Lent I: Symbolic Act, The Lord’s Supper
Sermon Title: Being Human
Scripture: Jeremiah 2:8-11
We begin today on a five-week sermon series on the prophet Jeremiah. On Wednesday evenings we are going to study the book in its entirety, and on Sundays we will pull out specific scripture readings and focus on how they speak to us today.
The book of Jeremiah is a challenging book to read. There is no logical stream of consciousness in the book. Jeremiah did not have a very good editor. There are all of these different kinds of writings put together in one book. There are writings called oracles. There are prayers. There are historical narrations. There are times when God is speaking. There are times when Jeremiah is speaking. There are times when we are not sure who is speaking.
The historical context of the book is written to a community that is experiencing what we would call today Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. If you have been brave enough to watch the footage of the Syrian refugees being forced out their homeland and seeking refuge, I would imagine that those images would be similar to the mass exodus of the Israelite people being evacuated from Jerusalem on to the banks of Babylon.
Now let’s just talk for a few minutes about the position description for being prophet. Prophets are and were people who speak on behalf of the oppressed against those in power. They are usually people who the majority want to keep silent. They are usually controversial and they are always silenced. –
Who would ever want to be a prophet?
Jeremiah’s prophetic words were not received with accolades of popularity – not everyone bought into what he was saying. And so the prophet did not just preach to the people – he offered symbolic acts in order to get his point across. A symbolic act is an action that in the act itself seems small, but on a larger scale sends a profound message.
Here are some images of symbolic acts both in movies and in history that if not for the symbolic act, their message may have gone on deaf ears… (Show images, about one image a second)
The Prophet Jeremiah expressed symbolic acts throughout his preaching. Every Sunday we will be participating in one of his symbolic acts in worship. We will then post that symbolic act on our mandala located on our wall.
Our symbolic act today will be the act of communion
Today we begin with the Jeremiah’s first symbolic act. It has something to do with a cracked cistern.
Here’s the situation;
Jerusalem has not yet fallen under the Babylonians, and Jeremiah predicts that if they don’t change their ways, they will suffer.
Our passage today is Jeremiah’s most basic argument. Most simply, the prophet announces that Judah’s central problem is that those who should be expected to know what YHWH demands of the chosen ones, and should be expected to proclaim those demands far and wide, have in fact revoked their duty, and instead of being the solution to the issue of widespread ignorance of YHWH have become the lodestone of the problem.
“What sort of evil did your ancestors find in me that they moved far from me, and went after wind and thus became wind themselves” (Jer 2:5)? Here is the first charge that Jeremiah levels against Judah: Judah’s ancestors, those whom YHWH led out of Egypt and brought to the land of promise, found it all too easy to forget YHWH and to turn their allegiance elsewhere.
They are in a word, broken. He says:
1”3for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
So let us begin our season of Lent considering where we are broken. – where we like the people of Judah are the furthest from God.
When I was growing up, one of my heroes was a famous Evangelical Christian named Joni Erikson. She became a quadriplegic as a teenager and went on to write a lovely memoir about that story and her relationship with God. Having lost the use of her arms she eventually learned to paint by holding a brush in her teeth. She was a real hero of mine growing up.
She was interviewed a few years back she was a guest on the 700 Club and spoke on healing. Nadia Voltz Webber recounts this story saying, “Not surprisingly, a whole lot of well meaning and enthusiastic “prayer warriors” often offer to pray for Joni to be healed of her quadriplegia…. But from her wheelchair Joni Erikson says to them, Could you instead please pray for the times when I cherish inflated ideas of my own importance … the times when I fudge the truth … the times when I manipulate my husband to get things my own way…sin…’mam if you want to pray for me pray that I receive the power of resurrection to put to death the things in my life that displease God.
What a prophetic voice – to name one’s own brokenness and ask for healing.
When come to the table today and take a broken piece of bread – name before God where you are broken and are needed of healing.
Because here is the truth about the cross: You just can’t look at the cross and think “Wow, good thing Jesus did that for the people we’ve identified as being the problem around here.”
He died for all of us. His grace poured out in all of us.
Here are the prophetic words we need to hear today. They come from Rev. Bob Moorhead, .
The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider Freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness. We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things. We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.
These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships. These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill.
Remember, to spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever.
Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side. Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn’t cost a cent. Remember, to say, “I love you” to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you. Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person might not be there again. Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.”
Jesus said, this is my body broken for you – take and eat. And remember me. Amen.
LENT II.Symbolic Act: Baby Pictures
Sermon Title: Being Called
We continue with our reading of Jeremiah today as we read the first chapter. – The call of Jeremiah. The passage begins with God telling Jeremiah, that before he was even born, he was chosen to be the prophet for the nations. This morning, we asked everyone to bring pictures of themselves as babies. Why? Well for one reason, because we wanted to see how cute you were. But more so, to remember that we all started out the same way. We all start out small, and helpless, and needing the basic things – food, shelter, and love.
We all began our lives fresh from God. Known. Treasured. Named. Before our egos were formed, before we heard messages that told us to be better, work harder, be perfect, hurry up, or please others, we were simply little beings filled with curiosity and wonder. It takes a long time for that little infant to gradually grow an independent identity. Day by day, year by year, as we grow and mature there are many new voices that tell us who we are, and what we are to do, and who we are to become. Those voices can shout louder than the original voice that knew us before we were even born.
Our identity as Christians teaches that God does have something in mind for us, each of us, individually. Paul reminds us “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” And in the Old Testament, long before that, in the history of God’s people, prophets are called.
The year is 627 B.C. The last strong leader of the Assyrian Empire has died, and there are major changes on the horizon for Israel. And at that moment a young boy hears a voice: “Before I formed you I knew you, before you were born I consecrated you to be a prophet to the nations.”
It happens several times in the Old Testament. And so does what happens next: “Ah, Lord God! Truly, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
The pattern is consistent. God calls. The candidate declines.
For example, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock in the wilderness. A bush goes up in flames and a voice tells him his job is to go to Egypt and liberate his people. And Moses says, in effect, “Who me? Thanks, but no thanks.”
Likewise, God calls Jonah to go to Nineveh and Jonah heads out in the other direction.
And then we have Jeremiah and Jeremiah stammers, “I don’t know how to talk. I’m not up to this. I’m only a boy.”
Here is the pattern:
God calls. Candidate declines. God won’t take no for an answer. God is persistent.
God keeps after Moses, tracks Jonah down all the way to the belly of the whale, says back to reluctant Jeremiah, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy;’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you and you shall speak whatever I command you.”
And then the gracious promise: “Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” And Jeremiah, years later, looked back at that amazing time and remembered: “Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth.”
I can resonate with Jeremiah. Now being in ministry for almost 15 years, I can look back 25 years and see that God’s hand was persistent. When I first considered that God was calling me into ministry I came up with a hundred excuses why it was a bad idea.
First of all, I was a female. Now I know that sounds offensive and sexist, but none of my pastors were female when I was growing up. I didn’t have any models of female preachers. The only pastors who were women were those who worked with children and youth. So, maybe I thought to myself, that would work, and then again, maybe not.
Second, I wasn’t perfect. In fact I was a sinner. I assumed all of my pastors were pretty much perfect people. I assumed that didn’t swear, or speak ill of anyone. I assumed they were always in good moods, and pretty much had it all together. I went to a pastor-friend of mine and said, “I don’t think I should be a pastor, because I’m not good enough.” To which he replied, “you aren’t. None of us are. God doesn’t call you because you are good enough, God calls you because you are enough.”
Third, I wanted to be a mom. How could I be a good Mom and a good pastor. That’s impossible. I’m still trying to figure that one out. And even though God is in it and God called me to do it, God never said it would be easy.
Jeremiah was set apart at birth to walk with people who have been traumatized and demoralized. He was told not to have children, he was thrown in a pit, he survived the stockades, he was isolated and outcast. Yes God was with him, but it was not easy.
Writer Parker Palmer tells the story of watching his granddaughter from her earliest days on earth. He says “she arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. What Quakers call the inner light or that of God in every person. He writes, “I am gathering my observations in a letter. When my granddaughter reaches her late teens or early twenties, I will make sure that my letter finds its way to her with a preface saying something like this: Here is a sketch of who you were from earliest days in the world. It is not a definitive picture—only you can draw that. But it was sketched by a person who loves you very much. Perhaps these notes will help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self.”
Our symbolic act today is to remember the inner light that is in each of us. To begin to reclaim the gift of true self. To look at those sweet little babies that we all once were that are now adult men and women and to remember that at the core of each of us is a sacred soul.
Ironically being your true self has nothing to do with being all about yourself. In the age of the selfie, this is a counter culture idea. To live a life that is focused on God’s purpose we need to focus on these fundamental truths. Truths which David Brooks calls the humility code.
From David Brook’s book, The Road to Character:
Believing that you are called and following that calling occurs when you remember these things:
Number 1. We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness. The best life is focused on increasing excellence of the soul. If you want to live a life focused on God’s purpose we need to work on living a life of purpose, righteousness and virtue. The question is not are you living happy life, the question is are you living a holy one. Your calling is from God – that is what makes you holy.
Number 2. Although you are flawed, you are blessed. You are both fearfully and wonderfully made. You are both weak and strong, bound and free, blind and far-seeking. You have the capacity to struggle with ourselves and grow stronger, change and live differently. Perfection is not required, only seeing that you are blessed is.
Number 3. As you struggle with your weakness, humility is your greatest virtue. Humility reminds you that you are not the center of the universe, but you serve a larger order.
Number 4. We are all ultimately saved by grace. Grace is accepting that fact you are accepted. Once you acknowledge that you are accepted, gratitude fills the soul and fills you with the desire to give back. Let’s say life hasn’t worked out exactly has you had planned and it pretty much has become big, hot mess. Remember grace happens. Remember you are loved not for what you do but for who you are.
Number 5. Maturity is not based on talent or gifts. It is earned not be by better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be. Remember who you are and act like it.
If you want to live into your calling, think on these things.
I do not know what your calling is – but I am clear of one thing: that God speaks to each of us and calls our name, and that each of us has been given gifts and a voice to tell our story. It’s not random, or accidental.
You will have moments of clarity when you know why you are here and what truth you serve. When the moments come, they will not be overwhelming and all powerful, rather they will come like a hummingbird to your window, like a shooting star in the night sky, like the ocean mist on your face, and you will smile and you will know peace. And your life will be complete.
LENT III: Symbolic Act: Potter’s wheel/Making pinch pots
Sermon Title: Being Molded
We have in our house a shelf that is designated to pottery art projects that have taken place over the years. Some are pinch pots, some are little animals, and some are more in the nature of what would be described as “modern art.”
We had a good friend in Iowa who was a potter. His studio was in his garage and sometimes he would have us over and show us how he would transition from a big block of grey clay into a beautiful piece of pottery.
He would talk about the process of kneading, centering, opening, pulling, shaping, and reshaping, firing, and trimming the clay into a beautiful vessel. Often a piece would not come out perfect. Sometimes there was a bowl that was not balanced, or there was a slight crack in a vase. Sometimes he would change his mind and rework the clay into another form, pounding it down, and starting over again. Sometimes what he visioned in his mind was not his final product.
One day, a long time ago, God told the prophet Jeremiah to go to a potter’s house. Jeremiah did as he was told. There he saw a potter, working on his kiln. God used the potter and his clay as a symbol. He used it as a teaching moment. He said, “watch the potter – notice how the artist works”
Jeremiah watched the potter. The potter made a vessel and it spoiled in his hands, so the potter had to start over again. “Now,” God asks Jeremiah,
“ Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? “
God says, I am the potter, and we are all a block of clay. We are in God’s masterful hands and God can work us just like a potter works a block of clay.
Now on the one hand we can take comfort that we are in God’s hands – but on the other hand, just like a potter who can change his mind on what he wants to do with his vessel, so too can God, change his mind. God says, “if evil is done in my sight, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do.” But, God goes on to say, as the master potter, “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”
God keeps kneading us, centering us, opening us, pulling at us, shaping and reshaping us pushing evil out of us and creating us in his vision.
God keeps working on us, until we surrender, repent, give way and adapt. God can and does use all of us.
One preacher put it this way,
“If you don’t think that God can use Jeremiah’s metaphor of a potter to change things around to those who obediently let God remold them, consider this:
Noah was a drunk, Abraham was too old,
Isaac was a daydreamer, Jacob was a liar,
Leah was homely, Joseph was abused, Moses had a stuttering problem, Gideon was afraid, Sampson had long hair and was a womanizer, Rahab was a prostitute, Jeremiah and Timothy were too young,
David had an affair and was a murderer,
Elijah was suicidal, Isaiah preached naked,
Jonah ran from God, Naomi was a widow, Job went bankrupt, John the Baptist ate locusts and wore a scratchy shirt, Peter denied Christ, the disciples fell asleep while praying, Martha worried about everything, the Samaritan woman was divorced, more than once, Zaccheus was too small, Paul was too religious, Timothy had an ulcer … AND Lazarus was dead!
So today, we remember that we are in the hands of God, who molds us and uses us in spite of ourselves.
Today our symbolic act is to take a piece of clay in your hands and to feel the texture and molding around a little mirror, which reflects your image. Imagine you are the clay and God’s hands are surrounding you, molding and shaping you. At the end of the service, leave your clay on the table and we will add it to our mosaic.
Now as you work your clay, I want to talk about how beautifully imperfect we all are and the fact that all of us from time to time need to be pounded down into a ball and reshaped again and again.
We live in a society that focuses and celebrates achievement, excellence and perfection and we forget to teach that success is not in the winning, it’s in the failing. It is so important to fail. Only by failing can we be molded into what God wants us to become.
When Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player in history, was a sophomore in high school, he tried out for the varsity basketball team but was rejected by the coach for being too short. He once said:
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
Pete Athans is a famous mountain climber who has reached the world’s highest peak, seven time. He said, “I learned how not to climb the first four times I tried to summit Everest. Failure gives you a chance to refine your approach. You’re taking risks more and more intelligently.” In his case this meant streamlining his team and choosing less challenging routes for his first successful ascent, in 1990. “ If you take away uncertainty, you take away motivation,” says Athans. “Wanting to exceed your grasp is the nature of the human condition. There’s no magic to getting where we already know we can get.”
Here are some stories of other failures:
Charlie Chaplin was told he was non-sensical and was rejected from Hollywood.
Socrates was called a moral corrupter of youth and sentenced to death.
Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four or read until he was seven, leading teachers to believe he was mentally impaired.
Marilyn Monroe lost her first contract with Columbia because she was told she was not pretty or talented enough.
Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper because he was told he lacked imagination and good ideas.
Thomas Edison was both hearing impaired and fidgety. He only lasted three months in school where his teachers said he was “too stupid to learn anything.” He eventually was home schooled by his mom. In talking about his invention of the light bulb, he said:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.” – Thomas Edison
Vincent VanGough was a manic-depressive. He could barely function half the time. He never saw success in his lifetime, but his work is often regarded as the greatest painting ever done by any human on earth. Because of this, his name has become a war cry for artists around the world who have been repeatedly rejected and sidelined.
“Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.” – Vincent van Gogh
The next time you fail, rejoice that you are in good company and figure out what you achieved in your failing.
Now, we believe that God not only has his people in his hands, we believe God has the church in his hands. God, the potter is kneading we the church. God centering us, opening us, pulling at us, shaping and reshaping us pushing evil out of us and creating us in his masterpiece. Now the church is a stubborn piece of clay to work with – it does not easily adapt to the image that God intends. You will remember the story of the Israelites who came out of Egypt. In the Book of Numbers Moses sends scouts to see the promise land where God wants them to go and the scouts come back and one of them says, “I think it looks good, let’s settle there” and the other 11 say “no way, it’s not safe enough, we will be eaten alive there.” And they begin chanting “Egypt, Egypt take me back to Egypt.” Most of them had never been in slavery and or they forgot what slavery was like – so Moses prays, “please God, they may not want to go forward, but they can’t go back to the way things were.” So God says, “o.k. we will not go forward or back, I will have them wonder in the wilderness for 40 years until all of the complainers die off and then we will take them into the promise land.” And that’s what happens. The wonder until they are willing to change.
The church has to be willing to move into the future that God wants for it and cannot go back to a past that may or may not exist. The only way for the church to succeed is for it to be willing to fail.
Thom Rainer wrote a book entitled “The Autopsy of a Dead Church” in which he pointed out 11 elements that brought a church to its ultimate decline and death. He later wrote the antidote to those elements. Here is the reshaping that must take place for church’s to live:
A leader must rise and be willing to lead the church toward radical transformation regardless of the personal costs to him.(or her) That leader is typically a new pastor in the church, but it does not have to be.
A significant group in the church must admit that they are desperate for help. The significance of the group could be their sheer size; for example, they could be a majority of active members. Or the significance could be the influence of those in the group rather than the number. This group must lead the church from denial to a painful awakening to reality.
That same group must confess guilt. They failed to reach the community. They held on to the idolatry of yesterday. They were only comfortable with “our kind of people.” They saw the church to be a place where their needs were met and personal preferences catered.
The group must have an utter, desperate, and prayerful dependence on God. They can no longer look at the way they’ve always done it as the path for the future. They must fall on their faces before God and seek His way and only His way.
The church must be willing to storm the community with love. The church can’t assuage their guilt by having a food and clothes pantry where community residents come to them once a week. Members must go into the community, love the unlovable, reach out to the untouchable, and give sacrificially of time, money, and heart. The community must be amazed by these church members.
The church must relinquish control. If the church reaches the community, the community will come to the church. They may be poorer. They may have different colors of skin. They may speak differently. They may have a radically different culture than members of the church. If the church is truly to reach the community, it must be joyfully willing to let the community have control of the church. This attitude is radically different than welcoming the outsiders to “our church.” It is an attitude that says it is now “your church.”
God sent Jeremiah to the potter’s house and said “look here, I am like this here potter. See how he keeps at it? See how he keeps shaping and reshaping? So too I will keep working on my people.”
I think that for whatever reason we often think we are put on the shelf. That God is done with us and has moved on to a new project. Either because we tried and failed, or because we are too old, or too poor, or too rich, or too committed or too tied down, or too far gone, or too addicted, or too stressed, or too in debt or too young
Rest assured God is not done with you. He has you in his hand, let him mold you into the creation he has envisioned for you to become, and be not afraid. Amen
LENT IV: Symbolic Act. White cloth/marker
Sermon Title: Being Vulnerable
This is our Fourth Sunday studying and reflecting on the prophet Jeremiah. And today we turn to Jeremiah’s lament. Laments are essential prayers that are found throughout the Bible. Prophets lamented, psalmist lamented, Jesus lamented. A lament is an honest prayer, in which we come before God and say, “Dear God, this really stinks. It hurts. It’s not fair. I don’t understand. Make it go away. Explain to me, God children with cancer. Actually just explain cancer. Explain to me God, Father’s who die from heart attacks. Explain to me God, why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad? God you are God and I am not, so make this pain go away.” There are times in the Bible when the people lament before God and there are times in the Bible when God laments for his people. Today is such a day.
The Israelites were in exile in Babylon. They had once known a good and prosperous life. They had once worshiped with joy in their own home town. Now they lived as captives in a foreign land, victims of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of their land. Jeremiah believes that the people have brought this on themselves. They have sinned, gone through the motions and forgotten God.
Today, God laments for His people. Jeremiah writes.
Bones of its officials, the bones of the priests, the bones of the prophets, and the bones of the inhabitants of Jerusalem shall be brought out of their tombs; 2and they shall be spread before the sun and the moon and all the host of heaven, which they have loved and served, which they have followed, and which they have inquired of and worshipped; and they shall not be gathered or buried; they shall be like dung on the surface of the ground. 3Death shall be preferred to life by all the remnant that remains of this evil family in all the places where I have driven them, says the Lord of hosts. The Blind Perversity of the Whole Nation
4 You shall say to them, Thus says the Lord: When people fall, do they not get up again? If they go astray, do they not turn back? 5 Why then has this people* turned away in perpetual backsliding? They have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return. 6 I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done!’ All of them turn to their own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. 7 Even the stork in the heavens knows its times; and the turtle-dove, swallow, and crane* observe the time of their coming; but my people do not know the ordinance of the Lord.
“How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us’, when, in fact, the false pen of the scribes has made it into a lie? The wise shall be put to shame, they shall be dismayed and taken; since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what wisdom is in them? Therefore I will give their wives to others and their fields to conquerors, because from the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest everyone deals falsely. They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’, when there is no peace.”
This morning, our focus in worship is about naming our sinfulness, confessing where we fall short, and asking for forgiveness. What would Jeremiah have to say about our faithfulness to God today? What lament could we imagine God crying out on His people today?
This morning, the banner bunch as provided for us a cloth. I invite you now to take that cloth and a marker and write on it a prayer, a word, a confession – maybe it’s greed, jealousy, anger, distrust. Write that word down now and ask God for peace and a clean heart.
Later this morning we will ask you to drop your marked cloth in a basket in the back of the room and you will be given a clean one, as a reminder that you can be made clean and whole through the grace of Jesus Christ.
The story for us does not end on the banks of the Babylonian, Our story is one that is set with one who came to carry the burdens of the world. There is Jesus. So our second half of our sermon this morning will be a play called the Ragman, by Walter Wangrin. It is the story of a savior who carries our wounds and died for the sins of the world. As you leave you will you’re your cloth in a basket and be given a new one. To remind you that Jesus said, “come to me all you who are heavily burdened. Believe in God, Believe also in me.” Let us not take the sacrifice of Jesus lightly. There is a Catholic story that St. Bernard asked our Lord which was His greatest unrecorded suffering, and Our Lord answered, ‘I had on My Shoulder, which I bore My Cross on the Way of Sorrows, a grievous Wound, which was more painful than the others, and which is not recorded by men. Honor this wound with thy devotion….’”
One of my friends wrote the other day:
I have been thinking about the wounds people carry, those unbearable weights that take their toll on our bodies and hearts. I think of the old but not elderly woman who complained for months to her doctor about a cough, and when he finally got around to taking her seriously, discovered that cancer had taken over. She was told she has only weeks to live. It is a wound of not having been taken seriously, as if facing death were not wound enough.
I think of the acquaintance whose young nephew has leukemia, his wearing those large, dark-ringed eyes and bald head of children living with chemo and cancer, her bearing worry and hope at the same time, the soul-vertigo that causes.
I think of that parent in Nigeria, those last shards of hope disintegrating, living in fear of Boko Haram and knowing that rage will only cause more trouble.
I think about the invisible responsibilities people choose to bear – the responsibility of caring for a brother who is mentally ill and a hoarder, who could at any moment be thrown out into the streets. The young mom, a professional in a high-profile position, diagnosed with breast cancer and having to be the gracious face of positivism and faith when maybe, inside, there is terror and an absence of God. The many who have put their hope and trust in the church only to have that trust broken in ways they believe can never, ever be mended.
People carry so much. It takes a toll.
There’s the other weight, too – the weight of not being able to do one damn thing about the suffering. It’s a secondary weight that is as heavy as the primary one, maybe: the weight of being left behind, alone; the weight of being powerless, the weight of not having stopped some part of the tear in the fabric of the world.
- Beth Merrill Neel, on her blog , Hold Fast to What is Good.
Our Roman Catholic friends have a prayer, a novena the shoulder wound of Christ – the wound caused by the weight of the cross he was forced to carry.
O Loving Jesus, meek Lamb of God, I a miserable sinner, salute and worship the most Sacred Wound of Thy Shoulder on which Thou didst bear Thy heavy Cross, which so tore Thy Flesh and laid bare Thy Bones as to inflict on Thee an anguish greater than any other Wound of Thy Most Blessed Body. I adore Thee, O Jesus most sorrowful; I praise and glorify Thee and give Thee thanks for this most sacred and painful Wound, beseeching Thee by that exceeding pain and by the crushing burden of Thy heavy Cross to be merciful to me, a sinner, to forgive me all my mortal and venial sins, and to lead me on towards Heaven along the Way of Thy Cross. Amen
Ragman by Walter Wangerin, Jr.
(play presented by Senior High Youth)
I saw a strange sight. I stumbled upon a story most strange, like nothing in my life, my street sense, my sly tongue had ever prepared me for. Hush, child. hush now, and I will tell it to you.
Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City. He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear tenor voice: ‘Rags!’ Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.
‘Rags! New rags for old! I take your tired rags! Rags!’
‘Now this is a wonder,’ I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence. Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?
I followed him. My curiosity drove me. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Soon the ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch. She was sobbing into a handkerchief, signing, and shedding a thousand tears. Her knees and elbows made a sad X. Her shoulders shook. Her heart was breaking.
The Ragman stopped his cart. Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.
‘Give me your rag,’ he said gently. ‘and I’ll give you another.’
He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes. She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined. She blinked from the gift to the giver.
Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then he began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking. Yet she was left without a tear.
‘This is a wonder,’ I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery.
‘Rags! Rags! New Rags for old!”
In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty. Blood soaked her bandage. A single line of blood ran down her cheek.
Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.
‘Give me your rag,’ he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, ‘and I’ll give you mine.’
The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head. The bonnet he set on hers. And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood — his own!
‘Rags! Rags! I take old rags!’ cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.
The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.
‘Are you going to work?’ he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole. The man shook his head. The Ragman pressed him: ‘Do you have a job?”
‘Are you crazy?’ sneered the other. He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket — flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket. He had no arm.
‘So,’ said the Ragman. ‘Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.’
So much quiet authority in his voice!
The one-armed man took off his jacket. So did the Ragman — and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on, he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.
‘Go to work,’ he said.
After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, an old man, hunched, wizened, and sick. He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.
And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman. Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed. On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.
I wept to see the change in this man. I hurt to see his sorrow. And yet I need to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.
The little old Ragman — he came to a landfill. He came to the garbage pits. And I waited to help him in what he did but I hung back, hiding. He climbed a hill. With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill. Then he signed. He lay down. He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket. He covered his bones with an army blanket. And he died.
Oh how I cried to witness that death! I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope — because I had come to love the Ragman. Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died. I sobbed myself to sleep.
I did not know — how could I know? — that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night too.
But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.
Light — pure, hard, demanding light — slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the first wonder of all. There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive! And, besides that, healthy! There was no sign of sorrow or age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.
Well, then I lowered my head and, trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman. I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him. Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: ‘Dress me.”
He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him. The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!
LENT V : Symbolic Act, Signs of Hope
Sermon Title: Being Hopeful
I have recently become obsessed with a book by Alfred Lansing, called Endurance.
It is the story of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s attempt to cross the Antarctic continent in 1914 and the subsequent struggle for survival endured by the twenty-eight man crew for almost two years. I is one of the most amazing adventure stories ever told.
The vision to cross the Anarartica was risky to say the least, and fool hardy for anyone with common sense. Shackleton had made the attempt two other times before, but had to turn back to do to illness. He perseveres, finds financial backers to back his ship and expedition and then sets out to find his crew. This is the advertisement he placed in the London newspaper in 1914.
“MEN WANTED: for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success. Sir Ernest Shackleton.”
Now one would think that such an honest and unappealing advertisement as this would result in little interest, but on the contrary, Shackleton had to turn people away. People wanted an adventure.
You know, every year around nominating season we bang the bushes hoping and praying for individuals to respond to the call of ministry and often we do a soft sell and then throughout the year we look for Sunday school teachers, greeters, coffee servers, and ambassadors. And we sort of walk this balance between begging and sugar coating. But what if we said:
Wanted, committed disciples of Jesus Christ to discern the future of his church on the corner of 106th and Rangeline. Long meetings, difficult decisions and no pay. Assurance of fulfilling your calling and using your gifts to build the kingdom of God guaranteed. Would you be up for an adventure?
Shackleton had a vision that was greater than what he knew was right in front him. His vision was cross the Antarctic and the fact is he had more uncertainties than assurances. He had far more reasons to believe he would fail than succeed. He came equipped with a capable crew and resources, but he could not predict the weather, or the formation of the ice, or the disease of men. He knew what he was set out to do, but he had no assurance that he would succeed.
I love this book because of the adventure, but I also love it because it reminded me of Orchard Park and the journey we have been on. Next week I go to Chicago to defend my doctoral thesis. It’s the final step, in a very long process. The thesis is the story of Orchard Park. The title of the thesis is “Raising Anchor: Leading a congregation through transformational change.” Throughout the paper I refer to Orchard Park as a huge ship, an ocean liner, and the paper is about process of becoming unstuck and moving out into new waters. As we have worked on raising our anchor and moving out to sea, I have been drawn to stories about leaders who were risk takers. Leaders like Shackleton and Jeremiah.
Jeremiah’s situation is a perilous at Shackleton’s:
In 588 B.C.E., during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Jeremiah found himself imprisoned in the royal palace of King Zedekiah of Judah. He had been charged with desertion and treason and insurrection. And on some level, the charges had merit. Jeremiah had been forcefully pleading for Israel to turn from their ways. He saw the gathering storm of Babylon coming from the north. He spoke God’s word of judgment and divine condemnation of social injustice and idolatry. So, King Zedekiah had good reason to lock Jeremiah up in the palace. Jeremiah simply didn’t tow the royal line.
But then in Jeremiah 32, with war raging and despair undoubtedly growing, Jeremiah gets a new word from God. And this word is different. This word is in regard to some family business. A plot of family-owned land needs to be purchased. And by the right of redemption, a law found in Leviticus 25 which prevents the loss of family property, Jeremiah’s cousin, Hanamel, asks the prophet to buy the family field in Anathoth. It is an absurd request. It is not the time to invest in real estate. It is not the time to invest in the future. It is a time to panic about the present. War is raging. Terror is threatened on all sides. Exile is coming. For Israel the future looks bleak.
Now I do not have a degreee in real-estate – but I do know that there are two things that matter when deciding whether or not to buy property and the first is:
Location. Location. Location.
Jeremiah is being offered land that is currently under Babylonian rule. It’s a war zone. Furthermore the entire city is being plummeted. The bottom has fallen out of the housing market.
Hardly the time to buy property.
The family farm was under Babylonian control.
Verse 9-12 he scrapes together a down payment.
Goes through the settlement.
Buy a field in the possession of enemies.
Why? What good reason?
- The Lord told him to do it. – I knew this was the word of the Lord.
- Bold Faith
Jeremiah says in verse 15 that he has bold faith and great hope that while things are going to hell in a handbasket today, some day Houses and fields and vineyards will be restored. Like Shackleton he had a vision beyond the present moment.
When we are faced with a hard decision, a bold decision – it’s easy to let the “what if’s” get in the way. Psychologist call this the guardians of ideas – They protect us from failing and succeeding.
There’s a great line in the 1985 movie, Back to Future in which George McFly decides not to ask the girl who is supposed to be his wife because he says, “What if she turns me down, “I just don’t think I can handle that kind of rejection.”
Or you might remember the scene in Field of Dreams when Ray tears down his cornfield to put up a baseball field, because he hears a voice that tells him to do and his brother in law says, “Ray, you are broke. Sell now or you lose everything.
You will be evicted” But James Earl Jones says, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again. Ohhhhhhhh, people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
Now here’s the reality, life is not the movies and we don’t all have James Earl Jones on our front porch to give us advice, or a time machine to see the past or the future. We have mortgages, and illness and taxes, and grades and decisions to make.
Moreover, as one elder put this week as we were praying – the world is just crazy. The unfathomable violence, painful racism, hunger for food and clean water is overwhelming.
Do we sit in the prison of our own worry and doubt about the shape of the world, or do we make a radical statement of hope?
You know, last September there was a lot of hope around here. We had a summit, a discovery and dream summit in which the congregation said, we want to do something different. We want to lighten up our walls and look more inviting. We want to engage with this community – with our neighbors in authentic ways. We want the congregation to identify and live into their spiritual gifts. We want to expand our hands on mission right here in this city, for this city.
And so, those ideas have evolved and a strategic plan has been created in the weeks after Easter you will learn the first steps we will be taking to put those visions into action.
They are all risks. We don’t know for certain if we will succeed. They may not work. We may have to change course along the way, or throw somebody over board – just kidding…It will require bold faith and great hope.
But here’s what I don’t believe. I don’t for one second believe we are on the titanic. I don’t for one second believe that we are alone at sea. I don’t believe for one second believe that God is not guiding us into new waters.
So today our symbolic act is about hope. And the question is not what do you hope for – the question is, what does God hope for you? What is God’s hope for you? What is God’s hope for this church? What is God’s hope for our community? What is God’s hope for our world? Be bold enough to ask God what it is God is hoping for. Take that yellow piece of paper and write down that hope.
Does he hope you buy a field?
Does he hope you take a risk?
Does he hope you love your neighbor?
What is the hope God has for the world?
Be bold enough to ask God that question.
Have enough faith be believe that God has an opinion.
Have enough hope to believe that God’s vision can be a reality.
During communion today, I invite you to come forward and before remembering the you have been given the bread of life and cup of salvation – listen to God, name the hope you believe God has for you and the world – lay that hope on the table.
One final word, from another person who had a vision for the church at time, when they wondered what in the world was happening. That person is Paul – who wrote to the church and Rome and gave this vision when things were looking bleak:
18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time nare not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us….4 For yin this hope we were saved. Now zhope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we await for it with patience.
Thanks be to God. Amen