Questions and Answers, September 1

Questions and Answers

Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Galilean Service; Catskill United Methodist Church and First Reformed Church of Catskill

September 1, 2019 at Catskill Point

 

  1. If an orchestra of 120 musicians plays Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in forty minutes, how long will it take an orchestra of 60 musicians to play the same piece? Twice as long? Half as long? Nope. Forty minutes. The same amount of time it would take you to play it yourself, on a CD player, if you still have one of those. Actually, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in forty minutes would be horrendously abbreviated; it usually is played in about seventy-two minutes, well over an hour. But that’s not the trick part of the trick question. Throw a few numbers into a question and it immediately sounds like a math problem. This question was included on a math test among other questions, with a caveat at the top of the test, “one of these is a trick question.” It’s now famous because it was quoted on the internet, without the teacher’s warning, with many comments of frustration or declaration of absurdity or silliness by musicians and mathematicians and lots of people in between. Finally, the teacher herself cleared up the issue.

 

The debacle, however, points to the truth that the answers we hope to find – answers of hope and peace and meaning – may continue to be elusive, not because they aren’t there, but because we ask the wrong questions in the first place. Lest we think this is only a challenge of our internet age, listen to Jeremiah, from the second chapter of his word to the people. Be warned; Jeremiah is angry. We expect passion from Jeremiah, and we are not disappointed.

To be precise, it’s God, speaking through Jeremiah who is angry. God’s point is clear:

My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.

My people have ignored me, the God of the universe, source of all life, and have embraced emptiness instead!

My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”

God is as angry at the stupidity of the people for making a foolish choice as God is at being ignored. As if to say, I wouldn’t like it if you turned to something else that did something for you, but you try to find meaning in absurdities. I am the way, the truth and the life; I offer living water and you turn to cisterns and discover that they can’t even hold onto the stale, tepid water they had!! There is nothing else out there that offers you anything – and you insist on turning away from me anyway!

 

God does not mince words in naming where the people went wrong. Verse 6 says, “They did not say, ‘Where is the Lord who brought us up out of Egypt?’”; then verse 8 says, “the priests did not say, ‘Where is the Lord?’” Turning away from God did not entail turning from religious practice, not in this case. There are still priests acting for the people, the people are still searching for something and finding something to worship, but they aren’t asking the right questions, they aren’t searching for God.

 

Are we asking the right questions or the wrong questions as we look for answers and wisdom? Are we focusing on God’s ways, or are we looking for life in all the wrong places? We don’t read the prophets primarily for historical input on the life of Jerusalem three thousand years ago. We trust there is a word for us within the word that the prophets spoke to their contemporaries. But Jeremiah’s people are so primitive. They assign power and glory to statues of clay and stone. That’s not our sin; that’s not our temptation. Idolatry over the generations has rarely been as simple as all that. Idolatry is simply what happens when God’s words and ways seem foreign and uncomfortable, so we choose another way, another word, another idea to substitute for God in our worship and in our lives.

 

If we’re honest, we know why the people didn’t ask, ‘where is the Lord who brought us up out of Egypt?’ We know that God also, our God, the holy one of Israel, the creator of the ends of the earth. That’s the Lord who asks us to walk in the ways of holiness, caring for the stranger, welcoming those who are different or who are struggling. This God can be inconvenient to our lives of quietness and comfort.

 

The truth is, it’s easier to nod to our neighbors than to welcome the stranger. Strangers can be, well, strange. They speak different languages; they wear different clothes from ours; sometimes they worship different gods from our God, the holy one of Israel, the creator of the ends of the earth. Jeremiah declares that we don’t find the life of joy we desire because we avoid asking the question, ‘Where is the Lord?” Because we know the answer. Jesus said clearly in the 25th chapter of Matthew that he will be found in our midst in those whom we feed, those whom we visit in prison, those who we welcome into our homes. Instead we ask the questions, how can we be sure we’re safe? How can we keep our lives from changing from the comfort we have found? Those are trick questions, like the non-math question I began with. Change happens all the time. God invites us to find meaning and joy in the midst of the change by welcoming others in the name of the God who welcomes us and loves us.

 

The life our God offers is a life of ever-expanding circles, growth and not stagnation, filled with new friends and with the joy of giving, even giving to those we’ve never met before. This is the gift of life God envisions. This is the life we embrace by choosing to follow Jesus, who came that we might have this abundant life. It’s a life that’s bigger than our comfort. A life only for ourselves is that tepid stale water God speaks of in our leaky cisterns of existence. The flowing water of life offered by Jesus carries us along from our closed-in lives to a world filled with new people with new and excellent stories and love.

 

These are the words we hear over and over in scripture. Where will we find the God who brings people into freedom from Egypt, freeing them from lives of injustice and pain? We find that God still freeing people from oppressive situations. We welcome that God when we welcome the stranger. Throughout scripture, God is on the side of those who suffer. God asks us to stand with them as well. Listen:

 

From Leviticus 19:34 The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

 

Hear the words again from Hebrews that we heard earlier:

Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.

 

Hear the words Jesus speaks to those gathered with him at dinner from today’s story in Luke:

13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.

 

Today we worship together, United Methodists and the Catskill Reformed Church. Next week we’ll be separate again. But we will find life together, as disciples of Jesus here in Catskill, when we are willing not only to ask, Where is the Lord?, but to listen and to choose to follow when the divine way is illuminated.

 

Christ’s table here is open and welcome to all who would come. You need not be a member of either of these churches or of any church at all. This is where the Lord is, and this is where all are welcome to be in the Lord’s presence. Amen.

 

 

 

Jeremiah 2:4-13

4Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob, and all the families of the house of Israel. 5Thus 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? 6They did not say, “Where is the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt, who led us in the wilderness, in a land of deserts and pits, in a land of drought and deep darkness, in a land that no one passes through, where no one lives?” 7I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things. But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage an abomination. 8The priests 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.

9Therefore once more I accuse you, says the Lord, and I accuse your children’s children. 10Cross to the coasts of Cyprus and look, send to Kedar and examine with care; see if there has ever been such a thing. 11Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit. 12Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, 13for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.

Psalm 81:1, 10-16

1Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob.

10I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.

Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.

11“But my people did not listen to my voice;

Israel would not submit to me.

12So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts,

to follow their own counsels.

13O that my people would listen to me,

that Israel would walk in my ways!

14Then I would quickly subdue their enemies,

and turn my hand against their foes.

15Those who hate the Lord would cringe before him,

and their doom would last forever.

16I would feed you with the finest of the wheat,

and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.”

 

 

Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16

13Let mutual love continue. 2Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. 3Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. 4Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. 5Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” 6So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?” Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.

 

Luke 14:1, 7-14

14On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. … 7When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place,’ and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” 12He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

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