Sermon for Proper 25B Jermiah 31:7-9, and Mark 10:46-52
Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church, Birmingham, AL
This has been a heartbreaking week—bombs in the mail and guns in the synagogue. I will address these tragic issues in a moment, but first I would like to offer some background on prophetic literature and the prophet Jeremiah. They and our Gospel can point a way forward to us in this gut-wrenching time.
Prophets are not future-oriented as one might think, they are “oriented toward the present.” They may point the ramifications in the future based upon today’s behavior, but they are grounded in the now.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel writes,“To be a prophet is to be in fellowship with the feelings of God, to experience communion with the divine consciousness. The prophet hears God’s voice and looks at the world from God’s perspective.”
It is as if the divine word is channeled through a human messenger. The prophet’s language and way of being are designed to shock rather than edify. Think John the Baptist in his hairy coat eating grasshoppers. Their language is shocking because they know the people need “waking up.”
It is as if the divine word is channeled through a human messenger. They are isolated because they say things people don’t want to hear. Yet they are so overwhelmed by the “grandeur of divine presence” they cannot keep silent. (Heschel)
I want to make a distinction between a prophet and an evangelist. An evangelist, like Saint Luke, or Saint Paul, goes out to new communities to spread the Good News. A prophet speaks to community from within the community.
You have probably already begun to think of modern-day prophets like Ghandi or Martin Luther King,Jr. There is a young man in Philadelphia named Shane Claiborne, I hope you’ll check him out. He wears dreadlocks and lives in a type of contemporary monastic community. Shane has been jailed for advocating for the homeless and flown to Iraq and Afghanistan to protest those wars. I mention Shane so you are aware that prophets lived not only in the past, but also are alive today.
The prophet Jeremiah lived in the 7th century BCE. He is called the weeping prophet for a few reasons. The Book of Lamentations is attributed to him—and that is like one big weep. Also in the book of Jeremiah he is reported to have wept a “fountain of tears.” (9:1).
Jeremiah wept because of the Israelite people’s sins. He lamented their false worship, and their mistreatment of the poor, among other things. Jeremiah called the people to repent. “Return faithless Israel says the Lord. I will not look you in anger, for I am merciful, says the Lord.” (3:12)
In portions of Jeremiah, he is speaking to a people in Exile—away from their homes, living in Babylon, away from their temple, away from family.
We know exile too. In our personal lives when our relationships are fractured, or our health is failing, or finances are low, or children are making dreadful choices. We too are knocked off-center and feel far from “home.”
We know communal exile as well. When we are apathetic toward those living in poverty, disconnected from one another because we are over-connected to technology, and surrounded by enmity of speech.
We are living in a uniquely horrific time in the history of our country, where bombs are mailed to political opponents and bullets fly in places of worship.
This is not who we are at our core. These actions do not accurately reflect who we are as Christians, who we are as Americans. I know you. I know you to be kind and generous and loving. I know none of you desire for anyone to be persecuted or terrorized because of how they look, or where they worship, or who they love.
Yet we cannot deny that there is a movement in our country in a deeply troubling direction. According to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-semitic incidents in the United States have surged 57% from 2016 to 2017. This is the largest rise in a single year since they began tracking such crimes in1979. Other hate crimes are on the rise as well.
I know you lament with me for all of those who are terrorized and persecuted simply for who they are.
Yet, we can feel paralyzed, numb. We wonder how we can possibly make a difference.
Despite the depth of enmity in our world at this time, we are not to despair. What can we do?
We can look to the Gospel. We can follow Jesus.
In Mark’s Gospel we learn that blind Bartimeus is by the roadside crying for help. The crowd sternly rebukes him, telling him to be quiet.
But Jesus hears him and asks for Bartimeus to be called to him. Notice how the crowd changed their stance when they heard Jesus call for Bartimeus? They went from “shushing” to encouraging, “Take heart; get up. He is calling to you.” (49)
Not only did Jesus heal Bartimeus’ blindness, he healed the crowd’s deafness.
What can we do? We can pray for the healing from our blindness and deafness. We can pray to have the eyes to see and the ears to hear the cries of those who are persecuted.
We can pray for mercy and forgiveness for those times we have been blind and deaf. We can pray for the courage to advocate for those who are persecuted for who they are.
It is not okay to demonize another person—especially in the context of our time, when rhetorical and literal bombs are being thrown and guns are toted in temples. When we demean any class of people be it by socio-economic status or race or gender or political affiliation we make them less than human.
All people are made in the image and likeness of God.
What can we do? We can be mindful of our thoughts, speech and actions. Words are powerful. How are we using our words? Do they bear the seeds of hate or love? If we are to follow Jesus, we are to sow seeds of love.
We are in a time when we need to return to God and cry out like Bartimeus, “Jesus, have mercy on me.” In a little while we will say the confession as we do every Sunday. I encourage us to pay attention to when we have sown seeds of hate. Also, to be mindful of our communal sin of complicity through silence. Jesus, have mercy on us.
After confession we are to live as the forgiven people that we are. We will pray our prayer and give thanks for God’s forgiveness and mercy and live anew.
We are a people of hope-steeped in the resurrection of Jesus and in the tradition of our Jewish relatives. The Book of Jeremiah contains oracles of hope. “You will be my people and I will be your God.
Again, you will take up your tambourines.
Again, you will plant your vineyards.
Yes, they will return home restored, but with the wisdom borne from loss. For the Israelite people the physical loss from home. For us, the loss of our shared humanity and decency. We will return home, but we will bear the bruises of this bitter time of enmity.
I want us to pay attention to the fact that Jeremiah’s oracle of hope painted a picture of restoration which included the weak, the blind, the lame, and pregnant women being carried home.
Our restoration is tied to our willingness to listen to the cries of the Bartimeus’ of the world and to respond.
As inheritors of the Jewish tradition and followers of Jesus we are compelled to listen to the cries of our modern-day Bartimeuses—those who are easily cast aside.
We are a people of hope. So are our Jewish Brethren. This morning when I woke up at 4:30 to amend my sermon to account for the tragedy at The Tree of Life Synagogue, I sent an email to a friend who is cantor in the Jewish tradition. I told him our hearts break with him. I told him I wondered how we at Saint Luke’s could help. He forwarded me a prayer written last night by a Rabbi for the Tree of a Life Community. In the email string he forwarded to me, I noticed salutations of hope from one bereaved rabbi to another, “May we speak again in better times.”
I would like to close with us praying this prayer.
A Prayer for the Dead of Tree of Life Congregation
by Rabbi Naomi Levy
We are devastated, God,
Our hearts are breaking
In this time of shock and mourning.
The loss is overwhelming.
Send comfort and strength, God,
To grieving family members.
Send healing to the injured,
Send strength and wisdom to their doctors and nurses.
Bless the courageous police officers who risked their lives
To protect innocent lives.
Shield us from despair, God,
Ease our pain.
Let our fears give way to hope.
Lead us to join together as a nation
To put an end to anti-Semitism,
An end to hatred,
An end to gun violence.
Teach us, God, to honor the souls we have lost
By raising our hands and voices together
In the cause of peace.
Because Torah is a Tree of Life
And all its paths are peaceful.
Work through us, God.
Turn our helplessness into action.
Teach us to believe that we can rise up from this tragedy
And banish the hate that is tearing our world apart.
We must never be indifferent to the plight of any who suffer.
We must learn to care,
To open our hearts and open our hands.
Innocent blood is calling out to us.
God of the brokenhearted,
God of the living, God of the dead,
Gather the souls of the victims
Into Your eternal shelter.
Let them find peace in Your presence, God.
Their lives have ended
But their lights can never be extinguished.
May they shine on us always
And illuminate our way.
Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 1962),
Inspired by Tito Madruza’s commentary in Christian Century blog, “Sunday’s Coming.” https://www.christiancentury.org/blog-post/sundays-coming/sight-blind-hearing-unlistening-mark-1046-52