Spaghetti Dinner - October 19th @ 6pm
Category: News
Tags: Fundraiser Mission Trip

Youth group will be hosting a Spaghetti Dinner Fundraiser on October 19th @ 6pm in Fellowship Hall.  Plan to attend, meet our youth, and help us raise funds for our 2014 Youth Mission Trip.  

Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 9/15/11

Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28


September 15, 2013


The schedule of Bible readings that we use every week is on a three-year cycle.  That means that this passage from Jeremiah was the one that came up at this time twelve years ago.  The date then was September 16, 2001.  Five days earlier, the World Trade Center had fallen, the Pentagon had been attacked, and another plane had been brought down by courageous passengers over western Pennsylvania.  Bodies were still being pulled from the rubble.  Air traffic was still restricted.  People were stranded in foreign lands.  Part of Manhattan was deserted.  Washington was being guarded.  War was in the air, but nobody was certain who the enemy was.  Most of us here remember those days.

“I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.  I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the Lord, before his fierce anger.”  [Jeremiah 4:25-26]

I cannot hear the words of Jeremiah that I read out that morning without feeling again their sheer weight:

“A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse— a wind too strong for that.”  [Jeremiah 4:11-12]

I cannot hear this passage without sorrow at how human beings take our tremendous abilities and twist them to horrible purposes.

“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.” [Jeremiah 4:22]

            Very good friends of mine were waiting at that time for the birth of their first child.  Her father was working in the Capitol Building when the Pentagon was attacked and the Capitol Police came through, telling everyone to evacuate immediately.  He started back to his office, and then turned around and headed home, walking miles and miles to Maryland, all the time (he later told me) thinking, “I’ve got to live to see my daughter born.”

            Now she is twelve, soon to be thirteen, and I’ve seen her grow from the tiny thing she was when she was born the next month, to learn how to walk and to speak and to reason, until now she’s at the edge of adolescence.  I would never have called her “stupid”, but in twelve years she has gained all kinds of understanding and has left behind the “childish” stage.  She’s moved on from unicorns and “My Little Pony” to whatever the latest boy band is and an interest in real horses.

            So, if in the years since the attacks, a human being, and millions like her around the whole world, can go from birth to the point of responsibility that we assign to someone who is not quite an adult but still expected to know the difference between right and wrong and to be able in large part to govern her actions and decisions, then what has humanity as a whole learned, or how have we grown in that time?  Surely that cannot be an unreasonable expectation, can it, that we move forward?  But I look at the history of war and terrorism and faction fighting against faction that the past twelve years have held and again I hear the voice of God speaking through Jeremiah:

“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.” [Jeremiah 4:22]

Two years ago, on the tenth anniversary, September 11th was a Sunday, and I was at church talking with the parents of a little girl whose birthday was that very day, and by that I mean that while the towers were trembling and firefighters were rushing into the smoke, this girl’s mother was in labor.  Like all parents, they had discussed names and had chosen before that day, but when the moment came to write on the birth certificate, they gave her a middle name they hadn’t planned on until that moment.  Her middle name, they said, would be Hope.

There is hope.  There is hope for those two little girls, not so little anymore, and hope for the kids born after them.  I believe there is even hope for those of us born decades before them.  Despite the history of the last twelve years, despite the history of the 2600 years since Jeremiah, I believe that there is hope.  What Jeremiah saw at the base of our troubles was, as he called it, “foolishness”.  The opposite of that would be “wisdom”.

If I look into the scriptures, what I see there is that

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” [Proverbs 9:10]

That’s what the book of Proverbs, compiled even before Jeremiah’s lifetime, declared.  Interestingly, when I was in college and took Arabic, and we had to translate portions of the Quran, one of the verses that I read there was “Ra’as ulhikmati makhafat ’ullahi” which means (guess what?): “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.”  “Fear” in both cases, means less the unreasoning fear that grips, for instance, a nation under attack than a healthy awareness mixed with respect and honor.  That has to be learned, however, and all too often the hard way.  It has to be learned, too, generation by generation, over and over.  Or maybe I should say, “It has to be taught,” or even, “It has to be taught by example.”

            I have hope for that wisdom to prevail because there is a community where that respect is taught and learned and lived out.  We ourselves embody hope.  Here we are as God’s people, gathered together again, yet another week, doing what we do, which is to confess our sins, recognize our inadequacies, learn about God as he came to us in the life of Jesus, and accept with joy the activity of the Holy Spirit in our lives. 

I have hope because I get to stand next to the baptismal font and on behalf of the whole Church ask questions that invariably receive the answer “I do”:

“Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness,

reject the evil powers of this world,

and repent of your sin?

I do.

Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you

to resist evil, injustice, and oppression

in whatever forms they present themselves?

I do.

Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior,

put your whole trust in his grace,

and promise to serve him as your Lord,

in union with the Church which Christ has opened

to people of all ages, nations, and races?

I do.

I have hope because Christ calls together and creates a community that is freed from the bondage to sin.  We recognize it as a reality in our lives, but no longer as an inevitability, and certainly not the last word.  That last word is always forgiveness.  That last word is always God’s love.

"God the Potter"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 9/8/13

Jeremiah 18:1-11

“God the Potter”

September 8, 2013


          One of the most vexatious questions anybody has ever asked me was, “Does God really control the weather?”

          “Of course,” I want to say.  “Of course.  God is all-powerful.  Nothing is beyond God’s control.”  But I also know that Jesus himself pointed out what happens when human beings try to sort out the intricacies of God’s sovereignty.  If you want to give God credit for a beautiful fall day or a soft, spring shower I’m right there to say, “Amen.”  Can you really do that, though, without attributing tornadoes and hurricanes and drought just as directly?  Jesus warned that the Almighty

“makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” [Matthew 5:45]

So when you get someone like Pat Robertson who is very quick to declare every natural disaster as God’s vengeance on the United States or (even worse) the Westboro Baptist crazies rejoicing in it, you have to ask whether it rings at all true with your own conscience, your own reading of the scriptures, and your own understanding of God as revealed in Jesus.

          Having said that, a prophet like Jeremiah is still to be taken seriously as one who truly did speak for God, and Jeremiah did declare God’s hand visible not only in personal but also in national events. Hear again these words:

“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it.” [Jeremiah 18:7-10]

           Let me say this, though: there’s a real danger interpreting any passage in the Bible that talks in national terms.  In the Old Testament, the nation and the community of faith were the same thing.  Israel was the people of God.  But then came the exile and suddenly some of God’s people were living elsewhere.  Israel, in fact, was no longer a political reality.  The kingdom of Judah, around Jerusalem, hung on and continued to speak of itself in both political and religious terms without any break between the two.  Eventually, though, they were also overrun by their enemies.  Psalm 137 is the voice of someone who saw that terrible day and lived with its horrors and an aftermath of exile.

“By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down

and there we wept when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth,

saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,

if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of  Jerusalem’s fall,

how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!

Down to its foundations!”

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

Was that legacy of bitterness the hand of God?  I tremble to think of it that way.  Perhaps that is not God’s hand shaping the nation, but what happens when God’s guiding hand, the shaping hand of the potter, is withdrawn.  Perhaps that is what happens when the potter decides to begin again.

           Jeremiah could speak of the nation and the people of God as one.  After his day, it could not be done.  The people continued but the nation was no more.  So when approaching a passage now that talks about God judging a nation or working through a nation, it isn’t right to equate the people of God with any particular country, but with the people of God within it, wherever they are, scattered among all the nations of the earth. 

          That puts a great responsibility on us, because what Jeremiah saw when God sent him to observe the potter at his wheel was that

“The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.” [Jeremiah 18:4]

Jeremiah didn’t live to see the new vessel that would be shaped when the potter returned his hand to the clay.  He did, however, advise the survivors how to begin again in their new circumstances.  It was not by looking forward to revenge.  Instead, he told them,

“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.” [Jeremiah 29:7]

That was a message that still speaks directly to us, the people of God living across the world. 

          It means that we have a special role in the life of any nation where we find ourselves.  It is to speak, like Jeremiah, as those who recognize that there is a God who goes beyond the gods of the nations, whose interest is in the good of all people, who cannot be claimed by one language or culture.

            I saw something at Shady Maple a few weeks ago that disturbed me greatly.  It was a cross that was painted with stars and stripes.  The word “America” was written across the base, and an eagle was at the center with its wings spread out along the arms.  The eagle had taken the position that the figure of the suffering Christ would have on a crucifix.  This is a great nation, and has done great things in the world, and is worthy of great honor.  Uncle Sam, however, did not die for your sins, and the eagle is not the source of salvation.  A nation’s status begins to wobble and even to collapse precisely when the people of God within it fail to let the hand of God guide them, and when they allow any other hand to take its place. 

          This nation is going through some ugly, ugly times right now and we are in deep disagreement with one another on many points.  Marriage, tax policy, gun control, education, abortion, the environment, how to prevent terrorism – all of those are being argued about and friendships of long standing are strained, or maintained only by avoiding whatever the sore subject is.  I have no doubt that somebody somewhere is preaching on this same text this morning, saying that because of some social policy or another the Lord is about to smash the United States into a formless lump of clay.  I have no doubt that at this moment someone is thundering,

“Thus says the Lord: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”  [Jeremiah 18:11]

For all I know, they may be right. I am no prophet.

            The thing is, and in this I find hope, both the conservatives and the liberals appeal to the issue, not of what is most useful or expedient, but what is right.  As long as that question is asked, then we are all seeking how we can best allow the hand of God to shape this or any other nation.  It may not be our role to give all the answers about the ways and means, but it is our role to keep that kind of goal in everyone’s thoughts. 

            It takes the people of God to do that.  No one else will be bothered, because no matter where we are we alone have a loyalty to someone greater than any nation or culture.  We alone can point beyond self-interest to a savior of all, one who laid down his own life freely.  We alone are in a position to declare how

“the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  [Matthew 20:28]

In that there is hope for any nation.  As long as self-interest is not the rule, as long as greed does not control the day, as long as there is consideration for the common good, things will work out.  It will take time, and it may get ugly, but as Theodore Parker observed, and as Martin Luther King, Jr. repeated, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”[1] 

            Call me a fool, if you wish, but I believe that God is no amateur, but a skilled artisan who understands the clay on the wheel and knows how to turn it around and around and around until it rises up the right way, all in God’s own time.

Blessing of the Animals
Category: From Our Pastor
Tags: Blog - September/October 2013

At 10:00 on Saturday morning, October 5, we’ll gather on the church lawn to celebrate “The Blessing of the Animals”.  This happens around the feast day of Francis of Assisi (October 4), because Francis was known for seeing God’s grace expressed in nature.  You’ll often see a garden statue of Francis with a bird on his shoulder or on his outstretched hand because of a story found in Thomas of Celano’s biography of Francis of Assisi.  According to that story, one day he addressed a mixed flock of birds that sat and listened patiently:

 “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection.”

            Francis was not the first holy person famed for care of God’s creatures.  The Irish hermit Kevin of Glendalough, who died in 613 (some say at the age of 120), was another.  One legend says that as he stretched out his arms in prayer one day a blackbird used his hand as a nest and laid an egg.  He remained patiently in that position until the egg hatched.  Another tale says how a boar who was being hunted saw Kevin at prayer beneath a tree and took refuge at his side.  When the pack of pursuing dogs caught up, they stopped and lay down, as if prostrate in prayer as well.

            People like these remind us to care, in our own way, for those non-human creatures who are part of our lives.  Those might be squirrels in the tree outside your window (although if they make their way into your attic, that’s not where they belong) or rabbits in the fields (although they can be a problem in the vegetable garden), but especially the animals that we actively invite into our homes as pets.  In caring for them, we express our reverence for their Creator.

            So consider bringing your pet to our service of thanksgiving for “all creatures great and small” that day, and inviting others to do the same.  (Pun intended: feel free to Tweet the news.)  Since we cannot assure the harmony among species brought by Kevin, we do ask everybody to use leashes or carriers.  If it rains, we’ll move into Fellowship Hall, though ducks and goldfish might want to stay outside.

"Cracked Cisterns"
Category: Sermons
Tags: Sermon 9/1/13

Jeremiah 2:4-13

“Cracked Cisterns”

I’m grateful for modern plumbing and a municipal water system, because I once lived in a place that depended on cisterns.

In the Virgin Islands, as in most of the Caribbean, there is no real water table because the islands are so small.  As soon as you begin to dig down into the ground, you reach salt water that cannot be used for drinking and as soon as you start watering crops with it, the salt kills them and poisons the land until it leaches back out again over a period of years.  There are a few freshwater streams, but not enough to support a large population.  In that kind of setting, you learn the value of water.  Building codes in the islands require the construction of cisterns to gather runoff from every roof so that rainwater can be pumped back up again for washing and for general use, although it cannot really be used safely for drinking or cooking.  These cisterns have to be maintained and resealed regularly, though, because they crack and the water runs out into the earth.

Another place that depended on cisterns was the ancient city of Jerusalem, where the water system had to be carefully protected as a matter of defense.  Sometime not long after the year 900 B.C. a tunnel was dug to bring fresh water inside the city’s walls, and it was repeatedly strengthened and re-engineered to provide water for Jerusalem when it came under siege.  Without that water, some of it kept in cisterns, the people inside the walls would have died of thirst.  With that water, they could survive attack.  If you let the cisterns go to ruin, you were ignoring your own safety.

Jeremiah had a chance to see at least one cistern of Jerusalem close up.  He had been warning that the city, under siege by a Babylonian army, could only be saved by surrendering.  That put him at odds with the army, and several officers threw him into a cistern to shut him up, with the intention of leaving him there to rot.  [Jeremiah 38:4]  If the cistern had been maintained properly, it would have been filled with water and he would have drowned.  Since it was cracked, he found himself in mud instead and lived until his friends pulled him out. [Jeremiah 38:10]  What a weird thought it must have been to realize that the only reason he survived was because the city really was unprepared, as he had said.

Surely that had something to do with his awareness that the people were unprepared for their time of difficulty because they had turned away from finding their security in God and God alone and had turned to idolatry of many types.   As he put it,

“my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”  [Jeremiah 2:13]

I think about that sometimes for our own times and circumstances, both as a people of faith and as individuals.

            I worry that sometimes we have turned away from a God who is both powerful and loving, who describes himself as “a jealous God” [Exodus 20:5 and 34:14], whom the book of Job [38:1] pictures as speaking from a whirlwind, who is, as the book of Hebrews [12:29] says, “a consuming fire” and instead worship a god who is merely “nice”.  Jeremiah saw trouble beginning when the people forgot about or willfully ignored the God whom they had known.

“Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” [Jeremiah 2:6]

A God who can do things like that is one that can be trusted, and doesn’t need to be replaced with idols and false gods that make claims that will never be fulfilled.

            A God like that can even, in fact, lead his people into dangerous or unlikely territory, precisely because he can preserve and keep them.  Think about the confusing world of Jesus’ parables. 

“When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid.  But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” [Luke 14:12-14]

That goes against all social convention.  And if we don’t have a sense of the proper give-and-take of daily life, what is there?  I mean, it’s one thing to invite people who cannot return the favor, but what’s all this about deliberately avoiding the people who can?  But at least it’s consistent with a God who is more concerned about compassion than appearances.  It’s more along the lines of a God who can and does watch over the troubled, which at some point in life is going to include everyone.

            God may be confusing sometimes.  Jeremiah saw his hand in history, but never in the most obvious ways.  Certainly he confused and sometimes even frustrated Jeremiah, and he was not the last one.  Teresa of Avila, one of the great Christian mystics, is reported to have said to God at one point in her life, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.”  He does not spare us our struggles, but he sees us through them, and that is one of the ways that we know he is real, because he has never spared himself, either.

Real faith is faith in the God who himself suffered in the person of his Son, who has known what it is, like Jeremiah, to be condemned to death unjustly.  Jeremiah had faith and God rescued him, lifting him from the mud of a cracked cistern.  Jesus went one step further, even dying, and only then being raised back to life from the darkness of the grave.  There is nothing that a God like that cannot do, and with faith in that God, there is no trouble or trial that can overwhelm you.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.”  [Luke 6:20-23]

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