This is a sermon for the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Jeremiah 2:4-13.
“My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”
If you wanted to sum up the book of Jeremiah – and it’s a long book – in one sentence, that would probably be a good choice. Jeremiah spends much of his fifty-two chapters basically finding as many different ways as possible of saying the same thing; when it comes to God, you’ve ignored the real deal, and gone for the cheap knock-off version instead.
We see it several times just in this morning’s reading; “they went far from me, and went after worthless things;” “they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
It seems that in Jeremiah’s day, it had become common to pay lip service to the God of Israel, maybe even keep some of the outward forms of his worship, but not to let it go any further than that. Not to let it be a matter of the heart, or of personal or communal life which was in any real way different from their pagan neighbours.
It’s a very human way to be, really. On some level we might know or suspect that the God-stuff might be important, but it’s very easy to be busy, earning a living, raising children, minding grandchildren, building friendships and contributing to the community… and there often isn’t a great deal of the day, the week or the month left over for things which might be important, but seldom strike us as urgent.
So it might be worth taking Jeremiah’s invitation to stop and reflect. Do we ever do this?
What might it look like, in the Christian life, if we went to cracked cisterns instead of the fountain of living water?
Let me make some suggestions, not because I particularly think they apply to anyone here, but just as food for thought for all of us.
Wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of prayer being an experience of the depths of God’s own life in us, it became just a reciting of words?
Some of you will know that every so often I get asked to preside at the Eucharist for the Community of the Holy Name*. Presiding there is absolutely unique in my experience, because walking into that chapel full of nuns is to walk into a room filled with intense prayer. Those are women who know what it is to get serious with God, and who have honed that habit by daily practice over many many years. The silence is buzzing and you can feel the quiet hum of the Spirit at work.
Now, we aren’t a community of nuns and I’m not saying I expect being in church to be like that for us. But since we’re taking Jeremiah seriously for a moment, this morning, let me give you this question to think about: is your prayer life a fountain of living water, for you and for those around you?
And wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of holding out a vision of human flourishing before God which included everyone – the poorest, the most disabled, the least educated – and committing ourselves to working to make that vision a reality, we instead lived comfortably with inequality, injustice and corruption?
Last week I attended a conference on disability and spirituality. As I listened to the various speakers or engaged in informal conversation, one thing came through again and again; the church needs to change. Whether it was people with mobility issues, or intellectual disabilities, or people who were deaf or had autism or whatever other disability, it seemed that everyone there had a story of how the church had failed to include them, and failed to meet their needs. The amazing thing was that these people were able to see that this was the church’s failure, and not reflective of God’s attitude, and so they were speaking up to try to make the churches accountable. Their challenge to those of us without disabilities was, have you thought about my needs? Is your church able to accommodate me? Will I be welcome if I come?
Let me tell you that I think we – by which I mean the Anglican diocese of Melbourne – still have a long way to go in answering that challenge.
So there is another hard question to ponder: Is our standard of hospitality a fountain of living water to all who might seek to come?
And wouldn’t it be a cracked cistern if, instead of being an experience of genuine thanksgiving, the Eucharist became simply something we ate?
The word Eucharist itself means “thanksgiving,” and when we come to this table and give thanks, we connect our experience – all the different things that have happened in each of our lives this week – we connect all of that with the reality of God. When we say thank you to God, we connect our own lives with God as the one who gives us everything good. We say that what has happened to us somehow comes to us as the gift of God. And even when things are not good and we have had a rough week, and we come and give thanks, we are saying that even in the dark times God continues to give, and we continue to acknowledge that generous presence in our lives.
And that means that, even in the dark times, we can start to look differently at the world around us. If in every part of life, God is still at work, with all that comes to us being his gracious gift, then in every object we see and handle, in every situation we encounter, God the giver is present, behind and beyond what we can see and hear and touch. And that allows us to see everything as being outlined, as it were, with divine potential; what has God given us this thing for? What is God going to do with it?
So here is another question for us to consider: Does our giving thanks shape the way we see the world, so that we can recognise all things as good gifts from God?
I could go on, but I think by now you’re getting my point (or maybe it’s Jeremiah’s point). We can come to church week by week, engage on a surface level, have a cup of tea and some chat, and go home without these things having made any actual difference.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Our deliberate, thoughtful, prayerful encounters with God offer us the opportunity for so much more, for transformed hearts, transformed lives and a transformed community. We just have to choose; to look for the real thing, and not to be satisfied with the shabby counterfeit.
*The Community of the Holy Name is a local Anglican religious community for women, of which I am a formal associate.