Sunday, November 23, 2008

Turning Mourning Into Joy

Turning Mourning Into Joy

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
November 23, 2008

Jeremiah 31:7-14 — Ephesians 1:15-23

Several years ago I opened a news magazine and read a brief article about a game that had been taken up by young militant fighters in the Middle East. The article made such a strong impression on me, I have remembered it for years, though the particulars of the situation these young men were facing has been long forgotten in the ongoing maze of Middle East politics. When we hear about such situations, we often focus our attention on the major players in the endless and deadly conflict there, the presidents and prime ministers and mullahs; but we don’t hear much about the lives of the ordinary young men, mostly teenagers and men in their early twenties, who populate the ranks of the various militia movements, or any of the other little splinter groups who constantly angle for leverage and power there. It is a baffling situation to most of us, to the degree that we generally just shake our heads and wonder what, if anything, can ever be done to satisfy all the competing interests. Of course, folks who live in such places do not have the luxury of shaking their heads and moving on to some other subject. The inherent difficulties of their competing loyalties and fierce differences within small population groups confront them every day.

What must life be like for these boys, so soon made into hardened men, or often dead men, by the maze of conflicts in their land? What I read those years ago was about a game that was being played by young militia members. It was an old game, really, one most folks know by the name Russian roulette. It received its name, of course, because it was first played by young officers of the Tzar in Russia before the 1917 revolution. Supposedly, the purpose of the game was to test courage. One live round of ammunition was loaded into a pistol, the other five cylinders left empty. The magazine was spun, closed, and the barrel of the weapon pointed to one’s head. The trigger is pulled. You know how it goes. It is a deeply nihilistic exercise which emerges in situations of abject hopelessness. There is a 5 to 1 chance that the weapon won’t fire, and the soldier’s life will be spared. The Russian soldiers even made wagers on the deadly game. It was a game that was even taken up in my generation by some soldiers in Viet Nam.

For the Russians it was called a test of courage. For American soldiers in Viet Nam, it was thought of as either an act of daring, or a macho display of fearlessness. But the boys who took it up in the Middle East said that for them, the reason was different. No wagers were laid, no boasting declarations followed an empty click of the hammer. They said, for them, it was simply an act of despair. Why not end your life, they wondered. Might as well be now as later. One young man spoke sadly of his desire to be married, to have a family, a career. But how? He could not afford to leave, to go to the university, to do anything but fight for pay within the ranks of a private militia, where he would probably die anyway. I wonder where that young man is today, if he is even alive, if he has found any reason for hope. They lived in a land that is claimed by so many competing interests, their chances for anything approaching what we would call a normal life were so slim, they saw no hope on the horizon. They turned instead to deep cynicism.

I say all this because of my reflections this week on our reading from Jeremiah.

The prophecy of Jeremiah in the 31st chapter was not addressed to a people living in the gentle lap of peace. It was not addressed to people who had everything to live for. It’s probably not going too far to say that it wasn’t really written for the likes of us. More likely, it was addressed to people who for all the world were much more like those despairing teenage soldiers in the Middle East. We are invited to look over their shoulders at the prophet’s words and anticipate something of their reaction.

The theme Jeremiah drove home is that God would entirely provide for his people. It is a flat declaration with no subjunctive clauses, nothing held back. A declaration that hope is possible, even present already, for those who place their faith totally in God’s providence. Remember, this was proclaimed to a people who had been carted off, body and soul, into exile, who had been tortured, killed, sold into slavery, and who were probably told to take a good look at their country when they left, because they would never be seeing it again. With that in mind, just consider the radical kind of thing that God declared through his prophet:

Who did he describe returning to the land from which they had been exiled?
  • Triumphant warriors, fresh from victories on the battlefield?
  • Legions of rich nobility who were able to buy their freedom?
Perhaps. But the only returnees that Jeremiah goes out of his way to mention specifically are not exactly the triumphant heroes that are the stuff of New York ticker tape parades. Instead, they are:

  • The sightless; those whose eyes were no longer of any use to them.
  • The disabled; in our own age, we are familiar with the wheelchair legacy of Viet Nam and current wars in the Middle East.
  • Pregnant women, even women already in labor; describing a woman, any woman, at her weakest, most vulnerable moment.

That’s it. Those are the the words Jeremiah uses for the triumphant returnees to the promised land. The weakest of the weak. What a crowd! We might expect a word of hope to be addressed to people who are in the driver’s seat of their lives, but God’s choice is a word of hope addressed to those who, without him, would be without hope. Hope for the hopeless!

How are these exiled people to return? What mood shall mark their triumphant return home?
  • With shouts of victory over vanquished enemies and slaughtered kings?
  • With triumph in their eyes and vengeance in their hearts?
No. Jeremiah said, “With weeping they shall come.” Weeping. Hardly the reaction of a people of triumph. More likely the reaction of a people so totally devoid of hope that to have received hope at last reduces them to tears.

Finally, and perhaps most telling, why are these exiled people to return?
  • Because of lives of virtue? Because they paid for their sin and are now off the hook?
No. The prophet reports that it is because God says, “I have become a father to Israel.”

Hope, apparently, rests not in triumphant armies on the march, not in dress-for-success career climbers, not in the power of the powerful, the wealth of the wealthy, the authority of the authoritarian. Hope rests entirely in God’s good wishes for us, and in absolutely nothing else. Often, only those who have absolutely nothing else are in the best seats in the house for seeing that this is so.

Think, then, of Paul’s prayer in Ephesians. This is the Sunday the common lectionary refers to as “Christ the King Sunday.” It always arrives several weeks before Christmas, just before the first Sunday of Advent. Recall that in Paul’s words today we are assured that Christ’s birth was no accident, and neither is his reign as King of kings, Lord of lords, Very God of very god. We are blessed by this king in that the source of our hope rests outside the scope of our own efforts. God has acted on our behalf, the load is off our backs, all we need to do is respond. Even the hopeless may have hope in this outpouring of good news.

I remember a tour I once took into Turkey, the now-Muslim land where once the apostles blazed trails establishing new churches on their way across the empire toward Rome. You can make you way inland there along the crooked Menderes River, the origin of our word “meander,” traveling from ancient Ephesus on the Aegean Sea – an ancient city now a ruin – all the way to Laodicea and Colossae, also ancient cities in ruin lying mostly un-excavated under mounds of earth and debris. If you look hard enough in this land you can also spot the remains of once grand old churches, built by the Byzantine Christians, and even in their ruined state, one can sometimes tell that they must have once been great indeed. There is not much left of most of them in this modern Muslim nation. Most were pillaged centuries ago, their frescoes ruined, stone taken for foundations of local homes and buildings. Sometimes you can run across an occasional old ruined church in an out-of-the-way place with a half a fresco remaining on a wall. A pastor I know1 said she saw a fresco there with a half a face of Christ remaining, and one arm, raised in blessing, Christ, still offering blessing to a church in ruins.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul claims a crown for Christ in what was then a pre-Christian land, Christ as ruler of all creation in a land that in his time was as foreign a territory to the church as that very land is again today. Somehow, in the midst of a place where the presence of Christ would be anything but apparent to most observers, Paul nonetheless sees Christ in it, and not only in it, but crowned as its King, offering a blessing to his church in the midst of a people who know him not. We may think our times are hard enough and that our church perhaps falls a bit short of the vision Paul paints in the first chapter of Ephesians, where God has placed all things at the feet of Christ and made him head of all things for the church that bears his name. Paul’s words are nothing short of dazzling to the eyes of modern Christians in churches where we can get more excited about the style of music we prefer in church or the clothes that ought to be worn, and we know on any given Sunday, many, many people walk or drive right by church doors, never bothering to look in. So where does Paul’s startling confidence about Christ, his King, come from?

Well, Paul prays, in the 15th-18th verses for two things. They are prayers worthy of every Christian, and especially any among us who exercise any kind of leadership amid this community of God’s people where Christ reigns as King.

The first thing Paul prays for is a spirit of discernment. Now that’s a churchy word, isn’t it? But it means nothing fancier than Paul’s prayer that we might be guided by the will of God. To be guided by it, we have to know what it is. That is the first part of Paul’s prayer for us. That we might know the will of God and then fearlessly do it. Presbyterians have always believed that God’s will is most easily discerned in the midst of the community of the faithful. When we are off by ourselves, puzzling over difficult aspects of our faith or of scripture, we are more likely to choose a path that is in error. When we are surrounded by brothers and sisters who are struggling with the same problems, we are more open to the work of the Holy Spirit, to the discovery of God’s will for us at this time and place. Paul prays that we may be together in our search for God’s will.

The second thing Paul prays for is the enlightenment of hope. The most comforting thing we can say to anyone, whether it is a despairing youngster on the battlefields of the Middle East, or a disabled veteran, or a backyard neighbor who can no longer see any reason for getting out to the grocery store, is that there is a source of hope beyond what our limited eyes can see. No matter how hard we try in church, we will always mess some things up; but, other things, sometimes inexplicably, will persist in turning out right. This is because, thanks be to God, we are not ultimately in charge. With our “hearts enlightened,” as Paul puts it, we see that hope is not just an arm chair comfort, but, as described by Paul, it is a calling which can thrust us into the future in confidence that Christ’s church will remain his.

I pray for all of us, that we may be enlightened by the hope we share in Christ our King, as we seek to do God’s will and work in the world.

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Barbara Brown Taylor, in a “The Great Preachers” sermon on Ephesians 1:15-23.