Sunday, July 27, 2014

Ezekiel: “No Bones About It”

A Sermon Based Upon Ezekiel 37: 1-14.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   July 27, 2014

He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord GOD, you know." (Eze 37:3 NRS)

When I was a kid, the most interesting TV crime show was Perry Mason.   It was the story about a mythical Defense attorney, Perry Mason, who was our American version of Sherlock Holmes, always getting to the truth of the matter to prove his client’s innocence, even when the odds were not in their favor, often getting others to confess their crime.  In the TV show, Perry Mason won all his cases because he was highly ethical and stood for what was good and right, which always won in the end, just like Perry Mason did.
We’ve come away from the na├»ve simplicity of a Perry Mason or the belief that all crimes can be solved with ethics, by being cleverer than the opponent, or by getting people to admit their guilt and face the truth, as Perry Mason did.  Today’s crime shows are much more based upon evidence rather than personal confessions of guilt, and they are about more about Crime Scene investigations, forensic Science and anthropology, than they are about getting people to face the truth.   In other words, in today’s TV world, it is the truth that speaks for itself, rather than making people face up to and admitting it. 
Since the hit TV show, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, and many like it have dominated the air ways,  it is argued that public perception about the forensic evidence needed to prove guilt for crimes has placed much more burdens on prosecutors.   This has come to be called, the CSI effect, or CSI syndrome.   Today’s jurors demand much more than circumstantial evidence to prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, and because Crime labs can’t keep up with TV, it is believed that too many criminals are going free, such as OJ Simpson, Robert Blake, Cindy Anthony and George Zimmerman.   It is even being argued by some that trials were better argued and crimes better solved, when they were based upon circumstantial evidence and the testimony of witnesses, rather when the truth is left to scientific methods or forensic science.   In other words, murder trials might have been better solved, when there were ‘no bones about it’.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CSI_effect).
Haven’t you heard that expression, “Make no bones about it!”   Normally, we take that to mean “make no mistake about it!” but that was not the original meaning.   According to Len Sweet, who gave me the idea for this sermon, this phrase, ‘make no bones about it’, came out of the middle ages, when people were being served soup out a common pot at the community table.  When you went through the line, sometimes you got some meat, sometimes you got just soup, and sometimes you got bare bones in your bowl.  The social etiquette of that day was not to protest when you got only a bone, instead of meat.  You were to ‘make no bones about it’ meant that you were to accept what was given to you and to wait to get your fair share at the next meal-time  (From a sermon by Lenoard Sweet at www.sermons.com).    
In today’s Bible text, from Ezekiel we have all kinds of bones a plenty.   It’s not the kind of bones you encounter when you are eating chicken stew either, but it’s the kind of bones you might find if you were to dig up a grave yard.    Here we have dried up, decaying, detached, dead and dreaded bones no one wants to walk out and uncover either in the woods or worse,  in the desert, where you might die of thirst too, as they are found here.   Fortunately, I’ve never found human remains while walking in the woods, but I’ve found my share of animal bones and carcasses.   It sounds morbid and gloomy, to take a walk in the graveyard with God, but God wanted Ezekiel to find himself in this graveyard of bones and he wants to put a question to him, “Son of man, that is mortal man, God asks, that is, man who is going to end up in this kind of graveyard yourself, do you think these bones can live
How would you answer that kind of morbid, but ultimate question?  Can dead bones come back to life?  Can people live again?   How would you answer, honestly, based upon your own experience?   Ezekiel does the smart thing.  He doesn’t answer.  He answers that only God knows.  Good answer!  Ezekiel makes no bones about it.  When it comes to overcoming death and destruction, what can a human know that only God knows.  You can’t make bones about that, or can you?
SPEAK TO DEM BONES
God doesn’t let this very polite prophet off the hook so easily.  God does make some bones about it and he involves Ezekiel in the process.  Indeed, instead of using God’s own voice to raise up these bones, God tells Ezekiel to use his own voice and that he must speak to these bones himself, and he does, saying “O dry bones, hear the word of the LORD” (37.4). 

Do you see what is going on here?  If Ezekiel has refused to speak to these bones, and if he had refused to see the possibility in the midst of the impossibility, there would have never been any hope.   Hope has to start with someone and it has to start somewhere.  Most often, hope starts with a word of hope spoken out against despair. 

When Ezekiel began to speak, it was then that the miracle of transformation began to occur before his own eyes.  But if Ezekiel had not learned to speak, and if he had not been willing to speak up, then nothing would have or could have ever happened.  It takes words to make miracles happens.  It’s takes not only God’s word, but it also takes human words.   What good is a miracle if only God makes it himself for himself?   If you recall in the New Testament, the miracle of Peter walking on the water, didn’t start until Peter took that first step.  Of course, Peter did begin to sink, when he took his eyes off of Jesus, but at least he stepped out there, and we all know that Jesus didn’t let him drown.   His faith was small, but it was still faith.

It has been said in jokes by Jerry Seinfeld, that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are afraid of death itself.  Although it’s not quite that bad, public speaking is one of the most common social phobias.   I’m used to speaking publically, but I still have fears about saying the wrong thing.  Recently, when I was asked in court to stand up and speak to the judge, I felt a bite of unexplained anxiety tangling my tongue a bit.  However, after I got up and started talking,  I wanted to say more, but the judge wouldn’t allow it.  I guess he’d heard enough from a preacher and knew how dangerous I might be if I got my day in court.   

Why do we fear speaking up and speaking out?  What do you think is behind that fear?  Are we afraid of what people might think?  Are we afraid of what we might say?  Are we just afraid of doing something we’ve never done before?   In an online newspaper article, writer Donna Labermeir, says that one of the reasons people are afraid of speaking up, is because they haven’t made peace with our caveman or cavewoman.  You heard me right.  She says that our fear of speaking goes all the way back to the time when our primitive instinct was not to be ‘singled out’ when we needed to be in groups to survive.   Besides, she adds, it’s hard to fight a saber-toothed tiger by yourself.   When we speak up, one of the first natural feelings we have is that we are in a life or death struggle, and we might lose.  When we feel fear, we want to shut our mouths and run back into the safety of the group and hope the tiger bites someone else (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/donna-labermeier/why-most-people-are-death_b_4798597.html).

But what if the tiger is able to bite all of us.  That’s what Ezekiel sees.  The tiger of death has already overtaken his people and there is no one else to speak up, so God asks him to do.  The word of the LORD spoken through Ezekiel is God’s only hope.   Unless Ezekiel speaks, there is no word, no voice, and no hope.  Someone has got to do it, say it, and speak up.   The tiger of death has already bitten, so why don’t we go ahead and say what we know needs to be said?  If we don’t speak, there is a good chance, nobody will, because nobody will be left who can.   We are walking through a graveyard, aren’t we?   Isn’t this where Ezekiel finds himself?  Are you ready to speak life to them bones in your own situation?

A contributor for CNN, Amanda Enayati, writes about an argument between two mothers at an elementary school which got ugly.  One of the moms was told to ‘go back where you came from”, because although she was born in the U.S.,  her family came here from India.   When she answered that she was ‘just as America as you!’ the aggressor doubled down with an even stronger racist retort.  Two mothers, who were horrified at what was happening, were very troubled at what they saw and heard, but didn’t say a word.  Neither one of them felt comfortable speaking up and intervening.  I guess you could say that the cat got their tongue.  (http://www.cnn.com/2014/02/06/health/psychological-impact-prejudice/)

If life is going come back into the lives around us in this dying, decaying world, we have to learn to speak up, speak out, and share what is on our minds.   Churches have set up a false pattern for life, when we get used to one person doing all the speaking, and everyone else only doing the listening.  We need to understand, as Ezekiel does, that you only prove that you are listening to God when you are willing to speak up and speak out in caring and constructive ways.  The future demands that all of us have something to say to the dry, decaying, dying bones of our society, wherever we encounter them. 

BLOW AIR IN DEM BONES
There is something else that is required to bring life back into our world.   When Ezekiel looks out among all the dead, dry bones, there is still not life in them.   He has spoken a word, but nothing has happened, just yet.  Then God has him speak up again, and to call for “breath to enter” these bones, so they ‘will live’ (37.4).  

Now, we can clearly see that it is not just any kind of words which needs to be spoken, nor is it just any kind of deeds that need to be done, in order for life to return into the lives of the people,  it is God’s breath that needs to enter them.  It is only the ‘spiritual’ breath of life that can bring them back to their original energy of life and health.  “This is the word of the LORD,” Zechariah wrote,” …not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, the LORD of hosts. (Zec 4:6 KJV). 

Did you see that coming?  It is what life in the Spirit means throughout the Bible, as Jesus told his disciples ‘I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).   We do not have the power nor the strength to bring life back into our world, unless we have the kind of spiritual life that should be brought back.  It is only ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ that sets us ‘free from the law of sin and death” Paul writes (Rom. 8.2).  “To set the mind (only) on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace”  (Romans 8.6). ‘It is the spirit that gives life’ Jesus says.  “The flesh is useless” (Jn. 6.63) unless it has the breath of the Spirit and life of the living God.   

When the human speaks, he must speak according to God’s word and God’s voice.  We have no life in and of ourselves, unless we are filled with God’s life and spirit.  Left to our own lives, and living life on our own terms, we are all dead people walking, but when we live in tune with God’s spirit, the mortal spirit obtains immortality.   Humans can soar, but we must do it on God’s terms, and by God’s spirit, not in our own.   It is the Spirit of God that gives us life.  Without God’s spirit we as good as dead, already.  Without God’s spirit we are nothing more than a valley of dried, decaying, dead bones.  But start to speak up, and let God breath his Spirit into us, and we come to life, not matter where we are, be it in a desert or in a valley where there is nothing but death.

A couple of weeks ago, on CBS’s 60 Minutes, I watched an interview with Briton, Nicholas Winton, an remarkable 104 years old man, still of sound mind, who was a Holocaust Savior, who had risked his life to save over 669 Jewish children from the hands of the Nazis.  Shortly before Christmas in 1938, Winton was planning to travel to Switzerland for a skiing holiday.  He decided instead to visit Prague and help his friend Martin Blake, who had called to asked him to assist in Jewish welfare work.   As a result of hearing the call and answering the spirit, Winton single-handedly established an organization to aid children from Jewish familes at risk from the Nazis.  He set up his office at a dining room table in his hotel.  After saving hundreds of children, amazingly, Winton kept quiet about his humanitarian work, until his wife found a detailed scrapbook in their attic in 1998.   The world found out about his work during a BBC programme.  Winton did not know it, but dozens of those people he saved were invited to stand around him and applaud.  He told no one, and no one knew who was to thank for saving their lives for over 50 years (http://www.cbs.com/shows/60_minutes/video/3oJ8O9WKqdmCieH1sfj6fMq7J_jFwCeH/saving-the-children/).  
The man who saved them, appreciated their applaud, but he didn’t need it.  He got all the life he needed from doing what he did because he followed and lived in the Spirit, which is life.

SET DEM BONES TOGETHER
We also read in Ezekiel’s account of the “dry bones” that life came to these bones when God’s spiritual breath entered them and it was then that they got skin on and began to live.  But life is still not completely alive and full unless there is a ‘shaking’ and a ‘rattling’ of those bones so they would ‘come together.’  Bones are still just bones, unless they come together to do some shaking and rattling in the world.  If they only shake, rattle and roll, they only make noise, but remain nothing but a bunch of shaking, rattling, and noisy bones.  But if you get them together, and you give them something important to do, then a new kind of life comes into them, and they can stand together and gain a life of their own and they can make a difference.

In the first half of the 19th century, there were people who made their living as a bone-setters These ‘bone setters were often a combination of chiropractor and bone-setter, treating some very special patients, like Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.  In those days, the medical field was more a series of crafts, each with its own storehouse of knowledge and secret skills.  Besides physicians and surgeons, the expertise of these bone-setters lay in understanding skeletal anatomy and muscular massage.  In those days of physically demanding work,  broken bones were hardly unusual, but often disastrous.  Not only could a broken arm or leg cause great pain, it could cause forced unemployment and loss of wages.  A mishandled broken limb could heal improperly, causing a lifelong disability or even gangrenous infections and death.  You entrusted a bone-setter with your future - your future life of work, wages, and well-being - each time that bone-setter aligned the broken bits of a limb.

The Greek term for setting bones is derived from the same Greek root we translate as "to equip." Fishermen repairing their frayed and frazzled nets equipped them, or mended them back together. In the same way, the old-time bone-setters who skillfully joined together a farmer's broken leg bone was helping to equip that farmer for a lifetime of hard walking behind the plow and over his fields.

Ezekiel was a bone-setter himself. Ezekiel equipped his people.  He called the frightened, depressed, dry bones of an exiled, beaten-down, landless Israel - by setting those bones back together again.  Ezekiel's vision from God offered hope for a future, for strength regained, for a homeland reborn and for life renewed.  And Ezekiel's vision didn't forget what must be central to any human repair effort - that the spirit as well as the body be mended and made whole again as well.

Fourthly and finally,
CONNECT DEM DIFFERENT BONES TO EACH OTHER.
Truth be bold, for most of us there's probably only one reason we remember the prophet Ezekiel - "Dem bones, Dem bones, Dem . . . Dry bones. Now hear the word of the Lord." That African-American spiritual, doubles as a crash course in anatomy, catches the peculiarity and the power of Ezekiel's bony vision perfectly, and puts it into such an unforgettable and fun tune that we all love to hear and sing about "Dem bones, dem bones, dem . . . dry bones." You’ll remember that part well where it says,  "the foot bone is connected to the . . . ankle bone; the ankle bone is connected to the . . . shin bone," etc.)

That song might not be as precise as Grey's Anatomy, but with that song, everybody can have a picture of a completed human skeleton dancing around by the time the song ends.  We also need to see the whole picture and include every single part.  For it’s not until all the different part of the body are connected that we have a fully functioning body.  The one body is comprised of many different parts, all obediently fulfilling their roles and none separate from other parts. Each different part, each piece of the body has a piece of the action, and every bone has a particular job to do.

The work of God’s church, which can still bring dead things to life, requires the both the diversity of the body and the unifed working of each part.  In other words, the whole body does not work well, does not fully come to life, unless every bone is doing it’s part.  You know how the song goes.  Sing it with me:
The toe bone's connected to the foot bone,
The foot bone's connected to the ankle bone,
The ankle bone's connected to the leg bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

The leg bone's connected to the knee bone,
The knee bone's connected to the thigh bone,
The thigh bone's connected to the hip bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

The hip bone's connected to the back bone
The back bone's connected to the neck bone,
The neck bone's connected to the head bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

The finger bone's connected to the hand bone,
The hand bone's connected to the arm bone,
The arm bone's connected to the shoulder bone,
Now shake dem skeleton bones!

Dem bones, dem bones gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Dem bones, dem bones, gonna walk around
Now shake dem skeleton bones!
.


Shake dem bones, church.   We can’t shake, rattle and roll the world back to life, until we speak up, blow the spirit on these bones, do work together with these bones, and connect with each other in ways that bring life back into the world.   When we do this, church, we will  not only shake, rattle and roll ourselves, but we will shake, rattle, and roll life and spirit back into the world.   Now shake dem skeleton bones!   Amen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Habakkuk: “LIVING BY FAITH”

A Sermon Based Upon Habakkuk 2: 1-4.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   July 20, 2014

….but the righteous live by their faith (Hab 2:4 NRS)
  
“Just the facts, Ma’am!  Just the facts.”  That’s what television detective, Sargent Joe Friday once said while questioning a lady.  It became a standard line to be immortalized when the TV series “Dragnet” was made into a motion picture.  It even became the title of the autobiography of Jack Webb, who played Sargent Friday on the popular TV series.

It’s a good line, and it’s where most people are, most of the time.   We want the truth.  We want the facts.  We try to live by the facts we know to be true.  But what happens when we can’t?  What happens when the facts have it wrong or become too hard for us to bear?  A couple of weeks ago, two U.S. citizens became Bonnie and Clyde like villains who lived and died just to oppose the law and the government.  They did not want to live by the facts of the way things are, so they started to make up a world based on their own rules.  They went out and shot a couple of Las Vegas police officers and then turn their weapons upon themselves.  The fact of the way the world is was too much for them.  They did not want to live by the facts.

But I can think of better ways to deal with a world we can’t stand or don’t like, can’t you?  I can think of more constructive ways to disagree with the government, to challenge the laws of the land, or to make a protest against how unfair things are.  All of us will run up against difficult ‘facts’ or grim truth from time to time, but we don’t kill people over it.

A CRISIS OF FAITH
Habakkuk’s also has a problem with the facts around him.  The truth of how things are, seem very difficult for him to swallow.   The opening lines of his prophecy gives us the troubling facts:  “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save?
 3 Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.
 4 So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous-- therefore judgment comes forth perverted. (Hab 1:2-4 NRS)

Have you ever prayed and it seemed God wasn’t listening?   Have you ever seen wrongdoing that you didn’t want to see happening?   Did you ever see people, who were not as nice nor as good as you, doing much better than you are?   Now, that can be some pretty difficult facts to swallow, aren’t they?   These are the same kinds of difficult facts of life that Habakkuk sees.

At some time or other, perhaps sooner rather than later, you will come to a moment in your life when you too, have more questions than answers.   Some call it the “dark night of the soul”.   This phrase goes all the way back to the 16th century, to a poem,  La noche oscura del alma,  which was written by a Spanish catholic, now named Saint John of the Cross.   In that poem, Saint John suggests that until the soul journey’s through the difficulties of a dark times, it will never try to get close to God.    But that ‘dark night’ is also a moment that can shake you to the core and make you lose faith altogether.  It’s the kind of moment Dietrich Bonhoeffer had, as he was arrested for conspiring to kill Hilter.   He was arrested and put into prison for over a year, and just days before the War was over,  Bonhoeffer was hanged.  During that time Bonhoeffer struggled with his own understanding of God, but he never lost his faith.

At the heart of Habakkuk’s struggle was the question, “How Long, “O Lord…”  It was question about the world that seemed ‘unanswerable’ at the time.  We’ve all been there, if we’re honest.  Most of us have been through a spiritual crisis, similar to St John of the Cross and to Jesus on the cross when he cried, “My God, why have your forsaken me.” (Mat. 27.46).  

If Jesus had not prayed that prayer, I don’t think many people would faith at all when the facts of life become dark and difficult.   At least we can love Jesus because we identify with his weakness, but it’s a lot harder to identify with a God who allows us to feel forsaken.  The pain of love and life can be excruciating.  Life itself can seem unfair or too short.  God can appear to be absent when you need him most.   When the darkness overtakes you, you can wonder to yourself, as the popular movie and song once put it, “What’s it all about, Alfie?”    Sometimes, life moves along and you don’t have time to think and reflect.  But there are also those difficult and dreadful times, when life stands still and you wonder to yourself over and over, “Why?”  What is it all about?

Habakkuk’s own ‘crisis of faith’ aims at the core of all religious doubt which is still encountered by people of faith today.   Habakkuk believes in a God who is sovereign, all-powerful, and in control of the world, but sometimes the world seems to be out of control.  Bad things happen to good people.  Good things happen to bad people.  And if that’s not enough, when Habakkuk cries out to God in prayer, it appears God ‘does not listen’ (Hab. 1.2) or answer prayer.  Though our faith says God is a savior, there are all kinds of bad things we are not being saved from.   Besides this, the other problem Habakkuk sees is that there seems to be very little connection between doing what is right and having a good life.   He says “The law become slack and justice never prevails”.  Instead of being on the side of those who do right, it looks like the law is being used to favor those who would break it.  What kind of God allows things to happen like this?   This is Habakkuk’s problem (See Hab. 1: 1-4).

Habakkuk’s problem is still around.  Today, in seminaries and theological schools it is called, Theodicy, or the Problem of Evil.   We all encounter such hard realities and challenges to our faith, but we don’t all lose faith.  Yet some have, and others will.  In the 1950's, Charles Templeton was a friend and contemporary of Billy Graham.   Both of them were holding crusades across North America.  Charles Templeton started the Youth for Christ movement that brought thousands of teenagers to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.  One day this newspaper and magazine reporter turned evangelist had a change of heart. He went to his friend Billy Graham and confessed that he could no longer believe the Gospel.  A troubled believer lamented to his friend, "How can a loving and omnipotent God allow such horrors as we have seen this century?"  Charles Templeton was converted not to God, but from God. Years later in his book, Farewell to God, he explained his disbelief:
“If God's love encompasses the whole world and if everyone who does not believe in him will perish, then surely this question needs to be asked: When, after two thousand years, does God's plan kick in for the billion people he 'so loves' in China? Or for the 840 million in India? Or the millions in Japan, Afghanistan, Siberia, Egypt, Burma ·.. and on and on?......

Why would a God who 'so loved the world' reveal his message only to a tiny minority of the people on earth, leaving the majority in ignorance? Is it possible to believe that the Father of all Mankind would select as his Chosen People a small Middle Eastern nation, Israel, reveal His will exclusively to them, fight alongside them in their battles to survive, and only after their failure to reach out to any other group, update His plan for the world's salvation by sending His 'only begotten son,' not to the world but, once again, exclusively to Israel? (https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/603808-farewell-to-god-my-reasons-for-rejecting-the-christian-faith).

I can complicate Templeton’s questions even more.  “After God reveals his love through Israel, and Israel does not understand God’s love to the whole world, God then gives them the boot too, and as of late, he has finally rained down his wrath on them during the holocaust.  And the hell of the holocaust is nothing compared to what God is going to do with those who don’t love him in the hellfire that is still to come.   What kind of God loves all people and then enjoys watching them all burn if they don’t love him back?  Is that the kind of God you would like to love?    Do you see how easy it is to find problems in some of the historical teachings of the Christian faith?   We all can have difficulties that in life that can lead to a crisis of faith, and we can have questions about some very some of the most basic faith claims,  but some never work through these questions.   Some, like Charles Templeton, will lose their faith because of such unanswered and perhaps even, unanswerable questions. 

BEING HONEST  WITH GOD
Several years ago, a prominent British minister, John A.T. Robinson, wrote a book that created a firestorm.  He posed the possibility of doing religion in a different way.  He proposed not doing religion like it’s always been done, but he decided to be ‘honest to God’ about what he believed and what he didn’t.  One of the most controversial parts of that book was when he suggested that Christians stop believing that God is ‘up there’ or ‘out there’.   He suggested rather, that believers should realize that God is more like the ground of our being than a being who lived high above the ground.  Such a view of faith challenged the most basic understanding of God and sent our shockwaves everywhere.   When another British Christian, C.S. Lewis, was asked about Robinson’s new perspective, he responded, “I prefer being honest, than being honest to God.”   (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honest_to_God).

C.S. Lewis did not believe that we have to change our understanding of God in order to be honest to God.   We can just be honest.   This is what Lewis attempted to do when his wife, Joy Davidson, was dying with Cancer and the whole ordeal sent him into his own ‘Shadowlands”.  When Lewis later writes about “The Problem of Pain in his own book,  Lewis does not think we have to change our view of God in order to keep trusting in God, but he does say that we may need to change our view of what pain and suffering are about.   He writes: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Perhaps Lewis is right.  It could be that God uses pain and suffering, even to get his message of love and hope across to us.  But even if this is true, such philosophical answers don’t help us that much when we are going through pain ourselves.  It didn’t help Charles Templeton either.   He looked at the pain of the world and he said he could not believe in a loving God.  

Maybe you’ve experienced pain and unanswered prayer in life too.  So have I.   You might even think that your life is filled with fewer answers than questions.  So have I.   You might even think that life has not been fair to you, and that God has not given you a fair deal.   So have I. 

When I reflect upon my own life, I can remember a lot more unfair things than the fair things.   I remember a terrible car wreck that wasn’t my fault and how is practically destroyed my left foot.   I also remember how Teresa and I, people who loved children, could not conceive and bear children on our own.   It was so unfair to see other people not care about the children they had, but we cared.   I also remember going to the mission field for a career, and then having to come home to care for my parents.   I wanted to stay, even though the job was sometimes difficult.    I also remember being pastor of a couple of churches and having to deal with some cruel, heartless people.  I was pastor of a larger than average church, but I wanted to become the pastor of a mega-church, but I didn’t get there.   Finally, I also remember how our adopted daughter showed signs of an inherited mental illness, and how we still feel the pain, including the pain of having to put our grandchildren into foster care.   I don’t know about you, but even when you try to do right, life does not always end with blessings.

If you think about your life, for very long, and especially if you are honest about it, you too might be able to find just as many ‘unfair’ and ‘unjust’ events that you did not bring upon yourself, just as Habakkuk does.   In fact, Scripture as a whole suggests that if you do good in this world, and if you try to be a good person, you’ll probably suffer more heartbreak that way, than if you didn’t care.   It was surely that way for Jesus.  Scripture says Jesus ‘went around doing good’ (Acts 10:38) and we know what that got him---the cross.   For the person who tries to live a good, righteous life, the outcome may more probably be like “Job” than like “Solomon” and “all his glory”  (1 Chron. 22.4; Mat. 6.29).    If this is how it is, or how it will be,  then why be good?  Why do good?  Why care?  Why pray?  Why live a righteous life?  Why believe in God, especially when belief in God seems archaic, antiquated, out of step, perhaps even dangerous, especially when religion become deadly to others or might cause you to endanger yourself?  Aren’t there all kinds of better options available to give yourselves to? 

LIVING BY FAITH, NOT BY THE FACTS
Whatever we can say about the questions Habakkuk raised at the beginning of his short prophecy,   they are true, honest questions, as they are the kinds of questions Christians still encounter and must face, when we too have to face the hard ‘facts of life’.   We can still find our answer in Jesus, as most of us do, but this does not meant that we have all the answers.   Questions still come.  Unanswerable questions will come to us all.   Some of us will be able to live with the questions better than others.   Others of us might even learn that living and loving the questions could be more beneficial than having the answers.   How do you think Habakkuk lived with the questions he could not answer?   When you think about it, if you earned your living as a prophet, it’s not really a good strategy to tell people you don’t have all the answers, especially when you are trying to get people to consider your message.   Just how smart is it to begin your message about God by raising your own honest struggles with God? 

It may not seem smart now, but it might just save your life later.  Let me explain.  The only ‘answer’ to the ‘unanswerable’ questions in our lives, is what Habakkuk goes on to give us in chapter two.   Habakkuk does not give up because he doesn’t have all the answers, nor does he give in to the despair of the moment.   Habakkuk says rather, that he ‘will keep watch to see what (God) will say in answer to (his) complaint. “ (2.1).   When God does finally answer him,  Habakkuk is told to: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets so the runner may read it….” (2.2).   In other words, the answer is for everyone, both for the one who hears it originally and for the one who gets to read about it.  What is this answer, when the facts of life are hard, when unanswerable questions arise, or when our answer from God does not come and life seems unfair?  God declares to Habakkuk “There is still a vision for the appointed (or right) time….” (2.3a).   He is told to ‘wait for it”, because it will ‘surely come’….(2.3).   The “proud’ can’t wait for it, nor can they live this way, because “the spirit is not right in them” (2.4a), but the righteous must live this way, because the righteous can live this way.  The righteous can live without all the answers, because ‘the righteous live by their faith’ (2.4b).   The righteous choose not to simply live by the facts in life, but they choose to live beyond the facts of what is going on around them, toward the faith in what God is going to do next.  

Of course, this does not mean that the righteous are oblivious to the facts, deny the facts, or ignore the facts.  But the ‘righteous’ live by a different level of ‘facts’ which brings them to faith rather than take faith away from them!   Look at the different kinds of facts which led Habakkuk to keep faith in God.  He writes:  Look at the proud!  The spirit is not right in them…. (2.4)   “Moreover, wealth is treacherous, the arrogant do not endure…like death they never have enough”(2.5).   Have you also seen what only living for money and wealth does to people?   Think also, Habakkuk says, what a city looks like, when people build it on ‘bloodshed’ or when they ‘found a city based on (sin or) iniquity!”   SIN CITY sure sounds fun; the room rates are low, the food is scrumptious, and the shows are great (that’s what a Deacon once told me about why he liked to go to Las Vegas) and besides that, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, but maybe not.  So perhaps we (and he) should think again.  Do you realize what you are risking or promoting when you give our money and faith to lesser things in life or when you only live your life based on what happens, or what you want to have happen.  Let me put it this way, if you think it’s hard to have faith in a world like ours, it’s even harder to live your life if you only live by the ‘facts’ of how things are, by what you want, or you live for what people want or expect of you, or what brings pleasure in this moment.   

To only live by the ‘facts’ its much like the person who decided to take every bit of advice Oprah ever gave and to “live her best life’ by only buying and living the way Oprah recommended as the ‘best life’   Robyn Okrant devoted the whole year of 2008 adhering to all of Oprah’s suggestions and guidance given on her Television show, and today, her website, “LIVING OPRAH” is a month-by-month account of that year.   After 365 days of following Oprah, spending over 5,000 dollars, committing to 57 ongoing Oprah challenges, do you think the result was her ‘best life’?  In Forbes Magazine, Okrant’s answer was that doing everything ‘right’, as Oprah suggested, ‘was incredibly draining, and made her sad.’   Especially when she put her marriage and her husband under the microscope, trying to make their marriage better, it put them both on shaky ground, and it made both her husband and her, miserable.    Living the gotta be, gotta have, and gotta go and gotta read life was not the ‘best life’, nor did it improve ‘well-being’.  “Striving to live her best life, kept her from living her real life.” (http://www.forbes.com/2010/01/07/oprah-winfrey-robyn-okrant-advice-forbes-woman-well-being-self-help.html).

Most of us would never do something as stupid as Living Oprah, but it is just as stupid to think that you have to have all the “best” answers to have faith in God or to kept faith going in your life.  If we are going to believe in the future, we all must have faith.   Faith is not about knowing everything or having everything, but as the book of Hebrews rightly says, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb 11:1 KJV).   Living by faith is about learning to live your life, not based on the facts of how things are, nor is it having everything the way you want, but ‘faith’ is about trusting God, doing good, and moving on toward the good God is going to bring into this world.   It is not about settling into ‘how things are’ but it’s about seeing ‘how things will be’ because God is sovereign, God is eternal, and God is not finished with us, nor is he finished with this world as it is right now.

Habakkuk ends his prophecy, not with a complaint, but with a prayer.   His prayer starts right after the end of this chapter, where Habakkuk reminds us all, what we really should do, when life starts to cave in on us:  “But the LORD is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him”  (2.20).  When I consider this text, in the context of all that Habakkuk has said about his own struggle to have faith, I’m reminded of the way I learned to deal with Thunderstorms as a child.   I was never really that much afraid of lightning and thunder, but I guess if you don’t have some respect for it, it could kill you.  My mother and her family tradition made sure I developed a certain kind of respect.   When a storm would approach, my mother would make me stop playing and come and sit down beside her.  “Why do I have to sit down, mother?”  I would ask.  She would respond, “Because the LORD is at work”.  She would make me sit down and be still and silent, while the LORD was doing his work through the thunder and the lightning.    

Today, as an adult, it sounds a little silly to think that God is using thunderstorms to get his point across or to do his most important work in the world.   I can think of a lot more things God is busy doing that could be considered much more important, like saving a soul, helping a mother have her baby, or helping people love each other.  This is not to say that ‘thunderstorms’ are unimportant.   I’m sure lightening does some good, like perhaps, releasing positive energy and nitrogen into the air.    It can be dangerous, but it’s still good.   But what mother was teaching me in those moments of stillness, was much more about how to face life, not just about how to deal with thunder and lightning.   She was reminding me to face the scary, difficult, deadly and most threatening moments in life with reverence, stillness and prayer.  

Does it work?  Well, I can tell you that today I respect lightening, but I don’t have to hide in my closet or get into my car out of fear, like a couple of adults I used to know.   But even more than this,  those habits of being still, respecting God, and having faith, even in the midst of the storm is how my mother showed me, in the most practical terms, what having faith and what living by faith means, not just when the weather gets bad, but when life turns dark and difficult.  This is when you need to know the most that, even in these dark, deadly, and difficult moments, even when you don’t understand, God is ‘in his temple’ and God is still at work.   This is when we all need to keep our mouths shut, our minds and our hearts open, to live by our faith, to pray, and to wait and see what going to happen next.    Living by the facts is too predictable and closed ended.  Living by faith means so much more.   Amen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Jeremiah: “Putty In God’s Hands”

A Sermon Based Upon Jeremiah 18: 1-11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership,   Sunday,   July 6, 2014

“So he made it over reworking it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make it."  (Jeremiah 18.4).

In a classic episode of "I Love Lucy," Lucy had taken a job at a candy factory and was being trained on the first day of her new job.  It was Lucy's duty to stand at a conveyor belt with pieces of candy continuously passing in front of her. She was to add the finishing touches to the process. Her boss had walked out of the room, but not before she emphasized strongly that her job was vital. She would lose her job if she let even a single piece of candy slip by her station untouched.

At first Lucy was doing fine, but the conveyor belt gradually picked up speed and before long she was frantic, grabbing candy and stuffing it everywhere she could her mouth, her coat, her pockets, her dress so that no unfinished piece would make it through her station. It was a classic. 

Steve Bailey is a real Candy Man in Lebanon, PA.  Steve doesn't put the finishing touches on all of the 33 million Hershey's Kisses that are manufactured in a single day.   No, he only has about 20,000 Hershey's Kisses pass his inspection station every 60 seconds!   This "maestro of the Kiss" has a job of searching for anything less than sheer chocolate perfection. The job sounds overwhelming, but it’s not as difficult as the numbers suggest.  A large majority of the 1,200,000 Kisses that pass him every hour are already perfect by the time they reach him.  But of course, some of the pieces don't quite pass the required specifications of perfections. The public's expectations of what a Hershey's Kiss is supposed to look like when it is unwrapped are so high that only perfection will do! Steve will not allow a defective piece of chocolate to pass his station only to disappoint whoever unwraps it at home.  Steve sees that it has exactly the proper size and smooth appearance, is not leaning to the side, and above all, it must be perfect! 

But machinery and life is not perfect, even with high tech equipment.  What happens to the Kisses that fall short of these lofty requirements?   According the Life Magazine article, Steve says he picks out the imperfect specimens of chocolate and brushes them aside to a catchoff pan where they go into a process that is called, the rework.  Here, the defective pieces are melted down mixed with new chocolate and the process starts all over again, until chocolate perfection is reached. 

The idea of defective Kisses ending up in rework, immediately points us to  this memorable parable of the Potter in Jeremiah 18:16: "Behold, the potter was working at the wheel And the vessel that he was making of clay was spoiled in the hand of the potter. So he made it over, reworking it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make it." 

HUMAN LIFE HAS GREAT POTENTIAL AND POSSIBLITIES
The image of a potter working at his wheel is simple, but unforgettable.  Jeremiah chose this image to point to God’s great purposes for his people.   We are the creation of the great potter who has placed us like clay on the wheel of life.  If we are willing to be ‘putty’ in God’s hands, our lives have tremendous possibilities and potential.  

Both true religion and good science affirms that human life is the highest and greatest form of life.   In the Judeo-Christian faith, the psalmist once answered his own question:  “What are human beings that you are (God) mindful of them, or mortals that (God) cares for them?   His answer:  “Yet you have made them a little lower than the angels (or God) and crowned them with glory and honor” (Psalm 8.4-5).   The Psalmist adds how important humans are also for creation itself, not just in themselves alone: “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet….” (Psalm 8.6).

When we go back to the creation narratives in Genesis, we read how humans are the ‘crown’ of creation because they created on the final, climactic day of God’s ‘good’ creative work as they are created ‘in the image of God’.   This is a gift that no other creature is given.   Whatever this ‘imago deo’ means, it points to the capacity the human creature has to know and relate to their creator in relational and responsible ways.  The whole idea behind the word ‘responsibility’ means that humans have the potential to respond to the goodness and love around them, so that they can be an extension of God’s creative power and work and are able to make this world an even better place, because we are in it.  Now, that’s responsibility!

Interestingly, Science does not disagree with core of this great religious insight.  Science also affirms that humans are the highest, most developed species on the face of the earth.  Even if you don’t believe in evolutionary science, you can still be amazed at this one fact: according to Science, the universe is 13.82 Billion years old, with the earth being about 4.5 Billion. The point is that it took all those billions of years of evolving just so humans could develop in the last 200,000 years.  And only in these last 200,000 years have humans achieved the potential and all the possibility you and I have today.  In other words, life is created so that you can be you.  And we can be amazing creatures, can’t we?  

When I think of the ‘amazing’ fact of the human race, I think of a simple person doing good like a Mother Teresa, or a person with undeniable strength and courage like Abraham Lincoln, or I would think of the amazing musical minds of a Mozart, Bach or Beethoven, or the incredible sense of duty of a Fireman, a policemen, or a teacher.   Or I might also think of the incredible sacrifices made by missionaries, humanitarian workers, or soldiers who go into harm’s way for the sake of freedom.    All these are examples of the great potential and possibility of the human person and the human spirit to do good in the world.  We need to include on that list, also those simple, but tireless people who accomplish small things that have very big outcomes, like parents who raise their children, or families that make strong communities, or faithful people who keep the faith, do good, and make sure the most basic things in life are done.  

I’ll never forget a National Geographic article some years ago, that was written about North Carolina.  It made special note of the tall Oaks located around Chapel Hill and then commented about the kind of the people who make up the Tar Heel State.  As I recall, the article concluded something like, “The people in North Carolina aren’t known for famous people, but they very much like the tall, strong and sturdy oaks that cover the hills near Chapel Hill, they aren’t worth much for anything, except for holding the world together.”  

That’s not bad theology.  One of the greatest beliefs of the Christian faith is that God put humans on this earth to work, both the ‘caretakers’ of God’s earthly garden and as part of the body of Christ, so we might also partner with Christ in holding all things together (Col. 1.17).  I can’t think of anything description of humanity than understanding that our greatest vocation is to work with God in preserving and advancing this amazing world.

BEST INTENTIONS CAN GO WRONG
Louis Armstrong, known for his trumpet playing, also recorded a song that has remained popular, entitled:  “It’s a wonderful world”.  Perhaps you’ve heard it.  It begins:  “I see trees of green, red roses too.  I see them bloom for me and you.  And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”   The song continues with all kinds of marvelous, simple images of creation, including “skies of blue,” and “clouds of white”, “The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night,” “colors of rainbows,” the ‘faces of people passing by’ and ‘friends shaking hands’ saying “How do you do?” meaning “I love you.”   He concludes with the image of babies crying and growing learning ‘much more’ than he’ll ever know” so that he says to himself again, “What a wonderful world”. 

Of course, in many ways it is a ‘wonderful world’, but it’s not a perfect world.  This is precisely why Jeremiah has gone down to the potter’s house, because Jeremiah’s world wasn’t perfect either.  In fact, as is typical of most Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah is a reluctant prophet.  When God calls him to speak, Jeremiah answers,  “Ah, Lord God!  Truly I don’t know how to speak, for I am only a boy”  (Jer. 1.6).   But Jeremiah must speak. The Lord put the words in his mouth to speak a message of both ‘destruction’ and ‘reconstruction’, saying, “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” (1.10)…Out of the north disaster shall break out on all the inhabitants of the land….” (1.14).  It’s not a pretty message, nor a pretty picture Jeremiah paints.   This is part of the reason Jeremiah is known as the ‘weeping prophet’

Jeremiah is weeping is because of what he sees at the potter’s house.  The clay is in the hands of a skilled potter but “the clay was spoiled in the potter’s hands”.  The clay was good clay, the potter has skilled hands, but even the best of intentions can go wrong.  This is how Jeremiah sees Israel’s social, spiritual and political situation just before the fall of Jerusalem, which occurred at the hands of the Babylonians in 587 BC.   His people, and his nation, had great potential.  God had good intentions with them, and the people once had serious intention to follow and serve God, but now, everything has changed.   How things were unraveling in Jeremiah’s day can be expressed by the words of Irish poet, W.B. Yeats in his famous poem, “The Second Coming”, who wrote:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

What went wrong in Jeremiah’s day is that Judah has failed to keep it’s covenant and promise with the creator.  What happens to people when they fail to make and keep their promises to God?   In one of the most powerful biblical insights, one which Jesus built his own prophetic ministry upon, God’s best intentions were said to be unraveling could because of what is the human heart.   Jeremiah writes:   The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse-- who can understand it?   I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings. (Jer 17:9-10 NRS).   When humans hearts have become corrupt, perverse, obstinate, immoral and debased, the worst things imaginable can happen.  We can become worse than even the wildest animal. As someone has said, “Animals kill only to survive, but a human being will kill simply for sport.”  This kind of senseless, mindless, heartless evil is what the apostle Paul also wrote about, when he wrote to the Romans,
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness …for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God …., but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator. (Rom 1:18-25 NRS)

My German tutor’s father was an SS officer during Nazi Germany. One day, I asked my tutor, how much he knew about what was going on.  He said he remembered them marching Jews by his home.  There was a shoe factory nearby and they would try out new shoes on Jews and march them until they wore out the soles.  When he went to the window to watch them march by, his parents would close the curtain so that he could not see the cruelty.  Interestingly, his father took part in the cruelty but did not what his son to experience it first-hand. He wanted his son to grow up only thinking how good Germans were and how bad or worthless Jews were.

Just how low humans can go is not only seen in Nazi Germany, nor Stalin’s Russia, or in extreme radical Islam, but it can unfortunately be seen in our own country, even in our own families, in our own churches and, if we are not careful, even in our own hearts.  Remember what God told Cain all the way back in Genesis, just before he killed his brother, Abel?  The LORD said to Cain: “If you do well, will you not be accepted?  And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." (Gen 4:7 NRS)  Cain was unable to ‘master it’ and he killed his on and only brother. 

Yes, this can be a wonderful world, except when human allow their hearts to be overtaken by sin and evil.  When this happens, this “wonderful world” turns tragic, deadly and disastrous.  It can happen anytime, anywhere to anyone, because, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn has said, “the line between good and evil runs through every human heart.”  We are all capable of the greatest good and the worst evil imaginable.

HOWEVER, GOD’S BEST WORK IS A REWORK 
What can happen to the clay, even when it is being molded by the hands of the potter and creator, should chill us all to the bone.  “Sin lurks at the door” of every human heart, and if we do not believe this, it probably has already ‘mastered’ us in the worst kind of way because we are already blinded to just how dark, futile, and deceiving our own hearts can become.  Things were so bad in Jeremiah’s day, that God promised to bring a new covenant (Jer. 31:31) because the old one simply wasn’t working.  

What is most amazing, however, in this story of what happen at the potter’s house, may be the most important message of all from the prophet Jeremiah.  By the time Israel hears Jeremiah’s message, and rejects it, Jerusalem has fallen.  It appears that the land and the people have brought an end to themselves.  But it is right in the midst of the moment, when ‘the clay is spoiled in the Potter’s hands’ (18:4a), that the Potter has already begun to ‘rework it into another vessel, as seemed good to him (18:4b).’  “Can I do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?  Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand?” (18: 6). 

Any honest, thinking, Christian, ought to wonder why evil can so easily get the upper-hand, in our world and in our own lives?   Why is it so much easier to slide and fall into doing evil, than to do good?  And why are the good things we should do often the hardest things to make ourselves do?  As one person said, “Why does the good food taste so bad, or the bad food taste so good?”  Or as a someone told my mother-in-law she was about to undergo heart surgery, “If you want to know what you shouldn’t eat, if it tastes good, just spit it out!”   Again, why is life this way, as if it is created upside down so that it is so easy to fail and so hard to succeed?  Why couldn’t life be different?  Maybe it can.

Barbara Brown Taylor tells about Jacques Lusseyran, a blind Friench resistance fighter from WWII, who wrote a memoir called, And There Was Light.  Lusseyran was not born blind, but during a scuffle he fell hard against the corner of his teacher’s desk and he damaged both eyes.  When he woke up in the hospital, he could no longer see.  At the age of seven, he was permanently blind.

During those days, blind people were pushed to the margins of society, where those who could not learn to cane chairs, or play and instrument for religious services, became beggars on the streets.  The doctors wanted to send Jacques to a school for the blind in Paris, but his parents wanted him to stay in school and learn to function in a seeing world.  His mother learned Braille with him.  He learned to use a Braille typewriter.  The principal of the school ordered him a special desk to hold his equipment.  But the best thing his parents did was never to pity him or describe him as ‘unfortunate’.  His Father made blindness like an adventure, telling Jacques, “Always tell us when you discover something!”
Barely ten days after Jacques lost his sight, he made a great discovery that entranced him the rest of his life.  He wrote, “I had completely lost sight in my eyes; I could not see the light of the world anymore.  Yet the light was still there”, he wrote.  “It’s source was not obliterated.  I felt it gushing forth every moment and brimming over… It was all there…movements, shades, and colors.  But this light contradicted everything those who have sight could understand.  The source of light is not in the outer world.   But the light dwells where life also dwells; within ourselves.” 

Because Jacques found the light, even in his blindness, he was able to experience the light, even without the use of his eyes.  With practice, he learned to attend so carefully to the world around him, that he could even describe what kind of tree the wind was blowing through by the sound it made.  He could also tell how tall or wide a wall was by the pressure it exerted on his body.  But in January 1944, the Nazis captured Jacques and other countrymen and shipped them to Buchenwald.   There he learned that the true darkness is not blindness, but hate.  Hate worked against his mind so much that he started running into things and tripping over furniture.  However, when Jacques got a hold of himself, he learned that no one could turn out the light within without his consent.  He turned to the light within his heart, so that no matter how dark it was, he was always able to find the light.  (From “Seeing In the Dark”, by Barbara Brown Taylor, as told in The Christian Century, April 2, 2014, p. 22-24).

What I find so fascinating about Jacques’ story, is that God is able to do more through him in his blindness than had he remained a seeing person.   The same is true of us.  Why does God allow us to fail, to sin, or to lose our way?   I need only tell you this: the prodigal son became a much better fellow than his elder brother who never left home.  This is true because God allows the clay to be spoiled, so it can be ‘reworked’ and become even better.   The troubles, problems, and tragedies of life, do not have to break us, but, with God’s help, they can make us into people we would never have become, unless we had submitted ourselves to the reshaping and reworking by the gracious and patience Potter, who is our saving and redeeming LORD.


A final, amazing story from the life of Jeremiah is that as Jerusalem is being invaded by foreign armies and is being burned to the ground, God instructs Jeremiah to take what money he has and to by some land.  Though the city had fallen into the hands of the Chaldeans because the people had forsaken God, the purchased of land was a promise that God would rework his plan and bring his people back so that it could be even better than it was before (Jer. 32. 25-44).  When you allow yourself to be ‘putty’ or ‘clay’ in God’s hands, there is always the chance to be reworked into more than you could ever imagine.  Amen.