Sunday, June 13, 2021

Pain and Promise: When the Floods Rise

The psalm we just heard - Psalm 13 - is a psalm of lament. A song written from a place of deep despair and darkness. It suggests to us the nature of our reading today from Jeremiah, which also suggests a time of difficulty. Mostly the difficulty that Jeremiah, the prophet, experiences, from to help the people and their leaders understand their need to turn back to God, to put aside the ways that are contrary to those of God. To repent and seek God’s forgiveness.

To this point, I haven’t provided much context for either the book of Jeremiah or the Prophet Jeremiah. For today’s reading, in particular, this background becomes helpful to know and understand.

Roughly a century before the beginning of Jeremiah’s mission, the northern kingdom had fallen to Assyria. We heard stories of this last fall - the twelve tribes that made up the kingdom of Israel split in two. Ten tribes in the north, forming a nation called Israel. The remaining two tribes in the south forming Judah. So, 100 years before Jeremiah, this northern kingdom had been defeated by the Assyrian Empire, never to return again. They became known to Judah as the “lost” tribes - eliminated forever. This haunted the remaining two tribes in the south. Terrified of being overrun by the Assyrians from the north. But, also, of another growing threat in the north. This time from the Babylonians. 

It was during these hundred years that King Josiah made sweeping reforms, centering the worship of Judah in the temple in Jerusalem in an attempt to bring the people back from worshiping other false and strange gods, worship that had led them to horrific practices, including child sacrifice. Josiah believed that this false worship would lead directly to national disaster and exile as punishment for their failure to honor their covenant with God. So, for a time, there was a brief respite for the southern kingdom. But, not for long. Because Josiah’s successors did not follow his lead. Soon, the Babylonians attacked Judah and began a two-year siege of Jerusalem. 

It was in the midst of this time that Jeremiah was called by God to denounce the wayward behavior of the people of Judah. As you can imagine, he was not a popular public figure. He was jailed over and over by successor kings because, although speaking the Word God gave to him, his message was unwelcome by the political leaders. And the people. It is during one period of confinement where our story today is located - during the reign of King Jehoiakim. 

We read in Jeremiah, chapter 36.

In the fourth year of Judah’s King Jehoiakim, Josiah’s son, this word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write in it all the words I have spoken to you concerning Israel, Judah, and all the nations from the time of Josiah until today. Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I intend to bring upon them, they will turn from their evil ways, and I will forgive their wrongdoing and sins. So Jeremiah sent for Baruch, Neriah’s son. As Jeremiah dictated all the words that the Lord had spoken to him, Baruch wrote them in the scroll. Then Jeremiah told Baruch, “I’m confined here and can’t go to the Lord’s temple. So you go to the temple on the next day of fasting, and read the Lord’s words from the scroll that I have dictated to you. Read them so that all the people in the temple can hear them, as well as all the Judeans who have come from their towns. If they turn from their evil ways, perhaps the Lord will hear their prayers. The Lord has threatened them with fierce anger.” Baruch, Neriah’s son, did everything the prophet Jeremiah instructed him: he read all the Lord’s words from the scroll in the temple.

The king sent Jehudi to take the scroll, and he retrieved it from the room of Elishama the scribe. Then Jehudi read it to the king and all his royal officials who were standing next to the king. Now it was the ninth month, and the king was staying in the winterized part of the palace with the firepot burning near him. And whenever Jehudi read three or four columns of the scroll, the king would cut them off with a scribe’s knife and throw them into the firepot until the whole scroll was burned up.

The Lord’s word came to Jeremiah after the king had burned the scroll containing the words written by Baruch at Jeremiah’s dictation: Get another scroll and write in it all the words that were in the first scroll that Judah’s King Jehoiakim burned.

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah. It won’t be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt. They broke that covenant with me even though I was their husband, declares the Lord. No, this is the covenant that I will make with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my Instructions within them and engrave them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. They will no longer need to teach each other to say, “Know the Lord!” because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord; for I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sins. --Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-23, 27-31 (CEB).

Why does it happen that sometimes everything just falls apart? When we experience chaos, such as that which we experienced over the past 15 months or so, which may not even yet be over as much as we might wish it to be? 

Our traditional Lutheran theology has taught us that “bad things happen” because of sin and human brokenness. This is true, although sometimes it is also true that bad things just happen. Yet, by far they happen because of human action. Certainly, we saw that this past year, as we could see human failure and pride impact and perpetuate the growth of the pandemic - growth and expansion that did not have to happen. Hundreds of thousands of lives that could have been spared. 

All because of our sin and human brokenness.

We also saw the rise of civil unrest and disobedience in our nation last summer, perhaps really seeing for the first time through an apocalyptic-type unveiling of the great injustice in our systems. Systems that keep people of color, the queer community, women, the poor and others on the margin in bondage. That drive and maintain inequality. Not that we, as individuals, necessarily want this. But, perhaps, that we have been less than willing to notice it before, or to simply ignore it, unwilling to step out of our places of comfort. 

All because of our sin and human brokenness.

And, then, there’s the deep division in our world. A seemingly epic struggle that has taken its toll on so many relationships. So many families. So many churches and their pastors. I know of this toll on pastors because I spent a few hours this past week, just sitting and listening. As colleagues literally wept over the division in their congregations, and how many of them have become targets themselves of the vitriol and anger that hovers just below the surface, ready to strike at any time. Not to mention the heavy load that so many of us have been carrying. And the exhaustion, too. Perhaps, the same exhaustion you’ve felt. Is it any wonder that something like 25% of pastors in the church are seriously considering leaving the ministry or have already left?

All because of our sin and human brokenness.

When did you feel most broken in this past year? Was it as we saw pandemic numbers spike, the curve of deaths skyrocket? Or perhaps it was in the summer as we watched the video of George Floyd or heard the horrific story around the death of Brionna Taylor? Was it during the days of protests and civil disobedience? Or perhaps you can’t even remember such a time because you have tried so hard to put it behind you. To not think about it. To pretend it away. To leave behind the despair and the grief and the sense of hopelessness. Too often, as theologian Walter Brueggemann writes, we are afraid to sit in Saturday. You know, Saturday, right? That day after the Friday crucifixion, when the disciples, too, likely had to face their own fear and grief. Their own complicity. Their own sin and human brokenness. Not knowing that Sunday would come. 

Perhaps, we should sit longer in Saturday. Feeling lost and alone. Crying out to God, like the psalmist, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

But there is this obscure message - this obscure gospel message - in today’s Jeremiah text. The command by God to Jeremiah to write his words - to write God’s Word - down. Ensuring that this Word will endure forever, notwithstanding any human desire to ignore or erase it. This Word that comes to us. This New Covenant. This Word Incarnate that meets us where we are. In our messiness and chaos. In our human sin and brokenness. That abides with us. Even when we don’t fully realize that, in our guilt and despair and suffering, God has been present with us all along. Right there, beside us. Preparing to lead us to a new day. And a new way of being. 

But, for today, let’s just sit now for awhile in Saturday. Recognizing our sin. And brokenness. Our complicity. But, also remembering and holding fast to the one truth, as the psalmist does, too, that God is faithful. And forgiving. And that soon, we will sing again. Amen.

Preached June 13, 2021, online with Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
3rd Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 36:1-8, 21-13, 27-31; Psalm 13

Sunday, June 6, 2021

Pain and Promise: God Stoops Down

Last week, we began our six week series through Jeremiah and, accompanying this, the Psalms because, just as with us, the songs of the people often express their experience.

We also talked about trauma. And how, after an experience of trauma, it is natural for people - and us - to try to make sense of what has been experienced, to make meaning of it. Much of scripture is an attempt by God’s people to make meaning out of trauma and traumatic experiences. If this is not done - if time is not taken to make sense of the experience, it can have devastating effects. Leaving people isolated and suffering. Leading to the breakdown of community and the broader society. And even leading to a loss of faith. 

Jeremiah and the Psalms offer a way. A way by considering the story of Israel’s exile to help us make sense of our traumatic experience that can help to lead us out of the chaos to a new way of being and a new understanding of God. 

Last week, in our opening texts from Jeremiah, we heard about Jeremiah’s call - two aspects of what God had called him to do. The first could be identified as the problem or the cause - what caused God to call Jeremiah as prophet to Judah.  The people have been going after other gods. They have been oppressors, particularly, of the alien, the orphan, and the widow - those who represent the most vulnerable members in society. The second aspect we heard was the nature of Jeremiah’s call. The reason he was selected by God and sent to the people. A twofold call. First, to dig up and pull down, and to destroy and to demolish. But, then, to build and to plant. 

Today, we move to the potter’s shed. And read from Jeremiah, chapter 18.

Jeremiah received the Lord’s word: Go down to the potter’s house, and I’ll give you instructions about what to do there. So I went down to the potter’s house; he was working on the potter’s wheel. But the piece he was making was flawed while still in his hands, so the potter started on another, as seemed best to him. Then the Lord’s word came to me: House of Israel, can’t I deal with you like this potter, declares the Lord? Like clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in mine, house of Israel! At any time I may announce that I will dig up, pull down, and destroy a nation or kingdom; but if that nation I warned turns from its evil, then I’ll relent and not carry out the harm I intended for it. At the same time, I may announce that I will build and plant a nation or kingdom; but if that nation displeases and disobeys me, then I’ll relent and not carry out the good I intended for it. Now say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem: This is what the Lord says: I am a potter preparing a disaster for you; I’m working out a plan against you. So each one of you, turn from your evil ways; reform your ways and your actions. --Jeremiah 18:1-11 (CEB)

It might be hard for us, with our 21st century sensibilities, to accept the image of God as some remote potter, up in heaven, molding and shaping our destiny. Yet, the word in Hebrew used here for “potter” has the same root as the word in Genesis for “creator.” Just as God shaped every beast of the field and the birds, the heavens and the earth and all aspects of creation, so, too, God shaped humankind. From the very dust of the ground.

So, perhaps, it’s not such a stretch for us to imagine God as potter. Molding and shaping us. Sometimes needing to start over because of a flaw or blemish in the clay. There are no specifics as to what the blemish is. Just that, for whatever reason, the potter remakes the piece into another that is pleasing to his eyes. Do you notice, though, that the potter never tosses the defective clay away? But, continues to work it. To mold it and shape it with his hands. To form it into a thing of beauty.

This what God desires for our world and for each of us. That it and we might be things of beauty. That we might be fully transformed and made whole, and then serve in the world to share the fullness we have been given. A wholeness and a fullness that comes Christ. That is offered to each of us. And to everyone. Graciously so. 

But, too, often, as with the people of Judah, we turn to other “gods.” Money, prestige, power - those things that draw us away from God and often result in oppression, as we seek to preserve what we have with no regard to the fullness or lack thereof for others in our world. It’s why at the end of our reading today, there is a call to repent. To turn back from the evil that not only separates us from God, but that separates us from each other. God is affected by this evil. Both the Jeremiah text and the psalm report that God is impacted by the actions of God’s creation - displeased with the defects. Towering above the nations, the psalmist writes, yet stooping down to correct the injustices perpetuated by humankind. 

How do we turn back? How do we center ourselves in the midst of the pull of the world and, particularly, that which would pull us away from God and from God’s desire? This, too, is suggested by the psalmist in the opening words. “Servants of God, praise, praise, the name of the Lord!”

Each week, when we bring our worship, our attention, our ears, our hearts to God in this centering space, we can clear space in our heads and our hearts to discern that which pulls us away from God. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can turn back to God and be re-centered again. Reminded, once again, that God is present. That God is not some distant, unmoved creator. But that God comes to us into the chaos. Restores us. And works to bring us and all people into relationship and into community. Because this is God’s plan. It is the purpose of the Great Potter - a purpose that supersedes all others. A plan to mold and shape and create out of our flaw and defect and trauma, a world, here on earth, that is a thing of beauty.

How can we not say, “Hallelujah!” Amen.

Preached June 6, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, KY, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 113.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Pain and Promise: The Way

We just heard Psalm 1. We often forget that the Psalms are the songs of Israel. Songs of the joy they experienced, both as individuals and collectively as a people. Songs of praise sung to a gracious and benevolent God. Songs of lamentation sung in times of vast despair. And many other types of songs that come out of the lived experience of a people.

We also often forget as one theologian has noted that much of scripture comes out of lived experience. And particularly, out of trauma. Out of people trying to make sense or make meaning of their traumatic experience. Beginning with the banishing of Adam and Eve from the garden, through the flood and its aftermath, to the enslavement and eventual freedom for Israel, to the first destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile, even to the time of the Christ, living as a subjugated people and the second destruction of the temple - over and over and over again, God’s people have attempted to make meaning of it all and to understand where God might be working in the midst of it.

So, beginning today with Psalm 1 seems right - this song placed at the beginning of all of Israel’s songs. A song that talks about two ways. Two paths. And about what happens to a people when they stray from the path of life, from God and the ways of God.

This is also a similar theme in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah - a prophet called by God to help Judah survive. Sometimes harsh and bitter. Sometimes a predictor of the terror to come. And, yet, a prophet and a book that is a quest for meaning and about how, even in the midst of communal disaster, the people of Judah (and we) we might find both the human and the divine. 

And so, today, we begin in Jeremiah. 

The Lord’s word came to me:
“Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I made you a prophet to the nations.”
“Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak
    because I’m only a child.”
The Lord responded,
    “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
        Where I send you, you must go;
        what I tell you, you must say.
Don’t be afraid of them,
    because I’m with you to rescue you,”
        declares the Lord.
Then the Lord stretched out his hand,
    touched my mouth, and said to me,
    “I’m putting my words in your mouth.
This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
    to dig up and pull down,
    to destroy and demolish,
    to build and plant.”

Jeremiah received the Lord’s word: Stand near the gate of the Lord’s temple and proclaim there this message: Listen to the Lord’s word, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. Don’t trust in lies: “This is the Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple!” No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.

And yet you trust in lies that will only hurt you. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, sacrifice to Baal and go after other gods that you don’t know, and then come and stand before me in this temple that bears my name, and say, “We are safe,” only to keep on doing all these detestable things? Do you regard this temple, which bears my name, as a hiding place for criminals? I can see what’s going on here, declares the Lord. --Jeremiah 1:10-10; 7:1-11 (CEB)

In 2014 I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It was the result of over 40 years of loss I experienced throughout my life - loss that continued to impact me even after I’d done much work with mental health professionals over that time. The diagnosis was the result of my individual, accumulated experience of trauma. 

Today, though, and over these next several weeks we are not talking about individual trauma. Now that is not to say that some of us, or even all of us, have not experienced some level of individual trauma over these many months. But, we have also experienced collective trauma - trauma that has come over the series of events we’ve experienced together in this time - disaster and its effects that have disrupted our lives on a vast scale, turning them upside down, shaking our world apart, destroying our day-to-day existence and even shattering our understanding of our own reality and even, perhaps, that of God.

It’s normal for us to want to get as far away from this experience as soon and as quickly as we can. It’s likely why there is so little history written about the 1918 pandemic - that, perhaps, there was a rush to put it behind them. Yet, those who deal with disaster and trauma know of its effects if it is not tended to - hidden effects that can leave us isolated, keep us in our own suffering and grief, and, in time, lead to a collapse of faith and trust in one another, in our society, and in God.

Jeremiah was called to serve God’s people in a similar time as ours, an experience that is hinted at even in Psalm 1, a straying from the true path to one that leads to destruction. And collective trauma. This is Jeremiah’s call from God - to both stand with and against the people, to call them out and to call them in, so that they might endure what is to come, that they might live, and that they might yet realize a future that includes a new covenant with God. Or as we just read: to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.

Isn’t Israel’s way our way? Isn’t Israel’s experience our human experience? Over and over again in the narrative of scripture we read of a three-fold pattern of our world, of our human experience.

There is a triune pattern in the world. Creation - Uncreation - Re-creation. Richard Rohr calls it “order, disorder, reorder.” Walter Brueggemann names it orientation, disorientation, reorientation. It is a pattern we see through the entire story of scripture. 

God creates all things. And it is very good. Then, humanity chooses to betray God and we are plunged into a violent system of shame and blame. The violence comes to it’s apex and the world is plunged into a flood of some kind that threatens to destroy everything with chaos. And yet...God turns the flood into a promise. And resurrects humanity into a new covenant.

And then the cycle repeats itself. Again and again. Over and over. God creates. We uncreate. And God re-creates. Life, death, resurrection. It’s how things grow. It’s how we grow.

Or think about it in another way.

If all of reality was singular, was one. Then it would be static. There would be no diversity. No movement. It would be nothing.

If all reality was split in two, divided between this and that, between us and them, there would only be division. A dualistic or binary system. This is where most of us get stuck. We think the world is divided between God and creation. Between heaven and hell. Between good people and bad people. Between absolute right and absolute wrong. Between us and them. 

But there is a third way. 

The movement of God is to keep these dualities, these binaries, from destroying each other. To use the tension between them to instead open up a new life of hope and possibility. Because, again, this is how we grow.

We start in simple consciousness as children. Life is good and ordered.

We grow into adolescence and begin to focus on our individuality - the things that divide and that define us from each other. We construct our false selves in a way that separates us from each other. That often leads us to division and violence. 

But there is this third way. The way where Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him. This third way is the way of Jesus. The way to which we have been called, just as the early disciples were called.

And, yet, in John 16, Jesus tells the disciples that, though he has much to tell them, they are not yet ready to bear it. But, he promises that the Spirit will guide them (and us) in the way of the cross and in the life of resurrection and rebirth. 

Because this is who God is. A Triune God. A threefold God. Three persons, one Godhead. The Trinity. A God who is dynamic and ever changing. Self-emptying. Loving. Ever expanding and inclusive. Creating and sustaining. Working to bring about the unity and harmony of all living things so that all creation might live in shalom. A God who is in relationship within God’s self, but, more importantly, a God who is in relationship with us. A God who can move into the darkest places of our collective trauma to reveal life to us, even when all we can see is death.

As we continue to move through Jeremiah and the Psalms, may begin to understand that this God was the God of the psalmists. This God was the God of Jeremiah and the people of Judah. This is our God, too. Ever creating and re-creating. Always bring us from death to life.

And for this, we say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

Preached May 30, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Trinity Sunday
Readings: Jeremiah 1:10-10; 7:1-11; Psalm 1