Sunday, September 29, 2013

Live in Hope

Jeremiah 32:1-15

        The English poet Lord Byron, writing to Thomas Moore remarked, “What is hope?  Nothing but the paint on the face of existence; the least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hallowed-cheek harlot we have hold of.”  I shall presume your very presence here today is a repudiation of Byron’s pessimism.  For it is hope which claims us, hope which sustains us and hope which allows us to look beyond the reality of the moment and profess the conviction of our faith.  In one of my favorite hymns Jane Parker Huber writes, “Live into hope of captives freed, from chains of fear or want or greed.  God now proclaims our full release, to faith, and hope, and joy and peace.”
        Lest you mistake me for some wide-eyed Pollyanna, let me confess it takes a great deal of faith to live into hope.  When I reflect on the conversations I have had with many of you during the past weeks, I am well aware of how we can easily be captured by the uncertainties of life.  As I mentioned last week we live in a time when fear and uncertainty paint a dreary backdrop across the canvass of our lives.  We yearn to blissfully sing Jane Huber’s anthem but it is hard to dismiss the reservations found in Lord Byron’s voice.
        When I lived in Clinton, many mornings around 6:45 my dear friend Bill Scott and I could be found peddling our bikes along some lonesome highway.  I have met very few folks who can equal Bill’s optimism for life.  By 7:00 a.m. I was praying, head bowed, that God would let the sun come up just a few moments earlier.  Bill was looking into the heavens, remarking on how beautiful Venus appeared.  As we were simultaneously praying and gazing one of those large trucks that transport hogs would fly past us doing every bit of 70 mph.  Bill, the optimist, would joyfully remark, “I bet when those truckers see our blinking lights they wish they were riding with us enjoying this crisp morning air.” The Lord Byron in me thought, “Our blinking lights just give those trucks something to aim at.”   
As much as we want to live into hope, life often comes barreling down upon us, and sometimes it doesn’t miss, making us little more than a hood ornament.
        In our Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah found himself about to be run over by something a great deal larger than a truck.  Jeremiah and everyone he knew were about to experience the cruel and swift reality of the Babylonian Empire.  For more than a month the most powerful army in the world sat outside the walls of Jerusalem.  The capital was completely surrounded and Babylon was not in a negotiating mood.  Their mission was to destroy Jerusalem, tear down the Temple, enslave those who could offer ransom for their lives and exterminate everyone else.  There would be no terms of surrender.  There would be no miracles.  Within days, the Palace of David and the Temple of Solomon would become a memory.  What made it worse was everyone in Jerusalem understood their fate, especially Jeremiah.    God had earlier spoken to the prophet and said, “My people have forgotten me.  They burn offerings to a delusion.  They have stumbled in their ways and gone into bypaths, making their land a horror.  I shall scatter them before them enemy.  I will show them my back, not my face, in the day of their calamity.”  As the army of Babylon gathered for its final assault, Jeremiah had no illusions concerning what was to about to happen.  The prophet understood the reality of the moment.  And yet, in one of the most amazing stories in the Bible, Jeremiah illustrated what it means to live into hope.
        Jeremiah’s cousin owned a piece of land.  One does not have to be a tax assessor to figure out how much that property was worth. Yet Jeremiah agreed to pay his cousin full price.  Why would Jeremiah make such a foolish investment?  The answer becomes clear when Jeremiah presented the deed for the land to Baruch.  He instructed his friend to seal the proof of purchase in an earthenware jar, so that in the future, when the jar was recovered, people would know that someone had believed that God would restore the fields and vineyards of Israel.   Jeremiah invested in God’s promised future.   In this historically documented moment hours before certain death, Jeremiah chose to live into hope.  What did Jeremiah remember, what did he believe that would cause him to act in such a preposterous manner? Jeremiah based his decision on his faith in Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham. “They shall be my people and I will be their God.”  Jeremiah did not believe Jerusalem would be rescued in his lifetime but he believed the children of Jerusalem would eventually be given the opportunity of new life. Jeremiah believed the children of Jerusalem, much like their ancestors in Egypt, would cry out to the Lord.  Jeremiah believed God would hear their cries, rescue them from Babylon, and bring them back to Jerusalem.  Jeremiah placed his hope in the memory of a God who would not forget his ancient covenant.  Jeremiah placed his faith in the fidelity of a God who always responds despite the sins of his people.   It did not matter to Jeremiah that he would not see this restoration.  Jeremiah believed one day his children would experience the resurrection of Zion.    
        How might we embody the faith of this courageous prophet?  It is no easy task in these perilous days in which we live. The two most important days on the Christian calendar are Good Friday and Easter.  Good Friday is the moment when the sins of the world collectively and individually hung the symbol of innocence on a tree and dared the world to gaze upon his defeat.  On Sunday, humanity awoke to the astounding news that sin has no claim on God’s imagination.   What was dead was alive.  What was stained was cleansed.  The power that sin envisioned on Friday disappeared with one holy thought.  Now we who claim Christ sing triumphantly that evil no longer has dominion over our lives. Each of us believes this to be true or we would not have gathered here in this holy space.  But having affirmed the power of the resurrection, do you sometimes feel like Jeremiah?  Some days does it seem Babylon is about ready to run you over? Do you feel you are living your life on the Saturday between Good Friday and Easter?  We believe in the power of the cross.  We cling to the promise of the empty tomb.  Yet some days it feels as if we are living between the promise and the fulfillment of God’s triumph.  Am I the only one who sometimes wonders when God will step back into history?  Am I the only one who sometimes wonders what tomorrow might bring?
        I remember sitting in my office in San Angelo Texas one afternoon in the middle of the summer. A couple of church members and I had spent the morning at City Hall arguing that folks who lived in the city limits and paid city taxes ought to have the benefit of city water. Our pleas had pretty much fallen on deaf ears. I sat in my office, both wondering if our efforts had done more harm than good and feeling sorry for myself. Beatrice Torres, an elder at St. Paul, and the person who had brought this inequality to our attention walked into my office. In my anger, I asked, “How can we change the minds of folks who refuse to see the problem? I am about to give up hope.”
Beatrice looked At me and said, “La esperanza muere ultima”. Translated that means, “Hope dies last.”  Then she placed an empty water bucket on my desk and said, “Let’s go carry some water.”
As long as there are folks like Jeremiah, as long as there are folks like Beatrice, as long as there are folks like you who believe and act on God’s promise, hope lives. And where there is hope, there is life.                                         Amen.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

Jeremiah 8:15,18-22; Psalm 79

        Psalm 79:6-7 states, “Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name. They have devoured and laid waste to Israel.”
        Sometimes, like it or not, the lectionary texts leads us into places we would rather not venture, particularly in worship. Psalm 79, written during the time of Jeremiah, is a communal lament arising from uncertain calamities in the Middle East.
        I doubt there is anyone here who does not remember where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001. The day before, I had flown from Dallas to Raleigh to conduct the funeral service of a dear friend.  The service was scheduled for three o’clock in Wilmington NC on the 11th.  Having spent the morning with my parents in Morehead City, I was driving through Camp Lejeune when word of the attack interrupted the radio program to which I was listening. By the time I reached Wilmington, the attacks on the second tower and the Pentagon had been announced. As I climbed the steps to the pulpit, I looked out upon folks, many whom I had not seen in over ten years. While they had come to honor their dear friend, what I could saw in their faces were folks who desired a “word from the Lord” that our enemies would be exposed and brought to justice.
        Congregations beset by sudden tragedy have traditionally looked for a word from God to bring some reason to their calamity. And when no reason can be offered, questions arise. “Where is God when humans suffer? Does God hear our prayers? Does God care? Is God unable to respond?” Biblically, perhaps the best known question falls from the troubled lips of Jeremiah, “Is there no Balm in Gilead?”
        Jerusalem was on the brink of destruction both from beyond and within. The obvious threat came from an army that would tear down the walls, destroy the Temple and drag the survivors into a generation of captivity. But the real tragedy came from the inhabitants of the city who refused to acknowledge the impending doom. First they turned to leadership that had already abdicated responsibility. Some looked to Egypt to negotiate a treaty. Some cried out to their priest who assured them, “God will not let you die.” Lastly they heard the words of Jeremiah, “The harvest is passed, the summer is ended, and we will not be saved. I hurt, I mourn and dismay has taken hold of me.”
        You would think Jeremiah would have given them a gentler word. That is why we come to church isn’t it? After all our other devises have failed, we come back to this holy place to petition God, to remind God that we are faithful, or to be more honest, to plead with God to remember us despite our unfaithfulness. We come for answers to questions that no one has ever been able to answer. What we find is not the triumphant God we desperately need but a grieving God enmeshed in pain.
Those of us who have been parents realize parenthood leaves wounded us in many unique ways. For lesser pains, we had developed remedies.
We could put up a brave front, making folks believe that we are strong enough to bear our pain. 
We became, as Hemingway suggested, “Strong in broken places.”
We became philosophical, recognizing we have brought the trouble on ourselves and resolve to do better next time.
But when our child is hurt, we are helpless. Our child makes a terrible mistake and we would to do anything to make it right. Unfortunately experience shows that intervention is often a formula for guaranteeing additional mistakes. There is nothing we can do to ease their pain.  We can’t make them strong by loaning them our wisdom, for it was through our own mistakes that we gained that wisdom. We are more than a bystander because the child’s pain has become our pain. None the less we stand by, discovering even the bravest front is not much use.  Should we expect less of God?  We, who regularly pray, “Our Father”, forget that God loves us as much as any parent loves their child.
God embraced Jerusalem’s hurt. But it was a pain they had brought upon themselves. The ignorance and indifference of the children of Israel did not make God hurt less. I suspect it made God, the parent of all creation, hurt even more. But God would not respond to their cries. Why? Because God had not only been hurt, God had been offended by Judah’s adulterous ways.  The people only claimed God as a final act of desperation.  What God desired was radical repentance. But none was forthcoming.
What am I trying to say? Am I suggesting our corporate sins are responsible for the chaos that has jeopardized our world? That kind of generalization would be irresponsible. And yet this week we have found ourselves in the midst of one tragedy very close to home and another international calamity ignited by the negligent and reckless leadership of one man toward the citizens of his own nation. How are we to respond? It is amazing the number of folks, many not even associated with our church, who have asked me, “Where is God? How could God allow this to happen? Does God even care?”  2500 years after the death of Jeremiah, we find ourselves still asking the question “Is there no balm in Gilead?”
We have sung that spiritual for so long, yet few know why Jeremiah would make such a statement. The balm of Gilead, an aromatic resin reputed to have medicinal properties, was transported by the Phoenicians throughout the Mediterranean. The balm of Gilead was known from Greece to Egypt and beyond.  But Jeremiah was not referring to a healing medicine. Using a play on words he is asking, “Is there peace in Gilead?” It was a question which needed no response. From the earliest days of King Saul, Gilead had been a disputed territory. First it had been claimed by the Ammonites and then the Philistines.  During the reign of Solomon it was among the cities that rebelled and formed a new nation. In the ninth century it was overrun by Syria on more than one occasion. By 721 B.C. Gilead was destroyed by the Assyrians. The few who survived the slaughter were carried away into slavery. As Jeremiah speaks, his words fall on a people about to receive similar treatment from the armies of Babylon. There will be not balm, not reprieve, no Godly rescue, only exile.
“Is there no Balm in Gilead?” Amazingly, a group of folks from our American experience who may have known nothing about the Babylonian Exile heard the question and responded with an affirmation. The song we now know was not a misreading or denial of history. The song we will sing at the end of the service comes from a belief that history is always in motion, moving toward a divine fulfillment. It comes from a belief that reality is not fixed or stagnant but is painstakingly moving in the direction of human liberation.  Howard Thurman preached, “Hope is the optimism that uses the pessimism of life as raw material to create its own strength. Hope straightens the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point.”  There is a balm in Gilead!
Perhaps clinging to this expression of faith exposes my own naïveté.   The truth is I do believe mistakes of the past, both as individuals and as a nation, have consequences. I do believe, both as individuals and a nation, the way we respond to these consequences has a lot to say about our faith system. I do believe in a God who has the ability to change history but also a God who allows history to create its own present. I do believe we have the responsibility to challenge our own moral decisions before we make accusations. But I am not so naïve to fail to acknowledge that there are powerful people in this world that would do anything to preserve their ill-gained status. In other words I struggle with chemical weapons as well as unmanned Ariel vehicles. I struggle with someone killing children as well as someone sending children to war. I struggle with distinguishing between a voice as prophetic and a voice that simply speaks what I desire to hear. I suspect I am no different then you. The motivation for my ethical and moral decision making comes from that voice within that rises up to be heard in any moment of crisis.
The dilemma of course is identifying the inner voice. Is it the voice of reason? Is it the voice of pessimism? Is it the voice of hope? Is it the voice of God? I believe God speaks multiple languages, using each to lead us to a “holy” word.
The glorious thing about this church is that you are willing to listen to both Jeremiah, “Is there a balm in Gilead” and Second Isaiah, “God is creating a new heaven and earth”. You are willing to hear the words of Paul, “All have sinned” and the words of Jesus, “Come unto me all you who are burdened.” It is these conversations, that both burn and convert, which will hopefully lead us from question marks to exclamation points.
Is there a balm in Gilead? I believe there is, but finding such comfort is no easy journey. It is a road where we are challenged to not only trust God, but each other.  A wise man might ask, “What evidence do we have that total trust in the human endeavor is possible?” Is this not the question of Jeremiah? I think today the prophet might respond, “There are no easy answers. There is no cheap grace. But there is God, who loves us; there is God, who grieves for us; and there is God, who beyond everything else, desires to heal our sin-sick souls.
                        To God be the glory!      Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Forgetting No One

Luke 15:1-10; I Timothy 1:12-17
“Forgetting No One”

        Any of you remember the original Star Trek with Captain Kirk and Spock? It was on TV for three seasons before being cancelled. Star Trek was then sent to syndication where it found a whole new audience. Unfortunately it almost died a second death with its first attempt at the big screen. The original Star Trek movie was just awful. But then came Star Trek II and the rest is history. Perhaps you “remember” the critical scene where Spock rescues Bones, places a single message in the good doctor’s brain, then enters the core of the engine to prevent a melt down.  The ship is saved but Spock is overcome by radiation poisoning. As he dies, Spock’s last words to his grieving friend Jim are, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.”  
        There are so many ways that I could place that message on top of any scripture and it would preach. The very heart of our faith is based on the grace of God being clearly understood through the death and the resurrection of Christ. One died for the needs of the many. That said, Jesus tells a parable that seem to dismantle the logic in Spock’s words. 
        A shepherd has 100 sheep. Nightfall is approaching and it is time to return the sheep to the safety of their corral. As they approach the stable, a count is taken. The shepherd can only account for 99 sheep. A second count is taken and the results remain the same. So the shepherd heads back into the hills. To return to the hills at night is dangerous. Chances of finding the sheep are slim to none. Truth is, the animal wandered off and it is its own fault that is now in a world of trouble. Logic would say go back and take care of the ninety-nine. But the shepherd persists until the animal is located and brought safely home.
        Here is the strange part. Once the animal is found, all the neighbors are invited over for a big party. Food is cooked, wine shared and the party cost a lot more than the sheep was worth.  Perhaps they even roasted one of the other ninety-nine. But that is hardly the point.  The sheep was found and joy abounded.
        What happened to, “The needs of the many out weigh the needs of the one?” It seems almost immoral to suggest the needs of one person should always be considered over the safety of the many. If we read the parable in this manner, I think we are missing the point. Jesus is not ignoring the needs of the many. The other sheep were safe, at least until the party started. Searching for the one did not jeopardize the ninety-nine.
        But the bigger question is, “Who is the one?” The text begins with these words. “Tax collectors and sinners were coming to listen to Jesus. The Pharisees began to grumble, “This fellow will eat with anyone.” If we are not careful, we could logically decide the sheep were the tax collectors. Certainly over and over again the text reminds us of God’s love for the displaced and the marginalized. As God’s chosen, we should venture out to find the lost and bring them home. I have no problem with this. But before you go running off into the countryside, let’s look at this story one more time and ask, “Who are the sheep?”
        The story begins, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Chances are pretty good Jesus is sitting with the Pharisees, having a good meal, when this comment is made. And there in lies the irony. The Pharisees looked at the tax collectors and calls them sinners but are unable to identify themselves in need of God’s mercy. Isn’t that the wonderful thing about sin? Sin is always what someone else is doing.  
        Need I remind you of the story of the Pharisee who looked at a fellow worshiper and prayed, “Thank-you God that I am not like him?” It is sort of like seeing someone begging for food and thinking, “Except by the grace of God that could be me.” What an incredible misunderstanding of grace.
        When Jesus was eating with the Pharisees and the tax collectors headed their way, Jesus was already sitting with sinners.  Proof of this comes from our second text in I Timothy. Paul writes, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus who offered mercy even though I was a blasphemer, persecutor and a man of violence.” Why would Paul use such words about himself?
        Before Paul was Paul, that is back when all his friends called him Saul, he was a man of position and power. Saul was well respected in his community. He was a man of learning. Saul was an expert the Torah and had probably been called on many times to interpret the text. We first encounter Saul not long after the day of Pentecost. The writer of the book of Acts tells us Saul held the cloaks of those that stoned Stephen. His rise to prominence was quick. People trusted Saul. They saw he had leadership qualities. He had the credentials. He was a Pharisee. There is no record of Saul having encountered Jesus but Saul knew and was trusted by the very men who had arranged the crucifixion of our Lord. Saul had gained so much respect among his peers he was selected to lead the persecution against the new church.  Sinners come in all shapes and sizes. Some are easy to identify. Others like the scribes and Pharisees are able to hide under the robes of good intentions and proper etiquette. The story of Saul only serves to remind us we are all lost sheep in need of God’s grace.
        The good news of this story is not that Paul wants to give us a biographical sketch of who he was as a lost sheep but rather who Paul became once he was found. The amazing part of the story is that Paul takes no credit for his transformation.  In other words, the grace of God is not a standard set aside for the privileged few but a gift from God by which we are all made righteous in the light of God. 
        I have often wondered, when did the lost sheep realize he was lost?  Perhaps the sheep was surprised when the shepherd showed up. It is amazing how much we enjoy sin and never think about its consequences.
        Perhaps the sheep knew it was in trouble but had no idea what to do next. I suspect we have all found ourselves in that sort of a pinch. Our declaration of self affirmation is, “God I don’t need you, God I don’t need you, God I don’t need you”, and then suddenly we cry out, “God where are you?”
        Perhaps the sheep wandered off because she never felt part of the flock.  Remember the story of Elphaba, the green Witch of the West in the musical Wicked.  She sings “Heads touch, eyes meet; sudden silence, sudden heat; hearts leap in a giddy whirl. She stops, looks at her green skin and continues, “He could be that boy, but I am not that girl.”  
        Amazingly, the good shepherd does not see as who we are but who we can become. The good shepherd sees beyond our past and into God’s present. Paul reflects this when he affirms, “Christ came into the world to save sinners of whom I am foremost.” And then what does the Good Shepherd do? The good shepherd celebrates and invites us to join in the celebration.
        This is the lesson that Paul learned. All have  sinned, yet all are embraced by God’s grace. This is lesson the Pharisees of all ages struggle to understand.  Luke 15 records a third parable by Jesus which moves from sheep to sinner. We learned it as children. In the story of the Prodigal Son the youngest is clearly operating outside the parameters of righteousness. He partied till the sun came up and then slept with pigs. Then he decides to go home. Prepared to be rejected, he writes a speech to plead his case. Before he can speak a word he is embraced by his father.  Of course you might also remember the older brother, the Pharisee, is outraged. He turned to the father and cried, “I have done everything perfect. I am without sin yet you have never thrown a party for me.”
        The father embraced the older son and said, “Your brother was dead and now he is alive.” What the father could have said was no one is without sin. But by celebrating the rebirth of your brother, perhaps we can also celebrate your rebirth.
Hear the Good News of this text!
God searches us out…. all of us…. and no one is excluded.
Then God invites us…... all of us……. to celebrate.
That is the mystery and the wonder of God’s grace.
Thanks be to God!