Sunday, June 26, 2011

When Even God Gives Up

Jeremiah 15:1-21

Jeremiah finds himself at rock bottom and levies some serious complaints. He pities his parents and curses his own birth. He accuses God of injustice in terms just short of blasphemy. Apparently the people had put so many barriers between themselves and God that it was too late to avoid the consequences. God tells Jeremiah that there's no point in even praying for the people any more (11:14) and that not even Moses or Samuel could fix this mess. Even toward the faithful Jeremiah, instead of comfort, God tells him that things are about to get worse.  He says Jeremiah has been running with men, but he's about to run with horses and that he fell down in a safe land, but just wait until he gets to the jungle (12:5). Destruction is coming in every area of life. Cheery thoughts, huh?

Jeremiah knew from the beginning that his call would involve destruction and rebuilding (1:10). It's a continuing cycle of humanity. The "prosperity gospel" is right about half of the time. There are rewards for faithful living. There are also random acts of tragedy. Sometimes bad things happen to good people and sometimes the wicked prosper. There are consequences when our choices reach the tipping point into disaster. It seems we would have learned by now that the rules of cause and effect are a little fuzzy when it comes to moral issues. So why worry about faith? Is God playing dice with the universe after all? It seems to me that God is showing us a bigger picture -- one beyond a basic eye-for-an-eye relationship. If we could determine the rules, then someone would figure them out and publish them in an academic journal for theology and we'd be done with it. But it doesn't work that way. We have to keep seeking unity with God based on the increments of spiritual knowledge that He give us. It's an eternal process of asking and receiving, seeking and finding, and knocking on closed doors. God doesn't leave Jeremiah without hope for restoration, but He also doesn't give hope that any earthly restoration will be permanent. The injustice that we see around us is not a flaw in God's plan, but a hint that we need to be looking beyond our nose for the truth.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Saying Unpopular Things at Church

Jeremiah 7: 1 - 15

I first named this post "Getting Stoned for a Sermon" because that's what happened to Jeremiah, but then I realized that anyone who wasn't reading Jeremiah would think that I was making some kind of drug reference and would then be wildly disappointed to just find a Sunday School lesson. This week Jeremiah minces no words in telling the people that their church attendance and worship is a farce. He says that their religion means nothing if it doesn't translate into taking care of widows, orphans, and foreigners in their midst.  He set himself against the religious establishment by calling the temple a "den of thieves." Jesus used the quote when he later did the same thing. The people said to Jeremiah, "You shall die!" then they said to each other, "This man deserves the sentence of death." That must've been some sermon. Cooler heads prevailed when they remembered that prophets had a habit of pronouncing doom and after all, he was called by God. They did eventually stone him, but not in Chapter 7.

That part about "foreigners in their midst" or "aliens among them" kept coming back to me because right here in the Bible belt, Alabama just passed the toughest immigration law in American history and it's been in the news almost daily. It's now against the law to give a ride to an illegal immigrant. If you see someone who is hurt and want to take her to a hospital, check her papers first. You know, like the Good Samaritan did. And our public schools which are already operating on a shoestring are now required to verify immigration status even though federal law prevents us from denying a public education to any child. Just what we need, pointless paperwork when we don't have money to teach music, art, or driver's education. So, shouldn't we bring this up at church?

I remember being resentful of international students when I was in graduate school over 20 years ago. Students who wanted to come to America would work as teaching assistants for smaller stipends and I felt like there would be more money available for American students if those dern foreigners would stay home. They were smart and willing to study long hours, too. The feeling was easy to maintain toward a group, but as soon as I met students who were willing to sacrifice everything to come to the United States and work for a better life for their children, it was hard to fault them. I would do anything to provide a way to a fulfilling life for my children. I don't deserve the blessings of my country; I just had some dumb luck in citizenship. And of course, the Native Americans have a better case against the first immigrants than we have today against Mexicans. It's all a matter of perspective. Which brings me back to Jeremiah and Jesus. We can give up our claim to be followers of God or we can adjust our behavior to conform to biblical teaching. I don't imagine Jeremiah or Jesus would be any more popular today than they were back then if they showed up this Sunday and said that if we can be happy about this anti-immigration law then we're wasting our time going to church.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Is Jeremiah in the New Testament?

Jeremiah 3:12 - 4:4

Whenever I read the Old Testament prophets, I'm always surprised at how often their words sound like they're coming straight out of Jesus' mouth. In my mind, thelawandtheprophets run together, and I see the covenant with Moses as one based on law while grace comes in to save the day in the New Testament. In fact, the prophets had a lot to say about a God of grace. In this oracle, Jeremiah tells the people that one day the Ark of the Covenant will be lost and forgotten along with the idea that God can be localized and kept in a box. He says that the circumcision of the flesh is nothing without a circumcision of the heart. He goes far beyond the historical questions of Israel's catastrophe of the moment to a bigger, more spiritual concept of who God is.  Jeremiah says that all the nations will turn from evil and be gathered to God.

The metaphor of the passage is that God has experienced failed marriages to two wives (Israel and Judah). Several verses are quoted from Hosea, another story of infidelity that is met with forgiveness and mercy. The wives are asked to return, but not compelled to do so. God will not force anyone to love.  If He did, would that even be love? The wives do not return, but their children do, so the restoration begins. The children are promised "shepherds" who will "feed" them knowledge and understanding. But what about those who don't return? Even the wicked who reject God and imprison themselves are not deprived of the love of God. There is not a divine split personality that desires rewards for the chosen and agony to the rest. God's love is unchanging. The same love of God that represents bliss to some is experienced as intolerable torment by others who have not acquired it within themselves. Jesus' parable of the prodigal son and his father are a beautiful illustration of this. The father's constant love was always there, but it was certainly experienced by the son in different ways.

The options that are presented in the book of Jeremiah are basically the same ones that confront us. We can reform to conform to who God is and receive his mercy and grace. We can cling unchanging to the idea of a limited God and refuse to let go of whatever Ark of the Covenant is holding our trust. Or we can abandon God altogether and forfeit the mercy that sees our sins and loves us anyway. Doesn't really seem like much of a choice, does it?

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pulling Down and Building Up

The book of Jeremiah asks a tough question:  What happens when everything you believe in and live by is smashed to bits by circumstances? For anyone who believes in a God who is good, there is always the nagging wonder of why so many bad things happen to such good people. The book of Job, the oldest book of the Bible, presents this quandary as an odd little wager between God and the Devil.  Job can't understand what is happening, but notes that "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord." God never directly answers why, nevertheless Job says that he will maintain his trust even if slain by God. It is repeatedly emphasized that Job is blameless and has brought none of his misfortune upon himself. Jeremiah, on the other hand, in his defense of God's justice, puts a large share of the blame for human suffering on human sin and disobedience. Certainly turning away from God will have consequences, but what looks like punishment is not always the result of sin as Jesus explained to his disciples when they asked about the sin of the blind man.

As Israel faced a national tragedy of defeat at the hands of their enemies, Jeremiah proceeded to pronounce unpopular truth that got him banned from the temple and eventually stoned to death by his own countrymen. He at various times questions the value of sacrifice, circumcision, written law, the temple and the leadership structure of prophets and priests. For Jeremiah, religious reality was centered in personal communion with God. He spoke not of a new law, but a new motivation and accompanying power to fulfill the law that was already known (see 31:31-34).  He emphasized a law that was written by God on the heart.

There's also an interesting parallel between Jeremiah and Moses. Both were born into a priestly lineage, but were called by God to do something else. Both tried to refuse the call. Both led their people for 40 years against stiff opposition. Moses led the people out of Egypt into the Promised Land. Jeremiah was forced from the Promised Land and wound up back in Egypt. This cycle of bad & good, losing & winning, pulling down & rebuilding, pulling up & replanting is actually included as a part of Jeremiah's divine commission (1:10).

Maybe the focus is on the wrong question. The fact that we have an innate sense that good people "deserve" rewards and bad people "deserve" to be punished might be the key. Where did we get this universal feeling that there should be justice? It's more than self-preservation, that's for sure. The words of Jeremiah implore us to pay close attention to the law that God has written on our heart.

What to do with my Lent blog.....

After Easter, I took a little time to "study on" what to do with my blog. I personally debated several ideas. This in itself is not unusual. I admit that the main reason that I have a cat is so that when I'm caught talking to myself I can pretend to be talking to the cat. Anyway, in the end I decided to link the blog to one of my favorite hours each week which is the time that I spend with my Bible study group. The term "Sunday School" has fallen out of favor, so when asked to label ourselves our group chose the name "Morning Blend." I would describe the typical member as a middle class Baptist white woman aged 30ish to 60ish with a career related in some way to education. There are many exceptions to all these categories; hence the name. There are about a dozen or so of us in the core group, and we've been meeting on Sunday mornings at 9:45 for over a decade with a number of others who have drifted in and out of our fellowship. We study the Bible one book at a time based on a set schedule that completes the entire Bible every 8 years. We alternate Old Testament and New Testament books.  We've just begun a study of the book of Jeremiah, so this seems like a good time to experiment with extending the usual discussion hour to a week. This will work best as a conversation, but I'm not sure if the blog platform will be as lively and interesting as our actual meetings are. I guess there's only one way to find out....