The grandfather of comparative religion in the United States, Huston Smith, once said that “Exclusively oral cultures are unencumbered by dead knowledge and facts. Libraries, on the other hand, are full of them.” That means we must be on guard against knowledge that is outdated or dead, too whenever we approach the Bible. For the Bible is a library of sorts: it is a compilation bound together from separate sacred scrolls once written on papyrus. As a Greek word – biblos – it literally means scroll from the early days before the individual “books” of the Hebrew and Christian Testaments were gathered together into a coherent collection.
Apparently, the Hebrew oral tradition began to be gathered during the days of King David – 1000 years before the Common Era – but took another 700 years before being synthesized into its current form. The Christian stories were also born of the oral tradition although the letters of St. Paul were circulated in a written form as early as 30 years after Christ’s death while the whole of the canon was not codified for another 250 years. The reason I start with this reminder as I continue my series into what the wisdom of the ancient prophets of Israel have to say to those of us in 21st century America is simple: it takes some work and careful attention to sort out what is living from what is dead within this sacred library.
And you’re not going to get much encouragement from the dominant culture to do this type of sorting: not only do we all have jobs that need tending, families to feed, wars to wage, mortgages to pay and addictions and distractions by the truckload to divert our attention; but the ethos of this era is so driven by the limited vision of scientific empiricism and marketplace capitalism, that we tend to see almost every situation, condition and person set before us as a problem to be solved. We so fervently desire answers, solutions, and resolutions that we barely comprehend the prophetic task of waiting upon the Lord as enunciated bu the in the Bible. Smith puts it like this:
The scientific method is nearly perfect for understanding the physical aspects of our life. But it is a radically limited viewfinder in its ability to offer values, morals and meanings that compose the center of our lives. Indeed, science is like a flashlight in the hands of people living inside a huge balloon. They can illuminate anything within the balloon, but cannot shine a light outside the balloon to see where it is floating – or even if it is floating at all.
For that type of light and insight, Smith tells us, we must go to the sacred scrolls of our Biblical library and learn to slowly sift through the stories in order to discern the living wisdom of God even as we bury what is dead. It is not that the scientific, deductive path is wrong, mind you – I am grateful for it in the care of my wife of late – it is just incomplete – especially when it comes to the work of discernment.
Smith concludes his warning by telling us: “If we take the world’s enduring religions at their best, we will discover the distilled wisdom of the human race.” Did you hear that? The BEST of religion offers us the distilled wisdom of the HUMAN experience! And one of those living insights carrying wisdom within it for contemporary humanity is found in ancient Israel’s prophetic poetry. As I have been trying to clarify since Christmas, the prophetic task is to teach us that whenever there is cultural, spiritual, emotional, political, personal or institutional transition taking place, God’s people are required to spend time in the house of lamentation and grief before we can move into a new residence that lets the past become the past.
Professor Walter Brueggemann calls this the work of relinquishment: “I am one,” wept the prophet Jeremiah from within the devastated walls of a defiled Jerusalem, “who has seen affliction under the absence of the Lord… my soul is bereft of peace and my happiness is gone forever.” Call it the blues or lament, the distilled wisdom of the human race embedded in prophetic Scripture is clear that we cannot move faithfully, patiently, creatively or assuredly into the future without grieving. This is God’s promise to us: we do not have to dwell in the house of denial forever nor reinvent the wheel when it comes to aligning our souls with the way of the Lord where God’s banquet table awaits us with a cup that runneth over.
But we do have to pay attention to the testimony of our sacred ancestors – that great cloud of witnesses – who are waiting to lead us through the valley of the shadow of death – our season of relinquishment – so that on the other side of this life not just the next, we might be enveloped by the goodness and mercy of the One who promises: Comfort, comfort O my people, speak tenderly to Jeru-salem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
That, in a concentrated nutshell, is the core of this message: lament born of a new reality is foundational: grief embraced by faith is our way through the valley of the shadow of death – and hope poured into our hearts by God comes to those who wait upon the Lord
This is not at all the methodology of our problem solving obsession, but it is absolutely essential for a mature and healthy soul. Brueggemann writes: The hard work of relinquishment accepts no short cuts. This task requires a trust that does not blush and a history that does not blink… For prophetic ministry in any generation requires a courage beyond fearlessness… a willingness to live beyond all proof, and a trust that relinquishment positions us to receive blessings from the Lord… yet again” when the time is right.
So today I invite you to first consider with me what the destruction of Jerusalem meant to ancient Israel emotionally, politically and theologically. Second, let’s try to tease out what that suggests for us as 21st century Americans. And third allow me to encourage each and all of us as First Church to tenderly move through our own grief into a hope that is already being born among us in small ways for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.
But let’s recap this series thus far for both those who haven’t been here each week as well as for those who may not know these ancient tales, ok? To date, I’ve tried to say the following: Because the stories of Scripture are our shared heritage within the Judeo-Christian realm, we need to mine them for meaning. It’s not that these are necessarily the best stories about spirituality – and they certainly are not the only ones – they are simply our stories. It’s like our families: they too may not be the best families and are certainly not the only families in creation, but they are our families and to overlook them is an act of denial.
Further, I believe that real wisdom emerges from depth in one discipline rather than sampling fads or trends. Knowing a little bit about a lot of things has its place at a cocktail party, but in matters of the heart and soul, shallowness is not our ally: we need depth not merely breadth. So I have pushed profoundly into the prophetic wisdom of ancient Israel because this is the soil into which we have been planted. It is the tradition that Jesus embraced as well as our own spiritual progenitors. So, by way of summary, over the past three weeks I have noted:
First, how our ancient ancestors in Israel wrestled with three different understandings of covenant and faithful living with God. Some believed that worship rituals were the essence of faith; others concluded that God had made them a holy people through the bloodline of Abraham; and still others – particularly the prophets – sensed that Sabbath keeping and right relations between neighbors was the fulfillment of covenantal life. These are the Davidic, Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.
Second, how there was a fierce and on-going debate between each of these spiritualities. Over time, the prophets demanding justice and compassion found themselves in opposition to those who emphasized either the way of racial purity or just the practice of sacramental duties.
And third, when the city of Jerusalem and its Temple were sacked by Babylon in 587 BCE, most of ancient Israel was rendered emotionally and spiritually devastated. They had no way to comprehend how God could seem to turn away from the so-called chosen. To which the prophets countered: God’s absence is NOT forever; so learn to weep – own the agony of this era – and cry out unto the Lord without ceasing for only those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.
That’s the summary, ok? It is, to use Brueggemann’s insight, the way reality helps us grieve our way into hope – and that’s where we’re going today. After the obliteration of Jerusalem, there were two groups of mourners: those who were taken away as slaves into Babylon and those who remained in the burned out debris of a once holy city. Too often we forget this second group of mourners, those left behind when the elite were shackled and forced into exile. But it is often the case that those who are forgotten and marginalized grasp God’s truth more profoundly than the best and the brightest: not only do the broken have less to lose from the status quo, they have been shut-out for so long and on so many levels by the dominant class that they are light years ahead of us when it comes to opening our hearts to the liberating power of lament.
Think of what the feminist movement brought to those of us trapped in the dismissive and condescending ways of our sexist habits. Consider what the environmentalists have brought to the table about climate change that are only now being taken seriously by the elite. Take a moment to appreciate how the Black Lives Matter movement is calling you and me back into our long journey out of white privilege and closer to the beloved community.
The Reverend Traci Blackmon, one time pastor of Christ the King church in Ferguson, MO during the rioting and now working on racial justice matters for the national United Church of Christ put it like this: Nobody gives up privilege willingly, but living in God’s kingdom is all about relinquishing our comfort and convenience. That’s why this moment in time calls us to nurture bravery, humility, diversity and empathy so that we can discover how to disagree well – for it usually involves more listening. Jesus said much the same thing to his homies when they questioned his integrity by appealing to a contemptuous but facile familiarity: Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, “Doctor, heal thyself.” And you will demand that I do some miracle here, too. That’s why I’m telling you NO prophet is ever accepted in his or her home town.
And he went on to challenge them as one of Israel’s prophets saying: quit playing games. If you want to know the will of the Lord in our generation, go to the hungry, the lonely, the broken and oppressed: When did we see Thee Lord? When I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Whenever you do this unto the least of my sisters and brothers, you do so unto me.
In the Hebrew Bible the story of those left behind in burned-out Jerusalem is found in the book of Lamentations. This is the accounting of those who “were subject every day to the sights and smells of a city in shambles…this is the testi-mony of their deep sense of abandonment made evident in the poetry born of the ruins.” Chapter 3 succinctly summarizes their plight: “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; over and over I weep: “Gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”
Now the Hebrew word, ‘abad, is translated here as “gone” – gone is my glory – gone is all recollection of hope. But most scholars argue that ‘abad should actually be rendered: “perish.” Do you sense the difference? Gone is abstract, but perished is heart-breaking. This was the birth of the blues in Israel, when both the poor and the powerful realized and accepted that they had been called away from “any emotional sense of well-being to one of loss, from any political sense of guarantee to one of acute vulnerability, from any theological sense of chosenness to one of abandonment. This new context of loss, vulnerability, and abandonment (touched everyone) and amounted to a vindication of prophetic realism against the ideology of exceptionalism and prophetic grief against (all forms of) denial.”
Now maybe it’s just me, but I hear something similar taking place in both the long abandoned cities of our nation as well as the once prosperous neighborhoods of America’s shrinking middle and working class. There is lamentation in the air – anger and confusion, too. Sometimes it is expressed in the overtly hateful diatribes of Mr. Trump’s fascist hymns; but it is there, too in the equally heated populist protest songs of Mr. Sanders. Many of our people believe we are the brink of despair – and we very well may be. Professor Brueggemann put it like this in a way that resonates in my heart: There is an anger in America being acted out in the disguise of nostalgia: a yearning for the good old days of a simpler life. It looks innocent enough on the surface but contains a dreadful truth just below our view.
Remember the provocative mantra of the 2012 political campaign: take back our country? This slogan reflects the sense that someone has seized our world from us, not unlike the way in which the Babylonians seized the world of Jerusalem away from its inhabitants. Nostalgia is an attempt to recover the world that is gone – perished – if indeed it ever existed. Nostalgic anger is manifest in the “stand your ground” gun laws that are shot through with macho fear and racism… Nostalgic anger is alive in our culture that is obsessed with apocalyptic, end of the world motion pictures… and it is active in the “every man for himself” ideology that has turned Washington, DC into an unsustainable political quagmire. Can you believe that a second-rate ideological novelist like Ayn Rand is now being held up for us as a legitimate public philosopher of value and wisdom? This is pure lunacy. But, in our nostalgia, the disappearance of any notion of preserving the common good validates the feeling of many that we have been abandoned – bereft of peace – with joy and hope gone for at least the foreseeable future. (Brueggemann)
And what about closer to home: in a culture bereft of peace the current heroin epidemic consuming the Berkshires makes sense. Same with random acts of violence: this past Wednesday I was heading home from midday Eucharist on First Street when two young, white gang bangers jumped out of opposing cars and started to beat the snot out of one another. And if that weren’t bad enough, the friends and neighbors who gathered around this fracas didn’t try to stop it but, cheered them on. Before I could get my phone to dial 911, they jumped back into their SUVs and sped off in opposite directions. Denial of our cultural disease is no longer possible. We know better: the reality we see all around us has exposed a culture empty of generative power and bursting at the seams with destructive anxiety.
So pay careful attention here: it was into a comparable moral vacuum that both the elite in Babylon and the working poor in Jerusalem began to hear songs of hope, dream dreams of deep change, and claim visions and write poems of a healing that was greater than anything they could imagine. “In the midst of exilic despair over destruction and displacement,” you see, God breaks into our reality and moves our laments from grief into the promise of a buoyant future. Now we can’t do this ourselves, beloved, we can’t abrogate the time table of the Lord. We can’t bind the chains of the Pleiades or loosen Orion’s belt. We can’t lead forth constellation in its season or shake water from a stone. We can’t even imagine what a new heaven and new earth – a new temple, a new city, a new covenant – might look like. All we can do is wait upon the Lord who has promised to renew our strength. Wait upon the Lord – are you listening? Wait upon the Lord: this is NOT a call to passivity or navel gazing. It is taking the time to feel in our core the agony of the world’s suffering. It is rediscovering our common bonds – the social good – where all humankind is made in the loving image of the Lord. AND… it is trusting that when we are ready, God’s time will break into our time with a promise that overrides despair. Brueggemann is persuasive on this point: “As long as the displaced are preoccupied with the palpable causes of their despair – the city in shambles, the hegemony of the empire – the utterance of sacred promise is not credible. It is simply more wishful thinking.”
And that is why the prophetic task insists upon the power of the Lord in these circumstances. Confessing that all true utterances of hope “arise from elsewhere – from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility that is not disrupted by the city in shambles nor restrained by the force of empire,” the poetry of the prophets throws conventional wisdom out the window and “raises up a word from outside all explanatory categories” that resonates with our hearts and liberates our minds: it is the cry I have a dream! Sing a NEW song!
Take the poetry of Isaiah: We listen to it in an unhistorical way every Advent as we sing: Comfort, comfort ye my people, or, How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace and brings good news. But we rarely, if ever, recall that these songs were born in exile – in Babylon – when beyond all reason, science, logic and linear thinking the ancient prophets began to see visions and dream dreams. They had cried themselves crazy with lament and pushed those in denial to do likewise. And then – and ONLY then – came God’s word of hope born of grief and saturated with reality but blessed with sweet hope nonetheless.
And THAT, people of God at First Church, is why I’ve been burdening you with this series. Some of us haven’t grieved the loss of the old First Church profoundly enough – and I know because I hear the yearning for the old days all over town. Not so much here – although sometimes – but more in the coffee shops where people say things like: “We just need another GE to come and then our problems would be over.” Those days, beloved, are gone: forever!
That’s one reality – but there is another: some among us – and sometimes I fall into this group – haven’t yet allowed ourselves to grieve over the fact that we haven’t yet been able to solve the financial problems facing our church. After all, we’re smart and reasonably successful professionals in our day jobs who can solve other problems: how come we can’t crack the nut here? I know, I’ve spent numerous sleepless nights fretting about this one – and I know some of you have, too.
To which the witness of the ancient prophets tells us: wait upon the Lord. Trust God more than self – know that God has still more light to be revealed. We are not the all-powerful Oz. We are not the one who threw the stars and planets into orbit. But damn if we don’t resist being pushed towards humility, smallness and an active waiting upon the Lord.
Once upon a time, a Jewish grandma was walking on the shore of the Pacific Ocean with her grandson whom she adored. She worshipped the ground this little boy walked on and was delighted that his momma et her take him out for the day. She’d bought him a new pair of shorts and sandals and a sweet little straw hat to keep the sun off his 2 year old head. So, as they were strolling by the water laughing and loving one another, out of nowhere came this monster wave. It was 12 feet high and slammed down on the shore with an earth shattering crash. And when grandma looked up, the little boy was gone. Once she caught her breath she looked up to the heavens and prayed with one arm outstretched as she beat her breast with the other: Blessed are You, O Lord our God, creator of heaven and earth, King of the Universe. I plead with you in your mercy to return my grandson, the apple of my eye. In humility I beg of you, Lord. And with that, another wave crashed upon the shore… and the little boy was returned. As you might imagine, grandma ran and embraced him, picking him up in her arms and covering him with kisses. Oh my God this was such a delight… I give you thanks and praise, Lord she cried in gratitude. But after a moment, she looked back up at the heavens and said: You know when he left, he had a hat.
We’re a stubborn lot – and don’t honor God’s push and pull towards humility with the respect it deserves – so we have to keep learning what it means to wait upon the Lord over and over again. And that is part of what I think is taking place at First Church right now. We’re being asked yet again to wait upon the LORD to restore our strength; it’s not something that comes easily to anyone especially hard working, middle class folk like you and me. But that’s ok, because God isn’t going anywhere and when we’re ready to get it, I believe that blessings and hope and a new ministry of integrity and joy will be revealed. It is already taking shape in small ways among us for those who have eyes to see.
But there’s a third group who are really bringing in the hope – they don’t have your history or my concerns – and they hold some powerful potential. And the reason I know this is from Bible study. You know, I always thought that the Lord is my Shepherd was one of the Psalms of David, but apparently not. We know this because it closes with the words: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, right? Goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Well, there wasn’t a house of the Lord in David’s time – there was a tent - there wasn’t a Temple – that came on Solomon’s watch. And it was destroyed in 587 BCE and wasn’t rebuilt again until 517 – that’s nearly 500 years after David and 70 years after the exile. But those who came after the anguish, they could see the beauty that was waiting to be born – and could see the Lord’s banquet table.
So, the symbol I’m going to put on the communion table today is this little string of prayer beads. It isn’t a check for half a million dollars that would help close our budget deficit. And it isn’t a well articulated plan to rescue our building and ministry from reality or grief or change. It is a simple string of wooden beads that reminds me that ALL I can do is actively wait upon the Lord with trust.
Last year I started to make prayer beads for myself – and then for a few others who needed a small reminder that: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for… what? Thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. The God who loves us will not only bind up all our wounds, but will surround us with goodness and mercy that shall follow us all the days of our live life: and we will dwell in the house of the Lord… forever. Say that again: forever.