The Life of a Prophet: The Weeping Prophet

Scripture: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

What are some things that make you cry?

Don’t worry, you don’t have to answer that out loud.  I’m sure we can all think of the obvious answers: the death of a loved one, a breakup, any very bad news of one kind or another.  Sometimes we might cry when we’re angry, in the middle of a fight with someone, or out of sheer frustration—I cried the other day when I couldn’t bend over enough to tie my shoes.  (It had been a long day.)  Maybe sad movies get some of us; or there’s a certain song that reminds us of a certain memory; maybe some of us even cry at happy occasions like weddings and graduations.  Some of us are bigger criers than others, of course.

But you wouldn’t think a prophet would be a big crier.  You’d think a prophet would be more someone standing apart from the people he or she is prophesying to and angrily pointing a finger at everything they’re doing wrong.  And you’d think a prophet would be pretty thick-skinned; if you’re going to forecast the destruction of nations and kings, like we talked about last week, you’re going to need to be prepared for people not to like you very much, and not break down in tears every time that becomes obvious.

But if that’s our image of a prophet, then Jeremiah breaks the mold, because Jeremiah is known as the Weeping Prophet.  We hear it here: “My heart is broken,” he says.  “Because my people are crushed, I am crushed.”  “Is there no balm in Gilead?” he famously laments, knowing that Gilead was where the trees grew that produced that soothing ointment; if there was no balm in Gilead, there wasn’t any anywhere.  And he cries even because he doesn’t have enough tears: “If only my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for the wounds of my people.”

So—what was it that made Jeremiah cry?

You may remember from last week that whereas Isaiah was writing during the time when the Assyrians were taking over the Ancient Near East, Jeremiah writes later, maybe a hundred year later by now, when the Assyrian Empire is on its way out and the Babylonian Empire is on the rise.  And the people of Judah, with Jerusalem as its capital, have managed to lay low, pay some tribute, and get through the whole Assyria thing relatively unscathed, but as the Babylonian army marches its way south, that is looking less and less like it’s going to be an option this time.  The people of Judah are in trouble.  Like, really big trouble.

And you remember that when threats surround us from every direction on the outside, where do the prophets want us to look?  On the inside.  And on the inside, Judah has actually just undergone this whole period of religious reform under King Josiah, centralizing worship at the Temple and standardizing rituals and purging any sign of Assyrian religion that might have crept its way in during their rule.  That sounds like it should be good news, but instead what it’s done is made people too sure of themselves.  They’re going through all the right motions, maybe, but their hearts haven’t really changed; they’re still greedy and deceitful and self-righteous and going around oppressing the orphan and the widow; they may have gotten rid of their Assyrian idols, but they are still worshipping other things besides God, like for example money; only they imagine they are holy, and God should be stepping in to save them.  In fact, they seem shocked that God doesn’t seem to be doing so.  “Isn’t the Lord in Zion??” they say.

So it’s both of those things, I think: the knowledge of what is coming and how bad it’s going to be—and it’s going to be bad, because in a decade or two the Temple in Jerusalem will lie in ruins and the people of Judah scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire—and the knowledge of what has brought his people to this point, that makes Jeremiah cry.

It’s amazing to me, in a way, that Jeremiah could know his people so well, could see their sin and brokenness so clearly, and still call them his people, and still cry for what was coming.  He could have stood opposite them, pointing his finger (and he did some of that), but he also cried, for them and with them.  Maybe because he knew his fate was entwined with theirs—or maybe because for all their brokenness, he really did love his people.

But maybe that’s not so amazing to you.  Maybe you know what it’s like as a parent or a partner or a friend to see someone in a spiral of self-destruction, to know that the responsibility lies only with them and there’s nothing you can do, and still feel your heart break for them, and still shed tears for the inevitable end that you see coming.  Maybe that’s what Jeremiah’s tears are like.

Or maybe, we could even say, that’s what God’s tears are like, because it’s actually not very clear whether these words we are hearing are God’s or Jeremiah’s, and when you’re dealing with prophets, that’s the point: their words are not just their own.  Maybe Jeremiah feels like this about his people and everything they’re about to face because, in fact, that’s how God feels.

And it’s here where a prophet’s job gets all jumbled up, because their job is to speak to the people on behalf of God, but sometimes their job is also to speak to God on behalf of the people, or maybe sometimes even to cry to God on their behalf.  Tears go both ways.

But whichever way we look at it, maybe one aspect of living more prophetically is the capacity to weep on behalf of God’s people.

My friend Kim spent our first year of seminary as a chaplain intern at a maximum-security women’s prison.  I always enjoyed, and/or appreciated, the stories Kim brought back from her time at the prison.  I know Kim saw and heard a lot there, and she got to know the stories of a lot of women.

One day Kim was assigned to make her chaplain rounds in the building where the mental health patients were housed.  She was still relatively new, so she ventured in, saying hi and asking how everyone was doing.  As she was doing this an older woman came up to her, leaned in close, and said, “Are you who we confess to?”

And Kim said, “Uh, I guess.”  So she and this woman went into a private cell to talk, and as soon as they sat down, the woman burst into tears.  And not just a few tears, but sobs racking her body as she rocked back and forth and said, “Oh God. Oh Jesus. Oh God.”  Kim was like, “What’s going on?”

The woman cried out that her youngest son had just committed suicide.  It was the third child she had lost: one to a car accident, one to cancer, and now one to suicide.  And then the woman cried out: “And it’s all my fault!”

So Kim tried very pastorally to assure her that it wasn’t her fault, that there was nothing she could have done, but the woman wouldn’t hear it: “No!” she said.  “Don’t you see?  I killed three people, and now three of my children are dead.”  Kim tried every theological argument she knew—about grace and forgiveness, about how she doesn’t believe in the kind of God who would do that as revenge, and all the woman did was become more agitated and say, “No! No!” until finally, Kim just began to cry too.

And they cried together for a few minutes, until the woman reached for a Kleenex, sniffled a little, took Kim’s hand and said “Thank you, Chaplain.”  And then she left.

I don’t know exactly what happened there and I don’t think Kim does either, but I suspect that tears said what theology couldn’t: that someone shared this woman’s pain, deserved or undeserved.  That even as she faced the consequences of her actions, as she saw things, that not everyone was rejoicing at her misfortune; that, in fact, someone who even represented God to her would let her heart be broken, too.

Were Kim’s tears for God on behalf of this hurting, broken woman?  Or were they for this hurting, broken woman on behalf of the God who loved her?  I think Jeremiah would answer, “Yes.”

There’s a saying I love: May my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.  Let me ask you this: what are some things that you think breaks God’s heart? (Maybe poverty, homelessness, racism, materialism, complacency, war in Syria, suffering after natural disaster…)

Now let me ask you: Is your heart broken by those things?

That’s a real question.  We know the answer is supposed to be yes.  But is your heart really broken by those things?  It’s so easy to be overwhelmed by all the need and brokenness in this world, and maybe by our complicity in it, that sometimes maybe all we do is keep walking or change the channel or vow to think about it later, and we dismiss those heartbreaking things and move on without really allowing ourselves to feel the world’s pain.  And I get it: you can’t just around feeling everyone else’s pain all the time; you’d have to get some serious counseling for that.  But then maybe sometimes we keep up our guard so much that we don’t let ourselves feel it at all.

But Jeremiah was on to something: sometimes the only way to make a difference in anything is not to stand there and point fingers at people and say, “You should fix this!  Someone should fix this!” but to let ourselves actually enter into the pain and the brokenness of it all.

Doesn’t that sound like what God eventually did: when even the weeping of the prophets didn’t work to bring people back to God, God entered into the pain and the brokenness of this world Godself.  Jesus became the prophet who brought the people’s pain and brokenness to God, and brought God’s wholeness to the people.  And by the way, some would call Jesus the other Weeping Prophet.  He wept for his friend Lazarus, who died, and for Lazarus’s sisters who came running to Jesus with grief and blame because Jesus hadn’t saved him sooner.  He wept for Jerusalem, knowing not only that his own death was impending but that in a few decades, the Temple would once again lay in ruins, this time at the hand of the Romans.  “If only,” he said, “if only you had known the things that made for peace.”  Jesus allowed his heart to be broken on our behalf.

Somehow, knowing that God allows God’s heart to break on my behalf makes me a little more willing to allow my heart to break on behalf of others.

When Paul describes the kind of Christian community he’d really like to see in his letter to the Romans, he says, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”  Apparently this is our job not just as potential prophets, but as Christians, too.  And I think it starts with being willing to see the pain of others, deserved or undeserved: to not walk so quickly past, to not so quickly change the channel, to not want so badly to protect ourselves from that pain; but to linger for a moment, to keep reading, to sit with that hurting person, maybe even to let ourselves cry.

My friend Nancy told me story from when she worked at a Christian camp years ago.  It was the kind of camp where the kids all lived and did their activities in groups, a certain group all week.  And instead of having all their activities programmed for them, they got to decide as a group what to do, whether it was hiking or canoeing or archery or any of those camp staples.  It was an exercise in Christian community, deciding on these things together and working through their disagreements.

One group of kids had decided that they wanted to go hike Old Rag at the end of the week, and so all week they worked up to this big hike that would be the culmination of their camp experience.  Only the day before their big hike, one of the kids in the group sprained his ankle, and he had to spend the day in the infirmary, instead.

What would you have done?  You’ve worked up to this hike all week, and it’s not like you can make this kid better, anyway.

They decided not to go to Old Rag.  They decided, instead, to stick around close to the camp so they could check in on their friend, and so he didn’t miss out on the one thing they all wanted to do.

Maybe we simply call that kindness.  Dare we call it prophetic?

Well, does it speak a word from God into that situation?  That God cares about this one person who is hurting?  That God feels his pain and as a result, his friends are willing to, too?

Maybe something like that is more prophetic than we know.

It’s always worth it to remember that even for the Weeping Prophet, tears don’t have the last word.  Even through his tears, Jeremiah sees a future in which God’s people are in love with God once again, and able to enjoy what it means to live as part of God’s covenant community, back from exile, in the land that God had promised them.  But sometimes we need to know that someone is willing to cry with us before we can see that vision for a good future, don’t we?  Then we can believe the words of the Psalm: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy, and those who set out in despair will return with arms full of blessing.”

And maybe helping others see the Reign of Heaven here on earth simply begins sometimes with seeing someone’s pain, and letting ourselves cry.

The Life of a Prophet: “I’m only”

Scripture: Jeremiah 1:4-10

How does a prophet become a prophet?

The simple answer, I suppose, is that God makes them one.  God appears, and the prophet stands at attention.  God sends, and the prophet goes.  God gives them words to speak, and the prophet speaks.  That is the simple answer.

Of course, things are rarely as simple as that, even in the Bible.

Last week we were talking about Isaiah and as you may remember, Isaiah was preaching in a world where Assyria was rising to power on the world stage and the question was how to stop them, what alliances to entangle oneself in, or whether to oppose them at all.  By laying low and paying tribute, for better or worse, the southern kingdom of Judah managed to generally hold itself together, though its northern sister Israel was not so lucky.  By the time Jeremiah steps onto the stage, however, the sun is beginning to set on the Assyrian Empire.  They are still officially in charge in the Ancient Near East, but Babylon is growing stronger.  Jeremiah begins his career as a prophet in the year 627 BCE, something like 75 years after Isaiah began his, and it will still be forty years before Jerusalem falls and its people are scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire.  But once again, by the time Jeremiah starts preaching, storms are already beginning to gather to the north.  Things are about to go down, and everyone knows it.

And that’s the overall scene in which God appears to the son of a priest in the region of Anathoth, north of Jerusalem, and says those famous, beloved words: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I consecrated you.”  And then God tells Jeremiah that God has a job for him to do.  This is Jeremiah’s call story.

And Jeremiah says, “Yeah, that’s nice, but I’m pretty sure you’ve got the wrong guy.”

You can’t really blame him for not simply going when God says go.  Being a “prophet to the nations” sounds like a pretty big job.  Who among us, if God told us we were being appointed as a prophet to the nations, would be like “Oh, OK, let me just grab my purse.”  Sounds good, God.  Especially when God gets a little more specific a few lines later: “See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”

To pluck up and overthrow kingdoms?  That’s the kind of job that’s liable to get a person killed.

Besides, Jeremiah isn’t some big-shot public figure.  He’s not a government person and he’s not a celebrity.  He’s also apparently fairly young.  He’s not an experienced public speaker and he doesn’t exactly have the gravitas that is going to make people turn around and listen to him, yet.

“I’m not saying it’s not a worthy thing for somebody,” he tells God, or at least this is what I imagine telling God if I were in Jeremiah’s place.  “It’s just not for me.”

And God laughs.  I imagine God laughing.

“Don’t say, ‘I’m only a boy,’” God tells Jeremiah.  “Where I send you, you must go.  What I tell you, you must say.”  Notice God doesn’t refute anything Jeremiah says or must be thinking.  God doesn’t say, “You’re old enough for people to take you seriously.”  God doesn’t say, “You really do have outstanding gifts for public speaking.”

It doesn’t matter.  The one who knew Jeremiah before he took shape in his mother’s womb knows all these things already, knows that the one being called is inadequate to the task at hand, and it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that God is telling Jeremiah to go—and, of course, that God will go too.

Jeremiah, by the way, is in good company with his objections.  We may be reminded of Moses, who similarly objected, “I’m not a good speaker.”  We may think of Isaiah, who upon hearing God’s call protested, “But I am a man of unclean lips.”  I’m not worthy, he said.  We may even think of Jonah, who tried to sail away from the job God had for him to do, less out of a sense of personal unworthiness and more out of a sense of the inherent unworthiness of those God was calling him to preach to.  Nevertheless, the biblical pattern is that when God calls, God’s prophets and servants run in the other direction.  Again, it’s hard to blame them.

It’s also, I think, easy to identify with them.   Because when God has work for us to do, we can also be full of all kinds of excuses.

It’s not always “I’m too young.”  That’s one we can only use for so long, right?  But maybe it’s “I’m too old.”  Maybe it’s “I don’t have time.”  Maybe it’s “I don’t know enough for that, I’m not an expert.”  Maybe it’s “Surely someone else would do it better.”  I’m only a child, I’m only one person, I’m only, I’m only, I’m only.

The thing is, if it’s God calling us to a task, none of those things ultimately matter.  When God is calling us, none of our excuses hold up to the urgency of the call.  The one who knew us before we were formed in our mother’s womb knows all the reasons why we’re probably not a good pick, and picks us anyway.

I admit I’ve always kind of had a problem with that, though.  You may have heard the saying, God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called.  I was inspired when I first heard that saying, in college, as I was first discerning my own call to ministry.  It made me feel like I could do anything.  It made me feel like there were exciting adventures ahead.  But as I began develop my understanding of what it meant to be called, I realized I had some questions.  God created me with a certain set of gifts, right?  Before I was formed in the womb?  And God has given me certain opportunities and experiences in my life, right?  So wouldn’t God call me to something that put all of those gifts and graces and opportunities and experiences to good use?  And if I didn’t have the gifts and graces and experiences that equipped me for a certain job or a certain kind of life, wouldn’t God call someone else who did, to that?

I mean, if God showed up to me tomorrow and said, “I want you to quit your job in ministry and be an engineer; we really need some good engineers,” I would be like, “That’s nice, God, but I’ve never really liked math, so why don’t you find someone who does?  That seems like a better bet.”

Or more realistically in my case, even, if God showed up to me and said, “I need you to be a church planter, to start a new church out of nothing,” I would be like, “God, that kind of sounds like you have to talk to a lot of people out in public, and there are a lot of people out there who really like that sort of thing, but I’m really kind of a work-quietly-at-my-desk kind of person, so maybe go ask one of them, and that would probably work out better for everybody.”

You see, I want to believe that God generally calls the people God has already equipped.  So I have some questions about what he is doing with Jeremiah here.

But then I have to admit that even that understanding of how and to what God calls us hasn’t always held up for me.  In this job, for example—and this is a job I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my call to—sometimes I have to do things I don’t feel equipped to do.  For example, I got here and a couple months later I got a call from the people next door and they said, “All of Rosslyn is about to get redeveloped, so let’s talk about what’s going to happen to your building.”  And I didn’t want to talk about the building.  I don’t know anything about buildings.  I find it hard to get really passionate about buildings.  And I thought, I am the wrong person to be here at this time.  You’ve got the wrong person.

But it didn’t matter, because I was the one here, and it was my job, now.  My job, I should say, with a lot of help, but my job nonetheless.  My only choice was to believe that God would equip me for the work that God put in front of me to do, inadequate or not.

I keep a Bible verse taped to my computer because I came across it one day and it seemed like the kind of thing I needed to be reminded of, especially on those days I feel inadequate to the work God has called me to do.  It’s from 2 Corinthians and Paul is writing about a terrible ordeal he and Timothy have gone through on their missionary journey, possibly including imprisonment.  He writes: “We felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.”

Here is one step toward living more prophetically: when we are “only” something, when we are too young, too old, too dumb, too shy, too awkward, too whatever to do the work that God has in front of us to do, we need to remember that the God who calls us is not only the God who knows us, but the same God who even raises the dead.

When we’re dead, you see, it’s obvious that it’s not about us and our own limitations: it’s about God breathing new life through us.

And when God calls us, it’s not about us and our own limitations: it’s about God’s power to work through us.

But maybe, you say, that’s not the problem.  Maybe, you say, if I was sure it was God who was calling me, I would go, no questions asked.  But the Word of the Lord doesn’t come to all of us the way it came to Jeremiah, in clearly articulated syllables, and it’s hard to tell if our excuses are really excuses at all, or actually legitimate skepticism.

When you hear “Could you serve on this committee,” is that God calling you to the work of ministry, or is it just Pastor Allie?

When you identify some social ill that we should collectively be working to solve, does that mean God is calling you to dedicate your life to doing something about that?  Because another one might be brought to your attention tomorrow.

I remember a woman from the church I grew up in standing up once and telling a story about how she was just minding her own business one evening and all of a sudden she got this really strong sense that she was supposed to call someone she knew.  It was out of the blue, but she called, and the woman on the other end said, “I’ve just been diagnosed with cancer.”

I can’t say that I have often felt that kind of immediate pull to call someone.  Once I did, I think.  It was a classmate who I knew was lonely and going through some stuff.  The feeling was strong enough that I remember it now.  But it was late, and I lay in bed thinking, is this God really telling me something, or is this just night making everything seem more dire than it is?  Probably I can just IM this guy later, right?  I just IMed him later.  I don’t remember any big revelation coming from that.

It’s not exactly the same as being appointed a prophet to the nations, but still, I think God’s call comes in all forms, from something that gives a singular direction to our lives to the call to simply feed someone who is hungry or be there for a friend who needs us, and a lot of things in between.

And here’s the comforting thing when we are not sure if it is God’s call we are recognizing: When Jeremiah says no, God has something more to say.

God doesn’t simply say, “Well, OK, then, I guess I’ll go find someone older, if you don’t want to do it.”  God insists.

I heard a colleague preach about a youth from her church who told her he thought God was calling him to ministry.  My colleague, like me, was probably the kind of person who normally talked about God speaking in that still, small voice—not in grand visions like the prophets—but this student had heard God speaking to him, clearly, and he wanted to know if that was crazy.

And she told us that he reminded her of something she needed to hear—that “the call of God will not necessarily be missed.”

If it’s God, and we excuse ourselves from the task God has for us to do, we can be pretty sure that God will have something more to say.  Maybe it still won’t be in clearly articulated syllables.  Maybe it will be a feeling that persists until we can’t ignore it any longer.  Maybe it will be another hungry person we might be meant to feed, and then another.  God’s call isn’t a one-day sale.  If you say no, God will keep working.  Think about it: would you trust a prophet who was really that eager to go prophesy destruction to the nations, anyway?  To his own nation?

Eventually, though, if it’s God, we’re going to have to say yes.  Or at least—I hope you do.  I hope I do.

Because I believe that God has a vision of heaven taking shape right here on earth, and I believe we are meant to be a part of making that happen, and I believe that God has work for each one of us to do as part of that.  I believe God calls us—we who are only human, only weak, only ill-equipped—only, only, only.

But God hears our excuses and God laughs and God calls us again—because this is a God who even raises the dead.

The Life of a Prophet: Love Song to a Vineyard

Scripture: Isaiah 5:1-7

I like to think I know a good love song when I hear one.  I will never fail to start singing along with Build Me Up Buttercup when it comes on.  I can hit all the high notes of Unchained Melody—if only when I’m by myself.  I know all the words to a lot of Taylor Swift songs, if those count.

So when Isaiah tells us that he is going to sing us a love song, I’m listening.  In verses 1 and 2, I’m humming along, even if I don’t know the words yet.  My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill, sings Isaiah.  He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines.  He built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it.

I mean, it’s not exactly Taylor Swift, but that’s OK, it’s from the 8th century BCE, and besides, I’m liking the imagery.  If you’ve ever been to a vineyard you can imagine the beautiful scene Isaiah is describing.  The vines are all laid out just so in rows on rolling hills against the backdrop of a crystal blue sky.  Maybe we are hanging out on a porch somewhere drinking a glass of wine and just looking out over it all.  Life is good.  It’s a beautiful vineyard and someone has lovingly cared for it.

But then, Isaiah sings, He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.  Oh.  OK.  I don’t really know much about grapes, but I guess wild grapes are bad.

And now, the song goes, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard.  What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?

Oh.  This is that kind of love song.

But that’s OK.  I’m on board with that too.  I listen to country music.  Not all love songs are happy ones.  We need the sad songs and the songs dripping with hurt and indignation too.  We’ve all been there.  Taylor Swift has certainly been there.  You can hear the pain and disappointment in these lines.  The vineyard owner has done everything he possibly can to love and care for this vineyard—those of us who have been listening since the beginning can vouch for that.  Somehow, it wasn’t enough.  Somehow, everything he did and everything he tried and everything he was wasn’t enough.  This is that kind of love song.

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard, the song continues.  I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down.  I will make it a waste.

And, that’s where I reach over and change the station.  This is not a good love song anymore.  Thanks, Isaiah.

The problem, of course, is not that Isaiah doesn’t know what a good love song sounds like.  The prophets are actually pretty good writers.  They know what they are doing.  So let’s take a look at what Isaiah is doing here:

Isaiah’s audience, if you remember from our little lesson on Ancient Near Eastern geopolitics last week, consists of the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah in the mid-8th century BCE, shortly before the beginning of the Assyrian Exile.  Judah is in trouble because King Ahaz has refused to join a coalition with Israel and Syria to stand up against Assyria, so now Israel and Syria are determined to depose Ahaz and put a more agreeable king in his place.  Things are not looking good for the people of Judah, and remember, when faced with threats all around us on the outside, the prophets want us to look on the inside for what’s really going wrong.

So Isaiah tells the people of Judah he is going to sing them a love song.  That’s nice.  An escape from the harsh realities of the world for a little bit.  He says he is going to sing it on behalf of his beloved, or his friend, whose identity is not yet clear.  When he starts singing about a vineyard, that won’t strike his audience as surprising.  In Hebrew poetry the vineyard is a common image representing a female lover (you know, fertility, and everything.)  In fact, it’s possible these first lines may even have been an existing song.  It’s possible Isaiah’s original audience would have heard it and started to sing along.  The prophet has them just where he wants them.

But all of a sudden there’s a key change.  And the singer is different.  All of a sudden it’s not Isaiah but the friend or beloved himself, the owner of the vineyard, who is singing.  We’ve read the rest of the passage, but his original audience still doesn’t know who this friend is.  Still, they are ready to judge on his behalf.  How dare that vineyard not produce good grapes when he did everything for it!  Maybe it’s not the song they expected at the beginning, but they’re still on board.  We need this kind of love song sometimes, too.

But the song gets darker still, with all this talk of judgment and devouring and destruction.  By the last line, nothing is left of our beautiful vineyard but ruins.

Then Isaiah picks up the mic again, and if they hadn’t already figured it out, he clears it up for them: the owner of the vineyard is God.  The vineyard that you all have just proclaimed judgment against—the vineyard is you.

We’re reminded of the story of King David and the prophet Nathan, when David has just had his little thing with Bathsheba and had her husband killed to cover it all up.  Nathan tells the story of a poor man with one little ewe lamb that gets stolen by a rich man with flocks and flocks of sheep, and David gets himself worked up into a fit of righteous anger, until Nathan lowers the boom: “You are the man!”

There’s also a great section in the book of Amos where Amos is calling down God’s wrath upon all of Israel’s enemies.  God will punish the sinful people of Tyre! he says.  God will punish the sinful people of Edom!  God will punish the sinful Ammonites and the Moabites!  And you can almost hear his audience getting more and more worked up—yes! Yes! God will punish them!  Until he ends with: God will punish the sinful people of Israel!

Oh.  It’s about them.

Again, the prophets are pretty good writers (and orators.)

But still—Isaiah has promised us a love song.  And it’s a love song that turns quickly to judgment.

And that’s one thing when we’re talking about human love—we’ve all felt spurned, we’ve all wanted revenge, we’ve all probably used stronger language than we should have or done things we’ve regretted because we were hurt; it happens—but what about when we’re talking about God?  What do we do with a God who will sing us a love song in one breath and threaten to destroy us in the next?  Do we really worship such a Jekyll-and-Hyde kind of God?

We’re talking over the next few weeks about what it means to be a prophet, and one aspect of being a prophet is this: you have a strong sense of both God’s love and God’s righteous judgment, and they go together.

And I think we’re not used to seeing those things as going together.  Plenty of us are happy to avoid the judgment side of things completely.  God is a parent figure who always sees the best in God’s children, who delights in everything we do, and if we don’t always do exactly what God would want us to, God at least knows we are trying our best.  And that’s not a bad image of God.  It’s certainly one I gravitate toward.

But don’t we want God to get angry sometimes?  Don’t we want to believe that God cares about poverty and racism and exploitation and all the other ways we don’t treat each other well?  Isn’t that part of love?  What kind of a God would simply chuckle to Godself in heaven and say, Those silly humans, always killing and exploiting each other?

Then on the other hand there are those of us—or at least I bet we know some people—who get so hung up on the judgment side of things that they forget that God is love.  They’re the people standing outside ballparks with bullhorns telling you no one’s getting out of this world alive.  They’re the people who want so badly to talk about sin that you end up feeling like God is someone to run from rather than run toward.  And maybe it’s true that all of us have a little of this side of things in us—usually reserved for the people we don’t like or approve of.  God, we think, is definitely judging them.

And in that case we forget that the whole thing was supposed to be a love song.

To some of us it’s strange to think of God as a lover, as opposed to a parent or friend, but maybe only then can we understand the God of the prophets: a God who loves us fiercely.  Who is enamored of us.  Who will do anything for us.  And who, like us, is hurt when we don’t love God back.  It is always the people we love the most who have the power to hurt us the deepest.  It’s the people we love who we condemn the most when they disappoint us—because we expected more.  We hoped for more.  That’s the God that the prophets know.

One writer puts it this way: it’s so easy to only focus on grace and forgiveness, he says, that “in no time, we are lounging back into the easiest of all the world’s religions, leaning back into the entitlements of grace and an arrogance of heritage.  Love was looking for something else.”[1]

What else was love looking for?  How do we love God back?  The answer is those two words that the prophets love – righteousness and justice.

Isaiah gets specific right as he finishes up his Song of the Vineyard.  You people who buy up all the land and build big houses so there’s only room for you—I’m talking to you, he says.  You people who do nothing but drink and feast and party all day, I’m talking to you.  You who take bribes to acquit the guilty and punish the innocent, I’m talking to you.  When you’re facing destruction from these countries all around you—this is the real problem.  It’s you.  God is looking for something else.

God loved God’s people.  But they didn’t love God back.  That hurts.  That calls for some response that’s more than just God pretending it’s no big deal.

This kind of love is the same kind of love we see Jesus displaying when God comes to earth in human form centuries later.  It’s a love that welcomes and accepts and makes the people who have been told that that had no value feel like they have value after all.  But it’s also a love with an edge to it.  It’s a love that weeps over a city that is destroying itself, that doesn’t let the Pharisees off the hook for their exclusion and legalism and hypocrisy, a love that tells us to go and sin no more.  It’s a love that is unconditional, but that also demands a response.

And the beauty of it all is that while it may be the people we love who have the most power to hurt us, it’s also the people we love who have the power to make us the best version of ourselves.  I’m going to switch genres from love songs to romantic comedies here: one of my favorite movies of all time is As Good as it Gets.  If you don’t know, it’s about a curmudgeonly loner with OCD named Melvin Udall, played by Jack Nicholson, who falls in love with Carol, a waitress at his favorite restaurant, who goes back and forth between seeing good in him and pretty much thinking he’s a ridiculous man who needs to get away from her family.  At one point in the movie, after Melvin has been particularly curmudgeonly, Carol demands that he give her a compliment, and after waffling a bit, he says, “Since I met you I started taking my pills.”

She says, “See, I don’t really get how that’s a compliment to me.”

And he says, famously, “You make me want to be a better man.”

The thing is, he didn’t want to be a better man because she thought he was someone who could do no wrong.  He wanted to be a better man because she was someone who saw good in him, but who also expected better.  She held him to a higher standard.  Judgment, at its best, isn’t all lightning bolts and wanton destruction.  It’s being held to a higher standard.  It’s hearing, “This is wrong, and I expected more.”  Love expected more.

Even when God does talk judgment, God isn’t sending down lightning bolts in punishment.  Instead, in Isaiah’s song, we have a picture of God withdrawing from God’s vineyard.  God will remove the hedge and the wall that apparently weren’t wanted in the first place.  God won’t pick up the hoe to keep all the weeds at bay any longer.  If this is what you want, God says, I’ll leave.[2]

But if only they knew what the future looked like without God.  And if only they knew what the future could look like with God.  As that same writer put it: “Righteousness and justice are tumbling mountains of delicious, beautiful fruit; they are wine, shared and lifted, for family, neighbors and strangers gathered in glad, new community.”[3]

Because God loves God’s people, that’s what God wants for them.

And that’s why God’s love means that God is always expecting more—more justice, more righteousness, more love, more forgiveness.

It’s a love song, all of it, even the parts where it turns to a minor key and the words don’t rhyme anymore.  It’s a love song, all of it, from God to God’s vineyard.  And it’s about the people of Judah, so many centuries ago.  But in the end, it’s also about us.

 

 

[1] Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, p. 345

[2] Thanks also to Paul Simpson Duke for this concept

[3] Duke, Feasting, p. 345

The Life of a Prophet: End Evil, Do Good, Seek Justice

Scripture: Isaiah 1:10-20

The year is 745 BCE (or thereabouts.)  On the international stage, Tiglath-Pileser III has just come to power in Assyria.  He is putting the pieces in place to begin expanding his empire across the Ancient Near East.  In Israel and Judah, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms of God’s chosen people, things are starting to get tense.

Israel, the stronger of the two kingdoms, is willing to do what it takes to stand up for itself.  Its king joins with the king of Syria to face the Assyrians.  They want Judah’s king Ahaz to join their alliance, too, but he says no, that doesn’t seem like a good idea.  Israel and Syria vow to overthrow Ahaz and put a new one in his place, one who will cooperate with them.  Ahaz, for his part, does the only thing left to do: he reaches out to Assyria for protection.  Judah becomes a vassal state of the Assyrian empire.  Israel, more begrudgingly, eventually becomes one too.

When Tiglath-Pileser dies, several of the states in his power see their chance.  Israel is one of them.  The plan fails.  Its capital, Samaria, is destroyed and its people scattered throughout the empire—the beginning of the first exile. The year is 722 BCE.

Judah, however, now ruled by King Hezekiah, keeps paying tribute and keeps the peace, as it were.  But this sort of arrangement, however wise, is only tenable for so long.  It’s only so long before people start chafing against those who rule them.  If they are to stand up to Assyria, they will need help.  Hezekiah turns to Egypt, as well as a new power just emerging on the international stage: Babylon.

Assyria, of course, will not abide this, and its king Sennacherib turns against Judah.  Jerusalem finds itself under siege, and is about to fall.  Hezekiah does what he has to do: he surrenders, and Jerusalem, for the most part, escapes unscathed.  The year is 701 BCE.

A century later, it is Babylon that will become the great regional power, Babylon that will become the enemy, and eventually, Babylon who will finally cause the city of Jerusalem to fall and take its people away in exile.  The year will be 587 BCE.

If you think the state of our world is dire, with ISIS and Russia and North Korea and Donald Trump, you can imagine living in the Ancient Near East during these couple hundred years.

It is against this international backdrop that the biblical prophets step on to the stage.  They prophesy at different points during this whole drama and they write about things like trust in God, false piety, idol worship, faithfulness to God’s covenant, ethics and economics.  They’re not fortune tellers, though they are perceptive enough to be able to see the political writing on the wall; but more than predicting the future, the prophets claim to have a direct line to God and something to say about what is going on in the world around them.

Of the biblical prophets, we call three of them Major Prophets, probably just because their books are the longest: Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.  Over the next few weeks we’re going to read some excerpts from these three prophets and see what they tell us about what exactly it means to be a prophet—and maybe how we can live a little more prophetically in our own dire times.

The prophet Isaiah comes on the scene at the beginning of this whole international drama.  He is not, shall we say, a fan of entangling alliances.  He does not think it is a good idea to get involved with Israel and Syria, against Assyria.  He also doesn’t think it is a good idea to get tied up too closely with Assyria.  Later, when the alliance with Egypt is on the table, Isaiah walks through the streets of Jerusalem naked for three years in protest against that idea.  Instead of relying on any of these military powers, he says, the only one we need to rely on is God.

But the problem as he sees it isn’t just with foreign policy.  It is, instead, with the soul of God’s people.  The prophets see God at work in history in a way that many other people don’t, using kings and armies to call God’s people back to faithfulness.

It’s a dangerous way of thinking, and a way I’d be careful about applying to modern day situations, because when we do we get people like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell blaming 9-11 on gay people or earthquakes in Haiti on people practicing voodoo.  God doesn’t use other people or other countries or even the weather like chess pieces to teach us a lesson.  Even so, there’s something to be said for the idea that when outside threats surround us and overwhelm us on every side, instead of throwing up our most powerful defenses, the appropriate place to look is in—at ourselves.

Isaiah begins his message: Listen up, you people of Sodom and Gomorrah!  But he’s not talking to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.  He’s talking to the people of Judah, who apparently he thinks are no better.  And we know what happened to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, so there’s reason to listen up.

I’m fed up with your sacrifices, God says, with Isaiah quoting.  I don’t want your burnt offerings.  I don’t want your incense.  I don’t want your religious celebrations.  They are a burden to me, God says.

If those words don’t sound shocking to you because it never occurred to you that God wanted burnt offerings in the first place, replace them with the things you take to be sacred: I’m fed up with your hymn-singing, God might say.  I’m not looking for your tithes.  I don’t care about your perfect attendance, and I’m not in it for your prayers.

It’s not that God literally hates those things, or that they have no value.  It’s only that they have no value when they don’t come with or lead to the one thing God really wants: Put an end to your evil.  Learn to do good.  Seek justice.

This, apparently, is the question God’s people are to ask when outside threats surround them: Not, How can I vanquish my enemies??  But: Am I being faithful to what God expects of me?  Am I living justly?

It’s a message echoed by many of Isaiah’s prophetic counterparts, like Micah, who asks, What does the Lord require of you, but do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?  And like Amos, with his vision of justice that rolls down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.

As Abraham Heschel says in his classic book The Prophets, “[The prophets’] breathless impatience with injustice may strike us as hysteria.  We ourselves witness continually acts of injustice, manifestations of hypocrisy, falsehood, outrage, misery, but we rarely grow indignant or overly excited.  To the prophets even a minor injustice assumes cosmic proportions.”  (4)

To live more prophetically, then, must mean becoming a little more indignant about the injustices we see.

Here’s the problem, as I see it, though: “justice” can be a pretty vague concept.  None of us really agree on what it means.  To some of us it’s Black Lives Matter and to some of us it’s Blue Lives Matter; to some of us it’s protecting workers by raising the minimum wage and to some us protecting small business owners by keeping it low; to some of us it’s being hard on crime and to some of us it’s doing away with the death penalty and for-profit prisons, and banning the box and restoring voting rights.  To some it is military intervention on behalf of the less powerful and to some it is a willingness to put ourselves in danger for the sake of nonviolence.  To many of us in the church, it’s changing the Discipline to allow for the ordination and marriage of LGBT people, and to others, it is not.  None of us really agree on what “justice” means, and when we hear Isaiah’s words, any of those things may come to mind, and any of those things may or may not be what God had in mind.  It’s easy to fancy ourselves prophetic when we are sure; it’s harder to live a prophetic life while still embracing the nuances of what God’s vision of justice really is.

But the flip side of that is that we make justice just a nice, unobjectionable word that we can all agree on.

Once around the beginning of seminary I applied for a job, and it was a job on campus that had something to do with human rights and international affairs, though maybe it’s telling that I can’t remember what exactly the job was.  But I remember sitting across from the professor interviewing me, a hippie-looking guy with a ponytail, and telling him, “I’m really into social justice!”

He said, “I don’t really like that term.  Who says they’re into social injustice?”

I didn’t get the job.

So Isaiah isn’t going to let justice become just a nice agreeable word that we can all imagine we are living into.  He is going to be specific.  At least, he is going to be a little more specific.  He doesn’t rant about bringing down interest rates or land seizures or ending the institution of debt slavery, even though all of those things were part of the changing economy of his time.  Here’s what he does say: “Seek justice: rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan; plead for the widow.”

In other words, doing justice, living justly, means being on the side of the vulnerable.  And not just with a hashtag; not just in spirit, with moral support; but putting words into action: Rescue.  Defend.  Plead.  I know for me sometimes it is easy to believe I am on the right side of history because I have the right opinion about some social issue or another; but I don’t think the prophets will let us stop there.

If you had asked Isaiah for some specific policy recommendations he might very well have said bring down usurious interest rates and stop seizing land from the people who already don’t have much of it just so the rich can have more and we have to put an end to debt slavery.  Some of those things sound downright modern, when you think about things like title loans, where people in desperate situations trade in their car title for a loan with something like 400% interest, which they can often never pay back.  But the way he says it also lets us interpret his words for our own time.  Who are the orphans and widows in our society?  Who are the socially and economically vulnerable?

The homeless, we might answer.  The mentally ill.  Ex-cons trying to make a new start.  Children in families living below the poverty line.  LGBTQ youth.  Undocumented immigrants.  Depending on the situation, anyone without the protection of white, male, Christian privilege.

In our own times of political intrigue and international drama, Isaiah asks us: what are we doing to rescue, defend, plead for such people?

Justice, says Cornell West, is what love looks like in public.

But we need the prophets because they, through their intimate connection to God, often have eyes to see what we don’t see.  Or maybe it’s that they feel strongly enough to not ignore what we are content to ignore.  Or maybe it’s simply that they, through their intimate connection to God, are willing to stay and stick it out when we get so overwhelmed by all the need and injustice around us that rather than do something, we do nothing.

We need the prophets to make justice specific for us.

The prophets hold our own sin and complacency in front of our faces.  Perhaps when we stop and look, when we are willing to let ourselves feel on behalf of the vulnerable, when we are willing to stand in the overwhelmingness and not let it make us turn away, we are also on our way to living more prophetically.

It can sometimes come across as a grim message, which makes sense, when your nation and people are facing destruction, as Judah was.  But Isaiah does not leave us without hope.  The prophets never do.  Isaiah promises that things can be different: that no matter what is going on right now, inside and out, that no matter what threats surround us, if we turn our attention to the orphan and the widow and the oppressed in our midst, our future will be good, together.  “You will eat the best food of the land,” he says.  If you do these things.

And that is a promise for us, too—that if we let the prophets turn our attention to the orphan, the widow, and the oppressed in our midst—no matter what else might be going on in this crazy world, our future will be good, together.

Faith and Food: Eating in the Kingdom

Scripture: Isaiah 25:6-9; Luke 14:15-24

Picture a typical dinner from your childhood.  Where are you?  What are you eating?  Who else is there?  Any other details that seem important?

I was at a conference recently—on food and faith, appropriately, where I drew a lot of my inspiration for this series—and we did this at the beginning of our time together by drawing a picture and sharing what we had drawn with others.  As it turns out, one of the things we may find out from an exercise like that is that our stories may differ a lot.

If I were to describe my typical childhood meal for you, it would be in the kitchen of our house in Vienna.  We always ate in the kitchen except on special occasions because the dining room table was always piled high with books and homework and pretty much anything we wanted to put down somewhere, much to my mom’s dismay.  It would be me, Mom, Dad, my younger brother Eric—plus the cat, who got her own chair and always sat with us even though she didn’t technically eat with us.  Dinner was never fancy, but it was always healthy, maybe something like whole wheat spaghetti and salad.  When we timed it right, we could hear the church bells that played each night from our church down the street.

When we did this sharing exercise at the conference I attended, some of my group had similar stories to mine, but one drew his picture of his family in the car, eating fast food on the way to some lesson or practice.  For others it might be something heated up after a single parent got home late from work.  Maybe some of us ate in front of the TV, or sat around a low table on the floor instead of on chairs, or ate with our hands instead of forks.  I know if you were at my in-laws’, the picture would probably involve everyone cooking together.

You see, it’s about a lot more than food, right?  These pictures can provide a lot of insight into who we are.

Last week I talked about how food is an integral part of our story as people of faith and how it’s so much more than just numbers on a nutrition label or Weight Watchers points.  Food is comfort, memory, fellowship, hospitality—and food is also tightly wrapped up in our identity.

How many of your strong memories have to do with food?  I could tell you that if I went back to the town on the Jersey shore where we spent our vacations growing up, there would be one specific ice cream place I would want to go to, and I would need to eat a funnel cake on the boardwalk.  I could tell you that I’ve tried unsuccessfully to replicate my grandmother’s macaroni and cheese.  And I can tell you that when I’ve traveled abroad, as much as eating different food is part of the experience, after a little while I always want pizza—because pizza is somehow ingrained in me as an American.

What if I told you that God also paints an image of a meal for us?

We heard it in Isaiah, which we used as our call to worship earlier.  “On this mountain,” Isaiah says, on God’s mountain, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.”  Where are we?  On God’s mountain, Mount Zion, the place where we dare to hope for what is to come.  What are we eating?  Only the finest food, the kind we can’t afford in real life.  Who is there?  All peoples.

If the image of a meal can say so much about our identity as individuals, what might this image of a meal have to do with our identity as Christians?

How does this futuristic, heavenly meal say something about us now?

Maybe it’s just a metaphor.  Is there really going to be food in heaven?  Is that going to be a thing?  Maybe this is just another image of how much better things are going to be in the sweet by and by, like the image of streets of gold.  Or maybe it’s meant to tell us about God’s welcome in a way we can understand, like the image of a house with many rooms.

Early Christian theologians—actually, probably also later ones—disagreed over whether there was eating in heaven.  Irenaeus envisioned a renewed creation which would “abundantly produce a multitude of all foods out of the rain from the heaven and the fertility of the earth.”[1] Tertullian, on the other hand, argued that we won’t have bodily needs in heaven in the same way we do now, and thus we will have no need to eat.

The scholar Norman Wirzba, who is my inspiration for much of this series, points out in his book Food and Faith that one of the aspects of our Christian story is that God thinks bodies matter, which is why God came to earth as a real live person, who was then resurrected not as a disembodied spirit but as a real live person who had scars and ate breakfast.  Eating, he says, is so much a part of the fabric of our lives that it would be hard to imagine life, even the next life, without it.  And again, food is about so much more than just fulfilling basic nutritional needs.  It’s love and comfort and fellowship—all things that we could guess would characterize the Kingdom of God.  So who knows, but maybe it’s not actually so metaphorical at all.

I’d add that if heaven weren’t going to be like a feast it is strange that there are so many depictions in the Bible of heaven as a feast!  Besides Isaiah, my favorite is the one we just heard from Luke, the parable of the Great Banquet.

Jesus tells this story, appropriately, at a dinner.  It’s a dinner where everyone is scrambling to call dibs on the best seats, and Jesus notices and tells them it would be better to claim the worst seats and be invited forward than the other way around.  Then he says to these very status-aware guests, “When you host a meal, don’t invite your friends or your relatives or the rich people, the ones who are going to be obligated to invite you back.  Instead invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind, the ones who can’t do anything for you.  Your reward will come later.”

One of the guests responds by saying, “Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the Kingdom of God!”  It’s kind of an awkward thing to say, possibly just to break the uncomfortable silence, or maybe he is feeling particularly assured of his later reward.  Jesus, as Jesus likes to do, responds with a story.

In this story that Jesus tells, God is throwing a party.  He doesn’t say the host is God, but because this is how Jesus tells parables, and because we are already talking about eating bread in the Kingdom of God, we can imagine from the beginning that it probably is.  And God invites all the important people to his party, but they all have some excuse.  They’re too busy.  “I have to try out my new oxen,” one guy says.  They send their regards.  So as these “no” RSVPs build up, God sends out another set of invites.  He tells his guys to go out and gather up the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.  The ones who never get invited to the cool parties.  The ones who no one sits with in the cafeteria.  And then there’s still room so he sends the servant back out to bring in everyone he sees on the street.  Everyone.

You’ll notice that this is a picture of a heavenly feast that is a lot less about what’s served, and a lot more about who’s around the table.

When I was studying in India I had dinner with a professor who told me he though the table was Western civilization’s best contribution to the world.  The table, he said, changes the dynamics.  Maybe it’s perfectly possible to say that about other traditional ways of eating too.  The fact is, that when we eat together, relationships form and change.

What you eat and where and how you eat it may say a lot about you, but so does who you eat with, as any middle schooler can attest.  In fact, that was always Mom’s way of getting information out of my brother and me when we were teenagers—she would ask, “Who do you eat lunch with?”  Those were my people—the people I ate lunch with.

Think about the answer to that question now: Who do you eat with?  Who is in the picture?

For some of us, the answer might be often no one.  We eat at our desks and, if we live alone or run on different schedules from our partners or families, make something for one when we get home.  Or it might be the same people all the time—the same coworkers who go out to lunch every day.  Or it might be a group of friends who get together for dinner every so often.

How homogeneous is that group of people?

And how much does the group ever change?

Who is welcome at the table?

How much does God’s image of a meal have to do with the way we, who call ourselves God’s people, eat?

The people around God’s table, Isaiah tells us, are all nations, not just the one nation we happen to think is best.  The people at God’s table, Luke tells us, are the unexpected.  They are, perhaps, exactly the people it would not be our first inclination to eat with.  We might feed them.  But that is very different from eating with them.  There’s a very different power balance there.

It’s a powerful thing, speaking of power, to invite someone new to your table.

It’s a powerful thing to eat with someone you never have before.

Did you know the word “companion” comes from the Latin “to eat bread with?”  When we eat together, strangers become companions.

I wonder how many of you saw in the news this week that in Wichita, Kansas, the local Black Lives Matter group had a cookout with local police.[2]

The event was originally scheduled as a protest.  After talking to the police force, the protest organizers cancelled the protest and instead agreed to come together with police in a nearby park to eat and talk.  Police officers flipped burgers and members of the two groups played basketball and danced together.

They also had some real conversation.  Members of the community voiced their concerns and the police addressed their questions.  They also broached on the question of whether a cookout was really going to do any good or change anything.  But for many of the people there, it was the first time they had ever sat down at a table with a police officer.  It was, perhaps, the first time they had seen police officers as people.  And—just maybe—vice versa.

Is eating together going to change everything?  Probably not.  This week in America there were even more reports of police violence against black people elsewhere—and, more reports of violence against police.  Clearly the solution lies in more than a cookout.  But it seems like a really good start.  Because around a table, people become equals, at least for a little while.  It’s not one person serving and one person being served.  It’s not one person feeding and one person being fed.  It’s not a person with a badge and a thug.  It’s people, eating the same burgers and drinking the same lemonade and getting to know each other and maybe even playing and dancing together.  And it’s not perfect, and it’s not magic, but I think there is something of heaven on earth in that picture.

How does God’s picture of a meal shape who you are—and who you eat with?

Your mission this week, if you choose to accept it: eat with someone new.  When we eat together after the service today, sit with someone you haven’t talked to much before.  Invite a new coworker to join you for lunch, or invite a neighbor you don’t know well over for dinner, or buy lunch for someone panhandling on the street and actually eat it with them.  Make your table look a little more like God’s heavenly table.  A lot could change.  It’s not just about food.

[1] Quoted in Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating, by Norman Wirzba, p. 225.

[2] http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2016/07/19/kansas-black-lives-matter-holds-picnic-police-instead-protest/87299934/

Faith and Food: The Ethics of Eating

Scripture: Daniel 1:3-17

Our story begins as a story of abundance and hospitality.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and God made the earth green with plants and trees of every kind, good trees, bearing fruit.  And God made the animals and the birds and the fish of the sea and then God made us and gave us this beautiful, abundant, fertile place and said make yourselves at home.

Years later when the people God had chosen to be God’s people were enslaved in Egypt, God saved them through a meal and the blood of a sacrificial lamb smeared on their doorposts.  And when they wandered in the wilderness not knowing what to make of their newfound freedom, God fed them with manna from heaven, and God led them toward a land flowing with milk and honey.

In the time of the prophets Isaiah foresaw a heavenly feast set on God’s mountain, to which all peoples were invited and at which all would be fed.

When Jesus walked on earth his first miracle was providing wine for a wedding reception where they were running out.  He called fishermen to follow him and was known to help with their catch when it was low.  In his ministry he called himself the Bread of Life and he fed five thousand men (not including women and children!) with a few loaves of bread and some small fish.  On the night before he died, at a Passover meal, Jesus took a loaf of bread and cup of wine, gave thanks, gave them to his disciples, and said take and eat and drink.  This is my body and blood, given for you.

And when Jesus rose again he appeared to a couple of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they thought he was a stranger, until they ate together and he was made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Our story of faith is a story of God making room for us, and providing for us, in ways both tangible and tasty, which is why the scholar Norman Wirzba calls food “God’s love made nutritious.”

It has never been the case, though, that this hospitality calls for an unmitigated free-for-all of eating.

Because from the beginning, there have been limits and boundaries that have helped us—when we have followed them—to eat well and faithfully in response to what God has provided.

In the beginning it was an apple—or rather a tree of unspecified fruit, called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.  Of all the trees in the Garden of Eden, it was the one the humans were not supposed to touch.  And we all know what happened there.

In the wilderness it was the dietary laws.  The Israelites were not to eat certain types of foods, because they were to be set apart from other people as God’s people.   It was these laws Daniel and his friends struggled to keep as they served in the king’s court during the Babylonian exile, and God blessed them for it.

In our Christian story, some of these rules and boundaries had to be loosened or change.  Jesus allowed his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, asking us to consider the spirit rather than the letter of the law.  He ate with people other people wouldn’t have eaten with.  After his resurrection, Peter had a vision of God telling him to eat all sorts of unclean animals, three times, and that was what made him realize that God invited non-Jewish people into God’s story, too.

Even so, early Christians fought about food and our proper relationship to it.  Should it matter if we eat meat that had been sacrificed to Greek gods?  Or not?  That was something several early churches had to hash out for themselves.

Today, most of us who are Christian aren’t terribly worried about keeping kosher.  For better or worse, we prepare and eat the food we want even on the Sabbath, and I’m not sure any of you here have ever stopped to wonder if the hamburger you’re about to put in your mouth has been dedicated to the glory of Zeus.

But I would still argue that what and how we eat still has something to do with living faithfully in response to what God has provided for us.

When I heard Norman Wirzba speak—the scholar I am indebted to for a lot of ideas in this series[1]—he was quick to issue the caveat that he is not the food police.  I will echo that.  This series is not about me standing up here telling you that the only way to be a good Christian is to eat organic local gluten-free non-GMO stuff with no additives.  I hope it’s clear from our whole faith story that our relationship with food is a little more complicated, and richer, than that.  What I do want to do is bring up a few things that might help us think more theologically about our relationship with food.

It’s a little mundane, perhaps, to be worrying about, given everything else going on in our country and our world, but eating is something we do every day, and it is unmistakably a central part of our story and identity as people of God.  So it’s worth it to think about how to do it well.

We might start by recognizing that as a people—I’ll speak for Americans in general here—our relationship to food is kind of messed up.  We might even call it broken, or sinful, though I mean that in a way that goes well beyond our particular personal choices.  Overall, here, we live in such abundance as far as food is concerned that we don’t even know what to do with it.  I think about this every time I finish my food at a restaurant and immediately regret it because now I’m so full it hurts.  And then I want ice cream.  Of course, not all of us have equal access to that abundance, and not all of us have access to the same parts of it.  Here in America, obesity and malnutrition go together.

I once ready about a study in a Michael Pollan book where the researchers asked a group of French people and a group of American people how they knew when to stop eating.  The French people said, “When I get full.”  The Americans said, “When my food is gone.”[2]

We know this about ourselves, I think, and we feel some shame in that, so then on the other hand food becomes the enemy.  Food becomes solely about calories and nutritional information and points.  It becomes something that I have to resist, every day, and that causes me shame too.

I don’t think that’s what God wants, either.  Because, again, if food is one way God’s love for us is made tangible, it’s so much more than some numbers on a label.  It’s comfort, and memories, and enjoyment, and fellowship.  It’s not an invitation to gluttony, but neither is it something that I believe God wants to cause me shame.  At its best, or maybe our best, eating should be something that connects us to God, to the rest of creation, and to each other.  But something went wrong—probably as soon as Adam and Eve ate that forbidden fruit.

Norman Wirzba says we are “eating in exile.”  What he means is that these connections that are supposed to be there are broken. Think of what you had for breakfast today, if you ate something, or for dinner last night.  Do you know where it came from?  Who was involved in producing it?  How did it get from there to here?  What was in it?  What happened to it along the way?  How was the environment affected—which is also to ask, how were other people, present and future, affected?

Back in the day, people grew their food, and they knew these things.  They were connected to it, through the whole process.  These days, not many of us are, in a big way.

I say to that, thank God for the division of labor.  I like the idea of gardens, but I have never had any real urge to be a gardener, much less a farmer.  My vision of the Kingdom of God is not one where we all become subsistence farmers.  And short of growing it, who really has time to ask and answer all those questions about their food?

I will admit not me, not all the time, but I’ve learned to start asking them a little at a time, when I can.  One of the best mission trips I ever went on was one where groups went out to different sites each day and did mission work in inner city Atlanta.  But each day, one group stayed behind at our host church and prepared food for dinner and the next day.  Every other mission trip I’ve ever been on has been either school cafeteria food or white bread sandwiches and Doritos procured from Walmart, so this was a different kind of experience.  We baked bread and air-popped popcorn and prepared simple meals like bean soup.  And as we did we talked about the food.  The director talked to us about how we expect and demand food to be cheap, and how we spend less on food as a percentage of income than at any other point in history.  And he talked about some of the tradeoffs of trying to get the most “ethical” food he could.  Should he buy ingredients locally, or was it worth it to have the organic version shipped from a few states away?  There wasn’t any automatic answer, but we all learned to think about these things.

It’s easy to get sucked in by labels that promise us that we are doing the right thing.  But sometimes those labels are just labels.  It may take a little research to decide, what really makes a difference if I buy it organic?  What is truly creating a more sustainable environment that will be able to feed people into the future, and what’s just a way to justify charging me more?  What does “fair trade certified” mean?

Not long ago I picked up a bag of chocolate chips from Giant and noticed that the bag said “Made from sustainably sourced cocoa.”  I know the chocolate industry is a really, really bad one, especially in terms of how its laborers are treated—maybe worse than coffee.  It was one of those things I always conveniently ignored, because I really like chocolate.  So I was excited to see that on the bag and immediately felt virtuous for buying these chocolate chips.  The thing is, I have no idea what they meant by “sustainably sourced.”  It could have meant anything, and it made me feel good about buying their product, which I’m sure was the point.

I don’t think the right answer is to become so paralyzed by questions of where my food came from that I can’t eat anything like a normal person.  I do think increasing awareness in a way that can help us make informed decisions about our food when we are in a place to make them is one way of responding faithfully to God’s hospitality.  We acknowledge the ways, good and bad, our food connects us to creation and to other people.

That does get us into an issue of food justice, though, because again, some of us are in a lot more of a place to make intentional decisions about what we eat than others.  The danger of harping too much on labels is that eating becomes kind of an elitist activity.  The “good” people shop buy organic, fair trade food from Whole Foods and the “bad” people shop at evil Walmart.

Well, not everyone can afford to shop at Whole Foods, and some of our neighbors, even some of us here, may be asking very different questions about the food we buy and eat.  What’s the best way to stretch my SNAP benefits so my kids don’t go hungry?  Is it worth the extra dollar to buy the version with less added sugar?  Can I afford fresh vegetables this week?  Will I be judged if I splurge for a special occasion?

I think we can name it as a cultural sin that these are the choices people have to make in the first place.

I think of that in relation to our Fellowship Hall food basket sometimes.  You know I’ve told you all to bring in food like soups and ravioli and easy mac so that people can come into our church and get something to eat.  And there’s a good reason I’ve told you to bring in those foods—because they are easy to prepare and many of our neighbors don’t have a kitchen to go home to.  But I’ve also talked to plenty of our neighbors who would love a fresh salad now and then.  Or who suffer from high blood pressure and need to watch their sodium intake.  When we talk about eating ethically, it’s not just what’s on our plates that we should be worried about—probably God is just as concerned with what is and isn’t on our neighbor’s plate.

We also have ways to address this question.  If you went down to AFAC on a Saturday afternoon, for example, you could be part of sorting and bagging the produce that comes in from local gardens and farmer’s markets so that clients who come in during the week can get fresh fruit and vegetables.  Or maybe you’ve been gleaning, picking up the leftover produce from farms and orchards that hasn’t been harvested, so that others can have access to that good food, too.  Part of recognizing food as God’s love for us means it’s our job, as much as we can do it, to make sure it is available to all.

Finally, it matters not just where our food comes from but where it goes to.

I don’t think it’s a secret to any of us that we waste a lot of food.  I know every week I throw away stuff from my refrigerator that I didn’t get around to eating and has since gone bad.  I know that whole meals get thrown away at restaurants and whole crates of food from grocery stores because they don’t get sold in time.

It doesn’t do any good to finish a meal we aren’t hungry for because there are starving children somewhere else in the world, but it does make sense to try to bring or prepare or order less food next time so that ultimately there’s more of it to go around.

I did also learn some surprising things recently about food waste on a higher level.  I was listening to a talk by a woman who works for the Society of Saint Andrew, an organization that does a lot of gleaning.  What I had never known is that the USDA has these very specific guidelines for food that can get sold in our grocery stores.  So, for example, a green bean has to be between such and such a length and such and such a length.  Otherwise it’s too big or too small to be sold.  A peach has to be the perfect size to fit in one of those cardboard fruit cartons.  Otherwise it’s too big or too small to be sold.  This woman talked about driving up to farms and orchards to just find mounds and mounds of perfectly good fruits and vegetables ready to be turned into pig fodder or compost.

We make enough food in our world to feed everyone, but this is what we do with it.

Again, it’s worth thinking about what we might do opt out of this system.  My friend Nancy has a friend who is a dumpster diver.  He eats what he finds in the trash.  It’s not that he’s poor or desperate—he sees it as a justice issue.  We simply throw away too much food.

I’m not going to give you the assignment of fishing food out of a dumpster for one meal this week.  Maybe your assignment as well as mine is to think a little harder about what we get and what we waste, and whether that might not in some way be shared instead.

We do not live in the world of Leviticus and its food laws.  But, like Daniel and his friends, we do get to make choices about how to eat faithfully in exile.  Like most answers, I don’t think the answers are clear cut.

What we can’t forget is that food is one important way that God’s love and abundance and hospitality has been made real to us since the beginning of our story.  When we eat, no matter what we discern is a faithful way to eat, it should always be in grateful response to that.

[1] See his book, Food and Faith: A Theology of Eating

[2] Pollan, Omnivore’s Dilemma

Love that Casts Out Fear: Reflections on the past week

Scripture: 1 John 4:16-21

I was going to preach about food today.  I was going to tell you about how food has been central to our story as God’s people from the beginning, from creation and the Garden of Eden right up to Jesus offering himself in bread and wine and the promise of a new creation where God sets a banquet and all are invited.  And I was going to talk about God’s hospitality toward us, how food is as one scholar put it “God’s love made nutritious” or even “God’s love made delicious.”

But this week we’ve been killing each other in this country, and honestly it just didn’t feel like the week to be talking about food.

It seems every morning this week we’ve woken up to hear that someone else is dead.  On Wednesday it was Alton Sterling, a black man shot and killed by white policemen as he was pinned down outside the convenience store in Baton Rouge where he sold DVDs.  On Thursday it was Philando Castile, a black man killed in Minnesota by white police in front of his girlfriend and four-year-old daughter after they pulled him over for a busted taillight.  And on Friday it was five police officers, with six others injured, shot by a sniper at a protest against police violence in Dallas.  Every day.

It’s the kind of week we need to talk about in church if church is to be relevant to the world around us at all.

It’s one thing to come here and escape from the realities of life, to focus our minds not on earth but on heaven for a little while, sing some uplifting songs, but the thing is I don’t think that’s the kind of God we worship, because the God we worship came on down here.  The God we worship wasn’t content to sit up in heaven while we fought it out for ourselves here on earth.  God became one of us and entered into the immense brokenness of this world, and if we call ourselves the Body of Christ, that’s our job too.

But after that I don’t really know what to say.  I wish I had some words that would change the world, or at least that would equip you all to change the world.  But I don’t have those words.  I also am not sure I have anything to say that I haven’t already said after Ferguson or Charleston.  But maybe that’s OK; maybe we need to say and hear things again sometimes.

So I’ll begin with what is hopefully obvious: none of the events of this week are OK.  From Louisiana to Minnesota to Dallas, none of them are OK.  It is tragic for police to be killed in the line of duty, especially as they are protecting the right of people to protest, and it is tragic that Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lost their lives, and furthermore it is tragic for black people, especially black men, to have to fear the very people who are supposed to keep us safe.  That’s not to say all police are the same; it’s simply to say that this keeps happening.

Seven children of God lost their lives this week in these incidents.  We don’t have to make this about “sides;” all of them were precious.

Some of you might say that we don’t know all the details of what happened to Alton Sterling or Philando Castile, and that’s true, I don’t know more than you know from watching the same news.  I know that the videos do not look good.  And I know that the list of names keeps getting longer—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland—and also that whenever I read one of these lists of names, of black people killed by police, there are more names on it that I don’t even recognize, because I have the privilege of not always paying attention.  And I do know that black men make up 6% of the population in the US, but 40% of unarmed men shot and killed by police in 2015; and that young black men are nine times more likely than any other group of people in America to be killed by police.[1]  This isn’t about one or two people, it’s about black people in this country having reason to fear for their lives just by going outside.

And I know that my black friends and colleagues are asking white people to speak up.  So while I don’t know if I have the right words, I am trying.

The Bible verse that’s been coming back to me all week is from 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  That’s because all of this has to do with fear.  We are afraid of each other.

We can’t snap our fingers and stop being afraid of each other, and that’s why it can make a difference to support laws and policies that hold our police accountable, like body cameras, and to give them the tools and training they need to deescalate potentially dangerous situations instead of escalating them, so they don’t come to this as often.  You can’t solve racism overnight, but you can control its effects.  I read that in Dallas, where the five police officers were killed, de-escalation training is already making a difference in complaints of excessive force against them.[2]  Let’s push for that to continue and expand.

But in a way I think that’s the easy solution because it has to do with other people, and the hard solution has to do with us.

We’re afraid of each other.  Not those of us who sit here of different colors, probably, but in a more general sense—we are taught by our families and our friends and our society around us, at a very young age, who is dangerous and who to be afraid of, as well as things like who is smart and who counts beautiful.  We make these judgments in an instant, as soon as we see someone on the street or on the Metro or in a shopping center, and a lot of times we don’t even know we have made them.  Studies have shown that when we are presented with images of two faces and asked which one we trust more, our prejudices come out.

It might be someone in a niqab, or someone with a lot of tattoos and piercings, or it might be someone with a badge, or someone panhandling on the street, or it might be a black man.

Most of the time, there’s no gun involved.  Instead we just avert eye contact, cross the street, give someone a wide berth, clutch our bags a little closer, or just feel on edge for a moment.  No overt harm done.

One morning maybe a year ago I pulled up to church and there was a guy standing outside wearing what looked to be the traditional garb of a Middle Eastern country—I couldn’t tell you which one.  And I paused before I got out of the car.  Because what do you think my first thought was?

Terrorist.

Now, that was not my reasoned or enlightened first thought.  I have lived in Northern Virginia for most of my life and am used to seeing people from all different places dressed in all different manners.  I absolutely do not believe that Middle Eastern people are all or mostly terrorists, any more than white Americans are all or mostly terrorists.  I’m also fairly used to seeing an eclectic group of people outside or inside our church doors.  But the society I live in has painted a picture for me of what a terrorist looks like, and that image is ingrained in me, like it or not.  So that was my honest, knee-jerk, gut reaction.

I hope it’s obvious that I’m not telling you that because I’m proud of it.  I’m telling you that because I am actually deeply ashamed of it.  For someone who likes to pride herself on her supposed openness to all different kinds of people, that is a deeper confession than I am usually willing to make here in front of you.

But I’m saying it anyway because I believe that if we are not honest with ourselves about our own gut-level prejudices, nothing is going to change.  I’m just going first.

I can’t say for sure what was going on inside anyone’s head when white police officers kill black men.  But society does teach those of us who are white, early on, to be distrustful and scared of people who are black.  It usually doesn’t use those words, but it teaches us just the same.  And no matter what good and open-minded people we are, we can’t escape that that easily.  So I can’t imagine that wasn’t a dynamic at play somehow in the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile—or Michael Brown, or Freddie Gray, or Walter Scott, or anyone else whose name has become a hashtag in the past few years.  Even if those officers were no more racist than the next guy—even if they were no more racist than me.

A police officer, in the moment, might not have time to question his or her own fear and prejudice.  But I usually do.  I usually have time to take a breath and say, “This is how I am reacting to this person.  There is no reason for me to be reacting this way.”  I might even say a short prayer: “God, I repent of my fear.  Take away my fear.”  And then I proceed.

On the day when I saw the guy in Middle Eastern dress outside the church, I called myself out on my reaction, and I got out of the car and I went into church.

The guy turned out to be someone I had met before, who was not Middle Eastern and had not been wearing traditional Middle Eastern garb at the time, so it was actually genuinely weird that he was that day.  But that wasn’t the point: in an instant, the prejudice that society has ingrained in me came to the fore, and I had to intentionally decide to reject it.

The fact that I usually have the time to make that decision makes it all the more important that I do, because that way at least I can contribute to this being the kind of world where we don’t pass on those deeply ingrained prejudices, and where those aren’t the basis of the snap judgments we make.

Sometimes, even, we have to help each other out.  We have to call each other out—gently, in love, not with accusation or self-righteousness—when we can’t see clearly enough to do it ourselves.  That, too, is our job as the church.

Mother Theresa said that if we judge people, we don’t have time to love them.  1 John tells us that if we fear people, we don’t have room to love them.  In this country we are afraid of each other, and that means that we are doing a bad job at loving and protecting each other.

Fellow white people, this week I’m especially talking to you.  We have more power and privilege in this country than others, and that means it’s our job to put that to work to change things—to change ourselves.  Or better put, to ask God to change us.

For those of you who are people of color, your lives matter, and I hope this is a place where you know that.  And if there’s more we should be doing as a church, let’s talk about it.

None of this will change the world overnight.  Probably none of it will prevent the next shooting.  But our very basic job as Christians is to love our neighbor, and we simply can’t do that when we are afraid.  And when fear runs deep I think the only way to eliminate it is to confront it when we feel it and ask God to cast it out so that we have more room to love.  Over and over, every time.

In our hurting country, in our broken world, may God help us to love one another as God first loved us.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/dec/31/the-counted-police-killings-2015-young-black-men

[2] http://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/headlines/20151116-dallas-police-excessive-force-complaints-drop-dramatically.ece