An Inconvenient Prophet

First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
July 30, 2017
Scriptures: Jeremiah 10:3-5, 10-12
Sermon: “An Inconvenient Prophet”

He spent 45 years on the job. Same job 45 years. Day after day, month after month, year after year. He actually holds the all-time record for longevity in his job. His world touched politics and you know how much political landscape changes in 45 years. Think of our nation’s last 45 years, how our history has been shaped by our political leaders: Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, George W., Obama, Trump. Each leader brings changes in our policies and politics from Nixon to Trump.

Jeremiah saw those changes too. Kings in the ancient world come and kings go. One made political alliances to Egypt; the next broke those alliances and formed new ones with other nations. The tiny nation of Israel was constantly seeking alliances in hopes of survival. To make an alliance with a foreign power meant payment to the king and worshipping foreign gods.

For 45 years, as prophet, Jeremiah begged and pleaded with kings and commoners against the two evils of his day: idolatry and injustice. Jeremiah was not speaking from a theoretical or abstract academic point of view. He spoke from his heart. Jeremiah felt anguish of his people’s separation from God. He spent 45 years urging his people to live out God’s covenant of love, mercy, justice , honor. Jeremiah’s heart aches for his nation, for his people, so he dared to speak the truth to power. He boldly told them, you have turned away from God, you are worshipping pagan idols and expecting them to save you. You are cutting down trees, pounding silver and gold onto the wood, setting them up on little altars, giving your heart/allegiance to these wooden idols. You’ve sold your soul and forgotten the God who made heavens and earth, our God who led us into freedom, our God who loved us and wanted us back.”

He reminds them that they won’t survive in the world if they don’t change their ways. He warned that their enemies would defeat them. He prophesied impending doom and national destruction. As you might guess, his speeches were unpopular. Other priests and prophets opposed him. He was considered a ‘traitor’ and ‘unpatriotic’ for his political warnings of defeat. He was arrested and tried and threatened with execution. People didn’t want to hear his inconvenient truth then any more than we do now.

He spent most of his life warning his fellow Israelites of their destruction if they don’t change their way and urging them to return to the Lord. As he nears the end of his life, nears the end of his 45 year prophetic career, his warnings ease and he message changes. Not because he’s changed his mind and decided that everything is okay and their country is strong and just fine. He changes his tone because time has run out. His predicted doom had become reality. Their enemies had surrounded Jerusalem for two years and starved the people. Then the foreign empire demolished Jerusalem. There were no more warnings needed; the enemies won.

His message changed – not to an “I told you so”- his message becomes one of hope and comfort. In the midst of defeat, he begins a new message, a message of promise and consolation and hope. His oracles are filled with words of healing, visions of now barren fields returned to abundant fruitfulness. He begins describing days when his exiled people would be free to return home, free for travel and for festivals feasts in their homeland. The reason for his words of hope and healing lie in his conviction that a new covenant would emerge between God and people of Israel. Over and over, Jeremiah’s word from YaWH resounds, “I will be your God – you will be my people.” Jeremiah’s message is still relevant to us today.

I’ve been on vacation these last few weeks. I took a road trip. I traveled 4000 + miles. I spent days crossing desert salt flats of Utah and Nevada. I spent days crossing mountains across Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. I spent days at the ocean with sea lions, waves, and tides, and mountains. Through most all of it, desert, ocean, mountain, plains, forest, I kept looking at vast stretches of this country, unpopulated, unspoiled. I kept seeing beauty in rawness of land, sky, sea. One thought kept coming back, what did the native peoples of this land see? In the barren stretches, I imagined glimpses of their land. I stood beneath 400-year-old trees still reaching to heavens; I realize native peoples feet stood there too beneath the shade of those same trees. I hiked through snow – up to Crater Lake, Oregon. It’s the deepest lake in country and the purest. It is fed only by snowfall. There’s no run off from chemicals in fields or animal waste. It is the bluest blue imaginable. Native people once saw that very lake. They saw it form. Were there more lakes like it then, untainted, clear, so deep blue?

We humans have not treated this billion year old earth kindly in these last hundred years. We have marred her and ravaged her and thrown her off balance. It’s hard to imagine that mere humans can exert so much influence and power as to change the planet in a few generations, but it’s true. We have decimated forests to craft our idols too. We have torn down mountains to strip her veins of silver and gold to cast upon our idols. We have plundered her coal to feed our idols. Undoing our harm is not swift or easy – the truth of what we must do to repair our footprints is quite inconvenient to our current daily practices. It is easy to get discouraged when another species dies each day. It is easy to think ourselves too small when the size of the global challenge is before us, but there is hope. I had read about the hope when I started preparing for my travel, but I met the hope on my first night out.

I was ten hours on the road that day, some 650 miles down I-80 from Omaha when I decided it was time to stop. I pulled up my new camping app on my phone to locate the nearest campground and several popped up on the map before me. There were a few 30 or 40 miles down the road, but if I was willing to go on a side road for a few miles, there was one at the very next exit. The description offered a simple campsite with the necessary facility. I was ready to stop, so I took the exit. I drove south down a country road ten miles, then an arrow pointed right down a deeply rutted dirt road. This was my first night out – my first time to use the app, was is faulty? Should I trust it? I was tired and just wanted to stop, maybe I should have stayed on the interstate, but I’d gone this far, so onward, I chose. A few miles of tremendous bumping and jostling – that I hoped was not damaging my vehicle – revealed a cluster of trees by a river in the distance and pointed down an even smaller dirt path. When I saw a single trailer and a car parked in the cluster of trees, I rolled down the windows and listened for banjos in the woods and doubted my decision for the third time. My only thought then was could I turn around and retreat safely and quickly. As I pulled past the trailer, a woman stepped out to greet me. I got out and seeing no office or official campsite, I asked with much skepticism, “Can I camp here?”

“Well, I’ll have to check your references,” she said with a smile.

“I can probably come up with a few people to vouch for me,” I returned in jest.

She said, “I’ve been here five days, so I’ll have to leave tomorrow, but it’s a nice place. The river is clear and there’s no one else here.”

We chatted a bit; I decided to stay the night. I learned that Patricia lived in her small trailer 365 days a year. I learned that this was a free campsite. I learned that there were no ‘facilities’ that the app had promised. I learned that Patricia always camps in free spots. She’s been living off the grid for eight years- not in a million dollar RV, but in a small, but fashionable 17’ camper trailer pulled by a Toyota pickup. I ended up in her Casita for an evening discussion of life, values, dogs, spirituality, God, religion, and living free without tethers. She told me some of her story: how she sold her big house in Kentucky and now migrates around the country with the seasons. She connects and reconnects with fellow travelers at favorite campgrounds. She has a 25 gallon water tank, and uses water carefully as the precious resource it is. She relies on solar power for most all of her needs. We talked about how she lives her life – one of what we might call of voluntary homelessness, but Patricia is very much at home in this world.

It was synchronistic that I followed that app to that isolated spot to chat with Patricia. I had been intrigued about a movement of downsizing for some time. I had watched some “Tiny House” episodes on HGTV. I knew some young professional who joined a Monastic Movement of simplicity in Dallas. It’s in vogue. Downsize your house, downshift your career, downscale your needs, it’s a Voluntary Simplicity Movement across the country and around the globe that “involves providing for material needs as simply and directly as possible, minimizing expenditure on consumer goods and services, and generally seeking non-materialistic sources of satisfaction and meaning.”

Patricia was one version of the Simplicity Movement. In its many forms it resides on the assumption that human beings can live meaningful, free, happy, and infinitely diverse lives, while consuming no more than an equitable share of nature. The movement is voluntary. I’m not talking about forced homelessness due to poverty, or unemployment or aging. People of all ages are choosing to work less, for less pay, to buy less, in order that they may live more.

I found some studies that showed approximately 28 per cent of U.S. citizens are downshifting to some extent. The same is happening in other countries. The researchers extrapolated their data and posed that if all the developed nations are downshifting to a similar degree – even making the conservative estimate that merely 20 per cent are downshifting overall – then in the developed world of roughly one billion people, there are approximately 200 million participants in the global Simplicity Movement.1

Some 200 million people are choosing to opt out of a rat-race, idol-setting lifestyle. There is hope for humanity. Hope for clear blue lakes that will not be polluted. Hope for ancient trees that will not be axed down into wooden idols. Hope that we won’t sell out our values for political alliances. Hope for the world and all critters in it.

There is hope because we all get to choose, how we live our life, what/who we place as priority. We get to choose what we value, how much we buy, how much we spend, how much of the earth we use. We can choose to hear inconvenient truths to us today and Jeremiah’s’ warnings to get our priorities in line. We can choose to seek wisdom, to perceive God who crafted the universe of splendor. We can choose to have the courage to claim our identity in the Divine not our stuff. We can choose to invest our days lingering with God of mercy, love and joy, earth, sky and stars.

May it be so.