Gazette article on Rep. Kern
My Letter to the Omaha World-Herald

We Proclaim Justice

We Proclaim Justice

Jeremiah 2:4-13

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

29 August 2010



    The poet writes:


Whenever wherever whatever has happened

    is written on the waters of Babel.


    We understand the power of water as a spiritual symbol. Water is the thing most common to us. We are made out of it. We use it every day. We need it in order to live.

At the same time water is a great mystery to us. The depths of the ocean. The power of the thunderstorm. The secrets of life.

    In the poem read earlier in our service, Wislawa Szymborska, the Nobel-Prize-winning Polish poet, imagines the history of one raindrop that has fallen on her finger. Has that raindrop been a part of major moments in history? Has it been a part of the great rivers of the world? Has it been part of a baptism, a drowning, a sensual bath? Maybe all these things. This one drop of water connects her with the rest of creation.

    Using this poem in worship once before, a young man who was visiting said to me afterwards, "I got what you meant in that poem you used. The drop of water that touched me may have been a drop of water that touched Jesus at his baptism." Actually, I had not meant exactly that, but the idea was there in Szymborska's poem and it is a spiritually beautiful idea.

    In our scriptural narrative water plays an important supporting role. It is the force of chaos which must be tamed by the divine order. It is flood, storm, and tsunami. It is leviathan, dragon, and seven-headed beast. But it is also the route of exodus, of liberation. Life in the wilderness. The symbol of justice and righteousness. Image of peace and tranquility.

    It is no wonder that John went out into the wilderness to preach and baptize at the River Jordan. His actions were full of symbolic meaning. He was an image of Elijah with his strange dress and way of life. The wilderness recalled the journey of the exodus and the formation of a new people. Being baptized in the river recalled God's great acts of liberation and salvation in allowing the people to cross the rivers unharmed.

    And it is no wonder that Jeremiah, also hearkening back to the Exodus tradition and the wilderness experience, uses water in his great indictment of the people as they have moved away from God's righteousness and justice in their living with one another.

    Jeremiah condemns the people for having built cisterns and aqueducts with which they have tried to control rather than relying upon the beneficence of God who had provided water for them in the wilderness.

    If you have ever been to Israel as a tourist then you have likely seen many cisterns. When I went with a group from my university as a undergrad, I know that not too far into the trip this phrase become something of a mantra, "Not another cistern." Every ancient site and every ruin we went to, we visited the cistern. Of course we understood the importance of them, but if you have seen one cistern, you've really seen pretty much all of them.

Jeremiah uses these ubiquitous objects as images for symbolic and spiritual meaning. I don't think he's that upset that the people have built literal cisterns, but he is upset that they have tried to live by their own commands and not by the covenant God made with the people in the wilderness. He proclaims, in the voice of God, "they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water."

Earlier in the passage, he preaches that the people "went after worthless things, and [have] become worthless themselves." And then he proceeds to denounce the injustices of the people's leaders. The priests, rulers, and prophets who were supposed to mediate God's covenant to the people, who were supposed to lead them in justice and righteousness, have perverted the covenant.

Writing commentary on this passage in Feasting on the Word, Methodist pastor Thomas R. Steagald evocatively draws on Jeremiah's imagery:


For Jeremiah, the people's deathly thirst is a parable of a spiritual crisis. They have long since turned from the deep well of God's goodness and have, instead, tried to quench their deepest thirst with the thinnest of tonics, with leaky pots full of maggoty gruel: elixirs of gold; drafts of pagan alliances; double shots of worldly power and bloody militarism; cauldrons of boiling idolatries, poisonous leaders, false prophets, and unrepentant kings. Like saline for a people adrift at sea, these brews only intensify their thirst.


Jeremiah can, at times, sound rather strident. His words of condemnation can be difficult to hear. But the study of this period of Israelite history has revealed social injustices – people losing their land, increased poverty, exploitation of the poor by the rich, alliances with foreign nations that did not benefit the people as a whole, etc.

The messages of the prophets are often couched in religious and covenant imagery. The people are being condemned for failing in their religious observance. This is what can sound harsh to us. But that is only if we separate our religious observance and practice from our overall way of life. That separation is not something that Jeremiah would understand. In fact, he would have condemned it. One of the themes in the prophets is condemnation of a people who engage in religious ritual and practice without comprehending how that spirituality is supposed to govern the whole of their life. If we are to proclaim God's justice and righteousness within these walls and for our individual lives, then we must live and proclaim God's justice outside these walls in the streets and the town square and the marketplace. Christians can't believe in God's vision of justice without being social justice Christians.


Our context is not that of ancient Judah in the time of Jeremiah, but are there any life principles that we can gain from his vision? Do we hear any condemnation of ourselves in this passage?

    This has not been a good season for our stewardship of water resources. The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has resulted from our thirst for cheap energy resources and the incredible levels of consumption that we all engage in. It isn't just the result of poor government regulation, bad drilling practices by British Petroleum, or inadequate energy policy. The oil spill was a result of our society's sin.

    And, as such, it doesn't have an easy answer. New legislation, closer regulation, new corporate practices are palliatives. As long as we consume at the level we consume and desire to have that consumption at cheap levels, corporations will continue to take risks for profit that will end up being profitless and will instead endanger our society, our well-being, our very lives.

    These are not easy words for us to hear, as the words of Jeremiah were not easy for his contemporaries to hear. John Thomas preached at the last General Synod that if we are be successful in our policy goals as a church, it will mean that we have to surrender some of the privileges that we have gotten used to. A few Sundays ago, Pam Beranek's eight-year-old grandson Anthony encountered me during the passing of the peace and asked, "Why doesn't the church use more natural resources, like God did in creating the world?" Well, that was a clarion call from an eight-year-old Jeremiah calling us to more sustainable, greener living.

    In September our Faith Forum at 9:15 will explore issues of sustainability. Rick Brenneman will explore the topic from his standpoint as a geneticist and John Schalles will report on the work he did this summer in the Gulf of Mexico during the oil spill. I hope you will take advantage of these learned scientists and church members and how their knowledge can inform our faith practices.


    But just like for Jeremiah and his contemporaries, the message is more than a literal one about our treatment of water. It is about our spirituality and our desire to control something that doesn't need to be controlled. Something that actually comes to us freely, which is why it is called grace.

    Sally A. Brown, preaching professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, writes,


Only when we align our choices, individually and corporately, with the concerns of God in the world will our lives make sense and make a difference.

    One attraction of the self-devised cisterns we construct to sustain our lives is that we feel we can control them. Living in active relationship with the life-giving God of the Scriptures brings obligations: the patient work of worship and prayer, acting compassionately, and working for justice. It is when we participate in the redemptive work of God—keeping promises, welcoming strangers, forgiving debts—that we drink from the fountain of the living God and discover a quality of life both sustaining and sustainable.


    The point is not to beat ourselves up with guilt, anxiety, fear, or shame. The point is not to adopt some set of strict rules, whether religious ritual or environmental practice, to live by. No, the point is to live freely, graciously, and spiritually in the blessings of God. As Brown points out we align ourselves with God's concerns through "the patient work of worship and prayer, acting compassionately, and working for justice."

    We are not to live for ourselves, but to live for others. Today we have done that in the ritual of the church. We have pledged ourselves to Jacob to be support and encouragement, mentors and leaders, part of the great cloud of witnesses to his life.


    We are a church which proclaims the justice of God. And we are working diligently to align ourselves with God's concerns. Like Jeremiah, we are not afraid to speak truth to power. But we also do not draw back from hearing the prophetic word directed to ourselves. Sometimes it is too easy to point out the flaws in our leaders or in others and demand that they live and operate according to our view of justice and politics. But even harder is realizing how we too are involved in those same systems and turning that prophetic word upon ourselves.

    In a great essay from 1981, entitled "The Role of the Prophets and the Role of the Church," Gene M. Tucker outlines what a prophetic ministry of the church should look like. First, we should have a sense of vocation, that God has called us to be responsible to and for the world. Second, we must have a sense that our words can be effective at changing the course of history.

    Third is a deep awareness of the concrete side of religious life. Not just the abstract, ethereal topics, but real-life, everyday issues like the hungry families in our neighborhood, the trash in our streets, or how we manage something as mundane as water.

    Fourth, Tucker writes, is "a profound sense of the social, corporate, and institutional dimensions of human life." He elaborates that in our American culture that emphasizes individualism this is even more important. God's covenant of blessing is not about us as individuals, it is about us as a people, as a creation. He writes, "The prophetic dimension of the church's ministry will be aware that justice and righteousness, and faithfulness to God, are corporate realities or they do not exist at all."

    Finally, the prophetic church is decisive and courageous.


    Water connects us all. The drops which touched Jacob today maybe have come from the Ganges or the Nile or the Gulf of Mexico. They may have been present at great moments in history. They may have traversed the skies or been deep in the ocean. They may have been part of you or me.

    Water, as symbol, does so many things, but one thing it reminds us of is the deep, intimate connections between us. The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said that justice is not a virtue, it is a necessity, like breathing. Or like quenching thirst. It is an act of God on behalf of the creation. To be just and righteous with one another is to live according to our deepest calling.

    In a world of need, let us be a place where that fount of living water is encountered. May the people of our neighborhood come to experience this place and this people as an oasis. May the spiritually thirsty find God spoken in this place. May the child of God who is lost in the wilderness of addiction or depression or illness find this to be a plentiful land filled with good things. May the one who has followed worthless things and now realized that there is no profit in it, find here that which is of worth beyond all estimation of price.

    To proclaim justice is not simply a matter of participating in a protest, advocating before a civic body, engaging in a letter writing campaign, as much as it is each of those things. It is so much deeper and more fundamental than that. It is about living in accordance with the deep source of life, the God who has created, redeemed, and sustained us. The one who has promised a future of peace and justice and has given us the vocation of proclaiming it to a world in need.

    May we be worthy. May we play freely in the fount of living water, sharing its abundance. Let us proclaim justice!


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)