Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Pain and Promise: The Way

We just heard Psalm 1. We often forget that the Psalms are the songs of Israel. Songs of the joy they experienced, both as individuals and collectively as a people. Songs of praise sung to a gracious and benevolent God. Songs of lamentation sung in times of vast despair. And many other types of songs that come out of the lived experience of a people.

We also often forget as one theologian has noted that much of scripture comes out of lived experience. And particularly, out of trauma. Out of people trying to make sense or make meaning of their traumatic experience. Beginning with the banishing of Adam and Eve from the garden, through the flood and its aftermath, to the enslavement and eventual freedom for Israel, to the first destruction of the temple and the Babylonian exile, even to the time of the Christ, living as a subjugated people and the second destruction of the temple - over and over and over again, God’s people have attempted to make meaning of it all and to understand where God might be working in the midst of it.

So, beginning today with Psalm 1 seems right - this song placed at the beginning of all of Israel’s songs. A song that talks about two ways. Two paths. And about what happens to a people when they stray from the path of life, from God and the ways of God.

This is also a similar theme in the book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah - a prophet called by God to help Judah survive. Sometimes harsh and bitter. Sometimes a predictor of the terror to come. And, yet, a prophet and a book that is a quest for meaning and about how, even in the midst of communal disaster, the people of Judah (and we) we might find both the human and the divine. 

And so, today, we begin in Jeremiah. 

The Lord’s word came to me:
“Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I made you a prophet to the nations.”
“Ah, Lord God,” I said, “I don’t know how to speak
    because I’m only a child.”
The Lord responded,
    “Don’t say, ‘I’m only a child.’
        Where I send you, you must go;
        what I tell you, you must say.
Don’t be afraid of them,
    because I’m with you to rescue you,”
        declares the Lord.
Then the Lord stretched out his hand,
    touched my mouth, and said to me,
    “I’m putting my words in your mouth.
This very day I appoint you over nations and empires,
    to dig up and pull down,
    to destroy and demolish,
    to build and plant.”

Jeremiah received the Lord’s word: Stand near the gate of the Lord’s temple and proclaim there this message: Listen to the Lord’s word, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord. This is what the Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, says: Improve your conduct and your actions, and I will dwell with you in this place. Don’t trust in lies: “This is the Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple! The Lord’s temple!” No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly; if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin, only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time.

And yet you trust in lies that will only hurt you. Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, sacrifice to Baal and go after other gods that you don’t know, and then come and stand before me in this temple that bears my name, and say, “We are safe,” only to keep on doing all these detestable things? Do you regard this temple, which bears my name, as a hiding place for criminals? I can see what’s going on here, declares the Lord. --Jeremiah 1:10-10; 7:1-11 (CEB)

In 2014 I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD. It was the result of over 40 years of loss I experienced throughout my life - loss that continued to impact me even after I’d done much work with mental health professionals over that time. The diagnosis was the result of my individual, accumulated experience of trauma. 

Today, though, and over these next several weeks we are not talking about individual trauma. Now that is not to say that some of us, or even all of us, have not experienced some level of individual trauma over these many months. But, we have also experienced collective trauma - trauma that has come over the series of events we’ve experienced together in this time - disaster and its effects that have disrupted our lives on a vast scale, turning them upside down, shaking our world apart, destroying our day-to-day existence and even shattering our understanding of our own reality and even, perhaps, that of God.

It’s normal for us to want to get as far away from this experience as soon and as quickly as we can. It’s likely why there is so little history written about the 1918 pandemic - that, perhaps, there was a rush to put it behind them. Yet, those who deal with disaster and trauma know of its effects if it is not tended to - hidden effects that can leave us isolated, keep us in our own suffering and grief, and, in time, lead to a collapse of faith and trust in one another, in our society, and in God.

Jeremiah was called to serve God’s people in a similar time as ours, an experience that is hinted at even in Psalm 1, a straying from the true path to one that leads to destruction. And collective trauma. This is Jeremiah’s call from God - to both stand with and against the people, to call them out and to call them in, so that they might endure what is to come, that they might live, and that they might yet realize a future that includes a new covenant with God. Or as we just read: to dig up and pull down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant.

Isn’t Israel’s way our way? Isn’t Israel’s experience our human experience? Over and over again in the narrative of scripture we read of a three-fold pattern of our world, of our human experience.

There is a triune pattern in the world. Creation - Uncreation - Re-creation. Richard Rohr calls it “order, disorder, reorder.” Walter Brueggemann names it orientation, disorientation, reorientation. It is a pattern we see through the entire story of scripture. 

God creates all things. And it is very good. Then, humanity chooses to betray God and we are plunged into a violent system of shame and blame. The violence comes to it’s apex and the world is plunged into a flood of some kind that threatens to destroy everything with chaos. And yet...God turns the flood into a promise. And resurrects humanity into a new covenant.

And then the cycle repeats itself. Again and again. Over and over. God creates. We uncreate. And God re-creates. Life, death, resurrection. It’s how things grow. It’s how we grow.

Or think about it in another way.

If all of reality was singular, was one. Then it would be static. There would be no diversity. No movement. It would be nothing.

If all reality was split in two, divided between this and that, between us and them, there would only be division. A dualistic or binary system. This is where most of us get stuck. We think the world is divided between God and creation. Between heaven and hell. Between good people and bad people. Between absolute right and absolute wrong. Between us and them. 

But there is a third way. 

The movement of God is to keep these dualities, these binaries, from destroying each other. To use the tension between them to instead open up a new life of hope and possibility. Because, again, this is how we grow.

We start in simple consciousness as children. Life is good and ordered.

We grow into adolescence and begin to focus on our individuality - the things that divide and that define us from each other. We construct our false selves in a way that separates us from each other. That often leads us to division and violence. 

But there is this third way. The way where Jesus invites us to take up our cross and follow him. This third way is the way of Jesus. The way to which we have been called, just as the early disciples were called.

And, yet, in John 16, Jesus tells the disciples that, though he has much to tell them, they are not yet ready to bear it. But, he promises that the Spirit will guide them (and us) in the way of the cross and in the life of resurrection and rebirth. 

Because this is who God is. A Triune God. A threefold God. Three persons, one Godhead. The Trinity. A God who is dynamic and ever changing. Self-emptying. Loving. Ever expanding and inclusive. Creating and sustaining. Working to bring about the unity and harmony of all living things so that all creation might live in shalom. A God who is in relationship within God’s self, but, more importantly, a God who is in relationship with us. A God who can move into the darkest places of our collective trauma to reveal life to us, even when all we can see is death.

As we continue to move through Jeremiah and the Psalms, may begin to understand that this God was the God of the psalmists. This God was the God of Jeremiah and the people of Judah. This is our God, too. Ever creating and re-creating. Always bring us from death to life.

And for this, we say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

Preached May 30, 2021, at Grace & Glory Lutheran, Goshen, and Third Lutheran, Louisville, KY.
Trinity Sunday
Readings: Jeremiah 1:10-10; 7:1-11; Psalm 1

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