Sunday, August 29, 2010

Cisterns, Angels Unaware... Our Story Isn't Done!

Many thanks to TextWeek for their weekly banquet of resources for preaching and liturgy. There I was able to employ the help of Henry Langknecht, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, as well as Kate Huey of the UCC.

There's a song by the Foo Fighters called "Times Like These." I'd heard it here and there, but it really hit home to me back in 2005 in a small group at Montreat. I don't remember the context in whihc it was played, or what the small group leader said about it, but it became something of a statement of faith for me:

"It's times like these we learn to live again,
It's times like these we give and give again,
It's times like these we learn to love again,
It's times like these, time and time again."

Our story goes on. God isn't done with us yet.

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves? They did not say, "Where is the LORD who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?" I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. The priests did not say, "Where is the LORD?" Those who handle the law did not know me; the rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.

Therefore once more I accuse you, says the LORD, and I accuse your children's children. Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." So we can say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?"

Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. "When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, 'Give this person your place', and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, 'Friend, move up higher'; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted."

He said also to the one who had invited him, "When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Our Old Testament reading fairly cries out for one of those sermons where I talk about how bad we Christians are at being really faithful, listing all of the ways we’ve exchanged the joy of a life of faith in God for instant gratification.

I’ve done those sermons before. I think, or at least hope, that everyone who stands behind a pulpit has. They seem hard-hitting and insightful. They feel bold and edgy. They make us feel like Billy Sunday, pounding (at least metaphorically) our Bibles on the pulpit, itemizing the manners in which we’ve built broken cisterns for ourselves, and shouting imprecations against the avarice and greed infesting the modern day church.

But can I be honest with you? Sermons like that are easy. What’s more, I don’t think there’s a Christian in any church this morning anywhere in the United States that doesn’t know we do a lousy job of being God’s people. Do we really need another sermon bemoaning the way we’ve replaced God with possessions? I think not, honestly. We know that we take God for granted. We know we take God's providence and faithfulness for granted. We know that we put our time and energy into fruitless pursuits. We know that we are more zealous in spreading the word about our favorite college football team (or, in my case, my favorite NASCAR driver) than about God's action in our lives. We know that in putting our lives together we draw on the dry wells of human wisdom. We know this.

Here’s the mystery, though… God knows all of this, too. God knew about it when God called the Hebrew people, and God knew it when God called us. God sees us when we struggle to stay faithful, thankful, and zealous. When we go after worthless things because their "worthlessness" is deferred and their immediate payoff is so satisfying. We know and can say that God's acts of deliverance were amazing! But, come on, the thrill of walking between the walls of water in the Red Sea, the excitement of seeing the Ark of the Covenant danced into Jerusalem? That belonged to people long dead; those are just stories now.

We want our own vivid experience, our own memories, and (God help us) the stories being told on our little screens feel more real to us. God knows all of this, as well as – better than – we do… and God loves us anyway!

The thing we must remember is that the story – the one that includes walking through the Red Sea on dry land, the one that includes dancing with all our might as the priests carry the Ark into Jerusalem, the one that includes all of the failures and forgiveness of God’s people, the story that includes a baby in a manger and a cross on a hill, the story that includes an empty tomb on a Sunday morning, that story is not over! God is not done with us!

I sometimes wonder if the Lectionary Elves threw Bible passages up in the air, and put them into the calendar any which way they fell. But today’s readings go together in a kind of interesting way, I think. If the Old Testament reading from Jeremiah is the problem, perhaps the New Testament offers something of a solution.

Here’s what I mean. Israel was unique among all the nations of its day. They were surrounded by cultures which worshipped dozens, sometimes hundreds, of gods.

These gods all had temples, and all their temples had wood or stone or clay representations of that god in them. Yet Israel’s attention, their devotion, was to be focused upon one God, the true God. A God who had only one Temple, and contained no image, no physical representation of God. Perhaps that made it easy to slip away, to begin treating worship as if it was no big deal, simply rituals that must be performed to keep up appearances.

Perhaps that made it easy to begin experimenting with these other gods, to begin to forget how God had brought them from slavery and into a land of abundance. After all, sacrificing to a god you could see might have felt more “real,” more immediately gratifying. More like you were doing something constructive with your time. Besides, having a household god to worship meant you didn’t have to go to Jerusalem. Like building a cistern to catch rainwater rather than going to the river a mile away: the water wasn’t as fresh, but it was here.

But these cisterns, these false gods, these attitudes of going through the motions, could not hold water. God called out to the children, calling them back. The story was not over. God was not done with them yet.

If Israel was supposed to function as a people of God, then the modern church is intended to function in an even more closely-knit fashion. Paul refers to Christians collectively as the “Body of Christ” not because it’s a catchy phrase, but because, like a body, we are to function as a single organism, a collective unit of many disparate parts acting as a unit.

The writer of the book of Hebrews makes this clear: We are to love one another, and welcome strangers as if they were divine beings sent from God. When one of us is imprisoned or tortured – whatever that means for us in our nation where one isn’t beaten or burned for placing Christ as Lord above Caesar – we must feel it deeply and personally, as if our own hand or foot was enduring that torture. Our marriages are to be faithful, as examples to the community of the relationship between Christ and his church. Money cannot be our substitute god, nor can fear about the future. Our dependence must be upon God, and our example must be those who have walked the faith journey before us, especially Jesus Christ… who is the object of our worship and the reason for all the sacrifices we make.

Money isn’t the problem. Fame isn’t the problem. Power isn’t the problem. Influence isn’t the problem. Why and how we use the measure of money and fame and power and influence we have is what’s at issue.

In the New York Times, Frank Rich wrote about the recent death of a wealthy, prominent woman, Judith Dunnington Peabody. While we might expect someone of Ms. Peabody’s wealth and stature to enjoy all the privilege and comforts and prestige her money could afford her, what Jesus referred to in our Gospel reading as “the highest place” at the tables she graced, more than one article about Mrs. Peabody's life reveals a woman who understood – deeply – what it means to be a blessing, and what it means to love the strangers in our lives, not from afar, but sitting right down, next to them.

In addition to the traditional fundraising (among her "own") that most society matrons engage in, Judith Peabody worked with and for those in need, those whom most folks would have avoided, including, for example, a Hispanic youth gang in East Harlem. Her obituary, written by Bruce Weber, makes it sound as if she keenly understood Jesus' instructions about whom to invite to your table: “‘One night she invited them all for dinner to our apartment,’ Mr. Peabody recalled in an interview Monday. ‘The doormen were, well, a little surprised. It was a great night.’” Ms. Peabody also worked hard during the 1980's as a caregiver for people with HIV and AIDS, while others stayed away out of fear: according to one person who worked with Ms. Peabody, “There was this constant with her of consoling and holding people's hands.”

Trebay quotes a number of people who try to describe what made Mrs. Peabody so unusual, and such an inspiration for others: “That the people in her particular village were 'the most marginalized,' and often those furthest from her own milieu of 'incredible social privilege' was what set her apart, Dr. [Jonathan] Jacobs said." And William Norwich's reminisced, “What made her different was she was always going into areas where polite society didn't go….Friends of hers would tell her: ‘I can't believe you're doing that. We don't know people like that.’”

What separates you and I from Judith Peabody? Is it money? Fame? Influence? Power? No. What separates us is only that Ms. Peabody’s story ended this past August, and ours has not. Our stories – no, our story – goes on. What we have done, what we have left undone; the worship and sacrifices we have offered to Christ, and the worship and sacrifices we have neglected; the opportunities we have taken advantage of to be the hands and feet of Christ, and those we have missed, all of these are a prelude to what comes next.

God is not finished with us yet!

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