Monday, October 14, 2019

Sermon, "The Story, Part I: Exile and Restoration," Jeremiah 10:17-25, 17:7-8, 31:31-34

Sermon 10/13/19
Jeremiah 10:17-25, 17:7-8, 31:31-34

The Story, Part 1: Exile and Restoration
Today in our journey through the Story of the Bible, we find ourselves in the Book of Jeremiah, one of the many books of prophecy in the Bible. As I’ve shared before, although we sometimes think of prophecy like fortune-telling, predicting the future, it’s really more about truth-telling. Here’s what’s going to happen if you keep heading down the path you’re on. Most of the books of prophecy in the Bible are centered around one particular narrative of warning about a painful future: With some speaking to the kingdom of Judah and some to Israel, with some warning and correcting decades before events unfolded and some writing from the center of the storm, so to speak, almost all of the writings of the prophets are warning Israel and Judah that if they don’t repent and return to God with all their hearts, they will be conquered by foreign rulers and exiled from the Promised Land. There are a few chief complaints that God has with God’s people. The most persistent is idolatry - people keep putting other gods, other things, before God. They’re not being faithful to their covenant with God. They said that God would be their one and only God, but they’re putting other things first in their life. That’s the main, worst offense. And related to that: when they stopped putting God first, they also stopped making care for the marginalized a priority. They’ve been disregarding the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger. Through the prophets, God tells people God has had enough of their rejecting the covenant. They have opportunity after opportunity to repent, to change their ways and turn back to God, but they don’t. And so what starts as warnings from the prophets turns into declarations of what will be: God is going to exile them. 
That’s what we find in our readings from Jeremiah today. We get three sections of text from Jeremiah, and the first is all about the coming exile. The language is bold and clear. Through Jeremiah, God says, “I am going to fling away the inhabitants of the land … and I will bring distress on them, so that they feel it.” God expresses deep pain because of being rejected by God’s own people. “Woe is me because of my hurt,” says God. “My wound is severe.” I think sometimes we forget that - that God can hurt, that we can cause God pain. Jeremiah describes a God who is brokenhearted. Jeremiah pleads on behalf of the people: “Correct us, God, but if you use all your anger on us, with all your power, we’ll be nothing.” But Jeremiah imagines he hears a noise, a commotion coming - the armies arriving who will make their homeland a desolation. 
In the second short excerpt, Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.” Those who trust God, he says, are like a tree that’s planted by the water, that sends its roots out into the stream. They’re like a tree that doesn’t fear when it gets very hot - doesn’t wither or yellow in the extreme weather. They’re like a tree that doesn’t worry or get damaged even in a year of drought, but continues to bear fruit all the same. That’s what it is like for those who trust in God. 
And then, in the third section, God is looking ahead, looking forward already to the joyful time when God will make a new covenant with God’s people. “The days are surely coming,” God says. God says this time, the covenant will be different, not like the covenant the Israelites broke. This covenant, God says, will be put right within God’s people. God will write it on their hearts. People will know the covenant because it lives with in them, from the greatest to the least in a society. “I will be their God, and they shall be my people … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” 
I’ve been thinking about exile this week. Being pushed out of your home - banished from your home. In some ways, I think it is hard for us to relate. It is not a typical punishment, anymore, for crimes, at least not in the US. My mom might tell you that on one of her favorite shows, Survivor, you can get voted off the island - “The tribe has spoken.” But mostly, we don’t worry about being conquered and exiled - ourselves, or certainly as a whole society. I think of Romeo and Juliet, and Romeo’s punishment for killing Juliet’s cousin - not death, but banishment. To be separated from his love felt like death to Romeo. Today in other parts of the world, political dissidents, ousted national leaders, and war criminals - sometimes they are banished, exiled from their countries, kept on house arrest in some far off land. How can we relate to the pain, the gravity and devastation of the exile if it is so far removed from our experiences today? 
When I brought this up at Bible Study this week, the class quickly thought of ways people experience a sense of exile today. As we lifted up the Kairos team that next weekend will seek to share the hope of Christ with men who are in prison, we talked about how prisoners experience exile. They’re often very far from home and family. They’re often in prison in a place like Gouverneur that couldn’t be more different culturally than the place they’re from. It’s a kind of exile, certainly. We talked about those who are homeless, who are on the fringes of society. However a person came to be living in such poverty, they exist in a kind of exile, shut out of the rhythms of a working, consuming culture. People experience a kind of exile when relationships end badly, making even casual contact impossible where there once was a marriage, or a friendship, or a family bond. We talked about people being alienated from faith communities, either from feeling disconnected from the patterns and language and teaching of church, or from feeling unwelcome by church members, or afraid that there is no place for you in spaces considered holy and sacred. The truth is, when we start digging, prodding, the experience of exile is not so far from us after all. 
When have you felt exiled? Banished? Cut off from a place or a relationship or a situation that was home to you? Have you ever needed to banish or exile someone from you life? I’ve experienced having to break bonds with abusive family members. Necessary, but painful nonetheless - for those sent away, and for those doing the sending. Exile is hard. In exile, we are saying, perhaps, “Your behavior is so hurtful, so unacceptable, so destructive, that the only path forward for a meaningful change for me and for you is radical action: you can’t be here anymore. Moving forward with you is no longer one of the options we have.”      
Imagine, then, what must unfold, what must take place, and what must be felt by the kingdoms of Israel and Judah when it is God who exiles them. Sure, they are conquered, and foreign armies and rulers are the ones who drag them away. But the prophets, Jeremiah included, let us know that this is God’s judgment on them. It is God who is sending them away, God who is saying, “You can’t be here anymore. We cannot have the same relationship anymore.” Have you ever felt exiled from God? “For thus says the Lord: I am going to fling away the inhabitants of the land … and I will bring distress on them, so that they shall feel it.” Have you ever felt that? Flung away from God? 
I suspect most of us have. Don Schuessler mentioned in class, how Mother Teresa talked about a ten-year period in her life where she didn’t feel the presence of God. She wrote, “Where is my faith? – even deep down, right in, there is nothing but emptiness & darkness. – My God – how painful is this unknown pain. It pains without ceasing. – I have no faith. – I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me – I am afraid to uncover them.” (1) John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, had some “dark nights of the soul” too - and he wondered if he’d ever really been a Christian, or if he was just a fake, and he wrote to his brother Charles expressing that he didn’t know what else to do in the midst of his doubts except just keep on preaching. This wasn’t Wesley as a young man, but Wesley in his 60s, already the leader of an international movement of reawakening faith. Maybe you think, “Gosh, if even Mother Teresa had doubts, what hope do I have?” But I think, “Oh good - even Mother Teresa had doubts! And yet look at her great faithfulness!” However we find ourselves in the strange land of exile, I think we all encounter seasons of feeling far-flung from God’s presence. Sometimes we know exactly how we got there. We can recount our sins, our failings, we know how we’ve broken covenant with God, and we understand how we ended up just where we are. Sometimes, our journey to exile was inch by inch, and we didn’t realize that we’d gotten so far from God until we looked behind us and couldn’t see God’s face anymore. Sometimes, we go for a season, for a decade, without feeling God’s presence, and we’re not even sure why. 
But friends, there is always restoration with exile when it comes to our relationship with God. Exile, our experience of exile, is never the end of the story. Because God’s promises endure, always. Even when God’s people are in exile, even in the worst time in their collective lives, God is with them there, too. I’ve been reading through the writings of the prophets for the past several months as part of my devotional time. The major prophets - they’re just the ones with longer books in the Bible, and now the minor prophets. I’m almost to the “end” of this section of scripture. And reading them all back to back, I’ve noticed some themes, some patterns, some repeated ways that God speaks through the prophets. 
My favorite “pattern” of God’s is this: practically before God is done saying what the consequences are for the sinful behavior of God’s people, practically before God is done describing the coming exile, God is already also imagining restoration and reconciliation with God’s people. God says, things like, “You’ve been awful, and I am so upset with you, and I’m so hurt, and so frustrated, and so angry, and I am so going to punish you, FOREVER! But then I am so totally going to relent, and forgive, and things will be awesome between us again and I can’t wait because I love you and you’re my people and I’m your God.” God never leaves us in exile. That works in two ways: God never leaves us - we’re never without God, even in exile. But also, God never leaves us there - exile isn’t permanent, not with God. There’s always a homecoming. The lost sheep is always found. The lost coin is discovered. The prodigal son is welcomed home. God can’t wait to forgive us. God can’t wait for our relationship to be healed. God is so anxious to says, “Let’s renew that covenant.” God can hardly stay mad long enough to not be eagerly describing how joyful it will be when we are reunited, when we return to God with all our hearts. 
If you find yourselves in exile, however you got there, I want you to remember those middle verses about the tree by the water, the tree that trusts in God. Even when you can’t feel God’s presence, even when you feel utterly alone, even when you feel like the world is a blazing sun that wants to cause you to shrivel up, or when you feel like your life has been in a long season of drought, dry and parched, seek to be like the tree by the water that trusts in God. Eventually, Mother Teresa, John Wesley, they felt God’s presence once again. And I think they were aided in part by the fact that they had practices of faith that sustained them even when they felt alone. They couldn’t feel God, but they still studied God’s word. They will prayed. They still shared about God’s goodness, about Jesus’s good news. And eventually, those words meant something to them again. We have to establish those practices of faith in the times when we feel God right by our sides, so that we can lean on them in times when we don’t. They’ll help us find our way again. 
And if you find yourselves in exile, remember this: God’s promises are written on your hearts. See, even though in Jeremiah, in that last section we read God says God will make a new covenant with the people, it probably sounds pretty familiar to you - because it is really the same covenant as always: I’ll be your God, you be my people. That’s always what God wants. A relationship with us. But remember in Deuteronomy, we read how God wanted us to remember by putting God’s words on our heads and arms and doorposts and gates, so we’d never forget? This time, God says, “I’m putting the covenant directly on your heart. My covenant will be within you. I’m writing it on your heart. Everyone will know it then. You’ll barely have to teach it - because you’ll know it already, young and old, greatest and least. My covenant on your hearts.” 
If God’s covenant is on our hearts, then there’s nowhere we can go, no where we can be sent, no place we can hide, no place we can run, no place to which we can be exiled, no state of sinfulness that is too much, no separation that has lasted too long, no circumstance of any kind where God cannot reach us. It can’t be done. “They days are surely coming,” says God. Like trees by the water, let us trust in God, wherever we are. Amen. 

  1. https://www.smmsisters.org/who-we-are/sister-stories/86/the-doubts-of-a-saint

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Sermon, "The Story, Part I: Squabbling," Judges 2:1-5, 17:6, 1 Samuel 8:19-22, 2 Kings 24:18-20a

Sermon 10/6/19
Judges 2:1-5, 17:6, 1 Samuel 8:19-22, 2 Kings 24:18-20a

The Story, Part I:Squabbling

For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about ways that God establishes to help the Israelites remember their relationship: God will be their God, they’ll be God’s people. And they’ll put God first, and love God with heart, mind, soul, strength, and they’ll express this as they live out the law, caring for each other, loving one another. And now we see why. The people still haven’t quite come into full possession of the Promised Land. There have been wars and setbacks, and Moses has died and Joshua is now leading them. And already, people are losing their connection to God and the law. Joshua has declared that he and his house will follow God. But this isn’t the case with all the Israelites. Some of them have started paying attention to the practices and beliefs of the people around them. And in our first reading, from Judges, God calls them out on their behavior. They’ve broken covenant. What follows is a long period of ups and downs for Israel. The people start to focus on needing a king. They are sure that will fix their problems somehow. But it’s just one more demand in a long string of demands the people put to God, insisting that if God just does this one more thing, then they’ll be good for God. “If you just do _________ for us God, then we will truly be your people.” They think they want a king. They think that will fix everything. But of course, if they can’t follow a divine ruler, why would they follow an earthly fallible king? Still, God, speaking through Samuel in our second text, grants them what they desire. It comes as no surprise to us as readers, though, that it doesn’t work out. By the close of their season of king after kings, the people are further than ever from following God, they’re broken and divided, and they’re sent into exile. 
So how do things unravel? All throughout the books of 1 and 2 Kings, (books of history in the Bible, which recount the long line of the leaders of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah) in addition to details about standout events in the reign of that particular king, the author also “scores” each reign in this way: The author either says that the king “did what was right in the sight of the Lord,” an unfortunately rare comment, or that the king “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” - that’s how the reign of too many leaders is summed up. That’s clear, and unambiguous. They did good, or they did evil. And given those two choices, we know what we’re supposed to strive for at least, right? We want to do what is good in God’s eyes. 
But what strikes me, in our readings today, is that while this language - good or evil in God’s sight - is directed at the rulers, the kings, in Judges, the author says this: “And the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Is that a good thing or a bad thing? The text doesn’t say specifically. We can, and will, look for some context clues, but we can also mull over these words ourselves.
“And the people did what was right in their own eyes.” What would be wrong with this? Is there anything wrong with this kind of thinking? Why shouldn’t we all just do what’s right in our own eyes? I’m sure sometimes I tell people something very similar to this: you have to do what you think is right. And there are ways in which I think that’s true. It doesn’t seem like there’s a clear right and wrong choice in every situation we encounter, does it? Sometimes figuring out the best thing to do seems like a gray and murky endeavor. So figuring out what’s right is something we have to take responsibility for, and we do that as we exercise our gift of free will, as we work out our sense of ethics - the guiding moral principles that govern our lives. And we know, of course, that we do not always come to the same conclusions about what is right as those around us. Sometimes, that’s ok. Maybe two different families come to different conclusions about whether one parent wants to stay home to care for children in the household. And after mulling over options, one family decides that they think it is most important that the children see their parents as workers, balancing careers and home life. And another family decides that it is most important that at least one parent is home, providing direct care for the children at all times. Is one conclusion more right than the others? I don’t think so, not if all involved are doing their best, looking at the best results for their households, and then trying to act in accordance with their ethics, their guiding moral principles. Is that what “all the people did what was right in their own eyes” means? 
However, sometimes we slip from knowing there are times when people come to different conclusions about what is right and wrong in ways that make sense, to feeling like there is no real right or wrong at all. This is what’s called “moral relativism.” Moral relativism means that “in … disagreements, nobody is objectively right or wrong; and … because nobody is right or wrong, we ought to tolerate the behavior of others even when we disagree about the morality of it.” Everyone is just figuring things out for themselves, sometimes people come to different conclusions about what’s right and wrong, and we should just accept that - and accept people’s differing conclusions. Many people feel strongly that this is true. “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” A good thing. 
Here’s the thing though. If someone believes that racism is ok, should we just accept that they have a “different point of view?” Is right and wrong murky, or clear? If someone believes it is ok to beat and abuse their children as part of discipline for children’s misbehavior, is that just a different parenting ethic? If someone has decided that, after careful consideration, murdering someone isn’t wrong as long as they “deserve” to die, do we have to accept their conclusions? “All the people did what was right in their own eyes.” Ah. Perhaps there’s something amiss, really amiss, when we read that God’s people are all doing whatever they think is best. And then we add in the context, what we know from what we talked about last week, and what we know from the rest of today’s texts. We know that the people have spent years receiving the law - how many commandments? (613!) So apparently God thinks that in at least these instances, the people don’t need to decide what’s right and wrong. God has given them guidance. And we know that in the first part of our text from Judges, God declares that while God has kept the covenant they’ve made, the people have not. They’ve broken the law. In particular, they’ve not remembered to keep God first. They’ve all just done whatever seemed best to them. And the result was that their identity as God’s set apart people has started to crumble. 
Eventually, the people are sure they can fix their relationship with God if they can just get an earthly king to rule them, like all the other nations have. That’s what they need: a person they can see, who can talk directly to them, who can enforce rules and regulations with power and authority. Then, they will stay on the straight and narrow. God tries to dissuade them. God is their ruler. They shouldn’t need any other kind of king. But after a period of Judges, set up to judge but not rule, the Israelites still want a king. Before our passage from 1 Samuel, Samuel, the prophet, tries to tell them all the ways they are going to regret asking for a king. But they don’t listen. And God, hearing their complaining, concedes. They can have a king. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t fix their problems, and by the end of 2 Kings, God’s people have been conquered, and they are exiled - kings included - to Babylon. 
In Judges, in 1 & 2 Samuel, in 1 & 2 Kings, we see a people wrestling with questions about authority. Who’s in charge? Are they in charge of themselves? Is a judge in charge, or a king? Or is God in charge? Who’s going to be the ruler of their lives? Who will be the authority for the Israelites? We still have to answer these questions today. And I think, so often, we try to answer just like the Israelites did. Oh, I think they wanted God to have some power and authority in their lives. Just not all. They wanted God to be there to protect them, to encourage them, to tell other people what to do, to punish other people when they were wrong. But they also wanted God to leave them alone when they reached a different conclusion than God about what was right. Aren’t we the same? What kind of authority and power do you want God to have in your life? How does God rule in your life? Do you want God to be a mentor, a friend, but not someone who tells you what to do? Would you rather that God didn’t rule you?  
I think we’re afraid that if we give our whole lives to God, if we let God be in charge, then we end up powerless. We forget that God is not a dictator. We get to decide whether or not we want God to rule us. We get to decide whether we will let God be the authority that guides of our lives each day. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have power if we choose not to be God’s people. It just means that God, who loves us, wants our willing hearts, not zombie followers who can’t make choices. But, if we choose God, if we give God the authority to be the only true Ruler of our lives, we have to come to terms with this: God isn’t interested in giving us mild suggestions that we are never going to listen to. We might have to figure out what God is leading us to do, but God doesn’t have a murky sense of what’s best. We might wrestle with how to live out God’s commandment of love, but that doesn’t make it any less of a commandment. Do we want God to rule us? Or would we rather do what’s right in our own eyes? We can’t have it both ways. 
This week a group of us from First UMC, North Gouverneur, and other area churches traveled to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, to see, among other things, the production of Jesus at the Sight and Sound Theatre, known for putting on elaborate, visually stunning productions about stories from the Bible. Jesus, naturally, told the story of Jesus’s ministry, from his calling of the disciples, through Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. What stuck most for me, besides the really cool special effects, was Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was betrayed and arrested. In the production we saw, as Jesus prayed, he wrestled with voices in his mind trying to lure him away from doing what Jesus knew he must. We read in the scriptures, Jesus asking God, his parent: “If it is possible, can you take this cup - this path - this suffering - away from me?” But of course, we know that Jesus concludes, “Not my will, but your will be done [God].” And that’s what Jesus repeated over and over in this production - “Not my will but yours be done, not my will but yours be done!” They aren’t words that come easily to Jesus. They are wrested from the depths of his soul. If we think Jesus goes lightly to his death just because he trusts God, we’re wrong. He would rather any other path was the path to which God was calling him in that moment. But Jesus has made a commitment: Not my will, but your will be done. He knows he can’t have it both ways. If God is God for Jesus, if God is Ruler of the Universe, then even Jesus must choose God’s will over his own. God won’t force him. But that doesn’t mean both choices, both paths are right. Jesus chooses not his own will, but God’s.  
What will we choose? Choosing God’s path is hard, especially when it bumps up, even collides head on with what we think is best. But God doesn’t really rule our hearts and lives if we only choose God’s way when it neatly coincides with our own. The hardest part of discipleship is choosing God’s path when we’re sure we know better. Yet - not our will God, but yours be done. 
Today is World Communion Sunday. It’s a day when we give special attention to the gift of communion, and especially when we give thanks and celebrate our oneness in the Body of Christ, as we know that Christians everywhere are joining at the table with us today. It is also a reminder for us: we are not alone. And so what we do doesn’t just affect us. We’re one body. I can’t just decide what’s right for me, not without it affecting my siblings in Christ. So instead of me trying to decide what’s best for everyone - as tempting as that seems! - I choose to be ruled by God. Sometimes, I will be as awful at it as the Israelites were. But sometimes, maybe more and more with a life of following in the ways of Jesus, I will claim with conviction: “Not my will, but yours be done God.” 

And all the people did what was right - in God’s eyes. May it be so. Amen.