Saturday, September 25, 2010

Keeping Up Appearances

Jer. 8:18-9:1; Lk. 16:1-13[1]

I find it interesting that, when our life in these United States fails to live up to our expectations, we inevitably ask, “Where is God?” It seems to me that question makes some pretty grand assumptions—that somehow this country is different from all the other nations and states and kingdoms that have come and gone in the history of the world. And it assumes that somehow God has a stake in whether or not this nation thrives. It seems to me that one of the biggest pitfalls in this way of thinking is that because we make a show of piety with our god-talk we expect God to look after us and protect us and pour out blessings on us.

This assumption is nothing new. The people of Jeremiah’s day made the same mistake long ago. They believed that God would protect them from any invading army because “the Lord is in Zion” (Jer. 8:19). They may have to endure the humiliation of invasion, but God would ultimately defeat any would-be invader, and Jerusalem would be preserved, because it is the place where God dwells.[2] But all the while, according to the prophet, they were pursuing their own course, one that ran contrary to God’s purposes. Hear the words of the prophet:

“Why, then, have the people of Jerusalem gone the wrong way and not turned back? They believe their own lies and refuse to turn around and come back. I have listened to them very carefully, but they do not say what is right. They do not feel sorry about their wicked ways, saying, ‘What have I done?’ Each person goes his own way, like a horse charging into a battle. Even the birds in the sky know the right times to do things. The storks, doves, swifts, and thrushes know when it is time to migrate. But my people don’t know what the Lord wants them to do.”[3] (Jer 8:5-7, NCV)

Jeremiah proclaimed in the name of the LORD that this smug, self-righteous attitude would be their undoing. The problem was not that they fell short, or stumbled, or made a mistake, but that they intentionally pursued a course of evil “without a tinge of regret.”[4] Time and again, in response to dire warnings of impending doom, the people of Jerusalem tended to ask not, “What have I done?” but, “Where is God?”[5] But that’s way too easy an out! It is too easy for us to blame God when something goes wrong in our world.[6] If there is no ‘balm in Gilead,” no restoration of peace and justice in our world, no healing from the wounds of violence and greed and selfishness and dishonesty, it is not for lack of compassion in God![7]

I think part of the problem is that the preoccupation with keeping up the appearance of holiness blinds us to our shortcomings. The people of Jerusalem were so blinded to their own wrongdoing that they would have had no problem joining the Psalmist in begging for God’s compassion to heal them while praying for God to destroy the heathen in anger (Ps. 79:5-9)! We can see the folly in their mistake, but Jesus gives us one that is much harder to see. I think part of the point of the parable of the dishonest steward is that our difficulty in sorting out the parable makes painfully obvious how accustomed we are to deceit, falsehood, and fraud as a way of life. The reality is that we, like the people of Jeremiah’s day, and Jesus’ day, do not know the justice of the Lord (Jer. 8:7)![8] We, like those who have claimed to be God’s people throughout the ages, are blinded to our own shortcomings by our efforts at keeping up appearances.[9]

It is difficult for most of us to see our own flaws. Sometimes we all need to be pulled up short by someone else and made to see our obvious failings. I had an experience with this when I lived in Europe. The church I attended in Stuttgart carried out a mission to take food to churches in Romania. On the way we spent the night in Budapest with the family of one of our members. Like many people in Europe, the father of the family wanted to talk about the United States. He was particularly concerned with the movies that came from our country. Now, this fellow wasn’t naïve enough to think that our movies accurately depict our society. But the question he asked was, “What kind of people go to see these movies?”

I must say I was taken up short by that question. Things that I as a Christian minister took for granted, he saw in a much different light. Here was a Hungarian Christian who saw movies coming out of our country that glorify violence, that plaster sex without boundaries all over the screen, that make heroes out of villains and buffoons out of traditional role models. And he couldn’t understand how such movies were so popular in a culture that claimed to be Christian. I think his simply straightforward question helped me to see how we engage in the folly of keeping up appearances.

The painful truth is that we are not the people we envision ourselves to be—not always. We do not live up to the convictions we profess to be the basis for our lives—not always. We may be in tune to the “justice of the Lord” in some areas of our lives, but I guarantee that there are others where we are not, and we are clueless about that fact. Jeremiah calls us to ask not “Where is God?” but “What have I done?”—to pull back the veil of our appearance of godliness so that we can find the way to real healing.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/19/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Miller, “The Book of Jeremiah,” New Interpreter’s Bible VI:646, 648; cf. also Ronald Clements, Jeremiah, 60.

[3] Literally, “the justice of the Lord.”

[4] Clements, Jeremiah, 55.

[5] Cf. Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:649.

[6] Clements, Jeremiah, 58.

[7] Cf. Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:648: though it is Jeremiah who is putting pen to ink in this lament (so to speak), it is incredibly difficult to sort out Jeremiah’s anguish on behalf of his beloved people from God’s!

[8] Cf. Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:646: “They do not know the order (mishpat) of the Lord for their lives, an order that is centered in justice (mishpat)” therefore “they also do not know the judgment (mishpat) that is to come into their lives” to restore that order.

[9] Miller, “Book of Jeremiah,” NIB VI:650.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It’s Me, O Lord

Jer. 4:22; Ps 14;1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-10[1]

I find it interesting that people, whoever they are, wherever they are, seem always to identify with the “Good Guys.” It doesn’t really matter who the “Bad Guys” are; most of us just automatically view ourselves as different from them. Of course, that makes it convenient for us. If we’re the Good Guys, then we can’t be wrong, can we? If we’re the Good Guys, what we do has to be right, doesn’t it. Yes, it’s very convenient when we can look at the human family and divide out the Bad Guys from the Good Guys, since whoever does the dividing tend to put themselves on the good side. That means that the “others,” those who are different, those who are less than, those who are simply on another “side,” are by definition “bad.”

We have all kinds of names for the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Whether we divide humanity along the lines of color, or class, or creed (as is so very common), we find all kinds of ways to label ourselves in such a way that we look “good” and others in such a way that they look “bad.” Religions are not exempt from this tendency to identify “us”—whoever “us” may be—as the Good Guys and “them” as Bad Guys—or at least not as “good” as we are. In the Christian faith, we are the “People of God,” whereas others are “Non-believers.” But how do we know that there is not something or someone in which or in whom they believe? The reality is that once “we” start identifying anyone who is “other” as an “unbeliever” or a “heretic” or an “infidel,” the door is wide open for “us” to assume that we’re on God’s side. In everything and in every way.

Take, for example, our Psalm for today. The Psalmist clearly speaks of the “others” when he rails against the “fools” who “say there is no God.” Even when he says, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one” (Ps. 14:2-3), he clearly has these “fools,” the “others,” in mind. He makes a clear distinction between the “fools” against whom he directs his rebuke and “God’s people” who are “the righteous” (Ps. 14:4-5).

If we stopped there, we could very easily feel quite satisfied with ourselves. If we’re the “We” in the “Us versus Them,” then we’re “God’s people,” the “righteous” who can look forward to God’s salvation. But if we compare the lesson from Jeremiah for today, “We” are in for a shock. There, the prophet rails not (only) against the “others” but also against “God’s people.” Listen for the word of the Lord: “For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good” (Jer. 4:22). Wait a minute. If they are “God’s people,” they have to be the Good Guys. They have to be on the right side, doing the right things. But the prophet in the name of the Lord strips away the pretense of self-righteousness by pointing directly at “God’s people” as the one who are in the wrong. And so crumbles the whole façade that the “Good Guys” are “God’s people” and the “Bad Guys,” are the “sinners.”[2] The inescapable truth is that it is we who have gone astray.

If we want further evidence that our neat division of people into categories falls apart in God’s realm, we should look at the Apostle Paul. Now, in this day and time, Paul is not just an ordinary human being. He is “Saint Paul.” He is “the Apostle Paul.” So our very language about Paul prejudices us from the outset. But listen to what he had to say about himself at the end of his life: “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Tim. 1:13). Paul—the Apostle who had served the church for some 20 years at the time of writing this letter, says he “acted ignorantly in unbelief,” and that he was the “foremost” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). And yet, this very same Paul, a self-confessed blasphemer (!), a self-confessed oppressor of God’s people (cf. Ps. 14:4!), and a self-confessed man of violence, says that in and through Jesus the Christ he received mercy. Now, so that we don’t make the mistake of thinking this is some kind of one-time exception, Paul says in fact that this is the whole point of all that God was doing in and through Jesus Christ: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15)!

In fact, this very notion is the focus of Jesus’ debate with the Jewish leaders. They saw themselves as “God’s people,” as “the righteous,” as the “Good Guys.” And yet, here was Jesus hanging out with “tax collectors and sinners!” Believe me, in the eyes of Jesus’ opponents, the tax collectors were the ultimate “Bad Guys!” But Jesus insisted that God’s plan is to seek out those who are lost—those who need forgiveness for something horrible they may have done; those who need acceptance by someone in this world; those who just want a fresh start in life—and then to generously give it to them![3] Like any shepherd who leaves the sheep who are safe to look for the one that went astray, God looks for us—all of us—as long as it takes to find us. Like a widow turning her house upside down looking for ten percent of all stood between her and being destitute, God is that diligent and that passionate about seeking out those who have gone astray and transforming their lives with grace and mercy and faith and hope and love. And what happens when one person returns to the fold? All heaven rejoices (Lk. 15:7, 10)!

Even so, it may be hard for us to admit that we might not be as “good” as we’d like to think we are.[4] It is incredibly difficult to admit that we are the ones who have gone astray, that we are the ones who do wrong, that we are the ones who do not truly seek God. What happens when we take the risk of admitting that we have gone astray? We might think it would be humiliation and shame. But in fact, when we admit this—at least to ourselves—we find it liberating, not humiliating. We’re taking the first step toward a fresh start. The amazing irony is that when we admit that it is we who have gone astray, we find God’s mercy overflowing to give us new life.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/12/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 112-116.

[3] Cf. Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 105: “God makes the first move, loving before people ask for love or even acknowledge their need for it. Long before we seek and turn to God, God seeks us out and turns to us.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.1:278, where he speaks of “the miracle of the almighty love of God” in that “the love of God always throws a bridge over the crevasse.”

[4] Cf. Emil Brunner, Dogmatics, III: 208, where he quotes Martin Luther’s sermon on Peter’s denial: “No article of faith is harder to believe than the article which states, ‘I believe in the forgiveness of sins’.”