Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Come Hell or No Water

Jeremiah 14:1-16
by Daniel Harrell

We’ve been on something of a trajectory so far in our water sermon series this fall. We began with the waters of creation—all of the water that will ever will exist was present at the beginning. Thanks to the hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation and precipitation, the same water you drank and washed with this morning was the same water that rained on Noah’s Ark. It’s the same water that parted and then collapsed on Pharaoh’s chariots in the Red Sea, the same water that Moses drew from a rock in the desert to drink, the same on which Elisha compelled an iron ax head to float. We’ve moved from total water to flooding water to drowning water to drinking water to floating water, only to arrive this morning at no water. Minnesota does need rain, but the drought experienced here in Jeremiah 14 is more akin to the one that currently cripples the Horn of Africa where tens of thousands have died. Theoretically the Earth has more than enough water for everybody—humans only use about 10 percent of the planet's available freshwater supply for all of our needs. The problem is distribution. The main reason is weather. Water’s abundance or scarcity is intensely weather and climate dependent.

Here in Jeremiah the main reason is God. He’s angry with his people and therefore takes away their water. They’ve broken covenant and they know it and they know how to fix it. Written as a psalm of lament, this morning’s passage includes a  clear confession of guilt: “Our iniquities testify against us, … our apostasies indeed are many, and we have sinned against you.” Repentance brings forgiveness. We read later in chapter 29 the Lord’s hopeful promise that his people can “seek me and find me when they seek me with all their heart.” Only here their heart doesn’t really seem to be into it. It’s like they’re just mouthing the words; going through the motions. Isn’t that enough? At least they said the words. Besides, God always responded to their cries for help. Always forgave. Always loves. He has a reputation to protect. What kind of Savior could let his chosen people suffer and still be a Savior? “Why are you acting like a stranger,” they pray, sounding rather snarky, “are you a tourist just passing through? Are you confused? A mighty warrior who doesn’t know what to do?” It’s a odd way to pray when you’ve run out of water, helpless and dying of thirst. Any contrition has given way to bad-mouthing the Lord.

Jeremiah appeared during a particularly perilous time in Israel’s history. Despite getting to witness God’s mighty deeds and words firsthand, God’s people opted to place their trust in idols instead, the handcrafted deities of their enemies that weren’t nearly as demanding as the Lord. Freed of needing to please God, they generally broke every commandment in the book. Jeremiah tried to warn them. Never the most tactful of prophets, he relentlessly railed against their treachery and infidelity. He likened them to camels in heat and to lustful wild donkeys in their pursuit of pleasure. He told them their destiny was a valley of slaughter where their carcasses would become food for dogs.

Author Kathleen Norris, in her popular book The Cloister Walk, described spending a year in a Benedictine monastery where Jeremiah was read to start each day. “Listening to Jeremiah is one heck of a way to get your blood going in the morning,” she wrote, “It puts caffeine to shame.” She noted that the Benedictine monks weren’t used to being compared to camels in heat either, but that they took it pretty well. Raised eyebrows were followed by a kind of quiet assent, as if they were thinking: well, there are days.

For the people of Judah it was every day. What’s a prophet to do? Or say, a chaplain for that matter. Navy rear admiral Barry Black is chaplain to the United States Senate where every working session has opened with prayer since 1789. Black recently opened a session by praying for the Lord to infuse Senators “with a spirit of reconciliation that will break down divisive walls, bringing harmony and cooperation. To “give them a spirit of unity and the wisdom to have respect, one for the other.” To “enable the members of this body to experience your presence, and to receive your wisdom. May they receive these blessings—aware of your counsel that to whom much is given, much is required.” We all know how well these prayers have worked lately. No sooner does Chaplain Black intone an “Amen,” than his flock launches into its acrimonious bleating, denouncing one another as “enemies of progress, abusers of the public trust, and raw sewage in the great river of American ideas.” That the rancor persists during these dire economic times disgusts many American citizens, leading to historically high disapproval ratings of somewhere around 82%. But that doesn’t seem to matter. The article I read regarding Senate chaplains suggested they mostly serve as the equivalent of a piece of parsley—mainly there for the decoration.

Granted, Senators can reap what they sow—usually in the bitter fruit of electoral defeat. Arlen Specter, the longest serving Senator in Pennsylvania history, went down to such defeat in 2010, in a primary no less. Among the various reasons may have included a passing comment he made about drinking water. Senator Specter surprisingly said, “I don’t trust tap water—if I have an opportunity to have bottled water. … I’ve supported legislation to help communities have clean drinking water. But I think there is a natural inclination for people to want to be a little extra-sure on their water. Where I can have access to bottled water, I’m going to use it.” Really? A twenty year Senate veteran with stints on judiciary and appropriations, as well as on the environment and public works committees, and he didn’t know that the United States has among the safest, most closely monitored water systems in the world? American tap water system is responsible in part for extraordinary leaps in life expectancy over the last hundred years. Let’s debunk a myth: Bottled water isn’t regulated with anything like the scrutiny and care that tap water is. If you want to run the risk of something funky in your water, drink it out of a commercially packaged plastic bottle instead of your tap.

For a United States Senator to say he didn’t trust tap water as safe to drink is outrageous. It’s as outrageous as the people of Judah suggesting that God was incompetent to quench their thirst. Jeremiah lambasted them over and over for losing trust in the Lord, but he had become a parsley prophet. So useless were his prayers for the people, that the Lord told him not to even bother anymore. He wasn’t going to answer anyway. The verses that follow this morning’s psalm of lament contain God’s troubling reply. They’re verses I chose not to have read out of respect for the Scripture readers. Even now I can feel my Wednesday night sermon group trying to wave me off. They know what’s coming.

It’s not just that God refused to answer his people’s prayers. It’s worse than that. Thus says the Lord: “Even if they fast, I will not hear their cries for help. If they give offerings I will not accept them. Instead, I will devour them through wars, famines, and plagues.” Drought’s not sufficient. The Lord will not be mocked. Israel cannot endlessly violate Yahweh and then expect mercy to be automatic. Let’s debunk another myth: Grace has its boundaries. God’s people want to chase after other gods and do as they please? Go for it. The Lord will let his people suffer the hazardous outcomes of their choices. He’ll surrender them to their enemies. The fierce Babylonians, a savage nation devoted to slaughter and conquest, would mow Judah down and cast its inhabitants into exile.

This is why Christians stay away from the Old Testament. Seriously. Take Leviticus, for instance. A man gets in a fight and in the heat of the scuffle, lets loose a cussword with God’s name in it (a violation of the third commandment). Immediately the foul-mouthed man is hauled off to Moses for blaspheming the Lord’s name. Moses waits for the Lord to pronounce sentence, which the Lord does, saying, “Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the lord shall be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.” Why does blasphemy get you stoned? Because the Old Testament places blasphemy and bad-mouthing alongside murder, implying that to curse is to kill. Eye for an eye—and also why you should stick to the New Testament.

Except that when you turn to the New Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, for instance, Jesus makes the same connection between bad-mouthing and murder. He says, “Anyone who angrily insults his brother or sister will be subject to judgment. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” In Leviticus, curse God and get stoned. In the Sermon on the Mount, curse anybody and burn in hell. I can see you’re really glad you came to church today.

If this is the God of the Bible, you might not want to read your Bible. Better to create your own god, like Israel did: a kinder, gentler deity who is easier to believe and obey. Package him up like bottled water and presume that will make him safer to drink, easier to take. There’s an interesting University of Chicago study that found people’s personal beliefs and moral and social stands mirror those values that they attribute to God. On the one hand this makes sense: one’s values and ethics should be informed by one’s faith. Except that when the researchers tricked subjects into changing their minds about a particular issue or stance, the subjects changed their faith too. They claimed that their new position was also the same as God’s—even if it differed from what they had claimed before. The researchers went on to run MRIs on a few brains and found that subjects’ personal convictions and those they hold about God lit up the same cerebral regions. Their conclusion was that any reliance on a deity to guide one’s decisions and judgments is little more than "spiritual sock-puppetry."

Philosophers understood this tendency long before scientists did. The term “anthropomorphism,” whereby human characteristics get ascribed to God, was coined by Xenophanes in the sixth century BC. More recently, philosophers from Rousseau to Voltaire to Mark Twain have all been credited with the line: “God created man in his own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”

We prefer to believe that God would never cause disaster to strike, or leave us poor or unhappy; that God would never have anybody suffer, or withhold forgiveness, or allow evil people to triumph—because we would never do these things to ourselves. And then disaster does strike or evil wins or suffering happens, and our hand crafted faith crumbles under the weight of it all because our faith was never in the Lord but in ourselves, in the Jesus we made up in our minds.

This is why we need Jeremiah. He debunks the myths we’ve made up about God. Judah’s made-up faith in a God obliged-to-forgive-and-to-save-no-matter-what allowed them to treat God’s grace with contempt rather than gratitude, as permission to sin rather than as incentive to live righteously—as a sprig of parsley rather than a spring of living water welling up to eternal life. But God would not be mocked. “Thus says the LORD concerning this people: Truly they have loved to stray far from me, they have not restrained their feet; therefore the LORD takes no pleasure them, now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.”

My Wednesday night sermon group was quick to cite Jeremiah 29:11, an endearing verse that many have committed to memory: “I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” What about that? I like Jeremiah 29:11 too. But let’s not forget that it follows Jeremiah 29:10- Thus says the Lord, “When seventy years are completed in Babylon, then I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise.” God had plans to prosper his people, but first they had to do their time.

Babylon did invade Jerusalem, destroy the Temple and take Judah captive—all in accordance with the will of God. But that was not the end of the story. The holy fire of God’s fury against sin and infidelity does not burn for the sake of destruction. Unlike its human counterfeits, divine anger refines for the sake of redemption. The devastation that one might interpret as the epilogue to Israel’s existence turned out to be the prologue to their salvation. The unquenchable fire of God’s justice made way for the thirst-quenching relief of God’s mercy. Socially, politically, militarily, individually, the unfaithful Israelites had spiraled beyond the threshold of any human resource for hope or recovery. They were as good as dead. But dead is good as far as God is concerned. It’s only those who lose their lives that ever end up finding them. Read on in Jeremiah 29 and God’s plans to prosper come with that hopeful promise alluded to earlier—one that also echoes in the Sermon on the Mount: “When you seek me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart.”

So what about my heart? How can I truly seek the Lord if my heart doesn’t really want to? Jeremiah has an answer for that. In chapter 31, the Lord promises a new covenant—a new relationship inscribed not on tablets of stone, but written on our hearts. “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.” This is the new covenant of which Jesus speaks over the communion table—a covenant made possible by his own blood shed for our sins. God promises in Jeremiah that it will be an everlasting covenant, never to be withdrawn; “I never to draw back from doing good to them,” he says, making every provision for keeping relationship with us. But at the same time, just in case, God writes something else in us too. Thus says the Lord: “I will put the fear of me in their hearts, so that they may not turn away.” This is why we need Jeremiah. Just in case.

[Information on Arlen Specter and bottled water from Charles Fishman, The BigThirst.]

I Changed My Mind: The Sermons Are Back...

For a full drink of all the sermons in this fall's water series at Colonial Church. Click here.