A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho on September 22, 2013 by Rev. Marci Auld Glass.
Our passage this morning, from the beginning chapters of Jeremiah, offers a courtroom style indictment by God against Israel. “Therefore, once more, I accuse you” says the Lord.
If you’ve ever read much of the Bible, you’ll know this is not the first, last, or only time Israel stands accused of being unfaithful to her God.
The narrative of Scripture is a story of God seeking us out, everyone being all excited about it and signing covenants to be faithful to each other, and then, after about five minutes, of Israel falling short, missing the mark, turning away from God and toward idols. Again and again and again.
From Adam and Eve in the garden, through the Exodus from Egypt toward the Promised Land, through the stories of King Saul and King David, we see again, and again, the stories of very imperfect people who are, nonetheless, loved by God.
God’s indictment of Israel here is that they have forgotten their God in favor of false gods, and they have thrown away their story.
They’ve forgotten to tell the story of creation, how the Spirit of God moved across the face of the deep, speaking life and light into the world. And when you forget about the God who created you, it is easy to forget that you are beautiful, wonderful, and created in God’s image.
They’ve forgotten to teach their children about that time they were slaves in Egypt and how God delivered them from Pharaoh. And when you forget about how you were saved, it is easy to believe you’ve been saving yourself all this time.
They’ve forgotten to teach their kids the story of the Exodus wandering, and how their disobedience kept them from where they wanted to be. And when you forget about being lost, it is easy to believe you always know where you’re going.
Instead of remembering their past, of remembering the times God had delivered them, they chose to write their own story, where they were the main characters.
“They did not say, where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt….”
Instead of remembering who they are and whose they are, Jeremiah tells us they “went after worthless things and became worthless themselves”.
The accusation about them seems to be like the adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
And when you forget what God has done for you in the past, you forget God might just be working in your life right now.
But we don’t like to tell those stories, do we?
We don’t mention the grandfather who was an alcoholic and lost the family business. We mention the relative who invented barbed wire or the impressive things we’ve done and we’ve acquired.
Which is fine. On some level, it is normal that the story we’d want to tell is of our success. And there are success stories mixed in to the narrative God is accusing Israel of forgetting.
But our successes are not our whole story.
We are who we are, for good and bad, because of the lives we have lived. The tragedy, the boneheaded mistakes, the embarrassments, the hard work, the dumb luck, and the experiences we never would have chosen on our own—they all have shaped us.
And we should never forget it.
This week the wife of a college classmate shared this status on Facebook:
“Four years ago today I made the most significant mistake of my adult life when I chose to pick up a drink after 13 years of sobriety. 10 long months of struggle and mayhem ensued but I have now been sober over three years again. I celebrate and am grateful for the second chance but remember too how easy it was to fall. Thankful.”
I didn’t know this part of her story before I saw it on Facebook.
But I’m glad I do now.
And I’m thankful she shared it publicly, because I bet there was someone out there that day who needed to see it, to know they weren’t alone in their addiction, and to know that someone else had made it this far.
That’s why we tell our stories, so we can seek connections with each other and with our past.
Alcohol isn’t my story, although it has been a struggle for many in my family. But I’m happy to tell you my stories, and I’ve got plenty. And I’ve been privileged to hear many of yours.
And we need to carve space into our lives for the sharing of the stories, and we need to support each other as we share the difficult ones.
When someone tells you about that time they were slaves in Egypt or in alcoholism, how can you honor that story and really be present in the listening?
There have been many debates recently at both the national and the local level about how we are going to respond to the hungry people in our communities, the homeless people, and the people who have jobs but have just not been able to rise out of poverty and recover from this recession.
This week, Boise City Council passed an ordinance against panhandling. While nobody likes aggressive panhandling, I fear that this ordinance will criminalize people who already are facing difficulties you and I probably can’t imagine.
And I wonder about the stories of the men and women I see sitting by the off ramps, with signs asking for money. Is that man a vet, back from the war in Afghanistan and unable to find work in this sluggish economy?
Is that woman homeless because she finally left her home because she decided that being on the streets was better than being abused?
When we criminalize homeless people, it is easy to forget they have stories we need to hear.
Also this week, the House passed a bill that would cut $40 billion from food stamp programs. One of the reasons I’m opposed to this particular piece of legislation is because I benefited from such programs when I was a kid. We received reduced price lunch at our elementary school because my family didn’t always have much money.
I was talking about it this week with a group of people and one of them said, “I was a food stamp kid. And it wasn’t because my parents were lazy or cheating the system. Food assistance helped me climb out of poverty so I could succeed.”
You could tell the people who fully supported the cuts to the food stamp program were reconsidering their position when they realized they knew people who had been on food stamps.
While there are many different and good solutions to the problems of hungry and homeless people in our community, the value of telling each other our stories is that we’ll remember to be compassionate to each other. Hopefully it will help us fight the war on poverty, rather than waging a war against the poor.
Jeremiah’s indictment of Israel is that they have made up their own stories. Instead of remembering their connections to the past and to each other, they have written stories where they are the only protagonist, the hero, and the narrator.
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves,
that can hold no water.
One of the gifts of community, especially the church community, is we have a place to tell each other our stories, and to call each other on our errors. When we forget we’re part of a larger story, we need truth tellers to help us come back. We gather together and read scripture. We study it in Bible studies. And so we hear the stories of where God worked in our ancestors’ lives, and we learn to draw connections to our own lives.
This year, during the education hour on Sunday morning, we’re going to focus on that story, particularly the Presbyterian chapter of the story. Children, youth, and adults, will all have opportunities to learn more about our heritage as Presbyterians. So we hope you’ll join us. And we hope you’ll hear stories, and share stories, and help each other make the connections to the divine story.
Two times in this passage, God accuses Israel of forgetting to look around at their lives and ask “where is the Lord?”.
And so I invite you to attend to that question.
As you go through the routine of your life, where do you see God? Where is the Lord?
Someone shared an article with me this week about being in the drive thru line at Starbucks. Susan Basham was in line and realized another car was waiting to pull into the drive through too, so she waved her ahead. But the woman rolled down her window and cursed at her. Here’s what she wrote:
Instead of getting mad or yelling back at her, a sense of empathy invaded me. I looked at her again, and this time I saw someone different, someone who wrenched my heart. Her eyes were red and puffy. Her hair was pulled back in a natty ponytail. She held her phone in her palm, glancing down at it every few seconds. And she was driving that big ole’ gas hog of a Suburban, my own car of choice when I had three kids at home and a carpool.
Dear God. I was looking at myself ten years ago. Same car, same ponytail. Same frustration.
And so when she pulled up to order her drink, she said she wanted to pay for the drink of the screaming woman. And the barista was supposed to tell her she hoped she had a better day.
But the woman couldn’t accept the gift. When the other woman got up to the window, the barista said, “She said she couldn’t believe you wanted to pay for her drink after all the names she called you. She said she couldn’t allow it, and said to tell you she was sorry. She felt really bad.”
And she said she already was having a better day.
I don’t know if or how the women at Starbucks that day saw God in the midst of their encounter.
But I see it.
In those moments of seeing each other with compassion, we live into the instruction to ask “Where is the Lord?”
It is a privilege to get to be your pastor—for so many reasons—but day in and day out, in the way you care for each other and seek to help the community, I see you answering the question “Where is the Lord?”.
It’s your choice, of course. You can look for God’s presence in your life. Or, you can be like Jeremiah’s folks and decide your own story is a better one.
David Foster Wallace told this story at a commencement speech:
There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.‘”
And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that happened was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”
So that’s fine. He can see it that way.
Or he can remember to ask, “where is the Lord?”.
I invite you to consider where you have seen God in your life and add those stories to the comments here. If you’re too shy to have your name on the interwebs, you can email me the story and I can add it for you, anonymously.
Friends, for reasons we can only imagine, God has added us to the divine story. The story that began eons ago continues today with us. So let us be on the lookout for the new chapters that are being written.
Thanks be to God.
And here are some videos to go along with the sermon. The first one we showed in worship (even though it is a Chik Fila ad).