“To Be God’s People” is our theme for this year. I like it because it both challenges and comforts us, affirms and asks something of us. I suppose this is a tension we always live with as people of faith. We make the audacious claim that the One who created all that is loves and cares for us. We even claim to be made in the image and likeness of this Holy One. With both pride and humility, we say that we are children of the Living God.
In the southern USA, when somebody asks who your people are, they’re asking about your origins – where did you come from? What’s your tribe? Who are your mama and your daddy? We look back up the family tree and are bold to assert that we come from God. Our kin are the family of God. God is our mama and our daddy. I’m sure this sounds foolish to those who have not known God’s care and loving kindness, who have not sensed God’s grace or felt God’s embrace. We are God’s people because we have known it in our bones. This is a huge part of the good news we bring to those who are lost and wandering, unsure and wondering, lonely and hurting. Come on home. There’s plenty of room and plenty to share in the beloved community of God’s people. How do we know? We’ve experienced it.
At the same time there is lot work to be done if we are to fulfill our role as God’s people. It is a gift of grace, without a doubt, but it also entails enormous responsibility. To be God’s people is to share in God’s compassion and love for all creation. To be God’s people is to work for justice and peace. To be God’s people is to care or all those people who inhabit the planet, along with the earth itself. To be God’s people is to share from our abundance and privilege as we work for economic equity and opportunity for every human being to fulfill the life that God has given. To be God’s people is to join Jesus in bringing in the kingdom of God or, better, the beloved community of God, to reality right here, right now.
In looking for a quotation from Dietrich Bonhoeffer to commemorate the anniversary of his birth this week, I found these words: “I discovered later, and Iʹm still discovering, right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this‐worldliness I mean living unreservedly in lifeʹs duties, problems, successes and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world. That, I think, is faith.” To be God’s people is take seriously the suffering those of God in the world, those not knowing fully God’s embrace, those not trusting the everlasting arms. To be the people of God is to trust that God is with us, challenging us and sustaining us every step of the way.
In a sense, growing into the fullness of what it means to be God’s people brings us full circle, back to that sense of value and affirmation with which we began. In the beginning, when God created everything, including God’ people, God called it all good. God delighted in our being and blessed us. There are many ways we have wandered, many reasons we turn our backs on God, refusing to participate, many justifications for responding to the siren sounds that lure us away from God. But we always have the testimony of that boy, sitting in desolation and despair, who remembered that home was still there and who hoped against hope that God would be waiting with open arms. When he came to his senses he risked throwing himself completely into the arms of God. Who knows? In the process his life may have been transformed.
To be God’s people – to recognize the One to whom we belong, the One from whom we come and to whom we return. To be God’s people – to realize that home is waiting and to see that in that home there is room and resource for all people, indeed, for all creation. To be God’s people – to join joyfully with God in shared love and compassion, responsibility and care for that creation and all those people looking and longing to claim their identity as God’s people, whether they know it or not. To be God’s people – to throw ourselves into God’s everlasting arms, trusting that those arms are big enough and strong enough to hold the whole world, including us.
To be God’s people – to accept the challenge and to rest in the affirmation. May this be our journey in the year ahead and may God bless us every step of the way.
It seems that today’s worship service is, of necessity, a hybrid. To begin with it is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. As one liturgical year draws to a close and we anticipate a new one in the season of Advent, it seems appropriate to recognize and celebrate the fulfillment of the Christhood in life of the child whose birth we will soon recognize and celebrate. The story comes full circle and begins again. The little boy soon to be born once more ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God in glory.
And of course it is the season of the great US holiday, Thanksgiving, with its dual emphasis on family togetherness and conspicuous consumption. Surely we must sing either “Come, Ye Thankful People, Come” or “We Gather Together,” along with other songs of thankfulness for God’s blessings. Before facing “Black Friday and its aftermath, we will gather around tables groaning with the abundance of the feast. We will share the things for which we are grateful before eating ourselves into a stupor and falling asleep before televised football games or seasonal spectaculars.
Many congregations plan their annual stewardship drives to culminate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving, taking advantage of the generous spirit the season evokes. We are no exception. Today we have asked you to bring your pledges of support so that we might budget responsibly for the ministries of First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, in the coming year. Laura and I and others have asked and will continue to urge you to give generously in the spirit of gratitude for all that with which you have been blessed. As I have said once already this season, I am not embarrassed to ask you to give to support the budget because I believe in the ministries of this church and I believe in your witness as part of God’s beloved community. This congregation – that is, us – matters in this community and in the larger world as we worship, learn, care and serve together.
Then we have been on this journey with Brian McLaren, trying to understand how “we make the road by walking.” Because we need to move on to Advent next week, there were two chapters of the book and six wonderful scripture texts to consider for this week. If you’re not feeling a little overwhelmed by all this, you can rest assured that I am. However, undaunted by the overabundance of possibilities, we plunge ahead. Perhaps we will find a convergence of all the themes laid out before us for today. It is not unlike the rich array of dishes laid out for us at Friday’s Gratitude potluck, which, in the end, made a meal!
So let’s pick up where we left off last week. If you remember, our “Song for Sending Out” was the great hymn by Georgia Harkness, “Hope of the World.” This is one of my favorites and its words remained with me through the week, especially its opening phrase, “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion.”
I suppose on Christ the King Sunday the tendency is to think of Christ enthroned in glory. I know that when I googled images there was a rich collection of paintings, carvings and mosaics of the triumphant Christ, crowned in splendor. Still, there is something compelling in the Harkness image of Christ who, because of his compassion, is the hope of the world. We can glory in Christ ascendant. We can sing wholeheartedly the hymns to the Christ who reigns with God in heaven: “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto him that sitteth upon the throne…” But how well do we understand this God who takes on human form and dwells among us out of concern for the well-being of creation?
It’s a challenging paradox, this God of glory who is also the Christ of great compassion. Hear Harkness’s prayerful words once more:
Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion:
speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent.
Save us, your people, from consuming passion,
who by our own false hopes and aims are spent.
In the midst of abundance and celebration, do these words speak to you? Fearful hearts, conflict rent, consuming passion, false hopes and aims? Does any of that sound familiar? I think both Isaiah and Paul heard something of Harkness’s longing in today’s texts.
Paul is writing to a people by “conflict rent.” There was a battle going on among the Christ followers in Rome between Jews and Gentiles. If it was not an all out dispute between who was in and who was out, there was certainly tension between who was more and less favored. We may not be caught up in that particular conflict, but how many such battles can we identify in our world today and how many of them affect our own lives, at least indirectly? Can you name a few?
Paul says that this is the “hope” we find in the scriptures, that “…the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant[s us] to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together [we] may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” He goes on to explain how the Jewish Messiah is also the Christ who welcomes all, Gentiles included, from before the beginning of time. In Christ, Jews and Gentiles alike find their hope. Hope of the world – not just part of the world, not just some of the people, not just aspects of creation – it’s the whole wide world.
Perhaps Paul’s vision was well summarized in this morning’s special music:
Many members, one body; many hearts, one hope, one faith in You.
And when we disagree teach our eyes to see that we are one
in the family of faith, the family of faith, joined by the miracle of grace.
We are brothers, we are sisters…children of the one Creator of all.
So as we live and grow, help us always know, that we are one
in the family of faith…
Compassion does that to you. It makes you aware of all that’s around you. It helps you hear the hopes and fears, the dreams and challenges of others. It give you access to the hearts and minds of everyone you encounter, if you will let it function in yourself. This is one of the crucial identifying characteristics of the Christ, the capacity for compassion, to feel as the others feel, to see as the others see, to share, ironically, in a common humanity. Christ sees and understands our fearful hearts, our conflicts, consuming passions, false hopes and aims. Christ also shares our dreams and joys, our laughter and play, our communion with one another and all creation. Compassion offers a uniting vision of what the world might yet be.
Isaiah’s vision is somewhat different but perhaps still related. You may also remember from last week that I began my sermon with several “texts of terror” – Joshua’s instruction to obliterate the seven tribes that occupied Canaan and a couple of the more violent passages from the Psalms. These verses from the second chapter of Isaiah come as a kind of oasis in the grim landscape of destruction promised for a disobedient, unfaithful people. Most of the first chapter of Isaiah and much of what follows today’s text is a prophecy of doom, related to all those empires that have and will conquer Israel and Judah. “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:10-15).
Not exactly an encouraging word, is it? But here is the hope in these first verses of chapter 2. Walter Brueggemann points out a rhythm to Isaiah. He says, “For all its harshness, the tradition of Isaiah characteristically moves to hope” (Walter Brueggemann, Westminster Bible Companion, Isaiah 1-39, p. 24). He affirms that “There is hope, but it is deeply postsuffering hope. Yahweh’s wrath is deep and serious and will be outlasted only by Yahweh’s resolve to bring Jerusalem to its true and proper function as a place of justice. The poet looks historical threat full in the face but holds out for the holy purpose of Jerusalem…” (op. cit., p. 22). The day will come when the nations will stream to God’s holy mountain, seeking instruction in peace and justice: “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven,
bringing to hungry souls the bread of life:
still let your Spirit unto us be given
to heal earth’s wounds and end our bitter strife.
I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on the glitter of the holiday season. There is much to celebrate and much for which we can be grateful. Still, even in a time of celebration, it is important to remember that there is much to concern us in the world around us and in our own lives. There is still trouble all over this world and parties and shopping and even celebratory worship services will not make it less so. Maybe in this season we can celebrate and be grateful for the Hope of the World. Maybe we can be touched by the Christ of great compassion. Maybe we can share the hopes and fears, the joys and concerns of all those we encounter. Maybe we can learn to live in harmony with one another as one family of faith. Maybe we can beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. Maybe can pledge ourselves not to learn war anymore. Maybe we can heal the earth’s wounds and end all bitter strife.
Hope of the world, who by your cross did save us
from death and dark despair, from sin and guilt:
we render back the love your mercy gave us;
take now our lives and use them as you will. Amen.
Understand these words well:
You absolutely must achieve freedom!
You definitely must go down the path
that leads to the shore.
With an undaunted heart and singing
with a bold strong voice you will cross over.
You will have to breast the waves cheerfully
in spite of the storm’s blasts.
Even if the entanglements of illusions
cause you to reel in bewilderment
you will still have to get release.
On the path there are indeed thorns;
trampling on them,
you will have to go on.
Don’t die fearfully
while you hold dreams of happiness
tightly in your embrace.
In order to have your fill of life
You will have to sustain the blows of death.
As many of you know, it’s been a rough road lately in our home. Friends have lost loved ones, young children. We have lost family, a young man of twenty-two. The new year has been a bit rough thus far. But that is the way of things. So often I am inclined to think that there is ever a time without difficulty, without someone’s deep loss. I only imagine that there is a time free of loss and grief in the world. The truth is that there is never such a time.
This is why we must cultivate compassion. We must.
Suffering and death happen. We all get to do it. We may wish to live as if that were not true, our own mortality being too terrible a burden (understandably) for many. But today I am holding death up to the light and saying, once again, God does not give us suffering. God does not send us tests. The death of a loved one is not a test from the “God who so loved the world.” No. Never. Stop it.
Don’t do that to the one whom God loved so very much. God is kind, slow to anger, long-suffering. God is compassionate.
I have been reminded that we serve a God who suffers and dies every day, a crucified Christ. Suffering and death are not tests. They are never tests. Nor are they “gifts.”
The saying, “God never gives you more than you can handle” assumes we know a great deal about what God gives us in the first place. I’m not so certain we can know what God gives except to say God does not give us suffering. God does not give us death.
Instead, God suffers and dies.
Then there’s another poem. This one is from the Sufi poet Rumi. It goes something like this:
Today, like every other day, we wake up empty
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
A friend of mine recently said, “No matter how hard it gets I always say to myself, ‘I am glad to be alive.’” There is this thing we call joy, resurrection, suffering and death are never the end of the story. And though Lent will likely be a bit more deep and dark than usual for me this year, I am aware of where this season ends…
Death came calling much too early in my young life. As you have heard before, my father died when I was only 17 and he was 47. It was actually my second significant encounter with death. Our beloved church choir director and director of the Kiwanis Boys’ Choir, in which I had sung, died suddenly when I was 14 or 15. But it was my father’s death that shook me to my core. It was particularly painful to lose my father just as he and I were beginning to connect in ways we never had.
But that is not the end of the story. My dad died in July of 1964. Then in the summer of 1965, Jeannie Moore, with whom I had just graduated and with whom I had appeared in more than one play, was killed in a head on collision. Jeannie was the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor and a good friend. Summer began to feel haunted and that was only exacerbated the following summer when my beloved piano teacher, Mrs. Gorton, and her daughter were killed in another head on collision. There was a period of time in which I dreaded high summer.
In truth, death has come calling in my life with more regularity and force than I care to recall. I won’t go through the entire litany, but there have been many occasions when I have cried with Jeremiah, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” I know something of what it’s like to feel the pain and anguish of loss, to cry out to God, “Why me? Why now? Why this particular life cut short?”
Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” His laments have given rise to the term “jeremiad,” a description of a particularly heartfelt expression of pain and loss, a crying out from the very depths of the soul. But this form of lament is also a complaint about the unrighteousness and injustice of a people or a system.
In Bible study we wrestled with this text, as we do with many biblical texts of judgment. In one sense, if we take the text too literally, we encounter a God who strikes down people for their idolatry and misbehavior. We know that these are writings, millennia old, from a people who believed themselves called to be God’s people and also believed there were rewards and punishments for the ways in which people kept covenant with God. Jeremiah had been called, at a very young age, to warn the people of Judah of impending doom if they did not change their wicked ways. Theologically, we can understand the prophet’s use of the events of the time to draw attention to the ways people had wandered from their covenant relationship. Politically, it’s hard to imagine that the Babylonians would not have swept down and conquered Judah, even if they had been totally faithful to God.
We don’t serve a God who manipulates the world and its events to reward or punish us for unrighteousness. The rain falls on the just and unjust as does drought and famine. The machinations of emperors and empires play themselves out whether or not we are faithful to the Gospel. Viruses infect, hurricanes happen, people die without God pulling strings like some cosmic puppeteer. Much of what goes on in and around us is the result of the rhythm of life. They are naturally-occurring phenomena or the result of forces beyond our individual control.
Still, the prophet has a role, a word to proclaim, vital information to impart. It may come in archaic language that is difficult to decipher. But Jeremiah has something to tell us. His lament, his jeremiad serves a dual purpose. To begin with, Jeremiah is trying to tell his people that there are consequences for their behavior. How they handle what they can control of their individual and corporate lives will make some difference in the way those lives play out. It might not literally be the Babylonian exile, but there are consequences for turning your back on God and engaging in idolatrous practice. If nothing else, there is the ultimately painful and disorienting loss of that centering, sustaining relationship with the holy for which we were created.
John Holbert says of the first seven chapters of Jeremiah, “…we have listened to the prophet attack, abuse, and generally excoriate his own people for their lack of attention to YHWH’s demands for justice and righteousness, their complete lack of the knowledge of what YHWH wants from them, and their continuous attraction to other gods and their idols of one sort or another” (John C. Holbert, “What It Takes to Become a Prophet: Reflections on Jeremiah 8:18-9:1,” Opening the Old Testament, 9-15-2013, patheos.com). Regardless of the actual consequences, Jeremiah is speaking truth about the state of affairs in Judah. It is the prophetic role to call the people to accountability for their sinfulness. Jeremiah is much less invested in predicting the consequences of sin than he is in getting people to understand that they have strayed and there will be consequences.
The second and perhaps more important word from the prophet is caught up in today’s text. God and God’s prophet actually agonize over the consequences of sinfulness. There is no way God or Jeremiah want the people to suffer. They do not delight in the suffering and pain of the people. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” Is it God or the prophet who cries out? Does it really matter? God and God’s spokesperson share the anguish of their suffering people. I think the more instructive part of the jeremiad for us is to understand how God suffers with us than to focus on God’s vindictive or judgmental anger. God desires righteousness from us because God loves us and desires our well-being. God is angry when we screw up (as we frequently are angry with ourselves when we don’t do right) and God aches with us when we get it wrong or make a mess of things. Above all, God is about relationship. The God of compassion feels with us and for us and wants only the best for us, at the same wanting us to want the best for ourselves.
I am a Syrian refugee, living in a makeshift camp far from my home. Is there no balm in Gilead? I lost my beautiful six-year old to the random gunfire of a disturbed shooter. Is there no healer here? I live in a homeless encampment, they say the largest in the land, right in San Jose. Is there no shelter in Silicon Valley? My son committed suicide shortly after returning from his last tour of duty in Afghanistan. Is there no peace to be found on earth? My mortgage is underwater and I’m facing foreclosure on our family home. Where will we find home? My life partner is in the ICU and I am denied access because the state does not recognize our relationship. Where will we find acknowledgement and respect? The owner of my company made a fortune last year; I’m struggling to make ends meet. Is there economic equity anywhere? My sister was badly beaten because she insists on wearing her burqa. Will our neighbors ever see the family resemblance?
The market massacre in Nairobi, the Navy yard shooting, the gutting of the food stamp program, I could go on and on with a litany of violence, injustice, inequity, unrighteousness, not to mention natural disasters, asking the questions of those who lament the consequences. It is not God who is meting out punishment on these and others who suffer. All of these examples and others that you could easily add are the result of some failure to follow the way of the God who loves and lures us, the Christ who challenges us and calls us, the Spirit who convicts us and moves us. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Is there no remedy, no comfort, no justice, no compassion, no peace to be found among God’s people on God’s earth?
In one sense, Jeremiah leaves us hanging. Is there balm in Gilead? He leaves us to answer the question for ourselves and for one another. The truth is that the healing riches of Gilead remained. They existed. They were available. The question was how to access them for those in need? It is ironic that our song of reflection takes the text and answers the question with certainty. “There is a balm in Gilead” sang the slaves from the midst of their pain and suffering, from the heart of injustice and inequity, from the depths of sorrow and longing for freedom. “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” They knew it was true because they lived their lives to make it so. Their faith and their community, born of sacred relationship, was balm that healed and made whole.
Here I am reminded of that old parable of heaven and hell. As the story goes, Rabbi Haim once ascended to the firmaments. He reported, “I first went to see Hell and the sight was horrifying. Row after row of tables were laden with platters of sumptuous food, yet the people seated around the tables were pale and emaciated, moaning in hunger.
“As I came closer, I understood their predicament. Every person held a full spoon, but both arms were splinted with wooden slats so he could not bend either elbow to bring the food to his mouth. It broke my heart to hear the tortured groans of these poor people as they held their food so near but could not consume it.
“Next I went to visit Heaven. I was surprised to see the same setting I had witnessed in Hell – row after row of long tables laden with food. But in contrast to Hell, the people here in Heaven were sitting contentedly talking with each other, obviously sated from their sumptuous meal.
“As I came closer, I was amazed to discover that here, too, each person had his arms splinted on wooden slats that prevented him from bending his elbows. How, then, did they manage to eat?
“As I watched, a man picked up his spoon and dug it into the dish before him. Then he stretched across the table and fed the person across from him! The recipient of this kindness thanked him and returned the favor by leaning across the table to feed his benefactor.
“I suddenly understood. Heaven and Hell offer the same circumstances and conditions. The critical difference is in the way the people treat each other” (“Allegory of the Long Spoons,” wikipedia.com).
Is there balm in Gilead? There is. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.
After a particularly trying week last week, this week has seemed calmer. Beautiful weather helps, as do the many words of affirmation and hope that people have penned. As followers of Jesus, we are caught up in the very specific challenge to love one another, in particular, our enemies. This is never easy and the closer, more real, more evil our enemies seem, the more difficult the challenge. I want to focus on two of the lectionary texts this week. The first is Jesus “new commandment” as recorded in John 13, to “love one another as I (Jesus) have loved you.” That little qualifier at the end of the sentence throws the challenge of love into an entirely different dimension. We know something of love from our individual collective experiences, but to love as Jesus loved? With the same compassion, forgiveness, grace? That is going to take some work!
I see the story of Peter and Cornelius, as recounted in Acts 11, as a very specific illustration of what “loving as Jesus loved” might look like. Peter is challenged to grow far beyond his comfort zone in the service of a God who is much more inclusive than Peter had ever imagined. “You just keep bringing the good news, Peter. God will make sure there is room at the table for everyone who hears and desires to join in the feast.”
We also have the privilege of having Robert Wilkins with us Sunday to share an update on the American Baptist Seminary of the West. Robert, who heads the YMCA of the East Bay is a delightful person. I hope you will all stay to hear him in the Adult Spiritual Formation hour.
See you on Sunday at 10 as we as we gather as Christ’s beloved community. Invite someone to come with you.
May God’s new thing flourish within us and among us. Pastor Rick