The Sunday Sermon: The Hope We Need

September 11, 2022
Penelope Bridges

Jeremiah has a word for us today. He describes a hot wind, a wind of destruction, a metaphor for the coming national disaster of conquest by the Babylonian Empire. He sees a reversal of creation: the earth waste and void, light extinguished, the comforting stability of the mountains shaken, creatures and crops wiped out. It is a terrifying vision of inevitable catastrophe, one brought on by the people themselves who have forgotten how to live as God’s beloved, who have gained knowledge without the essential corrective of wisdom.

How do these ancient words speak to us?  Let’s start with the hot winds of the past week drying out our already parched land, preceding the welcome rain and not so welcome floods of Hurricane Kay. As extreme weather becomes ever more common and the direst predictions of scientists are fulfilled, we are reaping the whirlwind of our abuse of earth’s resources.

Jeremiah could not have imagined the degree of destruction human beings would one day visit upon the earth in our craving for wealth, comfort, and power. The most horrifying, most cataclysmic event he could think of was if the divine story of Creation as told in Genesis were to be reversed, God’s word destroying rather than creating, the promise of life transformed to a death sentence. And yet, the words God puts in Jeremiah’s mouth stop short of total destruction, because God’s compassion and mercy will not allow God to undo this great and good work; in the midst of desolation God will allow hope to stay alive.

Jeremiah wrote at a time when his people were anticipating a national crisis. We have our own experience of such crises. 21 years ago this nation suffered an unanticipated terror attack, a tragedy in so many ways: for thousands who lost loved ones, but also a stunning shock for the American people as a whole, the attack shattering a national sense of invulnerability that had been our context for nearly two centuries.

Each of us has our own 9/11 story to tell, whether we were close to one of the sites as I was, serving a church 2 miles from the Pentagon, or here in the midst of military installations like many San Diegans, or even caught in midair when the order came to shut down all air traffic. You probably remember, as I do, the sense that nowhere was safe; that the world as we knew it had irrevocably changed; and you’ll remember the intense patriotism and the common longing to hear a word of comfort from the church. That hint of hope that Jeremiah voices was never needed more than in those dark days of 2001.

This weekend the people of the United Kingdom and the British Commonwealth are going through some similar feelings. The death of Queen Elizabeth of course was long anticipated, even planned for; as far back as when she first ascended to the throne the phrase “London Bridge has fallen” was shared among political and religious leadership as the trigger that would initiate a whole series of actions and ceremonies across the Commonwealth when she died. We all knew it would happen. But those of us who had never known another Queen clung to an unconscious conviction that she would go on for ever; that she would at least live longer than her mother had; that the woman who in a sense was everyone’s beloved Granny would always be there, a symbol of stability in a world of change. And now she is gone, and an incalculable treasure trove of love and goodwill has gone with her.

The UK was already in transition between governments and in some political turmoil, not unlike the turmoil we have experienced here in recent years; the accession of the King doesn’t directly affect that situation, but the transition is an emotional earthquake that has come at a time when the national life already felt unsteady. Given the increasing awareness of the terrible history of colonialism associated with British royalty, there is likely to be significant conversation about the wisdom of continuing with a hereditary monarchy. I wonder what word of hope Church of England preachers are drawing from today’s readings: there is certainly plenty to mourn.

As Christians of course, we turn to Jesus for the ultimate words of hope, and in Luke’s Gospel we will find what we seek. Mention chapter 15 of Luke to any Biblical scholar and they will immediately think of the Prodigal Son, whose story immediately follows these two short parables of the lost and found.  Jesus is speaking to the leaders of his community, who complain that by hanging out with all the wrong people Jesus is – what? – making them look bad? Honestly, when you think about it, you have to wonder why the scribes and Pharisees cared so much about who Jesus ate dinner with, when he wasn’t eating dinner with them. Jesus’ oblique response to their grumbling is to tell stories of the shepherd who doesn’t rest until he has brought home the lost sheep, of the woman who scours the house until she finds that silver coin. It’s not common, by the way, to find God portrayed as a woman, let alone a housewife, in the New Testament.

So, who are the lost in these stories? Are they the tax collectors and sinners? Or are they the Pharisees and scribes? Where do you place yourself in this story? Can you identify with the people who were disturbed by the company Jesus kept? Or do you see yourself as the lost sheep or coin? Are you one of the 99 sheep that were left alone in the wilderness while the shepherd went off to find the foolish wanderer? Or are you one of the friends and neighbors who joyfully accept the invitation to the party?

In the end, the party is really the point of all these stories. Rejoice with me, God says, for I have found the one who was lost. All are brought together to celebrate the repairing of the community, for when one is lost the whole body is incomplete and broken. In times of anxiety, of uncertainty and division, Jesus offers us these words of hope: that no matter how lost we feel, God will never give up on the effort to bring us home; that each individual, whether Pharisee or tax collector, is precious in God’s sight and an integral part of the body; and that in the last day, when the new Creation comes to its fruition and death is finally defeated, all shall be welcomed home to the heavenly banqueting table. Today, on Homecoming Sunday, we anticipate that happy ending as we welcome all to the spiritual banquet of Holy Communion. And we come together to celebrate the God who goes the extra mile for us, the faith community that is our spiritual home, and the blessing of being found, reunited, and loved. Welcome home.

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