Saturday, September 21, 2013

“Do You Hear That?” - September 22, 2013

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Every year I fill out forms for the District Superintendent, my boss, where I’m asked how many new members the church has welcomed in the past year and how many of those people have joined on “Profession of Faith”.  In other words, how many people have decided (because of what we do and say around here) to realign their lives with Jesus’ way of living?  Do you have any idea what it means to take that question seriously? 

Yet what does it mean not to ask that question?

Listen, if you will, to the lives of people who want nothing to do with God.  Now, I admit that I really enjoy the Beatles’ music and consider John Lennon to have been a genius, especially when he was working with Paul McCartney.  They wrote a song about life without God that everybody here over thirty would recognize – and the music is great, but the words are deceptive.

“Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You, you may say 
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You, you may say 
I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one
I hope some day you'll join us
And the world will live as one.”

The fact is that there have been places in the world where people have attempted to live as if God could be replaced by a vague loyalty to humankind.  It has always ended horribly.  The Russian Revolution started out with that ideal in 1917 and by the 1930s Josef Stalin was in charge and implementing policies that would kill, by conservative estimate, between twenty and sixty million people.[1]  Mao-tse-tong’s rule in China, giving lip service to the same ideas, led to around fifty to eighty million deaths.[2]

            Do away with God and what you are left with is a culture of death, where life is not valued because people are a means to an end and therefore expendable.  Jeremiah gives voice to a well-founded apprehension among the people. 

Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” [Jeremiah 8:19]

What happens when God is not a valued presence in people’s lives is not necessarily the wholesale horror of the Communist paradise, but it does lead to a hollowness that can take over a society like ours in other ways.

            When God is not a valued presence in people’s lives, they try to manufacture other heroes, little godlings, to fill his place.  What we have been coming up with recently has been the central characters of reality shows: the Kardashians and the “Real Housewives”, Honey Boo-Boo and her family.  Jeremiah spoke God’s word to his people:
“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”[Jeremiah 8:19]
We don’t set up our statues, but we do plaster images all over T-shirts and web sites.  We put stars into the sidewalk in Hollywood.   Those images are, for so many people, falsely powerful.  They tell people how to behave and what to reach for.

            A couple of weeks ago there was a lot of buzz about Miley Cyrus’s performance at the Video Music Awards.  No argument that it was way out of line.  It’s possible to criticize her for the show she gave, and while we’re at it to remember Robin Thicke’s role in the display.  Beyond that, though, why don’t we also ask about why there’s a market for such pageantry?  Entertainers, after all, give the audience what they have reason to believe it wants.  So is this what we want?  Is this what our society teaches its teenagers that they should aspire to become?
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” [Jeremiah 8:21]
            What it takes to heal a society that faces this situation is to present an alternative.  There are ways of life that are not all razzle-dazzle and flash, that in the long run are more satisfying and richer.  There is a God who is real, who does not lead his followers into the frantic posturing that shows up on TV in the guise of “real life”, but instead leads to the quiet, steady life of integrity that creates people of true character, not characters.

            The people who can offer that healing are the people who know that God in their own lives and who understand that it isn’t only the religious equivalent of the rock star who is responsible for faith-sharing, the Joyce Meyerses and the Joel Osteens and the Billy Grahams and the Rick Warrenses and the Adam Hamiltons.  It’s also the people who don’t feel a particular gift for eloquence and who get the words wrong.  It’s even for people with hippomonstrosesquippedaliophobia (that’s the fear of long words).  Faith-sharing is for anyone who just happens to be listening to someone who is questioning what they see around them. 

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” [Jeremiah 8:22]
The old spiritual answers that:

“There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole,
There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sinsick soul:
If you can’t pray like Peter, if you can’t preach like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus and say he died for all.”

Maybe then “the health of my poor people” [Jeremiah 8:22] will be restored.

[1] Palash Ghosh, “How Many People Did Joseph Stalin Kill?”, International Business Times, March 5, 2013.

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