reality, grief and hope at first church - part one...

NOTE:  For the Sundays of the season of Epiphany - the next five weeks - my worship notes will be using the ideas in Walter Brueggemann's excellent book, Reality-Grief-Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.  Here is the first of five.

Today is the Feast Day of Christ’s Baptism:  it is a time to remember our own vows of
commitment to the way of Jesus, a time to carefully consider how those vows make a difference in a broken and wounded world, and a time to learn again a lesson that regularly eludes all people of faith no matter what faith tradition they proclaim. Namely, that faith is simultaneously personal and political – subjective in all its mystical richness, privately powerful in prayer and inward renewal – but also always objective in both form and content.  For faith is the Word made Flesh. The inward journey embodied and revealed within reality.  The core of our deepest truths and values personified so that we become Jesus for another in our daily life.

St. Teresa of Avila, the 14th century Spanish mystic, wasn’t kidding when she told us: Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. For Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

So for the next five weeks I will be conducting a refresher course of sorts – for myself and our whole community – on what the outrageous, objective poems first articulated by the Hebrew prophets might mean for 21st century people of faith. Using the wisdom of Walter Brueggemann, our tradition’s wisest, most insightful scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures as a guide, I will attempt to express what the prophetic task might mean for our contemporary realm. Brueggemann is, of course, unambiguous: 

In our time as in ancient Jerusalem, the prophetic task is to counter the governing ideology of exceptionalism whether American or Hebraic. That prophetic task, you see, is to expose the distorted view of societal reality sustained by lies that breeds unrealistic notions of entitlement, privilege and superiority (over others.) And, at the same time, advocate for and enact alternatives… that show how o a dismissal of God and disregard of our neighbor always leads to disaster.

“The prophetic church,” the good professor concludes, “bears witness to the irreducible reality of God and the irreducibility of the neighbor as the reference points for a viable life in the world that even our exceptionalism cannot nullify.” To put it more simply:  people of faith make themselves search for the face of God in our neighbors trusting that the One who was born in an anonymous stable is waiting to be born again in our time, too.

Now let me be wildly candid about something before I really get going:  much of what I am about to share with you over these next five weeks – and everything that Brother Brueggemann posits in his book (which I encourage you to get and read along with me) – is predicated upon knowing at least the broad contours of the story of Israel.  And that already puts me on shaky ground because in 21st century American Christianity not only are we at vastly different places in our recollection of the Biblical story, but we often have a complicated and competing constellation of ways to interpret these formerly shared stories.

Even within our relatively small congregation, on any given Sunday, there will be fundamentalists and humanists listening to what is said in worship; there will be Unitarians and Trinitarians, Buddhists, Taoists, a few New Agers as well as traditional Calvinists, Lutherans, cradle Congregationalists, former Roman Catholics and Methodists plus a few good souls who aren’t really sure if any of this is true but they like the music. Or the Sanctuary. Or the people.  So please know at the outset that this is a daunting task  

It reminds me of the old story of the grey haired preacher interviewing a recent seminary grad for her first full time position as settled pastor. The Search Committee had done due diligence checking references and had finally invited the young woman for a closing interview. And as was his style, the old preacher asked, “So do you know the Bible pretty well?” "Yes, sir, pretty good," she replied. To which the chair asked, "And which part do you know best?"

The candidate responded, "I know the New Testament best." "And which part of the New Testament do you know best," was the next question so the young minister said, "Several parts." "Well, can you tell us the story of the Prodigal Son" the retiring pastor proposed. "Fine" was her reply... Once upon a time there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, who went down to Jericho by night and he fell upon stony ground and the thorns choked him half to death. The next morning Solomon and his wife, Gomorrah, came by and carried him down to the ark for Moses to take care of. But, as he was going through the Eastern Gate into the Ark, he caught his hair in a limb and he hung there forty days and forty nights and he afterwards did die of hunger. And, the ravens came and fed him. Well, the next day, the three wise men came and carried him down to the boat dock and he caught a ship to Ninevah. And when he got there he found Delilah sitting on the wall and shouted, "Chunk her down, boys, chunk her down." And, they said, "How many times shall we chunk her down, till seven times seven?" And he said, "Nay, but seventy times seven." So they chucked her down four hundred and ninety times. And, she burst asunder in their midst. So they picked up twelve baskets of leftovers and asked: in the resurrection whose wife shall she be?"  For a moment there was a stunned silence after she finished until the chair of the Search Committee said with astonishment: "I don’t know about you, sisters and brothers, but I think we ought to ask the church to call her as our new minister. She may be awfully young, but she sure does know her Bible."

And with that caveat, let me offer three essential historical facts about the prophetic project in Israel and then close with two interpretive insights related to our national politics and life together as a small 21st century congregation in New England. In the opening Scriptures, three competing understandings of God’s call to Israel to live in covenant with the Lord were expressed.

The first reading, from Genesis 12, tells the story of Israel’s patriarch Abraham and is clear that God’s covenant – that is, God’s promise of both land and blessing – will be upon the lineage and seed of Abraham for all time.  It is an eternal covenant and specifically applies to those who come from Abraham’s family, or, to use Brueggemann’s term: it is a covenant of the flesh.  The second story, from Exodus 19, speaks of God’s covenant with Moses and those who fled oppression in Egypt. It is neither family specific nor eternal, but conditional. And the condition is that those who have been blessed with freedom and the land will commit to a life shaped by Torah. Brueggemann speaks of this as an adherence covenant that requires the practice of love of God and love of neighbor as a response to grace.  

Do you hear the differences here? One is eternal, one is beyond the constraints of time; one is racial and family specific, the other is relational and available to all. One emphasizes exceptionality; the other is all about gratitude for God’s gift. And there is a third approach, Psalm 78, which links God’s covenant to King David and the city of Jerusalem:  this suggests that all who follow the ways of the monarch are the true heirs of both Abraham’s blessings and the Law given to Moses. 

Now the reason why this is important – both to our appreciation of the message of the ancient Hebrew prophets then, as well as their wisdom for us today – is this: each of these covenants offers us different relationships to God and to one another, and each has social, political and spiritual consequences.  In the develop-ment of ancient Israel as a nation, for example, those who affirmed the Mosaic Covenant handed down on Mt. Sinai emphasized living into compassion and justice as an expression of gratitude to God for the gift of freedom and land.

Think of the 10 Commandments – they are all about loving God and loving neighbor – so much so that in Deuteronomy, Torah begins with the words:  I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me… and goes on to speak of Sabbath keeping like this:  remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day holy. Covenant living – being faithful – in this tradition was about right relationships between God’s people and their neighbors as gratitude.

Those who embraced the Abrahamic Covenant – those who understood them-selves to be born of an eternal promise to a specific family – were not always so... neighborly.  They laid claim to a timeless promise that was race specific – part of the challenge even today in the Palestinian/Jewish conflict. And by the age of King David – roughly 1000 BCE – when Jerusalem had become the center of power, politics, wealth and religion – an ancient Washington, DC mixed with NYC and Los Angeles – the elite made sure only the hybrid Davidic Covenant was taught and celebrated in the Temple. Over and over again, the emphasis coming from David in what we call the “Songs of Zion” tells us that all is well in both the Temple and God’s Creation but only so long as David and his followers are on the throne.  Psalm 46 is explicit:  

I will tell of the decrees of the Lord:  God said to David, you are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage and the ends of the earth your possession… O kings, be wise, be warned, O rulers of the earth: serve the Lord and his king… lest God’s wrath be kindled.

I can’t help but think of Lord Acton’s adage that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the word of the Lord in Scripture, you see, was used to reinforce political and theological alliances. And while all of these readings have a personal and subjective role to play in our inward, private lives of faith, they also have public and political implications that we must wrestle with from time to time, too – because not all the stories in the Bible are equal. Without interpretation, some can become oppressive and dangerous. So, that’s the first historical fact:  there are competing covenants and factions in the story of ancient Israel and knowing this can help us evaluate the competing factions in our own American religion and politics today.

The second fact is that these competing factions clashed profoundly especially after the national disaster we know of as the fall of the Jerusalem Temple in 587 BCE.  This took place after Israel’s kings played power politics and lost to Babylon.  For years the walled city of Jerusalem was under siege– and its citizens slowly starved – until the walls were breached, the Temple destroyed and the best and the brightest taken in chains to Babylon where they lived for three generations.

Do you remember how you felt after the terrorist attacks of September 11th?  I was in shock.  I was furious and afraid – totally unglued and uncertain of what end was up – and I wept and wanted revenge. I felt powerless and patriotic at the same time. And I wanted America to do something bold to hurt our enemies and avenge our innocent dead. Brueggemann suggests that the way many of us felt and reacted after this attack is neither new nor unique.  He writes that many in ancient Israel felt the same way because – and this is crucial – Israel, like America, has always thought of themselves as special God’s chosen. We and they are a city on a hill, doing the work and will of the Lord in the wider world.

Exceptionalism – the belief that we alone are uniquely God’s people – blinded us to the reality just below the surface of the September 11th terrorist attack.  It blinded the elite of ancient Israel, too. Because in truth, we are all just like everyone else: no better, no worse and certainly no more chosen despite what our history teaches. Or so many hymns proclaim, to say nothing of our national holidays. To believe that we are uniquely precious unto the Lord is fundamentally untrue and destructive. And when ancient Israel’s sacred Temple was defiled and obliterated, the people were shocked and speechless, unable to comprehend how this could happen. They were so cut off from reality that they didn’t even know how to grieve. 

Do you know the Psalm “By the Waters of Babylon?” There we sat and wept when we remembered Zion – when we remembered the Temple on Mt. Zion in flames in Jerusalem – they were in total shock. I know that feeling – you probably do too – from the time we watched the Twin Towers collapse in flames. I went to Ground Zero less than a month after the attack with my daughters and stood there and wept… and wept… and wept. That was all I could do. I still weep in stunned horror every time I visit that place.

And it connects me to the second truth for today: when ancient Jerusalem was sacked, those who lived out of the Abrahamic or Davidic covenant were undone emotionally, theologically and socially.  They hadn’t accepted reality so they found themselves confounded and devastated when their lives became no different than those of any other suffering mass of human flesh.

Now here’s the third historical fact:  there had always been an alternative vision of what being God’s chosen meant within ancient Israel – and it came as the prophets raised up the Sinai Covenant as the true way of the Lord over and again.  If you read the poetry of the prophets, it proclaims one truth: Love of God means sharing compassion and doing justice with your neighbors in gratitude for God’s grace. THIS law is the way God’s world works:  the love you take is equal to the love you make.  And if you upset this law of creation, there will be consequences. The prophet Micah is unequivocal – and this is the prophet who gave shape and form to our mission statement: What does the Lord require but TO DO JUSTICE, TO LOVE MERCY AND TO WALK WITH HUMILITY WITH OUR GOD.

While the priests and politicians were trying to understand why the chosen people had been blown to hell and back in a hand basket, the prophets were saying:  we warned you, we told you, why are you surprised? The way of God is gratitude, humility, neighborliness and compassion. Essentially, the prophets grasped that being the chosen and beloved of God is NOT about race, birth, political stature or family pedigree, but… love.  In obedience and Torah we thank God and embody shalom. 

And that is exactly what Jesus taught his disciples.  Like the prophets he told us that the whole of Torah is:  Love one another, sisters and brothers, as I love you. And just so that there would be no ambiguity, he put a towel around his neck, knelt to wash the feel of his disciples and said:  Do THIS in remembrance of me.

Are you still with me?  I know that’s a lot of Biblical interpretation to take in at one sitting, but it is so important – especially at this moment in our life together as Americans and members of First Church.  You see, the fear mongering, cruelty and xenophobia of so many of our politicians is related to the lie that we are the chosen or the exception by birth. Not true – for the United States, for Israel, for Saudi Arabia, Canada, Russia or anywhere.  And yet we’ve heard it for so long that we want to believe – and keep on believing – that we are God’s uniquely holy people. We want it so badly that some among us are we’re willing to kill others and spend away our future to preserve this illusion.

Listen to Ted Cruz – he’s clear that everyone is out to get us. Columnist David Brooks writes in the NY Times that his belligerence is bullying a reasonable man like Marco Rubio into inauthentic positions that are dangerous to everyone. And I won’t even comment today on the wicked hyperbole of the Donald.

Now please: don’t mishear me!  I am NOT saying that Americans aren’t loved by the Lord. We are – and I love the unique blessings and beauty of our land, our people and our system. But we are no better than any other people, faith, politics or heritage. What’s more, our obsession with maintaining our exceptionalism is making some of our politicians crazy:  they hate having a Black man in the White House. They hate sharing God’s green, but all too quickly becoming brown, good earth with the rest of our neighbors in creation as the recent Paris Climate Summit revealed. They hate sharing information about genetically altered foods with us because, after all, they really know better than we do what leads to health, well-being and prosperity. And they hate the idea that ALL of God’s children should have access to quality health care – or safe schools – or equal pay for equal work. 

But do they ever love to point out all our so-called enemies whom they are certain are NOT on the side of the Lord:  like Central American children flooding across our borders to escape drug-related gang wars; or Syrian refugees fleeing cluster bombs and chemical attacks; or anyone who insists that we must affirm that Black Lives Matter. Rather than finding common ground in pursuit of the common good, these politicians and religious leaders gin up the lies. And that not only encourages white domestic terrorists like the young man who opened fire on a Bible study in a Black South Carolina church but gives demagogues like the Donald  permission to gasoline on the fire of our fears and hateful emotions at rally after rally after rally.  People of God, these are trying times, but we have been given the gift of the Biblical prophets who have something to tell us about how best to proceed rather than shake our heads in despair.

And one of the only reasons I continue to come to church these days rather than drift off quietly into the sunset to jazz with my friends and entertain my beloved grandson Louie is that the way of the prophets and the way of the Lord matters. They can help us find the light in the darkness so that we save lives and bring glory to God. They can point us towards a way of being the church that binds us together in love. And they can instruct our hearts and minds to the consequences of what remaining silent in the face of the mounting violence, fear and chaos means .

You see, the ancient prophets have a handle on something indispensable for us a congregation.  Grieving – not as others do who have no hope, as St. Paul told us, but grieving like the prophets. Grief puts us in touch with reality. It opens us to God’s broken heart and compels us to go beyond our safety zones. Over the next two weeks I’ll share more with you about how prophetic grief works and why it is imperative for the renewal of First Church as well as American politics. 
But for now:  can anybody tell me what this is?  It’s a turban that we’ve started to use again in our inter-generational Epiphany Pageant. For the first seven years I was here – and I just for the record I just completed my 9th Christmas – I’d heard about these costumes and the old way of doing pageants during the glory days of First Church – but I never saw them.  I was never even told where they were hidden or stored.

Like so much of our past, they were locked away behind strong doors so that they wouldn’t be stolen. Or used. Or, I submit to you, used in a way that was different from our glory days.  In the glory days, we were a church of power and prestige – and the pageant was serious business – performed and orchestrated by adults in costumes modeled after those on display in Manhattan.  But when the world changed and Pittsfield was rattled by job loss and economic depression; when heartbreak, tragedy and disappointment took up residence within this faith community, these costumes were locked away.  Not necessarily on purpose and certainly not for the reasons I’ve just mentioned. But I don’t think they would ever have seen the light of day again because they were symbols that evoked so much sorrow and loss.

Now somehow last year, while searching for something else, we stumbled upon the closet where these ancient costumes were stored; and as we pulled them out, the delight and awe they elicited from our children made it clear to me that these turbans HAD to be taken out of mothballs and worn again. Like so much that is locked away but not grieved with prophetic intent, these old treasures held a clue to our emerging renewal if we were bold enough to use them.  It wouldn’t be like the old pageant – that had its own life and its own purpose – and these were new times. But the old resources still had value, albeit in a much more humble way and on a much smaller scale – just like First Church in the 21st century.

So we rounded up as many youth and children as were available – and recruited some angels
and shepherds from the adults who gathered for worship , too– and stumbled into a way of being church that holds incredible promise for us at this moment in time. It was a pageant that was a little ragged around the edges – just like us. And it was amusing in ways that were often unintended – God’s grace is full of surprises, don’t you think?  And it was no longer a spectacle, but rather a simple act of shared ministry that had its own life, its own integrity and a tender sense of hope. I have come to believe that this new pageant in all its quirky glory has something to teach us about God’s new calling for our church.

It symbolically mixes the old with the new, grief with joy, and leads us into a way of being that is humble, sacred and small. That’s what I see Jesus offering to us at his baptism:  he accepted God’s call to humility when he gave himself over to John’s hands in the Jordan. Jesus identified himself as part of a new world – not the elite, not the exceptional, but the world of all who are hurting, afraid and grieving. After all, he was in the muddy river NOT the Temple in Jerusalem, right?

In this he became the embodiment of sacred solidarity. And that is the journey I sense we are being called into as a new First Church: a community of humility, solidarity and compassion. These acts give us eyes to see the Lord in our neighbors.  And like Jesus coming up from the waters of humility, as we do this the promise is that we too shall hear a voice from above saying:  YOU – and you and you and you – YOU are my beloved with whom I am well-pleased. Go and do THIS in remembrance of me.


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