Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sermon for September 15, 2013

Hot Winds from Barren Heights
with gratitude to Dr. John Holbert at for clarifying some of my thoughts on Jeremiah! Much of the language of this sermon belongs to him.
I only had one couple walk out during the sermon this week . . . 

Few confrontations in sports are as personal and dramatic as a batter standing in against a pitcher with a baseball game on the line. The batter adjusts his helmet, tightens his batting gloves, digs into the batter's box and looks toward the mound. The pitcher fingers a rosin bag and drops it, stares at the catcher for a sign, then grips the ball in his glove and begins his windup. If the pitch is a Major League fastball, it will reach the plate in less than half a second.

How do you even begin to think of hitting that ball? I played baseball . . . once. The ball hit me more than I hit it. It turns out, elite MLB hitters have an average visual acuity of 20/12. That means they can see from 20 feet away what I would have to stand at 12 feet away to see. Elite players are born with a higher density of cones in their eyes. If their eyes were like a digital camera, they see with more mega pixels than the average person. For instance, Reggie Jackson said he could see the actual rotation of a pitch coming out of a pitcher's hand by looking at those tiny red threads in the ball. A professional baseball slugger simply sees more than most of us.

Some people see in ways that the average person just can’t. The Prophets of Israel are like that. They do not see as we see. Their sight is deeper. Expanded. Heightened. Sharpened. They observe more profoundly than our overly literal eyes are capable of seeing.  Most of us are like newspaper reporters, asking the straightforward questions: where, when, what, who, just gimme the facts. The prophets help reveal deep structures that affect the ways we need to see and live. Because they see life in all its glory and all its terror, they are able to describe it to us and help us move beyond the obvious, the simple facts of things.

The Prophet Jeremiah calls people to experience life on this deeper level. In some ways, history portrays Jeremiah as a failure. He is best remembered as the sorrowing prophet who mourns the destruction of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon. Today, I want to remember him as one who sees in ways that we cannot.  Listen for a word from God as told through the Prophet Jeremiah . . .
The time is coming when the LORD will say
    to the people of Jerusalem,
“My dear people, a burning wind is blowing in from the desert,
    and it’s not a gentle breeze useful for winnowing grain.
 It is a roaring blast sent by me!
My people are foolish
    and do not know me,” says the LORD.
“They are stupid children
    who have no understanding.
They are clever enough at doing wrong,
    but they have no idea how to do right!”
 I looked at the earth, and it was empty and formless.
    I looked at the heavens, and there was no light.
I looked at the mountains and hills,
    and they trembled and shook.
I looked, and all the people were gone.
    All the birds of the sky had flown away.
 I looked, and the fertile fields had become a wilderness.
    The towns lay in ruins,
    crushed by the LORD’s fierce anger.
This is what the LORD says:
“The whole land will be ruined,
    but I will not destroy it completely.
The earth will mourn
    and the heavens will be draped in black
because of my decree against my people.
    I have made up my mind and will not change it.”
I will pronounce your destruction!”  Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28
Jeremiah speaks during dark days of Jerusalem's collapsing life. He does much of his writing during the reign of an Israelite King named Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim’s father was a well-loved religious reformer. But the son is a bumbling, self-indulgent novice. Jeremiah can see what’s really going on. He sees the beginning of the end of the people of Israel. The bloodthirsty nation of Assyria has been overthrown by the Babylonians. Egyptian allies in the south are useless against the threat. The Babylonian King threatens to make Israel a vassal state with a puppet ruler. King Jehoiakim seems to be better at building massive palaces than taking care of the real work of a king – like matter of justice and righteousness.

As a result of Jerusalem's foolish leadership, Jeremiah reaches for some dangerous and frightening metaphors to suggest what God is about to do. Jeremiah calls it "A burning wind from the desert . . . a roaring blast.” One translation calls it “A hot wind from barren heights.” It is a tempest straight from God, and its intent is pure destruction.

Why? Why would God destroy the people? This is just playing into the perception that the God of Hebrew Scripture is a prickly and impatient God of wrath. What would provoke God to such an extent? According to Jeremiah, God says, "My people are ridiculous; they do not know me . . .  they have no perception. They are wise in evil-doing, but know nothing of doing good.”  Scorching desert heat is a sign that God's anger burns against a people who have forgotten how to act with justice and loving-kindness. Jeremiah, the prophet with his heightened sense of reality, can see the spin on the baseball, so to speak. He can see the fastball pitch coming. He feels the scorching heat of God’s anger before anyone else. And he calls people to open their eyes to what is coming.

I cannot read the words of Jeremiah without thinking of the hot winds from barren places that blow and burn in our own times. The world is, beyond doubt, getting warmer due to our 150-year love affair with fossil fuels. The atmosphere above us is laden with slightly more than 400 million parts of CO2 gas, insuring a temperature rise over the next decades of somewhere between two to five degrees.  Some see this catastrophe more clearly than the average person and they have sounded the alarm. The earth is in for massive changes. Ice melt. Ocean rise. Coastal flooding and population dispersion will result. That’s the best-case scenario.

Listen again to Jeremiah in the light of that scenario: "I looked on the earth, and look! It was without light. I looked at the mountains, and look! Quaking! And at the hills, reeling and rolling! I looked and look! No one at all! All the birds of the skies had fled! I looked and look! All the cities were smashed before God's awesome anger!" It sounds terrifyingly relevant to our own situation. Prophets calls us to understand. To take responsibility. To change.

Jeremiah uses a Hebrew phrase to describe all this. Tohu wabohu. This phrase is used only two times in Hebrew Scripture. It means “waste and void” or “chaotic and empty,” or “lack of balance and order.” Do you know where else the phrase appears? It’s in opening words of the Bible -- from Genesis 1:2: In the beginning, the earth was tohu wabohu -- formless and empty -- and darkness covered the deep waters. Tohu wabohu. The words sound mysterious and eerie.  In the beginning, the earth is dark and chaotic, with a howling wind roaring over the endless waters of the vast deep. Into that monstrous place, God brings light and the world begins to form.

Tohu wabohu. Jeremiah uses the exact same phrase from the story of creation. The behavior of God’s people is so terrible that the earth is reversing itself and returning to empty chaos. It is a world that does not know God. A world with no light. A world where the skies are only shadows, the birds have disappeared, and human beings are gone. Human sin leads to cosmic cataclysm where the whole earth is compromised.

Jeremiah isn’t talking about the ecological catastrophes of our time, but the implications are the same. Where are the great and eloquent prophets who warn us of the consequences of our wanton actions? Without doubt, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, along with all humans are under threat from the certain heating of the planet. It is time for us to act. We need massive changes in our behaviors if we all are to live on this blue ball of earth. We all need prophets to help us as we sharpen our eyes and find conversion in our hearts. We need people who can help us to the love and serve of our earth, rather than profit from its unimpeded exploitation.

Jeremiah has a prophetic idea that other prophets before him did not see. Jeremiah insists that human action is the way to redeem the world. All is no not hopeless. Now is not the time to wait for some Holy Other to intervene. The message of Jeremiah is as urgent today as it was twenty-six centuries ago. Even when it feels like the opportunity has passed, even when it feels like we are doomed, it’s never too late to act. Do people take action against all that is wrong in today’s world? The answer is mixed at best. The world is still struggling to become compassionate and truly humane. It’s is up to people, it’s up to us, to effect change.

I get restless when I see us offer less than what God intends for the world. It’s not just the environment. It’s about poverty. It’s about racism and exclusion. It’s about just government. It’s about fair economic life. We ask the Spirit of God to expand our vision and transforms our priorities.  We do not eat alone; everyone needs to eat. Empowered by God, we can act, pray, and hope that we can build the sufficient, sustainable world that God wants for people.

Many months ago, I shared this poem by Drew Dellinger, called “hieroglyphic stairway.” I’d like to read it again:
it's 3:23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do
I think God uses the prophets to ask the same questions to us.
What did we do when our economic household was being plundered?
What did we do when our democracy unravelled?
Did we fill the streets when equality was stolen?
What will we tell our great, great grandchildren?
What did we do once we knew?

We can realize a new vision if enough of us join together to make it happen. This new dream foresees a world where hot winds from barren heights are taken over by the cool springs of grace. It’s a world where our love for getting and spending is tempered by the growth of human solidarity and devotion to the public good; a world where the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared; a world where the environment is sustained for current and future generations; a world where the virtues of simple living, community self-reliance, good fellowship, and respect for nature predominate.

Surely we did something when the seasons started failing. Surely we saw the anger of God. Surely we heard the plaintive cry of God’s world. Surely we took some responsibility. Surely we can do some good. Surely we are not made for chaos and emptiness. Surely, God has more light to shine into our chaotic days. Surely it’s never too late to act.


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