Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Sermon for A Troubled Country


(This sermon was preached at the North Anderson Community Church in Anderson, SC October 23. On the eve of our Presidential election this was my meditation.)

We get up and put the coffee on—put cold water on our faces maybe put on a bathrobe or enough to get the morning paper. Retrieve the paper—come back in the house —pour a cup of coffee and simultaneously open the paper and turn on the TV. Bad move. It all about the Presidential race. Who said that. Who did what to who. He said what? He called her a criminal and should be locked up. You want to turn it off and yet you are hooked. Who will win and who will lose?  The temperature is climbing here in October. And wonder where all this is going. My sister-in-law says, “We’re going out just in time.” Some days I think she is right. But back to the morning and the papers and the headache. There is so much about this election that doesn’t even seem like America. Some of you remember when everybody got into a huff when Truman said: “Damn.”

Looks like it is a time for us to resurrect that word which sounds kinda mild when you think of all the other stuff we hear in this election. And what is our task—yours and mine. Just to keep saying ain’t it awful—fussing with our kinfolk over the election. You’re gonna vote for who? Countries go through some terrible things. Look at Britain and Brixit and they are in a mess. Look at all those folk who have fled Syria with just what they could carry in their hands. Or Haiti and the absolute injustice of ripping through a country that is said to be the poorest country in the world. Yep—it’s a pretty hard time and you footnote it in just about every direction you turn.

But we Christians and Jews need to remember our history. I think it was the sixth century BC when Nebuchadnezzar marched into the Northern Kingdom of Israel and dragged the best and the brightest back to Babylon. Not once but three times this happened until he had about all there talented and all the able-bodied. Seventy years they lived in exile. Far from home. In a strange land. Worry about the ones left back home—Mamas and Daddies and Grandpas and the sick and the broken. It looked like the end of the world. They kept asking what some of us are asking: “How can you sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’ Walter Brueggemann tells us that the reason so many people are against gays has nothing to do with gays particularly. He says these people are seeing a whole different world than the one that used to be and they are taking it out on politicians and preachers and school boards and neighbors and just about everybody., There is so much anger. And folk now and singing, as they did then, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a place like this.” Gays getting married. Transgenders. ISIS and you and me worried about Social Security and Retirement and children and grandchildren. It’s a whole different world. And in some ways we are as much in exile as those folk back in the sixth century. 

photo by Justin Kern / flickr
Prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah came and many folk just spat on them or chased them out of town. But after seventy years King Cyrus, God bless him, came on the throne and told the Israelites they could go home. Some stayed—they had gotten used to Babylon. But most packed up their paltry belonging and stumbled back through the desert. When they got home they looked around at a country broken and in disarray. Government almost nonexistent. Land that used to be fertile filled with stones from all the buildings the Babylonians had destroyed before they left Israel. No economic system. No schools. Just a whole lot of loved ones who had died while they were away. Talk about a strange land. Looking around them nothing looked familiar. This is what we dreamed of coming home to, they said.

God bless them—but Isaiah and Jeremiah and some other prophets held their hands and propped them out and pointed not to what was not but what could be. The Prophets helped them find the way back. Not to 1940 or 1952 when everything was wonderful. No. But the prophets told them to lift up their eyes beyond the mess they were in. They pointed them up to the hills where their help always came from.

And so finally—we come to our theme. I have been moved over and over by the 136 Psalm.  Scholars tell us that the Psalm sung and spoke came out of that terrible time when they got back home and everything—every thing—needed work and attention and rebuilding. And one of the things that kept them going was this Psalm. They used it in worship over and over. 26 times the same phrase recurs. So old Psalmist rubbed their noses in it. Listen. He said. Listen. It is a Thanksgiving Psalm . And in case they missed the point 26 times he tells them why they should sing the Doxology. Praise God. Praise God. Praise God. 

It begins:”O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.” For his steadfast love is said over and over—26 times. Remember the setting. They had little but what they brought back from Babylon. Some of them had died coming home. And they looked out at a very bleak time. And some Psalmist said the strangest thing. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.

And that phrase: “His steadfast love” hooked me and I hope you too. He told them it ain’t over because the singing fat lady—but because of the steadfastness of God. This was the word God sent his troubled people. 

Two big themes: 1) The Lord is Creator; 2) The Lord is Guide and Champion of Israel from then until now.

They needed a lot of  reminders that they needed some holy, holy, holy in their lives. Fred Craddock, one of our best preachers, told that one day he went down to the hospital to see this woman who have surgery next day. And he said when he got there she had a stack of
photo by Manoj Jacob / flickr
magazines own her nightstand. People Magazine. Cosmo. . What Brad and Angelina were going to do. Talking about the Kardashians. And that weird couple with 26 kids that just split. One magazine talked about how she could lose  weight and look like the new Marilyn Monroe. There was a paperback or two. Love novels. Fifty Shades of Grey. Something just about as dreary. And Dr. Craddock said she was having serious surgery the next day—and she was reading all this stuff. And he said there was not a calorie in the whole stack. She needed some holy, holy, holy to get her through the night and the next day.

And Dancing With the Stars and The Voice and what Whoopie and Ellen are saying…not to speak of Mr.Trump and all those others. No calories. Folks—the Psalmist says that in a time of desperation we need some holy holy. We need to remember, over and over, His steadfast love endures forever. In the Psalm he'd reminds them that God started this thing. But he/she did not just sit down and let it go. God worked in his/her creation.(1-9) God delivered Israel from Egypt. (10-22) God led them through the wilderness on the way to a Promised Land. And the Psalm says: God remembered his people as they tried to settle in Canaan. (23-25) And he ended with a flourish. That steadfast love. God gives food to all flesh.(25)

He told them to go back to and discover how when they were hungry God provided a table in the wilderness. Do you think the Jebusites can stop that steadfast love? Or Mr. Trump. Or Hillary. Even if he is elected God is still God.They called it a touch of wonder. And this age of how much did it cost and how much is gasoline and if our kids will finally grow up and if Clemson will go all the way and if we can deal with these addictions—which we all have. Remember what God told Moses: “Take off your shoes the ground on which you stand is holy.” It has not changed folks. That steadfast love endures forever. Hang on to it and what happened to those after the exile when they had to rebuilt everything—can happen in our time too. To us.

Our fundamental response is to be thankful. Grateful to God. Oh, I know it is hard as nails some days. We read the paper and so many things in there break our hearts or scare us to death—but we Christians cannot let go of the fact that we live our lives in dependence not on ourselves but on Almighty God. 

photo by 4 WardEver Campaign  UK
Old Isaiah that helped them along put it this way. “For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord, who has compassion on you.”( Isaiah 54.10)

Maya Angelou who went through hell before she got on her feet. Sexually abused as a little girl. So traumatized she did not speak for two years. Pregnant at 16.  Worked as a cook, a sex worker, a nightclub dancer. And a black woman in a lily white world. She wrote in her first book a title we ought to hang on to. Now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. And may we discover in this strange time that the caged bird in our hearts and our time can sing and sing and sing. Why? Why? Because the God we serve is still good. 

Remember that last verse of our Psalm. The Lord promised to spread a table in their wilderness. He still does that. Maybe not the silver and the best china--but we find on that table enough. Enough for what we must be and do. The steadfast love of God.

photo by Sarah / flickr

--Roger Lovette / rogerlovette/

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