What are we growing? Theres a new album that recently came out titled All We Grow, by S. Carey. While I actually really like the music on the album, I found the title to be compelling enough. The first time I heard the phrase All We Grow I kept saying it over and over in my head. “All We Grow.” “All We Grow.” I thought to myself, “What is it that I am growing?” I started thinking about our children, and the things we I am personally involved in. If all these were seeds, what are the seeds that are being planted? What are the plants we expect to emerge?
Intentionality is needed today otherwise the default is often a kind of numbing rout motion. Without intention we get sucked into the routine of the world. Things will continue to grow, but they may not be what we want or expect.
Sometimes, while I am trying to build something beautiful, I am not really fully paying attention, or intentionally trying to do well at it. I just kind of show up and hope auto-pilot is good enough. Its like trying to grow a beautiful flower when only later do you realize its a noxious weed.
Have you heard of the Tansy Ragwort? Its beautiful. Until it takes over. Come to find out that:
When prevalent, tansy ragwort is one of the most common causes of poisoning in cattle and horses, caused by consumption of the weed found in pasture, hay or silage. Milk produced by affected cows and goats can contain toxins…its poisonous alkaloids are unaffected by drying.
A single large plant may produce 150,000 seeds, which may lie dormant in the soil for as long as 15 years. (Link)
So what is it that we are growing? Are we investing our time in energy is the illusion of beauty, come to find out it really is a noxious weed? Or are we going after something more holy, something guided not by our own intersts but Gods Light? (Ill say more about this later) But Jeremiah has somethings to say about this.
This morning we turn to the Hebrew Bible, which can be a pretty scary world to swim in. Their world is not our world. Theirs was antiquity, made up of powerful kings and traveling nomadic people. The Hebrew people were monotheistic, they had one God, YHWH, whom they worshipped and followed. To them YHWH was a great liberator, not only creator, but the one who concerned himself with slaves of Egypt and guided them out of the hands of their oppressor, fed them in the desert, and walk them into the land of Canna where they could establish their own communities and worship the Lord God.
And like any toddler, there are mixed results. Sometimes they follow YHWHs guide, but often they are easily distracted and wander off. Sometimes they keep the 10 practices (commandments), sometimes they care for the poor, the widows and the foreigners, but for those of you seasoned with these stories, you know that too often the children of Israel ends up going the way of foreign gods and turning against YHWH.
Then again, maybe they are not so unlike us. They give into the lust for power, wealth and accumulation. They establish kings and build a strong military. They entertain religion so long as it doesnt disrupt the rest of these things. They are like children on Halloween hoarding their treasure rather than sharing it with their young siblings. In a word, they become a reflection of the Egyptian Empire they were once oppressed by and liberated from.
Today and in the coming weeks I want us to focus on one piece of this puzzle and look at the life and ministry of Jeremiah and see not only what Jeremiah had to say to his people in the 6th century, but what we might learn by retelling this particular story.
Jeremiah was a prophet in the 6th century BCE just before the fall of Jerusalem in 587, which is a watershed in biblical history. When he enters the pages of history he walked into a situation that was perceived as a stable economic and social situation, but was in reality on the brink of collapse. It was sort of like my old Isuzu Trooper I owned back in college. It looked great on the outside, the body was in good shape, it was boxy, looked like something out of a safari, but what no one else knew except for me was that it could at at moment catch on fire! (And it did).
Jeremiahs ministry was to point out this coming situation. “Hey man, I know you you think your car is cool but did you know its about to catch on fire?”
He was born outside of Jerusalem in a small village of about 100 people, a countryside that was 3 miles north of Jerusalem. Because of this I think Jeremiah identifies with the people rather then the ruling class. His call, which you can read in Chapter 1, takes him into the central city center of the Southern Kingdom of Israel known as Judah, where he challenges the ruling ideology of his time.
And his message was about as well received as you might expect from any farmer, or person from the country who walks into the center of the urban educated elite and begins to cry out about destruction and pending doom. Yeah yeah, weve seen you bull horn guy on the corner, weve had enough of your placard and doomsday sayings, plus were not really into country music!
But this time it is different. Jeremiahs mission is to wake up his people from a numbing detachment from life. He enters Jerusalem to call them away from what Walter Brueggemann calls the royal consciousness That is the consciousness of the the powerful kings and queens, the masters of the universe, the consciousness that seeks to control and keep its people numb so that there is no dissent.
Walter Brueggemann suggests there are three features of the royal consciousness that Jeremiah is up against. These three features began in the time of King Solomon: A) Affluence (hoarding rather than the manna way of life), B) oppressive social policy, and static (state) religion (where God and the temple become part of the royal landscape and under its control). All of these counter what he calls the alternative consciousness of Moses.
Jeremiah enters this apathetic atmosphere with a poetic word. And because he is a poet his words are not so much a bull-horn as they are the sound of a lover weeping after she learned that her partner has betrayed her. Jeremiahs words are delivered not out of hatred, anger, fear, or even vengeance, they are the love-paniced words of a parent who loses sight their child in a shopping center. They are words that are full of pause and breath, words that could only share their brokenness through the vehicle of poetry because nothing else would capture the hurt that Jeremiah feels for his people. His words are words of lament, which is many think that Jeremiah may have written at least some of the book of lamentations.
In Jeremiahs time collapse had not yet come, the king was still on the throne, wealth and prosperity, religious ritual, and military might still marked the day, but crisis loomed overhead like a thunderstorm cloud readying itself for a massive downpour. The problem is that apparently there are some times in which you need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, and Jeremiah seems to have been the only one in town. No one wants to be the person who has to point out the obvious, especially when the obvious has been so hidden, but Jeremiah is given just this task from YHWH.
Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown.
3 Israel was holy to the LORD,
the first fruits of his harvest.
All who ate of it were held guilty;
disaster came upon them, says the LORD.
The word of the Lord is remember! Remember the stories that have made you who you are. Do not forget that you are a liberated people. Why do you still live in bondage then to this royal consciousness? Why have you abandoned the way Moses taught you? You once followed me into an unknown place, now you only go where you think you will gain something for yourself.
Jeremiahs community is a community that has forgotten two things: its identity and its mission. You once were my bride and identified with me in a way that was different from those who follow their own gods. What has happened?
One of the key turning points in this passage comes next:
5 Thus says the LORD:
What wrong did your ancestors find in me
that they went far from me,
and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?
Jeremiah in effect says this:
Here is what YHWH wants me to as you: What iniquity, what infidelity, did your ancestors find in me that they walked away from me going after empty things and in the process only found emptiness?
One reason I love Jeremiah is that his poetry is vivid. His entire book is rife with word plays, and powerful images. In chapter one he talks about an almond tree, and a boiling pot of water, here in chapter 2 hes already talked about a bride, and now he talks about worthless things. This is a word play. The hebrew word is hevel which means vanity, empty, futile and it appears twice in this verse one right after the other. He says they went after hevel yehbalu. The root of yehbalu is hevel. Jeremiah is saying here that in chasing emptiness, emptiness is what they received. Empty is what they became.
Joyce Hollyday says: We become what we follow, we turn into what we love.
Another commentator puts it this way:
You are what you worship, Jeremiah tells us. While we may confess faith, the object of our true devotion reveals itself in our everyday actions and in the things to which we devote most of our time and energy. And when our hearts are devoted to anything but God, we betray not only God but ourselves: Your fathers went after idols, and became empty themselves. My people have [ex]changed their glory for useless things. Michaela Bruzzese
All We Grow, All We Build, All We Put Our Hands To
And isnt this still a timely word for us today?
What are we following after? What are the true objects of our devotion? What reveals itself in our daily lives? What and who are we investing our lives into? And what do we expect to get in return? Jeremiah is saying here that What we invest ourselves into is what forms us. And maybe what we are being formed by is still at this point unrecognizable to us. Are we ready to open ourselves to Gods Light which investigates the heart?
So lets ask together: What is it that we are putting our hands to?
Jeremiah’s is a call to reorder all of life. This is a call to the entire Hebrew people to refuse the royal consciousness and return to the alternative way of life that YHWH had set out before them, through moses.
Return to the living fountain, rather than drinking from the stale water that has been collecting in the cisterns.
The Hebrew people had built cisterns to collect water. It was a sign of comfort and stability. But YHWH knew that it symbolized hoarding, greed. The cistern also means building a life outside the created order, outside of what was naturally available and what it meant to live on Manna. These cisterns contrast with the Manna that fell from heaven in Exodus. Once the water was contained in cisterns it could be controlled by those in power, which meant that it could also be kept from those who were outside the good graces of the empire.
And what about each of us, and our society? Dont we build, or at least long to build, our own cisterns, collect for ourselves as much safety and comfort as possible. Instead of stripping down, we build up. Our society is one that has made unnatural a way of life. (The recent egg recall seems like a timely reminded of the unnatural ways of growing and raising food we have become accustomed to.)
And today our cisterns may now be credit cards, huge school loans, well paying jobs (even if they kill us in the process), safe neighborhoods, tall borders, controlling what is considered acceptable religion and ever stringent laws against the outsiders. Whatever will keep us safe, whatever will keep us stable is the mantra of the royal consciousness today. This is often said in the face of much loss to human and animal life and even to the earth (Jeremiah 2:7).
But in the same way that credit cards, inevitably enslave us more and more and lead us to value things less and less (we no longer have to save and wait for anything, just about any dream can be fulfilled now), so too any cistern we build will leave continually more reliant on the royal systems of living and thinking, rather than on Gods alternative vision for us and for the world. Now we drink stale water out of water bottles we carry with us everywhere. We are truly detached from YHWHs fountain of living water.
And so we go back to the open comment about S. Careys new album, All We Grow, What is it that we are growing? (Is it a Tansy Ragwort). What is it that we are putting our hands too? What are we going after? If we feel hopeless, worthless, empty, it may be that what weve put our hands to. Are we going after hevel yehbalu? What does it look like for us to draw from living water in our lives, both metaphorically and literally?
In order to do this we need to heed Jeremiahs call and reject the royal consciousness. We need to continue to be a community that remembers YHWH the liberator, YHWH the abundant provider, and the lover of all creation, and enter with this we enter into an alternative way of living together. Investing and growing things that will last.
Query for open worship:
What satiates us? Do we drink from cisterns or from the fountain of the living water? What is it that we put our hand too? What is it that we are growing? In what ways can we rely less and less on the royal conscience and in turn move toward the alternative way of life Christ leads us in?