Maturing Into Love – The Rev. Michelle Meech
September 04, 2022
Perhaps when you were younger and you did something wrong, something that really upset your parents or even hurt somebody else, something that was worthy of punishment. And whatever punishment was enacted, perhaps you heard the phrase: “This hurts me just as much as it hurts you.” or “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”
I have to say that I don’t recall either of my parents ever using that phrase. But I know that some parents say that or have said that before. Now, from a kid’s perspective, this makes no sense. Right? You say this to a kid and, depending upon the punishment, you might hear: It couldn’t possibly hurt you more… or… Then just don’t do it. It just doesn’t make any sense to a kid.
But from a parent’s perspective, this makes a lot of sense. We don’t want to have to discipline kids. We want them to enjoy their childhood. It would be really great if there were no consequences. But there are consequences and we know, as adults, that we have to help children learn about consequences for their actions and we have to teach them that they can’t always have their own way. This is a significant part of growing up.
So, when I read a passage like this one from the prophet Jeremiah, it’s kind of like God is basically saying: “This is going to hurt me just as much as it hurts you.” If we stop to think about it, this passage speaks to the very nature of God, the essence of God. God is saying: “I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”
Do we believe in a God of punishment? A God of judgment? Do we believe in a God of Love? Do we believe in a forgiving God? Are any of these mutually exclusive?… in other words, can God be both loving and judgmental? Both merciful and punishing?
These are big theological questions. Questions that theologians across time have wrestled with over and over again. Now, I can’t tell you what to believe, not really. The Episcopal Church doesn’t function that way. We believe that scripture gives us insight into the nature of God, and we believe that the tradition of the church has a lot to teach us about who we are and how we respond to God, and we believe that God has given us reason to discern in community what this all means. So, I cannot tell you exactly what to believe.
But I can tell you a bit more about our prophet Jeremiah. I can offer you some context to help read Jeremiah’s words. In order to do this, I get to tell one of my favorite stories. It’s about Ancient Israel.
Israel was, for a long, long time, a group of tribes – a federation, really. They were the 12 tribes of Israel and they had people, whom they called judges, who would lead them in the ways of God. Then, as agricultural practices started taking hold, people’s lives became less tribal and more communal, more settled. People started to own land. New forms of government started to emerge – kingdoms, nations. People started to pay taxes in order to receive the benefits of having protection. And the protection came from whomever had the strongest army.
As nations started to form around them in the Middle East, the 12 tribes of Israel decided they too wanted a king. They had just been through a battle with the Philistines and their highly revered judge Samuel was old and about to die. So, as our scripture tells us in the first book of Samuel, they asked God for a king. Well, really they asked Samuel to appoint them a king, but Samuel wasn’t going to do anything without talking to God first.
And God said, I’m not so sure this is a good idea. And through Samuel, proceeded to tell Israel exactly why this wasn’t such a good idea. But Israel kept insisting. So, God said to Samuel, “you know what… just do it. Go ahead and give ‘em a king.” Sort of like when parents do this with teens who won’t listen: Go ahead. Try it out. See what happens.
This is when Saul was appointed king. And then David after him. And then Solomon after him. After Solomon died, Solomon’s heirs became jealous and sought power, resulting in the splitting of the nation of Israel. The Northern Kingdom which retained the name Israel (some call Samaria), and the Southern Kingdom which took the name Judah.
And this was God’s point: by choosing to place that much power in the hands of one person, Israel was setting up their own eventual fall, which became their demise as a nation. And, eventually, their own imprisonment by neighboring countries. The Northern Kingdom fell first to Assyria and about 120 years later, the Southern Kingdom fell to the Babylonian Empire. The deciding blow was the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish leadership taken into captivity in Babylonia.
By the way, I just love it when people say the Bible doesn’t have any politics in it. But I digress.
So, where does Jeremiah fit into all of this?
Jeremiah was a prophet to the Southern Kingdom of Judah and was taken into exile in Babylonia with the other Jewish leaders. He is writing to people in exile. And he is telling them that they brought this desolation on themselves because… way back in the day… they chose to act against God. They chose power over community. They chose might over mutual care.
This context, then, helps us to read Jeremiah. Because we all know human nature: When bad things happen, people always look for reasons. As humans, we often blame others for the pain in our lives. But more often than not, we blame ourselves, thinking we are somehow wrong… we should have known better… we should be better. Jeremiah is trying to help his community make sense of things by telling them where they went astray. And, he’s not completely wrong. The larger story is a lesson about power-dealing that, to this day, we still fail to listen to. We are still acting against God when we seek power.
But the larger lesson leads us to the truth, which is that sometimes the things that happen to us are our own fault. And sometimes they are the fault of others. And sometimes, things just happen because… People: Creatures of God just doing what creatures of God do. And we all sort of bump into each other as we think we’re going about our own business.
And, as we mature, we learn more about how to balance that… our needs and the needs of others. We learn that we cannot, despite our best efforts, always please everyone in our lives. We learn that sometimes the decisions we make have an impact on others and we have to take responsibility for that. We also learn that, sometimes, our needs may be more than someone else can take on. And hopefully, we learn that the way someone else acts is just the way someone else acts and usually has little to do with us. Although that is perhaps one of the hardest lessons to learn.
This is what living in community is about – this learning, this maturing. And… this caring, this love. We learn to balance our needs with the larger needs of the community. We learn to speak our truth and listen to the truth of others so that somehow we learn what Truth actually is. We develop true compassion and concern for one another as we practice the self-emptying love of Christ.
So that when our Savior Christ says that we need to fully understand the cost of discipleship as he does in today’s Gospel reading, we start to see exactly what it is that he’s talking about. If we have not released our attachments to the things we love and even to the people we love, then we will find it difficult to truly follow Christ because we will continue to act in ways in which we try to grasp at power, ways that lead us to draw lines in the sand.
Discipleship is not easy. But when we choose to follow Christ, we start learning how to give ourselves over to a different economy. We no longer wonder whether I’m going to get what is owed to me. We no longer worry about whether or not everyone is doing what I need them to do. We no longer allow resentment and anger to make us feel as if we have nothing to give. No.
To be a disciple of Christ means that we have given ourselves over to God’s economy of Grace. Where abundance flows just because God is. Where life flourishes just because we breathe. Where there is always enough because we have discerned God’s Will for us and we know we only need what we actually need. And we learn that the numbers we tend to focus on, the numbers we think tell us the “real story” don’t say anything about God’s presence.
No, I don’t believe in a judgmental God who punishes us when we act against God’s Will.
I believe in a God who patiently waits for us to return to them when we are lost in evil thoughts. I believe that when things happen to us, God is there with us, even if we have done something monumentally stupid. I believe in the God of today’s Psalm who searches me out and knows me, who beheld me before I was even finished being formed and loved me before my grandparents were born. I believe in a God who lovingly breathes life into us over and over again, in our joyful celebration of accomplishment and the flourishing of life… and in the suffering we experience because of the consequences of actions.
I believe in Christ, who I yearn to follow even when I would rather indulge in my own emotional whims than temper myself and offer compassion.
I believe in the God of Life who comes to us as Love incarnate. And nothing will ever separate us from that love.