God’s wrath and our deliverance

preaching a sermon, based on Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28 and Luke 15.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

the-prophet-jeremiah-lamenting-the-coming-destruction-rembrandt-1606-1669

It would be easy for the sake of spiritual security and emotional sanity to ignore Jeremiah’s prophesy of destruction, dismissing it as an ancient word, which it is, directed at the people Judah, thus not…never at us. Yet it has an ageless quality. There is much we in our time can glean from these terrifying words that remarkably parallel a better known story in the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,”[1] calling into being light, firmament, sea and earth, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, creatures of all kinds and humankind[2] “and God saw that” everything “was good.”[3]

Sadly, according to Jeremiah, God “looked on the earth” seeing only “waste and void, and to the heavens, and they had no light,” no sun, moon, or stars. Because of the malfeasance of humans who “do not know” God, “have no understanding…skilled in doing evil, not knowing how to do good,” squandering the stewardship of dominion God granted at creation,[4] God’s handiwork has reverted, regressed to the primeval state with which God began when “the earth was a formless void.” Therefore, that same “wind from God,” in the Hebrew, ruach, breath or spirit, that created all things now blows “hot…from the bare heights in the desert towards my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse (but to judge) against them.”

Jeremiah prophesies nothing less than the destruction, the deconstruction, the de-creation of the cosmos by a God of wrath. But suppose we think of God’s wrath not as an emotion, a divine feeling of fury, God being upset with us and desiring to do us harm (though, yes, the English text speaks of God’s “fierce anger”[5]). Rather as the sun rises, giving light, then sets and darkness falls, so God’s wrath is a metaphor for an inherent (that is, written into the code of the universe) cosmic reactivity to a creation gone bad. In that light or perhaps shadow, let us read Jeremiah’s prophecy as less about what God does and more about what we over time have done.

I think of climate change. Despite the deniers who believe talk of climate change comes from the chirping lips of Chicken Little pseudo-scientific pessimists who think the sky is falling, I believe it’s real, too real to ignore and that humans, with our ages-old obsession with fossil fuels, are principal culprits. We have upset our Mother Earth and she is reacting. The symptoms of her distress? Rising temperatures and sea levels, mounting winds and waves, scorched earth, the erosion of seacoasts, and evaporating water resources, all affecting arable lands and agricultural production, and human habitation. All making terribly real that petition in The Great Litany: From lightning and tempest, from earthquake, fire, and flood, from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord, deliver us![6]

In addition to climatic forces, I think of destruction wrought by human hands. Today, we commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001, when terrorists at the controls of hijacked airliners brought down New York’s World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field killing nearly 3,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 others, causing billions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure. Since that day of this generation’s mega-event, akin to Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Watergate, we have witnessed the horrifying rise of incidents of terror and hate crimes. Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun about human cruelty in whatever name, for whatever cause.

We might react to all that befalls our world and us with immobilizing dismay and active fear, save for our faith, our trust and confidence in God. Jesus, in response to the religious authorities grumbling that he “welcomes sinners,” tells parables of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep, seeking, finding the lost one…

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and a woman searching her home for one lost coin.

the-lost-drachma-la-drachme-perdue-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Immediately following these stories, Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons”; the Parable of the Prodigal Son making clear the point that God always is in the redemption-business. God always seeks the lost. God always is never done with us. Surely, one faithful response to God’s unconditional, unconquerable love…one faithful response to God Who is love is our repentance, turning away from our abuse of our world, turning away from our abuse of others and ourselves.

In 1989, September 1 was proclaimed by the Orthodox Church as the World Day of Prayer for the Creation. Now, September 1 through October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, is observed ecumenically and globally as the Season of Creation. Again, today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. In the spirit of these commemorations, one aspect of divine deliverance is our contemplation and taking action, communally and individually regarding our daily behaviors in relation to our struggling planet and one another. What can you and I do to make the world a safer, saner, sounder place?

 

Illustrations: The Prophet Jeremiah (lamenting the coming destruction), Rembrandt (1606-1669); The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum; The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 1.1, 2

[2] Genesis 1.3, 6-7, 9-10, 11-12, 14-16, 20-25, 26-27

[3] Genesis 1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31

[4] Genesis 1.26

[5] Jeremiah 4.26

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, page 148

a 14th anniversary reflection

Today, 9/11, many are the official commemorations and personal observances.

I value the purpose, the power of remembrance to draw us together in solidarity. And therein, I think, is an inherent problem with remembrance. In the renewal of our unity, particularly in response to tragedy, we may be tempted to overlook an essential historical and ethical question: What have we learned? After 14 years, I pray something about forgiveness.

Forgiving. Not forgetting. For who can erase the memory of a grievous wrong? Rather, forgiving as commemoration’s higher art – seeing clearly the wrong and, in enlightened self-interest (knowing the corrosive power of resentment), choosing to forsake the natural human desire for vengeance and the generational nurturance of prejudice.

Remembering the offense and our anguish clarifies for me the necessity of forgiveness and makes forgiveness, when offered, no feeble sentimentality, but a bold deed of mercy toward others and a true act of kindness to ourselves.

Still, forgiveness is easy to say, harder to do, and, at times, impossible. But today, I pray, not unthinkable. For our soul’s health as individuals, a nation, a world is at stake.

Today, as my personal existential and spiritual work, I contemplate repenting and forgiving my excesses. At one extreme, my human susceptibility to the blinding fear and burning anger that demonizes “the other.” At another extreme, the flaccid romanticism that idealizes a universal humanity, encouraging me to ignore the undeniable cultural, ethnic and racial, and religious differences that divide us.

In repenting and forgiving myself, I, with wide-eyed honesty, recognize anew that ours is a dangerous world and I, with a revived heart of hope, will continue to strive to understand “the other” – always seeking to be alert to every opportunity, with open eyes and an open heart, to unfold my arms and unclench my fists and open my hands to all.

a 13th anniversary reflection

I remember. Nearly 9.00 o’clock on that Tuesday morning 13 years ago. I lay in bed half awake contemplating the coming day; my musings interrupted by a WTOP (Washington, DC) radio news flash that an airplane had smashed into one of the World Trade Center towers.

I remember. A bit after nine, in shock listening to the report of a second plane crash.

I remember. Swiftly showering and dressing, then barreling down the stairs and through the door.

I remember driving to Capitol Hill, continuing to listen, hearing that a third plane had flown into the Pentagon. (Hours later we would learn, a fourth had crashed in a Pennsylvania field.) As I got closer, I beheld droves of people flooding the streets, walking, running away from the once seemingly secure marble buildings of government.

I remember a parishioner, a government worker, on her way home, stopping by the church office, asking: “Paul, what does it mean?” Desperately wanting to share a word of comfort, I mustered only a murmured, “I…don’t…know.”

I remember standing on the church office stoop looking out at an empty Pennsylvania Avenue. At a distance, two people walked down the street. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, yet, through the eerie sepulchral quiet, I could hear them.

I remember sending an email to my St. Mark’s community, beginning: There are no words to capture our shock and sadness, fear and anger, helplessness and, perhaps hopelessness…

And ending: In the midst of much we cannot understand, may we do what we can, praying for those who have died, those who have suffered grievous injury, their families and friends, and those who care for the suffering and the dying, and hold in our hearts those we love, remembering that we always only have today.

Today, September 11, 2014, we remember thirteen years ago. Perhaps where we were, what we did, what we said. 9/11 remains this generation’s mega-event indelibly branded on the psychic flesh of human consciousness (like December 7, 1941, in FDR’s famous phrase, the “date which will live in infamy” when Japanese war planes bombed Pearl Harbor or the November 22, 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy or the April 4, 1968 murder of Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Today, as a part of my morning meditation, I reflected on the final words of the mission statement of New York’s Ground Zero memorial, Reflecting Absence: “May the lives remembered, the deeds recognized, and the spirit reawakened be eternal beacons, which reaffirm respect for life, strengthen our resolve to preserve freedom, and inspire an end to hatred, ignorance, and intolerance.”

Today, in a world still rife, at times, it seems, more greatly enraged with hatred, ignorance, and intolerance, these words enthuse my soul that I, in my time and space, can and will do all I can, when I can, and where I can to do, to be love and justice unconditional for all.