ear what the prophet Jeremiah spoke to Israel, five hundred years before the birth of Jesus:
Thus 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?”
Listen, as Jeremiah asks the nation, “Why have you forgotten the story in which you were born, the way of life that is true life? How could you have forgotten our collective birth story, of being freed from bondage in Egypt and carried through the desert, sustained by manna and by living water flowing in the midst of the arid wilderness?”
What lies at the heart of this reading from Jeremiah is his powerful conviction that Israel has forgotten its own story, and in so forgetting has forsaken its own deep identity. “To know Yahweh is to practice justice,” writes Walter Brueggemann, and “Where Yahweh is not known, justice is not embraced.” It is all coming apart at the seams, even if the nation has not yet recognized it.
The prophet/poet Jeremiah offers the metaphor of water to try to convey to the people what is going on here:Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord, for 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.
“They’ve walked out on me, the fountain of fresh flowing waters, and then dug cisterns—cisterns that leak, cisterns that are no better than sieves.” (Eugene Peterson, The Message)
From Brueggemann again: “Israel need not generate its own water or conjure its own life. It is freely given by this gracious partner of a God who is owner and husband. But Israel has rejected such a free gift that embodies its very life, and wants to be its own source of life – which of course leads only to death.”
Cracked cisterns will not give us the water we need; only the fountain of true and living water will do that. But it is an old temptation—really the oldest one of all—to imagine that we can do it on our own terms, in our own way, built around our own judgments and claims.
Which is the very thing Jesus is addressing in tonight’s gospel reading. He’s not simply offering up counsel on etiquette for how to act at a banquet or on whom to invite to our dinner parties. When Jesus speaks about not presuming to sit in the best seat at a banquet, and about inviting “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” we need to remember that his context is a Sabbath day meal in the home of a leader of the Pharisees. In that context, it is a profound challenge to the Israel of that day, much as Jeremiah’s poetic words about cracked cisterns were a challenge to the Israel of his day.
The Pharisees would have assumed that in the promised messianic banquet, their place would be at the head of the table. Of course it would: they’ve done this right, following the law, tithing, studying, and not falling in with those sorts of peoples.
It is not just the Pharisees, of course. Remember, even James and John desperately want the best seats in the coming kingdom, and by the time Luke actually sets down his gospel on paper, the early church has done some serious scrapping around whether or not Jewish Christian had priority over Gentile believers. Even when that gets resolved—“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) —it hardly puts an end to that old temptation to imagine that we can do it on our own terms, in our own way, built around our own judgments and claims. If we believe rightly—maybe even believe rightly in grace!—we will certainly get a decent seat, right?
Some of you will remember when Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove was here as our guest preacher last fall, he referred to a story called “Revelation,” written by the great American Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor. If you’ve never read anything by O’Connor, you probably should, though I should caution you that her stories are odd and troubling, set in a fragmented and often violent culture, and peopled with profoundly broken characters. In “Revelation” the main character is a rather self-satisfied farm woman named Mrs. Turpin, whose sense of righteousness is so palpable that at one point in the story another character—tired of feeling judged by the woman’s smug looks and judgmental comments—throws a book across a doctor’s waiting room, striking Mrs. Turpin in the face. And as Jonathan remarked in his sermon, “For Flannery O’Conner, that’s grace.”
Mrs. Turpin is a best-seat-at-the-banquet kind of Christian. As she says of herself in the story, “It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.”
And as this strange story winds to its close, she has a mystical experience; or maybe it is just the lingering effects of being smashed in the face with that book? Flannery O’Connor just leaves that question to the reader.
A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black niggers in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clasping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked faces and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah. (“Revelation,” Everything That Rises Must Converge)
We need to remember our stories, and to keep telling and retelling them so that we can know more deeply who we are. Prophetic speech first uttered by Jeremiah, parables of Jesus told us by Luke and the others, stories by writers like Flannery O’Connor, and stories of the people of faith from across the ages. Stories, too, of the people sitting here in this place. Stories of faith and searching to unsettle us and challenge us and feed us and keep growing us. Stories through which we can set down the shovels with which we are tempted to dig our own cracked cisterns of hollow religion, and by which we can find our way to the fountain of fresh flowing water.