“Cracked Cisterns”

            Four hundred years ago, an English pirate ship named the “White Lion” landed at Point Comfort, Virginia. The ship bore twenty human beings with black skin. They had been kidnapped from their homes and torn from their families. They were chained, starved, beaten and tortured. Arriving in Jamestown, they were sold in exchange for food. These twenty, whose names we will never know, were among the first Africans to be enslaved in the American colonies.

Last weekend, thousands gathered at Port Comfort to commemorate this sober anniversary. The Washington Post described the scene this way:

They faced the sunrise to the rhythm of drums and waves on a windswept beach, dozens wearing white. . . . On Saturday morning, they would release those spirits. The cleansing and naming ritual, presided over by visiting chiefs from Cameroon, kicked off a weekend of events marking the 400th anniversary of the Africans’ arrival and the dawn of American slavery. Jacqueline Hugee, 68, who lives in Chesapeake, Va., waded into the waves with the women from the African group. She crossed her arms to symbolize the chains of slavery, then uncrossed them in release. She felt, she said, like she was helping her ancestors find freedom.[1]

            In today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah, God is full of grief. The relationship between God and God’s people is broken. God had accompanied the freed slaves through the barren, dangerous desert—parting the sea, kindling guiding pillars of fire, providing water from a rock and raining food from heaven. In the course of this journey, God revealed the divine heart. God, the Israelites learned, is not “in control.” God is the fountain of life itself, freely bubbling up to quench our thirst. God is love that liberates us to become our truest selves. But then the people entered a place of plenty; a land that provided everything they needed. There they became comfortable, secure. They no longer remembered their dependence on God. They no longer lived in relationship with the divine. They were so far away from knowing God, loving God or trusting God that they didn’t even wonder why God was not there. Even the priests failed to ask, “where is God?”

            Our passage from Jeremiah illustrates a basic human struggle. Because we are free people, we can choose to turn away from relationship with God. We can forget that we drink from a generous fountain. We can live a lie, live as if we belong to ourselves alone, denying what each breath teaches us: that we are woven together in an interconnected and interdependent whole. Our tradition calls this condition idolatry. Naming the reality of idolatry does not mean condemning those who practice a different religion or spiritual path. Idolatry is a matter of looking for life in places that cannot give life. Idolatry means letting something that is not God have the authority of God. Idols can be negative or destructive things, but more often they are good things we trust them too much or in way that distorts them. Money, family, work, politics, technology, religion.

Idolatry is a delusion, a hypocrisy, that alienates us from God and from our true selves and that prevents us from living in just and loving relationship with the whole of creation. Idolatry is the reason our nation held slaves. Every religion, spiritual tradition or moral path would agree: slavery is evil. And yet, the Christian faith of the colonizers embraced slavery. The first Virginia charter states that one purpose of the colony was the “propagating of Christian religion to suche people as yet live in darkenesse and . . . to bring the infidels and salvages living in those parts to humane civilitie and to a setled and quiet govermente.”[2] European Christians wanted control over the land and wealth of this country. So they labeled themselves “civilized” and persons of darker skin colors and unfamiliar cultures “savages” and “infidels.” They made an idol out of their own greed, and, in a move both elegant and absurd, they equated this idol with Christianity, with the ways of Jesus. This framing allowed their exploitation to look like kindness and generosity. They could claim that slavery and genocide were tools of “civilization” and “salvation,” that their brutality was in fact in the best interests of those from whom they stole land and life.

After four hundred years, it is past time for the descendants of slaves to demand release for their ancestors and themselves from the bonds of white supremacy. And it is past time for those of us who are descendants of the colonists to release creation from the chains of our idolatry. The god who is embedded in our bodies and our bones, in our plantation economy and our troubled democracy, is a false God. The god of greed and violence that holds this land captive is not the God of the Hebrew prophets or the God of Jesus. My friends, we are left not with answers, but with generative questions. Where is God, the real God? How can we move from idolatry to honesty, from alienation to wholeness? What concrete, daily spiritual practices will help us free ourselves from a twisted and toxic version of Christianity? How can we act with hope, for justice? What are the concrete, material ways, we can give and share and show up that will begin to repair the harm of generations? Our future, the future of our children, and their children, the future of the earth itself, depends on how honestly, how wholeheartedly, we struggle with these questions.

In Jeremiah, God’s lament ends with a vivid metaphor. “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.” (Jeremiah 2:13) Hebrew Bible professor Anathea Portier-Young explains the significance of this imagery:

[A] technology whose use made it possible for Israelites to settle and thrive in highland regions that had previously been inhospitable was the cistern. . . . Settlers hewed bell-shaped cisterns from bedrock in order to collect and store surplus water from the rainy winter for use during the arid summer. They dug channels to direct rainwater into the cistern; some added a filtration system to trap dirt and debris. The cistern’s bell shape, with a narrow opening and wide well, protected the water within from contamination and evaporation. [3]

A genuine, life-sustaining relationship with God is full of searching and questioning. Life, lived from the source, is a gift to receive from one moment to the next. We humans have a hard time with this uncertainty, this dependence. So we build things, such as cisterns, that make life easier, more secure. And then we place ultimate trust in these technologies we’ve made. We comfort and calm ourselves with the illusion that we are self-sufficient. The digging of cisterns in arid places is just one tiny example of our human impulse to rule our environment. As Jesus observes in our story from Luke, it is our nature to compete for the seat of greatest honor at the banquet, to want the be first, to have need to have the best and the most. It’s a small leap from there to the urge to dominate, exploit and colonize. And yet, no matter how much power we amass, there is always a crack in our cistern, a flaw in our design, a problem with our plan. Try as we might, we remain vulnerable, fragile, humbly dependent on God for life.

            The book No, David by David Shannon is a favorite in our house. David reaches for the cookie jar, high on the shelf. His mom says, “No, David!” He tracks mud through the house. “No, David, no.” He plays pirate in the bathtub, spilling water all over the floor. “No, no, no!” Then he runs out of the house and down the street naked. “Come back here, David!” He bangs on pots and pans with wild look in his eyes. “David, be quiet.” At the table, he creates a stick figure by spearing his potatoes, green beans and chicken legs with his fork. “Don’t play with your food!” And on it goes. . . . “Go to your room. Settle down. Stop that this instant.” The story culminates with David breaking a vase after being warned not to play baseball in the house. He sits in the corner. He looks at the reader (and his mom) with large sad eyes, one tear streaming down his cheek. “Davey, come here.” His mom says, hugging him. “Yes, David,” she says, “I love you.”

The God of the prophet Jeremiah and the God Jesus embodies is a bit like Davey’s mom. God’s grief, God’s frustration and anger over our idolatry, is not a rejection of us. It is an expression of the deepest and most powerful love we can imagine. God, the real God, the fountain of life, is love that loves at all costs. We need not fear letting this love hold us and change us. We need not fear being honest with this love. And we need not fear the freedom that comes from depending fully on this love for life. Amen.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/virginia-marks-the-dawn-of-american-slavery-in-1619-with-solemn-ceremonies-speeches-songs/2019/08/24/adbc84ae-c66f-11e9-9986-1fb3e4397be4_story.html?fbclid=IwAR2y80ByMy3T1flQV7xtZFtH0y5hvPeq779lIxYbGzmhNnag_jzK72zQS3s&noredirect=on

[2] http://www.let.rug.nl/usa/documents/1600-1650/the-first-virginia-charter-1606.php

[3] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2971