Worthless

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 puts, 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 Cedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. Has a nation changed it 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 to evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out sisters for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

One year my elementary school got the bright idea for a new program to help keep the tomfoolery down in the cafeteria. We were, as most kids are, fine in the classroom, but the minute we were allowed to mingle with friends in other classes, everything went crazy. 

So the teachers would yell, and separate certain students from others, but it never really worked. And then the front office got an epiphany… The three flowers.

One day, in the middle of every table, stood a small little vase and inside each vase were three fake flowers. The idea was that if the table became too rambunctious, a teacher or administrator would come over and remove one flower – the first warning. And, if sort of worked, the fear of losing the other two would inevitably lead most of us to quiet down and focus on our peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. But then someone would put their hand over the armpit and start making the sounds of flatulence, or someone would purposely spill milk out of their nose and then flower number two would disappear.

For most that was enough. With two flowers missing a table would eat in miserable silence waiting for the lunch period to end.

We knew the punishments for losing all three flowers: There was the possibility of extra homework, the loss of recess, and the most dreaded of all, a phone call to our parents.

So having lost two flowers, we would get our acts together and instantly mature right on the spot.

Except for one day. Because on that particular day, having already lost two flowers, one of my best friends stuck his spoon into his chocolate pudding, and rather than bringing it to his mouth, he started to arc it back with his other hands and he shot the brown blob across the table directly at the girls.

Time suspended for a moment as the entire table watched the pudding reject the laws of physics and fly in slow motion until it landed directly in the middle of the forehead of the prettiest girl in our class.

And immediately, our table and the tables around us erupted in cacophonous laughter until the cafeteria lady, as we called her, slowly sauntered over and withdrew our final remaining flower.

Our hearts sank knowing that the worst thing in the world had just taken place and our imaginations began to run wild with whatever punishment was coming our way. The cafeteria lady quickly wrote down all of our names on a piece of paper, and then she handed it to me. She said, “Lunch is about to end, and when it does, you are to take this to the office, the principal will be calling each of your parents to tell them what you did today.”

The remaining minutes were agonizing and we refused to look each other in the eyes, and when I picked up my tray to deposit my trash the lunch lady came over a final time and said, “And don’t get any funny ideas like throwing away the piece of paper before you go to the office.”

Why did she plant such a seed of mischief in mind? I will never know. 

But that’s exactly what I did.

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No wants likes getting in trouble. It’s not the trouble we mind, but its getting caught that makes all the difference. If we can avoid it, we do everything we can to avoid indictment. And then we read a scripture like the one from Jeremiah and we squirm in our pews. We squirm, precisely because it makes us uncomfortable. 

Jeremiah’s condemnation resonates with us in ways we’d care not to admit. Each of us, in our own time, can take a good hard look in the mirror and catch glimpses of our own waywardness, or lifestyle choices, or foolish decisions and know that the word from the Lord is true. 

We do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should do.

Or, to put it like Isaiah puts it: People who pursue worthless things become worthless themselves.

Ouch.

The people of God during the time of Jeremiah were a people of foolish wastefulness. They had been given everything they needed: plentiful land to eat its fruits. But for them it was never enough. And, to make matters worse, it wasn’t just the people, it was the priests too. They all went off in search of the illusive “more” and they came back empty handed.

The desire in the hearts and minds and souls and bodies was so blinding that they had forgotten who they were and the story of God’s deliverance.

Which is why Jeremiah speaks of their water and their cracked cisterns. The people of Jerusalem are dying of thirst, both literally and spiritually. The faithlessness of God’s people had delivered the Babylonians to their door steps and their aid and supplies had been cut off. The cisterns scattered throughout the city are literally drying out leading to cracks and the water has stopped.

But it’s more than just the literal water that’s missing. Jeremiah has eyes to see and a word from the Lord to preach that they have lost the living water of God. Not because it dried up and disappeared, but because the people made their own cisterns and bottled their own understanding of enough instead of relying on God.

The people have lost their story. They have forgotten that God, their God, had delivered them from captivity in Egypt to the new and beautiful Promised Land, God had been faithful to the covenant struck with Abraham, but the people had listened to another song, they had followed their own thoughts and desires, and now, they are accused.

And not just them, but their children’s children!

Over and over again throughout the Bible, both in the Old and New Testaments, Israel knows itself as the people delivered by God. And still today, we are a people delivered by God from the tyranny of another sort, not from a Pharaoh in a far away land, but from the reign of sin and death. And its because we know the story of what God did that we can live fully and faithfully today.

We are the stories we tell.

It’s true. Just think about what’s important to you or to your family. Whatever the thing is, there’s probably a story that helps bring the object to light. Narratives shape the world around us and give us the means by which we can understand who we are and, in the church, whose we are.

And even though we know that we’re the stories we tell, more often than not we act like we are the things we possess. We value ourselves on the clothes we wear, the car we drive, the home we own. And all of those things are worthless. They can blow away with the wind. 

Is there a shirt that can make us happy?

Is there a car that can fix our marriage?

What good is a perfect house when you run out of water?

So Jeremiah lambasts the people of God, and even us all these centuries later. Why have you forgotten what God did for you? Why are you rushing after things that cannot bring you life? Why have you dug your own cisterns when God is the one with the living water?

And here’s the deal: Jeremiah, bless his heart, we can see what he’s going for. He’s not simply trying to make the people feel bad about themselves, he says what he says so that they can change. The prophet wants everyone to tune their hearts back to God’s frequency. 

But it’s not going to work.

Literally, it doesn’t, things just get worse for the nation Israel as she refuses to listen and continues to dig her own cisterns.

But it was never going to work out anyway.

The more prophets prophesy about the need to change, the more preachers preach about the need to change, the more things largely stay the same.

No one goes to an AA meeting because their spouse nags them to go. No child jumps at the opportunity to do their homework because their parents yelled at them to do so. 

Just think about the last time someone tried to fix you… Did it work?

Just think about the last time you listened to a sermon that told you all the things you needed to do to fix your life… Did you and did it work?

Thats the kicker about preaching – people don’t change because we tell them to repent, nor do we change because someone told us to. 

It’s infuriating, but we all have to come to our solutions on our own. Sure, we can do our due diligence and show people the door, but we can’t push anyone through it. But even that is a long shot in terms of transformation.

We like to talk about how the world is changing, how we can barely keep up with it all, and part of the reason it feels like the world is spinning out of control is because we all stay the same. We are creatures of habit and when we find a routine that seems to work we stick with it, even if the routine is a denial of God’s living water provided to us for nothing.

We’ve got the crooked and broken notion that we’ve got to dig our own wells to get what God has already given to us.

What Jeremiah points at in his indictment, the thing we almost always miss, is that this is exactly the thing he was criticizing. It’s not just that God’s people needed to be better, though it wouldn’t have hurt, the problem was they were so convinced that they could do everything they needed on their own when they couldn’t do much of anything. 

We are all works in progress – that’s absolutely the truth. And yet, this incessant desire to change others usually makes things worse.

Should we stop trying? Of course not. The point isn’t to give up, but to realize that we all need help outside of ourselves and even outside of the people closest to us. We need a savior. We need living water that will never ever run dry. We need the bread and the cup. 

We can’t do all of this on our own.

So thanks be to God, who through Jesus Christ has made us his own. Amen.

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Devotional – Genesis 25.29-31

Devotional:

Genesis 25:29-31

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.”

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Communicating the stories of scripture to young children is a challenge. Ask any young person even remotely familiar with the bible about their favorite story and you’re likely to hear something about Noah’s ark, Jonah and the Big Fish, or David and Goliath. But the bible is so much more than those stories and they need to be shared with all people.

During Chapel Time with the preschool students at my last church I would often try to come up with different and imaginative ways to tell the story. Long ago flannel-graph representations of characters and objects would be enough to impart the story in a young person’s mind, but today, with the advent of social media and youtube, different means are necessary.

Every year I would guide the children through the bible and whenever we came to the story of Jacob and Esau I asked the children to join me in the church kitchen. All of the ingredients were prepared ahead of time and each student was able to add a portion of the ingredients to make some “red stuff” (chili). They would stand there mystified as the ground beef mixed with the tomatoes and the black beans and the spices and they all struggled to stir the giant pot with a large wooden spoon. When it was ready to cook I would put it on the stove and let the kids return to their classes for a few hours.

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At the end of the day, right before they were dismissed, I would bring the chili downstairs and each child was offered their own bowl. While we ate together I would tell them the story of Jacob and Esau and how Esau was willing to get rid of something so wonderful and so precious for a bowl of red stuff. The kids would stare into their empty bowls and contemplate the greater blessing of a full stomach or the blessing of almighty God and then we would pray together.

I loved teaching the lesson every year, but what I didn’t anticipate was how well the younger children would remember it with each passing year. Because by the time the 2 year olds became 4 year olds they refused to even taste the chili for fear that God would remove the blessing from them!

The stories of scripture offer us a window into the divine. The bible is a strange new world that we enter whenever we open the book, and stays with us whenever we put it down. In the world today we are offered all kinds of things to quench our thirst and satisfy our hunger whether its literal liquid and food or relationships or experiences. But all of them are fleeting when compared to the immense blessing of God in Jesus Christ.

Devotional – Genesis 32.28

Devotional:

Genesis 32.28

Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Weekly Devotional Image

I gather in the choir loft of the sanctuary with the entirety of St. John’s Preschool every Wednesday morning at about 9:30am. By that time the children have all had an opportunity to get out most of their “wiggles” before sitting down in the stiff church pews and learning a story about God from the Bible. I generally try to start the academic year off with stories from Genesis and make my way through up to the stories of Jesus leading toward Easter Sunday.

When we learn about God making light from Creation, we turn the sanctuary lights off and on and talk about what a great gift it is to have light. When we talk about Adam and Eve hiding from God after eating from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil, we play hide and seek in the sanctuary and talk about how God never stops looking for us even when we’re lost. And this year, when I was foolish enough to teach them about the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, we played red light green lights in attempts to reflect on how God offers us the wisdom of when to go and when to stop.

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Last week we met in the sanctuary to talk about one of my favorite stories from Genesis: Jacob wrestling by the banks of the Jabbok river. Jacob has run away from his family after stealing and tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and blessing and is about to reencounter his brother. But before he can meet his fate in Esau, a strange man arrives in the middle of the night and wrestles Jacob until he, in a sense, learns his lesson. And from this struggle he receives a new name: Israel.

In order to bring the story to life, I had the preschoolers line up one by one and each of them were tasked with knocking me over in a wresting match. They all came forward and gave it their best shot (some were oddly more prepared for this than others) and I would pick them up and spin them around in circles. When one of our last two year olds came forward, I let him knock me to the ground, but instead of pounding on me like some of the older kids, he wrapped his arms around my neck and hugged me.

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I was then able to stand up with the boy in my arms and tell the kids the most important part of the lesson: God loves us so much that even when we’re angry, God will never let us go.

To be a Christian today almost implies a degree of struggling with God. We want to know why a hurricane, like Matthew, can wage destruction in places like Haiti, the Bahamas, and the East Coast of the US. We want to know why our presidential political system is filled with such vitriolic and hateful language. We want to know why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people. Yet, even amidst all the struggle and questions, what a blessing it is to know that God’s love is so strong that God will never let us go.