Sunday, September 25, 2016

We Have Moses and the Prophets

Luke 16:19-31; Jeremiah 32:6-15


For the past couple of weeks we have explored some of the classic stories from the book of Jeremiah. We began with the potter’s wheel where the prophet suggests we are like clay, desperately trying to form our own shape, while always resisting the designs of the one who created us. Last week the prophet, while admitting the complicity of humanity in its own failures, suggests the avenue to wholeness begins when we cry out our laments to the Lord. This week, even in the midst of Jerusalem’s immanent destruction, the prophet offers a lesson in hope. While this text can stand alone, I find linking it to the twist Jesus places on an ancient parable is most enlightening.

Most parables Jesus told were not unfamiliar to his listeners. They were ancient stories made unique by the conclusions Jesus draws. The story of Lazarus and the Rich Man is a wonderful example. In the original, which comes from the Egyptian tradition, there are two men who see each other daily but never exchange as much as a word. Lazarus is a beggar, whose greatest dream is one day being invited into the house of the rich man and allowed to feast on the scrapes that fall from the table. But that dream never comes true because the rich man does not even know Lazarus exists. They live in different worlds. For all we know the rich man might have been a really great guy. He might have been a benefactor of the Arts. He might have been active in his religious community. He might have even contributed to local charities. But our only information we have concerning the man was his relationship or to be exact his lack of a relationship with the beggar who sat just outside his gate. Both men die where there is a great reversal of fortune. Lazarus, who had nothing in life, now has everything in death. His rival was not so lucky.

The rich man, now in a place of torment, looks up and sees the beggar, “in the bosom of Abraham.” He calls out, “How can this be? What could I have possibly have done to deserve this agony.” Abraham responds, “Child, in life you received your good things and Lazarus had only evil befall him. But now he is receiving his reward and you shall live out eternity in pain.” So ends the original story.

What a great story to hear if you are poor, or female, or both as most of the original listeners of the Gospel of Luke happened to be. Don’t worry about this life. In the great reversal, God is not going only to level the playing field, God is going to turn eternity upside down. I have a suspicion not many sermons are preached on this text.

Then the rich man, realizing all is lost, begins to think about his brothers. He begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus and send him back to earth to warn his siblings to be more aware of the plight of others. Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the prophets. If they won’t listen to them, they certainly are not going to be convinced if someone is raised from the dead.”

Here is where some of my esteemed colleagues get excited and use the text as an example of Jesus predicting his own resurrection. To do so conveniently ignores the whole message of Luke 16.  This chapter divulges story after story revealing the dangers of falling in love with wealth. This chapter revolves around verse 13, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  Jesus is not predicting his resurrection. He is warning lovers of money that we are living in opposition to the Word of the Lord.

A week ago some of us had the challenging experience of hearing Walter Bruggermann speak on this parable. It was no accident. Walter purposely picked this week’s lectionary text and pretty much dared us to preach on it. He began by making an interesting distinction between the role of Abraham and Moses. Abraham, the father of three religions, is the first to be chosen by God. Abraham gives up everything in search of a promise. In the end he is rewarded. Therefore Abraham stands as proof that God will care for those who like Lazarus, have nothing.

But Moses was the knight in shining armor. He liberated people from that which enslaved them.  Then he gave them a law which concluded with the command, “Don’t be captivated by wealth. Instead, dream of what you and those around you can become by following the Word of the Lord.”

We struggle with conclusion of this story because Jesus said the poor are often not responsible for their plight. They are born into a system that does little to free them from their economic slavery. God knows their dilemma and does not hold them accountable. It begs one to ask where Jesus received his training in economics.

But then it gets worse. Jesus says we who have been liberated, we who were born with educational and economic advantages, are held by God to a higher standard. Instead of depending on the grace of Abraham, we are expected to live by the laws of Moses. These laws entail a relationship with all the folks with which we live. These laws remind us to not only recognize Lazarus, but to advocate on his behalf. Jesus says this is not a suggestion but a Godly obligation.

No one took this obligation more seriously than the prophet Jeremiah. The problem was no one took Jeremiah seriously. He was born a son of privilege. His words of warning against members of his own family led to his arrest. Jail time did little to rehabilitate the prophet. Each time he was released his voice grew louder.  The advisors to the king declared Jeremiah to be mad, yet Jehoiakim kept inviting him back to the palace. The King would ask how God was going to protect Jerusalem from the Babylonian terrorist. Jeremiah would ask who was going to protect the poor in Jerusalem from the oppressive policies of the King. Exchanges ended with Jeremiah being escorted back to prison. Jeremiah’s final word to the king was this, God was sending Babylon to dismantle the economic and political system responsible for the plight of the poor.

Those are dangerous words which are usually taken as the rant of a madman. Perhaps Jeremiah truly was insane. As the armies of Babylon were threatening to tear down the walls of Jerusalem, Jeremiah decided to go into real estate. Imagine someone on September 11, after witnessing the attack on the first tower of the Trade Center, deciding to buy office space in the second tower. That would have been insane. Yet Jeremiah, knowing he probably would not live to see the end of the week, bought property, and placed the bill of sell in an earthen jar and buried it in the ground.

Is this madness or faith? Sometimes faith and madness are often seen as synonymous, particularly through the eyes of a pragmatist. What could Jeremiah have possibly accomplished by this reckless economic venture?   The answer is as reckless as the question. True prophets of the Lord were first and foremost called to be faithful.

All his life Jeremiah, the son of prestige, had followed the Word of the Lord as understood through the commandments of Moses. But as the armies of Nebuchadnezzar crashed through the walls of Jerusalem, prestige meant nothing. To the Babylonians, Jeremiah might as well have been Lazarus.   He was just another poor Israelite destined for death or slavery. The hope for Jeremiah lay in the arms of Abraham and in the promise of his God whose grace always shines beyond the darkness of the day.   Jeremiah bought a piece of worthless land to declare that the God of hope is never done with us. One day those wandering, wayward, sons and daughters of Jerusalem would find their way back from Babylon to claim the birthright God had bestowed upon them. It was not a birthright of land but rather the birthright of a holy covenant. Despite the chaos, despite enslavement, despite death, God would bring them home. This is what God did and this is what God continues to do. God’s vision has never changed.

Sometimes when life or even death kicks us in the teeth and it seems nothing we do will change the shape of our world we need to remember Lazarus sitting eternally with Abraham. God remembers those who have lost hope.

But most days we still have choices. Most days we still have the opportunity to make a difference. Most days we still have a holy obligation to follow the laws of Moses.  And even if that means folks think us mad, even if that means we are publically scorned, even if that means despite all our efforts the world is still spinning out of control we know, without a doubt, when the names that today dominate the world stage are no more than footnotes in history, God will still be God.

May that truth boost your faith for today and your hope for tomorrow.   To God be the glory. Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Is There a Balm

Jeremiah 8:18-22


I was 12 or 13 when I first heard a recording of Paul Robeson singing, “Deep River”. Robeson may not be a name you recognize but I suspect you have all heard his voice. He’s the guy we all remember singing “Old Man River”. Robeson had this deep rich bass that caused the whole room to resonate. When he sang “Deep River Lord” it came from the bottom of what was I perceived to be a bottomless well. Then his voice would swell as he sang “my home is over Jordan.” He repeated “Deep River Lord”, only this time his voice would reach into the very foundation of that bottomless well. Robeson had a powerful set of lungs. But he had an even more impressive soul.

When I first heard the song I remember asking my father about its origins. My dad has always been filled with opinions but he was also good about demanding I search for my own answers. He handed me a book by Howard Thurman call “Deep River” and suggested I do some research. The book was my first adventure into the world of Black culture and social change. At my age the only thing I felt needed changing was my worn out baseball glove. As I opened the book, I soon discovered each chapter heading was a song with which I was familiar. I flipped over to one of my favorites, “Balm in Gilead”. Thurman begins the chapter by asking, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” I had sung the song enough times to know the author was taking great liberties with a song that had given me great comfort. I closed the book, figuring Mr. Thurman really didn’t know what he was talking about. It wasn’t until 20 years later I discovered I had dismissed one of the great minds of the 20th century.

“Is there no balm in Gilead?” Howard Thurman was not the first nor will he be the last to ask that question. It is a lot more realistic to ask the question than sing the song, for without the question, the song rings hallow especially in these days when our nation muddles rather arrogantly toward our undetermined destination.

I think Jeremiah would have felt right at home in the 21st century. The prophet surely wasn’t the first to raise the question to which our song responds, but few have expressed their grief so poignantly. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Summer has ended and we are not saved. For the hurt of my people I am hurt. I mourn and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead?” Songwriter Lucinda Williams wails, “You taken my joy and I want it back.” Such is the pain of the prophet.

Perhaps it is important to know something about the man Jeremiah. In his youth, Josiah was king and Assyria, the only real political threat to Israel, was on its last legs as an empire. Josiah took on the task of rebuilding the Temple and establishing the worship of Yahweh throughout the land. There seemed to be a renaissance in the religious lives of the people. Then Josiah was killed in battle and replaced by Jehoiakim. The new king had no desire to complete the reforms begun by Josiah. The cry, do we worship God and serve each other, was replaced with how do we worship the king and preserve his empire. A people, briefly given hope, once again felt betrayed by a leader obsessed with power and the trappings of his palace. Jeremiah had witnessed what could have been and became dismayed by the corruption which was the official mandate of the day. “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no healing ointment to be placed on the wounds of my offended people?”

I believe the laments of Jeremiah are as important as any of our favorite scriptures. We know the 23rd Psalm by heart. We look to the Blue Ridge Mountains and proclaim, “I lift up my eyes to the hills.” But how is the church supposed to handle despair? Too often expressed grief is seen as a weakness. Too often any spoken political discord is condemned as unpatriotic. For Jeremiah the man, the pain had to be expressed. For Jeremiah the prophet, the dismay had to be articulated. Why? Because Jeremiah the believer knew healing could not begin until the rage was uttered.

Howard Thurman wrote, “Do not be silent. If you listen carefully, you will hear your heart giving strength to your weakness and hope to your despair. There is no limit to the power God can release through you.”

So how do we go from the question raised by Jeremiah to the affirmation found in Hymn 394? To suggest there is only one way would be blasphemous. To suggest the path is easy would be dangerous.  There are no easy answers, no cheap grace when it comes to the healing of an individual soul or the heart of a nation. Perhaps some days all we can do is pause and remember our grief is also God’s grief.

The God of Jeremiah, the same God we proclaim, is known as a God who not only listens but responds to the cries of God’s people. The slaves in Egypt cried out to be heard. David and the other Psalmist raised their voice to God in moments of despair. Amos, Micah, Isaiah and Jeremiah never hid their dismay. We need to learn from those who went before us. Like Paul Robeson we need to go to our deepest and darkest place and utter the pain that touches our soul. I know we Presbyterians aren’t much for making any noise in worship, but Jeremiah has given us permission to make today an exception. I would like to ask you to take a moment of silence and think about that which weighs heavy on your heart. Then with our heads still bowed, I am going to ask you to speak your pain in a word or a phrase. You can shout or whisper. You may choose to remain silent. That’s OK as well. I know we are wounded. I know we need a Gilead’s balm. We have been wounded by death. We have been wounded by violence. We have been wounded by political decisions that seem questionable. We have been wounded by the divisions in our nation. This is not an exercise calling for debate. It is simply meant to be a cry of lament daring to catch the attention of God. Perhaps, for one or two of you, today it will be the beginning of your healing. Let us pray together silently.

Let us voice our laments.

Let us hear the voice of God. (Kathleen - “Balm in Gilead”.


Sunday, September 4, 2016

Am I really no more than a lump of clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalms 139:1-6


The Psalmist writes, “God, you have searched me and known me.” Then the prophet Jeremiah adds, “You are just a lump of clay.” In the eyes of God is that all I am? I am not particularly thrilled with this evaluation of my professional or personal talents. Certainly I am much more than a slab of mud sitting in the way of others dreams.  Yet, Jeremiah’s imagery hauntingly observes God’s imagination against our imperfections. I have sat in a potter’s chair. I have spun the wheel and felt the clay rise and fall within my fingers. I have sought to create a beautiful vase and ended up with an ash tray. To call a lump of clay hideous is to have never sat at the wheel. In the hands of an expert amazing things happen. But left to the expertise of a novice, perhaps the clay should have never left the river bank. Endless potential ends up wasted.

How many of you felt like a lump of clay this week? Early Monday morning I was riding my bike down Cedar Meadow Drive and suddenly had no idea where I was. Granted if one must get lost, Cedar Meadow is an excellent choice. It has only one entrance and turns into a circle. If you stay on it long enough eventually you end up where you started. But for brief moment I had absolutely no idea where I was. Such is the power of grief.

Every so often, perhaps more than I want to admit, I need to place myself on the potter’s wheel and be molded by the hands of God. I need to feel my soul caressed, massaging away the deep pain that has broken my heart. I need to hear the Potter’s reassuring words, “I have searched you and known you. It was I who formed you in your mother’s womb. It is I who will restore you.” Sometimes, only God can mend our brokenness.

The very nature of this confession frightens me. Admitting that I am solely dependent on something I can only see through the eyes of faith challenges my rational mind. Furthermore, when the sun is shining and my direction is clear, I quickly forget that I might not be the master of my universe. How easy it is to become the farmer played so masterfully by Jimmy Stewart in the movie Shenandoah. All of the family is summoned to the dinner table. Stewart prays, “Lord, we cleared the land, we plowed the field, we planted the seed, we harvested the crop and we cooked what we are about to eat. We did it all without your help but we thank you just the same. Amen.”

When life is good, I fool myself into thinking I don’t need God. Actually that is not true. When things are going well I seldom think of anything but myself. I am proud of who I am and what I have accomplished. I suspect I am not the only one in this room who feels this way.

Then we hit a bump in the road. Actually this week it was more like the road completely disappeared. Is it any wonder so many of the Psalms begin, “God why did you let this happen to me?” When the darkness surrounds us we often do our best Dylan Thomas, “And rage against the dying of the light.” We believe the same hand that molded us is capable of tearing us from the wheel of life and discarding our hopes and dreams into the blob from whence we were conceived. Perhaps this perception of God is as farfetched as our previous illusions of grandeur.    (stop)

This table that occupies the center of our sanctuary cries out to define our understanding of God. The One who knows us is the One who was broken for our sake. The One who molded us was broken for our sake. The One who loves us was broken for our sake. The physicality of this image is critical to our understanding of a God who is present in the midst of our suffering.

 One of the ancient chants of our faith is “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.” The suffering of God allows us to say, “We have died, we have risen, we will come again.”  My friends your pulse can be 100 over 60 and your heart still be dead. We sometimes fall so low we actually believe life has no meaning. Then the Potter, who knows our brokenness, takes us in those strong yet tender hands and begins to once again mold life into our very being.

Working with clay is a messy business. Jeremiah invites us to envision God completely covered with mud in our making and remaking. Hop back on the wheel and allow the hands of the Potter to reshape your brokenness. Hop back on the wheel and allow your heart to be restored.     Amen.