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Who You Calling a Cracked Pot?

Sermon - 9/09/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 2:4-13

Jeremiah is our text this morning, from the second chapter:

Hear 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.

 

 

There stands on the west side of the University Oregon campus on 13th Street a bronze figure, larger than life.  The inscription on the base reads simply “Pioneer”.  

 

 

 

 

He strides forward confidently, his gaze straight ahead, his bearded face strong and sure.  His ruggedness and sense of purpose stand as a tribute to the white men who first came across the Oregon Trail to settle this valley 150 years ago.

 

 

 

A block or so south of the Pioneer is another figure dedicated to those first settlers which portrays a completely different image. Sitting quietly in the less visible courtyard behind Collier House is an older woman in repose.  Stately and serene, her head tilted downward, she gazes past the heavy book (a Bible?) in her hands into the distant, yet painfully recent, past as portrayed in the two plaques on either side of the marble base which commemorate the Oregon trail.

 

 

One depicts a team of oxen pulling a covered wagon up a steep trail, urged onward by the whip of the pioneer walking alongside.

 

 

 

 

The other shows a makeshift camp of wagons and a mourning woman, comforted by friends, standing over an open grave as the parson reads from the Bible.

 

 

 

 

These and the other memories of joy and sorrow, hardship and victory, are forever etched into her bronzed, weather-worn face.  The dedication on the base reads in part,

 

...after the hardships and the battles and the sorrows of pioneering were past, she sat in the afterglow of her twilight days resting from her labors. ... her rugged endurance has mellowed with her fading memories: but to us there lives that spirit of conquering peace which I wish posterity to remember.’[1]

 

The inscription on the front of the base reads, “The Pioneer Mother, Pax.”  She shares both title and face with another sculpture located in Kansas City created by the same artist.

 

 

This Pioneer Mother, however, sits atop a wearied horse, holding an infant, “the hope for the future of the West,”[2] her pioneer husband walking at her side, leading a tired pack horse.  In contrast to the horses, this confident looking mother leans forward, looking expectantly straight ahead.  Alexander Phimister Proctor, the artist, said of his creation, It seemed to me that most people, in thinking of pioneers, thought solely of the men.  I considered the heroism of the women equal to, and perhaps greater than the men’s.  As Mark Twain said, ‘The women had to endure everything the pioneers did, and then they also had to endure the pioneers!’[3]

Taken together, these glimpses into our past reveal much of the mythos at the basis of our identity as western Americans.  They represent much of what we admire and cherish most in our nation: the strong sense of destiny and purpose, individuality and identity, freedom and courage.

Archibald Willard, a cartoonist and artist, captured that same spirit in his painting “The Spirit of ‘76”, commissioned for our first centennial.  You know it: the ragged, battle-torn trio, carrying the flag of their newly, declared independent country in victory.  Leading the procession is the white-haired soldier, beating the drum of liberty.  The image is one that stirs a sense of pride and patriotism.  It is in that spirit that audiences at baseball games, concerts, political rallies and all sorts of occasions have often sung since 9/11, “God Bless America, land that I love, stand beside her and guide her through the night with light from above.”  It is a powerful image which our ancestors carried from “the New York islands to the redwood forests,” over “purple mountain majesties, above the fruited plain,” “from the mountain to the prairies to the ocean white with foam.” There is much in that image to celebrate and appreciate.

However, that image of the destined settler, of the rugged individual, of the victorious soldier, of the godly eagle, strong and free, also represents our greatest peril.  For in it is the implicit and sometimes explicit inference that somehow, this nation, under God, is divinely guided.  That the American way is God’s way, that this is the Promised Land and we are God’s people, chosen to save the world.  Jonathan Edwards, the fiery preacher of the early 18th century credited with starting the Great Awakening which evangelized the northern colonies, echoed this sentiment well, proclaiming
“America has received the true religion of the old continent; ... (but) inasmuch as that continent has crucified Christ, they shall not have the honor of communicating religion in its most glorious state to us, but we to them.”[4]  Perhaps such a view had a perfectly justifiable logic in those early years of nation building.  Such confidence that God was not only with our founders, but blessed and actively supported their efforts to create a more perfect union, was critical to the success of this grand experiment in liberty.

I am equally sure, however, to continue propagating such a viewpoint, is more than misguided and short-sighted.  It is also wrong.  And that, I believe, is a cautious understatement.  It is more than wrong, it is dangerously wrong and plainly unbiblical.  For the combination of patriotism, which I think can be good and healthy, with religious fervor, has throughout the course of human history led to enormous tragedy over and over and over again. 

Case in point: prayer was once commonplace in schools. Here is a prayer recited throughout the 1930s:

Almighty God, dear heavenly father, in thy name let us now ... begin our instruction.  Enlighten us, teach us all truth, strengthen us in all that is good, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from all evil in order that, as good human beings, we may faithfully perform our duties and thereby, in time and eternity, be made truly happy.  Amen.’[5]

That prayer was required by law not in Tennessee, Iowa or Georgia, but Germany.

Among the great tragedies of Nazism was its success in co-opting a great portion of the German church to support its nationalistic ambitions as the will of God.  It is this combination, you see, that is so dangerous.  My favorite Old Testament professor in seminary, Rolf Knierim, is a German who immigrated to the U.S. in the 50s. Whenever we would study a passage such as this one in Jeremiah, he would preach to us, sometimes for an hour or more, on the sin of religious nationalism which resulted in Nazi flags draped from the chancels of many German churches.  He would walk up to the front row, and to emphasize his point, he would literally drill it into the forehead of any unfortunate student sitting there who either did not know better or arrived late and that was the only seat left. [Heavy German accent] “And that is why,” he would say, “we must never, ever worship the flag in this country the way we did in my country.”  The first time I sat in the front row I came away with an indention in my forehead that lasted a week and an impression that will last a lifetime.

Which is why, when Francis Hyland asked me if I would like to lead us in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in a worship service on July 4 some 14 years ago, I said no.  Francis, God bless her, was a little shocked I think.  I explained to her that I can say it anywhere else, but to pledge allegiance to anything other than God in a service of worship is nothing less than idolatry.

Just a few weeks ago I was on my way to the church when I came up behind a pickup truck.  At the top of his rear window was a decal which said “Jesus Freak”.  Nothing wrong with being proud to put your faith out there for the world to see.  But below that was an American flag and a bald eagle, not just any eagle, but a very vicious looking eagle with out-stretched talons ready to grab any unsuspecting pray in its powerful claws.  And my reaction was one of immediate horror.  What is it about our faith in the Prince of Peace that seems to align itself so frequently with such flag-waving, militant nationalism?

  

Craig Watts, Disciple pastor in Florida, provides a very helpful reflection in this month’s DisciplesWorld.  He quotes Harvard University political scientist Samuel Huntington who has found that more than any other people, “Americans are overwhelmingly committed to both God and country, and for Americans they are inseparable.”[6]  Well, what’s wrong with that, you might ask.  Should we not believe in God and country?  

The problem, says Watts, is that once we blend the symbols, words and songs of nation with the worship of God, the result is four disastrous consequences.

First, we create, as described by Jeremiah, a false God, a cracked pot than can hold no water.  “The God who has a special concern for America,” writes Watts, “a covenant with this nation, the God who has in some sense ‘chosen’ the United States as a special instrument, is not the Christian God. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is the God of all, without discrimination. This God alone is the source of our freedom, security, hope and pride and is solely deserving of our praise.”

Second, Watts when we come to worship, all of the particularities of our identity, hair color, skin color, profession, age, etc. are incidental.  Our national identity has no more significance to God than our favorite football team (but then, he’s not a Duck fan so what does he know!) “We gather in worship as a people who are one, not with those who share our nationality but with those who share our faith in Christ, no matter where they are.”

National flags by their very nature divide people into us vs them, citizens and foreigners, Jews and Gentiles--a notion that goes against the very essence of the Gospel where national identity is replaced by the sacrifice of Christ for all humanity. 

Third, it is not our relationship to our country but our relationship to Christ that matters.  Whether one is proud of their national heritage or ashamed of it, all are welcome here.  Lastly, when we equate in any way our
allegiance to our country with our allegiance to God, we hinder our spiritual discernment. Hence, Watts contends, American Christians supported the war in Iraq for far too long while the vast majority of Christians around the world condemned it. Only when we separate God and country in heart and mind can we grow more spiritually clear-sighted.

This is precisely the message of Jeremiah.  The beauty of the Hebrew faith as witnessed in the Bible is that it not only tolerated freedom of speech, but it published its greatest dissenters.  Had a “love it or leave it” attitude prevailed in Jerusalem, names like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Micah and the rest of the prophets would be unknown to us.  For they were the voices of dissent, the ones who dared to shout what no one else would think to whisper.  Jeremiah dares to challenge the sacred cow, or more precisely, the sacred bull, by condemning the idolatrous worship of national deities which were gods in name only.

In this morning’s text, likely one of the early oracles he gave when Israel was at the pinnacle of her power long after Assyria ceased to be a threat and decades before Babylon became one, calls the nation to account in a court room drama as dramatic as any your will find on TV.  Look far and wide God says through the prophet, look as far as you can see, north and south, east and west, and tell me, is there any nation anywhere on the earth that has changed its gods.  Yet that is precisely what Israel has done.  Let the entire heavens witness and be appalled, shocked, utterly desolate, says the Lord, for my people have traded in God, their fountain of living water, for their own faulty cisterns they built with their own hands, cracked pots that can hold no water.  From the earliest prophets on down to the Revelation to John, the rule of nations and the will of God are presented as separate and often opposing forces.  So I will insist that equating our country with the promised land or our history with God’s will is unbiblical, and yet I can still affirm the presence of God in our heritage which provide us glimpses of the realm God would have us build.

Our nation was founded on the notion that there are times when the dictates of conscience as provided through the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”, according to the Declaration of Independence, take precedence over the rules of law. 

I would argue that the true greatness of our country which we should rightfully celebrate as Christians this day is not found in our military strength, our natural or technological wonders, our agricultural or industrial production, our system of government or courts of justice, but in our commitment to an idea, namely that there are certain truths which are self-evident, that all people are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable  Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of
Happiness.”[7]

We might argue the source of this truth, as is often debated in letters to the editor, whether based in the Christian faith or natural law of reason as developed in the Enlightenment or both, regardless, I hope that we can agree that the notions of equality and liberty are central to our faith as well as our nation.

“You shall know the truth”, proclaimed Jesus, “and the truth shall make you free.” Alexander Campbell, the most influential of our founders, proclaimed, “it is not possible, ... to love liberty, freedom of thought, of speech and of action, in the state, and to hate it in the church; or to love it in the church and to hate it in the state.”[8]

I submit to you, that when our patriotism is centered on these founding principles of our country, it is appropriately celebrated within the church as consistent with the proclamation of the gospel.  This is the true greatness, the shining beauty of our nation, a light which even the darkest periods of our history cannot extinguish.

 

 

One final postscript: When Archibald Willard painted the Spirit of 76, and sought to portray the face of liberty on that white-haired drummer, [photo 19]the face he chose was that of his recently deceased father, Samuel Willard, a Disciples of Christ preacher.  Likewise when the young Pioneer Mother was dedicated in Kansas City in 1927, Alexander Proctor, hunting companion of a Disciple preacher in Colorado and member of the Christian Church in New York, chose Burris Jenkins, a Disciple preacher of note, as the
speaker.[9]

In a sermon entitled “The Pioneer Mother” delivered a month later, Jenkins, citing the examples of Ruth and the mother of Jesus, strongly endorsed the “pioneering” role of women of that day in “politics, economics and even international affairs.”  The result, predicted Jenkins, would be more decent municipal government, the abolition of child labor, decreased infant mortality, justice between the classes and even the abolition of war.  “If this is a chaotic time in religious and moral matters, and it is,” said Jenkins, “our pioneer women will bear their share of enduring the long journey and of finding their way to the new home and the new peace.”[10]

Perhaps it is the sheer fantasy of a wishful preacher, but I would like to believe that it was such preaching of the gospel that inspired not only the likes of Archibald Willard and Alexander Proctor, but also the poets and song writers, the philosophers and politicians, the artists and the artisans who crafted this nation from the vision of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all [people] are created equal.”[11]


[1]Dedication plaque by Burt Brown Baker, May 7, 1932.’
[2] Alexander Phimister Proctor, Sculptor in Bucksin, An
Autobiography. University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. p. 184.
[3] ibid.
[4]Robert T. Handy, A Christian America: Protestant Hopes and
Historical Realities. Oxford University Press, 1971. p. 21.
[5] Virginia Conley, Eugene Register Guard, Letter to the Editor,
February 10, 1993.
[6] Craig M. Watts, “Do We Believe in God, or in America?”
Disciples World, September 2007, p 12.
[7] Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.
[8] Osborn, Experiment in Liberty, The Bethany Press, 1978‚ p. 25.
[9] I am indebted to Dr. Osborn for the information on Willard and
Proctor. See Osborn, op. cit., p. 39. The additional information on
Proctor cited here comes from a phone conversation with Dr. Osborn on
July 3, 1993.
[10] Burris Jenkins, “The Pioneer Mother”, The Christian, December
15, 1927, p. 54-56.
[11]Abraham Lincoln, “Gettysburg Address”. 1863.

Photo Credits (in order of appearance):  1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 20, Dan Bryant.  13, 14, 15, 16, Disciples World Magazine.  8-12, 17-19, various web sites.

 


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