Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Light in Darkness Sermon

(This sermon was given on Sunday, December 18 at Trinity UMC in Fernandina Beach, for the Memorial UMC Service of Light in Darkness.)

When I was a kid, there was a show on TV called, “Are You Afraid of the Dark.” It was basically a child-friendly version of Twilight Zone. After an episode the night was full of monsters and villains and my imagination would populate the unknown around me with so many forces of evil that I would keep a flashlight beside my bed to ward them off.

There is something scary and unnerving about the dark. In the daytime we can see what is coming. We know what to expect. There are very few surprises during the day. At night, however, everything changes. Familiar streets get cast in unfamiliar shadows. It is impossible to see someone coming your way until they are already next to you. Sounds fill the air all around you, but you can’t see their origins.

Physical darkness, however, is the easiest of the darknesses that fill our world. There is no flashlight that will drive away the darkness of grief. There is no candle to ward away depression or anxiety. There are deeper darknesses in our world which stand in the way of the light and cast long shadows over our lives. These dark places often get lost amid the lights of the Christmas season. With such an emphasis on joy and peace, the realities of sadness, distress, and worry often get pushed to the side. However, if we look at the Christmas story there are both light and dark places.

We see the light in the angelic visions, but often miss the fact that the angels appear to Joseph and Mary in the dark as a dream. The Shepherds are watching their flocks by night when the heavenly host appear in all their glory. And the star the wisemen follow to the new-born King was like every other star, only available to them when the brightness of the sun no longer shone in the sky.

What do we make of this shadow-side of the nativity?

I believe the darkness is there because it is a part of the world we live in. From the very beginning when God separated the light from the darkness, each one was given a name and a space in creation. I remember when I lost my grandmother, in seminary, I was thinking about my grief and tears and I realized that the pain I felt at her passing was rooted in the very love that I had for her when she was alive. Even as difficult as grief can be, I cannot think of anyone who would give up the love they have for the one they lost in order to make it go away.

Darkness can obscure our vision, cast doubts about our future and our purpose. The loss of a job, adjustment to retirement, the change from one way of living to another is disorienting and confusing. Our once familiar life and purpose is covered over by a new reality that remains to become fully present.

Walking with a loved one through the shadow of death can be darker for the caregiver than the one who is in the middle. Watching a loved one slip away, we are forced to live in the tension between how they are now and how they were before. In some cases, our memories of them are stronger than theirs are. With the loss of the spouse, friend, or relative, we also loose the future we had hoped to live with them.

In other ways, darkness has a way of focusing our attention. In the daytime there is a lot of distractions. The myriad of colors and shapes which surround us each day all merge together because we cannot take it all in at once. In the dark, however, those colors mute and the shapes soften. It is then that other things come into focus. The stars, for example do not appear in the evening. Instead, it is only when the brightness of the day has faded that we are finally able to behold their steady beads of light. When life gets difficult, it brings other things into perspective. I have spoken with so many people who have a terminal illness that after their diagnosis they didn’t worry as much about their work, their business, their money, or any of the other things that had previously filled up their lives. They began to cherish the time spent with family, the long chats with good friends, walks on the beach, and spending nights laying out on a blanket gazing into the heavens.

I do not know everything about the darkness that you have brought with you today. But I do know that Scripture is clear, darkness is a temporary phenomenon. Psalm 30 declares that weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In the nativity story, John the Baptist’s father, Zechariah, sings a song of praise to God which proclaims that:

Because of God’s deep compassion,
The dawn from heaven will break upon us,
To give light to those who are sitting in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide us on the path of peace.
(Luke 1:78-79)

Before Jesus was even born, the prophet knew that the night was almost over—a light was coming. This can be hard to see in the midst if the darkness. When all around you are shadows, it is easy to forget that there is a light. It is easy to get lost in the darkness, however, the story of Christmas is that a light “did come into our world.” That light did not wait until our eyes had adjusted to the dark. It did not ask us to leave the darkness and come into the light, it came to us instead.

Hear again John’s declaration about the light:

“What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.,,,The true light that shines on all people was coming into the world.
(John 1:3b-5,9)

This is the core of the story. Even in the dark world the light appeared to Mary and Joseph, to shepherds, to wise men and now to us. And that Light cannot be overcome by our darkness, but instead, that Light enters into where we are and makes his home among us so that we know that no matter how dark our lives get we are not alone.

As you go throughout this holiday season, as you see the lights on houses and trees and everywhere else, I pray that you would be reminded that Jesus has come to be with you in the darkness and lead you forward wherever you need to go.

(Note: I am grateful to Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, “Learning to Walk in the Dark” for being a helpful thought partner and a general good read.)


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From Where Does My Help Come?  [sermon]


(This sermon from was preached on July 17th at Memorial United Methodist Church in Fernandina Beach, FL. The manuscript is below and the video from the 9:30 service is above.)

Last week’s psalm of lament and this week’s Psalm 121 are both what are known as “psalms of ascent.” You can see that in the titles that the authors have placed before the psalm. Most of the titles you will find in your bible have been added by the translators to make life easier for you when looking for a passage. The notes at the beginning of many of the psalms, however, are in the original text. They can be instructions for the worship leader, descriptions of the content, or other words or phrases whose meaning has been lost over time.  Psalms 120-134 are grouped together with the same title: A Song of Ascents. Scholars suggest that these psalms were used by pilgrims during the festival seasons as they travelled to Jerusalem. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple itself are on the highest hill in the area and so one literally must “go up” to Jerusalem.

Theses songs would be sung along the road and in services at the beginning of their journey and before they set off. Taken together the psalms are a mixture of different types and themes, but they are mostly short and easy to memorize. Psalm 121 is one of the most popular of the group as well as the whole psalter. It is a psalm of unqualified praise to a God whose protection knows no limits.

It begins with the beautiful question: I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? In the times of the Bible, there were lots of options to turn to for help. Every hill and high place in the area contained shrines and poles in honor and worship of a god for every ailment or problem. If you needed crops to grow, there was a god for that. If you wanted children, there’s a god for that. If you were on a journey, there’s a god for that. Whatever you needed help, you could look to the hills and find an assortment of gods to pray to and worship.

Things are not so different now. When we are in need of help we lift our eyes to the Hollywood Hills and find movie stars selling insurance and credit cards which will solve our problems. We read tabloid magazines and websites which while they may not solve our problems will at least distract us from them long enough to get us by.

When we are unhappy with our country or our community we lift our eyes to capital hill and pray that our candidate is elected or that our law is passed.

When we want to make more money we look to the hills of wall street, or we look uphill and see what job or position might bring us more success.

The psalmist looks at these hills, and knows that true help will not come from the tops of any of them. True help will only come from the Lord who made the hills and who created the rest of earth and heaven.

How often do we set our sights too low. We put our trust in people who promise to make things easier for us, who know a better way, a faster way. And then how slowly it takes us to realize our mistake.

Every election it seems like we all get a messiah complex for our preferred candidate. If our man or woman is elected then things will be better. Inevitably, when that person is elected we realize how wrong we were. As long as they have been doing polls, almost every president has seen their approval ratings consistently drop over the course of their presidency. Once they get into office the reality often fails to live into the rhetoric.

There is a saying, “Never meet your heroes.” So often we put people on pedestals only to discover that the more you get to know the more human you realize they are. Malachi is at this cute stage in life where he is almost sitting up on his own. He is soo close. I will often put him up on my lap and let him practice. He will push the boundaries and bend over and then pull himself back up. But if he goes over too far, my hands are on either side to keep him from falling too far. The other day, we were playing this game and I got distracted by something outside the window. Malachi leaned to far over and bumped his head on the arm of the chair. Fortunately it was not far and he didn’t even really notice, but it reminded me that I am not a perfect parent. I will not always be there when he trips or stumbles. At some point, probably around the time he is a teenager, Malachi will realize this as well. I hope by that point, he has come to learn that God is always there. God never sleeps or gets distracted. The seeming paradox of God is that the One who created the world also cares about each one of us individually. The God who orders the planets is also concerned with our path in life as well and asks us to follow where God leads.
As we know, even when we walk with God, bad things happen. The attack in Nice this week does not mean that God looked away and got distracted. Being in God’s protection means more than physical safety. As I was preparing for the funeral last Tuesday I noticed that Psalm 121 is one of the suggested psalms to be read in the service. Its assurance of God’s protection serves as both a comfort for the ones who are grieving, but also that God’s protection remains with the person who has died.

So often we limit God’s activity and care to the life we know when in reality God moves and works beyond this life. In Jesus Christ God came into this world, experienced death, and then in the resurrection proved that not even death is the end of God’s work in the world. When Paul in Romans tells us that “nothing can separate us from the love of God” there is no caveat there. The original letter did not have a footnote with a list of exceptions. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. This total and complete love of God is beyond our ability to understand, but should encourage us along the way.

One article I read this week suggested that Psalm 121 was used to prepare pilgrims before they set off on their journey. The first two verses would have said by those who were leaving: “I lift my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” And then the rest of the psalm was then recited by those who were staying. These words from Psalm 121 would serve as a reminder to the person that God would protect them on their journey.

Travelling in ancient times was difficult and dangerous. The journey to Jerusalem was done entirely on foot without a plane, train, or car. Wild animals and robbers were a constant source of danger. An injury in the wrong place could leave you exposed to the elements, with heat stroke being a real concern. In the face of so much to fear, however, the pilgrim needed to be reminded of their purpose in making the journey.
The opportunity to worship of God at the Temple was a privilege that is difficult to even put into words. For some Jews it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. As they prepared to set off and I imagine frequently along the way, they needed to lift their eyes again to the hills and fix their eyes on the hill of Zion.

As the ground became rocky, they needed to remember that God was with them every step of the way and would not let their feet stumble. As the sun beat down and sapped their energy, they remembered that God was their shade at their right hand protecting them day and night. As robbers threatened and animals howled, the remembered that God would keep them from all evil-real and imagined. Through the whole of the journey they needed to remember that the God they would worship at the end of their journey was the same God who was travelling with them along the way.

While we may not be going to Jerusalem, we are also on a journey. When the path becomes rocky, the sun intense, and the evil around us too threatening there is a temptation to look to the lesser hills around us for help. To seek out the hills that feel good at the moment, and will take less effort to climb. However, Psalm 121 is an encouragement for our journey. When we are afraid, we are called to look for help from the Creator of hills. When troubles come and evil threatens, we are to be reminded that God is with us, that God will shade us from the sun and protect us in the night. There is no aspect big or small that is not of any concern to our God. And when at last we reach our final destination, it is Psalm 121 that sends us off with the reminder that the God who is with us in this life will continue to keep us in the life to come. Thanks be to God.


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The Art of Faithful Lament

(This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church on July 10, 2016. The text was Psalm 130. Below is the preaching manuscript).

“I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…” These words have been going over and over in my head this past week. They are the opening lyrics to the U2 song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. It is hard to comprehend the tremendous pain that has been reported over these past few weeks. Which is why I am so grateful that our psalm for this week is a psalm of lament.

When we think of psalms we often turn to the happy ones. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” “Oh Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” “Shout for joy to the Rock of our Salvation!”

But where do we turn in weeks like these? What about when we cannot make a joyful noise? What psalm do we sing when two young black men die at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect them? What psalm do we read when one man’s hate kills 5 police officers who are modeling what it means to serve and protect? Where is the psalm to sing when every day this month there is an act of terrorism somewhere around the world?

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile brought the wounds of racial injustice back into our national conversation. For those of us who have white skin, they served as yet another a reminder that still today the color of your skin changes the ways in which you are perceived and treated. The deaths of five police officers brought the tensions between police and their communities violently into focus.

Neither of these issues are new. But together this week they highlighted the continued brokenness of our society and our repeated failure as a nation to do anything to stop it. As my Facebook feed demonstrated this week, it is in times like these that we turn to the practice of lament. Out of the depths of our despair, of pain, and fear, we cry out to God.

The feeling of sadness and grief is not new to these times. The book of psalms contains more songs of lament than any other type. When our voices are weak from crying and we have no words to express our emotion, the psalms are God’s gift to us. They provide the words we need, and they show us a pathway through our grief reminding us that in the deepest pit and the darkest depths, we are not alone.

Psalm 130 is one of the best examples of this sort of psalm. The poet begins in the depths crying out to God. Begging for a listening ear. Something has happened. The psalm does not give us a description of the problem, but many people assume the problem has come the psalmist’s own sinfulness. As we all know, actions have consequences. Our sins and mistakes get us into trouble that is way out of our depth. However, there are also forces in our world, violence, fear, hatred, and evil which act beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend or control. No matter the cause, the helplessness which results gives rise to a similar plea to God.

Honesty is the key to lament. In verse 3, the psalmist reminds God that God’s very nature is to forgive the people’s iniquities. God has promised not to give up on us even though we turn away. Even when we find newer and worse ways to harm each other and turn away from God, God is faithful to us. When we look at our world and in our lives, God allows a tremendous amount of suffering to occur. We know that God has the ability to cure any sickness, to end any war. God can intervene in a dramatic fashion, come into our world and restore peace, end suffering, and make things the way they are supposed to be.

Scripture even tells us that this is what God will do at some point. We know that Christ will return and when He does, there will be no more crying and no more dying, but why not now? Why does God wait? What is the use in letting men and women, boys and girls die for no reason?. It doesn’t make any sense. I wish that I could give you a reason, but I can’t. Scripture doesn’t give us a reason for suffering. Scripture instead instructs us to wait, to hope, and to cry out to God.

An important part of lament is to cry out to God, to let God know that the things that are happening to us, to our world, are not right. The psalms and the prophets model for us the ways in which we are called to remind God that this is not all right. Our hearts are supposed to break for the pain of the world. Sadness and anger are appropriate responses to suffering. The important thing though is that we do not allow our emotions to turn us inward or to manifest themselves as hatred to others. Instead, we should direct our sadness and anger to God.

When we lament, we remind God that we expect better, that our world is supposed to be a better than it currently is. We also remind ourselves. We remind ourselves that the suffering we are experiencing is not what God intended. The racism, injustice, and brokenness of our world is not part of God’s plan. And we remind ourselves that God is present in our world, that God is working to make things right. That God is working to bring peace, justice, and wholeness to all of God’s creation. And as we live in the tension we are called to wait.

Holy waiting is not the same thing as waiting in traffic, or waiting for football season to get here. The Hebrew word for waiting here is an active waiting. It is a waiting that involves loving your neighbors who look and act different than you. It is a waiting that involves helping the poor, visiting those in prison, speaking for those without a voice. Holy waiting involves refusing to follow leaders who seek to divide us with fear, who push us into violence, and ignore the needs of the poor and the marginalized. Holy waiting means that we resist the temptation to fall into despair and instead ask God to give us the grace to live into hope, because holy waiting involves living our lives in the darkness waiting for the dawn to come.

The darkness around us is real. The issues we face as a society and as a world are big and complex, but we are called to be a people of hope; to live as a people who shine light into the darkness. Just like we know that the sun comes up every morning, we can be confident that God’s light will come into every dark corner and that God will overcome all the evil powers in this world.

And while we are called to have this hope for ourselves, Psalm 130 does not let us stop there. Verse 7 turns the psalm of personal lament outward into the world. “Israel, hope in the Lord!” Our community is struggling, our nation is bitterly divided, and our world is deathly afraid. We the church, the people of God, are called to be a different kind of community. We are called to be a place where all people can experience God’s love and hospitality. We are called to be a prophetic voice that stands with all people who are oppressed, marginalized, and mistreated in our society. We are called to be a witness that love is greater than hate, and hope is more powerful than fear. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, We know that to you all lives matter. You have created us and know us and love us all. However, we confess to you that so often all lives do not matter the same to us. We confess that we often care more about people who look like us, who act like us than those who are different. We confess that we contribute to the unjust systems around us both by what we do and by what we fail to do. We confess that when confronted with the violence in our world we choose to hide our faces and ignore the suffering because we can. Forgive us, we pray. Give us the grace we need to build bridges in our community. Give us the courage we need to enter into the suffering of those around us and listen to their story. And, give us the confidence to actively wait for your coming Kingdom. God of peace, be with the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille as well as those of Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Bret Thompson. Where there is conflict bring your peace, where there is fear, bring your comfort, and where there is hatred bring forth your love. Unite us together as a people saved by your grace and overflowing with your love. Amen.


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Singing a New Song

(This sermon was preached at Memorial UMC in Fernandina Beach on 6-19-16. The text below is the preaching manuscript. The above audio was recorded during the 9:30am service.)

Psalm 40 is one of my favorite psalms in the psalter. The images are rich and beautiful, the trust and assurance of God’s faithfulness and redemption has lifted my spirits on multiple occasions in my life. The fact that it is the basis for one of my favorite U2 songs also does not hurt as well.

When the album War came out in 1982 it would become U2’s breakthrough album. Rolling Stone ranked it 223 in the top 500 albums of all time. “War” marked a shift for the Irish rock band from just making music that just entertained to making music that entertained with a message.  At the end of the album, “40” serves as a benediction of sorts. According to the lead singer, Bono, they needed one final song for the album, but their studio time was almost over and another band was coming in. So he pulled out his Bible, and wrote the song in 10 minutes, the band spent 10 minutes recording it, 10 minutes mixing it, and then listened to it for another 10. However, that has nothing to do with why it is called 40. It is rare to see a rock band use the text of Scripture for their lyrics, however, the verses about patient hope, and then the invitation we have to sing a new song draw the listener from protesting violence to actually working to build a more peaceful world.

The realities of violence and fear are just as real today as they were in the 80s and over 2,000 years ago when the psalms were originally written.

Last week as the details about the shooting in Orlando trickled in during worship, I will admit that I was at a loss for words to say or prayers to pray. The tragedy in Orlando lies at the intersection of many of the fault lines in our society. It happened at a gay club with most of the victims being members of the LGBT community. The shooter used legally purchased weapons and ammunition. And, the attacker claimed affiliation with ISIS. Sexuality, gun control, terrorism. None of these are easy ideas, but this is not a sermon about any of these hot button topics. They are important debates and faithful Christians need to talk about them in faithful ways, but not today. When confronted with tragedy, it is often our human tendency to pull away from the pain and try to fix the problem.

If we just had better laws, a more open society, or less open borders then maybe we could keep these bad things from happening. Unfortunately, none of these things are really true. We live in a violent world. Evil and brokenness are realities that cannot be eliminated by legislation, they will not go away by sheer force of human will, The only way in which evil, brokenness and even death itself is conquered is through the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But where does that leave us with Psalm 40? In trying to find meaning in the murders in Orlando, I believe that it is significant that Psalm 40 does not begin with the problems he is surrounded with. Instead, the psalm remembers the faithfulness of God in the terrifying events of his past.  The psalmist tells us how God brought him out of the pit of despair and set his feet upon solid rock. In the midst of a crisis and tragedy, God did not leave him alone, but instead brought him through it.

It is often difficult to see God in the midst of a crisis. This is why memory is so important. In remembering God’s saving work in the past, the psalmist renews his trust that God will be faithful this time around as well. If we look back in our recent history, the deaths at the Pulse night club come in a complicated context. While it is one of the most deadly shootings in recent history, it was by no means an isolated event. Last year we saw 9 men and women die in a Charleston, SC church and 14 people die in San Bernardino, CA at the local Health Department. In 2012, 20 children and 6 teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, and 12 people died in a movie theater in Aurora, CO. And that is to only name the shootings that got the most media attention in the past few years.

For the LGBT community the massacre is in a different context. According to the FBI, the LGBT community have become the most likely targets of hate crimes in recent years. For a group of people who are frequently targets for bullying, abuse, and violence, this shooting is a further reminder of how dangerous our society still is for them.

Throughout this history, however there are also examples of God breaking through the violence. Last week, Carrie Mac on our staff posted a quote from Mr. Rogers that is a good example of this. “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” What a great testament to God’s work in the midst of crisis. In the wake of the attack in Charleston, the church’s public forgiveness of their attacker was a powerful witness of the radical Good News of Jesus Christ. All too often these new songs of hope are drowned out by the old familiar verses of political partisanship, nationalism, racism, islamophobia, and fear.

Psalm 40:4 says that “Happy are those who make the Lord their trust/who do not turn to the proud/to those who go astray after false gods.” I believe that our beliefs and opinions can all too easily become for us false gods and idols. We put our trust in them to help us understand the world around us and how we can change that world to get what we want. Our trust needs to be in God and God alone.

When we trust in God, we need to have ears to hear the song God is directing for us. Verse 6 says “you have given me an open ear.” The Hebrew here is literally, “you have given me the ears you have dug for me.” I love this image of God digging out the dirt and junk which keeps us from being able to hear God’s voice and sing God’s song. Once we have cleaned out all of those false voices calling us against each other we can begin to sing the new song God is giving to us.

We need these new songs to sing. Songs that bring us together rather than fracture us into pieces. We need songs that inspire us to love each other and listen to each others’ stories. We need new songs that describe God’s presence in the midst of suffering. In the past week there have been the beginnings of those sorts of songs. Prayer vigils across the country stood in solidarity and support with the victims. At Annual Conference this week, we held a vigil Thursday evening to pray for each of the victims and their families. It was a powerful and moving service, and I am proud to say one of many provided by Methodist churches around Orlando.

One of the most surprising stories, for me from the attacks, however is the Chick-fil-a store that opened its doors that Sunday to feed people who were in line to donate blood for the victims. As I imagine most of you remember, Chick-fil-a and the LGBT community were pretty hostile to each other several years ago over the company’s statements about their traditional views on marriage and their donations to conservative organizations. Last Sunday, Chick-fil-a did not change their opinions. They remain a conservative company with traditional views on marriage, however, they lived out their Christian values in a powerful way. Seeing a group of people who suffering and in need of support they used the tools at their disposal to offer grace and love through delicious chicken and fries. This is a new song being sung. It is a song of God showing up in the midst of tragedy and bringing forth life, hope, and the promise of a better future.

God does not cause tragedies. God does not inspire mass murder, hate, or violence. If your reading of the gospels causes you to hate another person, or to celebrate in their suffering then you are reading them wrong. God is on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized and the overlooked trying to make sure that justice occurs. God’s love extends to everyone. And I mean everyone. God did not put the psalmist into the pit, but instead brought him out of harms way so that the psalmist could proclaim God’s goodness and faithfulness in times of crisis. God did not desire that the 49 victims in Orlando would die. Instead, our God mourns with those who mourn and weeps with those who weep and our God moves in such a way that light can shine through the darkness and hope can surpass the grief.

It is the light and hope that God brings into our despair which gives rise to the song we are given to sing. Like the psalmist, we are commanded to sing the song God has given to us everywhere we go. In our work and our play, in the street corners and all over town. In this world where death and tragedy fill our lives and despair can lurk around every corner, we are called to sing a new song. It is a song of hope because of God’s faithfulness. It is a song of trust in God’s goodness. It is a song of grace and forgiveness because of what God has done in Jesus.

The song we are called to sing is one that welcomes everyone to sing its chorus. One of my favorite parts of the U2’s 40 is the way they perform it in concert. It sits at the end of their set and after it is done, one by one they leave the stage until it is just the audience singing together the refrain, “how long, to sing this song?” Here are thousands of people, most of whom are probably not Christians, singing along to a song of our faith.

When we hear the new song that God is giving to us, and sing it out at the top of our lungs, we are called to invite others to sing along with us. We are called to draw others out of their darkness, and into God’s beautiful light. So how long to sing this song? We are called to sing the new songs of our God until the darkness has been eliminated by God’s light, until the evil and hate of the world have been transformed by God’s all-powerful love, and until all of God’s children have joined in the chorus. Will you join the song? How long, to sing this song.

 


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Sermon: What to Expect When You’re Expecting

[Side Note: Little did I know that four days after I preached this sermon, our son Malachi Emmanuel would be born. God is good, unexpected sometimes, but always good.]

Scriptures: Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 21:25-36

Several months ago, the worship planning team was thinking about what to focus on for advent, and I made the half-joking suggestion that we should do a series called “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” At that point, Jessica and I were several months into our pregnancy and that classic book had become a regular part of our reading. The more the team thought about it, the more the idea came together. Both pregnancy and advent are times full of expectation and anticipation, and both are counting down to one particular day. For a baby you count down forty weeks, whereas Advent only lasts four. As so many of you have told me, having a baby changes your whole world. The child who is born at the end of advent changes not just the life of His parents, but also the whole course of history and every life that has ever lived. And so over these next four weeks we will be going through the process of preparing for the birth of Christ.

One of the things I have learned about pregnancy is that there is not a lack of information. In our living room is a bag full of pregnancy books with detailed accounts of what to expect at each stage of pregnancy. What a woman may feel. What her body is doing, how the baby is growing. Week by week, trimester by trimester, it tells you what to look forward to and what you should do. Every single possibility is laid out and described in very detailed ambiguity. You may feel this, or you may not. Some women experience this, others do not. Every book tries to answer every question, touch on every possibility that they can think of.

For this reason, one of the first things the doctor told us when she recommended books was that we should not read ahead. The same advice does not apply to the season of advent. The first Sunday traditionally always jumps straight past the birth to the very end, the second coming of Christ.

Whereas reading ahead in a pregnancy book could cause unnecessary fear and anxiety, reading ahead in the Christian story and knowing that Christ will return gives us a sense of comfort and hope. Because we know the end of the story, we can live through difficulties in the middle with confidence and assurance that God will see us through.

Both of our texts for today are set within dark and difficult times in Jewish history. Jeremiah lived during a time when Judah was caught between large and powerful empires who were vying for control. Jeremiah tries to advise the rulers and the people on how to faithfully navigate between them, but they do not listen. And so, in the year 587 BC, the Babylonians entered Jerusalem. Their army slaughtered the leaders in front of the people, they destroyed the Temple, and captured many of the people and shipped them away as exiles. In the wake of their brutality, the Jewish people who remained were demoralized, shaken, and unsure of what their future would hold.

For most of the Jewish people, these events were completely unexpected. How could the God who made a special covenant with them, who brought them out of Egypt, and gave them the Promised Land allow them to be so utterly destroyed, the very symbol of their covenant laid to ruins?

It is into this thinking that Jeremiah speaks this Word from God, ”I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people of Israel and Judah. I will raise up a righteous branch…” In the middle of the broken forest, Jeremiah tells the people that God has not given up on them and that God is working on their restoration.

Over six centuries later, as Jesus is speaking to his disciples, the Great Temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but the worst is yet to come for the Jewish people and the followers of Jesus. Knowing this, Jesus’ words to his disciples are again words about the future.

Jesus describes the end of the story, the Son of Man (CEB-translates this Human One) coming on clouds with power and splendor, bringing everything under His rule and control. This image of Christ’s victorious return has helped Christians throughout the centuries to persevere in persecution, to face lions, fires, and gun barrels with hymns of praise, and through it all to share the Good news of Jesus Christ with everyone they met.

Before the second coming, however, Jesus paints a bleak picture as he describes what the world often looks like in this in-between time. All the earth will be turned upside down. Nations will devolve into chaos, and nothing on earth or in the heavens will be constant or secure. In other words, we are to expect the unexpected.

In many ways Jesus could be describing our world today. The attacks in Paris a couple of weeks ago were a violent reminder of the fragility of life and the illusion of safety. The normal lives of people enjoying a sports game, concert, and drinking at a coffee shop brutally interrupted by extremists bent on shaking the very foundations of Western society.

In many places around the world, fear is a regular part of daily life. For people living throughout the Middle East, drone strikes, suicide bombs, and hostile check points keep people constantly on their toes. Families in Nigeria worry each day if their children will come home from school. In our own country many racial and religious minorities describe their fear when those around them do not understand who they are or where they come from, and many women are nervous to go outside because of the catcalls and inappropriate looks they receive from men on the street.

As I read these passages this week, I realized that in addition to terrorist attacks, there are things inside of us that also turn our world upside down. The death of a spouse, a parent, a child, or a friend can also shake the ground beneath out feet. The loss of a job, a divorce, a diagnosis, or an illness can call into question the foundations of how we understand ourselves and the world around us.

In these moments of crisis, when what we had expected is gone and pain and uncertainty are all we have left, we look around for something that will help us get through the darkness.

Could it be that in these times when chaos and fear are swirling around us, Jesus is calling us to look for the signs of his coming?

I believe in the second coming of Christ. I believe that at a certain point in the future, Jesus will return, the Kingdom of God will come and at that time, all things will be brought under the reign of God. This is the truth that the Scriptures teach us, and I am confident there will come a day. However, Jesus also told his disciples, “Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age” (Matt 28:20). In four weeks we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, whom we will call, “Emanuel, God is with us.”

The reality of Jesus’ second coming does not have to be separated from the reality that God in Christ is here with us today. In a world fractured with violence and filled with fear, Jesus’ second coming reminds us that this world is not as it should be, and that God is making it better. The reality of Jesus’ presence with us now as Emmanuel is a daily reminder that God does not leave us alone in the meantime.

Every day, Jesus comes into the lives of people and communities and shares their grief and suffering, experiences their depression, and despair. And, while it may not be as dramatic as riding in on clouds, Jesus nonetheless enters into those situations with power and splendor to bring forth comfort, peace, joy and hope.

The world in which we live is one where things do not always go according to plan. People suffer for no reason at all. As many of you know, I am experiencing this in my own life. Several months ago, when our child was diagnosed with a serious heart defect the news was entirely unexpected. Since then, there have been times of sadness, grief, anger, and fear, but there have been many more moments of great joy, excitement, and hope.

Conceiving and bearing children is a beautiful thing, but it is also something that is incredibly difficult. Many families have stories of infertility, miscarriages, the tragic loss of a child, as well as many other complications of pregnancy. These stories are but a few examples of the brokenness and suffering found in our world. But they are also not the end of the story. For many of those same families adoptions, medical treatments, mentorships, and unexpected friendships, conclude their stories of pain and loss in ways that were inconceivable earlier on.

As people who have read the end of the story, we know that God’s work in our world does not stop at suffering but continues through to life and hope.

We know that violence and fear are very real and present in our world. All of us have seen the power of suffering in our world either in our own life or in that of someone close to us. The violence and suffering in our world is a symptom of its brokenness. The message from our texts today is that fear is not the end of the story.

Jesus’s description of His second coming calls on each of us to turn these symptoms into sign posts to the Kingdom of God. To confront the evil and injustice in our world with the confidence of people who know the end of the story.

So often we turn our attention away from the brokenness and pain of our world. Some people use alcohol, drugs, or other substances to dull the pain and divert their focus. Others insulate themselves by focusing on their work, their hobbies, sports team, or even celebrity news. In this holiday season, how tempting is it to distract ourselves from the cares of the world with the cares of our to do lists, our shopping and decorating, and gift giving. Jesus warns us against this: “Take care that your heart’s aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life.” When we are distracted and distanced from the broken and hurting people and places of our world we are at risk of missing the coming of Christ into those very people and places.

By paying attention to the brokenness of our world. By being vigilant in our prayers for our others and for ourselves, we are able to bear witness to the fact that our world is in the process of being remade. We are able to speak God’s word of hope and assurance so that the world may know that even in the darkness, God provides light. Even when everything has been cut down, God provides new growth, and even when fear threatens to overwhelm us and the ground beneath our feet is unsteady, God stands firmly on the clouds bringing order to the chaos and reminding us that our redemption is near. Amen.


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Seeing our Giants (1 Sam 17:32-49)

(Sermon preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach, FL on June 28, 2015)
1 Samuel 17:32-49

There are few stories as ingrained in our culture as that of David and Goliath. Anytime there is a major underdog or a surprising victory, this story’s images get pulled into the conversation. And for good reason. However, as the story gets told so many times that we begin to lose sight of some of the details. Because in this simple story there is far more than meets the eye.

Malcom Gladwell did a TED talk a few years back which brought this story into a whole new light for me. So often we picture Goliath as this huge and mighty warrior. Gladwell, however, says that Goliath may not be as strong as we have thought. He points out that Goliath’s height may have been the result of a disease known as acromegaly. It is a tumor on the pituitary gland that causes someone to be abnormally tall. It has some other side effects as well particularly giving people limited eyesight and double vision. Perhaps, Gladwell argues, this is why Goliath must be led onto the field by a shield bearer, why he sees multiple sticks in David’s hands, and why he never moves in the story. Each time he calls out to the Israelites and to David telling them to come to him.

If this was true, Gladwell’s interpretation is interesting to me because it brings a new dimension to the fear of the Israelites. How often do we too see a problem that is before us, one that seems insurmountable and impossible, and our fear makes it seem larger and more difficult than it is. Because of this, we make assumptions based on what we see before us and we never build up the courage to ask more questions and to delve a little bit deeper, or to even imagine that the problem can be solved.

As I look around our news reports today there seem to be many different Goliath sized issues that we as a church and a society feel are almost too big for us to comprehend. For example, the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, the botched executions of the past year, and the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska have brought capital punishment back into the national spotlight.

The deaths of unarmed young black men and women at the hands of police officers and the murder of the nine victims in Charleston have been pushing us into a conversation about race in our society which is at least 150 years late.

There are others as well including Immigration, Same-sex marriage, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich. On their own, each of these issues is complex and complicated. They touch at the core values of our society, and affect the lives of millions of people. They ignite heated conversations and strain relationships between families and communities. Therefore, for so many years we have put them off and ignored these issues, cowering on the sidelines and waiting for someone who is courageous enough to go in our place and take them on.

Which brings us to the hero of our story, David. So often we picture him as a young boy, weak and powerless, but with a strong enough faith that God miraculously killed Goliath despite him. I am not sure that I agree with that interpretation. Yes, David is young. Yes, David lacks the experience of a trained soldier, but that in itself does not make him weak or inexperienced. Youth and experience are not opposites. In fact, it seems to be David’s lack of experience with traditional combat that helps him to see a different way to defeat Goliath. And it is David’s particular experience with a slingshot that gave him the strength and the skill needed to take down Israel’s enemy. If he had gone up against Goliath like a traditional soldier and tried to beat Goliath in a sword fight, things would have not ended well for David. However, by playing to his strengths and trusting his training, David was able to find a better solution.

If we are going to be able to take down the problems in our communities and in our society, we are going to need new ideas and fresh perspectives. Those of us who are used to being heard will need to listen to the voices of those who are marginalized in our communities. Those of us who are accustomed to being in control will need to be willing to follow the lead of those who are younger and those who have different experiences from our own.

In short, we, like Saul, need to come to the realization that our way of bringing about a just resolution may be to step aside and support someone else whom God is calling to lead.

With that being said, we as the people of God cannot just sit on the sidelines and wait for others to do the hard work of reconciliation and justice building in our community. As we follow God’s lead into the broken places of our culture we need to do so by taking David as our example. He was brave enough to engage with something that was big and intimidating. And he was victorious because he chose to be authentic to himself. Instead of being the warrior that Saul and the Israelites expected him to be, he fought against Goliath as the person who God had called and shaped him to be.

Once Saul agrees to let David fight, he offers his own armor to protect him. When David tries it on he can’t move because he is not used to wearing it. This could stand as a metaphor for how we as Christians, often try to engage the Goliaths of our culture. We try to put on the armor of a different group of people such as Republicans or Democrats, environmentalists, humanitarians, volunteers, good citizens, or just about anyone else instead of being Christians.

When we talk about the major issues of our day, do we use secular arguments and political reasoning instead of thinking out of our faith and the imagination that Scripture gives us? When we try to have the tough and complicated conversations, how often do we leave our faith at the door and rely instead on political talking points and economic arguments?

Let’s take the Death Penalty as an example. Time Magazine published a front page article a couple of weeks ago analyzing how the death penalty in the United States is beginning to come to an end. The reasons that Time Magazine gave for this shift in public opinion included the difficulty and expense of getting the necessary drugs and the constitutional problems in that it takes so long for executions to be carried out. As I read these arguments I thought about Jesus’ revisioning of the Old Testament law, “an eye for an eye,” I thought about Jesus’ staying the execution of the woman caught in adultery, and I thought about the major themes or forgiveness and redemption which are so central to who we are as Christians, but yet are often absent not only from secular discussions like the one in Time Magazine, but also from our discussions, as Christians, about criminal justice and capital punishment.

Now I am all about getting rid of the Death Penalty. It is one of the strongest positions in our United Methodist Social Principles. However, the conversations we have as a broader church do not always follow their example. Often they are not scriptural or theological and they focus more on how we do executions and less on the why. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional because African-Americans were disproportionally convicted and sentenced to death. The end of the death penalty came not because our society had decided that it was wrong, but because it was being done wrong. Therefore in order to bring back the death penalty, congress amended the legal system in an attempt to make it more fair. Despite the fact that people who are black or Hispanic are still more likely to be given the death penalty, The Supreme Court deemed their revisions sufficient at the time and brought the practice back four years after it had ruled against them.

Now, what if we as a Church had risen up and said with one voice that it is not our place to kill another human being? What if we had lived out the reality that even in the most dramatic and horrific cases, God’s grace and mercy are still available, and that forgiveness not vengeance should be the preferred outcome? Perhaps things would have turned out differently. Perhaps instead of making 1,411 people wait in legal purgatory for their possible day of execution, we could have given them the rest of their lives to repent and make penance for their actions. Perhaps our legal system would be able to focus less on punishing offenders and more on forming them into people who can break the cycles of violence and crime. All it would have need is a bit less political maneuvering and a lot more calls living out Jesus’ commands in all aspects of our lives. With a bolder theological argument, I believe that we as the people of God we can bring a lasting end to capital punishment in our country not because it is inconvenient, expensive, or unconstitutional, but because it is wrong. Capital punishment can eventually become more convenient, is can become cheaper, and maybe even constitutional, however, it will never stop being wrong.

Over the next year as we enter an election season, discussions on the hot topics in our society will be had around dinner tables, living rooms, and I am sure quite a few pew benches. I want to encourage each one of us as people who have been formed and shaped by the love and the grace of God, to take off the bulky armor of modern politics, to set aside the economic arguments and focus instead on having the theological discussions. As this country continues its collective conversations about guns, violence, gender, sexuality, and race, let us participate explicitly as people of faith. Let us first ask ourselves: What would Jesus say about how we treat guns in this country? What do the Old and New Testaments have to contribute to our views on on violence and our society? How do we as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, view people of different races, cultures, sexualities, and nationalities?

As we ask these questions and talk with one another as a church, we need to remember to listen to the Davids among us. We need to be on the look out for the people God is raising up as overlooked leaders. We need hear their opinions, value their experiences, and be willing to recognize when God is calling us through them to a different way of thinking.

Like the Goliath of Scripture, the giants we are being called to fight against may be big, and they may be powerful, but they are not unbeatable. Like David, we are called to go into the battle confident that God is on our side. Even though we do not have all the answers, and even though we may disagree on how our faith relates with an issue, we are united in the knowledge that it is God who will bring about the final justice, it is God who will bring about true peace, it is God who will create a united community and it is God who will have the victory.

What we need to do as a people of God is take off our armor, pick up our stones and follow where God is leading. Goliath is waiting.


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A Letter to the Durham Exiles

Note: This is a sermon which I wrote for my Old Testament class. One of my favorite aspects of preaching is delivering the Word of God to the people of God, and while I tried to convey and communicate God’s word, it was to no one in particular. Therefore, as with all my posts, I address this sermon primarily to myself with the prayer that by God’s grace perhaps it can speak to others.

Jer. 29:1 These are the words of the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining elders among the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. 2 This was after King Jeconiah, and the queen mother, the court officials, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the artisans, and the smiths had departed from Jerusalem. 3 The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah son of Shaphan and Gemariah son of Hilkiah, whom King Zedekiah of Judah sent to Babylon to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. It said: 4 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the LORD.

Let us pray, God of grace and mercy. You have brought us here to this place as students of your Word and servants of your gospel. Lord, though my words are many, let your Word beak through and reveal your good news to us in a real way. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.

Across the sandy dunes and arid desert a group of Jews are walking slowly. Heads that where once held high in pride of responsibility are now bowed. Robes that were once representative of high office are now torn and tattered, worn by the humbling dust of the defeat. Mouths that once gave prayers to the Lord on behalf of Judah now are silent. And minds that contemplated complex matters of territory negotiations and international diplomacy now find two words repeating over and over again: Exile sucks.

This group of Exiles reaches the great city of Babylon and they find themselves in a new land. A land where Hebrew is gibberish and where Marduk is the Lord. These are the people that Jeremiah is writing to in this 29th chapter. This is a people whose world is turned upside down. They are in a new city, facing new experiences, new people. In this respect they are a lot like us in Divinity School. While we were not defeated by Babylon, perhaps we came to this place after God’s call defeated our plans for our future. Although we might not be in a foreign land, the language of Ambrose, Augustine and Aquinas can certainly sound as confusing. Like us, Jeremiah writes to a people who are out of their element. He writes to a people who are faced with new situations, new ideas and are worried about where God can possibly be in their midst. His letter to them proclaims the Word of the Lord giving them comfort but also commanding them to action. But Jeremiah’s letter is not just to that first wave of exiles. Jeremiah knows that in a few years more will be joining them and that their worst fears will be realized as their Temple is turned to rubble. Jeremiah knows that while things are tough, the worst is yet to come and so he writes to them in the hope that this first group of exiles will take his words to heart and help keep the later exiles centered on the Lord while they are in a strange land.

This is the central message of this letter. The exiled community is struggling. This is a community whose grief is real. Whose pain is palpable. We read their heartbreak throughout the psalms. The God who was once so close is now distant and removed. This is the reality of exile. In the midst of readings and papers and precepts how much do we sit and long for the days when we were in the promised land of our undergrad. Back when things were easy. Back when you didn’t know about close readings or exegesis. We look back and by the rivers of the Eno we sit and weep. How long can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

Into our weeping Jeremiah sends a letter. He sends a letter to remind the exiles, to remind us, of where we are. Jeremiah tells us, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel…whom I have sent into exile.” Yes, that is right, it is God who has sent us here. Sure this land we are living in is tough. Sure our lives seem hopeless and it seems like we cannot keep our heads above water, but this is the land that God has called us to. This is the land in which God is going to form us and shape us into the people God has called us to be. This is that land, and this is the God of that land.

This is the same God who tells us later in this passage that there are plans for us as a people, there are plans for us as Divinity students. This is a God who tells us that these plans are for our welfare, our peace. These are plans to give us a future with hope. We know about these plans, and yet we all too easily forget them in the midst of everything else. In our struggles today we lose track of the hope for tomorrow. In the land of confusion and fear, Jeremiah reminds us that God has sent us here to be a people of hope.

But, Jeremiah does not stop there. No, instead Jeremiah continues. Jeremiah continues because while God calls us to be a people who live in the confidence of tomorrow, we are also called to be live in the grace of today. Jeremiah tells the people to build houses, plant gardens, make a family. To live a full and abundant life. Sure they are in exile, sure their life is not what it used to be, or even what they want it to be, but God refuses to let them sit and wallow in that. Sure they are to be a people of hope, but that hope is supposed to inform and reform the present, not provide an easy escape into tomorrow. Jeremiah’s language brings the people back to Genesis where God’s first commandment to the newly created humans was to be fruitful and multiply. That is what humanity is made for. To make the most of the abundant blessing that God has given to us. God has brought us here to Duke to be nurtured in the faith and to prepare us to serve God’s Church in the world, but that preparation is not an excuse to just sit and study. Jeremiah’s prophesy is for us to build our homes here for the time we are here. Now, for those of you with families this can be a literal command, but for us single people, don’t get too excited. All of us have places to put down roots. We have churches and neighbors with whom we are involved. We have a city which is brimming with opportunity and need. For us to go for three or four (or five J) years and never leave the gothic walls of Duke would be a travesty. Durham is a community where people pass through. But we has ministers of the gospel cannot just shake the dust from our shoes as we leave. We as ministers of the gospel are called to minister in the city in which we live, to build God’s community, God’s Church wherever we happen to find ourselves.

But more than just moving out of our comfort zones and into the larger world, God calls the exiles to go even deeper. God tells the exiles to go so far as to pray for the welfare of Babylon, to actively seek to create peace, to create shalom, within the city. This is an interesting statement. It is interesting because, just like God reminded the people that they were in exile because of divine action, here God reminds the people that they are in exile under God’s sovereignty. Before the Exile, the Israelites knew that God was in the Temple. They had worshiped the Lord there their entire lives. That was their place of comfort. Then they went into exile. Then they left their temple and their God and moved to another land and seemingly under another God. But Jeremiah calls them back to the God who is available to Israel at both the altar in Jerusalem as well as rivers of Babylon. This is a God who is lord of Israel but also lord of Babylon. This is a God who seeks peace for Israel, but also peace for Babylon and the whole world. This is a God who knows that Israel’s peace cannot come when it looks out only for its own interests but when it seeks to live in peace with its neighbors as well. But we are at Duke. We have Stanley Hauerwas. We know that we are supposed to live at peace with our neighbors we know that we are not supposed to go to war. These things are at the foundation of our Christian understanding of “turn the other cheek” and “pray for those who persecute you.” We read this text and we know what Israel is missing. But what if Jeremiah is talking about a different group’s welfare that needs our prayers? When we are in our Divinity school cliques talking about our deep understandings of Jesus, we certainly always say how much we hope God blesses our professors who give us lots of reading, our professors whose exams are too hard, our professors who do not give us what we think we deserve. At these moments are we praying for our professors or are we complaining about our professors? When our preceptors give us lower grades than we “deserve” are we praying for them or complaining about them?

What then really characterizes our relationship with this Divinity school? Is it a relationship grounded in prayer, or grounded in complaint? The Israelites were the masters of complaint. Throughout Egypt, all they did was complain. In the promised land they complained to the Lord when they were attacked. And now when their sins have sent them to exile and now threaten to destroy their temple, they are tempted to revert back into their favorite past time—complaint. But Jeremiah cuts them off before they get there. Before Jeremiah receives their letter from exile complaining about how awful it is to be under Babylonian rule, he sends them a letter with a better option. He sends them a letter offering anther way. He sends them a letter saying that, instead of complaining about the difficulties of your situation, pray for your situation. His letter reminds them that their God is also Babylon’s God and that peace will come when their cries of complaint become prayers of peace. What would our experience as Divinity students be like if we took this to heart? What would a poor grade, or a difficult assignment look like if it was bracketed by true and earnest prayers for this Divinity school, for our faculty and preceptors, for our fellow students? What would it look like if we truly heeded the prophet’s words? It seems so easy, but it is not. When we get a paper back which we worked so hard on and see the grade, the voice we hear is not a voice of praise. The voice we hear is the voice in the back of our head which says, “That preceptor is an idiot! He doesn’t understand what he is doing. You deserved an “A” on this paper.” When we look at our syllabus and all the reading we have, is it a voice of prayer in our head or is it the voice of something else saying, “This is ridiculous! Why do they assign so much reading? This is not fair!?” These are the voices which dominate our thoughts. But, you know the people in exile heard voices too. They heard voices saying, “This is not right! God will deliver you soon and crush the Babylonians under his foot.” These voices were saying, “The Babylonians are evil, you should resist them with all you have, and the Lord will protect you.” These voices like the voices we hear are calls to the easy response. They are calls to make the people feel good. They are calls which tell them exactly what they want to hear. But the Lord calls them out. God tells the people, “Do not listen to them! I did not send them!” God does not allow us to accept the easy answer, the feel good response. Instead, God forces us to confront the realities of our sin. God calls us to take the higher road knowing that when we are in Exile, God is with us. God calls us to be in the present, and to make the most of this time we are given. And, finally, God calls us to live our lives in prayer and through prayer for those around us.

For the people of Israel and Judah, the exile was the defining moment in their lives as a people. It is out of this time when they truly gained an identity. In exile, they began to look back and write their story as a people, producing the texts of the Torah. The people went into exile beaten and defeated with a limited understanding of God. It was in the exile when they discovered the true awesome reality of what it means to have one God who is the Lord of all. Israel learned what it means to a community together, and how to be the people of God in both tough times and in the times of joy. The people of exile learned what it means to live in peace and hope within a context which is neither peaceful nor hopeful. We find ourselves this day coming to Duke beaten and defeated with a limited understanding of God. We find ourselves exiled in the land of books, lectures, precepts. Hear this letter of Jeremiah. Hear these words of hope, these calls to action. Israel emerged a people of stronger faith, and a people with a clearer sense of purpose. It is my prayer that this day we too can discover their road of hope and peace, and that through their example we too can emerge from our exile to engage the Church, the academy, and the world as a people confident in God who was, the God who is and the God who is to come. Amen.