Sunday, November 30, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Realizing How Much You Have"

Jeremiah 22:11-17

11 This is what the Lord says about Shallum son of Judah’s King Josiah, who succeeded his father Josiah as king but who is now gone from this place: He will never return! 12 He will die where he’s been exiled and never see this land again. 13 How terrible for Jehoiakim, who builds his house with corruption and his upper chambers with injustice, working his countrymen for nothing, refusing to give them their wages. 14 He says, “I’ll build myself a grand palace, with huge upper chambers, ornate windows, cedar paneling, and rich red decor.” 15 Is this what makes you a king, having more cedar than anyone else? Didn’t your father eat and drink and still do what was just and right? Then it went well for him! 16 He defended the rights of the poor and needy; then it went well. Isn’t that what it means to know me? declares the Lord. 17 But you set your eyes and heart on nothing but unjust gain; you spill the blood of the innocent; you practice cruelty; you oppress your subjects. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week One

The 57-year-old pastor hardly seemed like the most worthy candidate for an experiment in homelessness.  He had a family and a thriving megachurch in Sacramento, California, and besides, he had already tried it out for a few days already—living on the streets for a short time as a part of a fundraiser for a mission to provide more food and shelter to Sacramento’s homeless population.  What more could he learn about just how much he already had by doing it again?

But return to the streets Pastor Rick Cole did, this time for two weeks.  And the experience was utterly and completely transformative.  I’ll let Pastor Rick tell you himself, through an interview with Harry Smith of NBC News:

“I’ve walked past people that stay in some of the places of homelessness.  And really almost not even noticed them, not considered their plight and what’s going on in their life.  Now I was living among them,” Cole (said).  “I think I began to experience how people ignore others.  I became the one ignored.  People walked by me like I didn’t exist.”

“It might be like, man, those people just need to get a job.  They need to get themselves out of the hole they dug for themselves,” Cole said of attitudes he’d heard—and shared at times—before his two-week stretch on the streets…

“Once we try to go to sleep at night, it was really sketchy because there’s people walking up and down this river all night long.  So you wake up kind of startled, not sure what’s going on.  So it felt, actually, very insecure.”

After the experience, Cole said the “holes” he found were filled with addiction and mental illness, bad breaks and bad decisions.  Who was he not to help?

“They matter to God.  They matter to me, and now I’m trying to figure out why they didn’t matter to me before.”

Okay, I have to cave and admit that it is officially the holiday season, even though I really wish it wasn’t.  Hear me out, now—how many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  Hear Hannah’s words about this experience:

If you have a front door, you have so much more than the people in the villages of Ghana.  Imagine your family living in a one-room house made of mud, with no running water or electricity.  Imagine never traveling more than a few miles from you home, always on foot.  Yet the people in Ghana appreciate what they have, even though it seemed to me when we visited them like they had nothing at all.  They take pride in their homes by sweeping them out daily, and they keep their clothes clean.  People used to say to me, “You don’t realize how lucky you are,” and I would just brush it off.  It was true, of course; I just needed to recognize it.

But realizing what you have can be tough.  First you need to start by acknowledging that you have a good life.

And acknowledging that you already have a good life is exactly what Jeremiah is demanding of King Jehoiakim of Judah.

Now, this requires some explanation, so bear with me here: Jehoiakim and Shallum are brothers—they are the sons of the last righteous king of Judah, Josiah, who recovered the Torah scroll and reinstituted the worship of YHWH after many, many years of worship of idols in the Holy Land.  Shallum only reigns for about three months before being deposed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Necho II in 608 BCE; he gets packed off to captivity in Egypt, and we never hear from him again—he will, in fact, die in exile in Egypt.  It’s like a reality television show, “Judah’s Next Top Monarch,” and Shallum gets voted off in the first episode.

But there would be reason to vote him off—in just those three months of his kingship, he managed to completely disregard the religious reforms of his father Josiah, meaning there was an immediate return to the worship of idols.  Then after Shallum gets voted off the island, Jehoiakim rules Judah for eleven years, until 597 BCE.  As it happens, he is no better than his big bro, but we’ll get to that.

So this is the time frame in which this particular prophecy from Jeremiah happens—about 600 years before the birth of Christ.  And to put that into perspective, 600 years ago, Columbus had not yet sailed to North America; in fact, in the year 1414, he would not be born yet for another 38 years.

And here’s the thing: the conquering of Judah that will happen about 10-20 years after this passage, in 586 BCE, (and the destruction of Jerusalem, including the temple to YHWH) so utterly defines Israel’s identity and history as a conquered people that over six hundred years later, it still gets referenced in parts of the New Testament, especially in Revelation.  That’s how big a deal this defeat will be, though, like I said, at this point in Jeremiah’s career, we are at least a decade away from it.

But Jeremiah is already warning King Jehoiakim about it—the coming Babylonian army, Jeremiah says elsewhere in his book, is divine punishment for the exact sorts of sins that he lists off here to Jehoiakim: refusing to pay his employees, building himself grand and unnecessary palaces, and cruelly “spill(ing) the blood of the innocent” and “oppress(ing) his subjects.”

And if you think we don’t practice those exact same sorts of sins today, I have news for you.  Wage theft—the not paying or underpaying of one’s employees—is a practice that has cost American workers literally hundreds of millions ofdollars of rightfully earned wages.  The building of grand and unnecessary palaces?  Well, maybe not as much here in Longview, but elsewhere, as nearby as Seattle, you can pick up a 17,000 square foot house for a cool $11.8 million.

And spilling the blood of the innocent and oppressing the people?  I would be remiss if I didn’t at least speak of Ferguson, Missouri, today.  A lot of folks have said to me that this isn’t about race, but let’s consider the title of the sermon for a minute: realizing how much you have.  And I look out on our little congregation and I see mostly white faces, including my own.  Do any of us wonder if our lives might be different if we woke up tomorrow and were African-American?  Do we think there will be people out there who would treat us differently because of that one change, even if in every other respect we were to wake up tomorrow exactly the same?

Because while I’m white, I’m also ethnic—I’m Armenian-American, and just ambiguously enough that most folks can’t peg my ethnicity.  In my still-young life, I have had racial slurs hurled at me from people who thought I was Chinese, Jewish, and Arab.  And I’m white.  So let’s consider what people of color go through, then, and maybe we might realize what privilege we have in being white.

We don’t need a show of hands here, but is my talking about this making any of y’all feel a bit uncomfortable?  Good.  Sometimes that’s what preaching needs to do.  I’m not entirely comfortable right now, either—I was nervous putting this into the sermon, because I know it’s easier for me to just talk about the Christmas season.  But being Christian has never, should never, be about doing what is easy versus doing, ultimately, what is right.

And so Jeremiah lays all of this at the feet of the king, and rightfully so, because in the absolute monarchies of old, that is exactly where the buck stopped: the throne.  And in our own lives, ultimately, the buck stops with us as well.  We can choose, every day, if we are going to be a good person and a faithful follower of Jesus, or not.

That is why Jehoiakim’s excesses so galls the prophet Jeremiah, and ultimately, so galls God.  He could easily choose to follow in the footsteps of his righteous father, King Josiah, and he chooses not to.  Similarly, we can choose to follow in the footsteps of our own righteous father, God, and yet we still will at times choose not to.  Which is why we need prophets like Jeremiah in the first place, to hold us accountable to tell us when and where we are slipping.

Part of where we slip, though, is so often forgetting how much we have--and not just the possessions, but the experiences, the memories, the stories that make up our lives as well.

It is partly why I ended up doing this year’s Advent sermon series on Jeremiah.  In years past, my Advent series have usually been on Isaiah, because Isaiah is the Hebrew Bible prophet who most explicitly foretells the coming of Jesus: it is Isaiah whose book prophesies “behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and she shall call him Emanuel, which means God-with-us,” and it is Isaiah whose book prophesies the coming of the suffering servant to set the people free.

But Isaiah lived long before the Babylonian exile.  He did not live to see everything taken from his nation and his religion.  He had things that Jeremiah could only dream of having.  As do we.

Harken back to the story of Pastor Rick at the very beginning of my sermon: it wasn’t just the money that he had and the homeless did not: he talked so much about the regard and respect that people gave him as a pastor that was not given to him as a homeless man.

Think of what you have—what other people would long to have and give anything to have.  And then ask yourself how, instead of hoarding it for yourself like a certain king of Judah, you can begin to give it away, bit by bit, piece by piece, as your gift to a desperate world this Christmas.  

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 30, 2014

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