“Jeremiah’s Junk Drawer”

September 18, 2016

 

Jeremiah 17:5‑10, 14

Luke 6:17‑26

Probably every home has a junk drawer.

You know what that is. A place—in the kitchen, in the basement—where you store various little items until you need them. A bottle opener. A length of string. A couple of old cell phone chargers. Some rubber bands and a nickel and—how’d   that piece of chalk get in there?  The junk drawer often becomes filled with strange items in the back, things you were once going to use and now you don't even know what they are for—an oddly shaped button, a key that fits no lock in the house, batteries that are dead, or I don’t know, maybe they aren’t, What do you think? Maybe we should  just keep them for now. You never know.

At the risk of sounding irreverent—and you know that’s a risk I’m usually willing to take—chapter 17 of Jeremiah is kind of a “junk drawer.” It’s filled with odds and ends. A little poetry. A bit of wisdom. A fragment about the deceitfulness of the human heart. Things that seemed worth keeping for the time being.

Reading through it you might wonder: “How did all this get in here?”

Some would think it best just to shut the drawer again—close the book and look elsewhere for sermon material and for words of inspiration. Others would suggest that we clean it out, get rid of what might seem strange or offensive.

You probably know me well enough to realize that when we stumble across a portion of scripture that seems strange or offensive, I will urge that we look a little closer, listen a little longer.  It's reasonable to say that this chapter came from the pen of Jeremiah, a prophet of God. These words have endured. And while longevity alone may not be enough, perhaps these words can still speak to us.

Open a junk drawer, pull out an item and the questions begin. You might ask: “Do I need this? Is it still important to me?”

Jeremiah deals with some "ultimate questions." Questions like: “Does God matter?” “Is faith still important?” “Does God make a difference in the world or in my life?

Jeremiah answers: “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.”

Fruit is both the end product of growth and the beginning of new produce. Cut open an apple and what do you find? Seeds. In the fruit of our service to this community we find the seeds of faithfulness. In the fruit of our partnerships around the world—such as Theological Education by Extension, we find the seeds of hope. In our giving, through our participation in worship, as we walk together in the ways of Christ, known and to be made known to us, we are producing fruit as well as seeds for the future.

Our ability to do any of this and all of this, Jeremiah suggests, has to do with our trust.

We want to believe that. We want to believe that trust in God does make a difference. But such faith is difficult.

I need to know more of what it means to "trust" God.

My dictionary helps a little. Trust, it says, means, “to place confidence.” But then my dictionary gives two examples: “trust in God,” and “trust to luck.”

God.

Luck.

Sometimes it isn’t quite clear where we place our confidence. I want to think that God and luck are not the same. Like many people I want to think that my prayers are heard by a loving God who knows and loves me instead of sent out to blind luck.

In the seventies we used to do an exercise in trust. One person would stand and then fall backwards into the arms of someone behind them. The unseen arms would keep them from hitting the floor. It was a matter of trust—of placing confidence—to fall backwards.

Trust in God is a sense that you won’t come crashing down to the floor even as you fall.

Trust in God does not mean your life will be easy, that your children will behave, or that your job will be secure. The heat and the drought will come.

But a tree planted by the water has resources on which to draw. Again and again the deep, unseen roots of faith nurture us. Without even thinking about it, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” come to our lips.  Or the words “Our Father who art in heaven,” help your heart and lips give shape to prayer when other words don’t come.

Like Jeremiah, Jesus speaks of blessing and woe. We live between the two—trusting in God, trusting in mere mortals.

Sometimes we find strength and sustenance.

Sometimes we wither in the heat.

Does God matter? Jeremiah thinks so. Most of the time so do I.  The rest of the time I hope. I trust. I fall back on what I don’t know for certain is there. And as I fall‑‑well, that's when I know what trust is.

Let's look at something else in this “junk drawer.” There are curious words about the human heart. This is just a little fragment of something, probably broken off of a larger piece—kind of like the handle to a mug that you’ve been saving in order to glue it back on, only now you can’t find the mug. The fragment shows up here really unconnected to what comes before or after it.

But listen!

     The heart is devious above all else—who can understand it?

     “I the LORD test the mind and search the heart,

     and give to all according to their ways,

     according to the fruit of their doings.”

Oh, the prophet is negative here, isn’t he?

But you sense a disturbing truth here, don’t you?

We’ve learned again and again about the evil of which nations and institutions and individuals are capable. Yet each new evidence of this reality is troubling.

Perhaps we are troubled even more by Jeremiah’s way of lumping all of us together.

Only God is the ultimate judge. Only God—not psychiatrists, not pundits, not ourselves—only God “tests the mind and searches the heart.”

So each one of us finds ourselves before the living God.

This fragment is troubling—broken off, by itself. It leaves me hoping that there is something more. It leaves me longing for a word of forgiveness. As disturbing as this mug handle of a text may be as it comes to us, however, I try to be thankful for the judgment of God. I know that other people are usually too harsh or too lenient toward me.  And I know just how unduly harsh or lenient I can be as well. It’s true: we just aren’t very good judges.

Who here understands the heart of your neighbor?

Who here understands your own heart?

These words serve as a reminder to me that we are a congregation of, well, of sinners.

Stay with me here.

Remember. The word sinner is not a moralistic judgement. It is not a word that assesses humans as relatively “good” or “bad.” It does not mean that we—or others—are “deplorable” or “beyond redemption.”

The word sinner is a theological designation. It speaks of humans in relation to God and sees them separated from God, separated from our neighbors, separated from the best in ourselves. In that state of separation people may be wicked, unhappy, anxious, and poor. Or, they may be virtuous, happy, and affluent.

As Eugene Peterson reminds us: To say that a person is a sinner is not to see him or her as hypocritical, or disgusting, or evil. Most sinners are very nice people. To call a person a sinner is to assert the theological belief that the thing that matters most to that person is forgiveness and grace.

The happy result of a theological understanding of people as sinners is that we are saved from the continual surprise that we are in fact sinners. So sinner becomes not a weapon in an arsenal of condemnation, but the expectation and the anticipation of grace.[i]

The heart is deceitful. Let’s not throw out these words. Let’s hold on to them. And let us hope for the grace of God.

So finally, we will pull out a plea. It seems like a desperate appeal. And I guess most people have known times when these words were their own: “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed. Save me, and I shall be saved.”

Thousands of years later and we are all still learning the lesson that Jeremiah summarized in seven words: “Save me and I shall be saved.”

God knows how hard we try to save ourselves. We seek salvation in what we know, what we own, what we do; we seek salvation in how good we are, how busy we are, how politically correct or politically incorrect we are.  We’re a “do it yourself” people and we keep trying to spare God the bother of giving us the wholeness that we desire. We politely say: “I’ll get it on my own, thank you.”

Yet again and again we find that not even our best efforts work.  When will we give up and accept the healing that God offers?  “Heal me and I shall be healed. Save me, and I shall be saved.”

The prophet shows the long-standing connection between health and salvation. There is a human hope for wholeness of the unity that we call body and soul.

Look in a junk drawer and you can find a lot of stuff. Most of it has some value, even if it looks worthless or unusual at first. At least that is the case with Jeremiah’s junk drawer.

You know, that’s kind of how life is too. It’s not all neat and orderly. We bring along with us all sorts of weird stuff—memories of love, some bitter regrets, fragments of success. A lot of time it doesn’t fit together. Often we want to shut the drawer and hide so much away. Sometimes we’re left wondering “How did this get here?” “Why do I still have this in my life?”

Fortunately, the life of faith, the Christian life is messy too.  We don’t have to have everything in order. Sometimes—maybe most of the time—we only have a few fragments. So that’s why we get together. Because somehow the pieces you have and the pieces your neighbor has and the pieces I have belong together. And we combine them all into one big “junk drawer” and call it a church.

It can be messy and disorderly. And when those outside open the doors and see all the people, they might wonder, “How did they get in there?”

And, yet, just as with this chapter from Jeremiah—what life giving wonders we can find if we linger and look and listen.

What fruitful trees we might yet become.



[i].Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, pg.118 ff.