Friday, August 31, 2007

Not Good Enough? (Jeremiah 4:1-10)

We read a lot of stories in the Bible about God calling people to do his work or speak in his name. Have you ever noticed how often those people act just like we might act if we were in their shoes?

Moses, for example, wriggled around as much as he could before finally saying, “O Lord, send someone else!” His tactic didn’t work, by the way. Jonah tried to run away, which also didn’t work.

And sometimes we have people like Jeremiah, who doesn’t try to escape God’s call as much as he wonders why in the heck God would call him. As we read his response, we see him willing enough to do what God asks him to do, but he’s pretty sure he’ll mess it up somehow.

“I don’t know how to speak,” he says. “I’m only a boy!”

Jeremiah knows that in his culture, people listen to folks who can show signs of wisdom. Obviously, wisdom has many signs, but people considered gray hair and a long beard good indicators that the speaker had it.

Although some parts of our culture work in reverse of that idea – remember how young people in the 1960s advised each other never to trust anyone over 30 – we also believe experience is a good teacher and a good path to wisdom. Those folks from the sixties don’t say that about people over 30 anymore, for example.

So we could see how Jeremiah might think his youth would block him from speaking God’s word effectively. Perhaps God should choose an older, wiser, more established person to speak for him. Someone people will listen to.

I’m long past the time where I could say to God, “Hey, I’m too young for this!” Still, I don’t have to look hard to find my shortcomings and the ways in which there would have to be at least a thousand people more qualified for this job than me.

But God seems uninterested in Jeremiah’s shortcomings. “Don’t say that. You will go where I say and say what I tell you to and I’ll be with you all the way.” In fact, according to God, Jeremiah will be the one in charge of whatever situation he faces. The hand of God touches Jeremiah’s mouth and God says he has placed his words there for Jeremiah to use. Since Jeremiah is in fact a young man, I can imagine his response: “Duuuude!”

Jeremiah and all of us who have felt like him when we’ve heard God’s call have the same problem – we’re all too aware of our own unworthiness. And not in the general sinful human being sense. We have specifics. We’re too young, too old, too dumb, too smart (hah!), too clumsy, too tongue-tied, too busy listing reasons we’re not able to do this, and so on.

The bottom line is we know we’re not good enough. Sure, there are people who think they’re plenty good enough and then some, and they’re just as wrong as we are, but that’s another sermon.

Notice how God doesn’t fix Jeremiah’s shortcomings. He doesn’t age him or make him somehow look wise and knowing. Time will do that one day anyway, because Jeremiah will have a long career. It seems as though God will take Jeremiah’s youth as it is and work with it.

I say that because it seems to me like God does the same thing with all the other not good enough folks he decides to use for his work. He somehow takes this collection of cracked pots and defective merchandise and uses us to spread his kingdom, preach his word, care for the sick and help the poor.

And despite everything common sense would tell us about work done with defective materials and inadequate tools, that work gets done. Not perfectly, of course, but a whole lot better than any quality inspector would believe possible.

I could ask “Why?” and be wondering about a bunch of things. Why use imperfect people? Why does your work get done in spite of them?

But the answers show up immediately, don’t they? After all, I don’t believe God had a lot of perfect people to choose from. And the work gets done in spite of their flaws for the same reason God told Jeremiah not to fear: He is with them.

So sure, every now and then we all probably stop and think how inadequate we are to the tasks God has called us to. It’s only natural to do so.

I try not to dwell there, though. Because this imperfect person is being used by the perfect God, and odds are pretty good he can make up what I might lack.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Hey! I'm Right HERE! (Jeremiah 23:23-29)

On the TV show “Friends,” there’s a scene where Chandler, Monica and Phoebe are talking in the coffee shop, the place where these friends always seem to hang out. Phoebe, the ditz, has just come in and starts a conversation with Monica, who is married to Chandler, about how she met a man who is Monica’s soul mate. She’s a chef, he cooks, etc., etc.

Chandler is pretty much flabbergasted that a conversation about his wife’s soul mate doesn’t include him and is going on right in front of him. “Hey,” he says. “I’m right here.”

That scene comes to my mind when I read this passage from Jeremiah. “Aren’t I right here?” God essentially asks. “Don’t I hear what these other prophets are saying and see what the people are doing?” Of course, the answer is that God is indeed a God nearby. The Judeans cause the problems by acting like he’s a God far off.

They haven’t neglected doing their worship and sacrifices by the book. They haven’t even neglected the use of prophets to supposedly guide them in following God. But they’ve added worship of just about every other god in the region to their religion, and they have prophets who only tell them what they want to hear. And they’ve done all these things even though the very presence of the Lord dwells in the Holy of Holies in the very center of the temple in their own capital city.

We could say Jeremiah tells us we need to watch what we do because God always watches what we do. Unlike parents, who are sometimes elsewhere and thus completely unable to sense our mischief, God always sees us and knows what we’re doing. We have to behave all the time, as we would if our parents were there all the time. Christians might modify it slightly, but we have the same idea: Jesus is coming. Look busy.

But I think God’s complaint, voiced through Jeremiah, goes much deeper and requires a deeper response.

We remember God didn’t make a covenant with the Israelites after he gave them the Law through Moses. God didn’t tell them he would be their God if they obeyed his rules. He made the covenant with Abraham, long before Moses was born. He promised to be their God, and said they were his people.

He gave them the Law so they could act differently than people around them. In short, God’s chosen people ought to act like it. They shouldn’t act like everyone else does. That’s why the Law contains so many provisions about helping people in need, forgiveness of debts and other cautions against injustice. The Law helped God’s people stand out from the crowd.

If they didn’t follow the Law – and the prophets always pointed out that failure – then they offered no evidence they were anything different than all the people around them. And they offered no evidence their God was any different than any other gods people might choose to worship.

Paul later suggests Christians should follow part of this idea, and be in the world while not being of the world. Christians of all people should understand that the Kingdom of God is breaking into this world and we should live our lives accordingly.

Jesus tells us if we live that way, we may find ourselves set against our family and our friends who don’t.

Our lifestyles will conflict, because we believe we live in a world being saturated by Christ and by the Holy Spirit, and they believe something different. We may “look out for number one,” just as they do, but we don’t refer to ourselves when we say it. We’ve made God number one, and we order our lives to him.

If I live as though the Kingdom of God is a present reality – and believe me, way too often I don’t – I understand that what I do depends on that, rather than on whatever happens to guide the world around me. I will help other people, I will work to spread the gospel, and I will do many other things as Jesus taught, and I will do them because I believe the Kingdom he proclaimed and embodied is coming and is in some ways already a part of the world I live in today.

Sometimes people who don’t believe in God suggest there’s no evidence to support what they call “the God hypothesis.” Now, part of that’s on them, a failure to open themselves to what they can know about God by looking at the world.

But some of it’s on us – making us aware we need to realize our role in providing that evidence that God is indeed at work in our world, and that the kingdom is at hand.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Count Them If You Can (Genesis 15:1-6)

Sometimes, I feel a little sorry for Abram. His father started the family wandering around then died, leaving Abram in charge. Then the Lord told Abram to keep wandering, and in fact, wander to places he didn’t know!

All this time, Abram knows he’s getting older, and so is his wife, Sarai. Of course, everybody gets older, so that’s not such a big deal, except they don’t have children. As we remember, childlessness is a big deal in this culture. Economically, children are the pension plan that takes care of people who can’t work anymore.

Spiritually and culturally, your children make sure your part of the story goes on. Just as you have made sure the story of your ancestors continues, so your children will do for you. Unless you don’t have any, like Abram and Sarai, which means your story and your family’s story stops with you, and fades with time until people have to look you up in a scroll just to remember you ever existed.

Abram lives with that reality every day, and this conversation with God brings it home. He has just cooperated with some local tribal chiefs and rulers to help stop an invasion of the area by a foreign king. The king of Sodom, one of the cities saved by Abram’s actions, wants to reward him, but Abram refuses. He does not want any of the local rulers to have even the smallest of claims on him.

God’s then promises Abram that he will be properly rewarded for helping people in need. But Abram wonders what good that will do. Any reward given him will die out with him. It will go to a man named Eliezer of Damascus, the legal heir to all of Abram’s property.

No, God says. Your heir will be of your own body. Look at the stars and count them, if you can. That’s how numerous your descendants will be.

Abram, we’re told, believed God’s promise, and that helped put his relationship with God more on the right footing. Now, what convinced Abram? What helped him believe? What about the sky that night gave him faith God would give him what he promised, in spite of all the reasons he could list that it wouldn’t happen? I’m old. My wife’s old. My nephew’s a twit. My legal heir – a servant – has a cruel joke of a name that translates, “God is my help.”

Look at the stars. Count them, if you can. Did the beauty and majesty of the night sky convince Abram? Did the awesomeness of the space he saw change his mind?

Maybe, but I think we can find more to that if we look. After all, we can see the same night sky and countless other parts of God’s creation we call beautiful. But we also know creation contains ugliness. Like the warthog, for example. Or the poodle.

We know that the world has problems, and not just because people live on it.

Volcanoes erupt. Storms destroy. Earthquakes flatten. The cute and the fluffy become dinner for the sharp-fanged and hungry. If the beauty of creation inspires awe and inspires us to believe in God, what do we do with the ugliness? It’s just as real and just as much a part of that same creation.

What did God want Abram to see when he tried to count the stars? Did he want him to marvel over how many there were? Or did he want him to trust the One who had already counted them?

I believe God wanted Abram to understand something about creation, but not simply that it was big and often beautiful. I believe God wanted Abram to know that God didn’t stop with creation when he made it. He continues to uphold and govern it. It continues to work.

And that may be a message that can bring us to believe, as it did Abram. In spite of all of the ugliness we can find in creation, in spite of all the things that aren’t big and awesome and aren’t beautiful, God continues to work within it. Everything that’s wrong with it doesn’t break it. It continues. Yes, storms destroy, but rain brings life to crops and to creatures. Volcanoes erupt and earthquakes flatten, but the same processes that fuel them also make the earth a planet we can live on.

Did Abram see that no matter what might seem to go wrong, God could still work? No matter how bad things were, God was still present? I think he did. I hope we can, too.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Do Be Do Be Do...(First Corinthians 1:18)

Sorry about the delay -- The sermon from Aug. 5th was eaten in the computer, so I'm posting a long-ago model.

When we look at how God’s work redefines things, one of the ones we ought to dig into the deepest is probably the idea of salvation.

We tend to see salvation as an event. Of course, that’s how we usually talk about being saved. Something threatened me, but I was saved from it, which means it doesn’t threaten me any more.

But salvation in a spiritual sense doesn’t work so well if we see it only as an event. It makes things easier to deal with, maybe, since we can put a checkmark by the “saved” category in our lives and go on about our business.

Sometimes the Bible talks about salvation that way. And sometimes it talks about it a different way.

Paul does that here. He calls the foolishness of the gospel good news for those who are being saved. We use verbs that way when we talk about ongoing things, not once-and-done-with things.

Our language can help us – we Christians talk about being “born again,” so think about how different each one of us is now from when we were born. We walk upright. We get our own food. We shriek less.

So wouldn’t we progress in our life of faith? Wouldn’t we grow up?

We say God wants to restore the full relationship we were made to have with him and renew his image, imprinted on us from before our birth. Sure, that has to start somewhere, but like our growth continues after our birth, our relationship with God continues after our salvation. We are being saved – we’re living the lives God wants saved people to live.

Think about it as like the difference between “being alive” or existing and “living.” Many things are alive, from little one-celled critters to the giant whales in the ocean. They do what they need to do to survive. They eat. They reproduce. They fight off things that try to eat them, or they don’t, and then they stop being alive.

But not too many seem to have a concept of living as an action verb. In their own limited ways, I think some animals get that. Dogs, for example, when they find an open field where they can run forever and not have to worry about fences or leashes or slow-footed humans. Chimpanzees, maybe, when they get together and see what they can do to make the humans point and laugh. Or dolphins, who will jump and play in the wake of a ship for no reason researchers have ever figured out.

Human beings, though, are the only creatures we know who can fully understand the difference. And so Jesus invites us to live saved and not just exist that way.

Picture a relationship with God that said, “Well, you used to be headed for hell, but now you’re not. But that’s about it, so toddle along now.” That’s not for me. I want a relationship with God that continues to make a difference in every moment, every aspect of my life.

When God formed human beings, they didn’t have life until he breathed it into them. Then he did, and we became living beings. The Hebrew word for living beings is nephesh. It literally translates “bundle of appetites,” and if you want to, you can picture it like a nest full of baby birds when mom shows up. We became a living bundle of appetites and desires, beings who want to do and experience and live.

Our sin prompts us to try to satisfy those appetites in ways that prove harmful to us, and separate us from God as well as the true self God wants us to be. In Jesus, God he made it possible once more for us to turn our bundle of appetites towards him, and to live as he had always designed us to do.

And that sounds like good news to me.