Monday, May 14, 2012

Broken Down and Remade

Jeremiah - by Michaelangelo

This sermon continues our journey through the Old Testament prophets.  We had an artist in the center of our worship space, working with clay, creating, destroying, and recreating pots, throughout our worship service.

Jeremiah 29:10-14
Jeremiah 18:1-11

It sucks to see what nobody else can see, and then have nobody listen when you try to tell them.  I have this reoccurring nightmare sometimes-  I keep trying to explain, I'm talking and begging and nobody is listening.  Nobody will believe me, (although in it I am often an adult arguing with my parents who think I am still a teenager, so it clearly has more to do with my own issues and unresolved frustration than anything in reality). But with this nightmare, I wake up and it’s over, thank God.

But this was Jeremiah’s whole life.  Jeremiah was the son of the priest Hilkiah – the one who found the scrolls and brought them to King Josiah. His prophetic calling began around then and continued past Josiah’s death at the hands of an Egyptian army – whom Josiah had engaged despite Jeremiah’s warnings, as they passed through Judah to war against Assyria in the north. 
Jeremiah led the people in great grieving for Josiah, and then continued to prophesy through the abbreviated reign of Josiah’s son and replacement by an Egyptian regent, and the unfolding tension in which Judah was caught between the superpowers of Egypt and Babylon at the time.  He continues to function as prophet through the fall of Judah and destruction of the temple, when the Babylonians take over and the people are scattered.

When Josiah died Jeremiah could see that Judah’s days as an independent nation were numbered, and the people were already falling away from Josiah’s ways.  The reforms the people made under Josiah didn’t stick, and the horrors to which they sank under his grandfather Manassa were so abhorrent to God and so destructive to them, that their effects lingered.  And so it begs the question, how bad can things get before there’s no turning back?  At what point is death so chosen for so long that life can not resuscitate? 

Back in the days of Noah, God wiped out the whole world and started over with Noah, but also started over with Godself -  I wont ever do this again. I wont ever destroy everything and everyone and begin again, I am not that kind of God.  But now God is sitting here with this people who have sacrificed their own children, who have broken down all it means to be in this relationship with God and each other, having nothing left of their covenant, shattering it in every imaginable way. 
And the way forward here, the role God takes on, is a grieving parent watching her child die after her body is ravaged by meth and her mind destroyed.  It  doesn’t matter at this point if she decides to get clean. It’s too late for her to drop her dealer and join Narcotics anonymous.  She didn’t listen back when her parents begged her to go back to school or start eating again, when they pointed out the toll her horrible choices were having on her own life and her friends and family, and she refused help when they offered all their resources and support to help her choose a different way.   Now it’s all over and the next step is life support and ultimately pulling the plug and the parent just has to let it happen.  That’s God in this book.  That’s Jeremiah’s voice in this time in the life of Judah.

Jeremiah grieves. It’s what he does. Incessantly, relentlessly. He pisses people off he’s such a weeper.  His grief is deep and unending, and keeping silent is impossibly painful.  His misery is two-fold: One, he is utterly brokenhearted over what is coming for the people and nation he cares about.  And it’s coming. He keeps telling them, but they are refusing to listen. They are numb.  And this is the second reason for Jeremiah’s great grief.  It is absolutely devastating that they wont hear him, that they refuse to listen to what is coming.  They will lose everything they have.  It’s going to be over for them.  It’s too late to turn this ship around.  And nobody is listening. In fact, they do whatever they can to shut him up.

Enter the potter parable.  While the approved prophets of the kingdom are telling the people that its all good and rosey times ahead, Jeremiah is reminding them that their actions have consequences. And that God will not let it continue as is.  In fact, that it is coming to an end anyway, and God is not going to stop it.

This is not the distant God who sets the world in motion and refuses to participate, or even the unmovable, sovereign God whose mind is made up and whose will cannot be altered. This is a proactive, reactive and interactive God, who is willing to change God’s mind, who is willing to do whatever it takes to shape the people into a vessel of God’s love for the world.

Here’s the thing about God – the potter is not throwing out the clay. Yes, the pot is broken down and destroyed, but then it is reshaped into something new.  And here’s the thing about Jeremiah, he saw what God had in mind before it happened-  first that the people would be ravaged by Babylon and taken into exile. But then, also that one day they would return, that it would begin again.  That while God’s short term plans may shift dramatically as the situation calls for, God’s longterm plan was bigger, that the future was still out there, still in God’s hands, still hopeful.  He believed this so much that as the Babylonians were descending on them, from his prison cell, as people were panicking and fleeing, and from someone who must have thought him completely insane, he bought a piece of land.  Like buying stock in the company just as it was collapsing.  He had a longer view.

The message of Jeremiah is that sometimes the way God works is by breaking us down and starting over. This time, instead of destroying the world and saving a remnant – (a move God regretted and promised after Noah never to do again) God dismantles the remnant itself, strips the house down to its foundations and rebuilds, collapses the clay and shapes something new. God will never give up on God’s people or the world that God loves.  Destruction, even, becomes a tool. It is not in vain. God will use it to shape something new.

The difference between God and the grieving parent lies not in the grief, or the love, or the loss, or the wishing it could have been different or the anguish at how things turned out.  The difference is in the fact that God is the creator-  who creates and creates and recreates, who is greater than death and whose material is life, who doesn’t give up and is not hindered, who, just down the road from this moment, comes to actually share life with us all, who dies and is resurrected. The difference is that God brings life out of death. And we are the people of who’ve been brought out of death into new life. Death is not the end. 

But true though this may be, it doesn’t look so good heading into the death part.  It doesn’t feel good to reap what you’ve sown, to be broken down and remade, to die and be reborn. Re-creation is not a painless process.

The people without memory had not only forgotten that they were meant to be God’s vessel of love in the world, that they were meant to partner with the God of life and live free, whole, interdependent, and generous - they had forgotten how to even live outside the moment, they had forgotten the faithfulness of the past and the promises of the future. 

So when they were scattered from their home and the temple was in ruins, after they were settled in foreign lands with no hope of returning, Jeremiah continued to say what the people continued to disbelieve and ignore.  That the story is bigger, that God is still moving. That death is not the end.  That the God who creates life is creating still and always. Creating and recreating.  That things can reach a point where things are so bad that there is no turning back, and when they do, there is going forward instead.

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their spouse, says the Lord.

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-33)

God is involved, hands on, heart engaged.  And this world, and we in it, belong to God.  God changes strategies, but the end goal is always the same – it is always wholeness, love, life abundant and full, shared and multiplied.  And we are vessels of this love.

May we - in memory, in grief, in hope and in discourse – continue to be shaped for God’s purposes in the world.  May we listen to the voices of warning and voices of hope, voices of grief and truth, and voices of celebration and promise.   And may we ourselves be that voice in a world God is redeeming.

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We have been using Frederick Buechner's Peculiar Treasures, in exploring the prophets. Here is his description of Jeremiah.

7th c BC

The word jeremiad means doleful and thunderous denunciation, and its derivation is no mystery. There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn’t denounce. He denounced the king and the clergy. He denounced recreational sex and extramarital jamborees.  He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor, and he denounced the poor for deserving no better. He denounced the way every new god that came sniffing around had them all after him like so many bitches in heat; and right at the very gates of the Temple he told them that if they thought God was impressed by all the mumbo-jumbo that went on in there, they ought to have their heads examined.

When some of them took to indulging in a little human sacrifice on the side, he appeared with a clay pot which he smashed into smithereens to show them what God planned to do to them as soon as he got around to it. He even denounced God himself for saddling him with the job of trying to reform such a pack of hyenas, degenerates, ninnies. “You have deceived me,” he said, shaking his fist. You are “like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (Jeremiah 15:18), and God took it.

But the people didn’t. When he told them that the Babylonians were going to come in and rip them to shreds as they richly deserved, they worked him over and threw him in jail. When the Babylonians did come in and not only ripped them to shreds but tore down their precious Temple and ran off with all the expensive hardware, he told them that since it was God’s judgment upon them, they better submit to it or else; whereupon they threw him into an open cistern that happened to be handy. Luckily the cistern had no water in it, but Jeremiah sank into the muck up to his armpits and stayed there till an Ethiopian eunuch pulled him out with a rope.

He told them that if they were so crazy about circumcision, then they ought to get their minds above their navels for once and try circumcising “the foreskins of their hearts” (Jeremiah 4:4);  and the only hope he saw for them was that someday God would put the law in their hearts too instead of in the books, but that was a long way off.

At his lowest ebb he cursed the day he was born like Job, and you can hardly blame him. He had spent his life telling them to shape up with the result that they were in just about as miserable shape as they’d have been if he’d never bothered, and urging them to submit to Babylon as the judgment of God when all their patriotic instincts made that sound like the worst kind of defeatism and treachery.

He also told them that, Babylonian occupation or no Babylonian occupation, they should stick around so that someday they could rise up and be a new nation again; and then the first chance they got, a bunch of them beat it over the border into Egypt. What’s even worse, they dragged old Jeremiah, kicking and screaming, along with them which seems the final irony: that he, who had fought so long and had against all forms of idolatry—the Nation as idol, the Temple as idol, the King as idol—should at last have been tucked into their luggage like a kind of rabbit’s foot or charm against the evil eye or idol himself.

What became of him in Egypt afterwards is not known, but the tradition is that his own people finally got exasperated with him there they stoned him to death. If that is true, nothing could be less surprising.
   (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, from the book of Jeremiah)

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