The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost—PR 24—Year C; Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; II Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8
What a few weeks this has been! What a rollercoaster ride for our nation, and with Busch Gardens Colonial Williamsburg as my witness, I just don’t do well with rollercoasters. The only thing that has felt more protracted and relentless than these last three weeks has been the last eight weeks we have had of the prophet Jeremiah. He has had us pinned to the mat and just has not let us up for air. Week after week, we have had to hear about how God was going to pluck up and break down, overthrow and destroy nations. And as the weeks dragged on, Jeremiah got louder and more despondent, and finally just flat out depressed. It all ended with God’s people living in exile, and maybe that’s how these last few weeks have felt to us, too. People have gotten loud, people have grown despondent, people have been depressed, feeling totally powerless to shift this crisis. Finally, we all landed in exile, in strange territories where no one could predict what the next day would bring and what the shock waves of decisions might be, what impact it might have for our nation and for the global economy, and like those exiles of old, it has been hard to sing the Lord’s song on this alien soil.
But today, today, Jeremiah finally lets us up for air. Today, God promises that just as God has presided over all this plucking up and breaking down and overthrowing and destroying, so too, God is going to watch over us as we build and plant. In former times, the parents ate sour grapes, but it wasn’t their teeth that were set on edge; it was the children’s teeth that were set on edge. Today, marks a turning point, now if you eat sour grapes, it’s your teeth and your teeth alone that will pay the price. The children are getting wiser. Somehow, the children are learning how not to get hooked by the sour grapes of their parents. God has brokered a new deal today; God is talking a new covenant. We broke the old one, but it’s a new day. This time, God is not going to work with stone tablets; this time, God is writing that law on our hearts. God promises, “I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” The old ways of knowing God—that way of knowing where it all had to be mediated through a teacher, or a leader, that old way of mediating God by virtue of the authority—that way is done. God says, “They shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” God is implanting God’s way within us, within our hearts. This is big folks! The authority, and the responsibility, now lives here, not out there, but here—we have everything we need to be God’s people in this world.
And II Timothy reminds us of a chief tool that we have at our disposal—the sacred writings that we listen to week by week. In his letter to Timothy, Paul reminds us that all scripture is inspired by God, not written by God, but inspired by God. It’s still human beings putting the ink to papyrus, so there is still a whole lot of room for error and projection, and not good stuff to creep in there, but, but, Paul also reminds us, the scriptures are useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
And Paul pushes us further: proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable: convince, rebuke, and encourage, with a ton of patience in teaching. Paul was good at reading the tea leaves, and he saw a time coming when people were going to have itching ears and would accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, a time when they would turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. Take a cruise around our culture, and we are there. We have retreated into our huddles of like-minded people, each drawing on our favorite authorities and teachers. We have lost the capacity to listen for and discern truth together. We each construct our myths of the world, and our myths of the other, and then live as if they were true. And beneath all of it, our sacred scriptures whisper to us, “This is what death and destruction look like, and this is what life looks like, choose life.” The scriptures critique us and correct us (gently, and sometimes not so gently). The scriptures can train us in the ways of righteousness and justice. The scriptures can equip us with a narrative that can counter the myths that are threatening to destroy us as a people and as a nation.
But the scriptures can only equip us to the extent that we will grant them authority to do so. I’m not talking about a blind obedience to scripture; I am talking about a straight Anglican/Episcopal way of engaging them in community with one another using our Godgiven reason with Jesus as our Master Teacher. And if you allow the scriptures to be the source of the narrative that shapes and guides your life, then I promise you, you won’t sit comfortably with anything that has gone on these last several weeks in our nation. You will start to see how everyone on all sides, including yourself, has itching ears. You will start to see how we all are in need of mercy; we all need that newly minted heart that God has promised in Jeremiah. So, let us take Paul’s counsel to heart and recommit to these sacred writings, these sacred scriptures who can help us see our own time and situation in a clearer light.
This is not a time to lose heart. Jesus tells us, “Pray always and don’t lose heart.” The story of the persistent widow, that widow that just won’t give up bothering that unjust judge, who bothers that judge so much that he finally gets worn down (parents, you know something about this), and gives in to her request, Jesus tells us this story as if to say, “You never know when the tables will turn. You never know when a heart might soften, you never know when a mind might change, you never know when a heart opens to hear what has thus far been refused. You never know, so pray always and don’t lose heart.”
And after the last month of praying for our nation in ways that I have never prayed before, I have become a believer. We prayed for a third way to emerge in Syria, and who knows if it was Pope Francis calling the world to pray, or little St. Luke’s in Boone, NC that tipped the balance, but here came Russia with a new peaceful possibility that averted another military action. Who knows how many prayers were uttered this week that worked their way into the hearts of Susan Collins of Maine, who was then joined by two other sister senators, who were then joined by eleven other brothers and sisters from both parties who then set the ball rolling toward a deal that moved us through this crisis. Who knows which specific prayer it was that helped Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell put down their swords and actually come together. You never know when a heart changes, and new possibilities are birthed, so pray always and don’t lose heart.
The Collect says something bold today, that amidst all of this really hard stuff, we also need to hear: “Almighty and everlasting God, in Christ you have revealed your glory among the nations.” It is easy to look at our nation right now and see all that is wrong, but let us not lose sight of the fact that our nation is also a place where God’s glory is revealed. In the myths we construct, and in the echo chambers of the media that fuel those myths on all sides, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that glory is everywhere, but we have to look for it. Those with itching ears on all sides don’t want us to see it. But we are the people of God, and we are a people of hope, and we are a people who are trained to see glory, and it is a sin to deny it when it shines through.
So, let me tell you a small story of where I saw God’s glory revealed in our nation’s capital last Sunday. Last weekend, we were in D.C. for Lara Shine’s wedding, which was glorious in its own right. Before driving home on Sunday morning, we went down to the National Mall. We knew the monuments were closed, but we thought we still might be able to see something. There were throngs of people there, and then we started to see flags, lots of yellow flags, with coiled rattlesnakes on them that said, “Don’t Tread on Me.” I hadn’t seen these before, and wasn’t quite sure what it meant. So, here’s your history lesson. This phrase and flag first surfaced when our country was fighting for its independence. Benjamin Franklin penned the first political cartoon ever in an American newspaper in 1754, during the French and Indian War, which showed a rattlesnake cut into eight sections representing the eight colonies at that time, and underneath the words, “Join, or Die.” In Franklin’s mind, we had the choice to band together or die apart—what prophetic words for us today—we will either band together as one people, or we will die apart. Christopher Gadsden designed the flag with the rattlesnake in 1775 during the American Revolution. It’s seen a resurgence today and tends to symbolize the courage and independence of the American individual and has been taken up by the Tea Party. So, there were lots of yellow flags with rattlesnakes on the National Mall.
There were some “Impeach Obama” signs, and, about then, I realized that we had stumbled into a major protest that had been scheduled for that morning—we heard Sarah Palin was on the Mall, as was Senator Ted Cruz. And then, right at the moment we were walking across the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, people started removing the barricades; some threw them down; it was a little spooky, and throngs of people stormed the steps to liberate the Lincoln Memorial, running with American flags and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. Being the rule follower that I am, I stayed at the bottom while Jim and Julia went up half-way. As we moved around the Mall, there were bands of people roaming removing barricades, and as they would pass on, dutiful Park Service Employees, there without pay, would put them back. We told the Park Service people how we ached for them, and we thanked them for their service. Eventually, we made our way over to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial—the barricades there were still intact. And I must confess to you, I broke the rules. Jim went over first; I waited, and then, I couldn’t stand it, I lifted Julia over, and followed suit myself—for the record, Julia was not at all sure about this, but I needed to hear Martin that morning. And so, it was just the three of us and this huge statue of Martin with his words surrounding us.
Quite honestly, the whole scene was surreal, but there was also glory, and here’s where I found it. When Jim and Julia came back down from the Lincoln Memorial, over to the left, I noticed an elderly veteran, in a wheelchair, probably in his late 80’s, maybe 90. He looked old enough to be a WWII vet. He was there with his four adult children, and they were snapping his picture with the Lincoln Memorial in the background. You had the sense that that was a pilgrimage for them. Julia waited patiently until they were done, and then she went over and in her quiet voice said, “Thank you for your service” and shook his hand. His children teared up. I teared up, like snifling, embarrassing, I-gotta-turn-away teared up. They snapped her picture with him. We snapped her picture with him. They told us his name was Eddie. I noticed he had an East Tennessee Veteran cap on, and I asked, “Where are you from?” They said, “East Tennessee.” I said, “Where?” They said, “Johnson City.” I said, “We’re from Boone!” And Eddie said, “I grew up in Newland!” Amidst all of the swirl that has engulfed our nation, amidst all of the swirl that engulfed the National Mall that morning, amidst all of that, there was a human connection between a little girl and an old man, born out of gratitude offered and gratitude received, and an acknowledgment that though it seems like we should be miles apart, we aren’t so far apart after all.
So, don’t lose heart. Even in the midst of national chaos, there is glory to be found, there is glory to be acknowledged, there is glory just waiting to be revealed, there is glory to be made manifest, if we will just open our hearts to one another. So, let us all put down our swords, rhetorical and otherwise; let us see where we can make communion with a stranger. Wherever we stand, let us find ways to share space with those at the other end of the spectrum, and let us stand in that space together long enough that our myths about each other can fall away, and we can see the glory in each other and in our nation and across the world.
Jeremiah has finally let us up for air; can we now extend that same grace to one another? Whatever transgressions have occurred, on either side, can we live into the vow that God makes this morning—can we forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more? Can we be about the building and the planting? Can we name glory and celebrate glory and reflect glory and share glory? It has been a long hard fall, in the nation, and in Jeremiah—it’s okay to take a deep, long breath in and give thanks for the glory that has broken through. Just for today, drink it in. Let it permeate your being, and then shine it wherever you can. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 20, 2013