This morning I preached for the first time in my new position at Saugatuck Congregational Church. Below is the text of the sermon. The lectionary readings on which the sermon is based are drawn from Jeremiah 32 and Psalm 91.
Last Sunday we officially began our confirmation class here at Saugatuck. Six 8th grade students gathered in the home of Jan van Arsdale to eat dinner, watch one of the Nooma videos (which you can also see after the service today, I might add!), do some activities, and talk about what it means to be in relationship with other people and why they will be choosing to formalize their relationship with this community here at Saugatuck Congregational Church next spring.
We had some great conversations, and at the end of the night we played a game called “Apples to Apples.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with the game, the basic idea is that each player is trying to match cards in their hand, which have on them names, places, ideas, rock bands, movie titles, etc., each player tries to match one of those cards to a category chosen for the round. And each round a judge chooses which card played is the best match.
The matches that get made are frequently silly and even snarky. For example, one of the matches that got played by one of our 8th grade boys last week for the category “scary” was the card “my bathroom.”
What was really interesting to me, playing this game with our confirmands, was how many of the names or titles on the cards the kids didn’t recognize. “Who are the Rolling Stones?” someone asked at one point. “What’s Casablanca?”
When you are in your mid-twenties, experiences like these simultaneously give you this strange sensation of realizing you are actually an adult now and the first twinges of feeling a little old.
I get a similar experience when I look at the birthdates of the kids in our Church School and even our High School program.
Our current confirmation class, for example, was all born in the year 2000. They completely missed the Y2K panics of the late 90’s. They have never been alive at a time when the internet was not a major aspect of how communication and business operated. They were barely a year-old when 9-11 happened. Abnormal and extreme weather patterns have been the “norm” of their entire lives. They have no conscious memories of a time when our nation was not at war.
Thinking from that perspective really makes me feel oldâ€¦ So I can only imagine how most of you guys must feelâ€¦
But also, from this perspective, it is easy to start feeling pessimistic about our chances. I saw an interview the other night with Richard Dawkins, who cited the current head of the Royal Academy of Science as saying that humanity has about fifty-fifty odds of surviving through the end of the twenty-first century. When we see the problems facing our world and society, it is easy to feel as though they are insurmountable, as though future disaster is inevitable, and as though all of us helplessly and hopelessly caught up in the rolling current of history.
Now hold onto to that grim, overwhelmed sensation for a moment, because that may capture something of how the people of Israel felt in the days of the prophet Jeremiah.
For a few decades now they had been caught up in a state of almost constant warfare against much more powerful nations. Ten years earlier, the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem and taken many of their people away into exile. Now, with their capital city again under siege by the Babylonians, things were looking especially desperate.
And so the people were in a state of panic.
Wild, unwise geo-political maneuvers were being made in a last ditch effort for a military victory. And in a fit of anger, the king locked up Jeremiah the prophet, who had counseled against such moves, on trumped up charges of treason.
The people were panicking. But can you really blame them?
Typically, when faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges, seemingly inescapable disaster, we resort to one of two options:
The first path that we generally think of is to fight tooth and nail for survival. Slamming on the brakes, we attempt to stop the train of history in its tracks before it barrels into the wall. This is the reaction of panic: recognizing the mistakes of the past we desperately try to reverse them, change course, and restore the universe to a more happy equilibrium before it is too late.
The second possible path is to just give-up and cave to the seemingly inevitable. Accepting a kind-of fatalistic worldview, we might just throw our hands in the air, ask “what can be done,” and hunker down for the storm to pass. This is the “post-apocalyptic” option: disaster cannot be averted, so its time to start stockpiling, digging in, and preparing for life on the other side.
We can pretty easily come up with examples of both of these paths in action in our own world today, whether fact or fiction.
The problem, I think, is that both of these responses seem inadequate.
One option means giving up, the other seems like a desperate grasping at straws.
To put it another way, it seems to me that neither of these responses leaves room for faith.
One response says faith is pointless because the end is inevitable, so its time to take matters into our own hands and ensure our own security.
And the other says that since we created our problems it is up to us to fix them or die trying.
Both imply that our fate is in our own hands, even against the most insurmountable forces of history.
But the very point of faith is recognizing that we cannot control all possible outcomes,
And yet still believing that the God who can control them is working all things out for good.
“My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust,” writes the Psalmist.
And God responds: “When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them.”
In reality, these aren’t the only two possible paths.
There is a third option open to us: the option of faith.
Faith doesn’t desperately cling to the past, nor does faith give up on the future.
Faith recognizes that the storms and the fires and the trials and tribulations of this life are real.
And faith recognizes that sometimes they will shake us to the core.
But faith is willing to take risks because faith also believes that we will come through our challenges even stronger than before,
Because God is our refuge and our fortress in whom we trust,
Because God will answer when we call and be with us in times of trouble.
Last week after the service there was a discussion about one of the Rob Bell Nooma videos titled “Trees.” And in that discussion some of the seeming insurmountability of our present challenges was articulated when one person noted that the most popular genre of books and movies amongst young people right now is post-apocalyptic fiction, centering on the question of what to do after society completely falls apart.
Not long after the days of Jeremiah a similar but, importantly, different genre of writing would crop up amongst Jewish teachers and sages, such as the prophet Ezekiel or the writers of the book of Daniel. These voices described a world so turned upside down that only God’s intervention could save it.
But, importantly, they did believe that God would save it.
Similarly, Jeremiah, from his prison cell, had a vision.
This particular vision was about buying a piece of land.
And like so many of the things that the prophets did, buying that land turned out to be a symbolic representation of what God was going to do for the people.
Because that land was behind enemy lines, in occupied territory.
As was said in our Bible Study on Wednesday morning, this purchase was a bit of a risky investment.
But Jeremiah takes the risk.
And Jeremiah gives to his student Baruch, who handled the transaction for him while he was in the King’s dungeon, these instructions:
“Take these deeds and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”
Jeremiah knew what was coming for the people of Judah.
He knew they were going to be conquered and taken into exile, that disaster was about to strike.
He knew this better than most: he had been preaching that sermon for years.
In fact, the prophecy we read today is one of the first, if not the absolute first, time that Jeremiah prophesies something positive.
And it comes all the way in chapter 32â€¦ so it’s been a good, long time in coming.
But Jeremiah is willing to take a risk with his symbolic enactment of this vision, because even in the midst of disaster for the people, Jeremiah also believed that God was their refuge and fortress in whom they trusted,
That God would answer when they called and be there for them in times of trouble.
When I first arrived here at Saugatuck, Alison handed me a stack of books.
“These fall into the category of “not homework,”” she said as she strongly encouraged me to read them.
“Not homework,” for a guy who just finished grad school, is a hypothetical construct, not something that actually exists.
But one of the books she handed me came up again the other night because Janet Canning, our interim moderator, began our church council meeting with a reference to it.
Its called Changing the Conversation by Anthony Robinson, and its a book about churches seeking to understand and respond to the major shifts that have happened in our society over the last few decades.
In it, Robinson writes about a similar passage to the one we are looking at today (his being from the prophet Ezekiel). He writes:
“The theological point is also a psychological truism: we seldom have complete control over what life brings, but it is up to us how we respond to it. Perhaps we can hunker down and hope that all this will eventually blow over. Not from [the prophet’s] point of view. He urged God’s people to rise to the occasion by trying to understand what was required of them at their moment in history. We may choose to angrily vent our frustrations on one another, or blame others, because the world we knew well has collapsed. Or we may bring our grief and lamentations before God, who is capable of transforming loss and lament into hope and praise.” (p.39)
Disaster, frustration, grief, lament.
These are things that are not, unfortunately, uncommon in this life or in this world.
Whether they come in the form of the seemingly constant barrage of gun-violence in our society or in the continuous drumbeat of war or the uncontrollable winds of a hurricane,
Whether they come in the form of an economic downturn, the loss of a job, or in the smoke and flames of a fire which takes away our homes or our place of worship,
Whether they come in the form of a personal crisis, the loss of a loved one, a broken relationship, or a sudden illness,
Whatever form they might take, we all have and will face such trials and tribulations.
And when we face them we have a choice to make about how we will respond.
We can choose to give up, we can choose to panic.
Or we can choose to risk a little faith in the God who is our refuge and our fortress,
The God who promises to answer when we call and to be there in times of trouble.
The God who has answered us and has been there for us in our need.
The God who has comforted and guided this community as it has and continues to rebuild from the devastation of a fire two years ago.
The God who inspired, as we heard last week, members of this community to spend a week in New Jersey assisting those who had suffered the damage of Superstorm Sandy.
The God who has felt all the trials and tribulations of this life first hand by becoming human in the form of Jesus Christ and suffering alongside us.
That is the God who is our refuge and our fortress.
This is the God who promises to answer us when we call and be with us in times of trouble, and who calls us to risk a little faith as we face the challenges of this life.
Just as Jeremiah risked a little faith to say to the people that “houses and fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.”
With faith, we are not forced to hide from our challenges.
Nor are we forced to grasp at straws, reaching for the impossible.
With faith we can say that though we may have to walk through wind and rain and fire, the journey will bring us to a new and better place.
With faith, we can say to one another that we will return to our church home on the Post Road and that we will have a restored and renewed building and community.
With faith, we can say to those we met in New Jersey that even through storms and fires they too will be able to rebuild and rejoice.
With faith, we can say to our young people as they stare down the long list of challenges and crises that face our world that there will be a future for them that doesn’t stockpiling food and water for a post-apocalyptic dystopia.
And with faith, we can gather here as a community, knowing that God is our refuge and our fortress, that God will answer us when we call and that God will be with us in times of trouble.
So may we be a people who risks a little faith.