The Same Yesterday And Today And Forever
Jeremiah 2:4-13;Psalm 81:1, 10-16; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16;Luke 14:1, 7-14
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
September 1, 2019 –Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
We live in a time of great change… big changes…fast changes. Now I am hearing that the artificial intelligence wave of innovations that is coming at us is going to change the way we live more than electricity changed my grandparents’ world.
How are we to maintain order in all this chaos? We have so much information swirling around us that a person is tempted to give up or give in.
It reminds me of a poem I was forced to read when I was a senior in high school.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre /The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.
Words I read over 50 years ago are still is as fresh as yesterday, especially that last couplet:
The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.
We can hear this same sense of cataclysmic change in our oracle from Jeremiah. An oracle is a word spoken by a mortal, but the word is the word of God.
We read last week that God called this young prophet and told him, “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you”….Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my his mouth and said to him, “I have put my words in your mouth.”
Today, we hear the words of the Lord to the afflicted people of Israel 2600 years ago. Things were falling apart for them, too. The centre of their culture could not hold. They found themselves in a vice grip between Assyrians to the North and Egyptians from the south.
Their king, Josiah, would institute religious reforms to purge the country of the influence of Baal, the deity the Assyrians had brought into the country. Worship to the one true God would only be permitted at Jerusalem, to keep priests in the hinterlands from straying from the orthodoxy of the day.
As they were clearing the Temple of the rubble that had been permitted to accumulate over decades, they found the Book of the Law. Indeed, worship had become so informal…they were so comfortable in their own wisdom…that they had lost the last copy of the Torah.
But Josiah was killed at Megiddo…a place also known as Armageddon… as the Egyptians moved through the area to push the last remnants of the Assyrians out. The reforming king was gone. The centre could not hold.
There would be a succession of ruling empires in the Holy Land after that. The Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans would all come in and impose their customs on the people who had been promised long, long ago that a descendant of David would always sit on the throne.
They sustained their hope as a nation by looking to the coming of the Promised One, one who was greater than Moses or Elijah or even David himself.
This same vision is cast up by the poet Mr. Radcliffe made us read in high school senior English. William Butler Yeats wrote at the end of the First World War, 50 years before I read his poem, and he had seen the flower of European manhood decimated, and he had seen kingdom upon kingdom fall…in Austro-Hungary, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Italy and Russia.
So Yeats continues his meditation on the course of history in his time:
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
A second coming of the reign of God, would bring the world back to some sense of order. But that is not the future Yeats could see in his day. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out /When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi /Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert /A shape with lion body and the head of a man, /A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, /Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it /Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
Yeats had seen a terrible mechanization of the art of war. May and June of 1915 produced a million casualties in two months. Another million until November. Another million the spring of 1918. Another million that summer and fall.
Machines were annihilating humanity and toppling not only kingdoms but civilization itself.
The darkness drops again; but now I know/That twenty centuries of stony sleep/Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,/Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Yeats is as dark as Jeremiah, but we need to note, too, that Jeremiah is every bit as dark as Yeats. He writes God’s words to us today, “my people…have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
Enter Jesus, our Lord and savior. He speaks into a wind of war that has become a whirlwind. He tells everyone to calm down. Take a deep breath. Forgive your enemies seventy times seven times. Take your seat at a great banquet at the lowest place, so that if you are wrong, the righting of that wrong will flatter your name among the guests.
In 1974, I was working in the Senate Democratic Cloakroom in Washington, D.C. and there was a big DNC fundraiser at the Shoreham I was asked to volunteer to staff. $500 a plate was all the money in the world in those days and that is what a plate cost that night.
Senator Mansfield came in and I asked him if I could help him find his place. No, I couldn’t. He walked over to an empty table at the center of the room and then he turned around and said, “Kelly. You sit here.” Right next to him. Then he saw one of his Montana office staffers, Holly Darlington and he said, “Holly. You sit right here.” On the other side of him. We didn’t know what to do, so we sat down.
Well, it didn’t take too long for a DNC staffer to see a couple of volunteers who were slackers. She zeroed in on me and pointed out that someone who had paid for the should sit there. She demanded to know why I had sat down next to the Majority Leader.
I pointed at Mansfield and said, “He told me to.” Mansfield sat like that sphinx in the desert Yeats had described, looking straight ahead, with kind of a stoic expression on his face. He had seen Yeats days. She looked at him, panicked, then got mad and stomped off.
Mansfield gave the funniest speech of the night, with irony and deadpan lines that everyone laughed at, but he never smiled or paused for them to finish laughing. I still can’t remember what they served for us to eat, but I know there was at least one roasted DNC staffer in the room.
Jesus doesn’t stop by telling us to take the lowliest place. He also told us who to invite to our dinners. Don’t invite the important people. This is as bad as assuming you belong at the head table.
You are only trying to show everyone how important you are… and you are not. A sense of importance is what starts wars and causes you to suffer a thousand times over for your vanity.
There is a common saying that we all nod and agree to without thinking about it too much. “Charity begins at home.” We think it means we should do our mission work here first, where we can see the need, before we send it off to Tibet and Angola and Bengaladesh.
But the problem with it is when charity begins at home it rarely leaves the house. We can be as needy as any DNC staffer if we put our minds to it. We can make better use of our money than anyone else. We can decide who is going to sit next to whom.
But Jesus says No! to this. When you give a dinner, invite people who cannot repay you, can do nothing to advance you in this world.
Otherwise you are not giving. You are bartering…haggling…making a deal with people so that your world …not theirs…will be better…so your life…not just theirs…will be happier.
The original meaning of “Charity begins at home” is that children must learn from their parents what it means to give sacrificially…if they are going to learn it at all.
Otherwise, when “Charity begins at home” it rarely leaves the house.
It was true in Jesus’ day and it is true today. He could see it, with his clear eyes and without any need to be flattered.
He could see that he was only here for a little while and there was much teaching and learning and healing and suffering and dying and overcoming to be done.
Hunger is the cause of war. Pride is the cause of war. Scorn is the cause of war. A sense of entitlement is the cause of war.
But generosity does not breed war, nor does kindness, or humility. Poor people don’t start wars. They die in them. By the millions…right next to the proud and scornful…and oh so many of the entitled people of their nation.
Jesus came to earth to die…to show us the way to a life of hope and joy and peace. Let us be grateful…so grateful that we seek only to become more like our Lord and savior…little Christs…Christians. And let us all teach our children the art of sincere charity while the season is ours…and not our executor’s…while we still have time to humble ourselves to God’s word…and do it.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day. Amen.