Bootleggers & Bagmen
Your bulletin cover [a blank family tree] is a worksheet. You can write in a name. But see if you can remember a story to go with it – maybe a story you’re not sure you want a stranger to know about your kinfolks.
In the 1920’s, one of my great-great uncles was so depressed, the whole family organized a schedule to make sure he was never alone. Then one fall, they were all at one farm to work an apple harvest and realized nobody had eyes on him. They went searching and two of the boys found him in an orchard with a paring knife. In front of them he cut his own throat and bled to death. My grandma was a child at the farm that day, told me the story – the same grandma who hid her whiskey in the linen closet, even after she’d moved into assisted living. Two cousins from my own generation, boys I grew up with, have also committed suicide. One just this year. That’s only my mother’s people.
Carl’s Uncle Jack went to federal prison in the 1970’s, convicted for acting as bagman for a Mississippi sheriff. Another set of Briggs were small time bootleggers who fled Arkansas for Oklahoma, where one of the sisters was murdered. These are my children’s people: the suicidally depressed; secret alcoholics; bootleggers and bagmen. Along with a few soldiers. No more than a handful of devout church people. Many, many rent farmers. Housekeepers and shopkeepers, beauty operators (a term I love!), coal miners. But no teachers, preachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, professionals, politicians, not a single college graduate on either side before 1986. Just the plainest and poorest and hardworking-est of people, including the bootleggers, bagmen, suicides, and secret alcoholics. Anybody else have a testimony?
All of it is why I am so deeply comforted that Matthew’s account of the salvation of us all does not begin with the story of an eight-pound, six-ounce, newborn, sweet little baby Jesus. He did not come to us from thin air, Friends, but through a long line of the liars and crooks who were his kinfolk – just like our kinfolk – on this earth.
Let’s pray: For the great courage it takes to know and tell the truth of from whom we’ve come, we pray, O God. For the even greater courage necessary to keep loving ourselves and those other people – the corruption and the grace – we pray as well. Amen.
I read you a poem on Christmas Eve by Carol Penner. Here is part of another by her:
We love you in the manger, Jesus.
Your little hands and feet,
your soft breathing,
your eyes closed in sleep.
You may be a revolutionary,
but we like ours in diapers.
Forgive us, Lord,
for preferring a Saviour who can’t talk;
Who has no words of judgment;
Whose chubby arms can’t flip tables
Whose baby feet aren’t marching to Jerusalem.
No gospel writer goes on so long as Matthew about the baby Jesus – except his story doesn’t start there. Abraham and David – that’s Matthew’s beginning, the Founding Fathers of Judaism. Abraham – dirty old man. (Remember Hagar? Remember him passing his wife off as his sister?) David – the rapist-murdering king. In between them, Jacob the swindler; Rahab the prostitute; Solomon the colonizing slave-maker. And Manasseh – son of Hezekiah, grandson of Ahaz, king of Judah, whom the Bible describes as more evil in the sight of God than all the nations God destroyed in the sight of Israel.
They are all here, these men. Along with Rahab, Matthew mentions Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba – interesting because women don’t belong in Jewish genealogy. But they show up in Jesus’. None of these ancestors are blood kin to baby Jesus, remember. They are Joseph’s family, and Joseph was Jesus’ adopted father, at least as Matthew would have us believe. Adoption counts the same as blood for Jewish families, then and now. It must – otherwise Jews would be extinct.
So the pre-incarnate Christ looked across humanity to choose a family. As one Princeton preaching professor describes it, he selected a household of melodious healing, youthful courage, abusive power, rape, murder, incest and fratricide – a despicable history, making Jesus kin to those who need his forgiveness most. “Most”? Do some need it more than the rest?
Years ago my ten-year-old neighbor visited me after his trip to the country of his father’s birth. How did you like it? I asked. He replied, This world is a dirty, disgusting place. I expect that seems true to someone who’s only ever lived in a tidy subdivision half a mile east of here. But don’t you wonder, Friends, if from God’s perspective the difference between here and there, between the best and worst of us, is infinitesimal? That when deciding where to land as a newborn human being, God could pretty much just spin the bottle.
Pretending there’s no whiskey in my grandma’s closet doesn’t mean there isn’t. Or that it has nothing to do with me. It just means that I still don’t know all I might about why this world hurts me so, about why I’m sometimes mean or sometimes angry, or sometimes so very much afraid. Without knowing how broken and disgraced we are, Friends, we cannot know how very much God loved us. And not knowing how much God loves us, we have not yet taken in that God chose to save us instead of letting our messed-up nature take its course.
It hurts to know. It’s embarrassing to know. It’s necessary to know. It’s true repentance to know. It’s grace discovered and freedom found, to know how much God loves us in our brokenness and disgrace. To know ever more precisely into what circumstance God chose to come, to become like us.
To know is hard, hard work – the work of prayer and trust. And we don’t ever have to do this work. But I do want to point out that this work of knowing from where and whom we come is where the gospel of Jesus Christ begins. Crooks and liars. Saints and sinners. Secret alcoholics. Suicides. Bootleggers. Bagmen. Saints. And sinners.
Before Jesus says a word, we know so much about him, don’t we? We know he comes from folks pretty much like ours, into a world as messed up as this one – and wasn’t one bit surprised. After all, this is the world and we are the folks he chose in the first place.
Would you pray with me?
This Precious, Precious Night
On this night we recall another –
the night God took a deep breath
for all that must be saved,
even the stars outshone themselves
and hillsides gloried with angelic music,
the good, good, good news bouncing down
like boulders, shaking the foundations royally,
announcing the advent of a ruler born
for all who must be saved.
It was the bloody same way
we all arrive on the scene
through the mother of all labor and sweat,
the pain stretching out like tidal waves
for all that must be made flesh.
Love is now newborn, if not exactly
recognizable . . . except to those who know
all must be saved from ourselves
Whatever evil armies occupy our affections
. . . by the bouncing baby news
that will throw even kings from their thrones.
Mary and Joseph and all of us are left
holding the baby,
Is this sensible, God?
Jesus doesn’t answer.
He just suckles and sleeps
and wakes to a new day.
I didn’t write that poem. But I would have if I could have, because poetry gets so much closer to what cannot be spoken.
God giving God’s own child for love of us, God’s other children. I’ll not make heads nor tails of it in words. But here we are just the same.
Can we even fathom such love – love meant not to crush us with guilt, but flood us with the realization of our own beloved-ness; to tempt us to imagine such self-worth that we treat our own lives like a treasure, and each other’s too.
The Creator God talking to God’s own self, reckoning what to do with the likes of us: “I will become one of them,” God said to God’s self. “A baby brown one,” God’s self answered back, “then they’ll really have to pay close attention.”
It’s only sweet because it’s a baby, because we’ve staged it with shepherds and lambs instead of the starving and the dying, the broken and the lost. They are the very evidence against us, the proof that we have failed to follow the simplest instructions: Do good and not evil; depend on me and not yourselves. Every story needs a beginning. Christ’s coming – at what we’ve named Christmas – was a new beginning.
Our celebration is our own new beginning, our do-over of the same project: to do good and not evil; to depend on God and not ourselves.
The church can use the season as we please: to refocus our lives and our life together on the mystery of our belovedness, on this invitation to be lovely to ourselves and one another.
Friends, the world doesn’t care where Christmas came from. The world cares if there is any cause for hope. We’re accountable to them for it – Hope. We who claim it now. Gathering. Reading. Singing. The Word became bouncing, brown, baby flesh – And then he lived among us to Set. Us. Free.
That is the story we’ve come to hear, and the one we’ve been sent to tell – here, now, to this waiting, wanting world. Would you pray with me?
Only Wildly out of Context
The context for Isaiah 7 is II Kings, chapters 16, 17, and 18. Ephraim was another name for the northern kingdom, Israel. Aram was a foreign power, trying to stave off the even larger powers of Assyria and Egypt. The king of Aram, King Rezin, recruited Ephraim (Israel) to help them try and take Judah, the southern kingdom, in order to expand their border between Egypt and Assyria. It almost worked.
But the king of Judah, King Ahaz, made an eleventh-hour deal with the king of Assyria, his enemy’s enemy – a guy named Tiglath-pileser, who sent enough troops to drive the Arameans back and save Jerusalem. Which left Ahaz beholden to Assyria. Not ideal, but not wiped-out either. Summoned to Damascus to pay homage, he took some of his designers and engineers along and told them to study Assyrian religious temples, so they could build perfect replicas in Jerusalem.
God's spokesman in Jerusalem, Isaiah the prophet, saw all of this for what it was – covenant infidelity – and called the king out on it. “Ask God for what you need. Ask God for anything.” But the help Ahaz wants isn't the help God wants to give. God wants to give faith and fidelity. Ahaz wants troops. Ahaz is some kind of arrogant though, talks to the prophet as if he's doing God a favor. “No really, I'm fine. Go ahead and take the day off, God; no need to worry your head about me, God.” I love the prophet's response: “Is it not enough that you wear out mortals, you have to wear out God too?!”
Then comes the hit of the prophetic text. Judah shall be saved, but not by Ahaz. Another will reign. One not yet born. One called Immanuel, which means God with us. But that salvation shall not come before the judgment you fear has rained down on Judah. The very king you have trusted, the king of Assyria, is coming to crush you and yours, Ahaz and Judah, for your persistent, unwavering, infidelity.
Since Matthew, the Isaiah text has been assigned to Baby Jesus in the manger, as though Isaiah himself had seven hundred years of foresight. Most likely, Isaiah was talking about Ahaz's second son, Hezekiah. Are we taking scripture wildly out of context to read Jesus into Isaiah, chapter 7? Did Matthew? Matthew wrote for Jews and so wove Jesus into their history's context.
Can we faithfully inscribe the text over our own nativity scenes? I think so, so long as we are honest with ourselves. This week I've been reading articles with titles like:
One had a link to a graphic of a crackling fireplace to run on the sanctuary screens. Single use is only $7. Another suggested a foyer photo booth with reindeer and Santa props. And the craziest: fake snow that falls from the ceiling during the closing candlelight hymn – Silent Night, of course.
What exactly is out of context about how the church does Christmas, Friends? Celebrating the birth of Christ without the blare of corrupt and fearful kings making alliances with dictators – that is wildly out of context! Celebrating Christmas without the goose-step of 20,000 stamping boots getting louder every minute is Christmas wildly out of context. Celebrating Christmas without foreign armies to whom we'll be beholden. Or with preachers taking Santa pictures instead of doing their job, which is to preach keeping covenant with the God who made us free and to warn us of the consequences when we choose not to listen. It’s all Christmas wildly out of context.
So yes. Only wildly out of this world's context can we know, faithfully know, and worship the baby Jesus. He is the one who comes where everything is broken and we keep trying to pretend it isn't. He is the one who comes to us to interrupt the judgment we brought upon ourselves before it destroys us all completely. The breaking-in of Christ breaks every definition of a life of faith in God: our sense of time and boundary; our under- standing of relationship; even our vocabulary becomes a language foreign to this world. Words like safe and rich and free mean something different to this world than to followers of Jesus.
We are safe because Christ has saved us. And rich because we want for nothing God has not given. We are free because the principalities of this world can never manufacture the power to keep us apart from God. Words like productive, successful and work – who defines those words for us? this world or the love of God in Jesus Christ? How about the word enough? Or happy? Or content?
Friends, it's awfully easy to think sweetly of the season with lives as safe and rich as ours. To us occupation is a job – not a geo-economic-socio-political circumstance that bears down on us like a gathering storm. A poor peasant girl giving birth in a shack with animals is a story only rich white people could think is sweet.
We don't have little toy sets for the genocide one chapter over, little Roman soldiers tossing boy baby carcasses into wagons. That genocide one chapter over casts no shadow on our Christmas bliss, so long as we keep nativity next to the Christmas tree. Context is everything, remember? It absolutely is. Jesus belongs smack center of Isaiah, chapter 7.
Into this world's disgrace and brokenness, God-came-to-us because left to ourselves humanity ruins everything every time. We cannot, for the life of us, do right – by ourselves, by one another, by the earth itself. Our fear, failure, and greed infuriate the God who made us – and then break God's heart. God was moved to do once and for all what we could not, would not, did not.
God moved in the Christ event, from covenant to grace – a story we tell to the sounds of stamping boots and a crying baby or of Christmas trees and fake snow. It is our choice again, this year and every day, what story to believe and tell.
Would you pray with me?
This Little Life of Mine
For understanding the holocaust, we have the novel Night by Elie Wiesel. For the great depression, we have The Grapes of Wrath. For American racism we have To Kill A Mockingbird. For labor in America we have The Jungle. Nothing in these stories is real. All of them are as true as any textbook. The stories are outrageous, but not exaggerated. The half has never been told, either in terms of atrocity and suffering, or courage and sacrifice.
Many scholars treat the book of Esther similarly – as a fictional, but no less true, account of Jewish history everywhere and always: exile, pogrom, genocide and survival; scapegoat and doormat in every country and culture where Judaism ever landed. Outrageous, but not exaggerated. This morning I want to consider Esther, both the story and the character, in light of Advent. Specifically, as we wait for Jesus to come do for us what we cannot for ourselves, what is Jesus waiting for us to do for one another?
Let's pray: These little lives of ours are not our own, O God; we know it and yet forget it all the time. With Esther as our teacher, help us to remember: these little lives of ours are yours, to spend as needed for the loving care of your precious creation. Amen.
The story is set in a place called Susa, a palace complex in Babylon around 600 BCE. There are four main characters. King Xerxes and King Ahasuerus are two names for the same person. He was the king of Babylon, from Ethiopia to India, as the story goes – 127 provinces. (Very little of this telling matches other history books, by the way.) King Xerxes has no idea how to govern. His twin goals in life are to be admired by important people and have beautiful women fawn over him. He stays drunk a lot of the time. He has a ring of power that he hands over to anyone with a bad idea.
Haman was the right hand of King Xerxes. He is as gross as the king, but with slightly less power. Mordecai is a Jew who had come to Babylon from Jerusalem in one of the Jewish deportations. He lives near and is constantly present in the palace complex. Hadassah was his cousin, an orphan whom he had raised. Hadassah's other name is Esther. As the story goes, at one of King Xerxes’ drinking parties – this one lasting for 180 days – he had the idea that his wife, Queen Vashti, should put on her crown and parade around in front of all the men, so they could see how beautiful she was. While not every commentary agrees, not a few read the Hebrew to say wearing ONLY her crown. Naked or clothed, Vashti refuses.
Xerxes is enraged. It's a national emergency. He calls together his advisors. Knowing upon what side their bread is buttered, they tell him to banish her immediately and forever, lest wives everywhere hear of it. They say, then there will be no end of contempt and wrath. And issue a written proclamation too, they say, something like, “from now on all women everywhere will give honor to their husbands, high and low.” The king loved their plan and said, “Make it so.” Then he wrote personal letters to all the provinces that said, “Every man is master of his own house.” (And the simultaneous eye-rolling of women everywhere no doubt caused the earth to tip on its axis.)
So then Xerxes had to find a new queen, so he sent eunuchs throughout the kingdom to raid villages and kidnap the most beautiful girls from each one. It's sort of like Hunger Games, only instead of training, the girls endure a year of beauty treatments in preparation for their one night with the king! One by one, they go to his chamber. His favorite is Esther. Mordecai has kept an eye on her the whole time and made her swear to tell no one she's a Jew. In a year, Hadassah has catapulted from orphan refugee to Queen of Babylon, a position of consummate privilege based entirely on her looks – and a secret.
Time goes by. Mordecai keeps his eyes on Esther the best he can. He gets word to her of an assassination plot against the king. She tells the king, credits Mordecai, and the assassins are caught and hanged. Haman continues to be the worst. It's decided that everyone must bow down to him. Mordecai refuses, day after day. Seeing upon which side their bread is buttered, other officials in the court tell Haman, the reason he won't bow to you is that he's a Jew. Haman is enraged. As Eugene Peterson translates it, Haman hated to waste his fury on just one Jew. He goes to Xerxes with an idea: Let me exterminate each and every Jew in the kingdom, and I'll pay for it myself. Xerxes, who five minutes before hadn't thought about it one way or the other, loves this plan. He gives Haman his ring of power and says, Keep your money and make it so.
A date is set. The edict is published in every language and posted in every province, “On this particular day, all Jews shall be killed, massacred and eliminated.” Published and posted, the story says, so the people can get ready. Which people? The Jews or their neighbors? The Jews are devastated, naturally. None more than Mordecai. He puts on the garment of death – sackcloth and ashes – and goes to the palace gate. Because, in spite of the public service announcement, not every Jew has heard.
Esther sees Mordecai and thinks he has a wardrobe problem. That's privilege, don't you know? She’s protected from what threatens her family. Her secret is now secret from herself. She identifies more with the banished queen than with her own people. A good house, good food, and servants make assimilation to privilege easy-peasy. Mordecai wants Esther to go to the king and beg for their lives. It's too dangerous, she replies. She's now fluent in privilege, its language and its math. The crisis is about her. Her life is suddenly worth more than all other Jews.
But she didn’t grow up in a palace. Mordecai raised her. Now he reminds her, this is who we are: Jews. We will survive. We always do. The question is, how shall you live? What will be your part in it? Will you be found faithful or not? What will you do with this one little life you have been given?
Here’s the thing about privilege: it’s useful when one has it, but it can be tenuous. Esther's privilege is perishing with each new wrinkle or gray hair, and she knows it. The king hasn't asked for me in a month, she tells Mordecai. No doubt he had a younger harem at beauty camp right then and talent scouts in the provinces too. Who knows, Mordecai says, perhaps all that's happened to you was to bring you to this exact moment?
Is that a question? And if it is, doesn't the answer have to be “yes”? However any of us got to this moment, this is the only moment in which to spend this one life we have. Esther knows what she must do. And I would offer, her obedience happens in four movements. I call them movements, because they are acts of faith.
1. She accepted the reality of privilege. However passing her power might have been, however slim her chances for success, however dangerous for herself personally, she had access and resources other people didn't. She had a hundred reasons to stay quiet and only one to speak up: because it was right. She didn't do it because she knew she'd win. She did it because it was right. And being righteous matters. Following Jesus matters, most especially through terror and chaos. But every day, our assignment is to act justly and love mercy, spending whatever privilege we have to maximum efficiency.
2. First Esther accepted the reality of her privilege. Then she applied that privilege to the problem at hand. Obviously, Esther was arm candy. She was responsible for being beautiful and available – until SHE decided to re-write the job description of queen. I have the lovely idea that she called Vashti for advice. However she came upon her plan, she used her position as queen to beat the system at its own game. She saved her people and took down Haman too. His demise is soooo satisfying. You should read it. This privilege of ours spends like money – on what, we decide. Ourselves? Our comfort? Justice? Kindness? Righteousness?
Queen Esther did beat the system and save her people. But in real life that almost never happens. Even now, 2500 years later, women going up against the system more often end up like Vashti than Esther. In the long history of human oppression, people like Esther lose and lose and lose, until enough bodies get stacked up that things finally begin to move. But nothing starts to move until someone goes first. Esther went first. St. Stephen, St. Paul, the disciples, so many through the persecutions, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Oscar Romeo, Reverend King, and all the people whose names are gone – people going first to do right to break up the hard, hard ground of injustice.
3. Esther accepted the reality of her privilege. She applied that privilege to the problem at hand. And third, she asked for help. She prayed. She prayed and she fasted and she told every Jew in the kingdom to pray and fast with her. In his book on Habakkuk, Howard Thurman points out that folks who do evil work hard at it and that somewhere, people who want to do right got the idea that our job should be easier just by virtue of it being right. Esther has good reason to expect to be killed for walking into the room. She can only go in alone. But knowing that everyone is with her in heart and spirit, that is powerful stuff. Stuff that will keep her legs under her. To people facing genocide, three days of prayer and fasting may not have a been a big ask. But would you do it? Would you do it for others?
It's a hard question – isn't it? – since people the world over are facing genocide by starvation and war and abuse right now. We're tempted to say, “Who's asking?” as if that would make a difference. What if the one asking was the arm candy wife of the worst king ever? In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, Esther is described this way, just before confronting the king: “She was radiant with perfect beauty, and she looked happy, as if beloved, but her heart was frozen with fear.” Most anyone can be brave once. Or twice. But only in the deep waters of God's peace and grace will the strongest of us keep our legs. We are too afraid of pain. Not even pain – just discomfort, inconvenience. How shall we face death if we haven't learned to pray?
4. Esther accepted her privilege. She applied that privilege to the problem at hand. She asked God for the courage she needed. And then, she acted in faith. She acted out the most genius plan. All the stars fell into line; the good guys lived happily ever after; and the bad guy died a gruesome, yet satisfying, death. You want me to tell it or do you want to read at home? Nah, I'll talk about Jesus and you can read at home.
This Advent ritual is just pretend. All Jesus came to do for us is done. He lived. He died. He rose. We are set free from death. We wait only to be set free from fear of death, fear that binds the courage that would have us spending our privilege, our very lives, on behalf of people who live in the real terror of hate and meanness dealt by the principalities and powers of this world, being salt and light as Jesus said in Matthew 5. Salt: living unspoiled in the spoiled and ruined world. Light: helping other people see what they can't see in the shadows of the spoil.
Taking off eighteen years for childhood, five years for really old age and a third for sleep in those middle years, a 90-year-old is left with a little less than 47 years to decide what she'll do with. Drs. Bonhoeffer and King both died before they were 40. We have today. We have the world we have. It may not be the one we wish we had. We may know exactly what we would have done in 1942 Europe. Or 1968 Birmingham. But those were not our times and places. We have here. We have now.
Jesus has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. Here and now, he calls us to do what we can for the people around us who are waiting for hope, who are waiting for peace. Would you pray with me?
Here we are again on the first Sunday of the Christian year, when preachers turn to the prophets to make the case all over again, in a world already full of religion, Why Jesus? Small-town and as unknown as he may be, Habakkuk puts words to it as well as anybody ever did.
This is from the Pastor-Annette,-slightly-snarky-and-very-free translation: This is a sorry world full of faithless people, God. And I don’t know why you make me look at it. Further- more, I don’t know why you let it be this way?
As Howard Thurman puts it, Why does the God of right permit the rule of wrong? It is the most universal of religious questions. In Habakkuk, chapters 1 and 2 God answers, but not to the prophet’s satisfaction, Look and See! Look and see is God’s second favorite thing to say, after do not be afraid.
Look and see something you would not believe. I am rousing the Chaldeans as they march the face of the earth. Chaldeans is another word for Babylonians, the way Hoosiers is another word for Americans. Hear that? God answers the prophet’s question about why God lets evil rule by saying, I’m the one stirring up that trouble!
Turns out, God is absolutely right in verse 5: nobody wants to believe that. So the prophet does what people always do. He keeps asking, pretending he hasn’t heard a thing God said, just waited his turn to talk again. Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, And you cannot look on wrongdoing. Did God say that? No. God did not say how he could not bear to look at the Chaldeans. But that’s what Habakkuk heard, apparently. Before asking the perennial religious question again, Why do you look on the treacherous and keep silent as wicked people consume good people?
The prophet goes on a bit about those nasty Chaldeans and decides, Fine, I am going to stay right here until God answers me, his rampart and watchpost. I’ll just stay right here and watch to see what God will say regarding my complaint.
Write this down, God says next; write it so plain that people can read it while on the run, so anyone asking later can read the answer I am giving now. Which Habakkuk did, obviously, since, here we are. But have we read the answer? Are we any more satisfied with God’s response than Habakkuk and the Judeans were back then, than religious people have been since?
Let’s pray. Give us hearts and minds, O God, brave enough to see and hear what you would have us see and hear. Amen.
My sermon title has evolved over the last few days, from “Things That Really Get God’s Goat” to “What Gets God’s Goat,” to “Five Goats.” Many commentaries refer to chapter 2 as “the five woes,” but I like the alliteration of get God’s goat. And everyone knows that awesome alliteration is two-thirds of good preaching.
If we asked, why doesn’t 2+2=yellow? and God said, “Because yellow isn’t a number,” we’d be satisfied. But when we ask, why does God allow suffering? and God answers, You bring this suffering upon yourselves and I hate it as much as you do, all we know to do is to repeat the question. By the time God tries to explain God’s self, we’ve stopped listening again. But if we could keep watching and listening, we’d see something of God’s answer in the five goats of Habakkuk, chapter 2.
Care to guess the origin of get one’s goat? Or maybe you already know it? It comes from a tradition in horse racing. Thought to have a calming effect on high-strung thoroughbreds, a goat was placed in the horse’s stall on the night before the race. Unscrupulous opponents would then steal the goat – get his goat! – in an effort to upset the horse so he will run poorly and lose the race.
Things that get God’s goat are the things that make God jumpy, angry, out of sorts, make God be other than God most wants to be, for us and with us. Five of the things that get God’s goat are:
Perennial Oppression; and
all perpetrated by the Haves against the Have-Nots, by those who have political/ economic/social power against those who don’t. Not only does the prophet name them, but he also describes their effect on everyone involved: the Haves and the Have-Nots.
Plundering theft. Google images of looting are mostly of brown and black people smashing storefronts to steal TV’s. That’s wrong, but not even close to all that’s wrong. I could talk more or show you a cartoon which says it better than I ever can: Rang-Tan in My Bedroom. And it’s not just monkeys, but people. People in Indonesia, whose land got taken away and sold by the state to palm-oil companies. From forest to storefront, the two are not unrelated, friends, as much as we would like to believe otherwise. The Haves cannot pillage endlessly and expect the pillaged to put up with it forever.
The Bible says they won’t, on this very page.
7 Will not your creditors suddenly arise?
Will they not wake up and make you tremble?
Then you will become their prey.
8 Because you have plundered many nations,
the peoples who are left will plunder you.
For you have shed human blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.
Goat-getter #2: Pervasive exploitation (verses 9-11).
9 “Woe to him who builds his house by unjust gain,
setting his nest on high to escape the clutches of ruin!
10 You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
11 The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it.”
We who have built our houses in safe neighborhoods, where we can’t see the effects of this economy on those it robs, how it takes advantage of the desperation of people with few options for education and work – it is all one economy, all one system. And it’s built on sand, to borrow from Jesus’s parable in Matthew 7. The same way all the stones hold up the wall and all the framing holds up the house, in a system built on sand – corrupt from top to bottom – being closer to the top will not keep us safe.
Goat # 3, Perpetual Conquest.
“Alas for you who build a town by bloodshed, and found a city on iniquity!”
13 Is it not from the Lord of hosts that people labor only to feed the flames,
and nations weary themselves for nothing?
14 But the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
as the waters cover the sea.
Nations built on blood and cities built on crime. In his commentary on these verses, Howard Thurman wrote that every place called civilized is born of conquest. And that every one will fail, until humans know God the way water knows the sea. We cannot act against the ways of God and please God at the same time.
We can pretend, of course, which was one source of Judah’s agony. The prophet gives voice to their frustration, demanding to know why God treats them so. But the sound of their own terror drowns out what they most need to hear. Maybe greed is just another shape fear takes. The more we have of what humans need, the safer we feel. And the safer we feel, the less able we are to discern the difference between safety and opulence, bringing us to the fourth goat.
Perennial oppression. What makes something perennial? It can reseed itself. Mint and lemon balm are the most persistent perennials in my yard, and they are less perennial than the oppression of humans upon humans.
15 “Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbors,
pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk,
so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!
Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!
The cup from the Lord’s right hand is coming around to you,
and disgrace will cover your glory.
17 The violence you have done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
and your destruction of animals will terrify you.
For you have shed human blood;
you have destroyed lands and cities and everyone in them.”
Again, the tyrannized will tolerate it so long as they have something left to lose, but hardly longer. Why do you think people risk their children drowning in the sea or being tear-gassed by our soldiers? Because they’ve so little left to lose otherwise. Had we eyes to see, we would see this prophecy playing out before us now: the violence you have done will overwhelm you. In reference to Judah’s violence, the text speaks of Lebanon.
For these times, we can write in most anywhere brown people live: Central America, the Middle East, Alabama, American inner cities, and so many other places. We cannot trap people militarily or economically or socially and expect them to tolerate it endlessly. Our ancestors didn’t. People are meant to be free and treated as beings made by God in God’s image. How you know God wants us to treat our loved ones is how God wants us to treat everyone.
Finally, the fifth goat, Perilous Idolatry.
19 “Woe to him who says to wood, ‘Come to life!’
Or to lifeless stone, ‘Wake up!’
Can it give guidance?
It is covered with gold and silver;
there is no breath in it.”
Call dead things live. Call live things dead. Call good things bad and bad things good for long enough, eventually you won’t be able to tell the difference – nor need to, maybe, once no moral bar exists, save the one that serves oneself. What is valuable to Empire? What is valuable to God? What is valuable to us, and what has that to do with life?
Again, friends, again, again, again, Judah thought she was the victim of Assyria and Babylon. The prophet’s task was to show herself to herself, that she herself had plundered, exploited, and oppressed, and all the while lived by a story, a theology even, of God’s goodness to her that took no account of the abuse she inflicted on others. That was violation of the Mosaic covenant, plain and simple, the consequences for which they had always known and the prophets had continually reminded them of.
They could refuse to know what they knew by pretending not to understand. They could refuse to listen. They could refuse to see. They could refuse to change. But finally, what they could not do was save themselves – save themselves from a faithless world full of sorry people who had created a mess that the best of them were not smart or good or strong enough to redeem.
Therefore, Jesus, the one in our other text today, asking those who would follow him the same question, giving the same invitation God issues to Habakkuk and Judah: Watch with me. Watch and see this thing that I am about to do. Shall we? Shall we be the ones who see and hear God’s answer to this world’s troubles?
Welcome, dear ones, to another season of watching and following. Would you pray with me?
How to Be Safe
Jeremiah was a prophet. And he never had a good friend his whole life. No one understood a single word he said and, in the end, he drank the same bitter wine drunk by everyone else in Judah: the bitter wine of exile. Wine fermented by the deep conviction that hearing the truth was the same as doing the truth, the conviction that our covenant promises can be faithfully ignored while God keeps God's, regardless – because that's who God is.
With Jeremiah, we've come close to the end of the Old Testament narrative. Babylon is crushing Assyria everywhere. Egypt wants Judah in place as a buffer on her northern border between herself and Babylon. Both Egypt and Babylon offer alliance with Judah, and the successive kings of Judah tease them each in turn, until Babylon has had enough. They invade. They occupy. The deportations begin in 598 BCE.
Jeremiah escapes into Egypt, which is exile all the same. Eleven years later, there's nothing left of Judah politically. The Temple is destroyed and the last deportations occur. All the while, Jeremiah is preaching repentance. Because no matter how late the hour, the truth is still the truth, even when conducted by kings and presidents. Repentance is theological work. Foreign alliance may or may not have been bad politics. It was terrible theology.
Judah made her alliance centuries before, in the wilderness promises of covenant. Promises summed up by the prophet Micah as “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly.” But as Israel grew in power and in wealth – became an empire in her own right – that theology morphed into another, one that said “we can do what we want, since God can't help loving us most,” despite all prophetic preaching to the contrary. Then other empires grew ever bigger, ever stronger, and these biblical people found a way to align themselves with empire values and still keep their theology – at least the part about being God's favorite people, about God's dedication to their personal well-being and safety.
They kept this theology, even as Israel collapsed to Assyria, even as Babylon breathed down her neck in pursuit of Egypt. Along came the next prophet Jeremiah, preaching into the wind, because no matter how late the hour, the truth is still the truth. Your presence in the Lord's house does not qualify as obedience to covenant, he said. Don't oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow; don't shed innocent blood in this place; don't go after other gods.
Who is he describing? He's describing every worldly empire everywhere. And Judah too, if they choose to make alliance. Their values will be yours, Jeremiah says. You don't get their protection without their reputation too. The blood they shed is on your hands as well. The prophet continues, You stand here, trusting in deceptive words, to no good end. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, pledge allegiance to idols?
Is there any line you won’t cross? seems to be his question. Then come back in here, stand before me, in my house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’ – only go leave again and keep doing the very same things? Has this house become a den of robbers? (That should sound familiar to you!) You do know I can see everything you're doing, right? says the Lord, in the voice of Jeremiah.
The tricky part, of course, is that no one thought they themselves were doing anything wrong. Such is the nature of systemic injustice, systemic evil. Everybody feels personally innocent. Or, at least, nobody feels personally responsible. And great is the temptation, of course, to compare the times, to note how so-called biblical people in our own day bow down to empires, after kings and presidents who promise to keep us safe, no matter the price in terms of justice, kindness and humility, the things we know God requires of us.
And yet, I'm more and more convinced that faithfulness to the gospel is not concerned with how others ought to live, but how I choose to live. And how I live begins and persists with how I pray. And by pray, I merely mean, live inside my own heart, and soul, and head. Which is no small thing. And I keep wishing it came down to something other than this, other than each of us getting our own hearts/heads/souls right with God.
But if I skip that, I am ever-so-slowly coming to understand, nothing works. The longer I listen to myself pray those lists of things I'm always praying – the list of things I'm grateful for; the list of things I think I need, for myself, for others, for the world; and the list of things that grieve me and give me cause for fear – the longer I hear myself praying these three prayers, the more clear it becomes to me how innocent I believe I am when I’m not praying. The sense that this is MY life. That MY life is in some way removed from the flow of all life and every other life. The more it’s clear to me that the great pretense of my life is that all our destinies are not wrapped up together when, in truth, they are. The world does not go to hell in a handbasket and the church NOT go with it, simply because we think we are safe.
Jeremiah knew what was true and right. He knew what was wrong with Israel and Judah. But knowing did not save him from their same fate, any more than knowing will save us, if we are wise enough to know. Which I am certainly not.
Real prayer isn't political. It isn't knowing who is right and what the right course of action is. Real prayer is remembering where our alliance lies, so that our faith and hope can be rightly placed and our lives directed, not by the values of empire, but by the values of covenant: justice, kindness, humility. In prayer I put myself – heart, soul and head – before God alone, and stay there unafraid of whatever is at the gate or border of my country or my heart, unswayed by the empires or the personal promise-makers who beg for my allegiance as if they can protect me from the destiny of forgetful people or my own failing faith.
Those first Bible people used the word chosen-ness to describe God’s favor upon them. We Jesus people use the word grace. God's grace is what gathers us together; grace is that to which we sing and speak and testify. Grace is not most visible in here, but out there where we walk and talk, where we spend our money and take our stand.
Grace is first of all theological. It says the allegiances offered by the empires of this world are too little too late for humanity now. That what's needed, most of all and all the time, is justice, kindness, and humility. Covenant-keeping in quotidian scale. Daily justice. Daily kindness. Humility through and through. Discovered first and always in the quietness of prayer. Continuing here and now.
Pray with me.
Do Not Be Afraid