Shielded by a Consuming Fire

preached at St. Augustine’s Oak Cliff on Sunday, August 21, 2016.

“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” God tells Jeremiah as he winds up to bestow a difficult call. I hear psalm 139 in this passage, the prayer which extolls God’s intimate knowledge of each person, how fearfully and wonderfully each one of us is made. Indeed, God created Jeremiah to be a prophet even as little Jerry’s bones were still being knit together and made calcified. More than being a determinist proof-text to affirm that no one ever really makes any life decision, we hear here that God cares so deeply for each life created that he dreams up how that person might make the world into God’s kingdom and then plants little seeds of that work right in to our very marrow.

I wonder if it’s something like Michael Phelps.

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Happiness List

Another Friday, another Happiness List!  (the first, second, third...) Keeping our focus and continually remembering good things cultivates gratitude and helps our minds get used to seeing goodness and beauty around us–I’m using these weekly lists to train my mind and heart to see light.

1. Seeing Grandma & Grandpa

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(1a. being in the Twin Cities, 1b. St. Paul having a heat advisory at 78 degrees)

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2. After a long week, a bit of encouragement in Jeremiah 1:7:

“But the Lord said to me,
‘Do not say, “I am only a boy”;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

Not least evidenced in my post this week on the Covenant Blog…

3. a trip to Lush while in the Cities…

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Since there isn’t a location of my favorite cosmetics store at home in South Carolina, I tried out lots of new products and loaded up…

I fell in love with their solid shampoo when I bought some in Canterbury this summer; so I tried Seanik.  I also grabbed Jungle, a solid conditioner, to try (I’m flying, so I couldn’t get lots of liquids).  Angels on Bare Skin is one of their most popular cleansers, its scent and exfoliating ground almonds were amazing, but I wanted to try something with a little more power, so I got Dark Angels.  It’s intense!  But I haven’t experienced the tightness and itchiness that usually accompanies cleansers that are too powerful (like salicylic acid cleansers–for me at least).

I was unexpectedly taken in by a jasmine scent and decided to try some solid perfume, “Lust“!  In my defense, I thought I wanted “Karma,” because I so love the smell of the Karma Koba, but when I tested the other few solid perfumes, the flowery-yet-grounded jasmine scent did me in.

Sitting Still: Waiting with the Prophets

rock at ConnemaraTuesday morning began The Simple Way Women’s Bible Study at Trinity Cathedral (come and join–7:30am, Tuesdays in Columbia, SC!).  Through 2013, we’re studying Micah, one of the minor prophets, contemporary of Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea.

The church’s season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, happens to coincide with one of the busiest times of the secular calendar–holiday parties, family gatherings, workplace gift exchanges, grabbing up last vacation days, spending out the flexible spending account, pushing through year-end evaluations, enduring exams and final papers (the list never ends).  Advent is meant to be a time focused on waiting; waiting for Jesus to come as a baby on Christmas, waiting for Jesus to come again in the clouds, waiting for Jesus to heal us and make us whole.  Usually, when we’re really focused on waiting for something, we are the opposite of busy.  Waiting for a baby, waiting for a bus, waiting for a medical report, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for water to boil, waiting for Dad to come home–waiting is full of attention, expectation, hyper-awareness.  These are not characteristics we usually associate with ourselves during the month of December.

The opposite-ness of this way of like that God calls us to in Advent makes its practice all the more important.  Christians are supposed to things differently and look strange to people who do not claim Jesus as Lord.  So we sit with the prophets, with Micah, and wait for Jesus to come, just like Micah waited for Jesus thousands of years ago.  While we’re sitting together, us and Micah, we might as well read some of what God revealed to him; perhaps we’ll learn a bit more about this strange God and how it is we can practice being still enough to listen to him.

In the study Tuesday morning, I gave some facts about Micah: from the 8th century, called a “minor prophet” because his book is short, prophesied mostly about Jerusalem and Judah.  He’s referred to in Jeremiah, and perhaps in 1 Kings, too.  Jeremiah 26:18-19 gives a window into how we might interpret and understand the prophecies of the Old Testament, especially the woeful ones.  Jeremiah presents one of Micah’s prophecies, that Zion and Jerusalem would be razed if the people of Judah did not turn to God, and then Jeremiah points out that under Hezekiah, a righteous king, Zion and Jerusalem stood strong–it’s not that Micah was wrong, but that the smallest turn toward God changed the course of history.

Though Micah is one of the “minor” prophets, his words are widely used and remembered.  Do you recognize this one, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (4:3b)  The same words are found in Isaiah 2:4; the vivid phrase has inspired many artists over the centuries.  Another well-known verse, 6:8, exhorts: “what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”  Finally, perhaps Micah’s most famous prophecy, “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.” (5:2) This prophecy is quoted by Matthew (2:6), as well as being inspiration for “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” the beloved Christmas carol.

The central message of Micah, which we’ll be studying for the next four weeks, preparing for Christmas, is stated in chapter one, verse three: “the Lord is coming.”  Echoed in I Corinthians 16:22 (“Our Lord, come!”) and Revelation 22:20 (Come, Lord Jesus!”), this is our Advent prayer–“Our Master, come to us, help us to receive you.”  This is the human challenge, to receive the God revealed in Jesus Christ, to be turned toward him and to submit ourselves to his call.

Micah speaks often of the coming judgment which will accompany the Messiah; judgment can stir up anxious images of law courts and accusations, but this isn’t what Jesus brings.  “God never accuses, he convicts” (via a very wise friend last week), reminding me that thoughts I have that sounds like accusations are the sort I ought to banish immediately–accusations and shame are not of God, they are not part of God’s judgment.  “God’s justice is forgiveness” (another very wise friend)–holding on to grudges, counting costs, and eating up our resentment brings judgment onto ourselves, our sin is our own punishment.  As God continuing seeks relationship with each of us, may we undertake habits during Advent which help us to be turned toward God.

The Blood of the Innocent

“34 Your clothing is stained with the blood of the innocent and the poor,
though you didn’t catch them breaking into your houses!
35 And yet you say,
‘I have done nothing wrong.
Surely God isn’t angry with me!’
But now I will punish you severely
because you claim you have not sinned.”

(Jeremiah 2:34-35)

Where were your clothes made?  Who died to provide you with fashions to cover your body?  Whose blood is on the everyday comforts with which you surround yourself?

In the Psalms class this semester, we’ve been struggling with the sometimes-judgmental and sometimes-angry God we seem to be facing in those poem-prayers.  It’s been hard to face up to the fact that the living God is more than a comforting Teddy Bear.  Let us not try to castrate our God, the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The first chapters of Jeremiah make clear that God’s wrath is on those who are unrepentant and who lie to themselves, saying they are righteous and faithful when they are full of rotting sin.  2:22, “Though you wash yourself with lye, and use much soap, the stain of your guilt is still before me, says the Lord God.”  (RSV)  We live without intent and without reflection, we trample those who cannot pick themselves up, and we are culpable for our transgression.  It’s not pretty, but is it true.  Would we really even want to worship a God who wasn’t livid at this sort of treatment of the poor and downtrodden?

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany – Charge to Jeremiah – the Church of St. Michael & St. George

CSMSG snow dawnDo not say, “I am only a boy.”  For you shall go to all who I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.  Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.  (Jer. 1:6-8)

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

A few weeks ago, a number of new mothers from our church got together for brunch.  They stayed at the table much longer than they meant to, and shared joys and fears they hadn’t quite expected to voice with each other, and they left so energized by the connection they’d made that two of them texted me immediately to tell me how wonderful the companionship had been.

One of the members of the new group told me later that the best advice she had been given as a soon-to-be mother of a newborn was that new babies were made specifically for new parents.  This was a great comfort to her, and it sounds like just what God told Jeremiah in the passage we read together this morning.

“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy.’” God admonishes his newly-minted prophet.  God does not care whether you have taken all the new-parent classes at the YMCA, or whether you have stocked your nursery with the appropriate number of zero-to-three month and three-to-six-month onesies.  God is not limited by what you bring to the table—perhaps you are facing a child going off to college shortly, and you’re not sure how the family is going to stay glued together without him or her around.  The good news is that God is the best OR nurse that we can imagine—he anticipates our needs and knows exactly which tool we’ll need next to face the problems in front of us.

Take Queen Esther in the Old Testament—she hadn’t attended courses in negotiation before being chosen for the king’s harem.  She’d only been trained in making herself beautiful, but God decided to use her to save his people from extinction.  Her beauty was one tool that God used to help his people, but God also gave Esther encouragement through her relatives and he gave her courage as she asked for help.  Like Esther, Jeremiah did not start out gifted and equipped to be a prophet, but God made sure that Jeremiah knew what to say when the time came for him to speak on God’s behalf.

Maybe that’s a comfort—God says to Jeremiah, “you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”  It’s not about what Jeremiah is prepared for, or what he has decided he should do; what God wants is going to happen.  Of course, the bad news is that we may have to try and try again until we figure out what it is that God is planning, and align ourselves with his will.

Growing up, my favorite stories were Anne of Green Gables and Little Women.  Both Anne Shirley and Jo March—the heroines of these stories—were imaginative writers who struggled to fit in amongst their ordinary rural communities.  They both found an out as teachers, and while they were gifted at the task, their hearts were always saved for their stories, which they wrote on the side and were constantly fighting to get published.  In each of their stories, a friend suggested early on in their career that they try to write about their own lives, the exploits of young girls in small-town Massachusetts or Canada.  They both eschewed the suggestion, hungry for the sort of literary recognition that great gory epics and dramatic love stories garnered in the contemporary magazines.  As many of you know, eventually, Anne and Jo returned to their roots and wrote about their young lives—they wrote out of their experience and ostensibly encouraged future generations of young women from small towns.  In seeking greatness in their fields, they thought they knew the best path to take—they took the well-trodden path they’d seen other writers walk.  But, one could argue, God had something different in mind for each of these inspiring young women, and it took their humility and their failing to realize how they were meant to write and to influence their world.

Jonah is an oft-cited biblical example on this front—he had been told very clearly exactly what God expected of him, but he decided not to follow along the path laid out.  His attitude earned him a spot inside a big fish—the ultimate time-out, perhaps—and he realized that God’s plan was happening whether or not Jonah was personally on board, so in the interest of self-preservation, he might as well go along with God’s story.

Part of Jonah’s resistance, I suspect, was something that Jeremiah struggled with too, and that is fear.  Our perfect OR nurse, God, whose way is happening whether or not we’re ready for it, has spoken on the problem of fear, too.  “Do not be afraid of them,” God tells Jeremiah—God tells us!—“for I am with you to deliver you.”  What is it that we were singing just over a month ago, “Emmanuel, ‘God with us.’”—We hold in our hands the promise that God made to Jeremiah and Jonah and Esther.  We have God-with-us, it’s Jesus!  And Jesus indeed delivers us from the only thing that is really scary—that death could be the end of us.  Because of Jesus, we know that this life is not all there is.  And because of Jesus, we need not fear.

I learned this lesson best from a friend of mine named Jim Markwood.  He and his wife were good friends of my parents when I was growing up, he had nieces who were my age, and he went to our church.  By trade, he was a lawyer, but he also loved basketball and coached it at the high school I attended.  When my parents took an overnight trip, us kids were shuttled to the Markwood household.  Jim and Lois were like our uncle and aunt; Jim was like an uncle to a lot of young people in Toledo.  During the summer after my freshman year of high school, he died of cancer.  Jim had fought cancer for much of the time I remembered him, first it was in his colon, and then in his lungs and eventually it got everywhere, and I remember that my mom described his funeral as like that of a rockstar—there were no parking places left at the big church in the suburbs, there were no seats left in a nave that hosted our yearly high school graduation.  He had coached so many students in basketball, he had spent time with so many youth at church and at our school—he had poured his whole life into his family and his friends.  Jim was only one man, who went to the University of Toledo and raised his daughters in Northwest Ohio, but he touched hundreds of people—so much so that more than ten years after he’s died, people like me are still talking about him.

Jim didn’t start a new, world-renowned basketball-coaching method, or save the Hebrew people from annihilation.  Jim was an ordinary guy, “only a boy,” you might say.  He was willing to commit himself completely to whatever need presented itself, and to waste all kinds of time teaching kids to play basketball and to babysit for other couples with his wife.

Jesus came to be God with us so that people like this ordinary man named Jim didn’t have to be afraid, because he’d already been delivered from death.