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Sermon – August 29, 2010: Broken Cisterns

Sermon for Sunday, August 29, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Broken Cisterns

Jeremiah 2: 4-13; Hebrews 13: 1-8, 15-16; Luke 14: 1, 7 – 14

Early American painter William Hicks had a favorite theme. It was a picture of William

Penn signing a treaty with the Indians, with in the foreground of the momentous event all

nature taking part–lion lying down with lamb, and so forth. It was titled “Peaceable

Kingdom.” Hicks painted many copies, sometimes with scripture running around the margin.

Penn’s founding this commonwealth in the New World seemed to him a fulfillment of Isaiah’s

prophecy of a day when God would establish peace between traditional enemies, and

usher in a new world. William Penn’s conviction that every human being was worthy of

respect made him determined to found his colony on the rule of law, and he entered into

business arrangements with the various tribes, and purchased their land for money. This

innovation in the treatment of native Americans so impressed French intellectual Voltaire,

over in Europe, that he declared that Penn was ushering in The Golden Age, a classical term

for the same vision of perfected human society depicted in scriptural terms by the

Peaceable Kingdom paintings of Hicks.

When Thomas Penn succeeded his father as governor, he dissociated himself from

the Quakers. The colony was made up of many different groups at that time, including

some who had no allegiance to William Penn’s principles. Thomas Penn was more like one

of these. An agreement with the tribes that the Commonwealth have territory as far as a

man could walk in a day and a half was turned to young Penn’s advantage by having the

distance covered by hurrying hired athletes, and Penn subsequently got rich selling the

fraudulently-obtained land to settlers. Abandoning his father’s guarantees of individual

conscience and religious liberty, he tried to prevent the establishment of a Roman Catholic

church in Philadelphia.

So it happens that a later generation deserts the principles of its parents, and a

society founded on one set of ideals evolves into a society living by significantly different

values. The Bible tells a similar story in the case of the son of King Solomon, whose

reputation for wisdom was enhanced by his son’s rash desertion of his father’s reasonable

political principles. That resulted in the splitting up of the former kingdom, and set the stage

for Israel eventually to become the Lost Tribes.

Like all human groups, we in church have to remind ourselves that our recollection of

the “Good Old Days” is colored by nostalgia and sometimes is misleading and often not

much help, but it certainly sometimes is true that a society deviates from its founding

principles and loses its way, and suffers. For that to happen, in fact, is so common, that

public debate often is framed in those very terms. Anyone who has any kind of cause is

assured of getting a hearing and gaining at least some adherents if he frames the problem in

terms of the need to return to original beliefs and practices.

This doesn’t have to have anything to do with facts. Elijah Muhammad began a

religion known as Black Muslims by coming up with the reverse of a white racist theology

but he adapted it to a version of Islam because he claimed that Islam was the ancestral

religion of Africans. The fact is that Christianity, because it began sooner, was a religion in

Africa, even in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, before Islam was. It’s also true that both

Christianity and Islam–and their antecedent Judaism, for that matter, were introduced into

Africa from outside. Anybody could check on whether or not Islam were really an ancestral

religion, but in highly-charged matters facts don’t much count, and I’m sure these facts would

be contested now by persons disposed to disbelieve them. My point is that there is such

appeal and persuasiveness in arguing for going back to first principles that propagandists

and proselytizers of every kind cannot resist using that argument, even if they have to

exaggerate or invent in order to do so.

Claims are made that this nation was founded as a Christian nation, by those who

wish a certain variety of Christianity would have more public influence, but that is another

instance of inventing a past in order to appeal for its return. The Founding Fathers came

from Christian backgrounds but had a wide range of beliefs, many not in harmony with their

present-day champions–Thomas Jefferson, for example, used scissors to cut out of the

Bible all those things he was sure God couldn’t really have intended. Apart from that, some

of the most markedly Christian founders of the nation, like those who received shelter in

Pennsylvania, were pacifists, and nobody who writes books about the Christian founding of

America does it to argue that we should turn the other cheek to our enemies.

We Baptists like to take credit for having the Constitution guarantee freedom of

religion. That means no state sponsorship of religion, and a strict distinction between

discipleship and citizenship. Again, that’s the origin of America’s freedom of worship, but

those who loosely argue from the premise that America was begun as a Christian nation

overlook the Constitution’s own repudiation of the temporary theocracies of the

Massachusetts Bay and some of the other Puritan-founded colonies. As a continent we

once had people persecuted for divergent religious beliefs, but as long as we’ve been the

United States of America we have promised ourselves never to allow it again.

A person could make a good rip-roaring sermon out of Christian principles once held

dear in the United States–like repugnance at engaging in torture, or refusal to countenance

prejudice against minorities–which we have sacrificed to expediency and insecurity, but it’s

too late to do that now that I’ve discussed how that theme can be bent to propagandist

purposes, and pointed out how selective one’s list of sacred principles can be.

We may not be able to agree on what the most important blessings have been that

God provided us as a people, and so have difficulty accepting responsibility for what

we’ve made of our heritage. Individually, however, we can face the question, and we must.

We are here because God has made a claim on us of some kind–in some cases perhaps

a vivid sense of conversion, in other cases a growing recognition of relationship, in most

cases an acknowledged experience of having been blessed, in particular instances at least.

That’s the equivalent of what the prophet Jeremiah has God saying to the people when

God refers to delivering Israel from Egypt. All of us have had God at work in our lives for

our good. Whatever our personal stories and the sometimes painful and puzzling

appearance of indifference by the Almighty, we all hold to that Christian perspective which

sees in the story of the crucified and resurrected Christ the eventual and unanswerable

triumph of the God of love. Part of what Jeremiah says is about that–God is saying, “I’m a

god with a track record of delivering people.”

That’s what makes God appalled and astonished at our forgetting about our old

loyalties and our rushing to base our lives on, to use Jeremiah’s phrase, “things which do

not profit.” We have a God who has believed so much in our worth that we have been

made a little lower than the angels, and we have been recreated in Christ as Second Adam,

and we have a heritage in heaven–but we turn ourselves to things that are worthless, that

amount to nothing, that don’t do us any good.

What is is that we are abandoning? We allow selfishness and suspicion to make us

betray the principles given in Hebrews. “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today, and

forever” is not a slogan to excuse bigotry or blindness. It’s a reminder that we remain

obligated to be hospitable, that we are not permitted philandering, that we must have

compassion for those in prison, that we must not love money, as though that had power

either to preserve us or save us, but that we must love generosity to the needy, as that is

God’s injunction for us.

In the gospel lesson stories about banquets teach us two things. The first–and this

same advice is in Proverbs, a rare instance of Jesus quoting a scriptural lesson of this kind–

says not to make too much of yourself, and to count on God to do you honor. The second

says not to worry about your social obligations to your equals or even your superiors, but

to worry about your social obligations to those who are weaker and poorer than yourselves.

God needs your help in looking after such people, and God will reward you for doing so.

These lessons of humility and kindness, openness to others and the refusal to seek

dominance are Christian principles. They are at odds with the persons we are without

Christ, and too often we allow those old instincts to guide us. When we do, we run the risk

of forgetting how powerfully God has renewed us through self-sacrifice and love and

compassion, and we miss seeing how unprofitable are the strategies of selfishness to

which we turn when we forget to believe in, and to trust, God.


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