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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 09/01/2019

Today I start my 17th year as pastor here at Bethany. Did you know that? At some point during this year I passed Pastor Bostrom as Bethany’s longest serving pastor, at least I think I did. Obviously there is much that I could reflect on relative to my time here but I’m not going to do that except for one thing; being in the midst of many weeks of First Readings from the prophets, one thing that occurs to me is how reading the Bible more imaginatively and more poetically has changed how I read it and that mostly has happened since I’ve been here and whether you like it or not, for better or for worse I feel like I’ve taken you down this path along with me. To be honest it’s a path I would not have anticipated because it wasn’t all that long ago that my idea of poetry was pretty much confined to limericks, both clean and unclean.

What I have found though, and I hope you have too, is that a more poetic reading of the Bible enables one to better get at the theological truth of it, truth that’s easily missed with a literal reading. Reading the Bible literally there are just too many dead ends and contradictions, too many places where you either have to suspend disbelief or spend a lot of time trying to explain what seems to be impossible to explain or trying to explain it away. In my opinion, reading the Bible literally causes you to focus on questions that cause you to miss the point. A more poetic reading isn’t necessarily easier, poetry can be very challenging, but it does allow for the mystery of theological truth to be explored.

While I think large portions of the Bible should be read poetically, the prophets in particular were poets because, using poetic images you can say things that need to be said that if said otherwise, would get you in trouble; sometimes the prophets wound up in trouble anyway. Seamus Heaney though, a Pulitzer Prize winning Irish poet who died a few years ago said that “The poet is on the side of undeceiving the world.” Undeceiving the world is probably as good a way as any to describe the work of prophets and Jeremiah might be the prime prophetic example of such undeceiving.

When reading a prophet like Jeremiah, it’s important to remember that the people of Israel and their God were in a covenant relationship centered on the Ten Commandments Moses received on Mt. Sinai. It was a relationship further developed in the book of Deuteronomy and it’s very much an if/then relationship. “If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God, then you shall live and be numerous and the Lord will bless you.”

Israel however, had failed to keep their end of the deal. They had been deceived and had deceived themselves. They had been deceived into thinking that simply performing the proper rituals and sacrifices would ensure their status as God’s people and thus they neglected the needs of the poor, the widows, the orphans. They were attracted by and began worshiping other gods. When they were taken into exile they were deceived by the promises of other empires and their gods. In the words of Jeremiah, they went after worthless things and became worthless themselves. Using some wonderful poetic imagery, Jeremiah says that rather than drawing from the Lord’s fountain of living water, they had dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that could hold no water.

Part of the beauty of images like those is that, while there is a specific context for them, they’re not limited to that context. Clearly there was a spiritual crisis going on at the time of Jeremiah but was it any worse or much different than what’s going on in our time? You might not hear or read about this crisis as much as I do, but you do see evidence of it in the numerical decline in the church. There’s a pretty steady stream of statistics reporting on smaller numbers of people for whom church and their faith are important. You see many obituaries where there if there are services at all, there’s no church connection. The number of churches needing pastors is much higher than the number of graduates coming out of seminary. Sunday morning has become a time for sleeping in, youth sports, shopping, recreation, camp, whatever. There are lots of cracked cisterns, lots of deceiving going on regarding what’s important in life and with that, the word of the Lord is not being heard.

Obviously I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know and my intent isn’t to dwell on all this and besides, I’m pretty much preaching to the choir here. My point really is just that if you don’t think the prophets are relevant, think again. The context may be different, but the issues are more or less the same; there are lots of cracked cisterns out there and as Jeremiah says, “My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”

Still, singing the blues about the current state of things doesn’t get us very far; weeping and gnashing of teeth doesn’t get us very far; feeling sorry for ourselves doesn’t get us very far. The question then is, what can we do? The Hebrews text offers some advice for living in ways that are pleasing to God, ways like showing hospitality to strangers, remembering those who are in prison, honoring the sanctity of marriage, being free from the love of money. The end of the Hebrews reading, “do good and share what you have” kind of sums it up but “do good and share what you have” is not what the loudest voices out there are saying.

One of the themes that recurs throughout the Bible has to do with hearing and listening. There have been and always will be competing voices. Part of what was happening at the time of Jeremiah was people were listening to other voices, other voices that led them to cracked cisterns. Part of what is happening in our time is people are listening to other voices, other voices that lead them to cracked cisterns, cracked cisterns of greed and capitalist consumerism where money is the highest good and the economy is the only thing that matters, cracked cisterns that have no need for God, cracked cisterns where things like love of God, hospitality and care for the neighbor get lost.

The Jeremiah reading today starts with “Hear the word of the Lord.” In Hebrew hearing wasn’t just about listening; it implied action, it implied obedience and that wasn’t happening. The psalm today says, “My people did not hear my voice, and Israel would not obey me.” The question of whose voice a society hears is always a piece of the puzzle and too many times, the voice that is heard is not the voice of the Lord.

What that leads to is how important that it is for the church to be the voice of the Lord. At the time of Jeremiah that voice had gone silent. In the midst of what was going on, they did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness.” In other words, they stopped telling the stories that defined them as a people. When you stop telling the stories you lose your identity and you stop being the people God called you to be. As a society and a culture the fountain of living water is replaced by cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

At the time of Jeremiah, that’s what had happened. In our time it’s not a stretch to say that the same thing has happened. I recently came across a Pew Research test on religious knowledge. One of the questions was what is commemorated on Easter Sunday? 81% got it right which might sound pretty good but that means 19 out of 100 people got it wrong, and it was multiple choice. One wonders what percentage think Christmas is just about Santa and presents.

So again, what can we do, knowing that there’s a lot that we can’t do. For me, it starts with staying focused on telling the sacred stories; that’s something that we can do and must do because if we don’t tell them no one else will and…they are stories that proclaim an alternative way to be. Jesus was always about proclaiming and living an alternative. He wasn’t so much in the business of dispensing practical advice, more about telling stories and creating images that would cause people to look at the world and themselves differently.

Those stories that announce an alternative vision, a vision that Jesus called the Kingdom of God, are the stories that we must tell because they are the stories that prompt us to act in ways that reveal the Kingdom of God. The more that our actions affirm the stories that ground us, the more impact we have in undeceiving a world deceived by other voices and their cracked cisterns.

Most importantly, we tell the story of Jesus himself which is a story welcome and grace and forgiveness, a story of hope and new life. As we bemoan the spiritual crisis of our time, it’s the story that guides us because it tells us that not only can God do a new thing, God will do a new thing. Amid the cracked cisterns of the world, the fountain of living water is still out there. Amid all the other voices out there, the voice of the Lord can still be heard so…Hear the word of the Lord and tell the stories; hear the word of the Lord and live the stories.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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