Old/News

sermon on Jeremiah 36:1-4, 21-24; 31:31-34 and Psalm 137

 

Ecclesiastes, on of my favorite books in the Bible for sharing the dim appraisal I refer to as “realism,” gave us the line “there is nothing new under the sun.”

This reading from Jeremiah introduces a despicable and ignorant leader in government. His ignorance is in so intentionally ignoring this message, and despicable because he doesn’t care about the people he’s governing. We might draw connections to leaders who refuse good advice and seem concerned about nobody except themselves. There’s nothing new under the sun. This story is old news.

But as we seek association, let’s hear background of this Narrative Lectionary passage: Jehoiakim’s father Josiah was one of the great kings. He rediscovered what we know as the book of Deuteronomy, and when he heard those words from God read for the first time, he was so moved he tore his clothes, and went on to reinstitute a grand celebration of Passover for the first time in a couple hundred years (2Kings22-23). Picture if we had all forgotten about Easter, the central salvation festival of our faith, and then got it back.

Jehoiakim is exactly the reverse. He hears God’s Word from a prophet and ignores it completely, going so far as this memorable image of cutting off each passage at it is read to burn it up. I wonder whether he carelessly dropped them into the flame or crumpled and threw them?

Josiah had been killed by Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, who also then deposed another son of Josiah’s and made Jehoiakim king. In the meantime, the Babylonians became the mightier power and Jehoiakim served them as vassal for three years, paying steep tribute through heavy taxes, until the Babylonians attacked, laying siege to Jerusalem, eventually killing Jehoiakim and installing his brother as king, until deporting him and many of the officials and elites into exile.

Around Jehoiakim, his people suffered, with food supplies cut off and no resources to support life. It’s a telling detail that the king is waiting out winter with a warm fire going, into which he’s feeding the scraps of the scroll, since many of his people were freezing and starving. It’s in a palace he built without paying his workers (22:13). Worse, this focus on luxury is the opposite of his father’s pursuit of justice, of helping the poor and needy.

That amplifies the tragic detail in verses we skipped over that Baruch the secretary had read the words of Jeremiah to an assembly of the crowd, who repented and listened exactly to what God was saying to them. With words that doom and destruction could be averted, the people believed.

But when those words were read to the one in authority, he thought he could get rid of what seemed like bad news, like fake news, as we’re overly prone to say now, in perhaps an ancient book burning, an effort to stifle truth.

Of course it didn’t work. As Dr. King reminded us in a mix Lindy put together for the mosaic event yesterday, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” So just after these verses, it simply says, “The word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll” with an addendum that Jehoiakim would remain unburied, with no one from David’s lineage to sit on the throne, a reworking of God’s method.

Another method, a development of something new under the sun, this being on a scroll indicates spreading literacy at the time. Earlier, we heard of Isaiah’s lips touched with a burning coal, a purification meaning the message was mainly oral then. We may take the spoken word as an event, but the written word as a record. It would not be so easy for Jehoiakim to be rid of these words, written down to persist beyond destruction and exile even to our own day in each of our Bibles.

But it’s not just about a new medium, about God now being able to communicate to us not just with the benefit of the printing press or on radio waves and TV broadcasts and podcasts and YouTube and weekly emails on our smartphones or to use this sermon as it is posted on Facebook. Sure, God can make use of any of our new media.

The main point, though, is that God’s Word and promise is not stopped, cannot be ignored by burning a scroll or shut up by changing the channel or defeated by the destruction of entire cultures. “God’s Word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes who fear it” we sang in the words of Luther’s hymn on Reformation Sunday.

In the first place, we may take this as good news that God’s Word remains forever, that the catastrophes of despicable and ignorant leaders, even while failing to do it any great honor or service, cannot threaten entirely to undermine God’s Word and work.

Even though Passover’s central saving story had disappeared for a while, still God was present and operating and engaged. To the people in exile, another prophet would proclaim that it is not in their ability or memory, but in the love of a Mother God saying, “Can a woman forget her nursing child? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.” Even if churches close their doors or we were to forget Easter and never say an Alleluia and neglect to celebrate God’s consistent gift of life, still God’s Spirit would breathe that new life into us, raising us from death.

This promise is persistent. It outlasts current events, transcends our ancestors and descendants, overrules rotten rulers, compresses oppressions, and unravels the tangles of newest-fangled innovations. It is news that is more than old; it is eternal.

Still, we may wonder not only about an arc of the universe or God’s big picture plans, but may rightly ask about our own lives. I don’t suspect that’s only western enlightened individualism, not just selfish-preservation, but a fair and faithful protest. Psalms trust God’s attention to remembering overall, but still find voice to lament and ask, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Today’s Psalm is the most desperate communal lament, asking how the people could sing praise when in exile and things had gone so wrong. What were those people to do, who had listened to God but suffered because their leaders hadn’t?

What in the face of homes burning up? What of the death of the Great Lakes? What of injustice with racism raging across generations where—in the strong words of our youth Big Read book—“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everyone,” where educational achievement gaps and arrest rates and abuse patterns don’t just harm individual children but come around to bite us all and make life worse.

And what simply when life doesn’t go how you’d wish, when you’re not ready to sing songs of joyful praise, when your voice trembles instead or is distracted and preoccupied? In ways large and small that life itself is interrupted, or you are ignorant and not going along with how God would have things go?

For that, I can’t say why God doesn’t simply right the wrongs and change it all. Instead of intervening to shout down opposing voices, for whatever reason our God chooses forgiveness. God who always remembers, who will never forget her love for you, still promises to forget, in remembering sin no more.

In the face of what doesn’t go right, confronting what I call “realism,” God chooses to reiterate, to keep speaking the promise. When a king burns the Word, God speaks and writes it again. When you forget or when new problems threaten to overwhelm, or death or life make you question, God repeats.

Jesus speaks it again, offering the promise as himself, as God’s presence to go with you at this table, reiterating words of God spoken through Jeremiah, of a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins. This covenant can’t be broken, because God’s promise for you can’t be broken.

It’s the promise spoken to Demi James in baptism, still at the start of her life, and not dependent on anything else to come, but consistent through all of her moments, of healthy days or sickness, of fun with older siblings Leo and Alexa or when she’s feeling picked on, for the great days of learning at school or when she wishes she had more friends, for wins at sports or losses, for relationships filled with contentment or frustrations, for new jobs and for the daily grind, her greatest successes and worst failures, through whatever happens in politics to come through her life and immigration debates and environmental efforts and economy and wars that drag and on and on, on all the way to the end, but even beyond that to a promise of life to come.

For now we speak that promise and keep repeating it, a reminder of God’s love and life that won’t be undone. But for this good news, today God declares a new thing yet to come, of the time when we won’t need prophets and scrolls that can die or be burned, won’t need Bibles and sermons that are easily forgotten, won’t need Sunday School and all the reminders, much less dealing with questions of religious insiders or despicable and ignorant leaders. “No longer shall they teach one another, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD, for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. I will put my teaching within them, and I will write it…on their hearts; and I will be their God,” and you shall be God’s people.”

 

Hymn: “Each Winter as the Year Grows Older” ELW 252

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Jeremiah’s Letter to Exiles

a sermon on Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14

“My home is in heaven. I’m just traveling through this world.”

Billy Graham is among those to say things like that. It may not surprise you that I dislike this notion, locating faith as bound for far away, not here amid this world, amid creation. As an escape from our reality, not as God’s presence and engagement with us. I believe this world is our home. You’re not destined for someplace else. God created you and put you here, and our faith has its heart and essential vibrancy in that God is traveling through this world with you. Not only is this your home: the home of God is among mortals.

Yet that leaves some explaining to do. Not just for disagreeing with Billy Graham. Much more because this world is obviously so far from perfect and heavenly. We yearn for something much different, something better. That is what this heavenly notion points to—that suffering and worry is temporary, that those who are against you won’t be around forever, that the diseases infecting you and strains pulling at you and sadness drowning you will pass, won’t win, and besides coming to an end, must be replaced by wellbeing and peace and joy. Even if it’s having to wait until this life is over, still, if heaven were your home, then wrongs would by definition be a fluke, with bigger and better intentions for you.

I can’t just rule that out. The tension is that we do hope. We don’t simply resolve ourselves to say this is the best of all possible worlds, as bad as it is. We don’t put up with what’s not right as if pretending there’s nothing better. Our faith needs to say that God does not intend pointless suffering, that God is neither incompetent nor uncaring.* There must be some repair, some refreshing, some restoration and renewal. Whether elsewhere and later or here and now, we want something to hope for, to hope in.

Last week we heard hope with children, in a statement “unto us a child is born,” the possibility of the future, the very existence of a child’s life as a sacrament of God’s good intentions for life, with hope beyond the power of the fiercest empire, the ongoing turning of history, the sense of fresh beginnings.

Yet from Isaiah’s word then at the birth of Hezekiah, from his hopefulness that military might would not remain the determining factor against the people, from his declaration that even if you feared the darkness a light would dawn, as Isaiah’s vision was looking past the terrors of the Assyrian Empire, they ended up staring a short while later directly at another threat. Isaiah may have been right that the Assyrians wouldn’t conquer the southern kingdom of Judah. But the Babylonians did.

That meant the king and queen mother and family, the officials, the elders, the leaders, the priests, those with prestige or power, as well as pretty much anybody with talent or skills or crafting capabilities was deported, exiled to Babylon. They left behind the dregs of society, the poor and least talented, which included Jeremiah as sort of a remnant prophet, seen as not up to par with the others. And they left behind vast destruction. Much of the capital city of Jerusalem got obliterated.

That eventually included the temple, which bears a few extra words. A month ago, we heard about King Solomon building that temple, viewed as the dwelling place of God. Inside the Holy of Holies, seated on the ark of the covenant, was God’s place. That was where to go to get close to God.

Which raised the confounding question for Jeremiah’s people in exile: what happened to God? It wasn’t only a question of where to worship; they had to ask whom to worship. They were far from God’s place, but it may have even been that God was defeated, was gone. So what to make of life then?

Some counseled brief patience, that things would be brighter before long. These so-called false prophets—because they offered false hopes—said that the exiles would be home within two years. It’s a variation on being a stranger here traveling through this world, that you just need to put up with it, grit your teeth, grin and bear it for a little while, because it would soon pass. I read a phrase this week referring to their work as “merchandising nostalgia.”* Whether looking to the past or offering an impossible future, there is this business of trying to convince people of what will be, or could be, or anything other than present reality.

In the church, this it its own cottage industry, harkening back to the good ol’ days, when Sunday School classrooms were full and Wednesday night was church night and theologians had an important voice in shaping society and Christian values helped inform the norms of culture.

Those days aren’t coming back. One parent said this week that her child may be the only one in his class who goes to church. Lives are so fully programmed with activities that Sunday morning serves as another slot for more, or else the only pause during a hectic week. You know well you’re apologizing too often for allegedly “Christian” morality that’s perverse and shameful, like among those who remain vocally supportive of a senate candidate with predatory sexual tendencies. No, none of that points to a very immediate return to glory days of the church in America.

If such fears aren’t exactly where we’d set our sights at Advent and MCC anyway, if we’re pleased with Sunday School and using our voice for positive influence in culture and figuring out how to be Christians at this time and to live well, still we know the struggle.

On this day observed as Christ the King Sunday, we remember that this isn’t triumphal success or getting swept up in the endtimes, but is Jesus who loved to death, who told us to see him in the poor and hungry and imprisoned and ill and outcast, who revealed God for us not through visions of the future but within our own lives. We say he’ll come again. But we need him for now.

That’s also what Jeremiah’s talking about. He won’t claim everything will be alright, or same as it ever was, or all glittery and happy. Neither will Jeremiah suggest remorse that puts up with misery for the meantime. In this letter we heard today, he lets these people know they won’t be coming home anytime soon. It will be several generations before the exile is over. Throughout their lifetime, then, God’s word is to go ahead—to plant gardens, to have weddings and celebrations, even to strive for the good among their captors, to seek the good of the city where they didn’t choose to live.

It’s notable within this that Jeremiah doesn’t direct them how they ought to practice religion without the temple, when life won’t allow for weekly worship. Neither is there the standard biblical injunction not to get tied up risking intermarriage with foreigners. Indeed, before the people leave from Babylon they’ll have assimilated enough to take on Babylonian names and adopt some of the language as their own. They’ll have had to deal with the rest of life, like other foods and jobs and changed social standing.

With this, I read plenty this week on society receiving strangers, on what it means to be a refugee or immigrant, how they adapt to new cultures and maintain old identities. Those are important cultural conversations.

But I’m most invested in what God’s word means for your lives, especially those places you’d prefer not to find yourselves, for what’s not going perfectly, for what seems too often boring or frustrating or, indeed, hopeless. I hear dissatisfaction with jobs and worry at how family gatherings play out and the feeling of wasting valuable time that has been given to you, wondering what else may be and where faith fits into it.

I’m not immune from those things, whether with family friction ill-resolved by me or with spending my vacation day working on this sermon with diversions putzing with laundry and ridiculously mowing my lawn after Thanksgiving while distractedly and desperately pondering selfish wishes and seriously speculating on what would be more important, how I could really make a difference, what exactly life is supposed to be.

In that way, there’s a verse in our reading that gets an awful lot of attention. Verse 11 said, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not to harm, to give you a future with hope.” This verse suffers the inspirational merchandising of posters, graduation cards, mugs, blogs, and more. I take that to mean people like to focus on what those future plans of God might be, trying to figure out what is in store, to get geared up for it. It could easily lead to the sense that heaven is your home and this world is only an inconvenient temporary holding area. Or, maybe less supernaturally, that God has big intents and purposes to prosper your life, so you probably should be doing something else, more important and exciting, or even just dreaming about it.

Those reading the Reinhold Niebuhr book might have come across the quote that Christians shouldn’t presume to know too much about the temperature of hell or the furniture arrangements of heaven. It’s the sense that we can’t predict much of any of what is yet to come.

Jeremiah 29:11 says you don’t need to predict it. Your future is entirely secure with God. There is no reason in the world to doubt God’s unfailing goodness and unconditional love for you. God will give peace more than you can possibly understand. You are secure in God’s blessing and promised life. Even if you waste your time or miss the point or blow it completely. Even if you try your hardest and nearly succeed. If you meet everybody’s goals or fail at every last expectation. If you feel comfortably at home or like everything is foreign and you’re far from where you’d prefer to be, still God’s assurance remains with you.

Since you don’t need to be elsewhere or elsewhen, the remaining question is, what do you do for now? One good set of answers: don’t just pass through. Instead, care for the city. Celebrate life. Build your house and cultivate your garden.

* http://www.enterthebible.org/oldtestament.aspx?rid=44

* Peterson Run with the Horses p150 (cited by Andy Twiton)Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150 Peterson, Run with the Horses, Pg. 150

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The Good, the Bad, and Who’s Godly?

sermon on Jeremiah14:7-10,19-22; Psalm84:1-7; 2Timothy4:6-8,16-18; Luke18:9-14
Today we rejoin the Revised Common Lectionary. After fruitful and pleasant byways through oceans and with animals and amid storms and across the universe, we’re once again re-entrenched in sad realities of humanity, readings brimming with issues of arrogance and shame and exclusion.

Now, you may not feel you need to have these tendencies pointed out to you since, you’ve got American democracy, which has seemed intent on highlighting the very worst possibilities of gloating and blaming and fostering divisiveness and refusing to be humbled or shamed. But we’re likely not looking to politicians as our examples (tragic though that may be), so maybe it is worth re-grounding ourselves in these Bible readings.

It strikes me that there are sort of four quadrants or types in the mix of characters today. There are wrongly proud and rightly proud, and rightly humble and wrongly humble.

Let’s begin with the glaring example: the wrongly proud, namely the Pharisee in our Gospel reading or as Linda portrayed it for the children, as she is boasting about her devotions and comparing herself not only favorably but superlatively over others. She could use the elementary school reminder that when you point a finger at somebody, three fingers are pointing back at you.

A couple obvious notes about her: First, she was not doing a bad thing, but was trying to claim extra credit for a good thing. Our spiritual practices aren’t to earn us points. We don’t pray so we can use it as a bargaining tool. We don’t come to church as leverage to convince God we’re better than others.

Even tithing, that the Pharisee returned 10% of her income, is a good and worthwhile devotion. She’s not hoarding. She’s helping sustain the religious institution. She understands that what she has isn’t simply hers earning to be disposed with as she likes but is shaped by her connection to God and the community. During this time when we attend more directly to our giving and financial devotion, I’m certainly not going to tell you that being intentional and committed about how much you give is wrong. But I will remind you it’s about your faith practice and about the good of this community. As I suspect you already know, the return on your investment here is much more delight and joy than something to be held over others.

Which brings us to the other thing to notice about the wrongly proud Pharisee: She has herself awfully convinced that she’s better, that the tax collector couldn’t possibly fast or give 10% of his income (much less 11%!). In self-exaltation, she refuses to see others as anything but negative, as “greedy, dishonest, and impure” (in Don’s rendition).

That’s the risk for us and the trap we fall into when we only think how terrible others are. In another phrase of Jesus, you end up seeing the speck in your neighbor’s eye but fail to see the log in your own. With the 8th Commandment, Luther’s Small Catechism reminds us that not bearing false witness means we “do not tell lies about our neighbors …or destroy their reputations. Instead we come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” Whew! Such reflection is so continuously important, partly because it’s so challenging. It’s not just presidential candidates, but we also need to work on perceptions of situations from ex-spouses to violence in the Middle East, from people who are criminals to those who annoy us.

A small story: this week when I went to the hospital to visit Ken Johnson, the staff stopped me at the door and told me to wait down the hall so they could do their stuff for him first. After half an hour, I was out of time and they still hadn’t allowed me in. Feeling snubbed, I was hot under the collar even after my bike ride up to church. I was frustrated that they were dismissing my pastoral role and disregarding the spiritual care I was trying to bring. I was sure that I was in the right and they were neglecting to understand how right I was, even though I didn’t pause to consider the good they were offering Ken. I’m hoping there’s some gray area, that I’m not just like the Pharisee in wrongful pride and self-assessment, but may also have characterized my role rightly.

That uncertainty points us toward the next quadrant, the rightfully proud, possibly exemplified in the reading from 2nd Timothy. The author has done everything right—he’s “fought the good fight, finished the raise, kept the faith,” and is expecting to be judged as worthy of a “crown of righteousness.” His attitude may not be apparently very different from the egocentric Pharisee, except perhaps that the writer of 2nd Timothy isn’t trying to disparage others, but even prayed for them. That might be enough. Or maybe also where the Pharisee elevated himself over others, causing separations, in the case of 2nd Timothy others excluded him. He felt like an outcast, deserted by those he expected to count as supporters. Indeed, in the verses that the lectionary bypasses, he names others who have left to work elsewhere or have somehow disappointed him.

It’s a hard line to determine; there are lonely martyrs from time-to-time, those who take a hard stand for the right thing even when nobody else is willing to stand with them. But if we’ve got no community standing beside us and are against the whole world, we probably should be pretty careful about who or what we’re resisting and how our motives or convictions are formed.

With that feeling of abandonment or oppression, we may move from the rightly proud to the wrongly humbled or ashamed. There may be an edge of example in the Pharisee’s prejudice against the tax collector. Partly since we have a better sense of self-esteem than when our Bibles were written, this is a category we need to be aware of. We have come to realize that hierarchical powers label others with great detriment. Women and those without white skin have been told they’re not as good. Gender identity or sexual orientation can become marks to make people feel ashamed, as if there’s something wrong with you.

Or here in church: even if you don’t know the words for the liturgy or where to find things in the hymnal, if you’re a child who has been told to be quiet or a young person who hasn’t been fully embraced, if you’ve wondered if you’re wearing the right clothes or others are looking at you out of the corners of their eyes because you’re not here often enough, then you might know some of this wrongful shame, the place imposed on the tax collector by the Pharisee. To be shamed (by another) is wrong.

On the other hand, to be ashamed yourself may be right. We can still feel the force of this parable from Jesus because we might always want to claim excuses and exceptions for ourselves. But we have to notice that the tax collector wasn’t claiming something better for himself. It was wrong of the Pharisee to put him down, but it wasn’t irrational for the tax collector to feel shame; as Don indicated, he was an agent doing the dirty work of the ruling oppressive empire, taking wellbeing away from others by confiscating their livelihood.

For modern parallels, just as I’d hope we as religious people trying to be faithful aren’t equivalent with the wrongly proud Pharisee, neither should we equate that ancient tax collector with the IRS. Rather, we should see ourselves in him, pondering where we are agents of harm and oppression, collaborating with rotten and unjust systems, asking why we ought to feel shame. Maybe for all of our items labeled “Made in China,” we should hang our heads and beat our breasts. Maybe he felt humiliated because he wasn’t able to change or escape the destructive system.

Or maybe his humility wasn’t because he was a tax collector but that he had yelled at his family or been grumpy and pessimistic about the news or had cheated on his diet. Or maybe it was like the section I was reading again this week from Pope Francis’ ecojustice encyclical that said, “we should be particularly indignant at the enormous inequalities in our midst, whereby we continue to tolerate some considering themselves more worthy…more human than others, as if they had been born with greater rights” (2, V, 90). Maybe it was the very basic note that the tax collector didn’t need to count himself as better than others that enabled him to go home, as Jesus says, in right relationship with God and opens up God’s potential for his life.

Another perspective of being rightly humbled is in the words from Jeremiah. We only get a snippet of this stunning passage. The chapter begins by saying that these words were concerning a drought. Clearly the people were mourning and lamenting the drought, yearning for some rainfall. It says the farmers are dismayed (v4) and, in a heart-wrenching detail, that “even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn because there is no grass” (5).

I find it remarkable that this ancient biblical story attributed the ill effects of weather and dire results of a changed climate to the people’s bad behavior. Compared to their superstitions, our scientific understanding of our behavior and witnessing the catastrophe we are causing should certainly give us their sense that “our iniquities testify against us” in Jeremiah’s language and to “acknowledge our wickedness.” That would be honest shame and being righteous humility.

For all of this being about our attitudes and self-perception, we must close with a life-giving word on God’s attitude and perception of you. The most stunning word amid these sometimes bleak readings today came in the middle of the Jeremiah passage: “Yet you, O LORD, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name.” Even recognizing the wreckage they’d caused their society and environment couldn’t disrupt that core identity, and maybe it even contributed to their repentance and desire to do better.

This is your prime identifying mark. You are not known for the supposedly pious things you strive to do, not in the credit you claim you deserve, the accolades puffing your chest or the awards put on your shelf. You are not identified by how great you or others think you are. But neither is notoriety in what you do wrong or the marks that threaten to exclude you. And it may well be that in humility or even amid the desperation of shame, you see most fully your identity is secured by God’s presence and that you are marked and claimed in the name of the Lord.

That is why we turn to baptism now for Grayson Ward and Harrison Maxwell, sons of Marcie and Chris, to speak God’s promise to them that they are claimed and chosen. No matter how they continue to live this out in life, if they go on as well as we anticipate to receive praise and earn trophies or are labeled for some reason as wicked, as outcasts, as greedy or impure, as lowly and shameful as the rest of us, through it all, they are sons of God, known by God’s name, beloved forever, freed and forgiven. Thankful and joyful, let’s sing in celebration of this identity.

 

(Hymn: Baptized in Water, ELW 456)

 

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