Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Yet Older Way

Image: "Sparrow" by GorFor, distributed under a CC BY license.

Sermon preached at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, Indianapolis
September 15, 2019

Readings: Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28Psalm 141 Timothy 1:12-17Luke 15:1-10

Audio File

Good morning – I know many of you, but for those of you I don’t know, I’m Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, and I serve on Bishop Jennifer’s staff as Canon to the Ordinary for Administration and Evangelism. I bring you Bishop Jennifer’s greetings. It is my privilege to be among you today. Thank you to Amma Susan for the invitation.

I hope you will indulge me as I read the passage from Jeremiah again:

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-- a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.
"For my people are foolish,
they do not know me;
they are stupid children,
they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil,
but do not know how to do good."
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins
before the Lord, before his fierce anger.

For thus says the Lord: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end.
Because of this the earth shall mourn,
and the heavens above grow black;
for I have spoken, I have purposed;
I have not relented nor will I turn back.

In 2002 I quit church. I didn’t have any particular thought or premeditation behind it. It’s just one Sunday I didn’t go, and then the next, and before I knew it I was just a person who didn’t go to church any more.

I hadn’t stopped believing in God, exactly, but clearly my relationship with God had changed. God was now more of an idea I held, rather than the ground of my being with whom I cultivated an active relationship.

That is, until January of 2004. Late in that month there was a massive winter storm one night, coating Indianapolis with two or three inches of ice.

“Don’t go outside,” the radio cautioned, but I was an invincible twenty-something, still, so I left my apartment building downtown, going out the back door and into the alley, and made it all of three steps on the slick ice before losing my balance and crashing down. As I attempted to get back up I noticed that something was very wrong with the angle of my left foot. I realized I wasn’t going anywhere, and began to shout for help.

As it turned out I had a triple fracture in my ankle, requiring surgery and two nights in the hospital. I have metal plates in there to this day.

Now at the time, I lived downtown but worked in Carmel, and was going to school at night at IUPUI in pursuit of an MBA. And I had just broken my left ankle…and the car I drove was a stickshift. I may have been up from the alley and walking around on crutches, but I still wasn’t going anywhere.

Yet somehow, people came out of the woodwork. A rotating team of three people got me from my apartment to my office, and then from my office to IUPUI, and then from IUPUI back to my apartment. More importantly, perhaps, my 2004 New Year’s resolution was to quit smoking, for real this time. This fall came just as I was about to cave in, but now, suddenly, I couldn’t go to the grocery store or drug store or anywhere without being supervised by a friend, and they were not going to let me get away with buying a pack. They carried me through the most difficult part of kicking that addiction and I haven’t touched a cigarette since.

As I reflected on my circumstances I began to perceive this as a time that God was particularly active in my life. I mean, I’m not saying God actually broke my ankle – but I am saying God didn’t let that injury go to waste. Despite my abandonment God had not abandoned me. This experience showed me how much I was surrounded by people who cared for me. And not only did the injury in my ankle heal, my lungs did, too, and the piece of my will I had given to nicotine became my own again.

In thanksgiving for this miracle, this lost sheep started going back to church, and, obviously, I’m still here.

It is dangerous for us to ascribe any particular disaster to the hand of God. The discernment of a divine message in suffering is properly reserved solely to the one who suffers. To do otherwise, to be a faith that valorizes victimization, is a corruption that makes cruelty the condition of grace.

But it is the prerogative of a victim to interrogate the meaning of his or her own pain, to inquire whether God has a message that could not be conveyed any other way. As a member of the people of Israel whose kingdom has been swept away in the triumph of Babylon, Jeremiah had standing to interpret why God had allowed the defeat of the kingdom of his own chosen people. And in it, Jeremiah did discern the hand of God at work.

A wind is coming from God from the heights over Jerusalem, not a refreshing breeze, nor even the sort of wind that clears trash from supermarket parking lots; it is a wind too strong for that. And in contrast to
the Spirit of God moving over the face of the deep at the beginning of creation, this breath from God seeks to destroy.

The reason, God says, hurling insults at the chosen people, is that they are foolish, stupid children, wise only in the ways of evil, ignorant in doing good.

This is a harsh restatement of something God says a few chapters back in Jeremiah’s text, That “My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.” (Jer. 2:13) In other words trusting their own skills over God’s gifts – with the results you would expect.

And that sin in turn is just another permutation of that first sin in the garden, the one that is our common possession as humans, when Adam and Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptation “to eat [the fruit], [so] your eyes will be open, and you will be like God.” (Gen. 3:5)

God’s punishment for the betrayal in Eden is to cast Adam and Eve from the Garden.

God’s punishment for this betrayal is a near-total undoing of the first chapter of Genesis: cities fall, flowering fields turn to desert, the birds flee away, and all the stars are snuffed out. The earth remains with quaking mountains, a desolate ruin.

In the destruction of his beloved kingdom, Jeremiah discerns the voice and the will of an angry God: “I have spoken, I have purposed, I have not relented, nor will I turn back.”

And yet within this menace is a kernel of hope – for God also says: “I will not make a full end.”

The wrath will come, but: God will not make a full end.

For this is a wrath born of heartbreak: “What wrong did your ancestors find in me, That they went far from me?” (Jer. 2:5) God asks, abandoned by his beloved people.

Did you ever have a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point in your life, and so you cleared out the picture frames and photo albums, and these days, I guess, your social media feeds, too, but just tucked one or two pictures away in a drawer as a token of the good moments that were, the possibilities that might have been? That’s sort of what God’s doing here.

This great wave of destruction Jeremiah describes – the smoldering battlefield – may feel a bit far off to us here in 2019. But one of the commentaries I refer to frequently, The Interpreter’s Bible, which I inherited from my grandfather’s library, was published in 1956. And to its authors, this passage was very real. They had just experienced the cataclysm of two world wars and the growing menace of the atomic age.

And now, here in Indiana – how far away is calamity, really? California wildfires wipe whole towns off the map. Schools, nightclubs, Wal-mart parking lots become killing fields. In this city school bus stops turn into murder scenes. And this week we observed the anniversary of an attack that killed thousands, and covered lower Manhattan in dust and ash.

Even if the nature and scale of these disasters don’t match the picture Jeremiah paints, surely the corruption of our current age does. The human tendency to trust ourselves more than God has left us vulnerable to the enemy’s snares. We have been assailed by the malaise of materialism, which leads us to see wealth and mistake it for virtue, and to see poverty, and mistake it for sloth. Politicians and pundits fan flames of division that seek to turn hearts to ash. And God will allow this to happen to those who have ceased to feed  on “the words that fall from the mouth of God,” (Deut. 8:3) but instead pursued worthless things, and become worthless themselves. (Jer. 2:5) Beware: “those people” may well be us.

This is not a forecast of destruction, but if it came, would it be unwarranted?

In this critical hour, when the institutions of government and the values of our culture have so utterly failed to yield the beloved community that is God’s intent for this world, the church faces a particular challenge.

But what is the church to do? It can feel hopeless when the church
has lost its social standing: whether due to the hateful and hypocritical
excesses of Christianity’s loudest voices or the general winds of secularization. Our old ways of doing things, of making Very Important Statements to a world that is no longer listening, simply don’t work.

So we need to go to a yet older way to receive strength for these times.

Consider Jeremiah’s birds. Israel’s cities are destroyed. Its fertile fields have turned into wastelands. The stars are dark.

But the birds are not destroyed: Jeremiah tells us they have fled. Which means they have somewhere to go.

Like Noah’s dove taking wing over the waters of the great flood in search of dry ground, these birds have departed their roosts, flying through smoke and over sand, in pursuit of a safe place to call home.

And I am convinced that they found one. In fleeing God’s wrath, they have flown toward God’s mercy in the most intimate way. As the psalmist writes: “Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts.” (Ps. 84:3). These tiny birds nest in the shadow of God’s altar, hatching eggs and teaching fledglings to fly.

And so the effect of God’s wrath is to bring creation closer to its creator.

This shouldn’t surprise us. When God created the heavens and the earth and the garden of Eden, God descended to walk the gardens in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8). God descended into a burning bus to make Moses the promise of freedom. The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples on Pentecost. God descended to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, and even though he died by our sins, he refused to allow death to be the end. And at the very end, John’s Revelation tells us, God’s holy city, the New Jerusalem, will descend to earth.

So the testimony of scripture is clear: God desires a relationship with us –
HERE – and if the effect of concern for God’s judgment is to drive us to make like a sparrow and fly to the warm, dry shelte of God’s altar where we can abide in God’s love, so much the better. God wants us there, under the shadow of his wings.

In a few moments, we will turn our attention to this holy table, where in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood, the gift Jesus left us so that we can stay in companionship with him, God is waiting to meet us.

Approach with courage, for you are stepping forth to encounter a God with the power to level cities and lay waste to mountains. This God expects something from us: to be God’s emissaries, hands, and feet, proclaimers of the Good News of redemption in Jesus Christ. But not one of us is fully worthy to stand before him.

When God called the prophet Isaiah, Isaiah protested in his unworthiness, “I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,” and an angel touched his lips with a burning coal (Isa. 6:5-6) to prepare him to declare the judgment, love, and liberation of the Lord.

Now you, come forward bravely and humbly. In these simple elements of bread and wine, God reaches out to purify your heart, strengthen your soul, and unite your will to the divine will. This communion contains within it the power to make rough places smooth, crooked roads straight, to bring down mountains and to raise the dead – and, to ignite in you a flame of love powerful enough to heal this broken world.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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