Sunday, March 23, 2008

All I Need to Hear (3/23/08 Easter)

All I Need to Hear
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
March 23, 2008
Easter Sunday

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory….

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
                        Colossians 3:1-4; 12-15

Have you noticed that Easter is early this year?   Here is some fun trivia to take home.     The earliest Easter can occur is March 22nd.   That happened most recently in 1818 when James Monroe was president.  It will happen again in 2285, when George Bush X becomes president.   We will never see an earlier Easter than this one today.

Those of us who are at least 95 years old might have celebrated Easter on March 23rd, 1913 just 19 days after the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.  Easter will not fall on March 23rd again until 2228, 220 years from now.   There you go, not only is Easter early, it is the earliest we will experience it this side of that heavenly shore.

It those little bits of trivia that keep folks coming back to First Pres.   We are nothing if not trivial.    

Easter is a big day for the church.  It is such a big day that the all the other Sundays are called “Little Easters.”   For the church, Easter is bigger than Christmas.  It is the day in which we celebrate the mystery of Resurrection.   Notice I said mystery of Resurrection as opposed to fact of Resurrection.   

We modern folks like facts almost as much as we like trivia.  Did this happen?  Did this not happen?  What are the facts?   The problem with religious symbols such as Resurrection is that they are not fact-friendly.  

I would say that I trust in the mystery of Resurrection rather than say I believe in the fact of the Resurrection.   I think it is important to make that distinction because we can get caught up trivia.    Trust in the mystery of Resurrection is far more complex and difficult than belief or unbelief in the fact of Resurrection.   Believing or not believing in the fact of something is a mental activity.   Trust or lack of trust in something is a way of life.   Trust demands more from me and gives more to me than belief.    I can believe things about you, but to say I trust you requires a monumental shift.  It is a risk.  It is a relationship. 

Trust is not always consistent.  When I say I trust in the mystery of the Resurrection, I need to be honest, and say I often do not trust.   In fact, if the cards were down, and I was fully honest, I would have to admit that I am far less trusting than I think I am or pretend to be.

Why?  Because I want things my way.  I want to be in control.   To trust makes me vulnerable.  Trust is the act of allowing someone or something else to have a say.  When I engage in trust I give up my power for shared power.   It is a risk.  It may not work the way I want it to work.  

Trust is the opposite of control.   When we say the word trust, our arms open.  We are vulnerable and able to receive.  When we say the word control, our arms close in, we tense.   We want to keep what we have and keep others out.   Trust is a giving and a receiving. 

Two forces are at work within me.  One seeks control of the situation, the other trusts.  If I am not aware of what is happening, I generally seek to control.  But if I do remember to be aware, I can step back and allow others to participate.   Trusting doesn’t mean I don’t participate, I do.  Trust means I don’t need to control the outcome.   Trust is accepting that even though I don’t know how it will work out and even though it may not work out the way I originally planned, it may work out beyond my expectations when others participate with me in the process.  

I would have to say that from experience, trust works better than control.  So why don’t I trust more and control less?  That is a mystery.    I get afraid and I spin wheels thinking or calculating and before you know it, I am controlling.   I like to think I am learning and growing regarding that.   Or at least I am remembering that I have a choice.

What does this have to do with Resurrection?   I can do a couple of things regarding the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I can treat it as a belief, which is a form of control.   I can believe it or not believe it.   Then call it a day.  I have controlled the issue.  I have turned it into an historical fact that I can either affirm or deny.  

Or I can treat it as an act of trust.    

16th century Reformer Martin Luther said:  “Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.”

Resurrection is a symbol of death and rebirth.  The sun sets and rises.  The caterpillar enters its chrysalis to emerge as a butterfly.  The ground rests in the winter and sprouts forth life in the spring.   Our evolutionary history has shown us that species of life die and new ones form. Stars are born, die, and from their debris, new stars form.   We go to sleep at night and wake in the morning.   The pattern of death and rebirth is all around us.   Trusting in the resurrection can be as simple as appreciating and trusting in the cycle of nature.  

I have been born.  I will die.  What will come after I trust in forces beyond myself.  

We know that before Jesus were many stories of individuals, whether they be gods or human beings, who died and were resurrected.   Osiris, Dionysius, Odin, Vishnu, Bacchus, Phoenix, Tammuz, Baal, and many others from different times in different places and cultures. 

The symbol of dying and rising is a symbol that is deep in our collective human consciousness.   These stories are not just stories, they point to a reality of how the universe works.  

Trusting in the Resurrection of Jesus can be the act of trust in the power of a story that is shared across civilizations that points to the mystery of death and rebirth.  

Even though there is a commonality between these stories, there is a particularity to each story.   The resurrection of Jesus is particular in an interesting way.    Some apologists have argued that while all the other stories of resurrection are myths, Jesus’ resurrection really happened.   It is historical.  Believe it. 

I think that is an interpretation based on control.   If the church approached its own story and the stories of others with an attitude of trust it would have something good to offer.   Because much of Christian theology approaches its story as true as opposed to others that are false, it misses its opportunity to share what is healing and powerful about its story as well as appreciating what is healing and powerful about others’ stories.

When I say the story of the death and resurrection of Christ is particular, that does not mean it is better or worse, or more true or less true, than other stories.   We are all particular human beings.  Our particularity does not make us better or worse, more true or less true than others; it simply means that we have something to offer and to receive from others.

Here is one thing I think Christianity could bring to the table if it was humble enough to sit around a table.   I owe what I am about to see to a number of scholars of Christian origins, most notably John Dominic Crossan. 

The story of Jesus Christ is rooted in an historical time and place.   Its story formed over a period of four centuries.   The setting is the occupation of Palestine by the Roman Empire. 

Jesus as we read him in the gospels was executed by the Roman Empire with assistance from the Jewish temple authorities.  He didn’t die of the flu or of old age.  According to the story, he was executed by established authority as a criminal and as a threat to the peace.   His resurrection has no meaning outside of his crucifixion.   His crucifixion has no meaning outside of his resurrection.   

Rome was not an evil empire.   Crossan calls it the “normalcy of civilization.”   Rome kept peace and kept the economy going.  As Lenin said to justify the killings of Russian citizens to make the communist state:  “If you are going to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs.”

There were eggs that needed breaking to bring Roman peace to Palestine.  They broke these eggs through crucifixion.  Thousands of people were crucified.  Usually, petty criminals and slaves as an example.  The crucifixions were public so people would get the message:  Don’t do what this one did, or you will end up like this one.  It was state sponsored terrorism. 

Jesus was one of thousands.  He was in the way.  He was in the wrong place.  He got above his raisin’.  He threatened the peace.   As his story is told in the Gospels he represented anyone who was ever crucified by Rome.  The title most often given to Jesus in the gospels is the son of the man—it means the human being.   Jesus is everyman.    Not just everyman, everyman who was crushed by Rome’s wheel.    He represented the poor and the suffering.  He represented the collateral damage of Rome’s expansion.   He was another egg that needed breaking for civilization to progress.    

We could end the story right there.  It is a story that happens all the time to this day.  

A recent poll has determined that a million Iraqis have died due to the war.   The normalcy of civilization says:  “That is unfortunate, but we are making progress.”  

The people of Tibet die and lose their freedom and their country and the normalcy of civilization says:  “We grieve over the deaths, but we are making progress.” 

The story of Jesus could have ended there.  We are sorry for Jesus, but we are making progress.   But the story didn’t end there.   I don’t know how it happened.  But his story became the focal point of a larger story that built around him.  It grew.  People began to tell each other:  Rome doesn’t get the last word this time.   Whether those who had the original idea had a spiritual experience, I don’t know.  But people began to tell each other that God raised Jesus from the dead.  The one that Rome executed, God raised.   The Resurrection is God’s yes to Rome’s no.    

The history of the church shows us that that story was bought and sold, tamed and distorted.  The normalcy of civilization turned it into a way of controlling people through threats of hell and rewards of heaven.  The Resurrection changed from a mystery to trust to a fact to be believed.

And yet, we still have echoes of the story’s transforming power in the gospels themselves.   Despite the normalcy of the institution and of civilizations, people throughout our history to this day have found hope and power to say no to violence and injustice and yes to sharing, peace, and cooperation.

This is the opinion of one preacher.  This is the way I see it.  I have no corner on the truth.  There certainly is much more to be said about the mysteries of Christianity and the mysteries of others’ stories.   But I do think that this interpretation of the Resurrection is a valid one.  I think it can be a life-transforming interpretation.  I think it can be a way for Christian communities today to find the spiritual energy and hope to engage a world that is beset with violence and the desire to control. 

For me, to trust in the mystery of the Resurrection, particularly, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, is to trust in the shared power of non-violent change.   That is a Divine power.  It is to die to the old way of control and to be raised in the new way of trust.   

The author of Colossians wrote: “So if you have been raised with Christ…”  then…

“…As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

That doesn’t sound like powerful, normalcy of civilization language.   It isn’t.  It is the language of trust.    Don’t let the soft words fool you.   They are the words of shared power that no power of violence can destroy.

When I titled this sermon “All I Need to Hear” I was thinking about the song we heard in our meditation, “Wanting Memories.”   I was thinking of this stanza:

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me,
to see the beauty in the world through my own eyes.
I thought that you were gone, but now I know you're with me,
You are the voice that whispers all I need to hear.

That is the presence of the Risen Christ.   With us.  Present.  Alive.  If we trust, we will hear his voice.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Meeting Jesus Again (3/16/08 Palm/Passion)

Meeting Jesus Again

John Shuck

Palm Sunday

March 16, 2008

I have been puzzling over donkeys this week.
I invite you to take a moment and imagine a donkey.
Picture in your mind’s eye a donkey.
Think of stories you know about donkeys.
Think of images and iconography.
Now think of what the donkey as a symbol represents to you.
What characteristics are associated with the donkey?
What feelings can you identify when you think about a donkey?
Now I am going to leave that there. I would be curious of course what images and characteristics came into your mind. You can tell me later if you like. The reason I did that little exercise is that I want to bring to some awareness that symbol.

All of those associations that you have with the donkey are part of our collective knowing. The donkey is a symbol. It doesn’t matter if our associations come from recent literature or film. They all represent this symbol.
Think of the children’s movie, Shrek. The Shrek films are brilliant movies because they capture the symbolism. While everyone loves the character, Shrek, the favorite character is of course, the donkey. 

What is the donkey? A beast of burden. Not very bright. Stubborn. Humble. Common. Not much to look at.
I know it is a bit of risk to talk about such a thing during election season. The donkey is the symbol for the Democratic party. It is kind of interesting how that came about. In the 1828 election, Andrew Jackson was called a jackass because of his populist views and his slogan: “Let the people rule.” Jackson was clever enough to use the donkey symbol to his advantage.
Apologies for being vulgar in the pulpit, but the phrase dumb-ass has to do with the ignorance of a donkey. The point is that the donkey is not what we might associate with spirituality, intelligence, or leadership.
Yet it is the donkey who is the main character in today’s story.
Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem.
Let’s go to the beginning of the Gospel story. Think of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. Picture it. What is Mary riding? A donkey, right?
It is interesting that you won’t find in the gospel narratives that Mary rode a donkey. It doesn’t say that. But we know she is on a donkey because of the imagery that we have inherited.
Mary rides a donkey into Bethlehem, very pregnant with the Son of God.
The Son of God rides a donkey into Jerusalem as he faces his last week.
Lesser known but still in our imagination is that the donkey was at the foot of the cross when Jesus was crucified. Some breeds of donkeys have a dark strip of hair across their shoulders and another strip that crosses it. The legend is that the donkey followed Jesus to the crucifixion and he turn away because he couldn’t bear to see Jesus crucified, yet he couldn’t leave his friend. As he turned his back the shadow of the cross fell upon the donkey’s back.
The donkey is associated with Jesus as opposed to say the war horse. We will find the warhorse associated with Jesus in the Book of Revelation when Jesus returns as the conqueror. But that is much later. Jesus is in the gospels rides a donkey.
We find the donkey in the Hebrew Scriptures at a couple of important points. The Bible is odd in that it often doesn’t give us details that we would like to know. At other times it pauses for details.
Moses after he receives his assignment from YHWH to go to Pharaoh to liberate the people, gets ready for the trip. YHWH speaks to Moses, telling him that his brother Aaron will be the spokesman:
20So Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand.”
Does that prove anything? No. It is simply evocative. At the point where the hero of the story is to go to do a liberating act on behalf of YHWH, the storyteller pauses, to tell us about the donkey.
In the most significant story regarding Abraham, YHWH tells him to take his son, his only son, the one whom he loves, and offer him as a burnt offering. Here is what Abraham does without blinking an eye:
So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt-offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. (Gen. 22:3)
All I am suggesting here is that at the gospel storytellers knew these stories. They used them to tell of the significance of Jesus who is both the liberator and the sacrifice. Those who heard the story of Jesus riding into Jerusalem as both liberator and sacrifice on a donkey would have made the connection.
Then of course the gospel writers found a prophecy in Zechariah that fit quite nicely:
9Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
The donkey ties together the role of Jesus as liberator, sacrifice, and king.
The author of Matthew’s gospel does an odd thing. For some reason he doesn’t understand the parallelism of Zechariah’s poetry and thinks that the phrase:
“Riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” means that Jesus must ride two animals. So Matthew has Jesus ride two animals into Jerusalem. That detail is a clue that the authors were not writing history, they were writing, if you will, creative legend. They were writing theology.
The theology is this: the embodiment of God’s love is known in the story of Jesus who is liberator, sacrifice, and king, and in a very different way than we normally think of liberation, sacrifice, or kingship.
The authors of the gospels, I believe, are telling us: If you think Jesus and what it means to follow Jesus in this world, don’t think warhorse, think donkey.
The donkey was used by the opponents of Christianity in the early centuries as a form of derision. A piece of graffiti was found dated to around 200 that features a man crucified with a boy standing at the foot of the cross in prayer. The one crucified has a head of a donkey. The inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships his god.”
The donkey also symbolizes ignorance. It symbolizes foolishness. Celsus an intellectual pagan criticized Christianity as a religion for the not very bright. It attracted the masses and the ignorant. To which of course, the Christians turned around: the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of human beings.
Early Gnostic Christians viewed the gospels in a very interesting way. In one of the Gnostic texts, the image of Jesus entering into Jerusalem on a donkey symbolized Jesus overcoming his brute, ignorant nature. He would enter into Jerusalem and die to his old self and be liberated to his new self. Thus he would show the path of liberation.
Upon his entry into Jerusalem he was cheered by the crowds because they had a glimpse of him for who we was. Don’t be fooled by the donkey, this one is the Son of God.
Whatever we think of donkeys, humble, a beast of burden, foolish, common, they appear to be in the gospels and in the key texts upon which the gospel writers found their inspiration, a symbol for the way God was revealed through Jesus.
From Philippians chapter 2:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. 5Let the same mind be in you that was* in Christ Jesus,
6who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8 he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

The Christian religion is an ambiguous one. Its mystery is hard to grasp. It is the embrace of what the powers of the world consider foolish.
Love your enemies.
Give away your possessions.
Respond to violence with non-violence.
Die to your to self.
Be born anew to embrace all.

Let the donkey be your guide.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Jeremiah: A Prophet of Passion (3/9/08)

Here is today's sermon text on Jeremiah. For meditation we heard Bruce Cockburn's "If a Tree Falls." Here are the lyrics.

Jeremiah: A Prophet of Passion

The Book of Jeremiah is not an easy read. It is not easy in a couple of ways. It is not easy to follow and to know what he is talking about.   One scholar quipped that Jeremiah’s scribe Baruch (the one who compiled the prophecies of Jeremiah) when on his way to the publisher, dropped all of the prophecies. They scattered. When he gathered them, they were all mixed up and Baruch couldn’t figure out what came first. He handed the publisher the box of scattered writings and said, “Just print it.”

There is no chronological order to the book. Many biblical scholars earned their Ph. D’s by trying to figure out the who, what, when and where of this book.

There is that difficulty.

It is not an easy read on another level. The language is harsh. This is not a feel good book. It is not a book for the beach. Jeremiah has severe indictments of the people of Judah, neighboring nations, the kings, other prophets, and the people. He covers the bases.

His language is misogynistic. He likens the unfaithfulness of Israel, that is the worship of other gods other than YHWH, to an unfaithful wife whoring after other men. Here is one example of many from Jeremiah 3:1-2:

If a man divorces his wife
and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife,
will he return to her?
Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers;
and would you return to me?
says the Lord.

2Look up to the bare heights, and see!
Where have you not been lain with?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers,
like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land
with your whoring and wickedness.

It would have been one thing if he used this metaphor equally and compared unfaithful Israel to a whoring husband. But it is always one-sided. Feminist scholars have pointed out that this language in Holy Scripture has had detrimental effects for real women.Jeremiah is not unique. This is a problem throughout the Bible, as a result of its patriarchal character. I recommend Phyllis Trible’s book:  Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives.

Another reason that Jeremiah is difficult to read, is that it has had a negative effect on inter-faith dialogue. The condemnation of worshiping other gods than YHWH has had the effect of condemning other religions and faith traditions to the present day.Many forms of Christianity—perhaps the dominant form of Christianity--- have uncritically co-opted these texts in the service of condemnation of other faiths and entire cultures.

In addition to misogyny and exclusivism, we also have the problem in Jeremiah of a supernatural deity who punishes. This is the problem of interpreting events, whether they be political or natural, as acts of God. Still today we have preachers such as thetelevangelist John Hagee, interpreting hurricanes as punishment for sin. Hagee still says that Katrina was punishment for the sinfulness of the people of New Orleans.

This is important. Before we call Hagee a nut, and he is a nut—a dangerous nut---we need to know that he gets his ammunition from the Bible. Jeremiah interprets droughts as YHWH’s punishment for the sins of Judah. Jeremiah interprets the Babylonian conquest of Judah as YHWH’s punishment for their sins.

I do believe that Jeremiah has wisdom for us today, but in order to hear that wisdom we need to deal with Jeremiah in his time and in his context.

I remember an illustration about the Bible in a sermon in the church I attended when I was in seminary. The minister likened reading the Bible to listening to music on an old Victrola. The record is scratched and gouged. As we hear it, we hear pops and noise.Underneath is music. We have to listen for it and distinguish the music from the noise.

By analogy the Bible contains music. But the noise of patriarchy and problematic theology covers the music. We need the tools of critical reflection to separate the noise from the music.

Jeremiah prophesied from about 610 BCE to 587 BCE. This is the most critical time in Judah’s history. During this period, the Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed its temple, and took the people to exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah prophesies before and during this event. Jeremiah sees this coming. No one believes him. The king doesn’t believe him. The king is surrounded by advisors, prophets, and priests who tell the king that Jeremiah is crazy. We are protected by YHWH. We have the temple. As long as we perform our rituals in the temple, YHWH’s temple, we will be safe.

Jeremiah in his famous temple sermon, tells them that the temple will not protect them. This is where the worship of other gods comes in to play. Jeremiah tells them that they think they can go and worship other gods and then return to the temple and think YHWH won’t notice?

Let’s take a side trip. What did this worship of other gods entail? We don’t really know. There are no apologists for Molech today.Jeremiah mentions at least three times what the worship of Molech was about. This is Jeremiah 32:35. Jeremiah is speaking for YHWH:

They built the high places of Baal in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination, causing Judah to sin.

What did they do? Child sacrifice. He speaks more explicitly in 7:31:

And they go on building the high place of Topheth, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire—which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind.

And in 19:4-5, YHWH is speaking through Jeremiah:

“…the people have forsaken me, and have profaned this place by making offerings in it to other gods whom neither they nor their ancestors nor the kings of Judah have known, and because they have filled this place with the blood of the innocent, and gone on building the high places of Baal to burn their children in the fire as burnt-offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it enter my mind;

We don’t have apologists for Baal or Molech to defend their religion.  That is what Jeremiah saw. The people do child sacrifice then come to the temple of YHWH.

Jeremiah is also concerned about justice and basic decency. What really angers him is the injustice to the poor, the orphaned and the needy. From chapter 22, Jeremiah speaks for YHWH:

13Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
14who says, ‘I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms’,
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
15Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
16He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the Lord.
17But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

Jeremiah offers his famous temple sermon and he preaches: (7:1-11)

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LordStand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the LordThus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’

For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors for ever and ever.

Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’—only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?

After this sermon, Jeremiah is thrown in jail. The gospels report that Jesus did something similar. He went to the temple in his time and overturned the tables. He said that this house of prayer has become a “den of robbers.” The exact same phrase Jeremiah used.

Jesus was not upset that people were selling things in the temple as is commonly understood. Jesus was condemning the injustice that was going on outside the temple. Robbers don’t rob in their own den. They do their robbing and come back to the den for sanctuary.Jesus and Jeremiah both condemned the use of the temple as a pious sanctuary for those who do injustice and then come and do their sanctimonious worship.

Jesus after that action was arrested. There are many parallels between Jesus and Jeremiah. Both Jesus and Jeremiah weep over Jerusalem as the place that kills the prophets. Jesus’ story and Jeremiah’s story are the same story. They are both prophets with a passion.

That is why Jeremiah is upset. He sees child sacrifice, injustice, and sanctimonious worship as a cover for this injustice.

Another side note. As you go for lunch today, think about this. The worst shift for waiters and waitresses is Sunday afternoon. A college student told me this. Why? Because on Sunday afternoon the Christians come to eat. They are rude, demanding, and lousy tippers. Jeremiah would have something to say to that. You are giving YHWH a bad name when you worship in his name then act like a jerk in the real world.

You and I both know that weather patterns are not the result of a supernatural deity stirring up the waters. You and I both know that nations do not attack other nations because a supernatural deity has turned the leaders of one nation into a puppet to punish the other.

The ancients, including Jeremiah, did think along those lines. Each nation had its own god or gods. The battles on Earth reflected the battles of the deities in the sky. Given that theology, I think that the survival of the Hebrew people and their story is significant. The logical explanation for the defeat of Judah is that the Babylonian god, Marduk, defeated YHWH. When people are conquered, usually, their gods are conquered with them. They lose their identity and must adapt to the gods of the victor.

Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the other prophets said something quite radical in their time. They said that they did not lose their temple and their nation because Marduk defeated YHWH. No, the reason is that YHWH is punishing us and YHWH will restore us again.

Given the limits of this theology, what is better: to have your god defeated by your enemy’s god and be absorbed into your enemy’s culture or to have your god punish you with the promise that you will be restored? Those were the options available. They chose option two.

For us today, we need to understand the Bible on its terms, in its context, in its worldview, including its theological worldview. Then we have the opportunity to take what is helpful and leave what is not. What is not helpful for us is a punishing supernatural deity, at least in my opinion. Yet I understand and why they spoke in those terms given the options available.

I am going to close now by asking what is the music of Jeremiah?What is the wisdom we can take from this passionate prophet? A couple of quick things.

First, Jeremiah never liked his job. He is a prophet of lament. He says, to paraphrase: “Cursed be the day I was born. Cursed be the one who did not kill me in my mother’s womb, so that her womb would be my grave.” Jeremiah tries not to speak, but it is like a fire within that he cannot hold.

He does not delight in saying what he has to say. He gets no pleasure in denouncing the sins of others. He is the prophet who suffers with the people. He weeps for them. He has great compassion for his people. He pleads with YHWH not to take vengeance. He loves the people to whom he speaks. They are his people. This is important for modern day prophets. Jeremiah knows that he is indicted even as he indicts.

Second, while his theology of a supernatural deity who punishes is not workable for us, still there are consequences for our actions. If there is injustice, which is imbalance, and we do nothing about it, it will come back to bite us. If we do not live in balance with others including the sharing of resources and in balance with Earth, we will suffer the consequences.

Finally, this past week as I was thinking about this sermon, the Word of the Lord came to me while I was in my car. Here is how it worked. My son had driven my car. You know how it is when your kids drive your car. You get in and the seat is in the wrong place and the radio blasts at you. In this case, he had put one of my cds in the player. It was the Bruce Cockburn cd. The song came on that I played for our meditation, “If a Tree Falls.” As I listened to it I realized, “That’s Jeremiah.” Bruce Cockburn is a modern day Jeremiah. He is passionate. His words are poetic. They indict. They lament.

His music like Jeremiah’s music, offers the possibility of hope and transformation. Jeremiah was also a prophet of hope. A hope that we would hear, that one day we would get it. One day we will know what makes for peace and for blessedness. One day we will put away our sin—that is our inability and unwillingness to love—and we will know a lasting and just peace. I will let Jeremiah have the last word:

The days are surely coming, says YHWH, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of JudahIt 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 husband, says YHWH. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says YHWH: 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 YHWH’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says YHWH; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.