Monday, August 27, 2007

"You Want Us to Go Where?" -- A Sermon for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“You Want Us to Go Where?”
A Sermon for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Jeremiah 1:4-10

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
August 26, 2007

I have two stories I want to tell you about today—two pictures to paint, if you will—and so I’m going to jump right in with story number 1.

This first story is the story of the calling forth of a prophet, specifically today’s story of the call of the prophet Jeremiah. We as liberal mainline Protestants aren’t always as up on our knowledge and understanding of Old Testament prophets—or really much of the Old Testament—as perhaps we should be, and so I think this story deserves a few moments for us to unpack, to explore, to delve deeply into what is going on here.

The first thing we hear in this story of the calling of a prophet is God coming to Jeremiah. “Now the word of the Lord came to me.” Jeremiah does not tell us that he went looking for God, that somehow he sought out the Lord, that in some way he started asking for God to speak to him. No, rather, quite the opposite—God sought him out. God took the initiative. God made the way. And this is certainly not the first time we find God making the first move. Perhaps you remember the “Early Word”, our children’s message, three weeks ago where Pastor Mike took on the role of Samuel, and ran over in the middle of the night to Eli the priest (aptly played by our own Ian Woody) because he, Samuel, heard the voice of God calling to him. Or maybe you recall Moses out in the wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep, when God called to him out of a rather flame-resistant bush. And there are others too: Abraham, Gideon, Isaiah, Ezekiel—all of them, like Moses and Samuel and, in today’s story, Jeremiah, found themselves being found by God.

Having been found by God, and now being spoken to by God, what does Jeremiah hear? Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I consecrated you. Wow, this is the kind of language in the Bible that can take my breath away. Imagine these words addressed to yourself, as Jeremiah would have heard them. I suppose you could be thinking, ‘well, yeah, God’s God—all powerful, all knowing, blah blah blah—of course God knew Jeremiah,’ but I think there’s something much more intimate going on here. ‘I knew you’—‘I chose you—not others, but you.’ ‘I am watching over you and caring for you.’ This intimate kind of knowing is the only kind of knowing I can imagine happening in the waters of a mother’s womb.

There is more: the word of the Lord that Jeremiah hears does not only tell him that God knows him, but that God has consecrated him. God has chosen Jeremiah. God has set him apart, dedicated for a particular mission. Scholars will point out that in the Old Testament, consecration was something usually said about priests. A priest was consecrated to be the mediator of God’s holiness in the temple or sanctuary. Here, Jeremiah is a bit different: he’s been consecrated to proclaim God’s holiness out in the world, in the streets of Jerusalem. But even with this difference, God has still set him apart; he was born with the promise of God already upon him.

Now, of course, all this—it is a lot. A big calling. A huge responsibility. And Jeremiah sees this, and so he objects, even protests or complains. Certainly not me. How could I be up to the job? Or, as Jeremiah puts it, “Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” ‘Aaahhh, but it’s not about you, is it?’ seems to be God’s retort. The words Jeremiah is to speak—God will give them. The opposition Jeremiah will encounter—not a problem, for God will be there too. The calling of a prophet, it would seem, not ultimately about how adequate or skilled or experienced the prophet is. The calling of a prophet is about what God intends for them.

And then, finally, as if to prove or seal all this talk—or maybe, more rightly, to enact it—God reaches down and touches Jeremiah. Through a real, visible, tangible action, God puts this call into Jeremiah. “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.” And not simply the words of the call, I think, but the words that drove Jeremiah out into the streets and the words that he proclaimed when he got there.

So, that’s the first story, the story as we have been told it of the calling of a prophet.

The second story I have come to tell today is the story of your baptism. Now, I know that, except for a handful of you, I was not there when you were baptized. In fact, while I was certainly there when I was baptized, I confess that I do not remember it, as I was only a few months old at the time. But, even with that, I think I can tell the story of your baptism, or at least a version of it.

Let’s see now… Your baptism… Well, to begin with, it started not with you. Now, for those among us who, like myself, were baptized as infants, that’s pretty easy thing to say. Our parents, or someone else significant in our lives, did what was necessary to have us baptized. For those among us who were baptized at an older age, you might protest, though, saying that you did what was necessary to be baptized. But, in either case, I still insist that the story of your baptism didn’t begin with you, and it didn’t begin with your parents, either. The story of your baptism began with God. And I don’t mean that in some sort of theological sense that God gave us the gift of the sacrament of baptism, even though that is true. Rather, I believe that for every one of us here, our baptisms began with God taking the initiative. There was something that led you to try out that church for the first time, and something that kept you coming to the point that you wanted to pass through the waters. Or there was something that got your parents into the church, or your parents’ parents, and kept them there and something that led them to have you baptized. And that something, well… as Blaise Pascal, a man better known for his contributions to math and computer science than religion, put it: “Console yourself: You would not be seeking me if you had not already found me.” To say it plainly, I’m staking the claim that that something was God—or at the very least, that God had some hand in it, even if God’s hand had to work through some strange or mysterious ways. Regardless of any of the details of how it happened, I believe that the stories of all our baptisms have God’s initiative right at the start.

The story of your baptism also includes God’s claim upon you. If you take a look at the prayers and other words said when a person is baptized, one of the things you’ll see again and again is that in baptism, we are joined to Christ. We speak of our going down into the water as dying along with Christ, and our rising from the water as our rising together with Christ. This idea of baptism as God’s claim on us gets emphasized more strongly in our particular tradition within Christianity than in probably any other. Back in the 1500s, the folk in Germany who wrote the Heidelberg Catechism, a document we recognize in the United Church of Christ as part of our historic tradition, they put right at the very beginning this question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” The answer? “That I belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” So important this is, that those writers built their whole statement of Christian faith and belief starting with that affirmation. And there is probably nothing else we do as church that more strongly states that claim upon us than baptism.

Now, something that was not part of the story of your baptism was your having to be good enough. Thankfully, ‘No Child Left Behind’ does not affect churches—we have no achievement tests for admission to baptism. You can be male or female. You can be a really devout mystic or a questioning, overly-intellectual seeker. The church has baptized black people, white people, people with autism, people who use wheelchairs, gay people, straight people, rich people, poor people, old people, young people. All in all, your baptism was as much about you as it was about God and God’s plan for you.

And, finally, I know there’s much more to the story of each of your baptisms, but one last thing I’m confident in is that there was some water involved. The priest poured water from a shell over you, or the pastor sprinkled some water on your head, or the preacher led you down by the riverside where you waded in and were dunked under. However it happened, as if to seal or prove or enact all these other things about your baptism, some real, touchable, mess-making water was used. It touched you, and then there was a community of real, touchable, messy people there to welcome you in.

So, there you have it. The two stories I want to tell this morning. The story of the calling of a prophet and the story of your baptism.

Hmmm… Come to think of it, maybe these aren’t two stories. Maybe there’s only one story here. God’s having the first intimate knowledge and taking the first initiative. Check. God’s claming and setting apart. Check. The un-importance of one’s adequacy and ability. Check. Some sign and seal of all these promises of God. Check. Indeed, it would seem that the calling of a prophet and our baptisms add up to one and the same story.


If you were paying attention to the reading from Jeremiah, you may have noticed that there was a piece I left out as I walked us through it. God knows and consecrates and claims Jeremiah to be “a prophet to the nations”, and the words God places in Jeremiah’s mouth are so that Jeremiah will pluck up and pull down, and for him to build up and to plant. As Jeremiah’s life goes forward, we find that Jeremiah has to go in front of his people to warn them of the errors of their ways, to call them back to the kind of community that God intends for them, and even to journey into exile and despair and yet to proclaim hope in the midst of it. It would seem that the story is not finished without the message God has given us to proclaim and the work God has set us apart to do.

Monday, August 20, 2007

"Your Life is Being Demanded of You" -- A Sermon for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

“Your Life is Being Demanded of You”
A Sermon for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

By The Rev. Matthew Emery
Preached at Second Congregational United Church of Christ, Rockford, IL
August 5, 2007

Texts: Hosea 11:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

I have a confession to make to you this morning. I don’t know. Now, I know that many people—and especially us Protestants—come to church on Sunday to hear the preacher tell us what she or he thinks the scripture text means, or what we should believe or think or say. Not a few of us expect the pastor to have all the answers. So, that is my confession today, that I don’t entirely know. And, just as a side note, if you are someone who thinks that pastors have all the answers, I would encourage you to spend some more time around some pastors.

But, anyway… Let me start with some things I do know. We have shared two readings from the Bible today, and both of these passages are readings where God speaks. By that, I don’t mean that God speaks in that sort of philosophical way that we claim God speaks to us through any story from the Bible. Rather, in both of these readings, we actually get the active voice of God speaking—“and God said …” So, what is it that God is saying?

Well, first in Hosea we heard God thinking and talking about Israel—actually, to be more precise about the passage, we hear a mother God looking out on her gathered people as her child. She begins by testifying her love for her people: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” She is the mother who guides her child through life with kindness and bends down to feed her people. But, like many a mother, she is keenly aware of all the ways that her child has gone astray. “The more I called them, the more they went from me, they kept sacrificing to [other gods]. … The sword … devours [them] because of their schemes.” But God is a loving mother in this passage from Hosea, never willing to give up on her child no matter where they go. She may have to be a ‘tough-love’ mother at times, even roaring like a lion, but through it all, her compassion warm and tender, she asks “How can I give you up? … How can I hand you over?”

I know I am often amazed at the stories that I see and hear of someone’s faith and faithfulness despite all the odds. With our high school youth last week in Washington DC, I was able to yet again see such faithfulness. We spent the evening on Wednesday playing in the beautiful Meridian Hill Park, a park that only 5 or 6 years ago was the most dangerous and crime-ridden park in all of Washington—and now because of the faithful work of the ‘Parks & People’ group that some of our youth worked with, it’s crime rate has dropped fully 99% and it’s simply a great place to take a stroll or play frizbee with 60 of your favorite high schoolers. Or, there was Mr. James Burton on the staff at the 1,350 bed homeless shelter we worked at, a man who’s been through all the ups and downs that the shelter has seen—from lost court cases to government dignitaries who thought they were too good to eat the same food that the shelter served its residents. And yet, through all of that, Mr. Burton is still convinced that “the almighty God” was using our little group of youth from Illinois as part of the “ongoing unfolding of creation.”

And yet, the faithful conviction from which Mr. Burton spoke was simply a reflection back of the faithfulness of God that he knew, the faithfulness of a God who was—and is still—using our youth as part of the unfolding of creation, the same faithfulness that we hear this mothering God herself speaking in the pages of Hosea, the same faithfulness of the God who came to be among us as Jesus, the same faithfulness in death itself and in resurrection triumphantly that we remember and proclaim and enact as we gather around this table. So, this is one thing God is saying in the readings today, and this is one thing I know.

But, as we turn to the story from Luke, it would seem on first appearance that God is saying something rather different. In the parable, the story, that Jesus is telling, we see a rich farmer who has ended up having a really, really big harvest. So big, in fact, that his barns cannot hold all his crops. Now, having grown up in a farming community myself, I can’t say that this is the sort of problem that most modern American farmers are running into. But, given that this is his situation, this rich farmer has to figure out what he is going to do, and so he decides that he will tear down the barns and build bigger ones. And, having devised this seemingly intelligent plan, he continues on this conversation with himself, saying “Self, you have stored up all you need: relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” It’s there, at the end of this rich farmer’s conversation with himself that we hear God’s first words in the story: “You fool!”

“You fool?!?” What happened to the mother crying for her child? This may not be God coming in wrath, but it certainly doesn’t sound like Mr. Nice God. It would seem that our faithful, compassionate God has gone away, and the rich farmer’s left with an angry, or at least annoyed, God, because it’s not only “You fool!”, but God goes on to say “This very night your life is being demanded of you.” It’s easy to assume that this parable is about God demanding the rich farmer’s life. It is certainly true that much of Luke and, in fact, much of the Bible doesn’t take kindly to rich people who hoard all their money and possessions with no regard for anyone else or for God.

But I think there may be something more here. If you pay close attention to exactly what God says to the rich farmer, it isn’t God demanding the rich farmer’s life here. Many experts on this passage point out that the way the sentence reads in the original language, the thing demanding the man’s life is not God, but in fact the crops and goods that he wants to store up and eat, drink, and be merry about. I suspect many of us know how true that can be—our lives can become consumed with all the stuff we want or have, or they become overrun by the jobs we have to toil at in order to afford that stuff. Or maybe it’s something else demanding our life: an obsession or addition, a broken relationship or the quest for a relationship, even our own egos. Even as a church, we can fall into this trap—while I wouldn’t call this building merely a “barn”, how easy it is to get sidetracked from the life and ministry God is calling us to by an obsession with our building or our traditions or even our programs. Whatever it is, whether as a group or as individuals, “it” is out there and “it” is demanding our lives from us.

And so, to us as to the rich man, God comes to us like a good friend or a wiser older sibling, saying “You fool!” Or maybe “Helloooo!!!!!! Don’t you see what’s going on here? I want you to have real, true, abundant life and all this stuff is demanding it away from you.” Sometimes we need the wake up jolt. In the time of the parable, an over-abundant harvest was a sign of something bigger, a sign of God’s coming kingdom, and this rich farmer missed it. And so God comes in, saying “You fool!”, God being a friend to one who needed to hear “Wake up, dummy!” This is another thing God says in the readings today, and this is another thing I know.

So, what is it that I’m confessing to you that I don’t know? Well, in the midst of what I do know—that even through a whole laundry list of wanderings and offenses and unfaithfulness, God is faithful and that even when we get blinded to real life by misplaced priorities, God comes with a “You fool, Wake up!”—in the midst of these two gracious gifts from God of faithfulness and re-orientation, what I don’t know is how you will choose to be rich to God in return.