Jeremiah (2): Between loss and gain

Jeremiah 18 vv1-11, Luke 14 vv 25-33

I wonder sometimes what impact talks and sermons have. Those of us who prepare them spend time thinking, praying, mulling over Scripture and experience and perhaps the biggest impact is on us, but that’s not the only outcome we hope for. We trust that there is something of God in what we offer, something that enriches and informs, maybe even inspires your faith and the way you live your life.

Can you remember what was preached last week? Maybe if I prompt you to think of Jenny sharing a striking image of water you might recall her invitation to ask ourselves, where do we seek this most fundamental of requirements for our existence. From the cracked and utilitarian cisterns that we exhaust ourselves building and maintaining or from the fountain of life that we can’t see, hear or sense because we’re stuck down in those containers of our own making. Turn around, Jenny urged us, see and step into the fountain of grace. It was an amazing image of hope, restoration, refreshment, grace. An invitation to do nothing more than turn.

And yet, in our readings today, seemingly by contrast, we have some very different messages whose tone is decidedly harsh. Warnings of destruction in Jeremiah, of the cost of discipleship in Luke – give up your family, your possessions. It feels less like a fountain of grace and more like being asked to stand in a cold shower.

Our Scriptures are in fact full of this tension – between loss and gain, between despair and hope,  between vulnerability and security, between challenge and ease – as are the lives of the two people at the centre of our readings.

Take Jeremiah. His calling by God was not to a life of ease and comfort, but to a role that frightened him as he was given the task of speaking the truth to power. He lived around 650/550 BC, a time when the tiny state of Judah was sandwiched historically and geographically between empires and struggled to live faithfully to its own identity as God’s people. Judah’s kings, priesthood and people failed to reflect the justice and kindness of the God who had chosen and loved them, and the consequences, if there is no change of heart and of practice,  are judgement and exile. The potter who has shaped and moulded the clay into something potentially beautiful and useful sees its flaw and flattens it to start over.

There is a tension in this message – God doesn’t give up on us, God, who formed us from the dust of the earth, re-forms us but it’s sometimes far from comfortable. Real change can be very painful and remaining on the right track can be costly.

That was certainly so for Jeremiah himself – being a prophet is a lonely and exposed role, and he oscillates between rejoicing that he is close to God’s heart and despairing that God even cares about him. There is a rawness and an honesty to Jeremiah’s relationship with God that perhaps gives us permission to be truthful too. When it’s awful we may need just to say it’s awful. At one of his lowest points Jeremiah uses another image of water to express his relationship to God- not the refreshing fountain of life but that of a deceitful brook. He dares, as often the Psalmists do, to say it as it is, not to hide, put on a brave face or internally absorb the negatives but to voice them.

For Jeremiah that sense of desolation doesn’t negate the hope that he also so regularly preaches, his confidence in the God who gathers her flock as a shepherd, who is with her people in the pain of their exile, who comforts and restores. It’s just all there in the messiness of life.

Jeremiah certainly suffers because he chooses to follow God’s calling and that message of costly faith is in our New Testament reading too.

Jesus speaks of and illustrates in his own life both the fulfilment and the cost that true discipleship involves. He’s speaking in Luke 15 to the crowd. Many followed for the buzz that was gathering around Jesus – miracles, challenges to authority, perhaps even talk of revolution. But Jesus knows his destiny, he knows where his path is leading and he wants to establish a community that will both accompany and outlive him, who can stay the distance. Of course he’s using exaggeration when he speaks of hating your family and we hope he’s exaggerating too when he speaks of giving away all your possessions. What he’s driving at is our orientation, our loyalty, what or whom we choose as the foundation of our lives and what we defend when the chips are down.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose faith took him to the hardest of places during World War 2,  talks about ‘cheap grace’ – a popular message of easy and superficial belief that does not reform or transform people or nations. It’s the kind of approach we see in electioneering – better services at no cost to us, a better environment without radical lifestyle change, a more cohesive nation without needing to work that out in our own lives and communities. It doesn’t ring true but we want to believe it.

So where are we individually and as a community in this tension between Jesus’ promise of life in all its fulness and the call to a costly faith? And I certainly ask myself if my faith doesn’t feel costly what does that say about how closely I am following Jesus?

I can only offer what seems possible to me and I welcome learning from you.

I think, while I started this sermon saying our themes today seem to contrast with Jenny’s of last week, really they are the same. There is a fountain of life that I consciously need to turn to, each day and perhaps each hour. It’s a source of nourishment for a journey or better still an inner fountain that we dig deep to access when our path takes us to hard places.

I have to let go, again and again and again, of a focus on what doesn’t matter, to recognise afresh actually does.

I need to be honest with you when it’s very hard and to allow you to stand by me.

I need to engage with people and situations drawing on the compassion and the challenge that Jesus modelled.

I think that’s a whole lot more radical than the way I live and I need to acknowledge the fear that brings.

Interestingly our local service provider for people living in the most hopeless of situations at home, recently did a values exercise with its whole ‘stakeholder’ group – that’s the community of people, families, professionals, trustees and funders – who have some sort of investment in the organisation running well. The number one quality that emerged was not trust or honesty or confidentiality or any of the key things I might have thought that organisation needed. It was courage.

And so I invite conversation and sharing and for you to join me in the prayer we regularly use that, God, you will give us the courage to live this day as you would have us live.

Judith Gibson September 2019.