The Rev. Frank Bailey – Sunday September 18, 2016
The first sermon I ever delivered many years ago was in a small rural Baptist church in Kentucky. I had invited some friends, and they were sitting near the front (obviously by their positioning not cradle Episcopalians). When I approached the rostrum (since there really wasn’t a pulpit), I was holding a Bible just like today, and one of my so-called friends said loud enough for me and several others to hear him, “Oh, no, he is carrying a Bible; we could be here for a very long time.”
I am standing here with the Bible because I want to quote briefly from this morning’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet whose ministry covered a span of about 40 years starting around 627 BCE. He was the son of a priest, and like some of the other Old Testament prophets, he did not consider himself suitable for the job, but when God insists, what are you going to do? For the purposes of this morning’s reading, Jeremiah is focusing on Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and Jerusalem, and in broad strokes he was concerned with Judah’s worship of other gods, especially the Baals; the seeking of entangling political alliances with countries not of the God of the Israelites, particularly Egypt and Assyria; and finally Judah’s increasing tendency toward social injustice.
More specifically, the backdrop for this morning’s reading is likely two disasters – one that has occurred and one that Jeremiah sees clearly threatening on the horizon. The first is a major drought that has struck Judah, which has potentially catastrophic consequences for feeding the people, and the second is the gathering storm clouds of the conquest of Judah posed by the mighty Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar. Jeremiah indeed lived to see this second concern come true, and his people taken into captivity and many sent into exile.
Of all the Old Testament prophets, Jeremiah has well-earned the title of Dr. Doom and Gloom because there is this constant drumbeat throughout most of Jeremiah’s prophetic utterances of impending disaster, and that indeed doom is almost inevitable.
This morning’s passage, however, is different. In it Jeremiah is aching – he is hurting badly – because he is grieving for his own beloved nation – the people he knows, the people he cares about most in the world. He is not assessing blame for their many sins, like he does elsewhere in the book, nor is he calling on them to do anything – to change – but he is just mourning for them. It is like he is saying, sometimes it’s not about blame or change; sometimes you just have to take time out to grieve – to feel the pain – to contemplate the pain – to live with the pain for just awhile.
We can hear the abject sorrow in his voice; it rings so clearly to us in some of the most poignant poetry in all of the Old Testament. Listen –
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: Is the Lord not in Zion? The harvest is past, and we are not saved. For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”
This is a man almost prostrate with pain for his people. He seems inconsolable. I once read a letter from a farmer in Kentucky written in 1853 to his sister in Virginia in which he laments the recent death of his young son, the ongoing life-threatening illness of his dear wife, the failure of his crops, and the potential loss of his farm. He concludes his letter with these words, “I grieve; I grieve. Nothing betides good. All is darkness.”
Jeremiah could have easily said those words as he weeps “day and night for the slain of my poor people” – for my nation.
These verses from Jeremiah got me to thinking – and it is usually dangerous when I start to thinking. What if, I say to myself, what if, like Jeremiah, I were to grieve for my nation, what things would I grieve? Now don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that our nation is in the same dire straits as Judah was in Jeremiah’s time, but we do have areas for which grieving is appropriate. So I sat down and made a list and in no particular order, here are some of the items I came up with –
I grieve for the disunity in America – the lack of our civility for one another – our lack of connectedness (The Reverend Anne talked about that a bit in last week’s homily about 9-11).
I grieve for police officers shot randomly by the angry and disaffected.
I grieve for young black men killed in their neighborhoods in gang warfare or by authorities whose fear or racial animosity lead them to act first and ask questions later.
I grieve that racism in our country is still alive and well.
I grieve for abused children and spouses who live afraid and helpless in the face of their abusers.
I grieve for the growing divide between those who have and those who have not.
I grieve for a society that pays professional athletes obscenely large amounts of money, while paying teachers obscenely small amounts of money.
I grieve for inequity in pay for women who hold the same jobs as men.
I, in fact, grieve for a culture that worships at the feet of the idol of the almighty dollar as a measure of personal human worth, rather than valuing the integrity of a person’s character.
I grieve for a society where it is increasingly appears to be “all about me”, rather than being “all about us”.
I grieve for political leaders and politicians at the national, state and local levels who tell us what we want to hear and pander to our fear – who exploit the worst in us, instead encouraging and energizing the best in us.
I grieve that truth is too often torn in tatters by the ten-second TV sound bite that deliberately obfuscates, rather than illuminates.
I grieve for our increasing rush to point the bony finger of blame, rather than reach out our open hand to embrace and accept responsibility.
I grieve that more churches, synagogues, mosques and temples can’t find ways to use their diverse faith traditions to work together to enhance the lives of people from all walks of life – to see that we all really have only one joint back door that opens onto a universal world of people in need.
Well, that is my beginning list. What I have decided to do right now about each of these is to have a prayerful conversation with God about them and to listen for God’s response. Jeremiah grieved and prayed before acting. He listened for God. That is not a bad formula for me to follow.
One of the things we are taught about sermons is that they should not end without something like “an ask”, a request or an exhortation. So here is what I would like to ask each of you to do in this coming week or so. Sit down at your desk or at your kitchen table or wherever, either by yourself or with your family or friends and come up with a list of things that are going on in our national life about which you feel a sense of sorrow and a need for change. Your list certainly does not have to have any connection with my list. In fact, I would be shocked if you didn’t have other things that surface that are more relevant for you. Then take your list and begin to have a conversation with God about the items on it, and just talk with God and listen where God may lead you. If it takes some time, that’s okay; not to worry. Try as we might, we can’t really rush the work of the Holy Spirit.
Even Jeremiah, the prophet with the gloomy message for a gloomy time, ultimately received a vision of hope from God. In Chapter 33, he tells us “…in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem…there shall be once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord.”
In 1853 the farmer I mentioned earlier wrote, “I grieve; I grieve. Nothing betides good. All is darkness.” I am much more confident and optimistic than that for our time because, with God’s help, inspiration from the Holy Spirit and prayerful and concerted action, all of us will find, like Jeremiah, that there is ever the light of hope that comes from God; and never the inevitability of the darkness of despair.