Heartbreak That Leads to Hope
A sermon related to Jeremiah 8:18-22 and 31:2-6, and to Prophetic Imagination
The Prophetic journey through grief to hope.
I drown in grief.
Oh, listen! Please listen! It’s the cry of my dear people
reverberating through the country.
Is God no longer in Zion?
Has the Sovereign gone away?
Can you tell me why they flaunt their plaything-gods,
their silly, imported no-gods before me?
The crops are in, the summer is over,
but for us nothing’s changed.
We’re still waiting to be rescued.
For my dear broken people, I’m heartbroken.
I weep, seized by grief.
Are there no healing ointments in Gilead?
Isn’t there a doctor in the house?
So why can’t something be done
to heal and save my dear, dear people?
Jer 31:2 - 6
This is the way God put it:
“They found grace out in the desert,
these people who survived the killing.
Israel, out looking for a place to rest,
met God out looking for them!”
God told them, “I’ve never quit loving you and never will.
Expect love, love, and more love!
And so now I’ll start over with you and build you up again,
dear young and innocent Israel.
You’ll resume your singing,
grabbing tambourines and joining the dance.
You’ll go back to your old work of planting vineyards
on the Samaritan hillsides,
And sit back and enjoy the fruit--
oh, how you’ll enjoy those harvests!
The time’s coming when watchmen will call out
from the hilltops of Ephraim:
‘On your feet! Let’s go to Zion,
go to meet our God!’”
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the word of God among us
For the word of God with in us
Thanks be to God
What is breaking your heart right now?
What is breaking your heart right now?
Or if that doesn’t resonate for you today:
What has really broken your heart in your life in the past?
What is breaking your heart is a question we use in the Inner King Training that I sometimes take time away from church to lead (like this past May). It turns out this a potent question in helping people experience unconditional love and blessing in their lives. That includes being a portal for people of Christian faith, especially a people professing the social Gospel, the prophetic Gospel, a Gospel that might change lives and our collective life as humanity.
If you have been able to keep feeling during these times of pandemic, of rising inequality, of authoritarian vitriol and violence, and of the earth’s struggle to bear the burdens we humans put on her, you likely have experienced heartbreak. If you are part of a historically marginalized group, you have known it most, if not all, of your life. There are so many opportunities for heartbreak in this life.
We just heard the prophetic voice speak of heartbreak.
In the first part of the Scripture reading we just heard, Chapter 8 of Jeremiah, the prophet channels the voice of God, broken-hearted for the 6th century BCE siege of Jerusalem that led to the downfall of the southern realm of Judah and the exile of many into Babylon. The Divine pleads like a parent over the bed of her dying child, heartbroken that there is no balm in Gilead, no physician to stem the suffering and death. Jeremiah speaks of drowning in grief and wondering if God has simply left their land. Jeremiah is expressing heartbreak, plain and simple, as he sees destruction coming for the people.
The prophet who is sees with the lens of the Divine, feels with the heart of the Divine, encounters the reality of the day with the sense of the Divine. And, so often, what is seen and felt and sensed is the reality of the empire system of Pharaoh or Caesar or Putin or Mao or Trump or whichever representative of the domination system is current. For those who are in touch with the love and justice of God, with the Good News of Jesus, or with the loving and liberated state named in another faith tradition, this encounter with the system of empire is painful and truly heartbreaking. Instead of grace there is harsh judgment, instead of freedom there is bondage and oppression, instead of connection and community there is alienation and suspicion, instead of cooperation and solidarity there is accusation and fear, instead of peace there is violence, instead of the growing and life-giving power of the earth there is a sense life draining away as the earth is dominated.
A powerful book, The Prophetic Imagination, by Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the Prophetic Imagination begins with the willingness and ability to feel anguish and to express grief in the face of and the experience of empire or empire consciousness, the consciousness of domination and of fear and separation by "isms." Simply put, in the face of this encounter, for the faithful prophet, there is heartbreak.
Have we allowed ourselves to feel the heartbreak of that gap, the gap between life and history as we’ve so often known it and the Beloved Community as God has dreamed it?
That heartbreak is our connection to our yearning for God’s intended vision of justice and peace and freedom. And that kind of yearning is a source of life-force, soul-force, Spirit-force. It is our deep tunnel to hope, our birth canal to new hope and life in God, to the alternative consciousness of God’s faithful community.
For the Hebrew tradition, this yearning life-force feeling generates prophetic vision and prophetic proclamation. The prophets were the ones to herald God’s dream, God’s activity and coming, not as fortune tellers/future predictors, but as voices of the present moment seeing into the deeper currents of God’s longing and God’s activity to liberate. When God heard the cry of the Hebrews, Moses was called to proclaim another reality amidst the darkness of slavery and Pharoah’s way of thinking. When the Israelites had established themselves in Palestine, even to the point in Solomon’s time of building a temple for God to live in, the prophets eventually spoke against the regime, seeing that now Israel had become like Pharaoh, content with a status quo that tried to domesticate God and ignore the cries of the oppressed and ignore the imbalance and injustice of such unequal sharing of the blessings of life.
As Brueggemann notes, it is the prophets’ job to bring forth a new consciousness, an alternative to the imperial consciousness of Pharoah, of the established monarchy, of the Roman Empire, and, more recently, of the European colonizing powers including, eventually, the United States. For us, in the USA, our dreams of freedom and justice for all have been imperfect, unevenly distributed, obstructed, distorted, and blinded because they were contaminated by colonial, empire building consciousness. Our self-evident truths cannot be realized in this state of mind and heart. We need God’s alternative consciousness, the alternative sacred vision, the Divine Heart that we witnessed in the Good News proclaimed and lived by Jesus.
Prophets old and new bring forth God’s alternative consciousness in two ways; by speaking another truth to the current colonial or empire consciousness and then by energizing those open to the new way, the new Light amidst darkness. But prophets critique the old most effectively not by moralizing, but by presenting their heart break and the heart break of God for what is happening. Amidst the illusion and trance and numbness of the empire’s status quo that says, "Everything is all right. Just go shop. Watch TV. Cruise the internet. Just let us have more authority and we’ll make it all great again," the prophet instead remains vulnerable to wounding, remains compassionate and therefore awake, and from that place voices the heart break of God, expressing the grief of those whose cries refuse to be heard.
The wise elder, scientist, and earth advocate Jane Goodall years ago, upon realizing the profound intelligence and heart of chimpanzees was heartbroken to know these kin of ours were locked up in research labs. She set about to get the social, intelligent, and feeling chimps released from isolated 5x5 iron bar research cages. But she did it, not by yelling and pointing fingers, but by staying close to her heart break, telling stories of intelligent, feeling chimpanzees to those organizing such research. Her storytelling powerfully proclaimed another story, another narrative of what chimpanzees were and what a respectful relationship to them would be.
The cautionary tale here for those of us open to the prophetic and to worthy causes is to make sure our voices do not merely become brittle, partisan, moralizing voices pointing the finger at the evil "other." The prophets instead rooted their voice in the Divine heartbreak of the ones crying out. They broke the spell of the dominant status quo, not with white papers or resolutions or character assassinations, but with images and voices of the grief of those unheard and unseen, of the pain of the inconvenient truths of the empire, and with the proclamation of the Presence of the God of compassion and justice.
It is only after the prophet proclaims Divine heartbreak and acknowledges the felt cost of the imperial consciousness, the injustice built into colonial achievements, and pain exacted by those illusory values that enslave or dominate or discriminate against some for the purpose of others that the prophet can bring the energy of hope to those poor in Spirit, to those crying out, to those broken-hearted ones. So in the second part of the reading we heard today, Jeremiah, in the midst of the darkness of Exile, after naming the grief and heartbreak, can proclaim God’s faithfulness in a new day, a day of justice when those who plant shall enjoy the fruit, when those who have been crying shall sing with joy again.
Grief is a way of connecting. The heartbreak we allow ourselves to feel if we acknowledge the suffering of those shut out of history’s voice, those left behind in globalization, those impacted by global warming, those discriminated against, is a way to reconnect with those marginalized people of the human family. And this applies to ourselves and our inner life as well. Remember, last week, Pastor Jane Anne spoke of the macro and micro, of the patterns that repeat in large and small forms in the world. So, too, for our collective and individual lives. The prophet speaks to society and the empires of history, but also to the ways of empire we internalize, dominating and neglecting some parts within ourselves. Then we shut out God’s Grace and justice within. That is also worthy of grief. But feeling heartbreak for those parts of ourselves that are dominated, neglected, wounded, or silenced is a way of re-connecting to those parts within. For the world and the worlds within us, heartbreak is the prophetic way of acknowledging what is not right or well and beginning the process of the re-igniting the hope that brings it back from Exile and death to healing and life.
Following the Divine Heart through heartbreak, Jeremiah is able to find hope. Did you hear it in the reading?
God told them, “I’ve never quit loving you and never will.
Expect love, love, and more love!
And so now I’ll start over with you and build you up again,
You’ll resume your singing,
grabbing tambourines and joining the dance.
You’ll go back to your old work of planting vineyards
on the Samaritan hillsides,
And sit back and enjoy the fruit--
oh, how you’ll enjoy those harvests!
The time’s coming when watchmen will call out
from the hilltops of Ephraim:
‘On your feet! Let’s go to Zion,
go to meet our God!’”
What good news for the poor of the world and for the poor parts within us!
I invite us to be a prophetic community of faith like this, honoring the prophetic way of knowing and expressing the Divine heartbreak and grief of what is not well, what is in Exile, what is worthy of tears in the dark places of history and society, and of the self and soul.
In the way of the faithful prophet, heartbreak is the beginning of the journey to Divine Hope. Let us have faith in both the heartbreak and the hope. AMEN
A summer sermon related to John 1:1-12
Central Point: To introduce Active Hope as an expression of a faithful inspiration and integrity-based form of hope and action, especially necessary in difficult times of anxiety
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overtake it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…
For the Word in Scripture,
For the Word among us,
For the Word within us
Thanks Be to God
When I was young, I kept hoping that the Chicago Cubs would win; they would win that day and that they would win the World Series. But that hope was difficult to maintain, particularly in the 1970s and even in the 1980s when they would win more, but still break the hearts of Cub fans like me in stunning fashion during the season or in the playoffs. But now that I've lived a lot of years and given the Cubs plenty more seasons to try, I lived to see my hope realized in 2016. (It only took 108 years between championships.)
This is hope that is based on outcomes. It is based on the prediction of a favorable outcome. Now this year with the Cubs, I have no hope for that kind of favorable outcome. They will not win the World Series nor even make the playoffs. I can always hope for another year in the future for a more likely favorable outcome.
But mostly these days I'm not thinking of such things very much, such objects of hope or even this form of hope. Although it was nice to finally have the hope of a Cubs World Series win realized in 2016, it happened while I was at the Standing Rock Lakota Reservation with my wife, Allison. We were with the Lakota people protesting the Keystone XL pipeline which was unjustly routed through their reservation and near their water supply. Getting the news of the Cubs winning the World Series while I was at standing rock was such an instant teaching of perspective. That win just didn’t matter that much in the scheme of life. Though I had hoped for this event in my life for many, many years (involving baseball which I love), receiving it while at Standing Rock was a profound teaching that not only was hope was better focused on other matters, it would also need to be formed in a different way.
At the camp in Standing Rock, entertainment like baseball was, of course, not our focus. Our mantra was “water is life,” mni wiconi. That gathering was a prayer meeting where the prayer fire never went out and the hope was always to protect the water and therefore to protect life. The likelihood of success was low. The legal system had conspired against the Lakota and the law enforcement was well funded and equipped with vehicles, personnel, and arms.
Yet, that gathering at Standing Rock was a living example of active hope. And that’s what I want to lift up today: active hope.
I'm taking this term active hope from a book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone titled, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy.
And, if you haven't noticed, we are in a mess aren't we?
Business as usual has been and is leading us into what's been called a great unraveling of environmental systems not to mention income inequality and the rise of authoritarian movements in the world. Macy and Johnstone get us right to the point of their book with the subtitle “how to face the mess we are in without going crazy.” For if we really face the truth of it, it could drive us to madness, certainly heartbreak. Our collective behavior seems crazy.
If you don’t know her, Joanna Macy is an elder (93 years old now) and a Buddhist teacher. I find her trustworthy for that reason and also for the reason that this teaching about active hope resonates with the stories of faith in our Scriptures and in the lives of so many of our Saints. It is in these Scripture stories and the stories of the Saints that I see a kind of active hope that Macy talks about.
What is active hope?
Well, it's not hoping that the Cubs will win.
In fact, active hope is not based on the likelihood of an outcome, rather it is hope rooted in a vision of what we long for, or in the case of the people of faith, what God longs for. You could call it the Realm of God or the kin-dom of God or the Beloved Community (as Dr. King was fond of calling it), but it is that vision of blessing and fullness and wholeness, that vision of justice and peace and the integrity of creation of which God dreams and to which God calls us.
And while one side of active hope is rooted in this vision, the other side of active hope is rooted in our action, action that is in integrity with that vision. Not unlike the way that Jesus so often taught that the Realm of God is already here, practicing active hope means that we are living out the values or participating in the energies of that Realm here and now. Through our presence, our choices, and our actions, we can live in that Realm already. Active hope then is a practice, something we do with our imagination and actions. It is not passive and it is not based on the likelihood of external outcome (like hoping that the Cubs win or that it's going to be pleasant weather).
Active hope means we connect with the vision of the Realm of God, the beauty and value of it, of life and community in its blessing, and act from it and for it. We act to bring it further into being, not calculating the likelihood of a short term or even an ‘in our lifetime’ outcome.
It is not about how we feel things are going or might likely turn out. It is about what we do. Active hope is about vision, the vision of what we long for to become manifest in the world and how that draws us into life and action. It is that connection to the vision and values and staying true to it, no matter the situation, that keeps us from becoming hopeless or even lifeless in the face of this mess.
Says Macy, “Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response.”
A few moments ago, I read the first 12 verses of the gospel of John. What might that have to do with active hope?
This poetic prologue from John’s community is a wondrous, mystical presentation of the coming of the intangible divine into the tangible Incarnate world. In this case, through the person of Jesus. This miracle of incarnation may be the greatest genius of Christianity, having the Word, the Living Wisdom, the deep invisible life-giving wisdom of all things somehow become flesh, become Incarnate, become real in human life and the life of the creation.
We can talk about high theory and mighty ideals and about grand design and expansive patterns, but that does not matter much to the life of Creation unless it is embodied and expressed and lived out in this complex messy world. It is one thing to talk about love and another to live it out, to incarnate it. In John's prologue we have this amazing poetic summation that the Word became flesh and lived with the people. “And the darkness could not overcome it,” says John.
Active hope is like that. Incarnate. Fleshy. Earthy.
It's like bringing these great aspirations right down into the messiness and even the darkness of the world in our lives. It is about choosing faith, choosing a trust in the way of Jesus and the good news of God even though the outcome is uncertain at best and doubtful at worst. Our tradition is full of situations where it seems there is no way, but somehow God makes a way when the people act. There were the Hebrew people chased by pharaoh's army and pinned up against a great body of water with nowhere to go, but, as the Jewish interpretive story says God made a way after someone went into the water up to their neck. There was the story of Jesus surrounded by an angry mob in his hometown intent on throwing him off a cliff, but somehow Jesus moved and passed through them. There was a woman named Rosa who sat down on a bus where she was not supposed to sit, where they said she would never be allowed to sit, yet somehow she sat, Spirit moved, and the people of color found a way to act into their hopes and, indeed, did sit in the front of the bus, and then vote, and go to any school.
Learning and practicing active hope is timely for there are many reasons to not hope if one is basing hope on the likelihood of a good outcome. Yet, our faith tradition doesn’t say that life is easy or that life unfolds with simple, predictable steps of linear progress toward goodness and liberation, especially in times like these.
The irony here is that finding Active Hope, facing problems, those seemingly intractable difficulties, asks us not to focus first on the problems, on what is wrong, but on what is right, what is worthy, what is beautiful, what is of value that is already present.
Active Hope invites us to build the base of our reality with gratitude. And like Active Hope itself, gratitude is a practice, a learnable way of seeing and living. Gratitude is a basic spiritual practice across traditions. It is the valuing of what is already present that inspires us to protect it, to act for it, to make the changes necessary to nurture it and preserve it.
How important is acting for that vision now? How urgent?
The environmental activist Bill McKibben had a cover story on Rolling Stone magazine a few years ago and then went on what he called a Do the Math tour around the nation. He proclaimed the simple math: according to climate researchers at that time, we could burn 565 more gigatons of carbon and stay below 2°C of warming — anything more than that risks catastrophe for life on earth. Fossil fuel corporations then had 2,795 gigatons in their reserves, five times the safe amount. At the known rates of consumption, McKibben and others, calculated the years we had left to act decisively. Now it would be only about 8 years or so in which to make significant change.
We need hope, my friends, to respond faithfully to our situation and we need it to be active hope.
Oh, and in case you might have forgotten, in July of 2021 the company sponsoring the Keystone XL pipeline declared the project dead.
So remember, our stories of faith are full of people wondering how they would continue, how they would find a way where there was no way, how they would get through a tight spot. Our stories of faith are full of ordinary people just like us, doubting and limited, but who found a way through by sharing God’s hopes and then acting them into being such that the darkness could not overcome their active hope.
Isaiah 64.1-9(10-12) * [text at bottom of post]
First Sunday in Advent
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Twentieth century poet, Langston Hughes, wrote his poem, "Dreams" , in 1922. It was one of his earliest works and one of his best remembered.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
Hughes’ images are incredibly poignant for us as we enter Advent in this pandemic ridden, politically and racially divisive year. How do we hold on to our national dreams of health and peace and cooperation and justice and abundance and equality for all this Advent? Our faith dreams of building God’s realm here and now on earth? How do we dream Hope?
The ancient people of God, the Israelites of the 6th century B.C.E., were wondering the same thing when they heard the prophet cry out to God in lament, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence…” They, too, were wondering if they could dream hope and they were trying hard to hold on the “awesome deeds” of God they had experienced with surprise and joy in the past. Why was God not acting like God way back in the day when they were delivered from slavery in Egypt? Or even not so far back in the day when they were led out of exile in Babylon and back to Jerusalem to rebuild their lives in the promised land and to rebuild the temple of the Most High? Instead of flowing springs in the desert and straight highways of policy following God’s law, instead of an oasis of plenty, they had returned from exile ready to rebuild only to find strife and hardship. There were polemical factions among the differing tribes; they were short on cooperation. Physically rebuilding the temple along with new infrastructures for simply living together was much more difficult than they had ever imagined. They felt abandoned by the God whom the prophet had promised would restore their fortunes and renew their abundance. Perhaps, they didn’t have a pandemic, but they knew well the unrest of extreme civil discord at a time they needed to work together to survive.
The book of Isaiah spans three centuries of the Israelites’ relationship with God. The original 8th century prophet, Isaiah, prophesied to the rulers and people of Judah when the Babylonian empire was encroaching upon them, eventually conquering Jerusalem. Much of the population was captured and taken into exile in Babylon where they learned to make their lives and honor their God in a foreign land. In the late 7th and into the 6th century B.C.E., a new prophet arose in the midst of exile writing in the name and fashion of Isaiah. These first two prophets gave the people the wondrous and inspiring poetry and prose of hope that we often hear this time of year: “the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light,” “you shall go out with joy and be led forth in peace, the trees shall clap their hands,” “the lion shall lie down with the lamb…and a little child shall lead them.” Now we hear from the prophet who is with the people after the return from exile…. things are looking very bleak….and the prophet speaking in the tradition of Isaiah loudly laments…”Where are you, God? Come down to us! You forgot us and so now we have sinned…. we are fractured as a people, hanging on by a thread… you have hidden from us and so even our best efforts are like filthy rags…we are undone!”
How many times in this past year could any of us, each of us, have lifted up the sentiments of this lament to God? For goodness sake – literally ¬– Where are you, God?!? For God’s sake – literally – show yourself! Fix us, deliver us, restore us to your presence. As the poet warned us early in this sermon, without our dreams, without hope, life is like a broken-winged bird, crippled and dying. Life is barren, about to be snuffed out in the frozen depths of our deep disconnection with you, Holy One. The ancient prophet’s cry in this 64th chapter of Isaiah moves us from anger and despair, which we know all too well in our times, to broken-hearted sobbing sorrow and lament which we also know in these times of pandemic and racial violence.
If it feels excruciating and you are wondering what kind of introduction to Advent is this? – you are getting it. You see, it turns out that authentic lament with all its anger and confession and sorrow is psychologically good for us and good for our souls. Bottling up all our feelings in stoic silence does not solve any issue. It alienates us from others and its bad for our blood pressure. The structure of lament is an appropriate practice for expression. Spiritually, lament breaks open our hearts before God. And when our hearts are broken as they have been in this year, broken open, our eyes and our ears can open as well. It turns out that the prophet does not leave us despairing in the dirt, fading away like dead leaves, but in acknowledging our brokenness before God, the prophet points us paradoxically to God who is with us in our vulnerability and pain.
“8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father [our Maker]; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.”
The ancient stories of God’s past deliverance of God’s people proclaimed by prophets are not sentimental, smothering nostalgia nor are they a delusional panacea denying the pain of the present. They are beacons of light drawn from the collective memories of God’s people as a source of hope. God’s prophets are not fortune-telling predictors of the future events. They are witnesses to God’s presence in the world and in our lives, God, who is vulnerable and nurturing and suffering with us. God who tends and shapes God’s people – ALL of God’s people, not just a special set of followers of particular religious tenants – all of the people, all of humanity, all of creation, intimately shaped in love by God’s creating Spirit, as a potter shapes clay to make useful vessels.
The prophet knew that when God seems hidden, people are lonely and hurting. And this is when we act out in fear, sinning against one another. The prophet also knew that God is always hiding in plain sight in the pain of our very lives and situations. God is not a coy, disguised superhero… Clark Kent, the humble bumbling reporter, one minute and Superman saving the world the next minute. The character of God is “divine determination relating to the world “through the vulnerable path of noncoercive love and suffering service rather than domination and force.” 
This determined loving, suffering character of God is why we can dream hope even in the worst of times. We have Love Divine with us, within us, among us, binding us together even in conflict and seeming de-construction of all that we hold dear. This is the God of the Advent call, “O come, O come, Emmanuel – God with us!”
Perhaps you saw the artwork for this week from our Advent devotional booklet in the Plymouth Thursday Overview and Saturday Evening emails. Its titled, “Tear Open the Heavens” and painted by Rev. Lauren Wright Pittman, a founding partner of Sanctified Art, the group who wrote our devotional. Look at it with me for just a moment…. What do you see? I see weeping….spilling over love, an overflowing pottery pitcher, mountains, trees, wise eyes, divine presence, the colors of love, the actions of love.
We can dream hope because God is dreaming with us as we weep and laugh and work together with God. As we sometimes rage against the pain and darkness – with God. As we sometimes hide from one another and from God. Yet God, Divine Love, is always dreaming hope and dreaming love through us, through our lives. Therefore, we can hold fast to our dreams because God is holding fast to us even when we are not watching. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” we say. And God says, “I have. I am with you. I never left.” Amen.
Holy One, we come before you this morning with hopes for dreaming hope, for building hope, for being hope in our corners of your world. We long to get our hands dirty with the work of hope as we raise money for homelessness prevention, as we support the immigrants in our community, as we learn together with our children and youth about the active hope of Advent, as we support one another in these difficult times – even if distanced. As our thoughts and preparations turn toward the Christmas season, keep us ever-mindful of gratitude for our blessings, ever-giving from those same gifts for you have given them to us for sharing. Bless all those who struggle with illness of any kind, those who wait for much needed surgery or procedures because the hospitals are full of Covid 19 patients who need the frontline care. Bless the caregivers of all kinds, whether in a facility or at home. Bless the children and youth and young adults as they go back to remote school. Bless those who mourn the loss of a loved one. Bless our country in this time of transition. May we all turn toward much needed healing of racial and political divides. Bless us all as we seek to participate in your hope for your creation. Hear us now as we say the prayer Jesus taught us to say, “Our Father, who art….
 Scott Bader-Saye, “Theological Perspective”, Isaiah 64.1-9, First Sunday in Advent, Year B, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 2008, 6.)
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May only be reprinted with permission.
* Isaiah 64.1-9[10-12]
1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence —
2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil —
to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.
5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.
But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself, we transgressed.
6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7 There is no one who calls on your name or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.
8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9 Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
(10 Your holy cities have become a wilderness, Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. 11 Our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you,
has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. 12 After all this, will you restrain yourself, O LORD? Will you keep silent, and punish us so severely?)
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Pentecost 16 C
Rev. Dr. Mark Lee
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, CO
It was the worst of times. No, really the worst – it was 586 BC, and the trauma ripples through to this very day. Ask any Jew. Ask any Palestinian. The kingdom of Judah was being swallowed up by the Babylonian Empire. Armies surrounded Jerusalem. The ruling elites were split; some favored submitting to the Babylonians, others wanted to hold out, hoping for Egyptian intervention. People could come and go to a degree, but no equipment, food nor water could enter the city. Would God deliver them? Was this punishment for their sins? Who knew where God was in this? Hope was drying up faster than the last supplies of three year old grain. Hunger was spreading, desperate cannibalism was soon to come. Has your world ever totally fallen apart? Yeah, it was like that.
Jeremiah the prophet had been predicting this day for years. He saw how the royalty – the house of David, who claimed an eternal covenant of God’s favor and were supposed to be God’s good earthly ruler – how they squeezed the common people for every shekel, every bushel of grain, every acre of land. He saw the way the whole country turned from God to idols. Sure, the priests kept the Temple sacrifices running, but the temple had become a symbol of nationalistic political power rather than service to God. So it was easy to work other values into the program. They hadn’t yet heard Jesus’ teaching, “You cannot serve God and Mammon.” Jeremiah loudly pointed out that their path would doom them. His message is not unlike Greta Thunberg’s: staying on the present course will certainly mean disaster.
But people don’t want to hear that, they didn’t want to change. The king put Jeremiah under arrest in the barracks of his bodyguards. This is where this story takes place. Jeremiah hears the crazy, weird, unexpected word of God. Amid the shouts of, “Incoming!” as rocks and arrows came flying over the city walls, amid the scorn of the king and his court, amid his own depression and uncertainty, he thinks he hears God. “Your cousin Hanamel’s field is going into foreclosure. Buy it and bail him out.” Jeremiah was from a suburb of Jerusalem, Anathoth. He was the closest kinsman to Hanamel, and the law of redemption in Deuteronomy gave him the right and obligation to buy the field if Hanamel was in danger of losing it to creditors and it passing out of the family forever. Those of you from farming families might have that sense of ancestral connection to the land; it was built into the system in ancient Israel.
This is not a good deal. Jerusalem and the legal structure of the kingdom are doomed. The Babylonians already occupy Anathoth. Tragically, the modern Palestinian village is practically encircled by the Israeli separation wall. Hanamel’s offer is like buying beachfront property in the Bahamas just as hurricane Dorian was making landfall. Has God ever led you to do something that seemed to make zero sense? What then happened?
Hanamel shows up at Jeremiah’s prison, deed in hand. “And then I knew it was the word of the Lord,” Jeremiah says. That’s sometimes how God’s leading works – we have an intuitive, instinctual sense of something, and then the right person shows up and says the right thing, not knowing what has been going on in our minds and heart. So Jeremiah buys the field. At closing, everyone sees Jeremiah weighing out the silver, signing the deed, witnesses notarizing it, Jeremiah’s secretary Baruch filing one copy publicly and something unusual with another copy: putting another in a clay jar, a jar that can be hidden and preserved --- like the Dead Sea Scrolls were – until after the present disaster has passed.
What does this all mean? As a real estate investment, it’s the worst. The battering rams of the enemy army are at the gates. Really, what is Jeremiah doing? Crazy prophetic action. What is God doing?
Jeremiah lifts up his voice: “The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, proclaims: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” “I will bring Israel back to this place to live securely. They will be my people and I will be their God. I will give them one heart and one mind so that they may worship me all the days of their lives, for their own good and for the good of their children after them. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. I will put in their hearts a sense of awe for me so they won’t turn away from me. Fields will be bought, and deeds will be signed, sealed and witnessed. For I will bring them back from their captivity.” (Jer. 32:34-44, summarized).
Hope. Not a cocky-eyed optimism that things will get better. Not a surprising shift in the political scene. Not replacing a bad king with a good king. Hope isn’t denying reality. The Babylonians did destroy the city, temple, monarchy. As the psalmist says, do not hope in princes, in political events, in the invisible hand of the economy, but in God. Hope is rooted in God’s promise, God’s action, God’s love. As the apostle Paul said, “Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”
What does hope look like? That’s a great question, a question that invites us to look closely at the world, to become attentive to and aware of the often small sprouts of green breaking through the concrete. What is a situation you know that seems hopeless, yet you have seen people hope in God even in the midst of it?
Among the souvenirs of my trips to Israel and Palestine have been different websites to follow. One is called “The Good Shepherd Collective.” It is a tough page to follow, for practically every day, there is some new encroachment documented. In just the last couple of weeks, an access road from Palestinian villages to their fields has been trenched and destroyed, a shepherd’s goat herd shagged and scattered, homes searched in the middle of the night, water tanks punctured, and I don’t know how many houses demolished. The reasons given are variations on the theme that the Palestinians lack deeds, travel documents or building permits, and that Israeli colonists need land, roads and water. While many places in the world experience oppressive situations, Palestine is one I’ve seen first hand, and weighs on my heart. So I was surprised to read from them:
“In the aftermath of a day like today, when the Israeli military utterly dismantled large sections of the South Hebron Hills, homes were razed, people were beaten and arrested, children traumatized - we are challenged to maintain hope in the face of darkness. People ask us: How do you keep the faith that a better tomorrow is waiting upon the horizon?
“We have enough humility to maintain hope. This is crucial. Far too often, people confuse being hopeful for being naive. We fully understand the matrix of control Israel has methodically constructed around us; after all, it is the corrosive thread shot through the fabric of our lives. But we also understand the movement rising up around us. We see diverse movements of justice joining in solidarity in ways that weren't happening decades ago. Black and brown voices are pushing the plight of Palestinians onto the main stage. Our Jewish friends are taking real risks and making real sacrifices to usher in a new future of liberation. We see all of this because we choose to have hope. We don't let cynicism creep in and masquerade as wisdom. We don't minimize the efforts of those around us. We are courageous enough to have hope. We don't worry that people will think that we are silly or misguided for knowing that a better tomorrow awaits us. Good Shepherd Collective September 11 at 2:29 PM · “
What is your hopeless situation? Political cynicism, overload or despair? Whatever the doctor told you at that visit you had? The negative balance in your checkbook? The cold cup of coffee from the friend who walked away, not crying? Bulldozers flattening your home? Babylonians battering down your gates and burning your temple?
Take courage, God sees you. Grasp your neighbor’s hands, for God will use them to buttress your heart. Don’t curl up in fear, but open yourself to all the tiny signs of God’s faithfulness to you: food on your table, an apology tendered, a gorgeous sunset, a demonstration supporting asylum seekers, a friendly face greeting you in the fellowship hall, a wrong made right, a satisfying grade on an exam, another day of sobriety or a courageous vote. File these signs away, build up a stock in your heart. Share them with others, and file away the ones they share with you. Use them as the building blocks for a future world where peace is normal, caring is public policy, and love binds neighbors and strangers together through God.
Call to worship (from Ps. 91)
Leader: Living in the Most High’s shelter, camping in the Almighty’s shade, I say to the Lord:
People: “You are my refuge, my stronghold! You are my God – the One I trust!”
Leader: God will save you from the hunter’s trap, snares for your soul and body,
People: God’s faithfulness is a protective shield, guarding us like a hen guards her chicks. God will protect us with his feathers, we’ll find refuge under God’s wings.
Leader: Don’t be afraid of terrors at night, or arrows that fly in daylight; monsters that prowl in the dark, or destruction that ravages at noontime.
People: God tells us, “Because you are devoted to me, I’ll rescue you. I’ll protect you, because you honor my name. Whenever you cry out to me, I’ll answer.”
Leader: Hear, O people, the help of our God:
People: “I’ll be with you in troubling times. I’ll save and glorify you, even through your old age. I will forever show you my salvation!”
You have gathered us, gathered us to you, O God, in the midst of a world that seems to have gone crazy. So often, the news of oppression against your children, of destruction of our environment, of corruption in high places, of wars and rumors of war, weighs hard on us. We come to this place seeking quiet from the din; we come to one another seeking a warm heart of comfort; we come to you seeking meaning and hope for the future. Though your grace, grant us peace for today and hope for tomorrow. Amen.
Prayer of thanksgiving and dedication
Thank you, God, for giving us hope when all seems hopeless! Thank you for being faithful even when everyone around falls away! Thank you for being with us in our darkest nights, our deepest pits, our loneliest deserts! Thank you for drawing us together as your people in this time and place. In gratefulness, we offer our selves and our work, trusting you to do amazing things through all of us. Amen.
Mark brings a passion for Christian education that bears fruit in social justice. He has had a lifelong fascination with theology, with a particular emphasis on how Biblical hermeneutics shape personal and political action. Prior to coming to Plymouth, Mark served as pastor for Metropolitan Community Churches in Fort Collins, Cheyenne, and Rapid City. Read more.
Ezekiel 37: 1-14
April 2, 2017
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you pray with me? Lord God, rattle our bones and bring us to life. Shake our understanding and our hopelessness from slumber and transform it into your wondrous love. May this sermon and our togetherness today bring us new hope and love, Oh God who is our rock, our life-maker, life-restorer, and our life-keeper through love. Amen.
Today, God brings Ezekiel to the Valley of Bones (a place full of dead and decomposed bodies) where they are then reanimated into living people again. I always thought that today’s lectionary passage should fall at the same time as Halloween—it has a Zombie movie sort of a tone to it, don’t you think?
At the beginning of the story, before we get to the bones walking around again, God brings the prophet to this valley of death, right? And then God asks a weird rhetorical question… or is it a trick question? April Fools? It is hard to tell. “Mortal, can these bones live?” I [Ezekiel] answered, “O Lord God, you know.”
You know IMMEDIATELY that something wild, weird, and possibly dangerous is about to happen whenever God addresses you by the ONE title that all humans throughout all of history and time share in common, “Mortal.” This title and address means, “a being that will die and cease to exist, or one with a finite lifespan.” We know that God is up to something big when we are addressed by the fact that we are temporary— “O Mortal, can these bones live?” This is the question God asks Ezekiel.
Even stranger perhaps is Ezekiel’s headstrong, somewhat flippant, and almost exasperated response: “O Lord God, you know.” I picture him saying this with a valley accent. Why are you making me look at the reality of the situation for the house of Israel, God? Why have you brought me all the way to face this place of tragedy and loss only to ask me about the impossible and the hopelessness found here, God? We both already know the answer to this silly question- “O Lord God, you know!” Ezekiel doesn’t need a reminder that things are tough for his people and his calling as a priest.
So who was this prophet Ezekiel with such a direct and confrontational form of communication with the Divine?
One of my favorite scholars, Michael Coogan seems to be a big fan of Ezekiel and this passage in particular. According to this scholar, Ezekiel is a special prophet for a couple of important reasons. The first is that he was the first prophet in the Bible to be called to the work of being a prophet outside of the Holy Land. He is a prophet in exile who started his ministry while far away from home. He only received his call once already far away from Jerusalem in an unfamiliar context. While his contemporary, Jeremiah, saw the destruction of the temple in person before being exiled to Babylon, Ezekiel was taken to Babylonia in 597 and only learned of the destruction of the temple secondhand, through what others told him while already in exile as a priest far from his sacred spaces to which he was called as a priest. So Ezekiel has to rely on imagination and stories to survive in ministry.
Secondly, Ezekiel speaks in the first person and offers one of the most orderly and linear accounts of any prophet in the Bible. This makes Ezekiel the favorite prophet of all of us who came out of the Presbyterian tradition- all in good order indeed. This is important because the story we are hearing, near the end of the Ezekiel narrative is the culmination of a life of prophecy—and it ends, linearly and purposefully, in hope rather than despair. Nothing is accidental or chaotic with Ezekiel—our Presbyterian-like prophet.
Lastly, Ezekiel is a prophet who has nothing left to lose. He has lost his home, his calling as a temple priest, and never even got to say goodbye. Coogan says something that sheds light on this prophet’s text and Valley of Dry Bones when he writes that, “[This] passage is symbolic and does not mean actual resurrection of the dead, a concept that will not develop for several centuries.”1 So when conservative Christians misread this text as having something to do with Jesus and resurrection, it is a blatant misreading of the story. Ezekiel is a surrealist operating from a place of profound metaphor for a renewal of hope in a time of exile from power and complete and total despair. This vision is a symbol of hope for Israel in a time when all seems lost and despair prevails.
Verse 11 and following: “Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord.”
We are living in a time where the bodies are piling up in the valley.
The body of our work in environmental stewardship and climate change awareness for God’s environmental justice is before us today in the Valley of Bones. We feel the pain of the decay and what feels like death as progress is reversed and the planet and leadership itself seems to be running now boldly towards peril and ecological and climate collapse. The body of environmental stewardship is at our feet.
The body of our work in socially sustainable and just communities, affordable housing, homelessness advocacy, and fair housing policy is piling up body upon body upon body upon body upon body with every new news cycle in the valley of bones.
The body of healthcare for all, equality and access in medicine, HIV/AIDS research funding, access to insurance, falls slowly at our feet in the valley of bones. 1
The bones and vestiges of the body of civil discourse and the marketplace of ideas, and democracy itself seems to teeter on the edge of a cliff overlooking this valley of bones. Are they too about to be pickings for vultures of commerce and greed.
We see the bones of our work to end racism and to start sacred conversations on race… bones of education as school funding is stripped and curricula are replaced with convenient alternative facts… bones, bones, bones, bones,…bones of LGBTQ and especially Transgender equality and access to safe spaces and restrooms that match gender identity… bones of elder services… bones of Christian love… bones of mental healthcare…. “The Lord set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said, “Mortal, can these bones live? I answered… Lord God, you know” the answer to that question. Why this torment?
This is a passage, a symbolic, surrealist image (sort of a Salvador Dali painting), that draws every lost generation and people and place and time back in because… while called the Valley of Bones… really it is better understood as the Valley of Hope, the Valley of Renewal, the Valley of God’s power to change hearts and minds… the Valley of Empowerment… and especially the Valley of Love.
I had my own vision of sorts based out of this Scripture passage. The past two summers I have driven down to a place for continuing education which has a name that sounds about as comforting and hopeful as “Valley of Bones”—a sacred, thin place called Ghost Ranch in Northern New Mexico in the land of the Shining Stone Land Grant between Chama and Santa Fe. This is the land that captured the heart and person of Georgia O’Keiffe, a place that has seen legends of evil, a dark history of fratricide, crime, and murder… but that place of legends and ghosts has been transformed by the Presbyterians who inherited it in the 1950’s into a desert place of renewal, hope, learning, and peace.
One dry clear morning, this past summer 2016, I sat alone on a mesa called The Kitchen overlooking desert openness, colors, and the mountains that Georgia O’Keiffe loved. I was reflecting on the pain and deserted place in the world, the fear of the ongoing election cycle, and also the beauty of this planet and hope for renewal I found in Christ and Christian fellowship. I remembered that even in the when things are bleakest; rays of sun and experiences of deep hope and love can change everything! I remembered, as I do now, that what makes Christian faith unique is our stubborn attachment to hope… stubborn, indignant, unyielding, unrelenting, irrevocable hope that love conquers hatred, ignorance, and oppression.
Suddenly I burst into a song I didn’t even know I knew (have you ever started humming something without knowing what it is?) It came from somewhere in my soul, overlooking that desert of Ghost Ranch… the Valley of Bones… I heard myself utter the first couple of words… [SING CAUTIOUSLY] “What wondrous love is this, O my soul! O my soul! What wondrous love is this, O my soul! What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the heavy cross for my soul… for my soul… to bear the heavy cross for my soul!” I feel the same way looking out at you this morning… what wondrous love!
That hymn has been my anthem in these dark times when our beloved projects, departments, and beliefs seem to be stripped down to their bones- and I think connects us to that vision of dry bones some 2,600 years ago in the deserts of Ezekiel’s Babylonia.
What wondrous love is this that caused a community to rally and be present and show-up to support our neighbors at the Islamic Center in a matter of hours after a violent gesture threatened their community—over a 1,000 of us showed-up in love and care and pure humanity. Dry Bones were covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this that will be present this afternoon as many from around the community gather to the ordination of my colleague Sean at the Unitarian Church to ministry. Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this that shows-up when Fort Collins strategizes together from ALL traditions and background to build 48 new Habitat for Humanity homes in the next couple of years at Harmony and Taft? Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this in the morning when we look-up and see that God has given us a new day and we see the light of the sun reflecting back… winking at us from the rock faces of Horsetooth and Long’s Peak! Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this when Plymouth hosts a civil, polite, and constructive conversation with council and mayoral candidates in our local election as part of our Forums? Dry Bones are covered again with flesh.
What wondrous love is this as our denomination partners with the Disciples of Christ to bring relief efforts to those around the world in need of help and support. Dry Bones are covered with flesh.
What wondrous love is this… oh my soul… oh my soul… Can these bones live, asks God? YES! Yes, God they can and they will and they must—our faith and our love—and our hope demands it. We see the beginnings of the bone rattling and waking again!
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude… They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the
land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act,” says the Lord. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.