Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Persistence of Memory (10/09/16)

One of my favorite seminary professors was famous for asking the question, "What is God doing in this place?" This was a question about the present. But you can't do ministry in the Mon Valley without confronting the history of this place and what it used to be in the 1950s and 60s. This sermon looks at the tension between a beloved past and a less-than-perfect present, and how these scriptures speak into that tension. 

The Persistence of Memory (10/09/16)

          Good morning! As I studied this week’s scriptures, I was reminded of one of my favorite seminary professors. His name was Jannie Swart and he had a larger-than-life quality about him. Jannie was originally from South Africa, he was about six-foot-four, and though he had been quite a rugby player in his youth, well, he’d put on quite a bit of weight when he stopped playing. As have many of us. Jannie had an imposing presence, but he positively beamed with the joy of the Lord. And wherever he went he would always ask people, “What is God doing here?”
          I wish I could do an impersonation of him, but I can’t do justice to that South African accent. The thing about it is—the reason why I wish I could do a good impression of Jannie—is that he asked the question with such joy and faithfulness. He wanted you to do the work of discernment and he wanted to share in your joy as you came to understand God’s love and how God was working in your life and in the places where you traveled. He was a dear friend, and I will always remember his joy and his question, “What is God doing here?”
          This is, of course, a question that we must ask of ourselves during this interim period. We can ask this question in a variety of ways:
  •        What is God doing in this congregation?
  •        What is God doing in this community?
  •       What is God doing in our country?
  •       What is God doing in our lives?

This can be an uncomfortable question. Let’s face it, people aren’t coming to church in the numbers that they used to. Attendance is down everywhere. This is an election year and we’re all busy screaming at one another. Everyone is unhappy with the political process and everything looks better in the past. And I think this is exactly where the prophet Jeremiah found himself when he wrote the letter to the elders of Jerusalem who were in exile in Babylon.
          Some historical context is in order. The prophet Jeremiah was called to be a prophet in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah (Jeremiah 1:2); this was approximately the year 627 BCE. Josiah was a successful king and he instituted some important religious reforms, but he died in battle in 609 BCE. In the years that followed Josiah’s death, the Babylonian empire grew stronger and it began to encroach upon the kingdom of Judah.
          In 597 BCE the Babylonians captured Jerusalem. They took prisoners among the royal family and they also took many captives from the ruling and priestly classes—the elite members of Jerusalem society. Over a period of about fifteen years, there were three deportations of Jews from Jerusalem[1].
          Also during this time, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple—King Solomon’s Temple. This was huge. The temple was the center of Jewish religious identity. The temple was where all sacrifices to God were to be made. You cannot understate the importance of this. Before Solomon built the Temple, sacrifices were made at the Tabernacle, a portable shrine built by Moses, while the Israelites were wandering in the Sinai. In a sense, the Tabernacle could be seen as a symbol of impermanence. It was where the Israelites worshipped before they established a permanent home. Solomon’s Temple then would have been a sign of permanence; it meant the Jews had a home, just as God promised[2]. By destroying the Temple and taking the religious and political leaders of Jerusalem hostage, the Babylonians had destroyed the greatest symbol of the Jewish faith. The Babylonians also ended the line of kings that began with King David. To the Jews, it must have seemed that God had abandoned them; they no longer had a home.
          In this morning’s lesson, God is speaking through Jeremiah to those exiles in Babylon. God is not telling them to weep and mourn for what they have lost. Neither is God telling them to rise up and destroy the Babylonians. No. God tells the exiles to:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.
What’s more, God tells them to pray for the welfare of the city where they live—in the heart of Babylon, the empire of the enemy!
          This must have sounded insane! Everything that these exiles had known had been destroyed. The Temple had been the center of Jewish religious life and it was destroyed. They had been separated from their loved ones and their property and taken to a foreign land as captives. God tells them to accept it all—and prosper!
          Have you ever sat with someone who is having a personal crisis? Does it ever help to say, “Calm down?” No. Not very often. Sometimes when you tell a person to calm down, what they hear is, “stop bothering me; your complaints are misplaced and you aren’t seeing things as they really are.” That’s kinda what God is saying to the exiles. God’s telling them this isn’t the end of the world; God isn’t done with them just yet.
          I think we fall victim to that same crisis mentality. Let’s face it; we’re in the midst of an ugly season with these elections. Each party tells the voters that our nation is in a crisis, and the only solution is to vote for their candidate. They tell us that the past was better than the present; the way to a brighter future is to vote for their party. That’s the truth with every party. And most of us seem to believe it, too. Let’s face it, the past is pretty appealing. Many of us can remember what the Mon Valley was like when the mills were still going. Some of you can still remember a time when your whole family lived here in the valley. And most of us can remember when the pews in church were always full. If you lived in the 1950s and 1960s, it must have seemed like God was on our side. But now, maybe we’re not so certain. So we look backwards.
          And I get it. This is western Pennsylvania. We’re always looking backwards. Everybody knows that you can’t give directions anywhere around Pittsburgh without naming at least two landmarks that no longer exist! And one of those is usually an Isaly’s! You know what I’m talking about! Okay, yinz know where the Isaly’s used to be, right? You go about a block past that then yinz turn left where they tore down the old Methodist Church. This is just in our blood. We all do this. Most of us remember the Steelers winning Super Bowls under Chuck Noll. I’m not old enough to remember the Steelers before Noll, but I am certainly old enough to remember the great teams of the 70s. I look backwards too.
          That is NOT what God calls us to do. God calls us to live in the present and build for the future. That is what God is telling the Jerusalem exiles to do. To respond faithfully to God’s call, the exiles must build a life where they are, rather than dwelling in the past. And that’s what happened! They stayed in Babylon for two full generations, maybe longer. It’s unlikely that any of those first exiles lived to return to Jerusalem. It was a different generation that returned—but that generation was able to return because their ancestors kept the faith. That’s not easy when your whole world is turned upside down.
          Sometimes God’s grace is not apparent, even when it’s bestowed upon us. Consider the ten lepers from this morning’s gospel lesson:
They called out, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” When he saw them, he said to them, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were made clean. Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
The lepers are healed in the instant that they turn and go to the priests. Yet it seems that only one of the lepers—the Samaritan—could see that he’d been healed. And in seeing that he had been healed, the Samaritan leper realized that the healing had been the work of God.[3] He was aware that he’d received God’s mercy and grace.
          So let me ask you an uncomfortable question: Are we looking for the Jerusalem of our past? Are we so wrapped up in a vision of who we used to be that we can’t see God at work right in front of our faces? I believe that God is still working in our lives, in this congregation, and in this community! It might not be easy to see, so we have to look for it in unfamiliar places, too.
          The Jerusalem exiles inhabited an interim period between God’s punishment and God’s mercy. It would have seemed ridiculous to look for mercy and grace in a foreign land. Yet the Jerusalem exiles kept the faith! In the same way, Jesus healed a Samaritan—an outsider, a foreigner. No righteous Jew would have believed that God’s grace could be extended to a Samaritan. Many thought that grace and mercy were reserved for righteous Jews. Of course, when conditions are attached, it is no longer grace.
          So in this interim period in the life of this congregation, and also in this strange time in the life of our community and our nation, let us always seek God’s call on our lives. Let us ask for fresh eyes to see and ears to hear and open hearts and minds as we look for what God is doing in this place and all around us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that God never turns away from us. Remember that God’s mercy and grace occur where we least expect. So keep your eyes and your ears and your hearts open for unexpected grace and mercy. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love and act upon that love to everyone we meet. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Michael D. Coogan. The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
[2] Coogan.
[3] R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, (1995, Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 327.

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