will destroy and overthrow. He will also build and plant. There is both deconstruction and reconstruction. As a prophet he’s not only called to denounce or condemn the ruling authorities, he’s also called to provide an alternative.
                So, how should we hear this passage?
                Going back to the beginning, where we read of the call that occurs in the womb, might we see this as an affirmation of our own uniqueness as individuals? Might we not see this as a reminder that we are all unique, that is, we’ve been formed by God with a sense of purpose? It’s not that there is some kind of “purpose-driven life” that we must discern lest we take the wrong road in life. Instead, I would like to read this as a reminder that we are all gifted and called to be witnesses to God’s grace in the world. We’re gifted and called to speak of justice in the world. That may involve speaking truth to power. The other word we hear is that God provides the message. We might find it present in scripture or maybe somewhere else. What hear in this passage is that Spirit will lead us in bearing witness to God’s realm. As for those of us who are called to preach, it is wise not to hear this as permission to avoid doing your homework before you preach. It’s good to do your biblical and theological study before you preach. You might take a look at what’s happening in the world around you. What word might God have us hear as we traverse a world torn apart by violent acts and rhetoric? The way we respond to the call may depend on our place in life, but the responsibility remains the same.
                When the call comes, will we respond by singing the following?

 “Here I am Lord. Is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” [“Here I Am, Lord,” by Daniel Schutte]. 

Picture Attribution: God Touches Jeremiah’s Mouth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55596 [retrieved August 17, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:WinchesterBibleJeremiah(cover).GIF.

 

Great Expectations — Unmet? Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 10C (Isaiah 5)

Isaiah 5:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Let me sing for my beloved
    my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
and people of Judah,
judge between me
and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard
that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
but heard a cry!
 
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                Isaiah wrote a love song about the vineyard God planted. God placed this vineyard in a fruitful spot; cleared it of stones and debris; made a winepress; planted grapes. What a sight it was to behold. God even put up a watchtower in the middle of the vineyard just so that an eye could be kept on it. Yes, God loved that vineyard, but things didn’t go as planned. That beloved vineyard produced wild grapes not suitable to make wine. The love song quickly turns into something of a lament. It moves from a song to a parable about Jerusalem, Judah, and Israel. It is a parable about a nation that was expected to be just and equitable, and yet it turned out to be filled with iniquity. God had great expectations, but were they met?

                This is another oracle of the prophet Isaiah, who spoke for God primarily to the people of Judah in the eighth century BCE. His primary place of work was the southern kingdom of Judah, but Israel (the northern kingdom) was in his sights as well. After all, they were God’s people too! They were the wayward siblings, or so the people of Judah thought. Both would find the neighborhood to be a bit dangerous. They had bigger and more powerful neighbors like Assyria to the north and Egypt to the south. While the neighbors posed dangers, these two nations didn’t help themselves with their actions. In the previous reading from chapter1, we saw that God had become frustrated with the people, rejecting their sacrifices because they didn’t reflect the moral/ethical vision of God. The call given to the people was to cease doing evil and so that they might devote themselves to justice (Isaiah 1:10-20). The wording here is a bit different, but the concern remains the same. The people of Judah and Israel haven’t figured out what God expected of them. They didn’t seem to understand that God’s covenant with them required them to act justly. God had planted this vineyard and expected an appropriate return. We might call this allegiance or loyalty or obedience to the stipulations of the relationship. Here again, we discover that at the heart of those stipulations is a concern for justice. Unfortunately, it appears that the people haven’t been learning their lessons well, and so they’ll suffer the consequences.

                As the passage moves from love song to parable, we hear the owner of the vineyard (God) ask Jerusalem and Judah to judge between the owner and vineyard. What should be done with the vineyard that’s not producing as expected? What would you do if a vineyard wasn’t producing the expected fruit? Would you follow the example laid out here by Isaiah? Would you pull down the fences in disgust and let the neighbors invade? After all, you did your best. You picked out good fertile land, prepared the soil, and planted the right vines. But nothing worked like it was supposed to work. If the vine wants to produce wild grapes, which apparently aren’t what is expected or desired, then why not let the wild grapes take over? That’s exactly what the owner does here. The owner of the vineyard pulls down the hedge and lets the neighbors trample over the beloved vineyard so that in the end it is left desolate. Is this not what the people wanted? Did they not prefer to be wild and sour?

If this is written by the one we call First Isaiah, then timing-wise, this is the era of the Assyrian advance that will threaten Judah (during the reign of Hezekiah) and destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. In the parable as told by Isaiah, the land will not be pruned or hoed. Instead, it will become “overgrown with briers and thistles” and the rains that are needed to water the vineyard will not fall. Robert Ratcliff summarizes the message here in this way:

In the story of the vineyard, Israel has in effect decided that it wants to produce wild, sour grapes. To achieve that goal, the vineyard need only revert to uncultivated ground. The actions God promises—removing the hedge, breaking down the wall, ceasing to hoe or prune—are just God’s way of seeing to it that Israel gets what it wants. The prophetic word assures that God will not save us from the consequences of our own folly; often this is judgment enough.  [Connections, Year C, Vol. 3, p. 236].

                Verse 7 brings the parable to its climax. Here in verse 7, we find God’s indictment of Israel and Judah laid out. The indictment declares that God had “hoped for justice, but saw bloodshed.” The JPS translation has injustice rather than bloodshed (NRSV), but I think, either way, we get the point. That is, God wanted to see those wine grapes produce wine, but such is not to be. Why?  It is revealed here that the expectation was for justice, but injustice reigned. God desired equity, “but behold, iniquity” (Is. 5:7 Tanakh).

 

                How might we hear this word from Isaiah? What word does it say to our communities in the face of gun violence, racism, mass incarceration, voter suppression, attacks on immigrants, religious intolerance? The list is long. For those of us who preach, the list can be wearying, as the reality of injustice seems ever on our minds. While we might wish that there is no cause for divine judgment, which we often think of in terms of fire and brimstone being flung from heaven, perhaps there’s a simpler answer. Could it be that God’s judgment on us is found simply in the fact that we suffer consequences of our choices? There are theological and philosophical arguments that can be made one way or another about God’s responsibility for things like natural calamities, but even there we may be implicated. Climate change, for instance, is contributing to natural disasters, and we have been contributing to these disasters by our own choices. So, if we choose a path of injustice, might not that choice catch up with us at some point? So, what does God expect of us? The answer seems clear enough. God expects justice from us. It is the key to the relationship. Worship is good and proper as we learned from Isaiah 1, but it begins in our interpersonal relationships.

Attribution:  Millet, Jean François, 1814-1875. In the Vineyard, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=50342 [retrieved August 12, 2019]. Original source: http://www.mfa.org/.

 

True Worship and Justice – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9C (Isaiah 1)

Herbert Hoover birthplace. Iowa
Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
1 The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
10 Hear the word of the Lord,
    you rulers of Sodom!
Listen to the teaching of our God,
    you people of Gomorrah!
11 What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
    says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
    and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
    or of lambs, or of goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
    who asked this from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
13 bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
14 Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
17     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.
18 Come now, let us argue it out,
    says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
    they shall be like snow;
though they are red like crimson,
    they shall become like wool.
19 If you are willing and obedient,
    you shall eat the good of the land;
20 but if you refuse and rebel,
    you shall be devoured by the sword;
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
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                The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah don’t have a good reputation. They are often fodder for prophetic comparisons. Jesus compared the towns in Galilee who rejected his message to Sodom (Mt. 11:24). In the preceding two weeks, the lectionary offered us readings from Hosea, who spoke words of judgment and grace to the northern kingdom of Israel. Now the lectionary takes us south to the nation of Judah. Here we find the prophet Isaiah, speaking to the nation of Judah and the city of Jerusalem during the eighth-century reigns of Uzziah and his descendants to the time of Hezekiah (vs. 1). The prophet brings an indictment against the nation of Judah using the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that had been faced divine judgment, as a foil. These two cities have continued their notoriety down to the present. Unfortunately, they have been used by anti-LGBTQ preachers to condemn those whose sexual orientation or gender identity skew differently than the majority population. Such is not the case here in Isaiah. The prophet has something else in mind. That something else is essentially false worship. The concern here is worship that is offered by those who engage in unjust acts.
                 In verse 9, a verse not included in the lectionary, we hear this dire warning: “Had not the Lord of Hosts left us some survivors, we would be like Sodom, another Gomorrah.” It’s a declaration picked up by Paul in the letter to the Romans (Rom. 9:29). I am by inclination something of a universalist. I want to believe that in the end all will be reconciled. Yet, we have these words of judgment present in Scripture. They won’t go away, as if nothing mattered in life. At the same time, this word about survivors serves as a reminder that God is faithful to the covenant, even if the nation is not.  
 
This passage in Isaiah 1 doesn’t start out well. God says to the people whom God designates the “chieftains of Sodom” and the “folk of Gomorrah”: “What need have I of all your sacrifices?” God has had enough of their burnt offerings. God is tired of them trampling God’s courts. Their incense is an offense to God, along with their festivals and worship services. Indeed, we hear through the prophet’s voice the word of the Lord: “And when you lift up your hands, I will turn My eyes away from you; though you pray at length, I will not listen” (vs. 15 Tanakh).
 
                What does God require of them, instead of their crime-stained worship services?  God wants them to put away their evil deeds. God wishes them to “learn to do good, devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow” (vs, 16-17 Tanakh). You hear an echo of this declaration in the words of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27 NRSV). In fact, when we read the book of James, we find important continuity with the prophets. Thus, the prophet speaks not only to his own day but to our own. It is a word to the church that has, unfortunately, tended to support oppressive movements. Slavery was defended in the nineteenth century as biblical. Martin Luther King had to issue his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” because white clergy (like me) counseled against pushing the envelope on civil rights. Isaiah declares that God prefers justice to our sacrifices. Nevertheless, the compassion of God is sufficient to turn things around. Our sins might be as scarlet, but they can be like snow. They will be washed away if we are willing to obey God’s vision for humanity. That vision is one of justice, mercy, compassion. The alternative isn’t good.  
 
                Having heard the indictment and the reminder that God expects justice from God’s people, that does not mean God doesn’t welcome our worship. As Ron Allen notes, “The Priestly God does not object to worship as such. God objects to worship that is not rooted in authentic desire to honor God’s purposes by living in mutual support,” Allen goes on to address the problem of churches blessing uncritical nationalism, as revealed in the slogan “’America First’ even when doing so harms the quality of life of people in other lands, and when doing so will eventually harm the quality of life in the United States” [Connections, 218].  Cyprian of Carthage, writing in the mid-second century CE, addressed this call to connect worship and justice:

Let us offer our complete faith, our devout minds, our obedience, and our continual labors to the Lord that he may be pleased with us. Let us give earthly garments to Christ so that we receive heavenly robes; let us share food and drink in this world so that we may join Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the heavenly banquet. [Quoted in Connections, p. 219].

Cyprian seems to draw in part upon Jesus’ vision of the day of judgment in Matthew 25. Isaiah has a similar vision as well. How might we, living in this age of Trump, when many in the church have embraced a repressive vision for the nation, one that turns away the refugee, neglects the hungry, and encourages narcissism? Isaiah has a warning for us. If we gather for worship but neglect justice, God will not be pleased. With that in mind, the better way is to walk in obedience to the God who demands justice.   

 

Beloved Children – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8C (Hosea 11)

 
11 When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.
Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
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 to them and fed them.
They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.
How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
How can I make you like Admah?
How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.
10 They shall go after the Lord,
who roars like a lion;
when he roars,
his children shall come trembling from the west.
11 They shall come trembling like birds from Egypt,
and like doves from the land of Assyria;
and I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.
 
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                God is love. God is compassionate. Yet, God can get frustrated. We who are numbered among God’s creation, tend to do what is good in our own eyes. We have the freedom to do so, but often it is too our own detriment. Parents understand this. Children are loved, even though they can frustrate. Of course, parents ought to remember that they too were once children. We who are parents once frustrated our own parents and the same will be true from generation to generation. It is good to remember that Scripture speaks regularly of God’s relationship with humanity as one of parent and child. So, maybe human experience can help us understand God’s experience with us, experience that involves compassion and frustration. In this chapter we see God teaching the children of God to walk. God bends down to feed the children. God cares for the people, providing healing when needed. The vision here is kenotic. We see God act in human terms; terms we can understand. God is not a human being, and yet we require human terms to catch a vision. What better image than that of the parent and the child.

                The book of Hosea records the prophetic work of an eighth-century prophet who is perhaps best known for marrying Gomer and using her unfaithfulness as an illustration of Israel’s unfaithfulness. Marvin Sweeney puts it this way: “Hosea draws upon the traditional portrayal of Israel as the bride of YHWH to charge that Gomer/ Israel had engaged in harlotry by pursuing other lovers, prompting Hosea/ YHWH to punish the wayward bride with divorce.” [Sweeney, Tanakh: A Theological and Critical Introduction to The Jewish Bible (Kindle Locations 9564-9566). Fortress Press.] There is divorce, but also restoration. Thus, as Sweeney notes, judgment is not final but preliminary to restoration. The reading for the week from Hosea 11 looks back to Egypt, when God led Israel out of slavery and on to the Promised Land. The Tanakh personalizes the message of divine love: “I fell in love with Israel when he was still a child; and I have called [him] My son ever since Egypt” (Hos. 11:1). Nonetheless, despite this divine love for Israel, “they went their own way” by sacrificing to Baal. Despite God’s efforts to pursue a relationship with Israel (like Gomer) pursued other loves (other gods). Though God pampered Ephraim (another name for Israel), the nation “ignored my healing care” (vs. 3 Tanakh).

                When we read a book like Hosea, which at points is difficult, we discover that God is faithful despite our unfaithfulness. God invites, we spurn. God pursues. We do our own thing. God redeems. Hosea spoke to a nation that would in time disappear from history. Though Israel put its hope in Egypt (rather than Yahweh), Assyria would eventually sweep in and destroy Israel. Despite the fate of Israel, the messages delivered in the eighth century by Hosea were retained and passed on. They continue to remind us of God’s compassion despite our tendency to pursue agendas that run counter to that compassion. The word here has to do with the pursuit of other gods. There is a warning. The nation will suffer. Assyria will be their king, “because they refuse to repent” (vs. 5 Tanakh). So, God will allow them to suffer the consequences of their decisions. “The sword rages in their cities, it consumes their oracle-priests, and devours because of their schemes” (Hos. 11:6 NRSV).

                Despite everything, God is unwilling to give up on Israel. God has had a change of heart and won’t act on God’s wrath. Why? Because God is God and not a human being. Therefore, God will not come in fury. There are parental/familial analogies, but at some point, they will fall short. God is not a human being; therefore, God can see beyond the boundaries we run up against. While Israel (northern kingdom), as a nation, will come to an end in 721 BCE as a result of the Assyrian conquest, scatting its people, if we read the New Testament carefully, we will discover the presence of a remnant, the Samaritans. These people claimed descent from those original people who inhabited the land. I’m not sure what to make of this relationship, except that it does suggest (in my mind) the possibility that God was not left without a remnant who might be restored to their homes.

Among the questions that emerge from this passage of Scripture concerns the relationship between our unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness. How does God come to us as a parent whose compassion includes discipline but doesn’t end there? I’m of the opinion that there are consequences to our actions. When we choose a pathway in life that is destructive, we will likely suffer the consequences. But that doesn’t mean we’re without the possibility of redemption or restoration. The message here is that God is always there, willing to bring healing and wholeness to our lives, despite our unfaithfulness.

Hosea spoke to the people of Israel (northern kingdom) living in the eighth century shortly before the fall of the nation to the Assyrians. The fall was quick and complete, and yet there was the promise of God’s faithfulness. Perhaps it served as a warning to the southern kingdom, which survived for a time, but after its fall did experience restoration. So, how do we hear this word? What message does God have for us through the voice of Hosea that speaks to our contemporary situations? For me and many who read this, it will be an American context. Many who read will be, like me, of European descent (white). There is unfaithfulness to God’s vision for humanity present in our context, including the church. We too follow after idols. They may be different in some ways from the gods Israel pursued, but they are idols nonetheless. They are enticements to follow a path of unfaithfulness. The list is extensive. It includes materialism, nationalism, imperialism, racism, sexism. You can add on to this list as you please. Ultimately, they are all idols that call out to us, inviting us to take a path away from the path God would have us walk. God may reach out to us as a loving parent, ready and willing to bind our wounds and embrace us with divine love.

I should note that we moderns tend to read passages like this in individualistic terms. For his part, Hosea was speaking to the community. We might want to hear this word as a word to the community because it’s rare that we simply walk in our own pathways. We tend to follow the lead of others. As a broader community, we’re hearing messages of division, of hate, of violence. The loudest voices seem to emerge not from the light but from the darkness. To give but one example, recent polls that suggest that the vast majority of white evangelicals do not believe the United States has any responsibility for refugees. Before we tar and feather evangelicals, the polls suggest that white Mainliners aren’t much more compassionate. Why is this? What idols are we pursuing that lead us astray? The previous ten chapters of Hosea speak of God’s frustration and anger. God is not happy with Israel. I dare say, God is not happy with the United States of America (and a lot of other nations). Here in chapter eleven, we hear a word of grace and compassion. We may suffer the consequences as a country and as a world and as individuals because of our corporate and individual unfaithfulness, but the good news, and there is good news to be embraced, is that God will settle us in our homes. We will experience restoration. Healing is possible. We simply must turn back, like the prodigal, and ultimately receive God’s parental compassion and love    

                 

                 

Picture Attribution:  Gogh, Vincent van, 1853-1890. First Steps, after Millet, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55507 [retrieved July 28, 2019]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1890_van_Gogh_First_Steps_-_after_Millet_anagoria.JPG.