Thursday, July 9, 2020

Followers of the humble King; heralds of hope!

     My conversations the last few have involved quite a bit of reflection on the part of patriotic citizens.  The pandemic has exposed just how little our elected leadership really cares about us.  Everything associated with staying well, even something as simple as the wearing of masks, has become a question of political fidelity.  So long as they get re-elected, our leaders has demonstrated their lack of care, if not outright contempt, for us.
     The recent protests, riots, and conversations have also caused a bit of uncomfortable reflection.  Most of grew up in an age where we were taught that America was the shining example for the world.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness was our mantra.  Better still, if you worked hard, you could experience the American dream.  Now, much to our dismay, we are learning that our country did not provide the same opportunities for all her citizens.  There are some decks stacked against folk, luck plays a big role in getting ahead, and hard work is no guarantee of success.
     As folks have learned more about these imbalances and injustices, other conversations have occurred.  People of color are being bombarded by their white friends with all kinds of questions.  In some cases, people of color are feeling hounded by their white friends into sharing their stories.  And then, once the stories are out there, the conversations can get super uncomfortable.  Some white friends want absolution or moral judgments that they aren’t like other white folks, and people of color are put in the difficult decision of deciding how much to trust us.  Is this the time we pay attention and fix things?  Or will this be like every other protest that came before.  And what do they do with our blindness or oblivious or privileged reality that allowed their white friends not to see or to hear their stories?  Yeah, I see the squirms.
     In one conversation that stands out a bit, I was engaged in a discussion with a younger Adventer, though an adult.  Schoolhouse Rock made its way to Disney during Coronatide.  She wanted to know why she’d never seen it.  To refresh your memories, Schoolhouse Rock was the Saturday morning cartoon commercials that taught us parts of speech, taught us about our ethos as a melting pot, taught us math, and even taught us that Interplanet Janet knew Pluto was a planet!  You are all laughing this morning, but few under age 30 ever saw Schoolhouse Rock.  I can remember Mrs. Johnson threatening taking off a full letter grade in American History if we broke into song while reciting the Preamble to the Constitution, and our younger members would not even recognize the tune if I hummed it this morning.  What has happened to us?
     In another outside group, I was reminded this week of a crowd favorite in Nashville.  That discussion began with a complaint that folks in California are wanting to rename John Wayne Airport out in Los Angeles.  Apparently, John Wayne was not the most morally upright character.  I am shocked that an actor or actress is not a beacon of morality—as I have a mask on, and we have visitors, let’s be absolutely clear that was my sarcasm voice.  I never turn to Hollywood to teach me how to behave properly in pretty much anything.  There was great consternation regarding the discussion in this group.  John Wayne was a hero to them.  Truthfully, I could not bring myself to care much about the discussion.  I know John Wayne played heroic characters, but I could not tell you a single thing about his real life.
     That discussion got one of the members of the group to bring up Johnny Cash’s old . . . ballad?  I don’t know what we rightly call it, but it was a really long song when I was a kid.  It talked about the flag being tattered with bullet holes in Smalltown, USA.  It told the story of the stories the flag had seen.  The setting was Johnny on a bench with an older gentleman, and the older gentleman instructing the younger that the community was proud of the flag and the nation for which it stood.  America was not a perfect nation, but it was trying hard.  One day, it might even get there.
     I have seen lots of nods, so I am guessing I am speaking into a number of other conversations.  Those who have served wonder if the country will survive another generation or two.  Law enforcement officials are fighting resentment—they are hated and despised until those that hate them need them.  Our leadership demonstrates repeatedly they care only for the own aggrandizement and not the well-being of our citizens.  Even police reform, which is the stated purpose of the protests, has become an election issue rather than an issue to be solved and voted upon in the manner in which our government operates.  Things are not the way they were meant to be!  And most of us probably are certain America has given up its professed aspirations.
     Mercifully, our reading assigned for today is from the prophet Zechariah.  My guess is that, if I asked you all to tell me what you know about Zechariah, the only thing you would know is the passage from which we read today.  Each year, we celebrate the Triumphal Entry of Christ into Jerusalem.  You know the day as Palm Sunday.  Yes, Zechariah is THAT prophet.  Zechariah is the prophet to whom the Gospel writers turn when they look to the prophesy that God’s Anointed would enter in humility.  It will, because of that familiarity I think, be challenging for us to hear the words in the context in which they were delivered.  But given the similarity between our context and that of Zechariah’s initial audience, it is certainly worth exploring on this weekend when we celebrate our Independence, when we remind ourselves that we are called by God to represent Him in the world around us, that we are ambassadors of His, planted in this country to speak with His voice, to see with His eyes, to desire the things He desires in His heart.
     Those who come to Sunday morning Bible study are certainly familiar with the time.  Most of the commentaries I turned to put the date of first Zechariah at around 520 BC.  To place it in the biblical record, and to remind ourselves where we are in history, this comes many years after Jeremiah.  Last week, we read the battling prophesies of Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Hananiah famously prophesied that those Israelites carried off into Exile by Babylon would be returned within two years, along with all the stolen vessels and artifacts from the Temple.  In dramatic flair, Hananiah even took Jeremiah’s wooden yoke and broke it, signifying that Israel subjugation by Babylon was coming to an end.
     For His part, Jeremiah wished Hananiah’s prophesy was true.  Jeremiah longs for the return of those in Exile and the Temple vessels, but Jeremiah is certain it is not going to happen any time soon.  Israel is stiff-necked.  Israel refuses to repent and return to Yahweh and His instructions.  God gives Jeremiah the prophesy that Hananiah’s will prove false, that Hananiah will be dead before the year ends, and Babylon’s subjugation of Israel will intensify.  As an outward sign of that prophesy, God commanded Jeremiah to wear an iron yoke.  Not surprising to this group assembled today on this holiday weekend in Nashville, Jeremiah’s prophesy has proven true.  Hananiah dies within a few months of his false prophesy.  The exiles are not returned within two years, nor are the Temple vessels brought back.  And, true to the image of the yoke, Babylon’s enslavement of Israel has become more rigid, more firm.  Years have passed before our reading today.  Israel knows Jeremiah was correct, but most folks refused to repent and return to God.
     For the faithful remnant, though, the experience has been horrific.  I have reminded you over and over that the possession of the Land was the outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace.  Just as your partaking of the Eucharist today is a pledge of God’s promises to you, ownership of the Land, the family plot, was a pledge of God’s promises to them.  Nobody owns their plots.  Worse, they are enslaved by Babylon.  Their leaders’ sons and daughters are serving the king.  Temple sacrifices are no longer happening.  And, just to rub it in from time to time, the king has parties and uses the Temple vessels to demonstrate the power of Marduk over Yahweh.
     The cosmological understanding prevalent throughout the Mediterranean basin was that the things that happened on earth were happening in the heavens AND the things that were happening in the heavens were mirrored by events on earth.  Think of it as a symbiotic relationship.  We would pray to our God and offer sacrifices.  The more faithfully we did this, the stronger our god got.  The stronger our god was, the better he could fight the other gods OR the more our god could bless us when we fought those who worshipped other gods.  The people of Israel were famously derided and mocked for their refusal to ignore that certainty.  Even when they were exiled and their God had clearly lost, the faithful remnant refused to worship or acknowledge other gods.  They remained true to Him and His promises.
     But let’s think of the weight of that faithfulness.  Everybody around them mocked them for their loyalty in spite of the evidence.  Their refusals to worship other gods prevented them from being seen as part of the communities where they had been moved.  The temptation to follow the herd would have been strong.
     Theologically speaking, the faithful people of Israel were worried that God had finally given up on them.  These last acts and refusals to repent according to the word of Jeremiah had caused Yahweh’s patience finally to run out.  The Temple was no more.  David’s descendants had been carried off into slavery.  There was no chance of them being restored to the throne.  Plus, a lot of people chose to do as the cultures around them demanded in order to fit in, to experience a less burdensome life.
     Talk about hopelessness and depression on a grand scale.  Sound familiar?  Feel familiar?
     It is into that morass that Zechariah is given these words to speak.  Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter, Jerusalem!  Lo, your king comes to you . . . I know we are familiar with these words from the Palm Sunday liturgy, but can you imagine how ridiculous they sounded in the ears of faithful, remnant Israel in Babylon and scattered around the western basin?  Can you imagine how crazy their gentile neighbors would have seen them, had they rejoiced and held out any hope that their king would return?  Yet that is precisely the promise made by God.
     Of course, as good a promise as that sounds, God has more in mind.  This king who comes to Israel will come humble and riding on a colt, the foal of a donkey.  We spend a bit of time each year noticing the difference between Pilate’s triumphal entry, as an ambassador of Caesar, and the triumphal entry of Jesus of Nazareth.  They could not be more different.  Pilate enters on the warhorse, with the battalions at parade ready.  Caesar’s rule is absolute.  And, as bad as Israel might find Caesar as a conqueror, at least he left the Temple standing and most of them in their lands.  All they have to do to keep Caesar from hurting or humiliating them more is to obey the laws and to pay their taxes.
     Babylon, by contrast, has uprooted Israel and torn down the Temple.  Now they live in foreign lands and may not speak the language.  And there is no opportunity to fulfill the sacrifices required by the torah.  And God’s prophet is claiming the king will come in a humble manner, as if Babylon will just decide not to fight him to keep Israel enslaved.  It’s nuts.
     Zechariah, of course, is still not finished.  This king will command peace!  Have you ever heard anything that crazy?  Imagine you have been carted off by a conquering nation and dispersed to keep you from fomenting civil unrest.  The king is going to come, and your current overlords are just going to accept his command to peace?  What must they thought the prophet was thinking?  It would have been well received as if I stood here today telling you that our next President is going to command unity.  Those are definite scoffing noises in the sanctuary.  I hope none of you at home spit out your coffee on your devices.
     Where were we?  Oh, yeah, the humble king is going to command peace.  He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem.  The instruments of warfare will be broken.  And somehow, somehow this humble king who commands peace will see his dominion extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.
     If I prophesied this today, would you accept it?  Would you believe it?  If I had strolled to the pulpit and read the words of the prophet Zechariah and gave you no context, no background, would you accept it as the word of God I today?  Keep in mind, we are plagued by a pandemic!  (pun intended)  We are experiencing social awakening and unrest.  We are experiencing economic destruction.  We are participating in how many conflicts around the world.  And I have not even gotten to the personal stuff, the things that make us wonder whether God has given up on us.
     Today is a Healing Sunday.  We will have Adventers come forward, I hope, for healing.  In some cases, Adventers have been coming forward for months or longer and, as far as they are concerned, He has not heard their cry.  Death stalks a couple members so closely that their loved ones can feel it, see it, fear it.  The anxiety levels of folks are off the chart thanks to all those macro events I mentioned a few seconds ago.  Family relationships are, to use a kind word, frayed.  Many of us have experienced that truism that family is like fish.  The longer they hang around . . . . lol.  Some of us are worried that we are seeing the Goths come over the walls in Rome, that we are living in the demise of our nation, our nation that most of us love, that many of us served, and that we valued because it set the bar so high.  And, just in case we forget, we have a general election in just four months.  Those ads on television and radio and those wonderful declarations on social media are not likely to get kinder and softer and allay any anxieties.
     We are not unlike those who first heard Zechariah’s words from God.
     Of course, if we trusted God, if we had faith that He really was Who He said He was and that He had power to keep all His promises, we would have received those words gladly, eagerly!  Still, it is not enough for God!  God realizes our hurts, our doubts, our fears, and our anxieties.  Loving Father that He is, He even speaks to those in this amazing word.  Today I declare I will restore you to double.  In the midst of all that evidence to the contrary in the world, in the midst of that maelstrom of strong feelings and anxieties, God reminds His people of His love for them.  He reminds each and every member of Israel, male or female, that He will restore them double.  In our world, however many years and miles removed, we do not hear the promise of the firstborn.  God loves all His children like a firstborn.
     We think of Israel as an agrarian society and in need big families to tend the family farm.  In some cases, that was true just as it was for other cultures in the world.  But children had a sacramental role in Israel.  They were the outward sign of the inward and spiritual grace of God.  To the people of Israel, a firstborn was a sign of the continuing covenant with God for that family.  They might not get to share in the reign of Messiah themselves, but so long as there was a firstborn, God’s covenant would be assured for another generation.  And the possibility that one of their own descendants might experience those blessings caused faithful Israelites to give thanks to God by redeeming the firstborn.  Israel was also meant to understand that wonderful proverb from SpiderMan—with great power comes great responsibility.  Because the firstborn sons were responsible for caring for their parents in their old age, they were lavished with a double portion of inheritance.  Yes, they received more, but they were expected to bear more.  And here is God, reminding Israel in the midst of their utter defeat and ridicule, that He will restore them to double.  There should be no fears about the validity of the covenant.  There should be no fears about God’s continuing love of them.
     You and I, of course, have it even easier.  We live on this side of the fulfilment of the first promise in this prophesy.  Our humble King has come!  He has even gone so far as to command peace, but we do not listen.  We do not yet obey.  Better still, of course, we live on this side of His Passion and Cross, we live on this side of His Resurrection, we live on this side of His Ascension, and we live on this side of the coming of the Holy Spirit!
     Each one of us who has undergone the sacrament of Baptism has found ourselves bound inexorably to the Lord God Almighty, and we have been reminded that He binds Himself inexorably to us.  When we suffer, He suffers.  When we mourn, He mourns.  When we are mocked or derided or dishonored, He is likewise mocked and derided and dishonored.  And He promises to each one of us that one day, one glorious day, He will return not as the humble King who entered Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey wooing the people of the earth to choose to follow Him, to listen to Him, to obey Him, but as THE KING, as the One to Whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey.  That day, my friends, He returns to fulfill the last of His promises to His people, to wipe away every tear, to give us those eyes and ears and hearts for which we have longed, to dwell with His people, and to restore His children with double.  But armored with that Word of hope, confidant of His redeeming power, we are sent back out there, back into the wildernesses of our lives to bear witness by word and deed, of His saving grace.
     Like what does that double restoration look?  As varied and as our ministries.  What have you lost?  What has been taken from you?  What have you offered Him in thanksgiving for His saving work in you?  We each have different answers to those questions.  Similarly, we are each prepared uniquely for our work in the world.  Our talents and passions and crosses are as numerous as the sands in the oceans or stars in the skies.  On this day we remind ourselves of the opportunities we have to serve Him in this country where we were planted.  Historically, Advent’s history has been in service to the poor, to those enslaved in our midst, and to those who have lost everything.  We are uniquely equipped as a congregation to be those who speak to power even as we minister to those on the margins.  In some sense, the tasks appointed may seem daunting.  How do we change complex systems?  How do we empower those from whom all power has been taken?  How do we helped nudge this country along in fulfilling its promise as a land of opportunity, as a nation committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
     Were all thise up to us, we would rightly despair.  But He who keeps these promises, He who planned for our salvation long before we were ever born, He who assures us that He loves us even in spite of our dire circumstances, He who promises us that double restoration is the One who has given us that opportunity to serve.  He has given us, those who have seen the beginning of the fulfillment of the word He gave to Zechariah in the triumphal entry of our Lord Christ, who know of His Death and Resurrection and Ascension, the glorious possibility to serve Him, not as the world would like, but as it needs, even if such service requires our very lives or seeming futility.  But as firstborn inheritors of His promises, as a people soothed with the knowledge that we will dwell with Him for all eternity, we can attack what seems impossible or incredibly hard.
     To what is He calling you my brothers and sisters?  What is He asking you to do in this place, at this time, in these circumstances?  That is a question we should be discerning constantly, not just on special feast days or holidays, but on every day in which He gives us breath.

In Christ’s Peace,

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sadness and rage and His promise and our hopes in laments . . .

     I had to chuckle at both the week and the readings assigned for this week.  Bibi and I had a bit of a conversation that involved her joining in the criticism of the the lectionary editors.  The reading from Matthew assigned for Father’s Day, in her mind, was not particularly fatherly.  Jesus is sounding harsh with all the divisions He brings.  I had to explain to her that this week’s reading builds on last week’s reading, so it is not as harsh as it sounds.  And she thought it weird that we do not memorialize Father’s Day or Mother’s Day in liturgical churches.  That got her going on the need for the churches to lead society in the teaching about the importance of family.  Y’all are chuckling because you know she was preaching to the choir.
     I was chuckling because I had promised and prepared y’all for a summer and fall of the prophets’ calls to walk humbly and do justice.  Our first OT reading last week, though, was more a history teaching than prophetic teaching.  This week’s is even worse!  It’s a lament!  In fact, it is one of Jeremiah’s great laments.  Which brings me to the week.
     Things around here have been tough the last week.  True, they have been tough for three months, but this week has represented a nadir of sorts.  I think six Adventers were hospitalized this week.  That has brought back into focus the spiritual cost of illnesses during this pandemic.  Most of the hospitals are not allowing us in unless we are immediate family.  People are suffering in isolation in addition to whatever illnesses or injuries are besetting them.  Bobbie has had, what, three surgeries in the last week or ten days?  Michael may have had to have the mesh removed from his last surgery and replaced which was done because the first mesh from his transplant was torn.  If it sounds painful, it’s because it is.  Jane’s was a bit happier.  She’s getting a new knee.  In no time, she and Ronnie will be dancing again, but it still hurts in the interim.  Frances was admitted for stroke-like symptoms.  You get the picture.     
          In the background to that, my extended family was having its own health issues.  Karen’s mother continues to suffer from the effects of her concussion and the lack of a primary care physician.  My mom complained about an issue with her port for dialysis and then radio silent.  It turns out it’s pretty normal.  Apparently, most patients have it done every six months or so.  Mom had gone three years, so she was due.  My grandfather fell and broke his hip.  Yes, he is suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia and is in his nineties.  My uncle was faced with the prospect of allowing surgery that my grandfather might not understand or be able to rehab or letting him remain bedridden in severe pain for the rest of his life.  Y’all get the picture.
     Pastoral conversations have continued to be deep and painful.  In case you have forgotten, much of the world is still protesting, some of the world is rioting.  There’s an election on the horizon. Some folks are worried that employment is NOT on the horizon.  A new wrinkle has been the newest emotions facing members of our parish and diocese who are People of Color.  The rush of white folks to learn all the issues has been exhausting, frustrating, and even worrisome to them.  Apparently, a memo went out a couple weeks ago that white people should ask their black friend about societal injustices.  Y’all are laughing nervously a bit, but think of the position we put them in now.  Hey, Fred, tell me about the injustices you face on a daily basis.  If Fred is the only PoC that folks know, he’s being asked that a lot.  How much should he share?  How much should he get his hopes up that THIS time it is different?  How does he respond to the comments of the white person asking.  I did not know can be a frustrating response.  Did we not know, or did we not want to know?  Will we be allies going forward, or will we think our jobs are done since we spent a few minutes in uncomfortable listening?  Will we re-evaluate our opinions of Fred positively or negatively?  Every time we ask incredulously how Fred put up with x, y, or z, we are reinforcing we really did not know Fred.
     I have touched on a lot.  There is some squirming here, so I know the Holy Spirit is giving wedgies.  I imagine, for all my summary, I’ve left out your issues, the background noise of your life this week.
     Even my “easy” conversations had challenges this week.  I was approached by the oldest AA group in Brentwood about meeting on our campus once or twice a week.  Usually, they meet at restaurants.  Most of those have cut capacity around here; and let’s face it, do we want to go to those restaurants that have not?  In case you do not speak AA, it is Alcoholics Anonymous.  They are encouraged to refrain from drinking alcohol by one another much like you are encouraged to refrain from sinning at church.  You see where this is going?  How happy are restaurants around here willing to tolerate men refraining from drinking from tying up their limited space for an hour or ninety minutes?
     They had been encouraged to approach me because we are already open to a Twelve Step Group.  They had heard I had some experience with AA and that I claim it is rooted in the Episcopal Church.  That led to a discussion about a number of issues, but most importantly the discussion of the monkey.  How do I reconcile a loving God with His unwillingness to take away the addiction?  Did I understand the pain and hurt that came with that never-ending suffering?
    For my part, I was well-prepared for that conversation, though it was no less painful and dark.  One of my great . . . pastoral challenges was a suicide some years ago.  I’ll spare you the details I shared with these leaders, but I had a gentleman approach me about baptism.  He was convinced Jesus would take away all the pain, all the suffering, all the addiction.  I reminded him that our Lord is a redemptive sufferer, that He uses redemptive suffering to reach others.  I could baptize Him and offer him assurance that His life would be redeemed, that one glorious day in the future, all the hurt and pain and suffering that came from his addiction would not even be worth a tear.  But my experience had been that addiction was a cross that many Christians bore.
     After several weeks, the young man in question decided to pursue baptism.  I thought I had done a good job inoculating him against all the “If God really loves you, He will take the monkey from you” nonsense.  In the end, I was wrong.  A couple years later, he relapsed.  His relapse, in a moment of darkness, led to his taking of his own life.  And I found myself in the middle of a funeral for all those who loved him, who had rooted for him, and who mourned his suicide, with the easy task of preaching God’s love and power.  After that cheerful discussion, the AA guys decided I might be ok, I might have a sense of what they experience on a daily basis, that and my conversations with Bubbles, and my struggles with my own sins.  
     In one of my other group discussions this week, I found myself engaged with nearly every Christian platitude full of heresy.  For the gentleman in question, it began with “God needed another angel” with his explanation of an untimely death.  Y’all know me now.  Not much pisses me off more than when Christians make God sound like a monster all in the interest of dealing with their own struggles.
     Man, I pounced.  I pounced like he’d been saying it for weeks.  I’m sure he meant well.  Most do.  But what are we saying that when we say that phrase.  For his part, he’d kind of forgotten that part that our eternal existence will be greater than that of the angels.  He’d also kind of forgotten that the Lord, the Creator of heaven and earth, can CREATE an angel, if He needs one.  He does not need to kill us to get another.  He sort of specializes in creating from nothing, so He does not need our bodies or our space or our souls or whatever.
     That heretical platitude caused others to share their own.  I had an entire hour or so of remedial teaching and passionate argument because “well, my pastor of 60 years taught me that, if I have faith enough, God will give me money or health or whatever.”  Works righteousness is like a vampire.  It is too hard to kill.
     This sermon would have been a bit too focused on me and way too dark, a couple at 8am said it was still too dark, but I was reminded of the power of laments by a seeming fun-loving Episcopalian last night.
     One of the blessings of Coronatide has been the opportunity to rewatch movies.  In between all the Marvel movies and MiB movies and Indiana Jones movies, there have been some great movies I have forgotten.  One is a fictional story about a real doctor.  The movie is called Patch Adams, and the doctor is played by none other than Robin Williams.  Good, I see many of you have seen it.  For those of you who have not, Patch Adams was a medical student who believed that, in treating only the disease or the injury, we fail to help human beings be truly human.  He was a big proponent of creating a medical community that listened, that empowered, that laughed, and even, if the time came, did not view death as the enemy.  For his views, a medical dean tried to keep him from graduating despite his good grades.  For all his work, he saw thousands of patients after his graduation, and for all the fame generated by this movie, he failed terribly.  Look at our medical system now.  Doctors must see a patient every six minutes.  They don’t really get to know us.  How can they in six minute bursts?  And we treat symptoms far more than underlying causes.  I see the nods.
     Robin Williams plays the lead character, Patch.  Robin was a famous Episcopalian.  He is often credited with that “Top Ten Reasons to be an Episcopalian List” that was a riff on David Letterman back in the day.  Like the Roman Catholic Church: all the pomp and circumstance but none of the guilt.  You never have to handle snakes.  Where three or four are gathered, there’s always a fifth!  Good, may on you know that list.
     I was watching Robin’s scene last night where he stands on the cliff arguing with God, contemplating suicide.  Naturally, I wondered whether he ad-libbed the scene and gave us insight into his own personal demons.  But that fight with God was real.  He was not acting.  To place it in the movie, his girlfriend was killed by a patient.  He blames himself for her death.  He stands at the cliff pondering the jump.
     God, You tell us You made everything.  Given the evil and suffering and meanness of human beings, don’t you think you should have spent an extra session or two of eternity in a brainstorming session?
     God, later You tell us that You rested on the seventh day.  Why the hell didn’t you spend a bit of time considering our need for compassion?
     It is a great scene.  Robin hurls invectives and laments at God, and the whole time he is standing on the edge of a cliff.  In the end, he tells God He’s not worth the jump.  He turns to head back to his medical bag and sees the butterfly.  A butterfly, complete with all the imagery associated with it, has landed on his medical bag.  As he approaches the bag, the butterfly flies to Patch, and Patch continues his fight to change the system of medicine, his dean, and even the need to wear pants under a graduation robe.
     I can tell by the rumor that many of you have seen the movie.  It makes sense at Advent.  A doctor movie starring a famous Episcopalian.  And I totally forgot about it until last night.  But that movie provides a lighter entry into the dark emotions that provoke laments.  And we have lots of reasons to lament.  A pandemic has swept across the world.  Death has followed in ints wake.  Bankruptcies from medical bills are yet to be determined.  Economic ruin has followed in its wake.  Heck, I think we have served about 5000 individuals through our food pantry since this all began, and we are just across the border from the modern Garden of Eden that is known as Brentwood.  How bad has it been in the so-called “undesirable” neighborhoods?
     In case you missed it, there’s been a number of protests and riots around the country as the result of the actions of an abusive police officer, as if we cannot be or do not know abusive folks outside a uniform.  One of their angers or triggers is how everyone hates them right now, how people are flicking them off or cursing them because of an asshole in Minneapolis, but they know those same jerks will expect them to answer 911, to lay down their life for them in the event of an armed burglar or other emergency.  Thankfully, most of those officers with whom I work are Christians.  I get to point out their share of Christ’s ministry.  He knows what it is like to be rejected.  He knows what it is like to be abandoned and betrayed by those whom He came to save.  So, I invite them to lament and rant and rail AND to remember Whom they truly serve.
     Sure enough, I saw headlines this morning that people in cities are calling on police to do their jobs.  Too many senseless killing.  Too many thefts.  It’s almost as if people don’t understand that, absent the police, bad people will do bad things.
     The good side of the protests, though, has been the address of systemic racism in our midst.  People are talking about education, prison, criminal justice, and others parts of our life that we white folks take for granted but that PoC have no such luxury.
     Speaking of PoC, our friends who are PoC are exhausted and fearful and all kinds of unsatisfied emotions.  We are wearing them out asking them to share their stories.  Do we really want to know?  How will we respond to their stories?  What will we think about them in light of those stories?  And will we forget about this in a week or a month like we have every time in the past?  Do we really care about them?  Do we really love them and want a better life for them?  Or are they just the woke cause of the day?
     Think we have cause for lament?  Do you think that maybe God knew what He was doing when He caused laments to be written, edited, and preserved for our understanding?
     In one of my non-Advent groups this week, I brought up the idea of a lament.  I was surprised at how steeped the “Christian” culture was against lament.  Brian, sufferings are God’s way of letting us prove ourselves worthy of His grace?  Brian, God is disappointed in us if we complain.  This is all part of His plan.  Brian, it is a sin to complain about suffering.  NO!  Absolutely not!  If there is a sin in that conversation, it is the idea that God does not want us coming to Him with our hurts, our fears, our booboos, our injustices, our “it’s not fair!’s”.  I get that folks are taught that in many churches, but look at our lesson from Jeremiah today.
     To place this in context, Jeremiah was a prophet during an interesting geo-political time in the world.  I saw that as an observer 2600-2700 years later.  Assyria was on the fall.  Babylon was ascending.  Egypt still thought it mattered.  In some ways, the kings in Jerusalem tried to play sides off against one another rather than obey God.  It was like they thought they knew better than God.  One of Jeremiah’s messages was that the people and leadership needed to return to God.  Their willingness to repent and return would be similar to the willingness of our leaders and most of our neighbors.
     Jeremiah’s pain, though, is not limited to geo-political considerations.  In fact, he will later go about with a yoke as a visible sign that Israel will be enslaved by Babylon and carried off into Exile, but that is another reading and another sermon.  No, aside from the personal sense of failure that everyone is ignoring his warning from God, Jeremiah has just been humiliated, and each of you should give thanks to God that such humiliations are no longer allowed!
     If you turn back to the beginning of the chapter, you learn that Jeremiah has been punished in the stocks by Pashhur, the assistant chief priest of the Temple.  His crime?  Jeremiah has prophesied that for its disobedience, Judah will be carried off into slavery.  They will be utterly defeated, abandoned by Yahweh.  How disobedient is Judah?  The prophet is ignored and mocked by the king and publicly beaten and scourged by the priest!
     We do not live in a shame culture like Jeremiah did, but we certainly understand some of his mindset.  How many of us publicly tell people we are Christians now?  Fifty years ago, you may have gotten some advantage in the Bible Belt, but then everyone claimed to be Christian, too, and received those same advantages.  But now?  Now, many of us whisper it.  We may answer a question, if it is put to us by someone we know and love and trust, but who really wants to be the “Jesus freak” at work, at the club, or in our friends’ circle?  My guess is that some of you gathered here and online today have strong opinions about those headwinds challenging our country, but how many are willing to tell people the source of those solutions?  See, you know Jeremiah’s mindset and emotional state far better than you ever thought!
     Pashhur has just released Jeremiah in an act of kindness.  No doubt he expected Jeremiah to be grateful and to have learned his lesson after the stocks and 39 lashes.  God, of course, cares not at all for such things as human beings.  God instructs Jeremiah to prophesy that He has changed Pashhur’s name.  What meant peaceful or ease or contentment will now mean surrounded by terror, in God’s eyes.  Pashhur, for his insult of the prophet and of God, will be carried off into slavery into Babylon.  There he will die.  
     How would you like to be Jeremiah?  How do you think that message went over?  Predictably, Jerusalem ignores the prophet.  Jeremiah, for his part, is fed up with it.  I do all that You ask, Lord, and what do I have to show for it?  Where’s my glory?  Where’s my respect?  Where’s my peace?  You have seduced me.  You have tricked me.  I try to stay silent but Your words cannot be contained!
     Ever found yourself arguing with God about His faithfulness?  Ever found yourself wondering if He cares?  Ever found yourself on the verge of thinking all of this is some kind of wishful, but sadistic, thinking?  You are not alone!  My guess is that far more of God’s people have felt that way at times than have not.  This idea that things are always hunk dory for us is a flat out lie, likely started by the Deceiver as a way to help us stumble.  Ever raged at God because he failed to save or cure a loved one?  Ever held your fist to that imaginary bearded figure in the sky, shook it, and demanded He show Himself to you and tell you why you are crazy to believe all this?  Ever worried that somehow you were the special one whose hairs are not number and who is not worth spit, let alone a pigeon?  Ever found yourself obedient to God and forced to suffer?
     I am here today, my brothers and sisters, to remind you that such cries and complaints and anger are not new to God’s people.  I am here today, my friends, to remind you that such frustrations and doubts are not sins.  They are part and parcel of what it means to be cross bearers in a world that rejects the Cross.  They are the normal experiences for those who know that the stakes and platitudes of this world are vain and empty, that only the promises of God are true, and lasting, and good.  I am here to remind each of us today, myself included, that we share in that prophetic ministry and suffering precisely because we are His sons and daughters!  We walk our Calvaries because He showed us the way, and we trust that, like Paul says today, because we share in His death we will share in His Resurrection and redemption.
     Our path, my friends, is not for the faint of heart or the weak.  It requires strength and determination and perseverance and abundant grace.  But is the path that God uses most often to reach the world around us.  Who better to minister to those suffering from addiction than those who have been freed from their addiction to sin?  Who better to minister to those enslaved by the “ism’s” of the world, than those whose chains to sin have been shattered on the Cross of Christ Jesus?  Who better to teach a world full of fear and hate and distrust than those who know the true cost of love, who are willing to share it, and who know that even these sufferings can be redeemed?
      A couple folks at early church complained I went a bit dark today.  I spoke of suicide and addiction and doubt and fury and pain and suffering and those things which the world thinks us incapable of understanding or aware.  I get it.  But I also hope you heard the promise and hope that God has lavished on all His people.  One day, all this nonsense will pass.  One glorious day, all this hurt and pain and rage will be like that strawberry or splinter of your youth—not even tear provoking!  How glorious must that calling be for those hurts and pains and angers and frustration to be thought of in such a light?!
     For now, though, we are like Jeremiah freed from the stocks of sin!  It is our responsibility—neigh, it is our privilege—to remind those around us that it precisely for all these consequences of sin that He came down from heaven, became sin, and died to sin, that each one of us, indeed all humanity, might have the chance to bask in His love and affection for all eternity!  That’s a message for pondering not just on Father’s Day, but every day!

In His Peace,