Date: Sunday Sept. 11, 2016
Sermon: Shaped by Love
Scripture: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Luke 14:25-33
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
When I was young, grown ups used to talk about where they were when they heard that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the grocery store. At home. At work. The heart-wrenching shock of it. The tears – even in public, because people just couldn’t contain themselves. As that fades to distant memory, today people share stories of where they were on 9/11. How they heard. What is was like. The memories are deeply etched into our psyches.
I remember seeing the World Trade Centers going up. There were articles in the Scholastic Magazines that we were given in school, and my grandmother lived in New York so several times a year when we went there, we would watch the progress of the towers growing higher and higher. A marvel to behold. An architectural triumph. For years, the tallest buildings in the world.
The last time I saw them was in the summer of 2000. We took our kids and walked around the buildings and the plazas looking up, way up!
By then, the World Trade Centers had become a symbol of: Capitalism. Consumerism. Economic disparity where the few succeed on the backs of the many. The power and triumph of the 1%. They were seen as a symbol of American imperialism. American exceptionalism. America’s perceived superiority and domination.
And then the towers came down. And now One World Trade Center has gone back up. With another one to follow once there are tenants to fill it.
I heard someone on the radio this week talk about the address: One World Trade Center. He said it is the most prestigious, recognizable address on the planet. You don’t need to say the city, state, country or zip. Just One World Trade Center. And everyone knows where it is. Period.
To some, this is vindication and triumph. Well, it is, of a kind.
This morning we heard from the prophet Jeremiah about how God established the chosen people of Israel to be a model of justice, compassion, and right relationship among humans, with the Divine, and with Creation. But Israel has fallen short – oppressing foreigners, widows, orphans, and others who are vulnerable. Even killing those who are innocent. Doesn’t this sound timely? The same critique could be made of America today. Then we are given the image in Jeremiah of a potter taking a clay pot, ruining it, and reforming it into something new. God doesn’t just want to toss the whole mess. God wants to remake the community to conform to God’s aesthetic of justice, compassion, and righteousness. The people seem to be in a position with two choices. Be destroyed. Due to their own evil. Or be remade according to God’s vision and dream. Jeremiah’s job is to convince them to pick the second option.
Like every time and culture, there are forces forming and shaping us. We live in a time which I believe is primarily shaped by economic drives. I recently listened to an interview with 87 year old Noam Chomsky, linguist from MIT, premier intellectual of America, and he talked about how those with concentrated wealth and power are intentionally trying to drive our natural human inclinations toward compassion, solidarity, and helping others, out of us, so that we look out for number one, see others as competitors, and live in fear, because this undermines people banding together for the common good against those at the top and thus fuels profits for the already wealthy. [Requiem for the American Dream, Noam Chomsky.] This intentional agenda is meeting with great success. Just look at things now compared to 50 years ago, or even 30 years ago, and you can see it. Labor unions have lost power and influence, people don’t know their neighbors, and the list goes on. So we live in a society where those with wealth and power are actively working against the basic human values of compassion, solidarity, and helping others.
My son recently told me about a series, “Century of the Self,” which talks about the history of advertising in this country and how the move was intentionally made from commercials that were based on information about a product to commercials that sell a lifestyle. There used to be commercials for laundry soap in which we saw the dirty pants, covered with grime and grass stains, and then they came out of the wash looking like they had just come off the rack at the store. So, you were supposed to be convinced to buy that laundry soap because it does such a good job at getting the clothes clean. Now, commercials try to convince you that by buying a product, you are investing in a way of life, a world view, a version of happiness. Maybe you saw the commercial during the Olympics with Maya Angelou reciting her poem about the common man. I loved hearing the poem with the pictures of the faces every time it came on. But what does that have to do with buying Apple products? What does a feel good poem about the human family have to do with buying a computer, a phone, or a watch? They want you to think that by buying Apple, you are supporting a vision of the human family in which every unique individual is treated with dignity and respect. I wonder how that goes over with the employees of the plants in China where most Apple products are made? At the Pegatron facility where the iPhone is made there are about 50,000 workers. They work 60 hours a week for regular pay and up to 80 hours a month in overtime. It takes about a month’s pay to purchase an iPhone. [http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-behind-the-scenes-apple-china-iphone-factory-20160426-story.html ] I wonder if they have seen the common man commercial? And, I confess, I am guilty of supporting this arrangement as I have an iPhone and an Apple laptop.
But the point is that advertising, using psychology, moved from selling a product to selling happiness, a lifestyle. And we keep buying things to make us happy. The latest. The fastest. The newest. But are we happier? Not really. So we buy something newer and faster. And the cycle continues. And corporate America is laughing all the way to the bank – which is often off-shore. Ha. Ha.
And so we have sweet Marie Kondo from Japan, reminding us that “we’re enticed into the false illusion of happiness through material purchase.” [New York Times Magazine, July 10, 2016, Stuff: Marie Kondo and the ruthless war on clutter, Taffy Brodesser-Akner]
And all of this not only has implications on labor arrangements in this country and around the world, but it also has significant environmental implications. All of this stuff that we are brainwashed to buy to make us happy involves natural resources, energy, transportation, and disposal. That contributes to environmental catastrophe and global warming. It’s no wonder in this election season we are seeing that so many people are angry. There’s good reason to be angry.
The prophet Jeremiah would be mighty busy today with a scathing critique of our culture and economy and he wouldn’t need much of a primer – greed is still greed. Taking advantage of the vulnerable is still taking advantage of the vulnerable. Power abuse is still power abuse. And violence is still violence.
We can well imagine Jeremiah’s God wanting to take our society, like a clay pot, and break it down and reform it. We are reminded in this image that the clay is still good. The materials are still considered worthy. The capacity and potential for a good society is still present. The raw material is still fine and can still be used to form a community of compassion, solidarity, and justice.
And this is just the vision that Jesus is sharing with the crowds and his followers. He is telling them about the realm that God intends for the human community. He is reminding the people of what Israel was originally called to be. He is showing them what it means to live out of Divine justice, mercy, and love. He is showing people that the human community has the capacity to be reformed into a community of mutuality, respect, and equality, with no abuse, no taking advantage, no haves at the expense of have nots. He is showing people a social order where everyone thrives, is cared about, and is valued. A community where all can express themselves, engage, have a constructive role, and be treated fairly and justly. He is modeling a society in which every life is sacred and there is abundant life for all, all creation, not just humanity. Jesus is inviting people to live from this vision, to be part of creating this kind of social order.
But Jesus is a realist, not just some pie in the sky mystic dreamer. He knows that what he is talking about is a dramatic departure from the current circumstances of the people he is addressing. He is fully aware that the vision he is advocating requires a vast reorientation of values and relationships. He is fully conscious of the concept that there is a clay pot that needs to be broken to bits so that it can be reformed into a new vessel for the love of God to thrive and flourish in the human realm. What Jesus is presenting, appealing as it is, involves the transformation of the religious, cultural, economic, and social arrangements of his context. And that kind of change is challenging and it is costly. He pays with his life.
So Jesus is not secretive or shy about communicating the kind of transformation he is talking about and the commitment involved. Just in the few verses we heard this morning, we’re told that committing to the realm of God is going to fracture your family. In Jesus’ setting, the family was the only way to have a place in society. His words were jarring and radical. And the idea of being at odds with your family is not going to go over well here in the US either where the family has become idolized. And family has become code for look out for your own, take care of your own, protect and provide for your own in a way that completely undermines a sense of responsibility for the wider community and for the future beyond your immediate family. So, Jesus is clear. You won’t like it, but to follow me, to be my disciple, will require you to put God’s realm before your family, and that will create divisions in your family. Jesus is straight up about it.
In the verses we heard, Jesus is clear, you are going to have to take up your cross if you want to be part of God’s commonwealth. Cross. Sacrifice. Burden. Hardship. Risk. Personal cost and loss. Again, this is not something that sells well. People don’t want to hear that. In our situation, people want their religion to be something that makes their lives easier not harder. Something that makes them feel good and satisfied with the status quo, not something that makes demands of them. But again, Jesus is forthright. To be part of what God is about involves taking up your cross not just praising Jesus for taking up his cross.
And then there is the really sticky wicket, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Even the ones that bring you joy, sorry, Marie Kondo. The realm of God must be so important, that money, wealth, possessions, fade in significance. Material possessions are to be servants, not masters. To be a disciple, we must be disencumbered, free, even of our precious possessions. That’s hard for someone like me whose house is filled with stuff. This is directly at odds with the consumer capitalism that drives America.
Jesus and Jeremiah are talking about the reshaping of human community – relationships, economics, and religion. Breaking the old apart, destroying oppression, greed, selfishness, and violence, and reshaping, reforming, reconstructing society from a new model, a model of justice, the sacredness of each and every life – human as well as animal and plant – a model that does not rely on wealth or violence for dominance and control. There’s no pay to play politics. There’s no eternal war on terror. There’s no Islamaphobia. No Black Lives Matter. There’s no need. And you never get to peace, you never get to justice through violence, through domination and control. You get there through respect, egalitarian relationships, economic justice, attention to the sacred, and a communitarian orientation, not rugged individualism. Jesus is inviting those who are following him, those who are traveling with him, those who are listening to him, to become disciples. To commit. To make God’s realm their home and family here and now. He is calling us, just as we are, right here, right now, to be part of God’s commonwealth of justice, love and peace for all creation. Jesus is inviting us, like the clay pot in Jeremiah, to be broken apart and reformed, reshaped, and transformed by the goodness of God.
When the World Trade Centers went down on that horrific day 15 years ago, we were stunned. We were aghast. I had to call my parents that morning about something. I didn’t yet know what was going on. My dad answered the phone. He was suffering from dementia, so no longer a reliable source of information. He started to tell me about what he and my mom were seeing on the TV. He seemed a bit befuddled. That was not unusual. He was mentioning New York. The World Trade Centers. Going down. He said he didn’t understand. Maybe I could turn on the TV and see and I would understand. Obviously I thought he was confused, but I turned on the TV, and sure enough, unimaginable as it was, he had the basics pretty well in line.
Here we are 15 years later. A new tower has replaced the old. And another one is going up. Here were the pieces of the pot, and instead of something new, the old pot is being recreated. No transformation even of the symbol. There was the hull of a wooden ship found in the process of digging the foundation of the new tower. [http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/09/new-york-future-flooding-climate-change.html] An omen that the day is not far off when the lower levels of the building will be immersed in water. Already the transportation hub at the site floods regularly on this bit of prime real estate reclaimed from nature which is now being reclaimed by nature. But even so, the symbol stands, for now.
But on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, there was a prayer service here in this sanctuary. About a dozen or so people gathered. We sang. We shared. We lit candles. We cried. We prayed. And Ron Pynn, a member of the church at the time, asked that we pray for those who did this. That we pray for our enemies. That we pray for those who caused this harm. In the raw, glaring gash of our shock and grief, it was as if Jesus was there, asking us, begging us, really, pleading with us, not just to follow him but to be his disciples. To commit.
May we let ourselves be broken, shattered, even destroyed, so that God can do something new with us. Something good. To bless this precious world. Amen.