Religious responses to the Refugee crisis

When I started writing on this crisis, I was responding to the extreme rhetoric I started seeing on facebook, including suggestions that violence would be appropriate.  I also saw many misrepresentations and outright lies which at times seemed to base their credibility on how hateful they were.  The most frightening thing I saw was the names and address of churches and religious charities that offered social services for refugees, along with a suggestion that this was where Obama was sending the terrorists.   Doxing churches made me feel that the rhetoric was becoming a public danger.  We already know that violent racists are willing to enter a church and start shooting, so it is terrifying when you read which church is a suggested target.

At the same time, politicians were making announcements, ranging from the reasonable suggestion that we should evaluate whether our current system has adequate security screening to “we should activate the National Guard and forcefully remove Syrians currently in the state. 31 State governors said that they would refuse Syrian refugees.  Rhetoric became so extreme that a politician even suggested that the internment camps where American citizens who committed no crime was an acceptable and necessary course of action.

Quite frankly politicians who said they would keep Syrian refugees out lied to their constituents hoping to win the racist vote. If a person is allowed to live and work in the United States, this includes every state.  No state can bar entry nor expel based on ethnicity, and no governor could reasonably believe that he held that power.

(Green represents where Syrian Refugees taken in by the United States will be allowed to live and work)


As politicians were competing to see who could come up with the most racist thing to say; Denominations and multi-denominational partnerships were also releasing official statements stating the church’s position on the Syrian refugee crisis.  Whether a church was Evangelical, Holiness, Mainstream, or Liberal, the statement’s general message was the same:  We call on the United States to continue to accept Syrian refugees.  Many also included a call for members to donate to the relief effort for the displaced people in Syria, along with information on how to donate.  I can only assume that the extremeness of the political rhetoric inspired this unprecedented level of unity among the American church.

Links to a sample of statements offered by denominations and super-denominational bodies:


National Council of Churches

Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Reformed Church in America

National Association of Evangelicals

Southern Baptist Convention, Nazarene Church, Salvation Army

There are also a number of Christian based charities that are involved in aid to those who are suffering from the current Syrian civil war and accepting donations.  Personally, my choice is the Orthodox charity, due to their historic connection with Syria, and the welcome I was given when I walked into their church:  but, here is a short list of organizations that would trust to use the donations well.

Catholic Relief Services

International Orthodox Christian Charities   (My personal choice)

Salvation Army


Further Thoughts on the refugee crisis

The last post, I spoke about the need to be a little more cautious of speech when speaking about an ethnic group that is also a long standing minority population in the United States.  Now, I want to express my views on the political question:  “Should the United States suspend accepting Syrian refugees, and re-evaluate the process to make sure it is not a risk to our security?”

The short answer is: “I don’t care.”  I do care that much of the rhetoric talks about how generous we are to accept these thousands of refugees.  The thing is, thousands are nothing when there are more millions in need of aid than there are thousands that we will accept.  Whether or not we accept 10,000 will make no difference to the people working with the homeless in Syria, nor with the people working in refugee camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Macedonia.  I know that for these 10,000 people, living in a safe place full of opportunity will be like winning the lottery; but this leaves the other 99.9%.  We can hardly pretend that this humanitarian crisis is something that we bear alone.

This ten thousand people is chosen from a pool of millions.  We choose people who we think can be a positive value to the United States to settle, along with their families.  We choose people we believe can integrate well.  These are not the poor huddled masses, these are business-people and educated professionals who had their livelihoods destroyed along with their homes in the war.  We invest in them to help them integrate, trusting that they will enrich the communities where they settle.  With so many qualified applicants for so few spots — we are making a very safe investment.

Here is the hard part of the issue:  We will have new Syrian doctors in our hospitals, professors in our universities, and businessmen building up small businesses in Main Street America.  Those that we take will be exactly those who are needed in Syria when Syria is able to rebuild.  Overall, the people we are helping the most is ourselves.  This isn’t charity, it is a economic investment for us.

For me, how the State department handles the resettlement of refugees is not a big issue.  I know that the solution for the suffering masses in Syria isn’t settling a lucky few here, the real crisis will be handled over there — and the millions who are homeless will eventually need to rebuild Syria; but I also know those few who are invited to come should be welcomed; not only because I am a Christian, and scripture demands it, but also because I am American, and we have long welcomed those who come to be Americans with us.


Thoughts on the refugee crisis

I’ve been pretty angry about anti-refugee rhetoric.  Every time I look at facebook I see it.  My governor, and the governor of the former state I lived in have said that ‘they’ are not welcome in the state.  I’m shocked at how many people agree with this.  I have even seen suggestions that we need to consider even 3rd generation Arab-Americans a threat.

While my heart goes out to people made homeless by civil war throughout the world, and those who live in refugee camps — I am not ready to endorse or oppose our policy on refugees.  My feelings are not political, but religious and personal.  Because my position as pastor, I refrain from making political comments, or comments on policy.

The religious feelings are simply because of a theme in scripture:  Torah law has several passages that are like Leviticus 19:34:    “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.”  Jesus also tells people in Matthew 25:31-46 that we will be judged for various behaviors including whether or not we welcome the foreigner.  I literally look at facebook, and am shocked by how many professing Christians feel it is better to be among the goats.

Another thing that makes me angry is I know history.  I know the state government of Indiana, where I currently live, was controlled by the KKK in the 1920’s.  I know at the same time governor Henry Allen of Kansas campaigned to make the Klan illegal saying that the Klan “introduced into Kansas the curse that comes to civilized people, the curse that rises out of unrestricted passions of men governed by religious intolerance and racial hatred.”

In the early 20th century, the second KKK focused on “Americanism.”  They were not only anti-black, but anti Catholic, and anti-immigration.  They felt that these people coming in from Eastern Europe, Ireland, and Italy would destroy the American way of life.  The idea that “they have no intention of integrating”, and “their grandchildren will still be a threat” is the very ideas of the KKK.

The KKK failed to stop immigration.  Those who want to keep the Arabs out are already nearly 150 years late;  Syrians started entering the United States in large numbers in the late 19th century.  What is feared happened long before I was born, Arabs are entrenched in our society and going nowhere.  They own businesses, they go to work, they are our neighbors.  Many of them never even think about being Arab any more than I think about being a barbarian, descendant of Germanic tribes and Celts.

This is where it gets personal:  I love Arabs.  I do not mean I love Arab culture, or Arab food — I mean, when people talk about preventing Arabs from entering, and driving out Arabs who are already settled in Kansas, they are talking about friends of mine.

When I was studying Theology at Friends University; the Christian community that was most supportive of me was not my own community, but Arab Christians.  Our favorite bookstore owner attended the Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral;  He was at every theological lecture by a guest speaker that Friends University hosted.  His store was also a place of study, and discussion groups on history and theology that he organized.

Father Stephen, the priest at St. Mary’s spend hours encouraging me as a student of Theology, and helping me understand Christian history and the shades of meaning in arguments which are centuries behind me, and don’t always sound relevant in my culture.  He also would give me food to take home, noting that students are poor; I know that other students had a similar experience; a couple students chose to go to an Orthodox seminary when they chose to go on with their education — and I have every reason to believe they were ordained Orthodox priests.

Even if I did not have personal connections to the existing Arab community in Wichita, I would still love Arab people.  I’ve learned that some of the people of significant Arab ancestry are some of the American neighbors I have who attend the local ‘community church’, and who have no more connection to Arab Culture and the Arab community than I have to the “Celtic community”, the Saxon community, or the Nordic community…. or a number of other ‘communities’  For context, this is zero connection, except when asking where my ancestors came from when they entered the United States.  When I learned that I had Arab friends who were just Americans like me, I saw proof the KKK was wrong:  They do integrate.

This brings me to the point that makes me angry:  whenever there is such rhetoric, somebody takes it on himself to act out violently.  Governors imply they are shutting down the borders of states, and ‘keeping out’ people who already have the right to live and work in the United States, which is bluntly, as unconstitutional and hateful as sunset towns; and by being part of the rhetoric they increase the danger.  The danger we imagine from immigrants is far less than they danger they face from anti-immigrant violence.  This rhetoric puts my friends in danger, including friends who have no less claim to being American than I do.  I am angry that my friend’s safety would be sacrificed for political gain.

For those who wish to donate and help refugees, including those who are still in refugee camps, Orthodox International Christian Charities is taking donations, and is active in this work.  I donated a little: but, it is so little that my heart asked “what is this among so many?”


Jeremiah 29:1-14: Prospering in Babylon

I’ve mentioned to you before that when we read the Old Testament, we very often identify with Israel. I remember that Steven Angell taught a class called “American Religious History”, where he pointed out that this was very true when the United States was settled. White Christians saw themselves as having entered the promised land while Black Christians, who were largely enslaved at the time, saw themselves as Israel in Egypt.

I understand that there is quite a difference between the groups, and both of them at times were likely convinced the other group didn’t read the same Bible. I really think the same thing is true today; it is still common to identify with different parts of the story, and what we identify with changes how we see ourselves and our role in the nation. Some people think we are in the promised land, many think we are in Judah with a evil king, hoping that a king who follows after God will be the next on the throne, other will think that the good king is currently on the throne and still others surely think that we are in Babylon.

As you can guess, just like the divide between black and white Christians before the civil war, there is a sense that we don’t all read the same Bibles. The lessons we get out of it change remarkably based on what we judge our situation to be, both as the church and as a nation. What I do know is that applying what the prophets say about Israel can be politically dangerous; many people want to be God’s special nation, but don’t want God to hold this nation accountable.

It might be my holiness influence growing up, but I really cannot see the United States as Israel, no matter where in their history. I don’t see the United States as a particularly Godly nation, nor a Christian nation. I recognize that no matter what politics people follow, trying to harmonize it with scripture and Christian principles results in choosing which verses to read, and which verses to pass over without consideration. To me, the United States seems firmly planted as part of “the world”. Whatever the values of the nation might be, they seem different from the values I’ve learned from such religious influences as “The Sermon on the mount.”

Really, the best way to describe how my religion and my politics interact is Psalm 146:3 “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” I notice that sometimes people talk about presidential candidates as if they have the power to save the nation, and very often the same one who is praised as if he were the messiah is also cursed as if he were the Antichrist. Political commentators talked like this a few years ago, and we are having it again. I know that whoever is elected does not have the power to “save” us — and, when people suggest that an American president might be the `anti-Christ’, I think they over-estimate the power of a single person in our system of government.

Actually, Psalm 146:3 is a verse I keep close at heart every time there is an election cycle. The rhetoric from various sources calls us to put our faith in a party or a candidate, though as Christians, our faith should be in God. We need to believe that God will be there with us, no matter who wins the elections — and, we must also remember that even if your favorite candidate wins, politicians are often a disappointment. The promises made to win an election are often either ignored, or prove beyond the politicians power to keep.

Jeremiah 29 is another passage that I really connect with when there are elections. You see, when politicians talk, very often my response, mentally, is that they don’t represent me, or my people. Its one thing when they quote scripture in a way that seems different from almost every Christian church that I am aware of — it is a terrifying thing when they seem to read a different constitution than I the copy I have. Even though this is my home country, there are times that political rhetoric makes it sound so very far from what I grew up with.
The reason that I connect with it is that it gives me some advice for those times when I feel the most afraid, or just angry with politics. Its tempting to fall into the trap that seems common these days — to wish my country to fail, so everybody can see how wrong the people I disagree with are. I have, unfortunately, seen smug satisfaction when economic markers go down, or a “see I told you so” attitude when there is a time of tragedy and mourning. Unfortunately, too many people would rather be proved right than to see their own community succeed — I guess wanting to be right is very human, but sometimes it costs to much.

Jeremiah 29 tells me two very important things. Even when Israel was in captivity, God had good plans for them. I like to think that the same is true for us — but one thing that I do know: God’s grace is not dependent upon whether or not our nation or city is doing the right thing. God can have good plans for us, even in a situation where the government is not friendly.

What I found more remarkable was that the advice was to make a home in Babylon, and pray that Babylon enjoys a period of peace and prosperity. I found it remarkable that they were asked to pray that their Babylonian neighbors — their enemies who took them away from their homes, would prosper, though the reason makes sense when you think about it: “As they prosper, you also shall prosper.”

I admit, if I hear about prosperity in a sermon — I tend to tune it out. It really does not ring true to hear that if I have faith, God will reward me with wealth beyond the imagination of — well, anybody who I personally associate with having a strong faith in God. Somehow, though, this idea of prosperity really appeals to me: Pray for your neighbors, as they prosper, you will prosper. It is so easy to forget that we are a community, and focus only on ourselves, but really it is true, what helps my neighbor helps me; what harms my neighbor harms me.

When I realize this, I recognize that I need to pray that when my president is misguided, he is also lucky, but no-matter how clueless he seems, I need to pray that somehow God grants him wisdom to govern well — the same with my governor and congressmen. I need to pray for the whole community that does the work of governing our nation — that it does so for the benefit of the people — so that my neighbor might prosper.

When I read this, I also realize that it is a call for the people of Judah to live out their lives in Babylon, and make a home. The more I identify with the kingdom of heaven, the more I realize that this is a message for me. This world doesn’t really get it right — Yes, I’m only spending a lifetime in this world, and eternity elsewhere; but I’m spending a lifetime here as are my family and friends — I make a life here, and pray that everybody who has to do the same can make it a good life.

We need to pray for our leaders, our communities and our neighbors. As the world gets smaller, I feel the need to pray for other nations as well, more and more — as violence in Mexico disrupts the peace in California, and as we learned this week, what happens in Asia touches even Western Europe. Let us pray that our neighbors, no matter how far away can enjoy peace and prosperity — because as they prosper, we also can prosper.

Jeremiah 7 — True Worship

Reading:  Jeremiah 7:1-15

Jeremiah’s childhood might have been with a reforming priest as a father, and a king who worked hard to rebuild the temple, and to devote Judah to following God’s law, but, this was only his childhood and his first few years as a prophet. A couple weeks ago, I mentioned that he was speaking to Josiah — the uniquely good king, who made the mistake of playing politics with the neighboring empires. He died in battle, and just as there was not a king as righteous as he was before him, his successors also were not like him. Jeremiah grew up in a time of hope, now everything seems to be lost.

After Josiah died, the next king, Jehoahaz who `did evil in the eyes of the Lord’, according to II Kings 23:32. Jehoahaz was removed from the throne by Pharaoh Necho II and imprisoned in Egypt. Necho then put Jehoahaz’s brother Jehoiakim on the throne, where he ruled Judah as a Egyptian tributary state for the next 11 years. II Kings tells me that Jehoiakim had to tax the nation severely to pay tribute to Egypt: and that he also did what was evil in the sight of God.

This is where we are at this point: The reform is over. The kingdom of Judah might have a descendant of David on the throne, but he is merely a puppet king for Egypt. He is not devoted to God like his father was — so, Judah is now paying taxes to Egypt, and they are effectively under the Egyptian empire. Once again, there are many competing temples: The people of Judah again worship not only the God of Abraham, but also the gods of their neighbors.

If I read Jeremiah 7-10, there is a range of issues that are being dealt with in this message: The bulk of the section speaks of idolatry, how useless it is for craftsmen to make an idol, and call it a god, how these idols have no power, neither to do good nor to do harm. It also speaks of how God will punish the people for turning away from the Law, and making these worthless gods for themselves.

The passage we read is specifically talking about the ways that everybody turned away from God’s law. What I notice about this passage is how it fits very well in themes not only found in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament as well. James 1:27 says: “Religion that is pure and undefined before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (NRSV). Very similar to this is the account of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.

In Matthew 25, Jesus separates two groups of people for judgment. Now, for us modern American Christians, this is kind of a challenging passage, because we expect to be judged on our beliefs: The people in this account are judged for their actions. Specifically, they are judged on whether or not they gave the hungry food and drink, welcomed the stranger, took care of the sick, clothed those who need clothing, and visit the prisoners.

When Josiah was alive, and Judah’s religious identity was clear, Jeremiah had the luxury of prophesying against those who believed in God, but sometimes got things a little wrong. Now that Judah bows to Egypt, and the king worships foreign gods, Jeremiah has a whole bunch of people to prophecy against. This passage is surrounded by prophesying against those who make their own gods!

Even with widespread idolatry, and an evil King — Jeremiah finds this as something that is important to bring up: Jeremiah prophecies against those who believe in God, worship God and sacrifice at the temple — yet, they do not live up to what the Torah says about taking care of other people. Even with the national government falling away from God, Jeremiah found it important to critique the social behaviors of those who remained faithful to worship at the temple — a couple good questions are: “Why is this important?”, and “Is this important to us today?”

The second question is easier for me than the first. For the second question, I can mentally go back to the way people approached scripture immediately following the Protestant reformation. During that time, there was a rather harsh re-examination of church tradition, and a radical Back to the Bible movement. When people studied, they noticed that sometimes rules in the Old Testament, that seemed a little silly, were “repealed” in the New Testament. Obviously, things such as the dietary rules don’t apply to us, because of Peter’s vision of being commanded to eat unclean animals. There was an idea that the New Testament had the right to either “repeal” or endorse Old Testament law: Using that standard of interpretation — it applied in the Old Testament, it applied in the New Testament, it applies now. While I don’t think the New Testament is exactly a law-book, repealing and restating rules, in this case this approach makes pretty good sense to me.

The first question is something that I have been thinking about for some time. I think the answer to the first question is also found in a theme that spans the Old and New Testament. My opinion is that the answer to this question lies in the idea of God’s image. One of the things that was going on is that people were trying to create an image of their gods — the idols were supposed to be divine images, even though they were created by human hands.

While this is an uncomfortable truth, the temple itself was simply a building meant to contain God, and locate God in Jerusalem. When David asked to build the temple, God said no; the question was further posed whether God would live in a house built by human hands. While there is a sense that the Temple was deeply respected, the prophets openly question whether God appreciated the gesture. Micah, for example, suggested that they should close the temple doors and never open them again.

I admit, I like buildings, I’d hate to see the doors shut. I like symbols, I find symbols quite meaningful. I read the church fathers, and I’m surprisingly comfortable in an Orthodox or Catholic worship service — I connect with the ideas of high church worship, but there is also something that seems a bit off. What is off is that no matter how much I connect with these symbols, the symbols are very much man-made. While I see that many people find them useful — Solomon was not condemned for building the Temple, none of these symbols are the symbol that God made for us.

Genesis 1:27 tells us the image we have: “And God made humankind in God’s image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” The New Testament continues with this theme — I John 4:20 tells us that: “Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” and James 3:9 tells us that with the same tongue, we bless God yet curse our brothers and sisters who are made in God’s likeness.

Here is the heart of the matter: No matter how meaningful, or beautiful the symbols that we make are — they are merely those things that we make, and things that we name as holy. Personally, I see where it is helpful for us to do that — but, the whole world is something that God touched. We look up at the sky, and we see God’s glory. There is a sacredness that is beyond what we do to say something is sacred — Creation is sacred, because God touched — and if we look around, we see the image that God chose to represent God.

In this sense, those who worshiped God were shockingly like the idolaters. Both of them put images forward — one put forward a temple, and all of the symbols of worship; the other put forward gods that were formed by the hands of craftsmen. Both focused the activities of their worship on what human hands created, to the point of neglecting the image that God put forward: Both neglected to honor humans.

There is a reasons why both the Old and New Testament speak of the idea that true worship is how we treat others. If we truly believe that humanity is created in God’s image — then, when we treat our fellow humans badly, especially when we physically harm them we are committing acts of blasphemy, no less than if we disfigured a cross or vandalized a church. God might not have condemned those who built and maintained the temple — but he condemned those who claimed they were truly worshiping God while utterly disrespecting God’s image.

Now, this little truth is something that can be rather challenging to American Christianity. I freely admit that I appreciate symbols — Americans in general get rather excited about symbols. If we look around the room, we can find several — and, this is a place where we don’t really make a big deal about symbols. I know people are very offended when a symbol is disrespected. We find a desecrated cross, for example, very offensive — and, it is very offensive.

Our nation’s Christians too often are just like what was condemned here. We pat ourselves on the back for being involved in worship. We are proud of ourselves because we read our Bibles, and we are good respectable people. Unfortunately, a bad name has been made for American Christianity. It seems we are not known for civil discourse — we are more known for praising God, and cursing our fellow person (who happens to be made in God’s image.) We can be proud that Christian names are written on hospitals, rehab centers, homeless shelters — but, these days, too often we are like the lawyer who asked Jesus: “who is my neighbor?” trying to find a loophole in the command to love our neighbors. If we do not love others, then we also share this condemnation, and have no right to claim that: “This is a house of worship.” May God be merciful, and teach us the way of love.

Jeremiah 23: False Prophets

Reading: Jeremiah 23
One thing that is absolutely terrifying about ministry and leadership is how harsh scripture is with leaders. Today, we discussed false prophets and greedy priests. When Jesus condemns the scribes, the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees — he’s condemning the religious leaders. When Jesus drives the money changers out of the temple, he’s addressing an issue within organized religion. When I read Jesus and the prophets, I notice that just about everything that is harsh is directed to leaders and preachers: It is terrifying.

As I mentioned yesterday, Jeremiah is not only a prophet, but his father was a rather important priest. Jeremiah is speaking to his peers — those people who try to represent God to others, just as he did, and his father did before him. Jeremiah starts off Chapter 23 with words “Woe to the shepherds,” and goes on to talk about false prophecy. Jeremiah talks about pastors who scatter the ‘flocks’, and preachers who lie about God’s words. Jeremiah is calling out greed, dishonesty and corruption.

I will confess two things: First, I spend a good deal of time defending pastors. It often seems that they are accused of theft and fraud, even if they do the work of a pastor on a volunteer basis, and only take reimbursements. There is this odd sense that because a few very well known names have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar — everybody is doing it. The truth is, if the cookie jar is the church bank account, very few pastors are allowed to sign checks. Of course, I don’t know any pastor who wants the responsibility. People insinuate embezzlement even when you can’t touch the money.

The second thing I will confess is, unfortunately, these accusations do not come out of nowhere. Jeremiah’s words to preachers that behave badly is no less relevant now than it was then. There have been people who embezzled. There are others who have used their positions to manipulate people out of money, seeking after their own gain. Many of us have our favorite examples — and, if we watch the news closely it won’t be many months before a new example comes up. I personally will refrain from speculating about the validity of various high profile ministries, because I don’t want to get into specific scandals, and I absolutely hate trial by media; I just want to acknowledge that the problems Jeremiah saw are still relevant today. These issues never stopped being relevant: Isaiah spoke against corruption, Jeremiah speaks against corruption, Nehemiah and Micah spoke against corruption after the Babylonian captivity was over. Jesus spoke against corruption that was happening when he ministered, and there were times that Paul spoke against corruption within the early Church. I’m not surprised there is corruption now as well. Corruption happens — I don’t expect this to change any time soon. If I ever stop hearing about corruption, I will believe that it got so bad that nobody even thinks to mention it anymore.

Jeremiah also gives some pretty hard advice to everybody: “Don’t listen to the prophets, they are deluding you.” It is hard for those of us who hope somebody will listen, including me, and even Jeremiah himself, and it is hard for everybody who wants to listen — and does not want to do the work of listening critically. Because of corruption, we have to take preachers messages with a grain of salt — sometimes just one grain is not enough. Actually, I’d advise scrutiny any time somebody asks for a donation. There are lots of great giving opportunities — but, fraud, unfortunately, exists.

While said I wasn’t going to do an exposè on preachers who are out for money, I am going to let you know that problems with “false prophets” are prominent enough that we can experience this church-corruption without there being a huge media storm about the pastor involved. As I said, I don’t like trials by media, but, I will give three examples that stuck in my mind — all of them are a few years old:

The first example is a famous one; and pretty obvious when talking about false prophets. One of the end times prophets is named Harold Camping. As you know, I’ve lived through enough dates for the end of the world that I generally start ignoring somebody as soon as he starts talking about it — but, Camping brought up something that caught my attention: He was soliciting donations, and encouraging extraordinary generosity as, when the rapture comes, you won’t need it anyways. While this is true, I was absolutely terrified at the prospect of people being asked to send in their retirement funds — and, I seriously wondered how many people would notice that if the rapture came on the date that was predicted, Harold Camping’s ministry shouldn’t need it either.

The second example is not one of wry amusement — but a rather profound thing that happened when I was a teenager. The pastors in my yearly meeting had a group health insurance program that a large portion of them participated in. The company they contracted with was a “Christian” company, founded by a preacher’s kid. The company knew churches, and how to work with churches. There, of course, is nothing wrong with a company that specializes in the needs of non-profits — non-profits are different, and sometimes different needs a specialist.

The experience with this company was good, and continued to be good for several years. Like all good relationships with insurance companies; people paid their bills and didn’t think about it much. One year, the company simply stopped paying claims: They did not stop taking in money, but they stopped paying out. There were a couple large claims within the Yearly Meeting that year, and not surprisingly, these claims went to collections. The FBI got involved, and it appears the CEO embezzled from the company; one hopes he was not sentenced to federal prison otherwise. I remember an effort to raise money to cover medical bills while they looked for a new insurance provider — being part of a church that was a victim of fraud left a life-long impression of me.

The last thing that caught my attention is something that came up after Google. One thing that people who want to preach do is read and listen to other people’s sermons. I have a few pastors who I follow; and, from time to time I follow pastors who are relatively famous. I lost a lot of respect for a pastor that I knew when I visited the church where he pastored, and recognized the sermon I heard that week. It wasn’t that there was a large quote — it was more like if there were any differences (including personal examples), the difference was a mistake.

As I had recently been a student, I had the seriousness of plagiarism drilled into me. As you might know, getting caught plagiarizing a paper is enough, by itself, to either be administratively withdrawn, or automatically failed. If there is suspicion that it is a deliberate pattern of behavior, it is something that can get you kicked out of school. The standards that we had to live up to were so high, that if I were to reuse material that I had turned into another class without explicit permission from both professors, it would be considered plagiarism — this is not because my school was stricter than other schools, but because they followed written standards such as MLA or APA.

Even without this experience, I would feel pretty angry if I visited a church, and heard my own sermon; people like to get credit for their work, and it is angering when somebody else takes credit for your work. It came out as wrong, not only because I was taught that it is wrong, but as somebody who `does the work’, it feels terribly unfair that somebody can get credit when somebody else does the work. I might have needed Google to know what was happening, but this is yet another example of something that does not change, for we read in Jeremiah 23:30: “I am against the prophets who steal from one another’s words.” It happened without the convenience of the Internet, and was condemned without a modern sense of ethics.

Jeremiah offers one more habit of false prophets in chapter 23: borrowing authority from God. I imagine all of us have been part of an argument, especially in a church setting, where something was framed in such a way that God supported one side, and the other side was turning away from God. While sometimes, there might be something to that argument, most times it is just a petty need to win an argument. One thing that is very tempting to do in an argument is to try to take some authority that one does not have! God, and the Bible can become such an authority.

The danger is, one can search the Bible for any phrase that sounds good in an argument. In more extreme cases, you end up with the problem that you can say just about anything you want using “Biblical language.” There are a lot of words in the Bible, and they can be rearranged, or simply taken out of context to support any opinion. There are a couple problems with this — not the least of which is that everybody in the room shares the work of interpretation. The language serves to signal that there will not be a conversation, because the speaker speaks with God’s authority.

Another problem is quite simply, searching scripture to win an argument shows a rather low view of scripture. This approach views scripture as a tool; making it subordinate to the views of the person thus using it. The false prophet who attributes God’s authority to his voice is using God as a tool. God isn’t supposed to be a tool to help us win arguments, and scripture was not given for that purpose either. Scripture has something to challenge and convict every one of us: but using scripture as a weapon renders it ineffective for the purpose that God gave it to us.

Of course these passages we read today are not the normal things that a preacher talks about. They are challenging in a personal way. You see, all of these failings come from rationalizing and compromising. Greed is so common, I think it is nearly universal. It is also extremely common to want to be seen a person of authority. Any preacher can see that there is a real danger of becoming one of these “false prophets”

Its also hard for a preacher to tell the congregation to take what preachers say with a grain of salt. I happen to believe that all of us are Biblical interpreters and theologians; and as such, I do think something rather important comes up: No amount of education brings a unified understanding of scripture, or the nature of God; Professional scholars argue matters of interpretation more than any of us — if study brought perfect knowledge and perfect interpretations this would not be so. Paul tells us in I Corinthians 13 that “we know in part, and we prophecy in part.” It does not matter how much anyone wants to be certain that he is right; it is not going to happen. Everybody, even the best of teachers, still have a lot to learn.

In the end, I think the biggest challenge is even true prophets can have false moments. The falseness Jeremiah condemned is the falseness of using God to bolster personal opinions, taking credit when somebody else deserved it, and greed. I have to confess, temptation is there, and there are moments when falseness seems quite pragmatic. Two of the hardest lessons I learned in life are: first, that nobody is above scrutiny and second, a public failure does not discredit all the good a person has said and done.

Jeremiah 2 — The fountain and the cistern

Reading: Jeremiah 2

I love the metaphor that Jeremiah uses when describing what was going on, that they left the fountain, and dug leaky cisterns. This is wonderful, because it clearly shows the relationship that was going on with God. The God that they left was a fountain — and they tried to replace God with something that not only had nothing to offer — but, no matter how much they put in it, they would still be left with nothing. A cistern is only as good as the water you put into it — and if the cistern leaks, it is worse than useless.

It does not take any special knowledge to realize that Jeremiah was talking about leaving God’s fountain, and putting trust in something else. If I were to go for the obvious, I’d say that the way that modern people believe mostly in themselves fits the metaphor very well. God might be the fountain — but we choose to believe in ourselves, only give lip service to God, and in the end, we have nothing to offer except what came out of ourselves. Even more — for all the advances of modernity, we humans do leak a bit. It often seems that no matter how much we prepare for future needs — it not only isn’t enough, but it seems that what we put aside leaked out long ago.

I guess, right now I can say — God is our source. We, of ourselves, are nothing but dry holes in the ground. We need to go to God, and drink our fill. We don’t stay full long, so we never stop needing the fountain. Here we have a great application: I need Jesus, I never stop needing Jesus, because Jesus gives me something that I need that I don’t have of myself, therefore, I should not think that I can replace Jesus. Ok, we have an application, it makes sense, not a bad way to end a sermon.

Of course, I’m not going to stop here — instead, I’m going to talk a little bit about wider context. When we read Jeremiah, there is a fairly large body of wider context: Jeremiah is closely related to I and II kings and Lamentations. Traditionally, either Jeremiah, or his secretary Baruch wrote all of these books. Modern scholars associate these books withe Deuteronomy, and reforms of Josiah. Kings and Jeremiah really do paint a picture of a monarchy that never really followed God — and it endorses Josiah’s reforms. (Of Josiah, II Kings says: “Before him, there was no king like him, who turned to God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any arise after him.”)
What we see from this progression is that the metaphor of trying to replace a fountain with a leaky cistern is quite apt. Jeremiah talks about worshiping idols in this chapter, and the writer of I and II kings points out that there is a long history of going to gods who are not gods at all. Jeremiah later says of these gods that they have no power, neither to do good nor evil. If false gods are the cisterns, than these had been used for centuries.

There is something else that is going on as well, however. Jeremiah and those like him were all about the reform that cleaned up the temple, and reintroduced the monarchy to the Torah. They love the restoration of a religious Judah. Here is how closely connected the reformation is: In II Kings 22, we read of the temple being cleaned out. The priest Hilkiah is the one who found the Torah, and the when King Josiah read the Torah, he ripped his clothes and wept. Jeremiah was the son of Hilkiah the priest. He gave this prophecy near the end of Josiah’s reign — about 15 years after the reform was initiated. Josiah was prophesying to a reformed monarchy. The time of idol worship was largely passed — yet, Jeremiah spoke a rather harsh prophecy at the end of Josiah’s reign. Of all the kings of Judah — Josiah was likely the best, if by best we mean faithful to God.

As you might know, Israel is either in between everything, or it is on the extreme edge. Israel in far west Asia, where Asia and Africa meet. While it is solidly in Asia, it is in an area that sometimes belongs to a European empire, and sometimes an Asian power. Throughout their entire existence, they have been in the proximity of empires — Egypt to their west, and any number of empires to the East and North.

At the time that this was written, Necho II, king of Egypt was looking to expand the Egyptian empire to the East, into Asia. The Assyrian and Babylonian Empires were trying to push west. (The Assyrian empire would completely fall to the Babylonian Empire about the same time that king Josiah of Judah died.) Judah was stuck between world powers. Being stuck between world powers with great conquering armies was a pretty big deal!

Judah did what you might expect — they made treaties with Egypt and Assyria. The result of these treaties is also what you can imagine — the last decades of the monarchy was made up of puppet kings. When the Northern Kingdom’s puppet king offended Assyria, poof, no more Israel. When Assyria falls, which comes soon — there is a new Empire looking west, the Babylonian empire.

Necho apparently controlled the roads in Judah, took tribute, and had Egyptian soldiers there. The Lord might have brought the people out of Egypt, but out of fear of conquest, they invited Egypt into Judah. If we continued reading in Jeremiah we would have read the following:

Is Israel a slave? Is he a homeborn servant?
Why then has he become plunder?
15 The lions have roared against him,
they have roared loudly.
They have made his land a waste;
his cities are in ruins, without inhabitant.
16 Moreover, the people of Memphis and Tahpanhes
have broken the crown of your head.
17 Have you not brought this upon yourself
by forsaking the Lord your God,
while he led you in the way?
18 What then do you gain by going to Egypt,
to drink the waters of the Nile?
Or what do you gain by going to Assyria,
to drink the waters of the Euphrates? (NRSV)

Jeremiah does talk about literally worshiping Idols, but that is not the real problem that he is addressing: The real problem that he is addressing is that people are putting their faith in kings and armies when they should be putting their faith in God. The kings and armies where they put their faith are not people who have any real interest in YHWH. Judah simply hopes that their neighbors will protect them if they give their neighbors what they want.

One obvious problem with this is that no matter how strong an empire is, they fall. Alexander the Great’s empire was one of the biggest in history, after he conquered the Egyptian and Persian Empires. Alexander’s empire didn’t survive Alexander — it collapsed.

This prophecy is dated “30th year of Josiah’s reign”. The Assyrian empire fell in the 31st year of Josiah’s reign, and Josiah also fell in battle that same year, and Judah became a tributary state of Egypt. Most likely, this continued, at least in effect, until the Babylonian captivity. The result of making deals with their neighbors was that eventually their neighbors took them over anyways. Whether they went to the Nile, or to the Euphrates for their water — the cistern still leaked, and there would be much humiliation.

The living water that we seek is found in the Luther Hymn: “A mighty Fortress is our God”. Those who came before Luther would find the idea in Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength… the nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter, God utters his voice and the Earth melts.” (NRSV)

Even Josiah didn’t realize that God’s people were in God’s hands — and, God could protect them from Egypt. Josiah looked to the outside for strength to maintain the monarchy, he looked for ways of doing this with human strength alone, and he ended up inviting what destroyed the monarchy right inside of it. Judah put its faith in a failing empire, and their best king died in battle because this faith was misplaced.

I could have ended the sermon right as I started it, telling you the obvious, but we would have missed something important: Jeremiah is speaking to a uniquely righteous king. This is not a prophecy that we can make about somebody else, because it is a prophecy directed to somebody who is the good person that others should have been like. The “not bad” ending of a sermon could leave us thinking that we go to the spring all the time — God gives us what we need, we could leave thinking the message was for somebody else.

We might not worship other gods. We might even be very careful to be active in worshiping God, and trying to live a life obedient to God’s law. We might be everything Josiah was, and yet there is still danger of needing this prophecy. This prophecy is for all of us who are doing our best, yet look to our own means for salvation. It is for those of us who are faithful in our religion, but pragmatic in our life. It is for those of us who compromise, because we cannot see a better way.

The best we have to offer is a leaky cistern without water to fill it. When it comes to making compromises, too often our best guesses lead to disaster. Life is messy, and he is talking about us — but, when we read forward in Jeremiah (as in, we’ll cover this passage in about 3 weeks), we realize that God is planning good for us anyways. Even when our best plans fail, and things seem to be at their worst, God still has good plans for us; but when we put our faith in something other than God — we must learn to return to the one true spring when we find disappointment.