Friday, September 09, 2016

September 11, Proper 19, Prophecy 8: Loss and Lamentation

Jeremiah 4:11-12, Psalm 14, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 16:1-13

Today is 9/11, fifteen years later to the day, and I ask you, is it providential or coincidental that our scripture lessons today should be these ones? I mean both the prophecy of Jeremiah and the gospel of Luke.

I mean the uncanny description in Jeremiah of the hot wind and the bare heights and my poor people and the waste and the void on earth and no light in the heavens and the birds had fled and the city was laid in ruins and the desolation and the earth in mourning and the heavens black.

I mean the uncanny metaphors in Luke of the woman searching for her coin and the shepherd for his sheep, that describe the first responders almost fanatically searching the rubble for every last person, alive or dead.

I ask you, was it providential or coincidental that five days after the disaster, on 9/16, a Sunday, these were the lessons, when I preached my trial sermon for the Old First pastoral search committee, preaching it in the neutral pulpit of the Flatbush Church? The first sermon any of you heard from me was on these texts, and that Sunday afternoon, the leaders of the search committee met with me and Melody to talk terms, and that Monday night the committee approved the call.

I ask you, was it providential or coincidental that on that 9/11, you had no pastor? Your interim, Dr. Wilbur Washington, lived way out in Jersey, so there was no one to depend on but you yourselves for your own first response, and it was you, not any pastor, on that very day who opened the front doors of the church and offered the sanctuary to the public as a safe and sacred space, and as the debris came falling from the awful cloud you were making quiet music in that space, and you hung long sheets of newsprint for people to write their prayers and messages on.

And it was you, not any pastor, who changed the reputation of this church, over night, from a mighty fortress with closed doors to a welcoming open space of hospitality and sanctuary for anyone seeking refuge and hope. You turned your sanctuary into mission, just like that.

And coincidentally, and providentially, on that Friday, Melody and I arrived here from Michigan, and drove by, and saw the open doors, and the people on the floor and in the pews, and the candles all over, and the long sheets of newsprint, and we felt called by God to serve this church.

Now I am not saying that the prophet Jeremiah foresaw 9/11 when he wrote these words. I am saying that the words of the prophets keep coming true, no matter when they were written and for which city, because they direct us to that alternate reality, that always presses down on us.

And I’m saying that you were being a prophetic congregation just by opening up your sanctuary to everyone. In those days there were some TV preachers who were trying to be prophetic by what they said about the disaster, that God had allowed it because these sins of America or those sins of New York. There always are false prophets out there. But the true prophecy of those days was grief and lamentation. Lamentation. You gave sanctuary to the lamentation.

The prophet Jeremiah was known as the Weeping Prophet, because he sat and wept in the ruins of Jerusalem, and he moaned and groaned in the burned down wreckage of the temple. We don’t often think of prophecy as lamentation, it’s too passive, it offers no solutions, it suggests no hope, but the last word in Biblical prophecy is lamentation: We’re done, it’s over, there’s nothing left. All our hopes for Israel, all the promises to David, the kingdom of God, every last expression of the kingdom is wrecked and ruined. We’ve got nothing left to show from God.

So you sit. Keeping vigil. Keeping open to the pain and grief. Offering no explanation, suggesting no mitigation, it’s just that bad. That takes prophecy. Because what practical religion tries to do is make some sense of it, with explanations and solutions and strategies to mask the pain and make it easier to still believe in God. And that’s why I’m saying it was prophetic for you to open up your sanctuary to whomever would come in, and you did not try to tell them what to think or say or do.

All you’ve got left from all your religion is God. Just God and nothing else. No temple, no Bible, no hymns, no prayers, no hopes, no visions, you have lost everything. And in your lostness is when God comes to find you. Like the woman for her coin. Like the shepherd for his sheep. You are lost in the wreckage, and you can’t move. You can hardly breathe. All is dark. And you don’t know it, but here comes God for you, digging down, digging through the wreckage and the rubble. That’s what the Lord Jesus is asking us to believe. Can you believe it works like this, that God does this?

St. Paul believed it was like that. You can see that in the Epistle. He calls himself the worst of sinners, a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence. The enemy of God, the rightful object of God’s wrath. God knocked him down. Cast him into darkness, and he could not move, he could not see. And into his world entered Jesus Christ, like a first responder on the wreckage, to rescue him, to save him, in great mercy.

Has it ever been like that with you? It was once so with me. I was a wreck. And in my wreckage he came down to find me. In the back room of the ground floor apartment at  857 President Street. Has it ever been like that with you? It may yet be like that. At your death it will.

God is the one that has to do it. The church doesn’t do it, the church’s job is to make the space for it. The church’s job is to keep that space open for the vision and presence of that alternate reality. To be prophetic in that way, even if it’s by means of sanctuary and silent, patient hospitality.

Now I did not anticipate that my sermon series might come around to this, but I think it’s right, that for this particular church to be prophetic you can open up that sanctuary again, not for yourselves but for your mission to the city God has put you in. A great safe space for grief and lamentation as much as joy and exaltation. If it’s a beautiful space, so much the better, but its greatest beauty is its overarching hospitality. A sacred space which makes room in our lives for the kingdom of God.

I said a few sermons ago that prophecy speaks in extremes and in exaggerated terms. That’s how we hear it until we learn to how accurate it really is, and how the scale of our terms should not be so normative as we thought. It’s our experience that needs expansion. And in our lessons today we get extremities of wrath and joy. Extreme judgment and extreme rejoicing.

Let’s notice the rejoicing: When the shepherd gets home, he calls together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. The woman calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her.

When my son Nicholas went to university in the island of Newfoundland in Canada, he took room and board in a private home. One evening I called him, and when I asked him what he was eating he told me it was spaghetti with moose-meat balls. What? Yeah, he said, the dad shot a moose and now they’ve got meat for the winter. Then I said it sounded quiet in the house for dinner time. Oh, he said, I’m the only one home. They’re all down at the bar, celebrating the moose.

Jesus poses his two parables as questions. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep,” and “What woman, having ten silver coins.” To the first, the answer is obvious: “No one would.” No one would stupidly risk the ninety-nine for the sake of the one. What’s a one percent loss, when standard depreciation is ten percent? To the second, the answer is the opposite: “Every woman would.” The answers are opposite, and the second parable serves to turn you back to the first to reconsider it. “Could he mean that a shepherd actually should?” Or does he mean he would?

He’s saying the Messiah would. The Messiah would because God does. To God, every lost person is of inestimable worth, no matter what the risk, the most despicable, the least acceptable, the most unfit, no matter.

That was also the attitude of the first responders on 9/11, climbing the impossible staircases of the towers, at the cost of their own lives. Which one of you would do the same? That’s what Jesus did, and in Jesus, it was God who was doing it. That’s the plus in this disaster. In the grief we discover courage and honor. We mark the courage and honor of so many on that awful day. And then too love gets uncovered. Sacrificial love. Within the grief. Unreasonable love, extreme love, nothing other than the love that pours out of God for you and for the world.

Copyright © 2016, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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