Monday, September 20, 2010

No Balm in Gilead: sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost Year C 2010

No Balm in Gilead

There is a Balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged, and think my work's in vain.
But then the love of Jesus revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.

This hymn comes out of the black church tradition, probably developed in the slave churches in the mid-nineteenth century. It's interesting to me that they used this very despairing phrase from Jeremiah and changed it.

Jeremiah is involved in a kind of three-way dialogue. We hear the people and we hear God and we hear Jeremiah all commenting in this passage. In the line in question, Jeremiah asks if there is no balm in Gilead, if there is no physician there? As if answering some unseen person who has said "Of course there is," Jeremiah says "Then why has the health of my poor people not been restored?"

Jeremiah is continuing with his terrifying vision of destruction and despair. We need to remind ourselves that Jeremiah was not preaching about something that had already happened, nor was he preaching about what was certain to happen. He was lifting up a very significant possibility, a likelihood. We might say that this is the flip side of God's promises.

When Jesus says, "I will be with you until the end of the age," we must remember that he prefaces it with a serious command to go and baptize and make disciples of all nations and teach them everything he taught. So if we don't do as Jesus commanded, what happens? Is he still with us? Jeremiah's vision tells us, no. No, he isn't.

But the enslaved black Christians of the American South didn't let old Jeremiah have the last word. No, no, Jeremiah, there is a balm in Gilead. They insisted on this despite their awful situation.

It interests me that slavery has been abolished since then.

We heard from Jon and Dawn Barnes yesterday about their ministry among a people who live with 40 percent unemployment, whose homes are literally shacks made of cardboard and tin, who don't make enough money to pay even the $10 that it costs to send a child to public school for a year. And yet they, and everyone else who went to South Africa who was at the Assembly yesterday testified that the faith and joy of the Christian communities there greatly outshines their counterparts in the US.

Yet here in the US it seems we hear of nothing but anger and fear and hopelessness. What do you suppose the answer would be to a survey if we put it out in our culture? Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no God present who really can fix us? A bunch of us shout "yes, of course there is!" But the answer comes back, "then why are we so messed up? Why haven't we changed already?" No, there's no balm in Gilead.

What is this balm? We know the physician is God, but what is this balm that God uses to heal the people? Is it the right economic program? Is it the right political system? Is it the right military strategy?

Jesus us taught us to pray "Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors." In the ancient world, the system of debt was essentially a system of legal robbery, a simple means for powerful people to snarf up the ancestral lands of the poor. While Jesus may have been using debt as a symbol for sin, I believe, as do many other scholars, that he was also talking about literal debt. In any event the two are closely related.

Whether someone owes us money or owes us restitution of some other sort, it is this situation that gives rise to a simple choice, and surprisingly enough, that choice is the main seed from which our future will sprout.

Do we forgive the debt, or do we insist on our rights? If we insist on our rights, if we give free rein to our resentment, our choice will give birth to all manner of misery. But if we restrain our anger and fear, and keep our eyes and our ears open, and let go of our right to a pound of flesh, new possibilities arise like water in a desert.

The balm of Gilead, wielded by the great physician God, is first and foremost the balm of forgiveness. The healing doesn't end with the forgiveness, but it must and always does begin with forgiveness. The future might be very very dark, but only if there is no forgiveness. And if we are not the ones doing the forgiving, then the forgiving doesn't happen. God's forgiveness, friends, never comes until we forgive.

Jon told a story of a friend of theirs who had been a pastor during apartheid who had led his congregation to cross township and racial lines to help less fortunate people and who had been arrested for treason. He spent a year being tortured in prison before the UCC managed to get him released and out of the country. After spending some years in the US, he returned to work for the new post-apartheid government. He got a house in what had been the white town he'd previously lived near. While working in his garden one day, he saw one of his neighbors walking a dog. The neighbor had been in charge of his torture while in prison. The neighbor recognized Jon's friend and froze. Jon's friend struggled with himself and finally made a decision. He crossed his yard, walked up to his former torturer and wrapped his arms around him.

Is there no balm in Gilead?

Let's sing our answer.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"A Hot Wind": Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost Year C 2010

A Hot Wind

When the first plane hit the tower nine years ago yesterday, I was attending my last meeting as pastor of Our Saviour's Lutheran Church in Dorchester. One of my oldest friends had become an associate of the bishop's and he was attending the meeting with some of my colleagues from the urban churches of Boston. He came in with one of the early reports, having heard it on the radio, and thought perhaps that a small plane had lost control and hit one of the towers. It was on my way home from that meeting that I heard the terrible news about the coordinated attack.

Liz and I drove to Deltaville, Virginia around October 1 of that year, and as we passed through New York, signs asked us to light our headlights to honor the fallen. The busy highways were a sea of bright headlights.

You sometimes hear people talk about a disaster of biblical proportions. And by that they probably mean something like the flood or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the Red Sea waters crashing down on the Egyptian army.

No one at the time identified the attack as a disaster of biblical proportions, but I can't imagine people weren't thinking it. But I believe they dismissed the notion because, well, because I knew perfectly well that no one in those towers deserved what had happened to them. None of the heroes who went into that horror to try to save lives deserved to lose their lives in doing so. And for whatever reason, I have this idea that a real biblical disaster is only visited on those who deserve it.

But don't we wonder about the flood. Was it really true that every single human being in the world except Noah and, surprise of surprises, his whole family, was righteous? I mean didn't Noah's family get involved in some kind of sin in the midst of that story as well? And what about all the animals? Did all the animals have to die just because human beings were sinful?

And what about the Egyptian army? Do we think that all the Egyptian soldiers, who were just out there doing their job, deserved to drown? Not to mention the thousands of first born children in Egypt. What had the first born children done? It was Pharaoh who was hard-hearted. Why did his probably innocent people have to suffer for his sinfulness?

And hear we have Jeremiah, telling us God's word, God's threat. A hot wind will come, says the Lord, on my poor people. My poor people. Even as God threatens to destroy, he actually expression compassion for those he is destroying. How weird is that?

And God goes on to say that not only will the people be destroyed, but it sounds like a lot of the creation, the living things, the plants and animals. What had all the little animals done? It was the people who were unfaithful.

But it's this very metaphor that bears some attention if we are to get at the answers to these questions. Jeremiah, or perhaps God through Jeremiah, reminds us of the creation and our place in it. The human creature, humankind as a whole, was made, Genesis says, in the image of God. In the ancient world, an image was a statue or picture of a deity. You've heard of "graven images," right? But the human creature is different because this image is one that a true and living God has made, and the human creature is therefore a true and living image. This is in contrast to graven images, which are of dead stone or metal and therefore, in Israelite thought, represent dead gods.

Forward to the New Testament, and we have Jesus, whom Paul and the Gospel of John say bears the fullness of Godhead in his physical human body, and further that he is the firstborn of a new creation, one that presumably fulfills that Genesis purpose, to be the image of God in the world.

I want to say this morning that whether we have ever heard of God or not, whether we believe in God or not, whether we have the right ideas about God or not, we are, from the biblical point of view, collectively the image of God. Think about that for a minute. The whole of humankind, all the nations and peoples, considered as one body, is the image of God.

There's a brilliant book I'd recommend to anyone about the twin tower attack, called "The Looming Towers." It has earned universal praise from all sides of the political aisles and from the whole of the journalistic community. The book never excuses the attacks and if anything we come away all the more convinced who is culpable for them. But the book does a brilliant job of pointing out the insidious and terrible way evil has of manifesting and growing and feeding on itself.

There's another book by Hannah Arendt, which I would only recommend to the very serious reader, called "Origins of Totalitarianism" that does a similar job of explaining the forces that came together to create the terrible holocausts of the early twentieth century in Germany and the Soviet Union.

I don't for a second believe that natural disasters are as some have called them "acts of God." But when human beings in large groups engage in systemic kinds of evildoing, there is a way in which these forces begin to fester and spread like some kind of disease. The disasters that come out of them are out of all proportion to the seemingly inconsequential sinfulness that began them, and thousands if not millions of more-or-less-innocent people suffer. A hot wind blows on God's poor people.

It seems perhaps crazy to suggest that my striving for a good and honest and loving faith in a true and living God could really do anything to stem the tide of such evil. And I assure you, other disasters like the twin towers are in our future. It may even be that even as we strive to have such faith, we ourselves could become victims of such disasters, just as the crucifixion of Jesus was an example and forerunner of the widespread destruction of Israel and Jerusalem some forty years after his resurrection.

The evil that spreads throughout the world and comes back with insane and overwhelming destruction begins in seemingly small and insignificant sin in individuals and then coalesces and grows into something out of all proportion to what it started as. And many of the innocent suffer; it's the nature of evil and, yes, the judgment of God. For the judgment of God is built into our very creation, our very natures. If any group of us rejects the will of God, the whole of us grow sick. Heaven grows black, and the hot wind comes. And not only we, but the whole of creation we were created to care for, are in jeopardy.

But thanks be to God, there is hope in Jesus Christ, who came to save sinners. And it is because the tremendous power even one person has to turn the tide away from God's judgment and toward God's mercy, that there is such rejoicing when even one repents.

It is in our very nature to embody God. What shall we embody? Shall we embody the hot wind that comes to tear down and destroy? Or shall we embody the streams of living water, that come to build up and renew? Will the heavens grow black because of us, or will there be a party there today?


Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Potter's Hand (or the Play Dough Sermon): 15th Sunday After Pentecost Year C

The Potter's Hand (or the Play Dough sermon)

Play Dough just won't do certain things.

Play Dough has its own agenda. It won't stand up tall. It seems to favor being short and squat. It doesn't like to reach out. It likes to keep to itself. It won't do anything delicate or subtle. Clumsy and crass is Play Dough. It won't survive well for long without proper storage. Has a tendency to dry out. Goes from Play Dough to Play No.

Any artist or craftsman will tell you that materials have their own kind of willfulness. Every material has things it likes to do and things it doesn't like to do. And a lot of artistry is learning how to work with materials and use their willfulness in service of one's purpose or vision. It's all about learning what the materials like to do, so that when one is working with them, one isn't confronted with the frustration of trying to get a material to do something it just won't do.

But no matter how good an artist is, no matter how well an artist might know a particular material, there are times when that material won't even do what it usually likes to do. When it just won't cooperate at all.

Jeremiah is led to a very particular place, to witness a very simple human activity. With the addition of the word of God, this simple human activity becomes a powerful parable, a brilliant teaching moment in which God's relationship to God's people is very elegantly described.

God instructs Jeremiah to go to a potter's house and watch the potter work. And Jeremiah observes that the clay, as he says, spoiled in the potter's hand, so that the potter had to smash the clay back down in order to remake it.

Last week, I suggested we might want to dismiss old Thomas Aquinas from the room, with his ideas about the omnipotence and omniscience of God. And old Thomas will still find himself uncomfortable this morning. Because God is showing Jeremiah a whole lot of emotions that an all-powerful, all-knowing God could never have, a situation that such a God would never get stuck in.

I sometimes hear us talk about God as if every moment of our lives has been planned by this inscrutable and unknowable God, as if our lives and our futures are fixed, and it remains for us simply to trust this and go about our business, for surely the ways of God are beyond our capacities. To be clay in the potter's hand is to be passive. It's all up to God. So why think about it at all?

I think too that we have our fair share of Deists in our midst, those who think that God is no longer among us, that God no longer interacts with God's people. Jesus came and Jesus left and now, these folks believe, it's all up to us, at least until we die, and then we go to wherever it is that Jesus went to. The potter's hand is only on us before we get here and after we leave. All the time in between is up to us.

Now, we might all figure the bible is really of no use in the whole God conversation, but as long as I serve the church I will insist that the bible remain the touchstone and measure of all our conversations about God. And the bible very clearly shoots down both the image of God as the master puppeteer and the image of God as the absentee landlord.

But if God is not one or the other of those, if we are neither passive clay nor masters of our destinies, then what are we, and who is God?

This amazingly simple and very dynamic image makes it very clear. First of all, it speaks of a nation, God's people. God is not working on the level of individuals. God is working on a broader inter-relational context. Secondly, it speaks of a God who is an artist or craftsperson, who is working toward a vision and purpose. Third, it speaks of this nation, this people, as a living material God is using to accomplish God's vision. Fourth, it describes this material as having it's own part to play in enabling or frustrating God's vision and purpose for it.

There are some things Play Dough just won't do. It doesn't like to stand tall. It doesn't like to reach out. It goes dry if it's neglected.

It's true that when the Play Dough doesn't do what we want it to do, we smash it back into a useless and formless lump, or tear it into pieces. And if we give thought to the worldwide people of God, all the people everywhere who claim to be God's people, we might well wonder whether this great piece of Play Dough is in the shape God wants it, or whether is might now be torn into pieces and scattered about, or smashed into a formless and meaningless lump.

And we might well wonder whether we are fused into this material, or even want to be. Whether we want to be a part of something that can take a beautiful and lovely shape one day, then be torn to piece or mangled into shapelessness the next. We might ask ourselves whether we really wish to be reshaped, remade, re-created. Jesus asks us if we really want this kind of transformation, which might well cost us some relationships we value, might well put us at odds with the majority of the world. Do we want to be challenged the way Paul challenges Philemon, to embrace ideas and practices the world might call foolish or self-defeating, or even revolutionary?

If the people of God are like Play Dough in the artist's hand, we might hesitate about becoming a part of that Play Dough. We might not like the idea of that rough handling, what Jesus calls "taking up the cross."

But there are some things Play Dough is very good at. It's flexible and can be molded into many shapes. It can be torn apart and put back together easily. And if it's cared for, it will remain moist and ready for play, well, forever.

We in the church have a word for the kind of life we live together, this strange and powerful Play Dough way of life. The kind of life that can be smashed or torn apart, and then remolded and fused back together, the kind of life that can go flat as a pancake but then get back up into something taller than it was, the kind of life that is constantly being made more and more beautiful, no matter how many times it falls short of its purpose. Yes, we Christians have a word for this Play Dough kind of life.

We call it "the body of Christ."

We call it "resurrection."