Squinting To See What's There
Jeremiah, the prophet ministered to a group of people whose despair was so deep and so pervasive, medicine would be adequate to address their dilemma. God had assured Jeremiah that the words he needed to heal his people would be there.
But their enemies were approaching from the north and their fear was palpable. Jeremiah lays it on the line, “My heart is sick within me.” We understand this kind of panic, don’t we? Our pain is palpable and our cries are inevitably “No!”, or “Why, God, Why?”. Jeremiah’s audience experienced the same depth of emotions and wondered aloud if God was anywhere to be found, and if so, where? In some ways it seems that Jeremiah emulates watching a tennis match, experiencing the back and forth volley between a hurting people and a seemingly absent God. God, needed through Jeremiah, to communicate several things to Jeremiah’s people. God asks, “Why have they provoked me to anger by their worship of other gods?” Perhaps the question posed by God, “Why have they provoked me…” was an attempt to give them the courage to own their anger. Sometimes a family and even a congregation may be so angry that they can see nothing but their rage. Jeremiah’s people accused God of abandoning them at their worst hour. The rationale for then pointing out their own abandonment of God was to remind them that they were missing the fact that God was always there and in fact had always been there. They had either missed that fact or forgotten because they could see nothing but their anger rather than the countless ways that God had tried to offer solutions. Sometimes it is difficult to remember that EVEN in our calamities, God has been right by our side throughout.
Beautifully, poetically Jeremiah speaks as a prophet and a pastor to address his people’s pain. In the language of the poet, he utters something difficult to understand when he says, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended and we are not saved.” He was speaking to farmers who knew there were two planting seasons. Harvest lasted from April to June during which they gathered grain. This was followed by a second harvest during which they would gather fruit. If one of these harvests was a failure, the other tended to be a success, but in all cases, it gave them two chances. When/if both were wash-outs, they found themselves staring squarely into the reality of famine and death. Jeremiah used the language and understanding of a farmer to communicate on a deeper level concerning their spiritual lives. What they should have prepared for spiritually had been ignored and now they were without hope. Now they could not count on a second harvest.
Jeremiah asks hauntingly, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” Gilead was on Jeremiah’s eastern side. In that area they were known for producing a balm famous for closing wounds and restoring health. Jeremiah in effect is challenging the people to look for the hope that was usually within reach. But no balm was present, and no hope could be seen on the horizon but still, that wasn’t the end of Jeremiah. He could not see over the horizon, neither can we. What is our balm and our healing from the crises of our life and faith? We look for hope in an abundance of ways and pray that miraculously hope is just around the corner. In our human condition we lament that we feel there is no medicine that will relieve our pain. Jeremiah instructed, “how will we look for the hope that is within reach?” and is relevant for us to answer as well.
Our second passage of scripture, which picks up where Jeremiah left off found in the writings of Paul to a church far from long ago.
In Paul’s letter to Colossians, he wrote to a church located in Asia Minor. It was a wealthy city with a considerable population and famous for its wool trade. The letter to the Colossians is believed to have been written by Paul while he was in prison. It was during that time that Nero, the cruel and insane emperor of the Rome who brought death and devastation to his empire. From prison, Paul had heard that the Colossian Christians, who had at one time been strong in their faith, were now vulnerable to deception about the faith. He wrote to correct the theological errors they were tempted to embrace. In writing the letter to the church at Colossae, do you think Paul might be exaggerating a bit? He said, “Dear chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility, and patience.” If Paul were to take the time from a prison cell to send a letter to St. Andrew’s, what might he say?
Last week around our tables of recollection, we were reminded that the church is no-where like it was 30 years ago – 20 years ago and even 5 years ago. We’ve had our ups and downs, faced seemingly insurmountable odds financially and dealt with conflict from a multitude of reasons. But there is no church anywhere, at any time in history that does not have conflict. No minister is perfect. No one in any church is perfect and if/when we fail to recognize and deal with issues when they arise, we can erupt thinking and believing, “I thought the church was different.” The church is and is called to be different than your civic organization, your workplace, even your own family but, here, in this place, it’s imperative that we learn how to squint in order to see what God wants us to see. Dr. Tom Long, professor at Candler School of Theology introduces a concept called “squinting to see what we cannot see otherwise.” I’m sure the majority of you never make it a practice to read the recorded history of a congregation. You might encounter phrases penned such as these: “The care, concern and Christian zeal has been shown by the many who have accepted the responsibility for the continuing witness of St. Andrew’s. Those we commend for their earnest labours.” And in a description of a long-serving pastor, it was said, “Whether striding to the pulpit, his gown streaming out behind him, participating in some animated discussion, he was always full throttle exhausting others by his very enthusiasm. When he felt negotiations were too slow he tended to get personally involved independent of those already working on the problem.”
A local church person can look at the broken pieces and the fragments and by squinting can see that, through it all, we have not been abandoned by God and that God is working through the lattice work of the church’s life, giving us gifts that we could not now, not ever give ourselves and building what we cannot create, the beloved community of Jesus Christ.
Paul said,“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” Paul’s letter was to address the challenges that the Colossian community faced and does the same for us.
If we were writing an epistle that will be ready 200 years from now, can you imagine our narrative, “You should have been at St. Andrew’s last Sunday. We had people present who were celebrating their 90th birthday, their 60th anniversary and had been a part of St. Andrew’s for over 45 years. Then there was the couple from Seattle, the man from Texas, and the wonderful families from Peru and Korea. It was a beautiful tapestry of diversity that made up St. Andrew’s on that September day in 2019. And just like at Colossae, the challenge is still, to this day, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly and whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. We cannot do that unless we know how to squint. Often we look across the sanctuary and see people we don’t know their name and still others who barely speak because of one issue or another. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace” I’ll try, Paul, but it will take some squinting on my part to be able to come to a place where I can reach for love and peace when I feel anything but.
Last week, we sat around the tables remembering our own beginnings at St. Andrew’s. We had persons there who had not been regularly to St. Andrew’s in years and years and we had some who were have only been around a short while and one, it was his first time ever here. And yet their stories blended into one and if you squinted just a bit, you could see the miracle of a diverse group of people on a random Sunday in September giving thanks to God for his steady hand upon us.
Did you ever see the Blockbuster movie of the late 80’s called Places in the Heart? Edna Spalding’s husband, the Sheriff is accidentally shot and killed by a young black boy, Wylie. Local vigilantes tie Wylie to a truck and drag his body through town before hanging him from a tree. Edna finds herself alone and broke on a small farm. A wandering black man, Moses, helps her to plant the cotton to try and keep her farm and her kids together. She endures storms and back-breaking work to make her mortgage payment on time. The banker unloads his blind brother-in-law, Will, on Edna, compelling her to take him in as a paid lodger. Edna realizes she cannot make the next payment, but she learns of a contest offered to the farmer who produces the first bale of cotton of the season. Edna realizes the prize money plus the proceeds from the sale of her cotton would be enough to allow her to keep the farm. Moses agrees to help her find more pickers so they can harvest the cotton on time. They win the first-bale award but Moses is beaten by Ku Klux Klan. When Will recognizes the assailants' voices and identifies them one by one, they run for safety, but Moses realizes he will have to leave the farm because of possible future attacks. The story ends in church with the community in prayer. Communion is passed, hand to hand and mouth to mouth, and portrayed in the church that day are the living and the deceased. The last line of the film is spoken by young Wylie, hung to die and Sheriff Royce Spalding, accidently killed by Wylie, as he passes the bread and cup, "Peace of God”. It’s a perfect example of the squinting we need to be able to do to see the saints who have gone before and those who in God’s eyes are His Beloved.
Two weeks from today, we will share communion again. You will sit in your normal seats there and up there and over there and back there. I will ask those of you in the balcony to move to the center to make serving easier in a timely fashion. Some may wonder why you sit there, in such sparse company. But then I get it. That is were your family sat…or where you sit when the kids would come with you. We can still see them too if we just learn how to squint. Sometimes we minister’s forget how to squint until we remember that Paul encouraged people drawn into conflict with the reminders of how they were to squint to clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another. Put on love and let peace rule in your heart. But I don’t know if I can do that. I avoid that person as often as I can. Paul calls us to foster love and peace. Jeremiah asked pointedly, “Is there no healing balm?” There is, Jeremiah. It’s a practice called squinting. Perhaps we should try it.