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Will it Hold Water?

A sermon from Rev. Ashlee Wiest-Laird, pastor of First Baptist Church Jamaica Plain


June 7, 2017

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Luke 14:1-14

(This opening was acted out with the preacher and another person)

Is anyone thirsty this morning? You are? You know doctors recommend that we get 8 glasses a day. Here you go (hand cup with hole). Would you like me to pour the water in?  No, why not? Oh. The cup won’t hold water. Ok. 

Well here’s an idea. How about I fix this up for you… (put finger over hole, drink water) that works just fine. Now let me get you some...that will be $5. I’m doing you a service here...what? You don’t think that idea holds water either…too bad, cause that’s the only way you’re gonna ever get to hold this water. (pays) Ok. Here ya go….(give leaky cup/water spill).

The Prophet Jeremiah had a hard word for God's people. God had given them everything they needed- a plentiful and fruitful land with all good things. God had taken care of the people on the journey out of slavery, through the wilderness and was still providing all they needed, but something had gone terribly, terribly wrong. The people stop trusting in God's way and decided they had a better plan. God accuses the people, according to Jeremiah, saying when you entered you defiled my land, wasted my legacy…(it’s verse 8 that destroys me) the priest did not say where is the Lord those who handle the law did not know me the rulers transgressed against me the prophets prophesied by Baal and went after things that do not profit. The people had forsaken God the Fountain of Living Water and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that could hold no water. It is a powerful and painful image of arrogance greed and failure. God’s people had given up on God’s vision for the world and instead had become what Jeremiah (in chapter 5) calls scoundrels who “take over the goods of others...with houses full of treachery they have become great and rich, they have grown fat and sleek. They known no limits in deeds of wickedness, they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan to make it prosper, and they do not defend the rights of the needy. 

Unfortunately, despite our airplanes and smart phones, it seems we’ve not made much improvement in the last few thousand years in creating structures and societies that truly ‘hold water’...making the good gifts of God available in abundance to all God’s children. It doesn’t take much to know that today we are still in a heap of trouble. 

[At BPFNA's 2016] Peace Camp, the annual gathering of Baptist peacemakers from around North America, one presenter asked us, "Raise your hands if you think the system is broken." Hands flew up all around the room. "It’s easy to think that," he said, "if we don’t know our history. No. This system is not broken: it was built this way." Whether we like it or not, the foundation of our country is cracked and leaky. And perhaps some think that doesn’t matter so much as long as we can be happily, obliviously in love with Jesus, but I don’t think so. 

See, ask any native Americans who’ve been dispossessed of their land.

Listen to any black man who traces his family back to Africa how they got here and why our system of mass incarceration isn’t much different than slavery and segregation. 

Ask a trans women what it’s like legally not being able to use a public restroom in North Carolina. 

The history and current reality of our nation is that those with power and privilege have denied God’s dream for the world and made God over in their own image to justify and condone their actions. The pastors didn’t hear God speaking, but rather declared that native Americans were heathens, blacks were not human and queer folks, an abomination. The lawyers backed it up in legal systems by creating reservations, Jim Crow, bathroom bills. The governors and presidents condoned death marches, massacres; they trafficked in human flesh and built a nation on the backs of those that looked different from them. The preachers said it was all God’s will, didn’t mind using that free land and labor to build their churches, and some of them...some of us...made quite a profit in the process.

If you’re not sure about some of those facts, I encourage you to read Native American Timelines or Clarence Lusane’s book, The Black History of the White House.

Many of our religious forebearers have also taught us that faith is a private thing. That we shouldn’t engage in politics or systemic social issues. But how can that be right when clearly this passage in Jeremiah is directed not at one person, but at a whole society. Our worship of God is not simply a warm feeling deep in our hearts, but it the communal response to the goodness of God. It is how we live our lives in the world together. And that’s all politics is anyway… how we organize ourselves as people to work, share, relate and make decisions in community. This doesn’t mean we coerce others to believe as we do, but rather engage in seeking the common good out of our love for God and for our neighbors. 

Imagine with me that you buy a house. It’s a great house. Best house ever. And after a while you discover that the folks who built it might have done some shoddy work on the foundation, the roof, maybe evening the plumbing. So, the chances are really high that you don’t say, well, I didn’t build it so it’s not my fault. I don’t need to do anything about that.  I’m also thinking that it’s not much use to paint the outside, plant new grass and add a fence because somehow the neighbors are to blame. I’m just not sure that will ‘make the house great again.’ And even if you do ignore the problem cause perhaps you don’t live in the room with the leaking ceiling or have to climb the staircase that’s sinking into the floor or get water from the kitchen some point you’re still gonna be in trouble. If they were still here to ask, I’m sure that the astronauts from the space shuttle Columbia would have a lot to say about how faulty system design affects everyone involved. Dr. King called it an “inescapable network of mutuality”...fancy words for the truth that we are all in this together whether we like it or not.

So, what would a different system look like. Interestingly, Jesus had some thoughts about that.

In the good news according to Luke we heard today, Jesus heals a sick man in spite of the religious rule that says he shouldn’t. Because which is more important, the rule or the person? (The person, of course.) We might glean from that interaction that while structures/systems and even law and order can have a place in society, it is never to be at the expense of humanity. 

And then a bit later Jesus goes on to observe how the guests at the wedding I want to sit in the place of honor and he tells them that it's better not to sit in the seat of privilege but rather to be humble. Jesus turns the social system on its head. It's not about being the best or getting the most but rather about making sure that all God's people have a place at the table, that everyone’s needs are met.

As people who worship God by trying to follow in the footsteps of Jesus we must know that how our system is structured is not only a moral question but a Faith question.

So we know that when we hear about climate change and the havoc global warming is causing our environment, it is a matter of faith that we be in solidarity with Native American sisters and brothers in North Dakota opposing a pipeline that could cause irreparable destruction to the Missouri River.

In the face of white supremacy, a system that perpetuates the myth that those of us with pale skin are more human more than those with darker hued complexions, it is a matter of faith that we stand side-by-side and proclaim that black lives indeed do matter. 

When a health care CEO bumps her salary to 18 million dollars a year by raising the price of a life saving allergy drug by 471%, making it unaffordable to most Americans, it is a matter of faith that we say NO and call her on the carpet for her lack of responsibility and for her blaming the “broken system” that she apparently thinks she has no part in creating.

So first off, we who are a part of failing systems need to repent (yes, repent...turn around, stop doing what we’ve been doing and live a new way). And we like Jesus, are called to turn the world’s oppressive systems upside down. Not with violence or manipulation, but with love and justice. And that is the good doing this work (mind you I say doing it, not completing it) even though it is hard and complex and sometimes painful, there will be blessing and hope and even joy. For there will grow ideas and structures that truly can hold water and indeed there will come a day when no one will be parched or thirsty for there will be a resurrection of righteousness and justice throughout God’s earth and the flow of living water shall cover us all.


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