Treasure and heart | 16 October 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-15; Matthew 6:21

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to Jourdan Anderson’s 1865 letter to his old master, to the color coded map on the front of our bulletin, to the Black Manifesto, to Columbus, Ohio in the 21st century.  A long and winding road.  The letter and the map are both pieces that Adam brought in to our Exodus Bible Study class in the spring.  We were trying to make connections between the Hebrew’s exodus from slavery narrative and the African American experience.  These two pieces did that, with the bonus of bringing it home to Ohio soil.

Last Sunday’s sermon included the story of James Forman interrupting worship services at predominantly white churches throughout 1969, beginning with the influential Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  He did this to read from the recently written Black Manifesto which called for reparations for black Americans from white Christians and Jews.

One hundred years before this a formerly enslaved man named Jourdon Anderson, living in Dayton Ohio, wrote a private letter to his former master (included at the end of the sermon).  The old master had initiated the correspondence, as Jourdon acknowledges in the opening.  “Sir, I got your letter and was glad you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again.”  Jourdon goes on to highly qualify what he might mean by “glad.”  It seems that the former master still holds a place for Jourdon in his heart.  The feeling, it seems, is not mutual.  The formerly enslaved Jourdon would only be glad for a reunion if the old master has a change of heart.  And Jourdon is careful to outline just what a change of heart would look like.  He essentially asks that his old master give up all claims of masterhood, present, future, and, very importantly, past.  Treasure accumulated from the unpaid labor of Jourdon and his wife would be returned to them.  These fair wages would now serve as reparations.  Even though late in coming, they would be a sign that, in the words of Jourdon, “the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers in making us toil for you for generations without recompense.”

There are any number of teachings from the gospels that relate to what we’ve been talking about.  But I want to pick out one brief statement from Jesus as a way of following a thread through these different eras and stories in front of us.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  He makes a direct connection between treasure and heart, and I want to follow this thread of treasure and heart for a while.  It will be winding, but hopefully not too long.

For the ancients, the heart was the center of the being.    It was the home of physical warmth and energy.  It was also the seat of intelligence, of intention, and even sensation, perception.  The condition of the heart had moral overtones.  You think and sense and reason and aim with your heart.

These days our fascination has migrated about a foot and a half north to the brain as the center of the being, but our language is still peppered with these ideas about the heart.  A lovely and relatively new phrase that Brene Brown has popularized is whole-hearted.  Whole-hearted living involves things such as authenticity, vulnerability, gratitude, cultivating creativity.  Whole-hearted.

A key part of Jesus’ teaching is how he orders treasure and heart.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   The order implies that the place where we put our treasure – our resources, our time, our relationships, our money – is the place our heart ends up.  In this arrangement, our heart follows rather than leads our treasure.

For where you put your money, there you mind will go.

For how you use your time, there your temperament will be formed.

When I think about how this has played out in my own life I think about how purchasing our first house elevated my awareness of the surrounding area — the Oakley neighborhood of Cincinnati, uncoincidentally on the same street as Cincinnati Mennonite Fellowship.  All of a sudden, we were invested, and I felt my involvement and interests, and interest, and intelligence and intentions, shaped by that investment.  I could sense that happening in a way it hadn’t before.  Purchasing real estate is a big decision.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

I also think about our girls entering school.  When your treasured children walk out the door to be instructed in another setting, your heart follows close behind.  And it goes not only with them, but the heart becomes all the more wrapped up in the well-being of that classroom, and that particular school, and that particular school system.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

There’s a story in the book of Jeremiah where the relationship between treasure and heart shows up.  For years, decades, Jeremiah had been preaching the unpopular message of Jerusalem’s destruction.  And now, that day had arrived.  The Babylonians, under the direction of King Nebuchadnezzar, have surrounded the city and put it under siege.  The city walls will be breached, its buildings leveled to the ground, the holy temple plundered and burned, its treasures carried off to Babylon, the princes captured and executed, the king and other city leaders and nearly all the people forcefully marched away in exile, carried off to Babylon.

Jeremiah was the prophet of doom who warned about all this.

But he was not without hope for the future.  He also prophesied a restoration.  And in Jeremiah 32 we read an account of him putting his money where his mouth was, firmly planting his heart in the Judean soil.

In the middle of the siege we get this rather detailed account of a real estate transaction.  King Zedekiah of Judah is convinced Jeremiah is going to defect to the Babylonians, so he has him imprisoned in the king’s palace.  Jeremiah’s cousin Hanamel finds Jeremiah and asks him to buy his field in their ancestral area of Anathoth just east of Jerusalem.  We’re not told what prompted Hanamel to make this request, but the Torah taught that if someone was in dire need and had to sell off land in order to survive in the moment, that it fell to the nearest family member to purchase that land to keep it in the family.  The right of redemption – the obligation of redemption.

Buying land in a war zone is not exactly a good investment.  But Jeremiah had received a vision from God telling him to make the purchase.  So he does.  And the text is very careful to give us an almost play by play account of this economic exchange.  The deed is signed and copied, by hand of course, with witnesses.  One of the copies is sealed and one left open for quick reference.  The money is weighed and exchanged.  Both deeds are carefully placed in an earthen jar for preservation.  It is an official, genuine, legal exchange of property, with the papers to prove it.  Cousin Hanamel gets the silver, Jeremiah gets the family land about to be abandoned.  The point of the act is not for Jeremiah to buy low so he can sell high.  It will not be appreciating in his lifetime.  It is portrayed in the text as a symbolic prophetic action.  The sequence continues with Jeremiah 32:15 stating, “For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”  This is followed up with a prayer by Jeremiah, now crying out to God because he’s pretty sure he’s just made the worst investment of his life.

Just as soon as his street cred as a prophet is assured with Jerusalem’s destruction, he again looks like a fool, asked to invest in a restoration yet to come.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be.  Jeremiah will end his days exiled down in Egypt, but his heart, his longing heart, was camped out by his treasure in the depopulated fields of his kindred.

It’s a long and winding road from Jeremiah, through Jesus, to the present moment.  Many hearts have followed much treasure along the way.  And there has been much plunder.

Between Jourdon Anderson’s letter suggesting reparations from his old master – 1865 – and James Forman’s Black Manifesto demanding reparations from white churches and synagogues – 1969 – there was this map, and more real estate transactions that affected treasure and heart.  This map was first published in 1936 by the Home Owners Loan Corporation, a creation of the US Congress.  The goal was to help households refinance troubled mortgages during and after the Great Depression.  To do this Columbus and other cities across the US were split up into these four color coded categories with green considered the most desirable and safest areas to issue mortgages and other kinds of loans, and red considered the least desirable, highest risk mortgage.  Black neighborhoods were famously redlined.  Then and in the decades that followed as this became an entrenched practice, they didn’t receive the kind of mortgage and business and credit financing that enabled ownership and wealth building in other communities.  Neighborhoods with recent immigrants, even some recent European immigrants were also downgraded.



The colors on that map don’t directly correspond to racial or economic distributions in Columbus today, but they are a key part of the story.  Needless to say, redlining is another layer in the painful history of masterhood, and treasure acquired by some and denied to others.  I did zoom in on the map online and note that Columbus Mennonite Church is located in one of the few green zones.  And so I wonder, Does that mean something to us now, and if so, what is that?

It would be one thing if this was a situation where we had personally wronged someone and could make amends.  We would get a letter from our Jourdan Anderson outlining the extent of the damage, the treasure we have accumulated at the other’s expense, and the address we can mail the debt we owe.  It would be hard to swallow, but specific and concrete.  An act of reparations.

And there might be interpersonal situations like this we need to attend to.

But it all feels so much more subtle and elusive than that.  Redlining is no longer legal, but its effects are everywhere.  And if you’ve considered buying a home you’ve likely wrestled with all the factors of meeting your own needs and living out your values, and how zip codes are still coded with the opportunities and deficits we’ve inherited from the past.  Schools, for example.  And then there’s this cycle that gets perpetuated.  For where you treasure is, there you heart will be also?

Treasure is segregated, which means there’s always the danger of our hearts being segregated.  This is one of the great spiritual challenges of our time.  How to live in a time of treasure segregation without this encompassing the condition of our heart – our ability to see, the intentionality with which we go about our relationships, our intelligence and ability to understand others experiences, taking concrete actions to right past wrongs.  Our longing to live whole-hearted lives, in the pattern of Jesus, is frequently an act of resistance to the patterns so readily available to us.

I truly believe and hope that this awareness and consciousness we’re trying to develop together can be a source of empowerment rather than guilt and disempowerment.  We have treasure.  And we have heart.  There are ways that each of us can follow the cues of Jeremiah and invest in restoration.  It can be as simple as deciding to frequent a black owned business.  Or, like Barb Gant who bought 50 Black Lives Matter yard signs and has made them available at the church.  When I asked her how much I owe her she said, “Nothing.  Everyone can do something and this is one thing I’m doing.”  If the saying of Jesus holds up, when we intentionally put our treasure toward the restoration, then something wonderful and life-giving happens to our own hearts.  We sense and see new things, we think new thoughts, love gives birth to love, and we get glimpses of the great restoration yet to come.

Dayton, Ohio,

August 7, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson.



Temple sermons | 9 October 2016

Jeremiah 7, 26

Temple sermon #1

It was the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, a little before 600 BCE.  Jeremiah, the priest and prophet, went and stood in the gate of the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.  He proceeded to deliver a sermon that did not bring the house down.  It didn’t physically bring the house down.  The invading Babylonians would do that 20 years later.  It didn’t inspirationally bring the house down.  As far as we can tell, nobody was laughing, clapping, or shouting ‘Amen’ at Jeremiah’s words.  On the contrary, the text says when he was finished: “then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die!’”  Wow – not a sermon response most seminaries prepare you for.  I much prefer silence followed by a hymn.

In the sermon, Jeremiah had challenged the mentality that the temple was the ultimate source of security for the people.  He says, “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.’”  The way Jeremiah talks about it, this must have been a popular sentiment, and even a popular phrase of the time.  One neighbor says to another: ‘Hey, have you heard about those nasty Babylonians trying to take over the world?’  The neighbor replies: ‘Yeah, but we’re all good.  You know, we’ve got the temple of Yahweh.’  ‘Totally, the temple of Yahweh.’  The temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh, the temple of Yahweh.

Jeremiah has a different suggestion.  “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 you own hurt, then Yahweh will dwell with you in this place.”  In other words, if you want security, work for justice.  Stability proceeds from protecting the economically vulnerable.  If you want things to be all good, make sure all are getting access to the goods.

It’s an important enough sermon that we get two different accounts of it.  Jeremiah 7 focuses on the sermon itself, and chapter 26 does a quick summary of the sermon and focuses on the reaction to it.  It’s called, simply enough, “The temple sermon.”

Temple Sermon #2

About 600 years after Jeremiah, Jesus entered the Jerusalem of his day on the back of a donkey and headed into the rebuilt temple.  The beloved, sacred institution of his people was failing those who most needed it to be a place of safety and security.  It had become an instrument of wealth redistribution from the bottom to the top.  In the mind of Jesus, this was defiling its sacred mission to honor YHWH, the god who delivered the Hebrews from slavery.  In his sermon Jeremiah had referred to the temple as a den of robbers, and Jesus samples those prophetic words in his own temple sermon.  This, we may remember, also did not go over so well.

Temple sermon #3          

May 4, 1969.  On that Sunday, James Forman interrupted a worship service at the influential, predominantly white, Riverside Church in Manhattan, New York.  Forman stood in the pulpit and proceeded to read from a newly written document called The Black Manifesto.

If you’re like me, you never heard about this.

I first learned about it reading Jennifer Harvey’s book Dear White Christians.  She highlights this as a pivotal event in the relationship between white Christians and African Americans.  The first thing I noticed with this date, May 4, 1969, is that it’s a year and a month after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1968.  It made me realize that I have a big gaping hole in my understanding of the black struggle post King and that I’ve mis-learned the outcomes of the Civil Rights struggle.  Harvey writes:

“The way we remember the civil rights movement, which typically involves telling a triumphant tale of successful social transformation, is deeply inaccurate.  By the end of the 1960’s many Black Americans – including Black Christians – were not hailing civil rights as the success we hail it today.  In contrast, the end of the 1960’s found many African Americans in a state of despair and outrage” (p. 103).

Harvey tells the story of The Black Manifesto to illustrate the point.

It came out of the National Black Economic Development Conference.  A group of black leaders had been meeting for years with white religious leaders and were becoming increasingly disillusioned with the white leaders’ refusal to deal with the underlying material issues of jobs, housing, and financial resources for black folks – the deficits all a result of past and present injustices and outright theft of black resources.  The National Black Economic Development Conference was a black-only gathering in Detroit looking at what might be next for economic and community development strategies.  On the final night of the conference, James Forman introduced the Black Manifesto, which was endorsed by about a 3 to 1 vote.

On May 4, 1969, and in following weeks and months, Forman interrupted worship services in predominantly white congregations to read the Manifesto.  It’s about four pages.  Now easily accessed online.

The overarching theme of the Manifesto was a call for reparations.  $500 million paid from white churches across America to the Black Economic Development Conference.  It included specific ways the money would be used with assigned amounts, including a Black university in the South, a research skills center, a southern land bank, publishing and printing industries, a training center, a National Black Labor and Defense Fund.  Throughout the Manifesto it periodically notes that the amount of $500,000,000 is a modest amount, equal to only $15 per black American at that time.    One of the critiques of the document was that the amount demanded was far too low.  One white theologian, writing favorably about the Manifesto in the Christian Century in June of ’69, noted that churches could collectively raise the amount in a month of Sunday offerings.  That article was called: Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope.  (Ronald Goetz, “Black Manifesto: The Great White Hope,” The Christian Century 86 (June 18, 1969).

Harvey cites two scholars of the period who claimed: “Manifesto-related events caused greater vibrations in the US religious world than any other single human rights development in a decade of monumental happenings” (p. 108).  I had no idea.

Forman’s listeners didn’t instantly call for his death like those of Jeremiah’s temple sermon, but 2/3rds of the congregation, including the minister and choir, did walk out in protest.  To his credit, the Riverside minister, Ernest T. Campbell, did soon state that the Manifesto had “sound theological pinnings.”  In less than a week Campbell became the first white clergy leader to endorse the concept of reparations, although he didn’t mention following the demands of the Manifesto.

Jennifer Harvey names a number of the responses to the Manifesto, positive and negative.  But needless to say, the reason hardly any of us have heard this story before is that the white church came nowhere near responding in a constructive way.  It’s a legacy we’re still living with.  Imagine where we might be today if the church had accepted the challenge and fulfilled that specific call for reparations.  Or exceeded the amount.  Maybe it’s not too late to creatively respond.

Temple sermon #4

Will Campbell was a Baptist preacher born in Mississippi.  He was the only white person in the room at the founding of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  He was one of the few people escorting black students through the hostile environment in the newly integrated public schools of Little Rock, Arkansas.  He died in 2013 at age 88.  If you like Wendell Berry, you’d like Will Campbell.  They’re cut from the same cloth of truth-telling contrariness and curmudgeonhood.

Will Campbell was once asked to preach at the Riverside Church, in Manhattan, New York.  I don’t know what year it was, but it was a number of years after Forman had interrupted a service to read the Black Manifesto.  There’s an hour long documentary of Campbell’s life that contains a clip from the sermon.  Here’s what he said in that rather immaculate space:

“So the question we are really asking is: What can we do about race and racism in American culture, and keep all this?  The answer, my brothers and sisters, is NOTHIN’.”  (  9:00 mark and following)

See, it’s a lot easier to quote other people for these things and then if you want to get angry at someone you can just get angry at them.

Jeremiah and Jesus and James Forman and Will Campbell gave their temple sermons in sacred spaces.  Not the town square, not a government building, but a temple, a church building.  Part of the reason has to be that this is where the people were, where key leaders were gathered.

We might also consider how having these appeals made in sacred space relates with our very sense of the sacred, and what offends us as a violation of the sacred.

What we hold as sacred is what holds our world together.  Everything else orbits around that gravitational center.  It’s not that Jeremiah was asking the people to give up the sacred.  He’s not mocking or belittling sacredness.  But he did suggest that folks had been duped.  What they held as utterly sacred, the temple in their case, or, was a lousy substitute for what YHWH held as sacred – the lives of the poor, widow, aliens, and orphan.  When their lives were violated, that’s what made Jeremiah offended.  That what energized him to stand up and speak.  But in doing so he challenged what other people held as sacred.

One of the dynamics we seem to be living through in our nation now is the challenge of another thing held sacred: The long, slow, painful death of white supremacy.

So what do we hold as sacred, or what can we aspire to hold as sacred, and how does that energize us?  We have a diversity of beliefs here, but one thing that holds us together is that we gather around the sacred.  There are realities, aspects of life, our morality and our mortality, that hold a sense of the sacred.  Transcendence.  Realities we honor, in whose presence we bow, which inspire awe, which we approach with thanksgiving. Spirit, Grace, Love, Justice, Christ.  The sacred asks, even demands, we value it to the point of submitting our lives to its power.  To soften our hearts, be filled with these sacred gifts, and give them back to the world, to God, in gratitude.

Even if we’re not always conscious of it, the sacred holds us in its embrace.

What these temple sermons challenge us to consider, is that the sacred also has very material manifestations.  Living within the holy has relational implications.  Economic implications.  Implications on how we use and share and give away power.  And, if we’re no longer trying to ‘keep all this,’ this is where it starts getting really real.

From loss to celebration | 11 September 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Luke 15:1-10


It’s our first Sunday back in this building which is feeling both familiar and new.  It’s the opening Sunday of the Christian Education year.  And it’s the fifteen year anniversary, today, of the 9/11 attacks.

Any one of these three could be the focus of a worship theme.  But with all three we have a full plate.

One of the most startling realizations I had this past week was that for all of our young people starting Sunday school today, 9/11 is an historical event.  Something to read and hear stories about, but not something they, you, experienced personally.  Even our high school seniors were just two or three years old when it happened.  Recent college grads were in their first years of elementary school.  The post 9/11 world is the only world you’ve known.  Fifteen years ago our country was the big kid out on the playground, and got sucker punched in front of everyone.  We’ve been hitting back ever since, uncertain how to heal.

I love how our lectionary scriptures keep us grounded in a bigger story.  A story that stands on its own, yet manages to speak something fresh into our time.  Today’s two readings share a common theme of loss, with Jeremiah anticipating an impending loss, and Luke offering parables that conclude in celebration, on the other side of loss.  Loss is something that happens at every level of existence, from the national loss of an event like 9/11, to personal loss – a sheep, a coin, a parent, an ability, losing our bearings, losing our religion, losing our mind.  Loss.

Civil rights veteran John Perkins is fond of saying that a leader is someone who is willing to enter into the pain of their people.  By this definition, the prophet Jeremiah was an exemplary leader of the people of Judah during a period of national crisis.  His public witness spanned 40 years before and during the great exile, when Jerusalem and its temple were crushed by the Babylonians.  Everyone of social standing was carried away in exile.  Only the poor were left behind to work the land.

Jeremiah is sometimes known as the ‘weeping prophet.’  At the beginning of chapter 9 he cries out, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”

Chapter four, which we read part of, contains an even more visceral description of Jeremiah entering into the pain of his people.  In Verse 19 he cries out, “My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!  Oh, the walls of my heart!  My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.”  His people are about to be swallowed up by the violence of a massive empire, and Jeremiah is about to have a heart attack.  He feels the anguish and anxiety in his capillaries.  Being a prophet can be hazardous to one’s health.

Just as aside, it’s interesting to see the rise in the emphasis on self-care these days.  There’s a growing awareness, a healthy awareness, that taking care of your own heart is not only good for you, but good for the movement.  Jeremiah could have used this counsel.

Jeremiah 4 continues with a remarkable passage.  There are only two places in the Hebrew Bible that contain the poetic Hebrew phrase ToHu va BoHu.  In English it is translated as “formless and void,” or “formless and empty,” or, the more poetic, “welter and waste.”  It shows up here in Jeremiah 4:23.  The other, much more familiar reference, is Genesis 1.  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  And the earth, it was formless and void.”  ToHu va BoHu.

In Genesis, this characterizes the beginning point of creation.  It is the condition of chaos and disorder into which the god, Elohim, speaks, and thus creates.  It’s an account of structure emerging from no-structure that unfolds kind of like a time lapse video that we didn’t take of our stage and kitchen renovations.  Start with the void right after demolition, and watch it emerge from nothing more than an idea.  Seth Trance and Ajay Massey skillfully play the part of Elohim.  The configuration takes shape, all the infrastructure is set in place, and finishing touches are made.  It is complete, but merely beginning.  The stage is set, so to speak.  The platform is ready for action, the backdrop is ready for artistic expression, and the kitchen is ready to start cooking up all kinds of goodness.  The kitchen is almost ready.

In Genesis, Elohim utters language into the formlessness and void.  Light!  Land!  Creatures of sea, earth, and sky.  Humanity.  Order and life emerge from disorder.  Scattered atoms and molecules co-ordinate and co-operate.  Creation flows forth in ever more complex arrangements, creating and recreating itself.

Humans are birthed with god-like powers, in the image of Elohim.  The bright light of consciousness burns strong within them.  More than other creatures, they subdue animal instinct.  They will soon start making stuff, making decisions.  And Elohim saw it all, and lo, it was very good.

This is the cosmos that Genesis 1 narrates into being.   This is the sacred world of original blessing and goodness that permeated the Hebrew mind.  The world into which the children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, are born, called to be a blessing to all people.

And so when Jeremiah samples this phrase from Genesis, he conjures this entire meaning-making structure of Hebrew myth.  But for Jeremiah, the prophet of weeping and anguish, creation has gone terribly awry.   The prophet says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void, Tohu va Bohu, and to the heavens, and they had no light.  I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.”  When Jeremiah looks at what is happening to his people and land, he sees Genesis 1 in reverse.  The video is playing backwards.  The people, the birds, the light, are gone, and we’re back to welter and waste.  The world that he loves has been un-created.  It is a picture of devastating loss.

And it’s important to recognize this as a double loss.  There is the loss of temple, and land, the loss of precious lives, the loss of political independence.  That’s one kind of loss.  But there’s another form of loss that is equally or perhaps even more anguishing.  There is the loss of a coherent way of making sense of the world.  A crisis of meaning.  By evoking the foundational meaning-making myth of his people, Jeremiah is acknowledging that not only have the structures of their buildings been leveled, but so too has the structure of their minds.  A people whose identity was attached so closely to land, temple, and king, now has none of those.  Not only did their god not protect them, but, as far as they could imagine, their god turned against them, rousing their enemies to come and destroy them.  And now, neither they nor their go have a place to call home.  They have been exiled from all they hold sacred.  The stories they told about themselves and their divinely ordained destiny no longer fit their present reality.

After the weeping, what’s next?  In the late 60’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief:  Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  But when a loss messes with the mythic structure of our minds, there’s even more work to be done.

If we can recognize ourselves, and our nation, in this story, we might wonder if we too have undergone a double loss in the last 15 years.  We’ve done well in the rebuilding of the physical structures, but our national myths and sense of collective meaning are not near as solid.  I wonder if this is one of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” has captured the imaginations of so many people.  It’s an incredibly powerful myth.  We were once a blessed and great people.  We will be great again.  Never mind that the further you go back in time toward the elusive golden age, the more and more people are disenfranchised, the closer we get to outright patriarchy, slavery of Africans and genocide of Natives.  But myths and facts don’t always rhyme, and when our meaning making structures have been rendered formless and void, we need a myth to give shape to our reality.  Even the postmodern allergy to meta-narratives is itself a kind of myth.  We can shoulder all kinds of losses and make it through to the other side of acceptance, but when we lose our story of who we are, and how we fit into the bigger picture, we are truly lost.

Why is it that a professional football player who is refusing to stand for the national anthem until something is done about black suffering is getting so much attention these days?  Could it be that his action is a full on threat to the kind of myth some folks are trying to hold on to with all their might?  A myth of our own inherent goodness and benevolence and blessedness.  For the myth to really work, everyone has to stand and pledge their allegiance to it.

When I sat down to write this sermon I didn’t set out to talk about myth, but that’s obviously the direction it took.  We are starting the Sunday school year today.  More than just learning information and  Bible stories, I suggest that the most important learning we can be doing together is the learning of an alternative myth to the ones we are regularly told.  And this is a very Anabaptist and Mennonite approach to what faith and religion offer us.  Rather than teaching us how to be nice and well-adjusted people within the political and economic systems we inhabit, our Christ-centered faith has something to say about the very underlying assumptions of what it means to be blessed, to be successful, to be human.

Our faith proposes that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross is the ultimate myth-busting event of history.  The gods of empire, nationalism, and more recently, consumer capitalism, rely on the myth of their own goodness in order to survive.  They are there to protect and shepherd us into safety and prosperity.  They are watching over us for our well-being.  Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for they are with us.  The nation’s arsenal of weapons will guard us.  The market’s vast array of consumer goods will comfort us.

But when the one who was without fault challenged the goodness of the entire program, gathering and embracing the people it left behind, going on a rant in the sacred precincts of the temple that the leaders of his own people had worked so hard to restore to make Jerusalem great again….When that one was deemed a threat to the whole project, and brutally and publicly executed, it exposed the whole mythic framework of the empire, and any religion that colludes with it.  It rendered it formless and void of any power to save those who most needed salvation.

The earth shook, the sky went dark, the temple veil was torn in two, and the age old myth that had ruled the world for so long was uncreated.  For those with eyes to see, this was ground zero of the apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalyptic world ever since.   The old myths are still gasping for breath, grasping for attention, but we’re not buying it.

You also don’t have to buy anything I’m saying.  It’s one way of reading the meaning of the Christian gospel.

And that’s not the end of it.

The gospel speaks not only of crucifixion and myth-busting, but also offers a myth of its own, a story into which we can live.  It’s a story where death is followed by resurrection.  New life, not of our own making, but life given back to us, freed from illusion, energized by love rather than fear, motivated toward restorative justice rather than vengeance.  It’s a story in which everything and everyone belongs.  It’s a story which includes death and loss, but transcends it within a wider circle of abundance and life which leads to more life.  It’s a story in which a single sheep and a single coin, a single life, is deemed valuable enough to go on a great search, to light a lamp and look under furniture.  To poke around in the darkest corners, until the lost one is found.  And when she is found, to not interogate or point fingers or lay blame, but to put out an invite to the entire list of contacts, and throw a celebration, a great fiesta, because what was lost has been found.  And the earth and heavens rejoice.

What do you see? | Coming of age | 1 February 2015

Text: Jeremiah 1:1-14 

Every summer of jr high and high school involved baling hay with my uncle, and I have a fond memory of one of the first times he had me drive the tractor that pulled the baler and the wagon where he would stack the square bales.  I would have been about your age.  We would always use the same gear in the tractor for baling hay, but each gear had a low and a high setting, adjusted with the push of a lever.  Up to that point I had always driven in low, but toward the end of one of those long days my uncle told me that at some point during the next load he was going to signal from the wagon for me to push it into high.  And sure enough, a little ways into the load I looked back, my uncle gave me the signal, and, for the first time, I shifted on the fly from low to high.  The thrill that I felt run through my body had a little bit to do with the immediate increase of speed from the tractor, but probably had more to do with this sense of being asked and trusted to step up to the next level.  I felt like I had crossed some invisible threshold, now driving out in the field the same speed that any experienced adult would drive.

That feels like an appropriate metaphor for this morning.  We are here to celebrate and recognize the threshold from childhood to adolescence that the six of you are crossing – Aaron, Elizabeth, Daniel, Jonathan, Fiona, and Ian.  I like the way Fiona’s artwork on the bulletin cover pictures this as a venturing out, which is exactly what it is.

We believe this is an important enough step in life, that it should be named publicly, and that it should be experienced not just personally or even just within your immediate family, but that it should be witnessed and honored by the whole congregational family.  This is truly one of the major transitions one makes in life and it can be about as thrilling and daunting as driving a large piece of machinery in an open field.

Today’s service is one you’ve helped shape:  you’ve chosen the songs, you’ve helped lead different parts of the worship – and it’s also a service that we hope will help shape you.  One of the ways you’ve helped shape this service was in choosing the scripture.  Two weeks ago we met together, studied a couple scriptures, and you chose the calling of the prophet Jeremiah, out of the first chapter of that book, as the main scripture for today.

Something noteworthy about Jeremiah’s story is that he experiencing God’s call at a young age.  Too young in Jeremiah’s opinion.  He’s not all that interested in hearing this kind of voice at this point, plus he’s pretty certain that he doesn’t have what it takes to do whatever is being asked of him.  Here’s how it’s goes in the Message version of the Bible.  “4 This is what God said: 5 ‘Before I shaped you in the womb, I knew all about you. Before you saw the light of day, I had holy plans for you: A prophet to the nations – that’s what I had in mind for you.’ 6 But I said, “Hold it, Master God! Look at me. I don’t know anything. I’m only a boy!” 7God told me, “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy.’ I’ll tell you where to go and you’ll go there. I’ll tell you what to say and you’ll say it. 8 Don’t be afraid of a soul. I’ll be right there, looking after you.’”

We don’t know how Jeremiah experienced this word from the Lord – whether it was a sharp clear message that happened over the course of a few minutes, or whether this was an inner, small voice, that Jeremiah felt speak over the course of a few years.  Those of us well into our adulthood are still trying to figure out just what this voice of the Lord is all about – how to listen, how it speaks, how to pay attention.  What we do know here is that this voice doesn’t agree with Jeremiah’s self-assessment. He is being asked to enter into a stage beyond childhood.  A time of greater awareness of the world around him.  A time when he is starting to feel responsible for engaging this world in a way that helps bring about a better world.

We don’t know how old Jeremiah was at this point, but for the purposes of today, Jeremiah is a twelve year old, or an almost-twelve year old.  He’s you.  You’re him.  The world that’s opening up in front of you, the new place you’re moving in to, is a place that resonates with the holy voice that calls you to live for something greater than yourself.  This is something you’re starting to be aware of in a new way, developing the ears to hear that this voice calls to you.

If this sounds strange, hard to believe, and slightly overwhelming, then you’re having the right reaction.  None of these experiences in scripture are met with much enthusiasm.  Moses has over sixty years more life experience than Jeremiah, but had a similar response.  “I don’t know how to speak.”  Samuel’s calling is so subtle that it has to be repeated four times before he realizes what’s going on.  Jonah senses what he is supposed to do and promptly sets sail in the opposite direction.

So there’s this opening exchange between the young Jeremiah and this holy voice, but I’m especially interested in what happens next.  After giving Jeremiah what seems to be a daunting life task, and after Jeremiah’s protest, here’s what happens.  It’s in verse 11 of chapter 1.  “The word of the Lord came to me (again) saying, ‘Jeremiah, what do you see?’”  I like this next step in the exchange.  Rather than dwelling on big barely understandable things, like being a prophet to the nations, this starts somewhere very concrete.  OK Jeremiah.  Tell me what you see.  Go outside, take a walk, have a good look at the world around you, and tell me what you see.

This is something Jeremiah can do.  He’s able to observe.  He can notice things.  So this is what he does.

When we studied this scripture together, we stopped the reading right here and asked the same question.  “What do you see?”  When you look out on this world that you’re inheriting, that you’re growing up in, what catches your eye?  Pastor Mark asked the class to reflect on the same question last week and included some of the comments in the liturgy this morning.  You mentioned that you see diseases like Ebola, cruelty to animals, racism.  I also remember you mentioning pollution, and cars everywhere.  By the way, you’re welcome.  These are our proud gifts to you as the next generation.  Or, more appropriately, we should say, We’re sorry.  This isn’t the kind of world we want.  And if we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we should confess that sometimes we feel the same way you must feel about all these things.  We see them in front of us, but we’re not quite sure how they got here.  We’re pretty sure we can’t just blame the generation older than us, but we find ourselves tied up in these things in ways we’re not sure how to escape.

But you also saw positive things.  The love of family and friends, antiobiotics, the work of the Humane Society.  You also included that great source of joy – Ice cream.  I find all your observations to be good ones.  You are paying attention to the world.  You’re aware of big things going on and also things in your own community.  You see well.

And this is the beginning of any kind of life calling.  You are asked to look, and see.  You may feel yourself too young or too whatever to affect much of what is going on around you, but this is where you start.

One of the problems that we can run into as we keep growing up is that we can stop seeing things.  We get so used to things being a certain way, that we stop noticing them, and just accept them for the way they are.  Sort of like the doorbell that didn’t work on our previous house.  Right when we moved in to that house, I noticed that the doorbell didn’t work, did some fiddling around with it, still couldn’t get it to work, so I took most of it off so people wouldn’t keep trying to ring it and wait, expecting us to hear something.  But for some reason I left the back plate of the doorbell on the wall, where the rest of the device had been fastened.  So, for a few years, we had this plastic plate screwed to the wall right outside our front door, obviously not a doorbell, but looking like a place where a doorbell should be.  I stopped noticing it, but I’m sure people who came to our house for the first time looking to ring the doorbell had to pause and scratch their heads before finally knocking.  When we moved to Columbus and looked at this house on Oakland Park I was pleased to discover that it had a functioning doorbell.  I won’t go so far as to say that it sold us the house, but it was a nice perk.

When we ask you “what do you see?,” when we ask you to make observations about the kind of world you are growing up in, you have the unique ability to see things that some of the rest of us could very well have stopped paying attention to and stopped noticing altogether.  You’re the ones who are fresh on the scene.  You haven’t been taught yet not to see certain things.  You raise important questions that others have stopped asking.  What you see is important, and it’s important that you believe that what you see is important.

We need you to be able to see well.  We need your eyes to look out and tell us what’s wrong, what’s right.  What kinds of things have we just let linger, let hang on the wall, without finishing the job?  You are young, but you do have something that many people don’t have anymore.   Albert Einstein said something that relates here.  He said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”  I take this to mean that those who have been surrounded by the problem for so long can become incapable of solving it.  We need fresh eyes and fresh minds to bring a new way of seeing and thinking.

The first thing that Jeremiah sees is actually a part of a little joke that God is making.  Jeremiah was getting all up tight about how big and serious and heavy his calling was, so God tries to kick things off on a lighter note.  It’s kind of hard to get the joke in English, because it’s actually a Hebrew pun, playing around with the language.  God asks Jeremiah what he sees, and the first thing Jeremiah sees when he looks around is the branch of an almond tree.  Seems normal enough, not all that significant, except that the Hebrew word for almond tree is “shaqed”.  Then God jumps in by saying, “You have seen well for I am watching over my word to perform it.”  With the Hebrew word for “watching” being “shoqed.”  “You see a shaqed, and I am shoqed over you.”  It might be something like Jeremiah seeing an oak tree and God saying, “Yes, that right, with me beside you everything is going to be Oakay (OK).”  One English translation tries to maintain the pun by saying that Jeremiah sees a stick, and God says God is going to stick with him.  So now we all know that God has an awful very dry sense of humor.

But that’s a part of how Jeremiah is supposed to start seeing the world.  He’s supposed to learn to see more than immediately meets the eye.  Where some people see only what’s on the surface, he’s supposed to see deeper.  See more layers of meaning.

Over the next number of years you’re going to keep growing in how you learn to see.  Your education will involve people teaching you how to see, what to see.  You’ll get to study sociology and government and economy and start making all these wonderful connections with what you’re learning and the way the world works, or doesn’t work.  Your list of what you see will get longer and more complex.

Part of what we are trying to do as a church, as a faith community, is for all of us to be in constant training for our vision.  Not just what we see, but how we see it.  We’re trying to learn to see the world through the eyes of the prophets, through the eyes of Jesus.  Jeremiah was told that he was appointed as a prophet to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.  We’re trying to learn together what needs to be pulled down and undone, and what needs to be nurtured and planted and tended.  We’re trying to learn to see people as whole human beings the way Jesus did.

We believe that in some mysterious way God has a unique calling for each of you.   So one of the ways we want to encourage you in that is to share these notebooks with you that contain different blessings that we’ve written.  After a bit, we’ll ask you to come up front to receive these along with a blessing as you push out into this strange and wonderful next phase of life.

Re: Shaped | 8 September 2013

Text: Jeremiah 18:1-10

While this sermon was given Greg W. was working at a potter’s wheel beside me, so if you weren’t there…use your imagination.


1. Common things

“The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: ‘Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.’  So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.”

Seeing a potter at the wheel is not an ever day occurrence for us.  It’s rare, especially in church.  There are few people who have taken time to develop the skill, and even fewer who make a living at it.

But in Jeremiah’s time, it would have been a common sight – minus the electrical cord.  Pottery was a skilled art form that also had very practical and necessary functions.  There were different techniques, the wheel being one of them, but this is was how vessels got made.  The kinds of vessels that households used to store, hold, serve, eat and drink.  Everyday kinds of pitchers and bowls and cups for everyday kinds of activities that these artisans would make, display, sell, and keep making.

When Jeremiah goes down to the potter’s house, he is not going to some exotic studio to which only he and a few others had exclusive access.  He’s going to see something that was quite common.  Who knows how many times he and countless others had passed by this very place and others like it and not given it a second thought.  One more shop, one more person at work, just part of the scenery.

But one day he has a thought, an inspiration, a word from the Lord, to go down to the potter’s house, and to watch more closely.  Rather than walking by; to pause, to consider what’s going on.  To see something profound in something so common as clay.

It can be hard to relate to that first bit of today’s reading: “The word of the Lord came to Jeremiah.”  How exactly does that happen?  What was actually going on when the word of the Lord came to a person in the Bible?  In this case, that initial word of the Lord was that he needed to get out and hang out at the potter’s house to get the real message.

And this is what Jeremiah does. He goes down to watch the potter at work.  Long before the theory of multiple intelligences and different learning styles, the prophet goes for a walk, takes a field trip, and only once he is having this very visual experience of watching this potter with his hands in the mud, working, shaping, relating with this stuff, does Jeremiah get a message. We may not know exactly what it’s like to have the word of the Lord come to us, but we can understand the invitation to find wisdom in common

A significant part of our formation as human beings is how we relate to the common things.  We can treat them as nothing but dead lumps of clay, or we can treat them as things infused with wisdom, having a genius of their own, revealing some aspect of reality that is otherwise hidden.

Look at the common things.  What do you see?  What are they saying?  What wisdom can be gathered from them?  Tell others what you see.  Let the children tell us what they see.   Let the different generations learn together what the common things are saying to us.

2. Centered

The bulk of my experience working on a potter’s wheel came in Mr. Weber’s seventh grade art class.  I will therefore avoid trying to sound like I know too much about what’s going on over here.  One thing I do remember pretty distinctly is that beginning phase when the fresh piece of clay has just been put on the wheel.  When you first throw the clay down, you aim for the center, but you never quite get it, and even if you do, the lump of clay is an uneven shape.  And so the next step of the process, once the wheel starts turning, is centering the clay.  You can’t do much with the clay until it is pressed evenly into the center.  Once it’s centered, you can start to do the creative work, moving it out and up in whatever form it takes.  I remember the centering.

So there’s a message.  It’s not the one that Jeremiah focused on when he watches the potter at work, but it’s there to be seen.  First get centered, then formation can happen.

I’m not sure when the word came into prominence in reference with spirituality, but there is now a whole wealth of writing and practices that have to do with centering oneself, being centered, centering prayer.  It can be a very helpful image as we go about our days.  We know, we can feel in our bodies and in our minds when we are not centered.  When our thoughts are scattered, when we’re simply reacting to our environment out of engrained habits, when we’re acting primarily out of our private ego and not our sense of connection to the whole.  We can feel that wobble, we know we’re not in the place we want to be.

When Jesus was asked “what is the greatest commandment?” it’s a centering type question.  Of all that’s been written, and all the holy commands and rituals that we’ve been given, what’s at the center?  What’s the greatest?  Jesus gives us a center.  You shall love God with all your being, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.  It is that lively relationship between God, self, and neighbor, that dynamism of love, that is the centering energy Jesus offers the world.  Jesus embodied and exuded that energy, the crucified and resurrected Christ became the symbol of that cosmic center, out of which all creation flows.  When we become centered, it is the dynamism of divine/human love, it is Christ, that is that center.

One of the ways of thinking about Christian formation, and the work of the church, is that we are always nudging one another, allowing the Spirit to nudge us, back to the center.  We point to the center, we celebrate the center, we confess together that we fail to remain centered, we allow ourselves to become malleable enough to be gently directed back into the center.  We rest in the center.  And from the center, we take shape.  By the skillful touch of the Divine we are drawn out, we are lifted up, as we abide in the center.

3.  Shaped and shaping

What Jeremiah does notice this potter doing, is that the potter has been working with a particular piece of clay which isn’t taking shape the way he was hoping, so, as the text says, “he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”  This becomes a symbol for the prophet for God’s relationship with Israel.  The people, like the clay, have not taken on the hoped for form.  They have not become the people of justice they have been called to be.  So it becomes a call to repentance and a judgment oracle about the impending collapse of the nation at the hands of the Babylonians.

There are strong words here about destruction and God breaking down the nation, and for good reason we don’t interpret national catastrophe through this same kind of theological lens.  But one part of the symbolism here is that the potter never gives up on clay.  It’s not the clay that’s the problem.  It doesn’t get tossed out and trashed.  It’s the shape that’s the problem.  It’s taken on a poor form, isn’t on the right track.  So, even the most stubborn piece of clay whose form keeps eluding the potter, will be worked and reworked, and reworked again, until it becomes what it needs to be.   Nothing is lost.

God is like a potter, we are like clay.  This goes all the way back to the Genesis creation myth of God forming the human creature from the clay and breathing in the breath of life.

Some of us have spent a fair amount of our adult lives trying to get beyond the image of God as a white haired man, but I’d say we’re doing pretty well for ourselves this morning with a benevolent god figure.

The humbling thing about this picture is that we can not only locate ourselves in the place of the clay, being shaped, but at some point we also find ourselves in the place of the one doing the shaping.  To go back to another expression at the beginning of Genesis, we have been “created in the image of God.”  Part of our being created in the image of God is that we are shaped in order that we may shape others, with the same patience, same grace, same persistence with which we ourselves were shaped.  To bear the image of the Creator Spirit is to ourselves take on the role of being creators.

One of the remarkable things about our humanity is that we are not simply passive recipients of this life we have been given, as if all of life is regulated by forces beyond our control – instincts, our family system, divine maneuvering.  We have this tremendous freedom to not only affect our own shape, but to shape others.  How we live, the way we relate with our neighbors, the ways we teach one another and raise the children among us, matters.  We are not just the clay, we also play the part of the potter.

So we have this inescapable dual identity.

On Friday I visited Jen and Matt B. in the hospital and got the chance to meet their brand new daughter Anna.  One of the things that came up in conversation was how you look at a newborn and you think about not only all the ways that you as parents hope to influence and guide this child, but how much the child will shape you.  Dual identity.  Potter and clay.

As we kick off the Christian education year it’s worth thinking about all the people through whom God has and continues to shape us.  All of the hands that have pressed in and led us out and raised us up.  Not only that, but consider how our hands, these hands, your hands, act as the hands of Christ, the potter’s hands, touching and forming.

“A Grain of Wheat” – 3/25/12 – Jer. 31:31-34; John 12:20-33

Two years ago Xavier University hosted an evening town hall forum with Wendell Berry, Gene Logsdon, and Wes Jackson.  These three men are longtime friends and elders of sustainable agriculture.  Well before farmer’s markets, organic, and locavore were in our vocabulary, these guys were doing it.  It’s not often that you can get three self-proclaimed old curmudgeons together to talk and have it fill out a whole side of the Cintas Center, but there’s something about what these three wise men have been working for their whole lives that resonates.

One of the things I remember from the evening is Wendell Berry saying he doesn’t trust any screen that he can’t see through.  He has a few screen doors at his house, but no computer.  As much as we admire him, this is one of the areas where few others are following his lead.

Something else I remember was a vertical banner that Wes Jackson rolled out for everyone to see.  It had images of two plants, showing their growth above ground, as well as their root systems in the earth.  The first plant, he told us, was wheat like that grown by most farmers these days, a descendant of wild wheat grass that grew in the near east before it started to be domesticated by early farmers.  The root structure extended one to two feet into the ground.  The second image was wheat being grown by Wes Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas.  This root structure extended 10-12 feet into the ground a dwarfed in size the other wheat on the banner.

(This is a different image than the one he showed us, but illustrates a similar point)

Wheat is an annual plant.  Growing in the wild its fragile ears, when ripe, easily shatter, allowing all the small seeds to be scattered by the wind and settle in the soil where they will lie dormant until the coming spring when they shoot up to produce a whole new crop of seeds.  At some point in history, about 10,000 years ago, perhaps occurring first in the southeast part of modern day Turkey, people starting being more intentional about selecting the bigger seeds to replant themselves, and selecting plants where the seeds stay attached to the ear longer.  This allowed people to gather the seed before it blew away – a bigger, more nutritious grain.  It called for more human labor to cultivate, harvest and replant, but wheat became a basis for the creation of towns and cities and, as we call them, civilizations, with a surplus of grain able to be stored for a bigger population.  “Wheat is (now) grown on more land area than any other commercial crop and is (considered) the most important staple food for humans,” topping corn and rice. (   After generations of selecting wheat with these traits of bigger, tougher grain, domesticated wheat could no longer reseed itself like its wild ancestor.  It needs us to do this work.  For the last ten millennia, humans and wheat have been co-evolving, now each dependent on the other for survival.  Bread, made from wheat, has become a metaphor for food itself.  Give us this day our daily bread.

Because wheat production requires heavy inputs and causes erosion of vital topsoil, Wes Jackson’s project is an attempt to develop a perennial grain, requiring no working the soil and replanting – coming back to life each season on its own, like a tree.  The Land Institute and other researchers believe this is one of the keys to sustainable living, especially for subsistence farmers around the world.  It will take some years to do this without artificial genetic modification, crossing hearty annual wheat with perreniel wheatgrass, doing the same kind of natural selective breeding and planting that our ancestors have done over the millennia.  They’re making progress.  Stay tuned.

In John 12, Jesus says, “Unless a grain of wheat fall into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

It’s an unexpected image, because, unlike the other gospels, in John Jesus is not a teller of parables.  Read Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and Jesus is constantly pointing his listeners to the world of nature and agriculture.  A sower went out to sow.  And as she sowed, some seed fell on the path, other seed fell on rocky ground, other seed fell among thorns, and other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, an abundant harvest.  The kingdom of heaven is like someone who sowed good seed in his field, but while everybody was asleep an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat.  The farmer decided to let the plants grow up together and wait until harvest to decide what would be tossed out and what would be harvested.  The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows and becomes a tree so that birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.

None of these parables show up in John.  Only this statement about a grain of wheat falling into the earth, dying, and bearing much fruit, which, depending on how you define parable, may or may not even qualify.  The statement in John does not reference the kingdom of God, but is about Jesus himself and, if you so choose, about you, about us, about anyone who would come walk in the Jesus way.  “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain: but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for (life abundant and eternal).  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am there my servant will be also.”

When our Bible study group – Kevin Augsburger, Keith Lehman, Lisa and Chris Land, and Steve Herbold – was looking at this passage last Sunday, it was this word hate that gave us the biggest pause in our conversation.  We’re not used to the idea of Jesus teaching us to be haters!  Love God with all your being, Love your enemy, love your neighbor as yourself, but hate your life.  Sometimes when English translations don’t sound quite right, it’s helpful to look back at the original biblical language.  A quick glance reveals that the Greek word used here translated “hate,” really means…”hate.”    Hmmm.

Although some of us felt that it’s too easy to hate our lives.  We struggle to accept ourselves as we are.  The real challenge is to love life.

It’s provocative language, and, if it was intended to disrupt and disorient, it was effective, as it gave us great pause asking what it is we’re actually supposed to hate.

The passage in Jeremiah 31 expands the conversation:

NRSV Jeremiah 31:31-34 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It 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 the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: 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. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

Covenant has been a theme of our Lent.  This is the forth covenant that we have encountered in this short amount of time.

The first covenant is with Noah, all of his descendants for all time, and all living creatures.  God covenants to set aside the war bow against creation and never again flood the earth with water.  It creates the possibility for all of life to flourish on the planet and the human side of the covenant is to be fruitful and multiply – biologically and in creative and spiritual livelihood, to create a thriving community out of the wreckage of the former world.  The sign of the covenant is the colorful bow that appears in the clouds.

The second covenant has a more narrow focus, with one family, Abraham and Sarah.  They are commanded to be blameless – a rather challenging call – and God promises to bless them with many descendants who will be a blessing to all the earth.  The sign of the covenant is that all males are to be circumcised.

The third covenant is with Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai.  Here God calls out a specific community who are to witness to God’s saving ways of righteousness and justice.  The stone tablets of the commandments, and the Torah are the sign of this covenant, a way of being holy and set apart, identifying with YHWH, who rescues the oppressed and liberates communities.

This fourth covenant does not have an outward sign.  No bow in the clouds, no circumcision, no tablets of stone.  Instead, it gets at the root of what makes us fully alive.  It’s a new covenant.  The ways of God get written on the human heart, seared into our conscience, programmed into our hardware.

Although Jeremiah addresses this to the house of Israel and Judah, the early followers of Jesus came to see this new covenant as being available to all humanity, Jew or Gentile.  Everyone is in one this.  “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”  We wondered if this could also mean all the way from the least likely to know about God to the most likely.  We all know the Lord in our inmost being, even if we don’t know that we know.

We wondered how this actually happens.  What does it actually look like, or feel like, to have God’s laws written on our hearts?

One of my questions is: Is this enough?  Is it enough to have this coming from the inside of our being?  Now that we have done away with the outward signs – the circumcision, the stone tablets, the temple.  For low-church Protestants the list is longer – the sacraments, the cathedrals, the icons, the saints – the images and communal practices that surround us that constantly teach us who we are and remind us of our story.  Do we have enough of these in our lives?  Do we have enough outward signs of the covenant?  The cross, communion, the liturgy, church, baptism.  The outward signs can never do it all just in themselves, but some of us are visual learners.

As a small personal testimony, this is one of the main reasons why I wear this dove cross necklace on Sunday mornings.  To remind me who I am and who we are.  We are ministers of peace, and, I don’t know about you, but I need signs that witness to this.

And yet, the new covenant is this internal, soul reality.

In these days when we are discovering the genetic coding of living things, there’s an interesting connection between the new covenant of Jeremiah and the grain of wheat of John.  The new covenant and the grain of wheat operate by way of an internal writing, signs, which direct their process of becoming.  For the kernel of wheat to be able to pass this along to the next generation, there must be a breaking open that occurs.  It must, in a very concrete way, give up its life in order to find it.  That protective shell must be cracked open.  Perhaps we can think of the life that we must hate, surrender, as that shell.  The part that appears to be protecting and guarding us from danger, but which must ultimately be given up if we are to access the life within us.  The kernel falls into the earth, yields to water and heat, swells, breaks, and becomes more of itself, producing what it can’t produce if it falls into the earth and lies there fully contained in itself, sealed off.

The one who loses their life will find it.

This week a pastor friend passed along an archived interview of Henri Nouwen, much-loved spiritual writer who had a prolific career teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.  He ended his successful career earlier than necessary to follow an invitation to come live at a L’arche community home in Toronto and provide direct daily care for mentally and physically disabled adults.  At L’arche he spent his days bathing, dressing, feeding, assisting, and being present with people completely dependent on him.  After the initial shock of going from academic life to this, he began to co-evolve with them as he became ever more dependent on their simple way of being to teach him about God.   Along with the link, my friend wrote, “Talk about losing your life to find it.”  The advantage of the lectionary is that we’re all thinking about the same thing at the same time.

We need signs and outward reminders of who we are.  But religion stripped down to its essence always calls on us, our lives, to be the very sign we are looking for, which always involves a discovery of our innermost true selves.

You’re the sign.  We, in our collective life, are the sign.  This is not primarily a situation of individual self-sacrificing heroes.  Henri Nouwen would have none of that.  It is the way we live together, as a community, as the body of Christ, that is the sign.  How we love and care for each.  How we reach out beyond ourselves.  We live a cruciform life.  The real peace sign isn’t a dove cross or a circle with a dove foot in the middle, it is a community living out the truth of what has been written on their hearts.

The seed, the new covenant, is a mystery.  It has a life of its own.  In these warming days of spring, as we place seeds in the soil and wait patiently for them to come through the surface in the form of new life, we have a parable, living in our backyards and window planters, to ponder.

Exiles and Citizens, (July 4th) – 7/4/10 – Jeremiah 29:4-7, Daniel 3

Earlier this year Goshen College in Indiana made the controversial decision of choosing to play the national anthem before sporting events on campus.  The specific decision was to play an instrumental version of the anthem, followed by a prayer.  The controversy for many, before this, was that Goshen wasn’t playing the national anthem at any sporting events.  In 2008 a local man attended a basketball game on campus and later asked the college athletic director why the national anthem wasn’t played.  The athletic director told him about Goshen’s policy, that it was committed to being a good citizen but that it felt the national anthem celebrated a violent aspect of the nation that the college did not wish to support.  This man then contacted various talk show hosts and the issue was picked up by the New York based Mike Gallagher show, eighth in the nation in audience size, who challenged the college and encouraged listeners to call on the school to have the policy changed.

The college had already been discerning the policy and, after continued meetings and conversation arrived early this year at its current policy – an instrumental national anthem followed by prayer.  Which has led to continued controversy, only now mostly from Mennonite/Anabaptist minded circles.  Here are a couple statements offering opposing views:

Goshen College President Jim Brenneman said this:  “We are a college owned by Mennonite Church USA, and we have a diverse student body that comes from 40 different Christian denominations, several world religions, 35 states and 25 countries and all races and ethnicities. We believe being faithful followers of Jesus calls us to regularly consider how to be a hospitable and diverse community…. Playing the anthem offers a welcoming gesture to many visiting our athletic events, rather than an immediate barrier to further opportunities for getting to know one another….We believe playing the anthem in no way displaces any higher allegiances, including to the expansive understanding of Jesus — the ultimate peacemaker — loving all people of the world.”

An online petition, titled “Resistance to the national anthem at Goshen College,” initiated by the Anabaptist group Jesus Radicals says this: “At the heart of the national anthem is a message that glorifies war and violence for one nation’s benefit. These themes are inherent in the words themselves—”the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air”— and they are inherent to the ways in which the anthem is used to inspire patriotic fervor. The very habit of playing the song before sporting events arises out of the World War II era, when baseball became a stage for nationalistic displays. The fact that the anthem has since become a pre-game ritual for most sports should not distract Christians—especially those who are committed to Christ’s way of peace—from the anthem’s meaning or its history.  In an attempt to be “hospitable” to American patriots, we believe Goshen College’s decision rejects a higher call to be a transnational body that resists the boundaries set by nations.”

This year the fourth of July, the day that we honor and celebrate the creation of our nation, falls on the day of the week that we honor and celebrate our Creator.  Whether than wishing you simply a Happy Fourth of July, I would like to wish all of us a Conflicted Fourth of July!  Because, as we take our faith to heart, our allegiance to the way of Jesus, our citizenship in the kingdom of God, we recognize that this raises difficult questions that put us in a conflicted position regarding our citizenship in a nation state.  And this is something that would be acknowledged by both sides of the above debate.  Each one recognizes this inherent conflict, or tension, between faithfulness to the way of Jesus and the worldwide fellowship that he called into being, and our status as members of this country with the rights and responsibilities that this involves. 

The college plans to review the policy in June 2011, so if you have strong feelings or a constructive suggestion send them a letter.

The conflicted nature of citizenship is one that is borne out throughout Scripture.  This comes to the fore especially during the time exile – after the children of Israel had come up out of Egypt, had had their own nation and king for several centuries, and then are carried away into exile, living under the control of another nation – first the empire of Babylon, then Persia, then the Greeks and Romans who were running the show during and beyond Jesus’ time.  During this extended period all of these questions about what it means to be faithful to God within the state become front and center, and it becomes a significant theme that gets visited repeatedly in the biblical record, with multiple perspectives given.

What I’d like to do is look at two passages that highlight the pull going on here.  Both of them come out of the experience of exile, but offer different kinds of counsel. 

The first is from the third chapter of the book of Daniel, the story we call Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the Fiery Furnace, but is just as much about King Nebuchadnezzar and the Golden Statue.  

The first half of Daniel chapter three revolves around the presence of this massive statue that Nebuchadnezzar has erected.  (V.1) “King Nebuchadnezzar made a golden statue whose height was sixty cubits (about 90 feet) and whose width was six cubit (about 9 feet); he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.”  The king sent for all his officials and governors across the empire to be present at the dedication of this statue.  And when they gather, the herald proclaims, (V.4) “You are commanded, O peoples, nations, and languages, that when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble, you are to fall down and worship the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.  Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.”  We’re not told exactly what or who this was a statue of.  From ancient historians and modern archeologists we know that the ancient world had various giant colossi that were both forms of art and symbols of imperial authority.  The text isn’t concerned about that part of the detail – whether it was a statue of the king, a god, or something else.  What we know is that this statue is huge, it is beautiful, shiny, it is to be worshipped.  For all the far flung peoples of the vast empire it is meant to inspire the kind of awe the leads to allegiance.  Which is what worship is.  Awe that leads to allegiance.  This is the same thing we do in church when we read Psalms that speak of being in awe of the wonders of God.  It’s not a matter of if we worship, but what we worship.  The king demands worship of the statue, and unanimity is required.  Dissent will not be tolerated.  Should anyone choose to not worship in this way, they will be killed in order to make it a unanimous crowd.

Because this statue does not have a specific face, of Zeus, or Bel, or Jupiter, it enables it to be this broad symbol for what the Bible refers to simply as idolatry.  And this story presents the empire, the state, as an object of idolatry.  It’s never just about the golden statue.  It’s never just about the flag or the anthem or any other object or sign.  It’s about allegiance and awe and worship and what we gather around that unites us.  King Nebuchadnezzar says, “If you’re not with me, you’re against me.”  So in this kind of setting, dissent is perceived as a great threat, because it cracks the façade of the absolute righteousness of the cause of the empire.  

Well, as every Sunday school graduate knows, Shadrach, Meshac, and Abegnego refuse to bow down.  In their own words, when they are facing the flames of the furnace, they say, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter.  If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let God deliver us.  But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.”

As it turns out, God does deliver them, and the king undergoes a conversion – sort of.  The king sees that they have miraculously lived through the flames, is in awe of this, and makes a decree: “Any people, nation, or language that utters blasphemy against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins.”  So, he’s convinced that there may be a power greater than his own kingdom, but he’s got a ways to go on the whole nonviolent love thing.

The nation-state holds tremendous potential to be an object of idolatry.  Where we put our trust.  Our worship.  Something for which we’re not only willing to give our own life, but take the life of others in order to uphold.  Take great caution, this story seems to be saying, but also have hope.  Even torturous flames cannot kill the witness of those who choose to serve a higher power.

Another perspective comes from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah had his career during the time when the Babylonian exile was happening, so he is prophesying and writing right in the midst of all this turmoil.  He’s still in Jerusalem himself, but he knows that his people are being carried away and that their world has been shattered through this experience.  And so he writes them a letter – from Jerusalem to Babylon, addressed to the elders, the priests, the prophets, and all the people whom Nebuchadnezzar has carried off into exile.  And his words, his counsel, has a decidedly different tone than that of Daniel.  To those longing for their homeland, to those wondering what to make of this life they have now been forced to live, Jeremiah writes: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”  The word translated here as welfare is the Hebrew “Shalom,” that beautiful word that can mean peace, salvation, health.  Shalom is holistic well-being, personal and communal.  Seek the shalom of the place where you are, for in its shalom, you will find your shalom. 

The stark contrast of separation between the empire and God’s faithful in the Daniel story here becomes a picture of integration.  You cannot separate your own well-being from the well-being of the place of which you are now a citizen. 

The exiles are to invest in the health of their new city, and to do this for generations to come.  Build houses.  Develop real estate.  Make an investment in the neighborhood.  Plant gardens.  Improve the soil of your backyard.  Invest time and energy into the earth.  Have children.  Raise them up.  Give them education and meaningful work as adults and then give them in marriage and they will also have children, and raise them up.  If there’s one thing that makes you want to invest in the shalom of the neighborhood it’s having relationship with children who will inherit this world that we give them.

Jeremiah says, make a home in the heart of the empire.  Live such that the shalom of your family is inseparable from the shalom of the city.  We might call this being a good citizen.  Patriotism at its best.  Loving our neighborhood and doing what we can to make it a better place.           

And so we have these two pieces of counsel from scripture.  The caution of idolatry from Daniel and the encouragement for shalom-seeking from Jeremiah.  We are given this dual identity being both exiles and citizens.  Not at home, yet at home. 

We started by talking about the national anthem, so I’ll move toward a close by mentioning the pledge of allegiance, on which Anabaptist minded Christians also have various practices.

By way of offering an example, in trying to navigate this dual identity, the practice that I’ve come to adopt goes something like this:  When the pledge is being recited I stand respectfully with others, look at the flag, but do not put my hand over my heart.  As others are saying the pledge I remain silent but do pray for our country and for the world.  And then I do say the last part of the pledge along with everyone else “with liberty and justice for all,” which feels like a kingdom of God kind of principle with which I can fully agree. 

You may have another practice, or you may not have thought about it much.  I encourage you and your household, your friends, to talk about this and how it relates to your faith in God and this tension between being a citizen and being an exile.  

I leave you with the work of reconciling these two pieces of counsel; Daniel and Jeremiah.  Not just regarding the national anthem or pledge, but in all related matters.   Being in a conflicted position, always needing to check in with scripture and one another and the guidance of the Holy Spirit as to how to be both a Christian and a citizen of a superpower nation.       

Happy Conflicted Fourth of July.