Theme - the Lavish Love of God
Scripture – Jeremiah 1:5 …' I appointed you a prophet to the nations.' (NIV/NRSV)
'...I sanctified thee and I ordained thee.' (KJV)
Another influential Roman Catholic writer, Thomas Merton once wrote, '“Love is our true destiny. We do not find the meaning of life by ourselves alone - we find it with another.” I was reminded of this quote as I thought about the meaning of the Hebrew word that is translated in the verse above 'appointed' or 'ordained.' In Hebrew the word is nathan and it literally means gift. So God is saying to Jeremiah, 'I gave you as a gift to the nations.'
Eugene Peterson reminds us in reflecting on this point, that the life of Jeremiah is meant to remind the people that God is 'lavishly generous.' Story after story is meant to remind us of the wanton generosity of God. In Isaiah 55:1 we find God's response to the suffering of Israel during the Babylonian Captivity, ' "Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.' Notice the phrase, come without cost. God provides more than enough for the needs of those who have gone without. When Jesus describes God in the gospels God is often generous beyond comprehension. In Matthew 20 for instance, we find the parable in which the land-owner (God) pays the same wage to all his workers, regardless of whether they worked a full day or just the last hour. God is 'lavishly generous.' God delights in giving gifts.
In another First Testament story we see God trying to shape the Hebrews to be a nathan, a gift to the world by becoming generous people. As the Hebrews journey as refugees in the wilderness they do not find people or nations who are willing to care or provide for them. And they grow afraid that they will not have enough food to sustain them. So God provides manna from the heavens. With the manna, come instructions. Take enough manna for today but leave enough for your neighbors. The lesson is that when the Hebrews learn to trust in the abundance of God they will have a healthy society and experience the common good. When they grow fearful and selfish, they lose this common good. When driven by fear and selfishness we diminish to petty and violent people. This matters because the prophecy of the manna story has come true in Jeremiah's time. Judah has because petty and selfish and violent. They do not care for the poor and take advantage of the poor. In a sense, Jeremiah is the manna from heaven. This manna is the word of God reminding them that if they would trust God's abundance none would go without and all would live in security and satisfaction. This is the gift Jeremiah offers. Remember the generosity of God. repent of the small, selfish, cruel lives you have accepted out of fear.
The story of Jeremiah is a wake-up call to a society that continually says that it cannot afford to care for the poor and the sick. Those who trust in the Lord, who are shaped by Christ, live gracious, merciful, giving lives. We are created to be a gift. God has created each of us as a gift to one another and also to the world. Merton reminds us that we are created by Love to love one another.
Prayer – We begin our day with gratitude gracious and loving God. We are grateful for your mercy and grace which has forgiven our failures and nurtured our growth with love. We are grateful for the faith community you have created and led each of us to, which continues to care for us, forgive us and see the Divine Image within us. Fill us this day to overflowing with that same love and mercy that we might be a gift to all those who struggle. Remind us to live in and share this same love and mercy regardless of circumstance and so draw others to a relationship with the God who loves them because they have seen that love within us.
Theme - What Does God Think of Me?
Scripture – Jeremiah 1:5 Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you...
Roman Catholic Priest Henri Nouwen once wrote, 'My identity does not begin when I begin to understand myself. There is something previous to what I think about myself and it is what God thinks of me. There is something wonderfully freeing about what Nouwen tells us. Who we are, how we act, how we respond to obstacles and challenges, hurt and pain, how we choose a course for life, are all centered, not in the agendas and opinions of others, but in listening to 'the God who loves me.' The demands and expectations of family, while at times encouraging, can also be a pressure that inhibits us from growing into our truest selves. Traditions about what is good & acceptable can give us strong roots, but social pressure can also diminish us. For instance, many teens suffer the social pressure of bullying because they do not live up to certain standards. Think about what our culture has decided is both acceptable and attractive for a woman's body size and shape. Or think about the number of transgender teens who are homeless and who attempt suicide. In all of these situations, Nouwen's words offer hope. Before all of these thoughts, opinions, standards and images that shape who we are, is what God thinks of us.
Nouwen's words echo the words of God to the prophet Jeremiah. They are God's response to Jeremiahs own self-image. Jeremiah's own view of himself is that he is 'too small' to be the one who speaks for God. I don't know if that means he was literally very young, or that he sees himself as insignificant. The point is that the Jeremiah that God has created and sees potential, is much more significant than the Jeremiah that the prophet sees in himself. The self that Jeremiah saw did not believe that he had adequate words to stir the souls of his neighbors or the authority to even be heard. But God saw a different Jeremiah, who could speak with authority. What God saw the potential and the need for, God could provide the courage to pursue. That is one of the great challenges of the life of faith. It is God's call to reach beyond what we think is possible for ourselves as individuals or as a community of faith, trusting that God will provide what we 'know' we do not have. Perhaps this is the greatest challenge for the Church of Christ in this age when our social capital in on the decline. Fewer people attend, fewer people trust, fewer people care. But God's promise to provide strength when in faith we offer our weakness and our fidelity, still stands.
But the even greater challenge to us as disciples of Christ might be the centrality of faith to our self-understanding. Unfortunately faith and its practices, whether worship or even prayer, I fear have become occasional add-ons to our lives. Far too many other identities and practices lie at the center of our identity than Christ himself. Often Democrat and Republican, Conservative and Liberal, Native and Immigrant, shape who we are, how we act and how we think. The words of God and Nouwen and Merton do shake us from a cultural view in which each individual alone has the authority to choose and shape their own identity. And they shake us from the habit, innocently nurtured in which faith and its practices (worship, prayer, service, mission) are add-ons when convenient but easily dismissed when inopportune. Jeremiah was created and shaped by God for a great purpose. To awaken his nation to the evils they accepted which created poverty and suffering.
Prayer – Forgive us Lord for shaping ourselves in our own images, forgetting or ignoring the Divine Image we are created to bear. Forgive us if we has accepted or celebrated as a virtue character traits that do not reflect your son Jesus. Liberate us from the images and identities forced upon us by culture, by authorities, perhaps even family or friends. Rescue us from thinking too little of ourselves and free us to enjoy our identity which is your beloved. Empower us, in all we say and do, to reveal to others that they too are your beloved, even when they are not at their best.
Scripture – Matthew 14:28-29 "Lord if it's you," Peter replied, "Tell me to come to you on the water." "Come," [Jesus] said.
In Monday's reflection I shared a brief quote from Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 'the response of the disciple is an act of obedience not a confession of faith in Jesus.' Today's reading is from the gospel story that inspired Bonhoeffer's bold claim. The disciples are in a boat, in the middle of a great lake when they are accosted by a storm. All the disciples fear for their lives and fall into panic as Jesus approaches, except for Peter. Instead of being scared by Jesus walking on water, he is inspired and asks if he too can ride the waves. Jesus tells him, 'Come.' And this, for Bonhoeffer, is the true response of faith. Peter could stay safely in the boat, tell Jesus that he believed that he was the Messiah, the son of God and awaited rescue. But Peter wanted to get out of the boat and leave behind the little safety it offered to test the wind and waves with Jesus. Bonhoeffer tells us that this is the truest example of faith in Christ.
This story of Peter and Jesus illustrates the life of Jeremiah for us. Peter is caught up in a deep desire to move through life's storms unaccosted by the waves. But when he actually steps into the storm he is frightened. I don't believe that this story is really told to shame Peter because of his fear. Of course he is a afraid. He has never walked on water in a storm before. Disciples will be called, as we have seen this week to go to new, unknown, intimidated places; to Pharaoh's hall, to the King's court, to leper colonies and isolated villages and those possessed by evil forces. Of course Jeremiah is frightened, resistant and at times filled with regret for speaking the words God has given him. The disciples life will not always be a popular life. The disciples life will not be one of ease or security. Perhaps that is the good news, even though it sounds like cold comfort. The good news is that when life puts us in a situation in which all we know to do is to fall back to pray, mercy, generosity and hospitality, this is God calling us to follow. We are actually on the right path even though we feel lost and alone.
The good news is that we have been chosen (remember Ephesians 1), named, filled with the Spirit, so that we can take the love of God and the word of God into life storms. And not just our own storms, the storms that shake our neighborhoods and our society. The stories of Peter and Jeremiah reveal the good news, which I admit is intimidating as well, that the rescuing, redeeming, healing, justice creating work of God depends on willing disciples like us. It makes me wonder what storms in the world have been left raging because I was afraid or thought myself too small and insignificant. The good news is that God calls the weak and makes them strong, calls the fearful and makes them courageous, calls the silent and gives them voice, so that the dark corners of the world will be enlightened, the forgotten people welcomed, and the violence and suffering undone with peace and healing. The good news is that Jesus continue to invite us as he did Peter 2,000 years ago. And when we feel we are sinking he will raise us up. When we fail, he will call us again. He will call us into a life free of empty pleasures and distractions and into a life of meaning and purpose as he calls us to care for the most vulnerable. It is NOT an easy life. But it is a good life. When we take that first demanding step into the storm and keep our eyes on Jesus.
Prayer - With eyes wide open to the challenges, the obstacles and the discomfort of following you, Jesus, we take our first step. We put our trust today in you, not wealth, not distracting pleasures, not power or force, but you. We leave behind our security and an easy faith for the narrow path with you. And we trust that we will find, through challenges, through sacrifice, through stretching and letting go, a self with meaning and purpose.
Scripture – Jeremiah 1:1 The words of Jeremiah, son of Hilkiah, one of the priests at Anathoth...
Thus far our reflections have led us into both the bright promise of the life of Jeremiah in which our truest and best selves can be discovered as well as the exacting process of being liberated from the characteristics that do NOT reavel the light and love of Christ. Jeremiah laments the sometimes painful results of being shaped by the life of Christ to which God responds, keep running, keep going. That is the question. How is it that we keep going?
The story of Jeremiah opens by telling us Jeremiah's name. This name means something. It can be translated 'God has appointed,' which is a reminder that the disciple has a responsibility to reflect the image of God in a dark world. In the second chapter of Jeremiah God speaks these words of criticism to Israel, 'What wrong did your fathers find in me, that they went far away from me, and pursued what is worthless and became worthless.' The words are harsh. But they speak a truth. What we worship, what we devote time and energy to, shapes us. Israel has pursued what is worthless, instant gratification, mindless entertainment, profit, power, strength. And it has caused them to decline as individuals and as a nation. It has made them smaller. First Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann has written, “When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive, lacking the deep, joyous generosity of God. If you find some part of your life where your daily round has grown thin and controlling and resentful, life with God is much, much larger, shattering our little categories of control, permitting us to say that God’s purposes led us well beyond ourselves to live and to forgive, to create life we would not have imagined” Jeremiah's name can also be translated as a promise of God's rescue. Jeremiah can also mean, God has raised up.
Now we begin to realize the importance of all these naming stories in the Bible. Abram renamed Abraham, Jacob renamed Israel, Saul renamed Paul. We find our true identity, we discover who we are intended to be in relationship to God. Jeremiah is reminded of this in the telling of his own story. He is reminded of the awesome responsibility, for he is God's appointed. He is reminded of this potential every time he speaks. He is God's appointed. But he is also reminded of the promise of security even when his words are rejected for he will be raised up by God. Again we are challenged. It is not we who get to decide who we are. Our identity is not a solitary act or decision. I know that sounds offensive in our culture in which self-actualization is so prized. That is how we keep going. We remember when being stretched by the call of God, when we being challenged by the powers of culture and tempted by its idols, that we are named by God and we are being, even in these challenging moments, raised up. Fred Buechner has said that we find our place in the world, our place in God's plan where our deep gladness and the worlds deep hunger meets. Jesus found deep gladness, the gospels tell us, by nurturing loving relationships among societies outcasts by sharing a meal with them. The great joy of Jesus met the worlds deep hunger. Could we see Jeremiah's life in a similar way? What happens when we great each day ourselves as an opportunity to let our deep Jesus inspired joy meet the hunger of the world?
Prayer – Protect us God from the fears that too often dissuade us from taking the demanding step of discipleship. Comfort us when life is challenging. Bolster us when discipleship is sacrifice. Remind us that you have called us by name and we are yours. That you protect us through life's floods and fires. That you have created us and empowered us to enter them and with you speak a word of healing and of peace.
Scripture – Jeremiah 12:5 If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses
In April of 1967 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr delivered a sermon in which he was critical of the war in Viet Nam. It was not a popular sermon. The very next day 168 newspapers across the United States contained editorials denouncing him. African-American churches began to distance themselves from him and polling showed that only 9% of the public agreed with him. His popularity dropped precipitously. In our reading for today we are confronted by God's response to Jeremiah's lament. On Monday we read God's call for Jeremiah to go where God told him to go and say what God told him to say. But these were often critical words. For instance, we read chapter 5 of Jeremiah, '...Their houses are full of treachery; Therefore they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. they know no bounds in deeds of wickedness; They judge not with justice the cause of the fatherless,...They do not defend the rights of the needy. We can see how challenging his words could be. And in today's reading Jeremiah laments the public blowback he receives for speaking boldly the words God has given him to say.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes (sarcastically), ' Let the Christian live like the rest of the world...let him model himself on the world's standards in every sphere of life.' Bonhoeffer continues in Discipleship, 'It is imperative for the Christian...to distinguish his life from the life of the world.' Eugene Peterson makes the grand promise that by studying the life of Jeremiah and then joining in what God is doing in the world we would be our most human and alive. But todays reading reveals that this risky new way of living does not promise immediate joy or happiness. A close look at Jeremiah's experience reveals that the demanding steps of life with Christ can also be painful. ' Every one of us needs to be stretched to live at our best, awakened out of dull moral habits, shaken out of petty and trivial busywork, Peterson writes. And that sounds good. We want our lives to mean something. We do not want to be left living lives that are diminished from their full potential. Being confronted with how we have been shaped by the violence, cruelty and greed of the world is troubling. To see how despite our best efforts we reflect a broken world and its destructive systems is painful. Revealing the violence, cruelty and injustice that a society has accepted or even benefited from is rarely appreciated.
Richard Rohr describes the liberating honesty of Jesus as telling 'those who think they are free that they are in fact enslaved.' God calls Jeremiah to this same kind of life, a life that cares deeply, both about neighbor and about God's vision for creation. Jeremiah's life is swept up in compassion for those whose lives are diminished by cruelty and injustice and in passion toward those who have been shaped and diminished by the idols of distraction, indulgence, force and profit. The good news as Jeremiah, Rohr, Bonhoeffer and Peterson have expressed it, is that we are not left enslaved to life defined by these petty pursuits. We are free. We are free to live into the identity God created us to be. We are free from social pressures and labels and mob mentality. We are free to offer our lives to one another, and to devote our lives to love and service. This is the race we can choose to run.
Prayer – We are grateful Lord for your mercy and grace. We are thankful that you do not shape us through wrath or punishment, but instead with love. But we must ask your forgiveness for the times and ways that we have accepted your love and resisted its power to stretch and change us. We ask forgiveness for celebrating your forgiveness but not practiced mercy. We ask your forgiveness for celebrating the gentleness of your son Jesus, but we continue as a society to justify force. Love us into a courageous practice of love and mercy and forgiveness. Love us into being the peacemakers you have created us to be.
Scripture Exodus 3:9-10 I have indeed heard the cry of my people, and I see how the Egyptians are oppressing them. Now I am sending you to the King of Egypt so that you can lead my people out of this country
Dietrich Bonhoeffer laments that for many who call themselves disciples, 'my only duty as a Christian is to leave the world for an hour or so on a Sunday morning and go to church to be assured that my sins are all forgven.' Bonhoeffer is describing the 'cheap grace' that he observes the church practicing. Perhaps Bonhoeffer's criticism and concern is not only from a by-gone era. Could the same warning apply to the Christian Church in America at this time?
In contrast to church that is practiced for one hour on sunday morning, we heard yesterday the call of God for Jeremiah, to go wherever God sends him and to say whatever God tells him to say. Discipleship is the call to go into the world. We see this on many occassions. Elijah, fresh from his confrontation of the religious and political elites of Israel, flees to the wilderness. The presence of God gives him rest and feeds him. And then God directs him to leave the safe and secure and return to the halls of power. Jesus too, in the gospel of Luke, sends the disciples out into the towns and villages, to confront disease and the demonic. Jesus says to them, go. And today, in our reading from Exodus, God tells Moses to go. God tells Moses to leave his wife and children, his flocks and the safety that he has built for himself and return to the halls of Pharaoh. The life of discipleship is a life in which the settled is regularly left behind for the unsettled, the status quo abandoned for a promised but as yet unrealized future that God is making.
I wonder if we have not made this command to go, to be on the move, too 'safe.' God calls Moses and Jeremiah and the disciples to journey and promises them security. But security and faith are the source of strength and courage, insight and compassion that leads them into public realm, in to the social evils of their day. The spiritual awakening of Moses inspired a confrontation with slavery. The spiritual journey of Jeremiah led to public speeches against the most beloved idols of the day & for a just society. The spiritual journey of the disciples took them far and wide, healing the sick, liberating the possessed, AND, after Pentecost, creating communities of care in which all were dignified and none were shunned or shamed. Marianne Williamson once wrote, 'You are a child of God. You're playing small does not serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.' Hers is another voice, like Moses and Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer, that challenges a view of faith as that which secures us from conflict. Instead, faith in Christ secures us to engage the darkness of the world. This faith urges us to go into the world to the pharaohs, to the temples, to the people, to the sick and possessed and the cast aside and make manifest the glory of God.
Prayer – Forgive us Lord for making faith a hiding place, and excuse to ignore the struggles of our sisters and brothers. Forgive us for allowing Sunday morning worship to be the end of our faith instead of its beginning. Teach us to expect more of ourselves as your disciples. Not that we need to prove ourselves or earn your love, but out of a desire to be where you are. Shape us into your hands and feet in the world even when we are called to challenging places and causes.
Scripture Jeremiah 1:4,7b The word of the Lord came to me saying...You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.
'The response of the disciple is an act of obedience...' writes Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book Discipleship. But that isn't the full sentence. Bonhoeffer continues by stating, ' not a confession of faith in Jesus.' In the second chapter of James we find the same thought, 'faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.' Faith or trust in Christ was never meant to be merely an intellectual exercise. Faith and trust are not a matter of what we 'think' about Jesus alone. The faith that the life of Jesus inspires is the courage to live as Jesus lived, to carry on his actions in the world. This matter concerned Bonhoeffer because in Germany in the late 1930's he witnessed many who professed faith in Christ but were complacent in the face of unspeakable acts of cruelty and violence. Bonhoeffer's lectures on the Beatitudes from which today's quote comes, were meant to offer a warning against a faith which settled for confession without obedience.
Jeremiah, whose life we are exploring for the next weeks and months, experiences the call of obedience to God. The call isn't simply to confess that God exists, but to perform that belief by doing what God commands. Jeremiah was instructed to go wherever God told Jeremiah to go and to say whatever God told Jeremiah to say. Perhaps this view of God is a bit shocking. This is NOT a God who quietly and tenderly waits for us to call out for assistance when in a spot of trouble. This God is not an add on to one's life when it's convenient. This God actively observes the lives of the vulnerable and rejected and expects disciples to join Her in watching and responding to the world's hunger.
As we were introduced again to the life and times of Jeremiah on Sunday we learned what he was called to confront. The poor were ignored and the vulnerable abused. The leaders of Judah encouraged the worship of idols, placing trust in wealth, in power, & in violence to create security. Sorcerers and prostitutes were brought in to entertain distract the people from how far they were falling from being the people of justice and peace God intended. God's response is to choose Jeremiah to go and speak. Jeremiah and Bonhoeffer remind us bluntly that faith in Christ is much more than just another choice in self-improvement and personal actualization. It is nothing less than the demanding devotion to play our part in God's great plan to redeem a creation bent on destruction, blinded by gratifying diversions. Eugene Peterson makes this bold proclamation about the benefit of this demanding and risky path with God, 'It is these persons who are conscious of participating in what God is saying and doing that are most human and most alive.' We find our truest and best selves when we take this demanding first step with Jeremiah.
Prayer – Draw close to us Precious Lord, when our way grows drear. When we are baffled and cannot find our way take our hands and lead us. Teach us to trust in your path of mercy, forgiveness and hospitality when we don't know what else to do. Draw close when life is good and we believe that our plans have secured our safety and happiness. Rescue us from pride and lead us back to the narrow path of justice and righteousness. Show us how in being obedient to you, we actually discover our truest and best selves
March 2018 Newsletter
I'm writing this newsletter to you on the 21st of February. We did not gather for worship on the previous Sunday due to inclement weather. So what continues to haunt my thoughts, and I'm sure yours as well, is the assault on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla, in which 17 people were slaughtered. Each day I've been praying for the safety of our students and our teachers and our first responders. There is such heartache, grief at watching this kind tragedy unfold once again. Honestly, I do not only feel grief but frustration and anger. In the wake of Parkland many statistics circulated on the news and social media, such as one stating that there had been 18 school shootings already in 2018. This statistic included any incident in which a firearm was discharged on school ground, even if that was a closed school with no students or after business hours when no students were present, which doesn't seem quite accurate. Of course at the other end of the spectrum, the Washington Post countered that there had only been five incidents of school shootings like the tragedy at Parkland Florida, not counting an incident if no students were injured, which seems to obscure the point as well. I mention this not to take a cheap shot at the news or social media or advocacy groups, but simply to illustrate the fact that this is a complex issue that we as a culture find very difficult to define and so have a dialogue about. Trying to simplify the facts for a culture too focused on sound-bites, twitter messages and the scrolling news slide at the bottom of the tv screen does a disservice to us all as we struggle with a response to what is obviously a serious problem.
I also noticed that many, on facebook and twitter rushed to the Bible for scriptural support for their perspective. What truly disturbed me about this was the number of people who would quote Luke 22:36 in which Jesus says to the disciples, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one," as a defense of the 2nd amendment and its recent interpretation as the right for citizens to own assault weapons. Once again, a complex issue such as what exactly Jesus meant by this statement is oversimplified. When something Jesus says is oversimplified it reveals that the desire is not to be shaped or guided by the life and teaching of Jesus, but instead to shape Jesus into an image that is more comfortable for us and requires no repentance or justification by faith. This particular verse is and has virtually always been a troubling one. It is troubling because it does not seem to agree with the other instances in Luke in which Jesus has addressed violence. For instance, Luke 6 records Jesus as teaching, ' “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. . . . Love your enemies, and do good. . . . Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” In Luke 9 we read the story of the disciple's desire to call down fire from the heavens (God) in response to the lack of hospitality of the Samaritans. Luke tells us that Jesus 'rebukes' them. And just after Jesus seems to urge the disciples to take up weapons in Luke 22, when one of the disciples actually uses the sword to cut off the ear of a servant of the High Priest, Jesus stops the violence and heals the servant. We should also recall that in Matthew's telling of this incident Jesus offers the following warning, 'Those who live by the sword will die by the sword,' meaning violence only leads to more violence and does not ever deliver the safety and security it promises.
Warnings against the seduction of force are a constant theme in the Bible. God marks Cain in Genesis 4 to protect him from murderous vengeance because he killed his brother. God created a barrier to the ongoing cycle of violence. In the second chapter of Isaiah the prophet describes the result of the nation's gathering to learn the way of God in this way; 'They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.' On Christmas Eve Christian churches around the world will read from the 9th chapter of Isaiah, 'Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
In the 20th Psalm we hear the writer proclaim faith in God thusly; 'Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.' Looking again at Isaiah 2, we see the prophets critique of his own nation and people, 'You have forsaken the ways of your people, O house of Jacob...their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots.' In both cases, chariots and horses symbolize a culture which has put its faith in force and violence to ensure safety and security over faith in the goodness and power of God. This is idolatry, putting ultimate trust in force, strength, and threat, instead of placing ultimate trust in God and God's ways.
Not wishing to fall into the trap I exposed earlier, of oversimplifying the matter, I will admit there is much violence in scripture as well. From the flood in Genesis which is God's response to the evil of humanity, to the violent overthrow of the Canaanites to ensure that Israel can have a safe and secure land, to David's battle against Goliath, and Ananias and Saphira being struck dead for disobeying the will of God in Acts, we can find acts of violence by God or sanctioned by God. We know 'Thou shall not kill,' is one of the commandments, but the exact intent of that commandment is open to debate. Is the command against all killing in general or murder specifically? Does it outlaw self-defense? Israel struggled to interpret and apply this commandment, and there were certainly cases in which Israel found killing to be a necessary evil. For instance, in Genesis 9:6 we read, 'Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,' which appears to sanction some forms of violence. But we also find the proclamation of God in Deuteronomy, 'vengeance is mine...' Which seems to reserve the right of violent response for God alone. Paul would quote this verse from Deuteronomy in Romans 12 adding, 'Repay no one evil for evil...If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men.'
But having acknowledged, the complexity of violence in the Bible, both its sanction and its prohibition, I want to close by highlighting two things and making a suggestion for our Lenten spiritual practice. First, there is the consistent and ongoing theme of God prohibiting and interrupting the cycle of violence. From God marking Cain to commanding against murder, sending the prophets to confront the idolatry of weaponry and force to Jesus teaching prayer and forgiveness, the biblical witness is clear that those who are faithful to the way of God will strive to learn to be non-violent people. Second, it is clear, based on the prophets and the life and teachings of Jesus that reliance on force and violence is idolatry. It is very clearly a sin to put our hope and trust in violence and weapons to ensure our security. Too often the dialogue about violence in our society falls back to the 2nd amendment for guidance and then debate what how to interpret that. I would suggest that as Christians, as Baptists specifically we say that the Bible is our authority in faith and in life and so instead of falling back to or hiding behind the 2nd amendment, we have to look to scripture, the word of God incarnate in the life of Jesus to be our guide, to offer us wisdom and to challenge us. That means going beyond simplistically quoting one verse to support the perspective that we have already reached. It also means that we have some confessing and repenting to do as a nation. Violence is an idol as are weapons of destruction.
Although the mantra, 'thoughts and prayers for the victims,' has been justifiably derided by many as a shelter from action, I would suggest that begin to confess, repent and confront the idolatry of our nation with prayer. But it is a prayer practice in which we devote time to sit and listen to the word of God. I will take time each day to sit and listen to the God's command not to kill, the prophets warning about horses and chariots, imagine the transformation of swords to plowshares, and hear Jesus tell me to turn my cheek and pray for my enemies. I will submit to these discomforting lessons so that they shape me. And I will also ask how they are calling me to behave and to advocate for a peaceful and just society. And I hope you will join me for the remainder of Lent, in this practice of prayer, repentance of idolatry and then actions of obedience to God which advocate for justice and peace in our nation and world.
Ps 137: 1,3 – sorrow
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
As I was researching this weeks sermon and devotions I utilized the internet to get a brief survey of the way that the lament (complaint) psalms are though about and taught. Today's is of particular interest. In one commentary Psalm 137 is presented as a complaint inspired by sorrow. And we can see why, 'By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept.' It is written at the time of or soon after the Babylonian Empire had overcome Judah the city of Jerusalem. Many were slaughtered, many taken into forced captivity and some left behind to find a way to survive. This is a song of the people who were forced to leave home and land and perhaps even family, for Babylon. Theirs is the sorrow of a traumatizing .
Traumatizing loss affects us deeply because it never seems to go away. In my own experience, just when I think I've finally found a way to live with some peace and joy, another circumstance or experience, even something that isn't traumatizing in itself, can bring the memories, the pain, the shame, the loss, rushing back so that I experience it all over again. Pain is isolating. So having a venue in which to give words to suffering and pain is vitally important. And this is what we see in this Psalm. The people of Judah are deeply aggrieved. But instead of remaining silent they cry out to God and put their pain into words. Yes, some of those words are troubling for us to hear. That bit about dashing Babylonian babies heads against rocks is particular ugly. But lets not misinterpret this. The Psalm doesn't serve to encourage or condone that behavior. Nor does it suggest that God's response will be to mandate such behavior. The Psalmist is honestly expressing the dept of pain that the people feel, the anger, the violent impulse. But it is safely placed in the crucible of a complaint to God. So, this psalm offers us too a practice for action when we are frozen and isolated by pain. God is powerful enough to hold and heal our deepest anguish and great anger.
But before we conclude today's reflection, we really must acknowledge that this Psalm isn't only about generic trauma, loss and pain. It is specific. It is about political and military oppression and forced emigration. The trauma is specific. And opens up entirely new vistas for us to hold in contemplation and prayer. Judah is forced to leave their homeland. People leaving their homeland for another has been in the news a great deal lately. Forced by the threat of violence by drug cartel's in Central America, and by war in Syria. And these traumatized emigrants have not generally been welcomed or received with hospitality. This Psalm exposes us to the deep pain and sorrow of all those whose simple and innocent lives are disrupted by political and military violence and injustice. And it does so under the assumption that God cares deeply about the cries of those whose lives are disrupted and traumatized in this manner. So an honest encounter with the Psalm 137 not only gives us a place for and practice in response to our own sorrow and pain, but it also exposes us to the sorrow and pain of the emigrant and teaches us to listen with the ear of God.
Today's Prayer – Give us the courage, God who is ever listening, to give voice to our pain, our frustration and even our anger. Assure us that you are both strong and loving enough to bear our burdens and accept our criticism. Make these times of complaint into holy experiences of comfort, hope and inspiration that we might not only survive, but thrive through difficult and challenging times.
Tuesday - Shame
Ps 51:1-3: Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
'Have mercy on me, O God', cries David after the prophet Nathan confronts him with his sin. He has abused his political power by having Uriah murdered in battle after impregnating Uriah's wife Bathsheba. In his cry we enter into lament that perhaps is the deepest and most troubling of them all, the lament of our guilt and shame. 'My sin is ever before me,' David continues and so forces us to face that which we most want to avoid, our faults which have caused destruction and pain.
One of the most common criticisms of churches like Berean is that in our focus on social justice we turn a blind eye to sin. Perhaps we do it for understandable reasons. Sin has too often been used throughout Christian history to frighten and coerce people with threats of an angry God and eternal punishment in the afterlife for power, political and financial gain. And it has also been used as a weapon to harm enemies. Those unlike 'us' are labeled 'sinners' and so stripped of dignity, agency and legitimacy. Even now 'sin' is most often thought of as a issue pf personal piety; sexual infidelity, dishonesty, and anger for example. But the sins most often complained about, by Israel to God and God back at Israel, are social; the presence and avoidance of the impoverished, financial advantage of the wealthy over the poor, the shaming and renouncing of the sick and disabled, and the use of violence as a social method for instance.
What David gives voice to is a mix of both personal and social sin. Yes, he is guilty of sexual infidelity, but it is an abuse of his political and military power. Both personal and social sin is addressed. Facing our failures whether we have failed by using unkind words that cause pain or participating in systems that abuse or oppress, is such a painful process that it is tempting to either ignore or project our faults. And in this way David is an example. He does not deny his sin. Neither does he try to shift the blame. Instead, trusting in God's unfailing love and great compassion, he faces and names his sin. And this is vitally important.
It is important because it is NOT fear that compels David to be honest with himself, Nathan and God about his sin, but trust in God's love. Too often we have been taught to fear God when we sin. What we need to celebrate is that we are loved in our sin and then out of it into something new, something clean. David will sing in this song, 'wash me and I will be whiter than snow.' Too often when I am offering spiritual care to folks I hear them say, 'that’s just the way I am.' That isn't always a confession of sin. Sometimes its just frustration with a weakness that they cannot seem to overcome. Regardless, notice the theological story. There is nothing that can be done. But we worship a God who created beauty out of chaos, who renamed Jacob, Israel and Saul, Paul, and who was not finished with David even after this grievous sin. Admitting sin and trusting in God is proclaiming the chore of our faith, which is that we are not reduced to worst moment, nor are we stuck in unhealthy patterns. God is always willing and indeed able to intervene in our lives in transformative ways. That is why we confess sin with confidence. It isn't only an act of humility, but also of great confidence in the creativity of God working in our own lives.
Prayer – Encourage us Lord, through your great love and mercy, to admit and confess our sins, personal and social. Make us brave to acknowledge that the way we are can be unhealthy and hurtful, to ourselves, our friends and neighbors and even to larger society. But teach us to trust that when we engage in this honest assessment of ourselves, you do not leave us or forsake us to guilt and shame. Instead, you call us Beloved, you re-name and shape us, forgive, cleanse and renew us that we would be better fit to serve you and your kingdom. Make moments of honest and reflection and confession moments of humble confidence, peace and joy knowing that we are not stuck as we are, but loved into our truest and best selves.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.