Tuesday, September 7, 2010

September 5, 2010 - In the Potter's House

Jeremiah in the Potter's House
Jeremiah 18.1-11

A man came down from the North Carolina mountains. He was all dressed up and carrying his Bible. A friend saw him and asked, "Elias, what's happening? Where are you going all dressed up like that?" Elias said, "I've been hearing about New Orleans. I hear that there is a lot of free-running liquor and a lot of gambling and a lot of real naughty shows." The friend looked him over and said, "But, Elias, if you are going to New Orleans to find all that, why are you carrying your Bible?" And Elias replied, "Well, if it's as good as they say it is, I might stay over until Sunday"


Religion is at the center of the news again – both religion as such and religion as woven into political speech as politicians invoke the name of God to bolster their claims. I started by making a list:
1. The first item on my list is the Glenn Beck rally on August 28. His call to rally Americans on *The Mall* in Washington D.C. attracted 10's of 1000's and maybe 100's of 1000's. It also attracted 10's of 1000's of comments in the many news outlets. As you know, he called for a *Restoring Honor Rally* on the Washington Mall. People I've asked have been more measured in their response – not strongly for or strongly against as I expected.
2. The fact that the "Restoring Honor Rally" was set for the 47th anniversary of Martin Luther King's speech from the same spot in which King said, *"I have a dream,"* called up all those memories as well.
3. The focus on religion has continued with the controversy swirling around the Ground Zero Mosque in New York City.
4. The focus on religion has even come home to Tennessee with the construction and vandalism at an Islamic Cultural Center in Murfreesboro.
5. As I was going though the online websites to get the basic facts straight, I ran into an even stranger expression of religion in Oklahoma. A Satanic Church which calls itself "The Four Majesties" has booked the Civic Center in Oklahoma City to hold a ceremony of its own.

This multiplicity of religious faiths making the news is becoming more and more what we find in the U.S.A. When I was young, the main religious questions were asked between the Methodists and the Baptists; we did not realize how close we all were. Now, this multiplicity of religious faiths tests the limits of tolerance; it leaves us confused. After all, if each of these very different faiths claims to hold the truth, then how do we live in a nation which allows each and every one to make that claim?

How does a Christian keep the faith while allowing others to keep their faiths, too?
+If the Christian faith makes ultimate claims about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then how do we live tolerating other religions which make different claims or even claims that directly challenge the Christian claim?
+If the Christian faith helps us see the world in a particular way with particular values and a particular vision for the future, how do we live alongside other religions which make claims for different values and a different vision for the future?
+Because the Christian faith makes ultimate claims for what is good and right, how do we come to terms with people who use those claims in the service of their politics?

Our faith shapes the way we see the world. How do we live alongside other faiths and other politics that see the world in very different ways?

[TASK:] I set out to sort out these current events that are taking up so much time on our television sets. I thought that any reasonable person, schooled in the ways of God could separate religion from politics, and truth from instigation. Instead, I find myself in a noisy room where everyone seems to be shouting in the direction of everyone else. Even though everyone seems to be shouting, I'm not sure anyone is hearing much. It seems people don't want a dialogue as much as they want to take a position. Before long, I found myself reaching for my own megaphone just to challenge the wave of noise that threatens to drown out my best intentions.

[Poem: I Tend to Shout More]

I tend to shout more,
on days like these
when the cacophony around me rises
blending all shouts into babble
until the point is no longer any point
but just a rising competition to stand over
every other challenger real or presumed.

I tend to shout more,
when truth becomes irrelevant
to the game and the competition,
when comforting the broken frightened ones
now strewn around the battlefield
becomes the foolish concern for sissies,
when kindness is pushed aside
in our headlong drive for power.

I tend to shout more
when words cease to matter
and lose their power to connect,
point and move people and peoples,
when the same words–even hallowed words–
can carry so many different meanings
that my tenderness on hearing hallowed words
is stolen– just another backdoor into my soul.

I tend to shout more
when the noise around me,
claiming the truth, makes me wonder
about my own right to claim anything,
even whether I even have the right to believe
that I am a beloved child of God.

I tend to shout more
when I find myself gripped by fear
that my prayers are not loud enough
or rising high enough.//
When I wonder what God must think of all the noise,
I imagine the Almighty leaning over the threshold of heaven
straining to listen,
but wincing at the noise that drowns out prayer (1).


II. Let us allow Jeremiah's prophecy to teach again what it means to live as people of faith in an increasingly noisy and pluralistic religious scene.
Jeremiah's message comes in fiery words designed to scare the fur off the cat – and wake us up to the Word of God spoken to us and about us. The very next verses following the story of the Potters's House are a sharp condemnation of Israel and its lack of faithfulness:

13 Therefore, thus says the LORD:
Ask among the nations:
Who has heard the like of this?
The virgin Israel has done a most horrible thing.
14 Does the snow of Lebanon
leave the crags of Sirion? Of course, not!
15 But my people have forgotten me,
they burn offerings to a delusion;
16 making their land a horror,
a thing to be hissed at forever.
17 Like the wind from the east,
I will scatter them before the enemy.
I will show them my back,
not my face, in the day of their calamity. (Jer 18:13-17) .


Jeremiah challenged Israel because it was rebellious and going its own way. It about to learn the awful truth that the God who blesses can also withhold the blessing. It is about to learn that the God who helps us when we are down also expects us to live up to the Scriptures' call to righteousness and justice and concern for the poor.
1. More than most prophets, Jeremiah challenged Israel to righteousness both personal and national. He called to account those who pray sweet prayers on the Sabbath and then go out to live like heartless tyrants the other 6-days of the week. He called the nation to God's righteousness in its dealings with other nations.

2. Jeremiah spoke in a confusing time in Israel:
+Much like our own when real terrorists are promising that we are the target of their destruction.
+Much like our own when fear about the future makes us pull those dear to us close for comfort.
+ Much like our own time when uncertainty makes us want to join the cheer: "My country right or wrong."

Patriotism makes us savor all things that are right about our county and celebrate them; it makes us want to overlook anything that as wrong is unimportant. But Jeremiah would improve the old cheer:

"Our country, right or wrong.
When right to be kept right;
When wrong to be put right again."

It is not enough to be right by the world's standards. It is not enough to be a hair better than our enemies. It is God's righteousness that is the standard by which we are measured. This is true in our personal conduct, in our business, and in our national life together.

Benjamin Disraeli was England's only Jewish Prime Minster: He said in a campaign speech in 1832: "I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many and the prejudices of the few."


III. If the Christian faith makes ultimate claims about the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then how do we live tolerating other religions now making different claims or even claims that directly challenge the Christian claim? Well, I do not believe that we live well by reducing our faith and that of others to the lowest common denominators – the few things we can agree on so that we do not have to disagree. Faith is about the spice in life, not the source of dullness.

[ILLUS:]
We have treated our Christianity as if it is an embarrassment any time we take it out in public. To make it more acceptable, we water it down to make it appeal to more customers. But, this leads to disaster in our faith. Watered down, it is simply not the real thing. The hot, offensive themes – such as the cross and the blood of Christ – are taken out, and a comfortable, people-pleasing substitute is found. The false gospel may be soothing to the taste, but it is powerless to save. The spicy gospel will always be an offense to sinful humankind.

I believe that the future calls for the kind of tolerance that holds firmly to our distinctive and rigorous Christian faith while choosing to live in peace with those who make other, equally strong, choices. What binds us together as Americans is the freedom to go many ways together. While this will not always be simple or free of conflict, this *many together* approach allows each faith to hold onto its integrity.

[ILLUS:] Years ago, I had a Jewish neighbor. He and his family were very active in their synagogue; they actively practiced their Jewish faith at home also. On Saturday, we would be out doing the chores that guys in the neighborhood would do. At the end of the day, he would often say to me on parting, "Have a good Sabbath." He was obviously, wishing me a good Sunday – my Sabbath, not his.

We must live in our pluralistic world in tolerance and respect for others and their faiths. This means holding our faith as the dear source of life it is for us. It means living openly so that we live out our faith witness to others.

III. As I read Jeremiah's warning, he does not allow much room for compromise or for accommodation with people of other faiths or other politics. His message is evidence that religion speaks of ultimate things: God, eternity, and obedience. The *Ten *Commandments* are written in stone. The interpretation of those commandments may undergo some changes, but the commandments themselves won't be swept away with a simple eraser.

While I appreciate Jeremiah's rigorous simplicity, we live in a multi-world: multi-party, multi-denomination, multi-ethnic. How do we keep faith with Jeremiah's call to rigorous faithfulness to this God who has been revealed in the face of Jesus Christ? How do we keep faith when even those of us who share the same faith cannot always agree on the political and social implications of this faith? God forbid that we should withdraw into privatism, where anyone can believe anything they like as long as they keep it to themselves. This great faith, which shapes us, still sends us into the public arena to give voice to our convictions.//

I answer this at the Table. I come to the Lord's Table to receive and to be fed. To kneel at this table is to be shaped in the image of Christ: convictions, loyalties, hopes, dreams of God's future. I believe that the God who has revealed himself in the face of Jesus has dealt with me, and I must respond. As legend quotes Martin Luther: "Here I stand; I can do no other." Now shaped, now claimed, we step forward into the noisy, competing world – there to bear witness, there to live as an example, there to stand and work as God's person.

Come to the Table–to be fed at the Lord's hand is to know that you take God with you wherever you go.



Notes:
1. AF, September 1, 2010
3. "The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America" (The Declaration of Independence).

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