This sermon was delivered at Saugatuck Congregational Church, UCC in Westport, CT, on Nov. 25, 2018, and is reprinted here with permission.
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11 (full text printed after the sermon)
One of the criticisms I often hear leveled against the Christian Church (maybe you’ve heard this one, too), is that the church is full of hypocrites, full of people who claim to follow the Way of Jesus but who do more judging and excluding than they do loving and inviting. A study by the Barna Group in 2007 found that most sixteen to twenty-nine year olds have a negative view of Church (interesting to note that Jeremiah may well have been a teenager when God called him…). 87% of those young people said the Church is judgmental. 85% said the church is hypocritical. 70% said the church is insensitive to people who are different.
Even Jesus charged the religious officials of his day with being “hypocrites”. There is a scene, described in the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus storms the temple and throws a fit; he overturns tables and lashes out at the money changers. In his rage, he quotes this passage from the prophet Jeremiah, calling the temple “a den of robbers.”
These are harsh and uncomfortable words to hear, for those of us who gather at church, who have found here solace, community, inspiration; who see ourselves as well-intentioned people of faith and this church as a force for good. “This is God’s house, God’s dwelling place,” we say. “This is a sanctuary…” We go to great lengths to make our houses of worship special - to make them beautiful, inviting, sacred spaces...
But then we fill them with people - ordinary people, God’s beloved, complicated, mixed-up, precious, diverse people. So I wonder why we are so surprised, when all those ordinary people gathered in one place fail to live in perpetual harmony; when we disagree - sometimes fiercely. When we hurt each other and fall short of God’s vision. “That shouldn’t be,” declare the critics. “Not in church. People should do better than that. Shame on them.”
I go to two places, when I hear those accusations (provided I am rested and feeling sufficiently grounded to not get immediately defensive about this church I love and this ministry into which I have poured my heart). On one hand, those sharp-edged words make me ask, “Where have we gone wrong? How have we failed to embody our deepest convictions in ways that are sufficiently visible? Why don’t those young people see and believe that we really DO care about love and justice? Where are we missing the boat?”
Friends, this is a critical question, and one we should be asking ourselves every day. “How are we doing, really?” It is one thing to recite the words of our Saugatuck Church mission statement: “We are a community of Christ welcoming all people, learning to love and serve God and neighbor.” It’s another to have someone say those words back to US. To run into people around town who will say, “Saugatuck Church? O yes, I know that church. It’s the one that welcomes all people, that loves and serves God and neighbor!”
If that’s NOT what people are saying, about Saugatuck Church or about the Christian Church in general, we should be asking, “Why not?”
Tell me if this is true for you, too: when someone criticizes me or calls me out, my first impulse, too often, is to explain my intentions: “Here’s what I was thinking. I meant to do this; I didn’t mean to cause any harm…” How often do we try to justify our actions, or our inactions? How often do our responses imply that we’re not really at fault because whatever harm we’ve caused or contributed to was inadvertent?
Maybe you’ve heard an elected official issue a public apology that sounds something like this, “I regret any hurt that may have been felt because of my actions.” Look at those verbal gymnastics. Not, “I’m sorry I hurt you.” But rather, “I’m sorry you took it badly.”
What if we focused less on intent and more on impact, spent less time explaining what we meant to do (or not do) and more time trying to understand how those with whom we are called into relationship actually experience us and our actions?
Think of East African communities who, every Christmas, are inundated with shoe boxes full of plastic toys and school supplies donated by well-meaning US churches, when what they really need isn’t one more Slinky or a pack of pencils but rather economic empowerment: support for local vendors and local schools.
Or think about African-Americans who attempt to explain the countless, daily ways that they suffer discrimination, only to be told by their white neighbors that they are being too sensitive because (after all) no harm was intended... when what they hoped for was finally to be heard and believed.
Or think of those young people who don’t come to church, even though we say we want them, because nothing about their own lives and culture is reflected in worship or in the congregation’s priorities, because no one has taken the time to ask them what inspires or drives or keeps them up at night?
What if we took the time to investigate, with the focus and determination of a major marketing firm, whether or not we are having our desired impact on the world? What if we said to our intended audience, “We are trying to be a force for love and justice - to confront global economic inequality, or dismantle racism, or engage faithful people of all ages in church. How are we doing? What could we do better?”
Maybe we’d discover that what we thought we were doing well was missing the mark. Or maybe we’d have to concede that our priorities have been skewed, that our words and our actions really are out of whack with each other (which is, after all, the definition of hypocritical). Maybe, if we listened closely enough, we’d get a few creative ideas about how we could be more effective as God’s people.
That’s one place I go.
Here’s the other place I go, when I hear the accusation that the church has failed to live up to its highest ideals. I think, maybe we need to revise our expectations of church, change the metaphor. Church isn’t an exhibit hall, where the finished product is on display, a room full of people who have already achieved Christian perfection. I’d like to propose that Church is more like a laboratory. In here, we work on the stuff that will help us do the real work beyond these walls.
Right now, scientists at the University of Portsmouth and the US Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory are studying a bacterium recently discovered in a waste recycling center in Japan. They are studying it not just because it’s novel, but because it appears to eat plastic - the kind used in water bottles – so it has the potential to help us clean up the massive amounts of plastic waste that currently contaminate our oceans. And here’s where it gets really interesting: while attempting to understand the structure of one of the bacterium’s enzymes, the research team inadvertently engineered a different enzyme that may do the job of breaking down plastic even better.
That’s what a lab is for. It’s NOT a showcase for the skills and knowledge we already have; it’s a place to discover by trial and error, to make mistakes, and to learn from them, precisely so we can take what we learn and apply it where it’s needed most. In other words, the church is NOT an end in itself. It is here to serve God’s vision out there.
If we’re not doing that - not scrutinizing God’s words under a microscope, taking them out for a trial run, testing out how they might sound if we uttered them in the boardroom, or in a Opioid clinic, or standing among asylum seekers at our southern border... If we’re not experimenting with all the different ways that we can speak of and live out God’s love and justice ... If we’re not trying and failing and forgiving each other and trying again… then maybe we’re not really being church.
For those Israelites in Judah, the ones that the prophet Jeremiah addressed, the temple was God’s home address, by definition – the one place in all the world where they were guaranteed to be in God’s presence. So when Jeremiah suggested that God might not stick around, well, that had to pull them up short. Was Jeremiah suggesting that God’s love, God’s presence among them (among us), is somehow conditional? As in: “If you amend your ways, then I will dwell with you?”
Maybe not. Try coming at the scene from another angle. Listen to God’s words from the perspective of the persecuted, with the ears of the strangers, the widows and other outcasts. Stand where they stand, and God’s unconditional love suddenly comes shining through: “I will defend those at the margins no matter what. I will go where they need me. If their plight is being addressed here, then I’ll show up here. But if I need to go somewhere else to be with those who suffer despair and injustice, then that’s what I’ll do.”
“If young people are gathering in the streets to protest, I will go there.
“If families are going hungry in red-lined neighborhoods, I will go there.
“If black men and brown men are languishing in prison, I will go there.
“If refugees are lining up at the border, fleeing violence and seeking asylum, I will go there.
“Wherever you find the widow, the orphan, the alien, that’s where I’ll be.” Thus says the Lord.
Listen that way, and God’s words become, not a threat, but a description. They describe something about God’s very nature - and by extension, the nature of Church. They suggest that the more we seek justice, love kindness and walk humbly (in the words of that other prophet, Micah)... the more space we make for the indwelling of that Holy Spirit. The more we become Church: curious, messy, up to our elbows, faith-filled, experimenting, learning, transforming, loving, forgiving, authentic Church... the way God intended it to be.
Beloved in Christ, here is the holy invitation: When those young, modern day Jeremiah’s come knocking at our door with a word from God; when they challenge us to amend our ways, let us resist every urge to defend our beloved church, to offer excuses, to explain our best intentions. Instead, let us pull ourselves up short and listen deeply, to the pain and the outrage, to the hopes and the dreams… until God’s words about Love and Justice find their way to the center of our being, until they take up residence in our hearts and propel us out the doors, to join with all God’s people and to be God’s Church in the world.
Jeremiah 1:4-10; 7:1-11 – New Revised Standard Version
4 Now the word of the Lord came to me saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
6 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” 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.
8 Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.”
9 Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me,
“Now I have put my words in your mouth.
10 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.”
7 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: 2 Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, “Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. 3 Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. 4 Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord.’
5 For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, 6 if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, 7 then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
8 Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. 9 Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, 10 and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, ‘We are safe!’— only to go on doing all these abominations? 11 Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching,” says the Lord.
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