NOTE: Today's worship notes in part three of a series inspired by Walter Brueggemann's, Reality - Grief - Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks.
The great and wise Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, counselor to Dr. King and conscience of America’s theologians in the 50s and 60s, said of the ancient Hebrew prophets: “A prophet's true greatness is his ability to hold God and humanity in a single thought.” For these servants of God there is no business separate ethic and private morality, no double-standard of justice that gives Caucasians a pass but throws the book at everyone else, no exemption from doing our part in caring for the whole of God’s creation: few are ever guilty, he observed, but all are responsible. To borrow a phrase from our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers the prophets celebrated a seamless ethic for life. In his life’s work, The Prophets, Heschel put it like this:
The sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us a single act of injustice--cheating in business, exploitation of the poor--is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a death blow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.
So we turn again today to ponder the parallels between the prophets of ancient Israel and the problems of 21st century America. I am increasingly convinced that if we elect to ignore what the prophets of old challenged in their day – if we consciously or capriciously opt for social amnesia in our own time – we will thoroughly banishes the Lord’s wisdom from our realm and experience consequences of catastrophic proportion. Pope Francis wasn’t fooling when he noted the bond between our imagination, our morality and our mortality: We have continued to perfect our weapons, while our conscience has fallen asleep; we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal to continue to sow destruction, pain, death… Ours, therefore, must become an age of mercy because suffering, greed and violence are now out of control.
It is remarkable to me – and frightening – that the problems the prophets of ancient Israel confronted evoke a bewildering congruence with our own. For nearly 500 years, they railed against the pursuit of empire because it drained resources, time, love, food and imagination away from actions that would deepen compassion and social justice.
+ Did you know that for the first roughly 400 years of ancient Israel’s existence public worship took place either outside or in a tent? David did not have a grand temple when he created Israel’s capital in Jerusalem: he had a cloth pavilion. Solomon, whose name means man of peace when he was anything but, decided that a pup tent was not regal enough for a king. So, after David’s death, he levied taxes, conscripted peasants into an army, made treaties with his enemies to secure cedars from Lebanon and used forced labor to build himself a temple on Mt. Zion that would rival anything in Egypt or Babylon.
+ Did you know after the first Temple was constructed, the kings of Israel, not foreign invaders, expropriated land from their own Jewish peasants in order to feed the priests, musicians, soldiers and custodians of the new Temple? If you read the sociology of those times, the average person HATED the Temple and resented the increasing taxes needed to keep it afloat. And let’s not overlook their disdain for the military draft that kept fighting forces in the field for wars that Israel could no longer afford.
This is the social context of the early prophets – and the later prophets who sang from the same hymnal – sound so much like the daily New York Times it is staggering. They warned Israel’s elite that if the ruling class kept bleeding the poor and avoiding compassion, they would weaken themselves internally and compromise their security in the world. Of course, no one listened because they were certain that they were God’s chosen – the elect and first – who would rule over the land of Israel forever. But it didn’t work out that way, right? In time, the rich and powerful were led off to Babylon in chains as slaves while the working folk and poor remained in the ruins of a burned out and desecrated Jerusalem.
And here is another place where Professor Walter Brueggemann is most insightful as he reminds us that even after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the prophets still critiqued Israel’s addiction to empire. The prophetic task, he writes, is to penetrate and expose the destructive ideology of the era by appealing to the reality of our lived experience, “a reality that steadfastly refuses to conform to the claims of that ideology.” That is, prophets are to point to the pain of our lives, the fear, shame and injustice of our era and ask aloud: are these of the Lord or are they of our own making? Most of us are stubborn and take a long time before we own our complicity in broken relations whether personal or political. We would much rather blame someone else than accept Heschel’s insight that while few are guilty, all are responsible.
That’s part of what’s going on in the gospel story for today according to St. Luke, right? Jesus uses words from the prophet Isaiah to challenge his neighbors – and they take offense. Well, not at first… At first they love that the hometown boy is now a preacher. What’s more, he’s using the prophet’s words about God’s favor and many believed that these words applied to them: we are the ones deserving good news; we need release from bondage and all the rest.
But Jesus quickly moves from preaching to meddling by telling his home town crowd that they should recall that when God sent the prophet Elijah out to bring bread and healing to a people who had been caught up in famine for over three years, there were a score of widows in need in Israel, but the prophet was sent only to Zarephath, a Gentile widow in Sidon and not one of the so-called chosen ones of Israel. Same was true with the prophet Elisha, Elijah’s protégé, who was sent to heal Naaman the Syrian from leprosy but not one from the bloodline of Father Abraham. Why? Because God loves all – not just those who think they are the chosen. At which point the Bible says: When they heard this all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. Religious violence and blaming others for our failings has historically been an ugly fact of life whenever racial, cultural, gender or religious superiority becomes more important than the flesh and blood people in need standing or living beside us.
It is the inevitable consequence of condescension as Amos states so clearly:
The Lord God showed me a basket of summer fruit saying: ‘Amos, what do you see?’ And I said, ‘A basket of summer fruit.’* Then the Lord said to me, ‘The end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by. The songs of the temple shall become wailings on that day... ‘the dead bodies shall be many, cast out in every place… so hear this, you that trample on the needy and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?
Amos gives us the prophetic challenge with clarity. He states that the ruling class in ancient Israel had become so arrogant – so certain of their superiority over everyone else including their own sisters and brothers who were poor – that they couldn’t wait for the Sabbath celebrations to be over so that they could get back to buying and selling. Addiction to the bottom line and obsession with business models is not something new – neither is the moral arrogance that allows us to look the other way while our vision and capacity for compassion are corrupted. I think of this every time any crop of politicians – but the current ones in particular – try to blame economic stagnation or domestic terrorism on President Obama. Look, he has made his share of mistakes – and they have hurt us – but it is simply a lie to say he caused the stock market to crash 8 years ago. Or that he is really a Muslim terrorist working undercover to destroy our well-being. That is the rash and vicious talk of hatred – and it isn’t new to our generation.
+ When the prophet Jeremiah warned Israel’s king and priests that their arrogance and greed was going to come tumbling down upon them, first he was slandered and dismissed. Then, when Jeremiah showed up in the public square wearing an oxen’s yoke to symbolize the burden the Temple and the military had placed upon the working poor, they put him in jail and smashed his prop. But when he got out, he went back to a protesting in public by pulling out the hairs of his own beard to represent the pain Israel’s leaders were inflicting upon people of the truth.
+ He was relentless – he was the Michael Moore of his day taking on GM, Flint, Michigan, the gun lobby and all the rest. Isaiah was no less challenging in his context either – that’s what prophets do: To us a single act of injustice--cheating in business, exploitation of the poor--is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a death blow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.
Now you would think that people of compassion would ease up after the walls of the city of Jerusalem were sacked and the Temple on Mt. Zion were burned to the ground, right? I mean, come on, you guys: enough is enough! But they didn’t quit – and the fundamental reason why they remained relentless is that their leaders – the politicians and the priests who formed the cream of the crop – refused to accept their new reality. They wouldn’t weep. They wouldn’t grieve. They wouldn’t become blues people who know that something happening sacred can happen when you accept reality. For generations those who lost control of their lives would only sing:
How long, O God, how long? Why do you cast us off forever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture? Remember your congregation, which you acquired long ago, which you redeemed to be the tribe of your heritage. Remember Mount Zion, where you came to dwell…How long, O God, how long?
So like a counselor in an AA program, the prophets demanded acceptance of reality as a condition for serenity: as long as the movers and shakers of ancient Israel chose to live in the house of denial, the prophets were unrelenting. They knew that the theological and political mistakes their society proclaimed about God and country had to die. They grasped that within their own broken-ness were the seeds of new life if first their people would grieve. They needed to illuminate how the healing of the Lord within them would mature only through humility. As Father Richard Rohr says: call it falling upward, metamorphosis, conversion or transformation: some form of losses always precedes rejuvenation.
+ So first the prophet exposes the gap between a society’s promise and the real pain of ordinary people. Second the prophetic task is “to encourage, permit and engage the practice of public grief over a world that is gone – or never was.”
+ It is to stop singing the Songs of Zion and learn to play the blues. It is to welcome the Psalms of Lament and let them wash over us so that we express a “voiced grief… The task in death is to let go of what is finished, dead, and failed.” And this applies to all false notions of exceptionalism, chosenness and being first in politics or religion.
For about eight years, beloved of God, I have been attempting to help us learn to sing the blues. We are no long first – except name only and some history books. That doesn’t mean we’re done with ministry or worship or serving the Lord in our generation. But it does mean we must truly put away all pretenses of our chosen-ness and get on with the work of being in solidarity with the pain of this place. Because the third prophetic task – the blessing of the blues in my parlance or the encounter with despair in Brueggemann’s words – changes us. We can either become more humble and joyful servants of the Lord or else we’ll turn into cranky and embittered cynics who are no earthly good to anyone.
Brueggemann writes that for “the generation who lived through and looked back on the destruction of Jerusalem, they drew very close to despair. And how could they not! The destruction of the holy city and the deportation of the king visibly negated all of the certitudes upon which they had counted.” So a season of grief work began wherein the cream of the crop had to learn to trust God more than their own intellect, wealth, social status, bloodline, or business models. The time has come to pay careful attention as a congregation and a nation. The prophets are calling us into a similar grieving time as we note our loss of status and influence, our loss of security and wealth, our loss of power and specialness.
Now let me make this very personal. Last week I spoke about how the blues washed over me during the planning and implementation of our 250th anniversary, right? My soul knew that something had to change but I didn’t know what it was. So, I held on and tried to keep my heart open until we left for sabbatical. And as I’ve said before: sabbatical was grand – liberating – joy-filled and totally restful for both Dianne and me. About halfway through that time I began to sense that maybe – just maybe – if God had called me into ministry when I was 16, then maybe God was now calling me out of ministry at age 63. After all, nearly 50 years is a long time and maybe I didn’t have the mojo needed to grow in the Lord and encourage God’s people at this point in time. So when we returned, that question was deep in my heart – and it pushed me deeper into a blue state that could have cut me to the quick.
But I’ve been singing the blues since the first time I heard Elvis or Leadbelly or Dylan or the Stones. And I now, even as a suburban white boy, that when you sing the blues something outside my control, something from beyond my imagination and prayers, can take place: and over the fall I started to see small signs of hope within our shared ministry. It began with those who regularly gathered around the table with me each Wednesday for midday Eucharist. I can’t fully name it – and I still don’t grasp its significance – but being around the Lord’s Table each week, owning our brokenness and calling out to God in prayer, being silent but tender with one another, began to give me the sense that not only was I NOT yet being called out of ministry, but that I should actually be spending MORE time nourishing what is good, pure, compassionate and kindhearted among us.
So I started a list of where I experienced the grace, joy and hope of the Lord in this place and it includes: being with you in Sunday worship – not so much our budget hearings – but here where we meet in humility and honesty. I jotted down that I see something of the Lord in my collaboration with Carlton every week, in the raggedy humility of our Epiphany Pageant, and the bold beauty of this year’s Missa Gaia concert. Spending time feeling and singing the blues, you see, clears our eyes about what is important. It pushed me to get over myself, too so that I could grasp the new thing the Lord was bringing to birth among us: the little things, the simple things, the beautiful things.
You see, these blessings have nothing to do with being special or exceptional and everything to do with tender love. And this is the closing truth that the ancient prophets want us to make our own: we cannot solve all of our problems all by ourselves.
Relying only upon our own wisdom or the paradigms of our culture is insufficient. God has promised to break into our imaginations and history if we are free and humble enough to pay attention. I like the way Eugene Peterson reworks the opening of the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are you when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule. And blessed are you when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.”
When life was at its most grim – when the elite of ancient Israel knew they no longer controlled their own destiny and could no longer count on their old answers to get them out of their despair – when they had fully entered into the grief work essential for trusting the Lord and really started to sing the blues: then the prophets were inspired by God to sing a new song unto the Lord that celebrated the return of God’s grace. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, release to the captive and recovery of sight to the blind.”
“Their utterances, of course, contradicted the evident facts on the ground, contradicted what the listeners in exile expected to hear, and contradicted even what the prophets intended to say out loud.” Because, you see, what was articulated was an alternative to despair given from above – elsewhere – beyond human control and imagination. This was the hopeful imagination that is always born of the Holy Spirit rather than human striving. Brueggemann has written: “the goodness of God’s world transcends one’s limited and vulnerable attempts to understand life… primarily because God’s truth lies beyond the horizons of our historically situated understanding … Faith renews a commitment to transcend understanding… and leads us to a third way between resignation and denial.”
From out of the blues comes an emptiness that God is waiting to fill from beyond all our limitations. And that is exactly what the prophet Isaiah proclaimed to his broken and fractured people: Youth may faint and fall by the wayside, but those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as the eagle, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint: teach me, Lord, teach me, Lord to wait. And that is what I sense God is teaching us right now, beloved, to wait. To not rush into every situation thinking it is a problem to be solved; but rather to wait and feel what is really happening – even grief and sorrow – because in God’s time a new blessing will be born greater than anything we can imagine.
That is why I’ve chosen this as a symbol for this week: the pottery chalice and paten first given to me by my family at my ordination. If you look closely you’ll see that the chalice has been shattered – and then repaired. A deacon in our church in Cleveland accidentally dropped it one Sunday – but chose not to tell me and threw it away in the trash. Sounds almost like a Hebrew parable of sin, yes?
Well, thanks be to God my secretary found it later that week and was horrified. Without my knowledge, she reassembled it with epoxy – lovingly fitting the broken pieces back together – and making whole what had been destroyed and then cast away. With tears in her eyes, Maryanne gave it back to me saying: I know this will never be whole again, but maybe it can still hold something of God’s love for us and nourish us in our brokenness.
That’s what keeps me doing this with you! Not the budget hearings and annual meetings, not the denial or trying to throw our brokenness away in the trash or toss Jesus over the cliff: just the unexpected and undeserved grace that breaks into our wounds and makes us whole. In our busyness God waits to bring us rest. In our fear God waits to give us peace. And in our emptiness God waits to fill us full.
After 40 chapters of lament, blues, acerbic challenge and oracles against denial, out of nothing created except the love of God, the prophet Isaiah is inspired to sing: Comfort, comfort O my people. And he wraps up his song like this:
Why would you ever complain, O Jacob, or, whine, Israel, saying, “God has lost track of me and doesn’t care what happens to me”? Don’t you know anything? Haven’t you been listening? God doesn’t come and go. God lasts. God is the Creator of all you can see or imagine. God doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch his breath. And those who wait upon God get fresh a fresh start and new strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, they run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind.
Teach us, Lord, teach us, Lord… to wait.