Tuesday, December 4, 2018

First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018, "The Torch of Deror"

Advent OL 1 BFC 2018
Luke 1:46-55; Isaiah 60:1-3
December 2, 2018

“When you come into the land which I give you, then the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Living God,” declares God in Exodus.  Probably more than any other story in the Pentateuch, the Hebrew Scripture that is the first five books of the Bible, I believe Jesus and the gospel writers who interpreted Jesus for their communities rooted themselves in the Sabbath story.  The Sabbath story and tradition are laced with words like “release”, “rest”, “forgiveness of debt”, “amnesty”, “jubilee”, “sanctuary” and “liberty.”  Many of those words used in Montana elections to describe some nefarious machination which would bring suffering and death to the white people of Montana.  Holy words bastardized by snowflakes who refuse to imagine a world of peace and harmony.
We cannot understand how radically counter-cultural Sabbath is unless we understand Sabbath story being written for people who have lived in slavery and oppression.  The Sabbath story is written for people as they reflect back on that slavery and oppression living in bondage, captivity, and exile.  That story always ends in one way . . . always . . ., “Remember, you were once strangers, foreigners, immigrants, in Egypt, so shall you treat the stranger, foreigner, or immigrant.”
Jewish scholar, Jeremiah Unterman, writes that within the legal portion of the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, there are more than 50 references to the resident stranger, foreigner, or immigrant, most all of them positive.[1]   Care for the stranger is understood as imitatio Dei, imitating God through the keeping of the commandments.[2]
Over and over again that familiar refrain, “remember you were once strangers, foreigners, aliens, and immigrants. . . so shall you be in the world.”  We are to be people of historical empathy and moral memory.[3] 

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt”(Ex.22:20).
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.23:9).
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev.19:34).
“You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut.10:19)
“You shall not hate an Egyptian, for you were stranger in the Egyptian’s land” (Deut.23:8).
“Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment” (Deut. 24:22)

In ancient Mesopotamian tradition, proclamations of liberty were signaled by the raising of a golden torch outside the entrance of the city or the released region.  A new day was proclaimed.  A new song was to be sung.  The oppression, violence, and injustice of the former ruler were now proclaimed over and done.  The golden torch proclaimed a day of amnesty and jubilee, an area free, from oppressive taxes, “forced labor, and military draft, cleared from debt and released from debt slavery.”[4]  That torch proclaimed release, a radical act of institutional justice.[5]  Liberty and that torch went by the same Hebrew name:  derôr.
Later in Jewish story and mythology, the torch becomes synonymous with the presence of God.  That torch, that derôr, is proclaimed in the book of Isaiah as the Jewish exiles hope for a release and return to the promised land:

Arise!  Shine!  For your light has come!  The glory of the Living God has risen upon you!  For the darkness covers the earth and the deep darkness the peoples.  But upon you, the Living God shines.  God’s glory appears over you!  And nations will walk toward your light, and rulers to the brightness of your dawn!  I will set Peace as your overseer, and Justice as your taskmaster.  No longer will “Violence!” be heard in your land, “Devastation!” or “Destruction!” within your borders.  You will call your walls “Salvation!” and your gates “Praise!”  The sun will no longer be your light by day, nor will the moon illuminate your brightness.  But the Living God will be your light forever.[6]

We quote that Scripture when Advent rolls around--to define the ministry and mission of Jesus.  Luke’s gospel continues on in the book of Isaiah and quotes from the book of Isaiah as Jesus announces his ministry at a synagogue in Nazareth.  Here is that continuing scripture verse from Isaiah:

The spirit of the Living God is upon me, because the Living God has anointed me, has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim derôr (liberty) to captives, to open the prison doors, to proclaim the year of amnesty.[7]

This liberty, this derôr, is to be done by the Jewish people in gratitude for their own liberation and Exodus from the Egyptian Empire. 
In contrast to a society which commands the Jewish people to “work harder, work longer, and bring their children”, the Sabbath teaching demands that there shall be days and years when even slaves and beasts of burden shall not work and the land shall lie fallow—unharvested and uncultivated.  God will provide and the poor will be able to glean the crop that is unharvested
Maybe you know of such an Empire yourself that had its very own version of derôr.  The people who live in the Empire I think of has a woman holding a golden torch in one of its most prolific ports, outside its largest city.  Lady Derôr, Lady Liberty stands proudly to welcome those who are burdened and laden down to a place of rest, a place where the words “liberty”, “freedom”, “amnesty”, and “sanctuary” are not so bastardized.  These holy words do not mean “freedom to oppress” and “an amnesty for too big to fail” and “liberty to exploit” and “release to a golden parachute,” that they come to mean “freedom to amass and hoard” and “liberty to indebt you with one more credit card or one more home mortgage loan.”
We . . . we are the courageous people who remember our stories so that the imitation of God and solidarity with God might continue in our land.  We use holy words that show God’s kindness, mercy, and care in the world.  And we hope against hope that these holy words help to re-set us, our nation, and our world.  The Holy Family, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, makes its way as immigrants to Bethlehem and then as refugees to Egypt.  We pray someone remembers.  We pray that we might remember.   May it be so.  May it be so.  Amen. 

[1] Jeremiah Unterman, Justice for All: How the Jewish Bible Revolutionized Ethics (JPS Essential Judaism) (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 2017), p. 46
[2] Ibid, p. 33.
[3] Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, “For You Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt,” The Jewish Standard, February 10, 2017, https://jps.org/for-you-were-strangers-in-the-land-of-egypt/. 
[4] Richard H. Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee (St. Louis:  Chalice Press, 2000), p. 75.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Isaiah 60:1-3, 17-19
[7] Isaiah 61:1-2; cf. Luke 4:17-19

Monday, November 26, 2018

Jeremiah Sermon Series, Jeremiah Final, November 25, 2018, "Moving through grief: how beautiful upon the mountains"

C Jeremiah Final/Reign of Christ Sunday BFC 2018
Isaiah 52:7-12
November 25, 2018

Calling Jeremiah a poet, Hebrew Scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, believes that the prophet Jeremiah offered Judah and Jerusalem an alternative version of faith.  Jeremiah offered a faith filled with risky prayer, that affirmed grief, and led to new possibility, a hope against hope.[1]  A hope against hope knows intimately that hope cannot found in the present system.  Just singing all the old songs with more verve, just doing it better with a little reformation, fiddling with the on switch won’t get it done.  It cannot be duct-taped together.  The poor, the most vulnerable, and the good earth know this better than anyo<->One because the system never worked for t<->Them.  New reforms will just deliver the pain more efficiently.  A new song must be song to contemplate a new or transformed reality.
The official and royal version of faith, the status quo, was to offer polite prayer that denied pain and led to a domesticated or too easy hope.  That official and royal spirituality informs the political and economic values found in Judah and Jerusalem.
Brueggemann points to several scholars who believe that not only the prophet Jeremiah but also the prophet Micah were attacking Judah’s national agribusiness policy.  Big banks in Jerusalem were buying up all the land, displacing small and subsistence farmers, adjusting the market to royal consumption rather than sustainable diet, and creating a poverty class.  According to the covenant, the Mosaic covenant, shared with the Children of Israel to move from slaves to liberation, people cannot be treated in this manner.  For this is the road that leads people back into debt slavery.[2]
Strongly based in that Mosaic covenant, the poet and prophet Jeremiah believes that systems and structures based on such values undercut creation and throw creation into chaos.  The consequences are dire.  Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.  Those who live by creating wealth will suffer economic blight and pestilence.  Those who live by being wise in the things that harm the nation shall suffer famine as the nation moves from interrelationship with the land to the land as some”thing” that can be bought and sold, as a commodity.  
First and foremost, the Mosaic covenant begins with an understanding that God owns the land and gives it to the community for the sustainable benefit of all.  Literally, the land is the grounding for all relationship.  Therefore, the land requires mutual relationship.  To treat the land as a commodity makes the land into some “thing” we are forever mining, stripping, and poisoning to give us more than it has.  War is waged on the land, and famine is sure to ensue.
Jeremiah believed that a return to the Mosaic covenant would restore the mutual relationship with the people, the nation, and the land.  And so, with the Babylonians about to invade the city of Jerusalem, the poet and prophet redeems the land of Anathoth, the land of his family.  Such acts in Judah were intended to protect the poor and sustain the community.  Such an act does not win military victories or create wealth.  Nor is it wise in the way of the world.  Within the commercial enterprise that is Judah and Jerusalem, Jeremiah’s act seems stupid and senseless.  But within the covenant culture, Jeremiah’s act is a way of keeping faith.
Jeremiah knows that assimilation into another culture was always the great threat to Judaism.  To maintain their identity, Jewish people would have daily disciplines or practices that would remind them who they are in the world.  Keeping Sabbath, maintaining kosher eating practices, and redeeming the land to restore the community were some of the daily, regular, and consistent disciplines which maintained that identity.  Maintaining their disciplines or practices was a part of remembering their story, a way of orienting them in the universe that held back the chaos.[3]
When the Jewish people forgot their story, did not regularly practice their disciplines, the center could not hold and the nation would be consumed by its imperial policies and practices.  The nation of Judah enters into the warfare, dislocation, and poverty of the Babylonian Exile.  Where at one time the Exodus had been the defining story, the story to be remembered among the Jewish people, the devastation of the Exile changed all that.
Notice that in the passage read for today, the writer says the people shall not return in haste (like the Exodus), nor in flight (like the Exodus).  A new story has become authoritative for the people—the return from Exile.
Going into the Exile, the Babylonian Empire had become the imperial power in the ancient Near East.  The Babylonian Empire displaced Judah and Jerusalem as the source of military might, royal wealth, and wisdom in the things that harm.  So now, instead of engaging the totalitarian claims of Judah and Jerusalem and their worthless idols, the God of steadfast love, liberation, freedom, justice, and righteousness engages in a deathly conflict with the gods and imperial power of Babylon.  To the naked eye, it would appear that Babylonian authority, technology, intelligence, and hardware seemed beyond challenge.  Babylonian power appeared to be absolute and eternal.[4]   Babylon, to all the peoples and the land that it conquers, is the world in totality.
But to know the history of God, is to know that any Empire which makes absolute claims will run counter to the will of God.  Again, though the night is long, faith in God’s character to work against such absolute, imperial claims is to know that God’s purposes are being worked out.
And so . . . the Jewish people wait for hope.  Hope is not even on the horizon.  The people wait so long that the story of the poet and prophet Jeremiah comes and goes.  War, devastation, and tears are the food[5] of the Jewish people every day and every night.  If the war, devastation, and tears are to end for the Jewish people, their “[p]eace depends on having the freedom and imagination to speak the world differently.”[6]  Will they remember their story?  Will they remember the practices and disciplines so as not to be assimilated into Babylonian culture?
It may seem strange to choose a Scripture verse from Isaiah for our last Sunday in this Jeremiah sermon series.   The book of Jeremiah, however, does not really have a Scripture verse that looks back on the Exile to celebrate the end of that horrific time of warfare, dislocation, and poverty for the Jewish people. 
As the Jewish people return from Exile, this Scripture verse from Isaiah imagines the Babylonian ruler replaced on the throne by God.   God as peace, good news, liberation, salvation, well-being, and life-giving order overthrows Babylon.  The second writer of Isaiah teaches that for that good news to reach the Jewish people, certain things must take place.  First, there must be people observing or watching for that good news to arrive.  As sentinels, there must be people ready to receive it.  Second, there must be people who discern and determine what the plain meaning of this good news is.  There must be people who ponder its meaning.  Third, there must be people who are runners or the messengers.   The people will act on this good news and share it with others.  Finally, celebration and singing are necessary to refuel the nation and the community.  There need to be people who will sing and celebrate this good news so that the community and nation have the energy to watch, discern, and act upon the good news again. 
Not everyone can do all of the tasks needed.  But within a spiritual community there are always people needed to be the watchers, the discerners, the actors or runners, and, finally, those who help the community celebrate.  New life, peace, and good news depend on all of the people in these roles to shatter the status quo, the hold the status quo has on the community and the nation.
The author of the gospel Luke uses this Scripture verse from Isaiah within the Christmas story.[7]  The language of the New Testament is Greek, and the Greek word for messenger is angelos, the word we translate as messenger or angel.  Those angels announce peace, bring good news, announce salvation, and tell those that are listening that God reigns (not some imperial pharaoh, king, or Caesar).  In that Christmas story the messengers come to announce a peace that depends on having the freedom and imagination to speak the world differently.  The shepherds go to observe this good news.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, ponders and discerns what this good news means.  The shepherds go home celebrating the news.   That is how important the Exile story was to the story of Christ.  In the life, mission, and ministry of Christ, time after time the gospel writers saw the life-giving order, salvation, well-being, good news, liberation, and peace that would imagine the world differently.
I have shared the story of Jeremiah with you throughout this fall because I believe it has such a powerful message for our time.  Jeremiah spoke of alternative values and practices to a people and a nation that did not want to hear his bad news, his grief-filled critique.  He was ridiculed, had his life threatened, had his patriotism called into question, and thrown into jail.  He believed God had called the Jewish people and the Jewish nation to be different, to have alternative values. 
Jeremiah believed the only way to move from the bad news and realism he shared in his critique to the good news and imagination of a new day was through daily or regular disciplines or practices that helped the Jewish people remember their story.   Or that the Jewish people would remember their story which made claims on them for alternative disciplines or practices.  To not remember the story and their daily disciplines, Jeremiah believed, was to have God’s purposes being worked out against their own nation and religion. 
We live in a time when we our told that it is our duty to buy and spend to maintain a consumer culture that consumes us and relies on our greed.   If we are to find our role as people who watch for the good news, discern what is the good news, act upon that good news, and celebrate its arrival, we will need to intentionally practice or have disciplines that do not allow us to be totally assimilated into that consumer culture.  I believe our ancient stories are shouting to us what the poor, vulnerable, and the land have been sharing with us, in grief, for years.
In 2017 the United Nation’s independent adviser Dainius Pūras reported that “mental health policies and services are in crisis—not a crisis of chemical imbalances, but of power imbalances.”  Greater disparities in wealth and income are associated with increased status anxiety and stress at all levels of the socioeconomic ladder.  Epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson have found the more inequity in the country, the higher the prevalence in mental illness.  And in the United States, those disparities are growing exponentially as all the safeguards against neo-liberal, corporate capitalism are being stripped.  Mental and emotional distress are the canaries in the literal coal mine of an economy not based on health and wellness but on violence, injustice, and the land as a commodity.[8]  We must build economies based on cooperation and collaboration, not only with each other, but also working with earth and animal as partners to know ourselves as more well and whole. 
In researching issues that lead to mental health, the World Health Organization Europe stated in 2009 that “[a] focus on social justice may provide an important corrective to what has been seen as a growing overemphasis on individual pathology.”  I have long believed one of our shortages in Billings is mental health providers and services.  Maybe what we need are both more providers and services . . . and more justice.[9]
I know, for many of you, this has been a long sermon series with way too much repetition.  My hope and my prayer, though, is that through this sermon series, I have helped many of you see that the Bible has much more grit and real-life than you believed before.  That we might have faith enough to be God’s covenant partner, knowing that God, as this Scripture verse from Isaiah details, goes in front of us and has our back.  God goes in front of us to let us know that suffering and death is real but it cannot kill the movement of courageous people who speak and act and practice a new world into being.  God has our back to remind us . . . we are not alone. 
Courageous people, as we enter into this new church liturgical year, this Advent, let us do so with a hope against hope to work on the real-life issues that adolescent people, unwilling to grieve people, are unwilling to acknowledge and confront.  Let us imagine a world where messengers say, “Glory to God in the highest, and, on the earth, peace . . . on the earth, peace.”  With God at our back and God walking in front, sisters and brothers, siblings and cousins, with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness typed on every last red blood cell in our bodies, let us move with God to transform the earth.  How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces . . . peace.  Praise God.  Amen.

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press), p. 166
[2] Ibid, p. 201.
[3] Ibid, p. 208.
[4] Ibid, p. 166 ff.
[5] Psalm 42
[6] Brueggemann, Fire,  p. 174.
[7] Luke 2ff.
[8] Tabitha Green, “What a society designed for well-being looks like,” Yes! Magazine, September 12, 2018. 
[9] Ibid.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Jeremiah Sermon Series, Jeremiah 8, November 18, 2018, "The Land Mourns"

Jeremiah 8 (10) BFC 2018
Jeremiah 11:6-8, 8:12; 12:4; 13:23; 14:11-12
November 18, 2018
          As I have related in former sermons during this series, Jeremiah is referenced as the “weeping prophet.”  Throughout the book of Jeremiah it is virtually impossible to tell when Jeremiah is weeping and lamenting himself, or Jeremiah is portraying God as weeping and lamenting, or even when the land is weeping and lamenting.  Jeremiah, Creator, and the land are indistinguishable.  In chapter 12, Jeremiah says, “The land mourns.  The grass withers.  Animals and birds are swept away.  The nation’s leaders say, ‘God does not see what we do.’” 
          The Babylonian Exile led to many of the Jewish people carted off to a faraway place with unfamiliar landscapes, gone were the animals and birds they knew, desolate was the land that was the sign and seal of God’s covenant with the people. Psalm 137, written in the midst of exile, speaks of the Babylonians humiliating the Jewish people, asking them to sing one of the songs of their homeland.  Entertain us!  Sing us one of spirited slave songs, one of those Indian prayer songs.  And the psalmnist asks, presumably in tears, “How can we sing one of the songs of our homeland in a foreign land?”
          As a result of climate change, scientists are exploring the grief and mental health risks of losing valued places, ecosystems, species, and landscapes.[1]  Innuit people in Northern Canada ask, “Innuit are people of the sea ice.  If there is no more sea ice, how can we people of the sea ice?”[2]  Farmers in the Australian Wheat Belt, who see their soil become nothing but dust react in much the same way, “It’s terrible to know that the soil has been there forever, since the beginning of the Earth, and your greed and mismanagement makes it blow.  It’s really a terrible thing to see . . .”[3]
          “Losing the farm would be like a death.   Yeah, there would be a grieving process because the farm embodies everything the family farm is . . .And I think if  we were to lose it, it would be like losing a person . . .but it would be sadder than losing a person . . .”[4]
          Scientists refer to this loss of place and the resultant effects as “ecological grief” and they encourage further exploration of how this is going to lead to greater risks to mental health as climate change marches on.  Scientists Ashlee Consulo and Neville R. Ellis write, “[C]limate change is just not an abstract scientific concept.  Rather, it is the source of much hitherto unacknowledged emotional and psychological pain, particularly for people who remain deeply connected to, and observant of, the natural world.”[5]
          Grief is hard.  It requires a resilience to suffer loss of relationship and connection only to enter relationship more profoundly, connection more deeply. 
          Deep within the mythology of the Jewish people is the understanding that the Babylonian Exile was one of the most terrible and evil times in their history.  It was not only a loss of their leaders, killed or carted off in chains, and the Temple, the particular landmark that was to be the special place of God’s abiding, it was also a loss of place, landscape, species, all similar to things being brought on by climate change.  The land was the place of promise, God’s sign and seal of covenant with the people and represented their pledge to be good neighbors to one another.  To remain on the land defined their relationship with Creator and neighbor.  Who then were the Jewish people without it?  With the land’s loss, lament and grief expressed by the prophet Jeremiah came to define a whole people.  The Bible is replete with the lament and grief of the Jewish people as they later, followed Jeremiah to groan in exile.  
          Easier to avoid and not think about it.  Easier to not talk about it.  Easier to forget.  Easier to lose your call to countercultural lives and just adapt and adopt to Babylonian ways. 
          If we are, as a people, to turn the tide on climate change, we are going to have to develop a more intentional relationship with this good earth.  We need to practice that faith daily and make it part of our children and grandchildren’s lives.  For the grief we are experiencing, the depression that seeps into us as we intuitively sense loss and death, and the real loss we see displayed on the television through hurricane and fire, calls for us to use intentional self-care, to risk grief through relationship and connection. 
          Not surprisingly, doctors on Scotland’s Shetland Islands are beginning to prescribe outdoor time as treatment for chronic health issues.  High blood pressure, diabetes, anxiety, and depression can be treated with outdoor activities like hiking, birdwatching, kayaking, or even meditating in a forest.  We must speak to the grief and depression that is creeping up on us by intentionally deepening our relationship with the earth.  Across the United States, doctors are now making prescriptions for outdoor activity.  In the United Kingdom, doctors are prescribing visits to Green Gyms, outdoor sessions run by a conservation group.  And in Australia, a medical conference convened to discuss the health and medical benefits of their public parks.[6] 
          But again, I think it is more than just getting outside.  It is about knowing that the only way we can be an ally for the land, for God’s great creation, is to have an intentional relationship with it. 
Scottish health authorities have even published a seasonal calendar[7] I have printed it off so you can take it with you.  Because it is for the Shetland Islands, it will, of course, have to be adapted to Billings, Montana, and for what works well for you and your family.  For example, in January your encouraged to visit the Braer site; to walk the core path at Lunga water—look out for the mountain hares!; go looking for seabeans after Westerly gales.  In Billings, maybe you could go out to the Four Dances site and imagine the pre-Columbian landscape or to the Rims and spot purple liatris.  Some of the things listed for November you can do in the seasonal calendar are:  talk to a pony; borrow a dog and play some games; and create rock sculpture. 
During the recent veterans’ medicine wheel commemoration at MSU-B, Walter Runsabove shared a beautiful theology of the stones we were to use to fashion the medicine wheel.  For the first time in my life, as I picked up a stone and carried it, I meditated deeply on its long life, its weight in my hands, and how it spoke to me of people I remembered.  And suddenly, I was related to stones in a way I had never been before.    
This week The New York Times printed an article titled, “Your children’s Yellowstone will be radically different.”  Marguerite Holloway writes that over the next few decades, climate change may have a devastating effect on the plants and animals in the park as habitat changes so rapidly they will not be able to adapt.  Increased fire, less forest, less snow, shallower and warmer waterways, and more invasive plants may kill off or drive out all we know of Yellowstone National Park today.  Ann Rodman, a park scientist said that the more you study how quickly climate change is affecting Yellowstone, the more aware you become just how fast the park is changing.  Cheatgrass and madwort, invasive plants, have taken over and replaced native nutritious plants at the north entrance to Yellowstone in Gardiner.  Cheatgrass has already spread into the Lamar Valley.  “Then you begin to go through this stage, I don’t know if it is like the stages of grief,” Ms. Rodman said. “All of a sudden it hits you that this is a really, really big deal and we aren’t really talking about it and we aren’t really thinking about it.”[8]
In 2016, the Yellowstone River, 183 miles downstream of the park, was shut down because an outbreak of kidney disease killed thousands of fish--the shallower waters from less snow and the warmer waters from high temperatures and less shade making transmission of the disease easier.  Dan Vermillion of Sweetwater Fly Shop in Livingston referred to it as a canary in the coal mine.  Creator must certainly be grieving as we willfully destroy these gifts.
Jeremiah grieves as he sees creation’s order and purpose coming undone through the unsustainable values of his nation’s leaders.  He grieves.  For the world eventually becomes what we practice.  If we do not collaborate with God to do other, the violence we practice makes for a whole world consumed by violence and war—it bleeds into our schools, churches, and synagogues.  If we do not collaborate with God to do other, the media are manipulated to the point where everything is relative and point of view—the Truth cannot be discerned and those who speak prophetically persecuted.  If we do not collaborate with God to do other, the wealth we hoard destroys public places we share and devastates the poor—the land mourns and the vulnerable find no community. 
Jeremiah grieves because, as Lisa said last week, it is the other side of love. His grief signals something or someone has been or is being lost.  Jeremiah sees the leaders of his country as leopards.  Their values are so intrinsic to how they govern that it is impossible to imagine them changing.  “Can a leopard change its spots and still be a leopard?”  Jeremiah asks.  If a leopard cannot change its spots, then a new relationship with other values, or leaders who are not leopards must replace the current regime.  The community or nation must transform from a leopard to something radically “other.”[9].  But the royal consciousness of Jeremiah’s time shows no shame.  Jeremiah says that they do not even have the ability to blush.  The leaders of Judah disconnect themselves from the losses which might transform them.  Grief holds out the possibility of hollowing us out for the possibility of a deeper, more mature love. 
As the British psychiatrists, C.M. Parkes and H.G. Prigerson write: 

. . . [G]rief can . . . bring strength.  Just as broken bones may end up stronger than unbroken ones, so the experience of grieving can strengthen and bring maturity to those who have previously been protected from misfortune.  The pain of grief is just as much a part of life as the joy of love; it is, perhaps, the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.  To ignore this fact, or to pretend it is not so, is to put on emotional [blinders], which leave us unprepared for the losses that will inevitably occur in our lives . . . .[10]

Many of you are already strongly connected to the earth, love the land and have a profound relationship with it as Creator intended.  But we are headed into a time of deep grief as the consequences for our leaders acting too often as leopards is decimating God’s good earth.  In the Wheat Belt of Australia, the United Kingdom, Scotland’s Shetland Islands, the sea ice of Northern Canada, and across our own country, health care providers are recognizing that Creator made us for profound relationship with the land, animals, landscapes, the soil. 
The world becomes what we practice.  As we know that we will continue to lose species, landscapes, places, and even the land itself through climate change, we must enter into our ecological grief with the intent to deepen our connection to provide a resiliency that might return us to values that are “other” than our leopard-like leaders.  Our connection will make us allies for the struggle, collaborators with Creator in returning to values and practices that bring life and love to soil, animals, water, land, landscapes, and places.  Let us join with Jeremiah, Creator, and the land in grief, so that our whole world might sing a new song.  May it be so.  Amen. 

[1] Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville R. Ellis, “Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss,” Nature Climate Change, Vol. 8, April 2018, p. 275, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-018-0092-2.epdf?author_access_token=UJYCnlw0zZieuYACw3AJQtRgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0MZ8cLxe72VDW0esMFb0zEFM26k9KCrjCPa-wqxJcwmMgcIei5y7ci3SN_gtpLunMy-I9r_Qst3A5V3rz96ScHSGy2dP3IB1DKK9qNem8yIrw%3D%3D.
[2] Ibid, p. 276.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid. 
[5] Ibid, p. 279.
[6] Sandy Bauers, “Doctors’ new prescription:  ‘Don’t just exercise, do it outside,’” the guardian, February 10, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/feb/10/health-prescriptions-doctors-healthcare-fitness-exercise-parks
[8] Marguerite Holloway, “Your children’s Yellowstone will be radically different,” The New York Times, November 15, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/11/15/climate/yellowstone-global-warming.html
[9] The Zapatistas in Chiapas refer to their work as the “other” campaign so that their work does not get appropriated by the royal consciousness.
[10] Cunsolo, “Ecological grief.,” p. 279.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Jeremiah Sermon Series, Jeremiah 6, November 4, 2018, "God's Mission Statement"

Jeremiah 6 (9) BFC 2018
Jeremiah 9:17-24
November 4, 2018


Tracy shared with me this morning this Facebook post from our General Minister and president, Rev. John Dorhauer.  This is a real billboard outside of St. Louis, Missouri.  The cross with the flag superimposed on it.  Make the gospel great again. And the Word became flesh.  John 1:14.   President Trump portrayed as the Christ.    
Many of you know that I am an avid reader and listener of African American scholar and Christian theologian, Dr. Cornel West and have related that the FBI comes to visit him and people like him about twice a year to tell him that he is on some rather infamous lists.  Some 12 years ago, the FBI told Dr. West that he is on the list, a targeted list of 276 white supremacist militia groups.  I cannot even imagine what that number must be right now.  Into that hatred and evil, Dr. West responded:

That’s like four fascists for every progressive.  And they’re organized.  With guns!  What are we talking about?  You better get your spiritual identity together.  You going to talk in that space with that kind of force?  You better have a sense of who you are.  You better be willing to die.  You better be clear about what the depth of your level of commitment and love is.  This ain’t no plaything.[1]

I am a huge fan of family systems thinking espoused by Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman.  That family systems approach was popularized in the Christian Church by Lutheran pastor, Peter Steinke, who developed a whole curriculum called “Healthy Congregations.”  I used that curriculum for the first time in a very conflicted church in Wichita, Kansas, Pilgrim Congregational Church (a church that loved me well), to try and reset a church that had had a tumultuous relationship with its pastor and to remind them of what church was supposed to be at its core.  One of the ways we reset is by coming up with a mission statement for the church. 
          Healthy Congregations suggests three requirements for a mission statement.  First, the statement should be no longer than a sentence.  Second, the statement should be understandable to a twelve-year old.  Third, if the congregation were held at gunpoint, the whole congregation could repeat it.  After years and years of gun violence, they have changed the third requirement to the whole congregation being able to repeat the mission statement under duress. 
          During this interim ministry work in Wichita, Kansas, I was able to coax a whole table full of people from Pilgrim Congregational UCC to attend a Healthy Congregations workshop.  When the speaker began reciting the requirements for a good mission statement, our moderator began distributing around our table the two-page mission statement written by a former pastor.  When the speaker arrived at the third requirement, our moderator hastily re-collected the mission statement she had distributed and leaned in with a smile to whisper, “I’m getting the revolver out of my purse right now.”  We all laughed with a lump in our throat.
           The reason for such requirements is that mission statements should not demand an encyclopedic memory for us to be able to clearly inscribe or give full throat to their meaning.  Mission statements should not be so intellectually-driven that a Confirmand is unable understand them.  And, finally, mission statements should so captivate our heart, soul, mind, and strength that we can bring them forward to guide us at times of great stress or discord.  We should not have to run for some document buried in our archives to know what our mission statement is.  A mission statement should convey the most deeply-held values written on our collective hearts.  Like a North Star, a mission statement should lead us forward, tell us next steps, especially when the night is full of shadows.
A mission statement should state values that say, when the going gets tough, here is how I or we will be acting in the world.  
The Scripture from Jeremiah is just after The Exile has begun.  God calls in the professional mourners to weep over leaving their land.  The land—the very thing that was part of the covenant with the people—is now lost.  Homes on the land have been destroyed.  Public and community places, where people would gather on the land, are now no longer available.  In the fields and farms, the land was fertilized by human corpses.  All the ways the land provided for human habitation and vitality were no more.
  God observes what the values, the national mission statement was of Judah and Jerusalem before the Exile began, the values that led to the unraveling of creation, making the land a desolation.  Judah and Jerusalem boasted of a word used often in Hebrew Scripture synonymous with power and use of the military.[2]  They boasted of might or strength.  They boasted of a word used often in Hebrew Scripture to connote royal riches.[3]  They boasted of their wealth.  They boasted of a word used by Jeremiah to suggest the access and control of worldly information and media.  They boasted in their wisdom.  The Living God asserts that Judah and Jerusalem’s values, their mission statement, which included might, wealth, and wisdom, led to their fall.  Let the wailing and grief begin.
          These are such important words in the lexicon of Jewish theology that even the apostle Paul, six hundred years later, picks them up to detail his alternative values and his alternative mission statement.  In one of his letters to the churches in Corinth, Paul writes, “If I am to boast, let me boast not of might but of weakness.  If I am to boast, let me boast not of wealth but of poverty.  If I am to boast, let me boast not of wisdom but of foolishness.”[4]  To recognize how truly counter-cultural Paul’s values are, think about how many Christians you see on TV or in print boasting of these Christian values—weakness, poverty, and foolishness. 
But where God was once an observer, God is now a subject who ask the people to remember.  We learn God’s values.  God’s mission statement is found in the last part of the Scripture passage read for today. “I am the Living God.  ‘I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight,’ says the Living God.”  In contrast to the triad of might, wealth, and wisdom, God acts with the triad of steadfast love, justice, and righteousness—chesed, mishpat, and tzedekah.  These words are found all over Scripture and define the God of our tradition and the life, mission, and ministry of Christ.
The Living God makes it clear that this is no namby-pamby mission statement.  God says, “I delight in these things.  I get jacked and jazzed for them.  I am passionate about these things.”   These words are full of persistence, grit, and determination.  As this is God’s mission statement, every once in a while we should pause to ask ourselves why we are doing the things we do?  What is our mission statement?
I want to ask you now.  What kind of life do you want to live?  What are the values that get you jacked and jazzed for living in the world, get you jacked and jazzed enough to walk with them through tough times?  What do you delight in? 
On the back side of your song sheet, I would like you now to write out what you consider to be your mission statement.  If you can’t come up with one, hopefully this prods you to think intentionally about what it might be.  Or how you want to define one to live more intentionally.  Then also, I’d like you to think about what the mission statement might be for our church.  What does our church get jazzed about, find life in?  What do you see Billings First Congregational finding delight in?  Ok, take some time to think about that now.  I’ll probably stop you before you are ready but let’s give it a try.  I would love to hear some of the ones you might have for the church. 
Sheet hand out:
1.   Not more than a sentence
2.   Simple enough for a 12-year old to understand
3.   Can be repeated under duress

What do you take delight in?  What gives you a sense of satisfaction and joy?  When there is delight in your life, what is going on?  What do you see, hear, taste, feel or touch?

What is your mission statement?  Or what would you like to be your mission statement?

When there is delight and joy in this church, what is going on?  What do you see, hear, taste, feel or touch?

What is the mission statement of the church?  Or what would you like to be the mission statement for the church?

[1] Dr. Cornel West, “The Socratic, Prophetic, and Democratic,” 4th Annual Barry Ulanov Memorial Lecture, James Memorial Chapel, March 29, 2006.
[2] I Chronicles 29:12; 2 Chronicles 20:6; Esther 10:2
[3] I Samuel 17:25; I Kings 10:23; Esther 1:4
[4] I Corinthians 1:31ff.

First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2018, "The Torch of Deror"

Advent OL 1 BFC 2018 Luke 1:46-55; Isaiah 60:1-3 December 2, 2018 “When you come into the land which I give you, then the land s...