Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is there no balm in Gilead?

Proper 20 C September 19, 2010
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

In the Broadway musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” the people of the little Jewish village in Russia pray, “God bless and keep the Czar … far away from us!”That very same sentiment is found in our second reading, from Timothy: pray for those kings, rulers, magistrates, police officers, immigration agents, and even bishops (!) – “all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life” – far away from us!

As much as we might want that, especially in church, especially in a place we hold sacred, and on Sunday morning – a time we hold sacred – as much as we might yearn for that quiet and peaceable life, the Word of God is not the thing that will bring it to us. More often than not, the Word of God de-stabilizes us, upsets us, dismantles our expectations, forces us to change our course, give up the things we thought we so important. Let us hope there is some balm in Gilead – a far-off place – because there is nothing here, Jeremiah says. No comfort left in Jerusalem, where the people have gotten so focused on their worship in the temple, that they have not noticed that God is no longer there.

This passage from Jeremiah is a tough one to hear, because it just seems so hopeless. Isn’t God supposed to help us? To give us pleasant words to comfort and uphold us, especially on Sunday mornings?

A little context about the passage: the people of Israel center their worship of God in the Temple in Jerusalem. They say prayers and perform liturgies that have been passed down to them for generations. They expect that when they pray, “God help us,” God will show up. After all, they use the right words, wear the right clothes, make the right sacrifices. On top of that, they are used to God’s good graces showing up on schedule; it’s the end of summer – where’s the harvest? The sure sign of God’s blessings?

But things are not going so well for the people of Israel. Their temple is about to be destroyed, taken over by foreigners, and they are to be sent away, into exile, in some far-off place. They cannot imagine why this is happening to them. That is where Jeremiah comes in.

Jeremiah speaks for God. He speaks words of anger, grief, love, longing – Jeremiah speaks the great pathos of God. More than anything else, God wants these people he has created to be in relationship with him. And God’s heart is just broken when they continue to turn away. God wants them. God doesn’t want them just to go into the temple and perform rituals. God wants faithfulness. God wants that old relationship he set up with the people at the beginning. God wants the world to be a loving place. God wants the poor to be taken care of, the strangers welcomed, the neighborhoods safe. God knows there is enough of everything to go around – it IS God’s creation after all, so share it! God doesn’t really care that much about the temple, and all its fancy stuff. It just gets in the way. God wants them. The people. His people. God wants us.

God is heartsick that the people aren’t getting it, and he is heart-sick that they are suffering. There is no help for their dis-ease there in Jerusalem, in the temple, in the establishment. Maybe in Gilead, maybe far away. But not here.

That is what that passage is about. We’re reading these bits from Jeremiah this fall, and eventually we’ll get to the end, eventually we’ll get to see how Jeremiah helps the people of Israel put their lives and their faith back together after they have been shattered and destroyed and told they have to leave their home. Eventually, but not today.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish religion. It is the Day of Atonement, coming some days after the celebration of the New Year. During those days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Jews think and pray and remember how they have not been right with God, or right with their neighbors. On Yom Kippur they read the difficult biblical stories of judgment, like the story of Jonah, who had to sit in the belly of a whale before he could begin to understand what God wanted him to do.

On Yom Kippur, Jews also remember the exile, that defining event that Jeremiah wrote about. That experience of always being far from home, of yearning for comfort and security, of depending on the kindness of strangers, of not being able to walk on one’s own streets or to plant one’s own garden – that experience of exile and displacement is part of how the Jews understand who they are. But even in exile – and this is the core message of Jeremiah – God was with them. A modern writer put it this way:

It is said that when the Jews went into exile, the Shekinah, the divine presence, went into exile, too – hovering over us, around us wherever we were, waiting for us to invite the sacred into our lives.[i]

There is nothing more that God wants than that. God wants us. God wants this world that God has created to shine once again with God’s glory and abundance. The temple in Jersualem did it for a while, but then it didn’t. It stopped being the place where God met the people. It actually started to get in the way between God and the people. It was great for a while, but then its purpose came to an end. It had to go, and the people had to move away. They left their shell of a building behind, and maybe they didn’t understand this at the time, God went with them, too, and waited there, ever patient, ever welcoming, with arms stretched wide.

[i] Sam Kestenbaum. “Yom Kippur at Sea” (New York Times, September 18, 2010, p. A19)

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