Friday, October 26, 2007

“When, If, Then”
II Chronicles 7:12-14; Luke 7:36-50 (21st Sunday after Pentecost; October 21, 2007)


The other day my wife Jo and I were driving across a bridge which spanned an inlet of Lake Wylie, South Carolina. I saw not one but two pontoon boats sitting on mud. Later, crossing the Catawaba, on the so-called riverfront itself, I saw piers whose steps descended to grass, twenty feet or more from what remained of the retreating lake’s near edge.

I have to admit to a certain perverse fascination regarding our present crisis—and most of it centered here in the Bible belt, if you have not noticed—this draught, this rainlessness: it reminds us, if you will forgive the pun, of the essential nature of things.

In the vanity of our imaginations, we are so easily inclined to believe that we are in control, the masters of our own fates and destinies, and even the fates and destinies of others, what with all our knowledge and technology, all our sophistication and smarts. Time and time again, however—and to our protracted horror—we rediscover otherwise. On one side of the globe we are learning that that superior weaponry and even night vision goggles do not an insurrection quell (or as the Bible says in Psalm 33:16

a King is not saved by his great army;
a warrior is not delivered by his great strength;
the war horse is a vain hope for victory
and by its might it cannot save.)

And back home? Should it stop raining long enough, TVA and Duke Energy have to start stopping the reactors. Electricity may get scarce while rolling blackouts and brownouts may be plentiful…while our lives, as we have made them, slowly grind to a halt. If rain does not come soon, we may be left with life as God gave it…but that may not be a bad thing, all in all.


In Bible Study on this last Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I began our prayer time by reading II Chronicles 7:13-14. The context for the passage is a dream: God comes to Solomon by night. Solomon has just finished building the Temple, the great place of worship for all of Israel, where sacrifices and prayers will be offered by the people, and Solomon has prayed to God, that God’s “eyes may be opened night and day toward this house…” that God would “hearken to the supplication of (the) people Israel, that when (God hears those prayers, that God would forgive” (I Kings 9:28-30, passim).

God appears to Solomon and answers: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a house of sacrifice. When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

I read that text, Wednesday night and Thursday. I said to each group, “We seem to be in one of those “when’s” God mentions.” And then I asked each group, “Which of those ifs is the hardest?” Very quickly, very quickly—immediately­­­­ came the reply—“humble ourselves!” Everyone agreed. And why is that so hard? For each of us, for all of us together, to humble ourselves?

Why is it hard even to see that we need to do such a thing? That it’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Not my brother or my sister but it’s me, O Lord; not my mother or my father, but it’s me, O Lord; not my children or my students but it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer. Why is it so hard to sing that song, to say those words, to pray that prayer…really pray it and say it and believe that it is me, it’s me, it is me, God knows, who needs to humble myself? Why is that so hard?

Well, maybe, because it is so much easier, so much more natural (and fun!) for us to exalt ourselves, to think better of myself and my opinions that I do of other people and their opinions. Whether because of race or education, upbringing or privilege, even tenure—My father used to say, “Tom, when you have been around as long as I have, you will see that I am right”—it is so much easier to assume we are right, whatever our rationale; natural, really, to discount the views or opinions or character of another—because they don’t look like we do, don’t sound like we do, don’t vote like we do, don’t see things and think like we do (John Locke said that all of us are predisposed toward our own opinions). It is so much more fun to imagine that if “they” were more like me, then they would see that I am always right.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3), but we readily reject his counsel. Others? Her? HIM?! Better than ME? Then you don’t know him like I do! In the same text Paul also says, “Do all things without murmuring or arguing; do nothing from selfishness or conceit.” Some places I know do nothing without murmuring and arguing, do everything from conceit… another word for conceit being “pride.”


Soon after 9/11 I began to see bumper stickers on cars in Marshville and Monroe, other places too: The Power of Pride, they read. Perhaps you saw them too. I understood, I think, still understand the sentiment—in bad times you rally around the flag, circle the wagons, all that. But I was uncomfortable with the bumper stickers all the same. Why? Because Pride, according to our faith tradition, is one of the Seven Deadly Sins; and the power that results from pride is never, according to Holy Scripture, a good thing.

Power is the polar opposite of selflessness and sacrifice, the virtues to which Jesus calls us. And pride is a “source” sin, not just one among the others but the root, the fountainhead of the other six: greed, lust, gluttony, boredom, despair and anger. Let’s think about Anger for a moment.
Not all anger is sinful, God knows. Anger is a good emotion that God has given us, to alert us that something is awful bad wrong. Parents rightly get angry if a child puts themself in harm’s way. Citizens rightly get angry when the well-being of all children becomes a political football and every one, on both sides of the aisle, are trying to score points. It can be good to be angry at injustice, at political gamesmanship—sometimes if we are not angry we are not paying attention.
That said, there is anger which is quite sinful indeed. I will speak for myself: sometimes my hottest, bitterest anger concerns, not the great issues of the day but the little issues of my little days—those real and imagined slights that offend my pride, that insult my position, that question my opinions. My heart can become a blast furnace, one I stoke with coals of resentment and jealousy. I burn hotter and hotter. I pour in tender by the ton: kindling grudges and chips off my shoulder, the sawdust specks from another’s eyes. Hotter and hotter.
The fire is pride. When I cannot forgive: that is pride. When I cannot congratulate or bless or celebrate another and their accomplishments, that is pride. When I have to have my own way: pride. When I want control, need control, will not relinquish control: that is pride. When I see the pride in others before I see it in myself…you know what causes that? You know what opens my eyes to the sin of another and closes them to my own sin: Why, friends, that is pride.
Pride is sinister. It is insidious. It is like a killer weed in every heart’s garden. It is a grace-resistant infection in the bloodstream of the soul. It makes MRSA look like a bad cold. And all of us are infected. All of us are infected. If we think we are not, guess what makes us think that? Pride. When we reject the text or teaching of Scripture because “these days we know better than that…” Know what kind of glasses you are wearing? Prideful ones.
A Pharisee named Simon gave a great dinner party and invited Jesus to come. As was the custom, Simon had the tables arranged near the outer courtyard of his house so that the townsfolk could get near enough to watch the festivities, ooh and ahh at the guests as they ate. There was no People magazine in those days; no paparazzi—this is how common people basked in the glow of celebrity. Jesus came but seems to have taken a place far enough away from the head table that a woman of the street, unwashed, a sinner—a prostitute—was able to get near enough to make a further spectacle of herself. She weeps on his feet, dries them with her hair, anoints them with fine oil, never stops kissing them… And Simon is aghast. When he sees it, what is happening, he does not say anything, but takes a condescending breath and thinks to himself—“If this man were a prophet (and clearly, now, he has his doubts about the reports he has heard), he would know what kind of woman this is who is touching him.” Simon’s rationale is clear: if Jesus were righteous, he would not let a sinner so near him; if he lets a sinner near him, he is not righteous.
Simon is righteous, he is clear on that: he is a Pharisee, a good host with good morals and the good sense to be appalled by the way his guest and this woman’s are acting in polite company.
Jesus says, “Simon, I have something to say to you…” And for my money that may be the scariest thing Jesus says to anyone anywhere in Scripture. I have had people say that to me, parents, professors, bishops, spouse: “Tom, I have something to say to you.” That is never a comfortable way to start a conversation because I know I am being called on the carpet.
I wonder if Jesus would say that to me now? Today? To the rest of us? “I have something to say to you…” Forget the woman. Forget the one you so easily criticize and blame. Forget the one who offends you…I have something to say to you.
Turns out Simon was not that great a host after all. He did not give Jesus water to wash his feet. He did not give Jesus oil to anoint his hair. He did not give Jesus a welcoming kiss—all of that was customary and Simon has failed the test. His self-satisfaction, his self-congratulations, his self-righteousness made his offense all the worse.
I sometimes forget why I come here, what I am doing. Sometimes, in the vanity of my imaginations, I imagine that I am your host, or that we are the hosts—arranging things here so that guests can see us, who we are, what we do, so they will be impressed, ooh and ahh. I forget sometimes to ask whether I have welcomed Jesus into our midst, whether I have given him all he is due as he comes to be with us.
If I do not welcome him, do not give him the place of honor and the gifts due my Guest, if I do not invite him to speak before I draw the first self-righteous breath, then perhaps it is because I, too, dare believe I do not need forgiveness and grace he offers, or at least not much of it—after all, I am one of the righteous ones. All of us are. We do not imagine that we need much grace, even though that is what we preach, not like others need it. Because we do not sin like other people; we are not sinners like other people are. We are better than that, smarter, richer, more sophisticated, more polite than that. We look around at the world and then back at ourselves and feel pretty good about thing, and thank God I am not like that person, those people, in that town doing those things.
But the drought is here, is it not? Here, in the Bible belt? Where church, the Great Ship of Zion, can come to look like a pontoon boat in the mud; whose piers do not lead down into the river to pray but end far short of the near edges of God’s healing grace; where our hearts, our classes, our congregations can look something like a dinner party for the Pharisees, little circles of self-congratulation and blame, little fists of pride, and full of murmuring and arguing; where not many of God’s people, starting first with the preachers, humbly regard others as better than themselves… no wonder, really, our predicament.
But we have prayed over this place, much as Solomon did the Temple. We have asked God to watch over us and hear our supplication. And God is merciful. Because we believe God is the same yesterday, today and forever, whose property is always to have pity, who makes it rain on the just and unjust alike, we can trust that God appears to us this day and says once more, “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
When…and if…then…
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Publican and the Pharisee

I am reflecting on the notion of "identity" in this text, and the "delicious irony" (Levine) of the trap Jesus sets in the telling.

On the face of it, everyone assumes their proper station and says the right kind of prayer. It is appropriate for the Pharisee to pray as he does--he is, in fact, thankful to have been called to be a Pharisee and his prayer is no different than ours when we say, "There but for the grace of God go I." (Levine)

Likewise, the Publican ought to beat his chest and hide his face and stay away from polite company as he prays his miserable prayer miserably alone.

If the hearers of the parable were surprised that Jesus commended the Publican and his prayer--trapped by grace--we are surprised to find that we are trapped by our legalism when we say something like, "I am glad I am not like that Pharisee." (Levine) In sum, when we identify with the Publican we only prove we are the Pharisee (Schillebeeckx).

Still, this question of is not just that the Pharisee plays by the rules but that he takes his identity from who he is and what he does. His identity is based in self-affirmation. He has received his reward. The Publican, howver, finds identity in confession and self-contradiction, which Abba Evagrius said was the beginning of salvation.

And still both are in the Temple. Both are in my church! All of us are probably both. I know people in my church who are self-aggrandizers or self-blessers--I am one of them! And truth to tell I am thankful for them (as Levine says, the Pharisee is just the kind of congregant all of us want to have and in multiples--these folk pray and fast and, especially, tithe!). They follow the rules and who wants a bunch of antinomians to shepherd? That said, the Pharisees in the pews and the Pharisees we are are mostly unaware of our sin, and therefore are unaware of our own need for grace. Instead, we take identity from our righteousness, our works, our proper place in the Temple.

I also am and have folk who are so sure of their sin they are unable to see that they too are loved and are welcomed in the Temple...that their prayers are heard and are efficacious.

Last week (see above. though I cannot get the paragraphing to work!) I departed from the lectionary to preach on Luke 7:36-50, how in pride "we," like Simon, are inclinced to see "its" (7:39) instead of seeing "hers/hims/thems" (7:44)--that how we treat "outsiders" is crucial in replicating the hospitality of God. This week I return to the lectionary to preach this text, determined to deal with "insiders," folk who come to Temple with us to pray and whose only hope is in God (Lathrop)--while many of us still put our first best hope in ourselves and regard the others with contempt.

The solas of the historic Reformation speak to what will reform the heart, too, what might reform the shape and tenor of congregational life. Moreover, these images seem to help me see the Bible as a book of salvation by grace and not for me alone (Just as I am, without another plea), but also as a political tool by which God forms and reforms the people.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The War and This War

“It is hard to evoke the year 1940 for people who were not alive then,” writes Frederick Buechner, “the great excitement of it, the extraordinary sense of aliveness. It was the war that did it, of course. I doubt if there has ever been a war that seemed so much a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness… For people born since, it must be hard to imagine a time when this country seemed so much on the side of the angels, or a cause so just…with rich and poor alike caught up in a sense of common urpose and destiny…and in a way more alive to the issues of light and darkness than it has been ever since” (The Sacred Journey, pp. 66-75).

This insight may help to explain both the success of Ken Burns’ new documentary, The War—whose rating have topped even commercial programming and especially among veteran demographics—and the way in which, for all its realism and horror, the series feels almost like an epic fairy tale, a “once upon a time” kind of story. It was then, and perhaps for the last time, when all-out war took on the mantle of holiness and purpose (Eisenhower, for instance, prepped D-Day troops for the coming invasion with the language of “crusade;” if the soldiers themselves did not at first believe it, when they liberated the death camps they many of them came to see that what they had done was in fact a kind of redemptive work.)

The massive casualties (even “deaths per square foot of land taken,” as in the battle for Sugar Loaf Hill in Okinawa) tended only to confirmed the war’s stakes. Soon to be imprisoned at the hands of the Nazis, Bohnoeffer in 1937 suggested that when Jesus calls to his disciples, he “bids them come and die.” This particular call to arms could well have seemed a kind of divine summons in the world, this selfless service a kind of sacred vocation, and the inestimable sacrifices of blood a healing flood. At least we can say that the obedience and sacrifice of the soldiers ultimately vanquished the evil of the Axis and redeemed its remaining victims—in short, the world was cleansed of its most obvious evils.

Burns’ film stands in stark contrast to the new movie from director Paul Haggis (Crash), In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon. This film is inspired by actual events—which might mean almost anything—but it gradually comes to feel like a documentary. We follow in painful detail the complete unraveling of a long-frayed family, along with the undoing of past certainties and the exposure of a nation whose flag is raised (mistakenly at first but then intentionally) upside down.

Tommy Lee Jones plays Hank Deerfield, a career soldier and former Military Policeman—one who has believed in and lived his life by the rules. The death of his first son in previous combat has wounded but not dissuaded him. In that sense he has fared better by half than his wife Joan, played by Sarandon, who is not only deeply aggrieved but irretrievably cynical. Hank, now retired and driving a gravel truck, still polishes his shoes each night and situates them at the foot of the bed, presses his pants on the bedside to maintain the crease and later, makes his own hotel bed with military corners.

Deerfield receives a call from the base where his younger son, Mike, is stationed after a tour in Iraq. The caller says that Mike is AWOL and has 24 hours to report or be charged. Hank drives to the base-town to find him, and the search becomes a kind of tragic-heroic quest. Neither the military nor the local constabulary demonstrates any real interest in the mystery, whether from actual indifference or, as it turns out, stonewalling.

After the mutilated and burned body of his murdered son Mike is discovered, Hank begins to oversleep. His bed goes unmade. His increasingly silent grief drives him further from his already estranged wife while the gruesome death becomes a metaphor for the ways in which not only his own marriage but even the nation is sundered and seared with anger and sadness. Against Hank’s stern counsel, Joan still insists on seeing what is left of her son’s body. “Is that all?” she whispers through the window (movie viewers are on the body-side of a protective glass and read her lips.) “Is that all that is left of him?” She walks away in silence, Hank’s arm tight around her shoulder. She seems ready to collapse but turns and hugs Hank for a long moment. It is their only intimacy. Soon, he has taken her back to the airport where with a cool kiss to his cheek she departs again. She does not speak, does not look back.

Hank is left to discover the truth, which he does, all the while trying to maintain belief both in his son and the ideals by which he has lived his life. An overworked detective and single mom, Emily Sanders (Theron) becomes an increasingly sympathetic ally against her own employers and, especially, the military base’s commanders. While Mike’s murder is at first blamed on the usual suspects—drugs, ethnic hostility—together Hank and Emily discover that the war itself is the murderer, and not only of Mike and the other soldiers of his unit but of others on the base and their families. This war has destroyed any mythic sense of holy warring (despite whatever “crusade” language might be invoked by the Powers that Be), as surely as it has obliterated the conscience of its participants.

Which is harder for Deerfield to bear? The disintegration of the principles by which he has ordered his days—he had resolutely believed that “we” are the good guys (and his son, too, by experience and implication) and the enemy are bad guys; the world, in sum, was cast not just in absolute terms, if not black and white then in red, white and blue—or his son, as we discover with Hank, gone so horribly wrong?

Early in Mike’s deployment he is so sensitive as to break general orders and even record with his camera phone the death of an Iraqi child who had been playing in the street till Mike runs him over as his convoy races by. He weeps to his dad to “get me out of here.” Soon enough, however, that tender-heartedness is itself dead and in its place has risen a sadism so fierce as to allow him again and again to brutally finger the deep wounds of Iraqi prisoners with the question, “does that hurt?” His protracted cruelty earns Mike the nickname “Doc.”

At one point, a soldier’s anger boils over in invective and curses toward Sanders as she approaches the truth of Mike’s death. The soldier’s commander restrains him, ushers him down a hallway and says, “Walk away. Just walk away.” The truth, however, is that none of them can. “You have no idea what we went through over there…” the soldier says, whether by way of rebuke or apology, and in one way that is true. But soon everyone knows that the chaos has overtaken them all. Evil is no longer shocking; it is merely the font in which they have all been immersed. The horror is banal, boring—and when the truth is finally reported—Mike’s buddies have in fact killed him—it is with a kind of matter-of-factness that is numb and numbing: “We had to hurry because we were hungry,” says the confessing soldier. “Hungry?” asks Sanders. “Starved,” says the soldier. The detective she shuts off her tape recorder. Everything has been said.

So does Hank Deerfield discover that what was once true, if ever, is true no longer. One night he tells the story of David and Goliath to Sanders’ son, tries to school the boy that that there are rules to be honored even in combat. In the case of Israel and the Philistines, one did not shoot with arrows even a giant who had offered challenge with the sword. In the case of the current conflict—as he also had assured the boy’s mother—those who have fought side-by-side against the enemy would never turn on each other. Even this last certainty crumbles around him.

Deerfield takes his place in a kind of cinematic prophetic succession with Russell Crowe’s Maximus (Gladiator) and Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, in the Bourne series of films. Especially in the trilogy’s last installment, Bourne—who was labeled a “rogue agent” after he abandoned his original “programming” and mission to “protect American citizens”—reveals that the recruiters and programmers are themselves the rogues and as willing to kill American citizens as anyone else. It is the CIA, and by extension, the entire government that has gone rogue from its identity and best purpose. Bourne, alone but for one late convert (Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen) is left to bring down the corrupt leaders of the agency and does so.

Likewise, Maximus—victimized into the gladiatorial games by the cruel machinations of the insane and patricidal Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) proclaims as he enters to Coliseum, “Marcus Aurelius had a vision of Rome and this is not it, this is not it.” The sad benediction might well have come, with variation, from Hank Deerfield.

Early in the movie, Deerfield stops his truck in front of the local elementary school and berates a Latino janitor for inadvertently running the flag upside down up the pole. “That is an international distress call,” he barks. He explains that flying the flag in that way means that the nation is in terrible trouble, under attack and with no ability to defend itself. It is a plea for intervention, “please come help us,” because we cannot help ourselves. He rights the flag with snap and pride.

Later, he curses a Latino member of his son’s squad, sure as he is that the man is a drug dealer and responsible for his son’s murder. Deerfield has already beaten the man as he was being arrested. When the truth is at last revealed—the man had nothing to do with the murder—Deerfield invites the badly bruised soldier to share with him a drink. They sit together, share a small bottle of whiskey and, almost Eucharistically, there comes truth-telling and reconciliation. A bit of it anyway.

And the end of the movie Deerfield returns to the flagpole. He takes a faded and torn American flag—one that has done “hard duty,” Deerfield tells the same janitor, and a gift from Mike to his Dad, shipped home “with love” just hours before the murder—and while the janitor looks on raises the colors, again upside down and this time on purpose. “You leave it just like that,” Hank says.

And so the movie ends with a kind of prayer, duct-taped in place till an answer should come. This flagpole, it seems, is where Americans will increasingly meet, this prayer the one they increasingly will pray: please help us, for we can no longer help ourselves.

Burn’s film, The War, is dedicated to “all those who fought and won that necessary war on our behalf.” Whether or not WWII finally rises to the level of a just war is a debate for theologians and ethicists; still almost all would agree that it was in fact “necessary.” The final episode’s tour through the death camps, just one cursory glance at bodies stacked like wood, one look into the startled eyes of survivors, are confirmation enough of that penultimate benediction.

It would help many of us, I think, to be certain that the planners of the present conflict at least aimed toward such liberation and redemption—I recall that no less that Elie Wiesel supported the “preemption” on this basis alone: that Saddam was a murderer of his own people. As time goes by, however, if we are less and less certain of our first best motives, we are increasingly convinced that it is our own nation now in the darkness, upside down, in need of liberation and deliverance from an unraveling self-image and a war that seems neither just, nor necessary…nor in the least wise energizing.

The Pharisee and the Publican

I am working on this text this week, Luke 18:9-14, familiar as it is. I would alert you who are doing the same not to miss Amy Jill-Levine's wonderful treatment of the pericope in her book, The Misunderstood Jew (Harper, 2006; page 40-41).

One thought that strikes me this week is that the players are both in the Temple. This may seen a small point, but as often as I have preached and taught this text I have never considered that part of it. It is not just that the Pope and a pimp went to St. Peter's to pray (Crossan), but that God does not admit one and not the other, but both--much to the Pharisee/Pope/Tom's chagrin. In sum, if the lavish hospitality of God to "outsiders" can wrankle at times we still expect that. What we can't abide is the hospitality to others within the church. Which is to say that often we are unable to be the least bit hospitable to insiders--whatever their real or imagined offense (Remember Garrison Keillor's line to the effect that "we have not spoken to the Bunsens in twenty years, I have no idea why").

Could the Pharisee's prayer even be a bit of a dig at God? I am so righteous as to make distinctions were you (God) do not? If so, his attitude is in keeping with Jonah, at least, who surely wants to make distinction regarding Ninevah where God does not and does what he can to subvert the gracious intent of God. The analogy breaks down in that Ninevites were certainly outsiders, but the desire to make distinction where God does not is still apt.
I am struggling with this business of how we in the church (and I am thinking here of my congregation but it could be extrapolated further) sometimes are prone to regard each other with more contempt than we regard those who are not in the Temple at all. If that makes any kind of sense.

It is still early.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Family and Vocation

I am struck in the Jeremiah text for Proper 23 that the "practices" Jeremiah announces as God's word for the reframing of the Exile experience are what might be considered traditional (in the sense of historic) family values: building houses, planting gardens, wedding spouses, having children, celebrating the generations, praying for the city in which one resides. The depression and anger attending deportation might cause the exiles to react differently--might prompt the atomizing of life and culture. But if the bad news is that Exile has separated the remaining Jerusalemites from their foundations, it has not cut them off from their essential roots of being a holy people, multiplying and fruitful, recipients of blessing in the hope of once again being the channels of blessing.

This word is vital to me right now in my place of service. Many of our new believers (though some of them are "believers again") are struggling with the energy church requires, the (oft-times self-imposed) challenges of small group meetings, work areas, services, etc. They want to be a part of it all, but it is dividing husbands and wives, parents and children, if only in terms of time and place (though the stress seems to go deeper among some). This text reminds me that "family" can be an essentially spiritual reality, the locus of spiritual development and transformation. As Luther said, famously, the family is but the smallest of congregations.

Many preachers, while eager to preach on the corporate nature and communal dimensions of the gospel, can for various reasons overlook the family as one aspect of those realities. Perhaps Jesus' own ambivalence toward his mother and siblings is the theological excuse for our inattention. Or perhaps the recent political manipulations of "traditional family values" has been (rightly) pegged as a form of judgemental nostalgia and summarily dismissed as one of the apt candidates of the gospel's formational and political ambitions.

But Jeremiah seems to say that the family is a place where God will work to maintain the identity and survival of the elect in the midst of a pagan culture. Indeed, this is where God has put them--another reframing of the Exile, not as godforsakenness but, emergently, as the place where God and God's people may enjoy new intimacy and the reforming of covenant.

And so the historic tasks of families become themselves spiritual practices; this word of the Lord becomes a summons, answering in obedience a spiritual vocation as sacred as any other.