Delivered at Ames UCC
on December 4, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be
heard rather than read.
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A few years ago a poet named Christian Wiman wrote a book called My Bright Abyss. It’s his story of living with cancer, knowing the divine, and rediscovering Christian community, which just happens to have been through a United Church of Christ congregation.
As a poet, it is not surprising that Wiman reflects on the language and kinds of storytelling we encounter in Christian scripture. He states that, “Christ speaks in stories as a way of preparing his followers to stake their lives on a story.” (p. 90) In other words, Wiman believes that the use of stories to talk about life is a way of training us to stake our lives on those stories themselves.
He’s right, of course, that when we choose a religious tradition, we are saying that we would like the stories and ritual and even architecture of that tradition to inform us and our lives. But are we really saying we will stake our lives on them? Are we saying that we will risk our lives as the stories often directly ask?
Take last week’s story about Daniel, for example. Daniel stayed true to his faith regardless of a law that was enacted to scare and entrap him. His integrity revealed how willing people are, in a grab for power, to criminalize others, to make other people out to be a threat.
It was a risk, though. Daniel literally risked his life for the God of the exodus, the God of freedom. Will we? Will we let these stories do more than just inform our lives but be what we stake our lives upon? For me, some days, the answer can rely on just one word.
If you brought your Bible or one of the pew ones is next to you, please open it up to Psalm 23. The Psalms are basically in the middle. Or, open up the Bible app on your phone. I’ll give you a moment to find it. Who would like to stand up and read it?
1The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
2He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
3he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
4Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff–
they comfort me.
5You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.
This most familiar and cherished psalm makes a lot of assertions about God: God is the source of sustenance and a great guide. God is with us even in the most terrifying of places. God will bring us to a feast with those who would have us dead and then we will be anointed as a king, as a Christ, with more blessings that our lives can contain. It is a pastoral fantasy with echoes of heroic epics that leads to a worldly reconciliation humanity has yet to achieve on our own.
Then the song poem pivots. Then the writer composer pivots us back to daily life, telling us that whether that life is pastoral and heroic or more likely not, we will know goodness and mercy, our own specific homes will be God’s own.
The point of that pivot is one word: surely. As in, “I assure you” or “there can be no doubt.” In one word, we are taken from fantasy to certainty. That one word and the confidence it expresses is what takes the psalm from la-la-land to this land, this land we walk on today. It is on the word surely that we can go from merely wondering if God is with us to actual living with the knowledge that God is with us.
The same happens in the book of Joel.
Joel is in the prophetic portion of the Hebrew Bible, after Hosea and before Amos. Joel doesn’t reference any people or events that have allowed scholars to precisely date it, though some of the language suggests that it may have emerged during the Persian occupation, between 539 and 332 BCE. One resource I consulted describes Joel an anthology. In just a few chapters Joel quotes, comments on, and elaborates upon the other prophetic stories of the Bible.
But even though it has a timeless or a-historical tone, the events Joel describes would have been painfully familiar to his hearers: there will be a terrible plague and famine, then an army will come, death will be everywhere. Next a foreign king will steal the treasures of your temple and conquer you for his own.1
All of those things had happened to the ancient Israelites; they had every reason to believe they would happen again. And they had prophets like Joel explaining why: you have not yet been obedient to God, so God is sending war.
But here’s the pivot: Yet. Yet even now as the earth quakes and the moon bleeds and the land burns, even now we may go back to God. For God yet yearns to love, God does not care to punish.
In the worst of times, one adverb opens up the possibility of redemption. Through one word, catastrophe flips to opportunity. On one word hangs the hope Joel offers for living in peace.
In the UCC we don’t share Joel’s understanding that war is an act of God, though it is tied to our relationship with God. For us, war and war-like states such as hunger and fear are a product of our failure to be in relationship with each other in godly ways. So if there is to be peace, we cannot blame God or wait on God. Peace and peace-like states such as food and safety are up to us. It is up to us to do more than make surface statements about peace, more than merely rend our clothing as Joel says. We must go deep into our hearts to tear them open for God, to unleash that which restores souls and sets tables.
In just a few weeks we will begin to hear from and about Jesus again. His stories, which themselves quote, comment, and elaborate on older stories, give us practical and precise guidance for peace: walk, talk, eat, feed, rest, and resist.
Or, to put it in more contemporary terms, we can’t just post outrage on social media or share it only in our circle of friends. We can’t just post love on social media or share it only with our circle of friends.
We have to dial a phone and have face-to-face conversations with people we know and those that we do not want to know. We must show the force of God’s radical love through our physical presence in places of temporal power and even those of pressing danger.
Jesus’ story, though, shows us the risk of that work: death. The nature of his death was in direct response to the way he lived his life.
But, really, death comes either way. Whether we follow the Way of Jesus or not, we will all die.
So maybe Wiman was right. Maybe what the stories are asking is what we are willing to live for. It is up to us whether we will enter that valley as slaves or as freepersons. It is up to us to decide if we will be complicit with dehumanizing power like King Darias’ scheming satraps or we will be adoring of holy potential like Daniel and Hannah and Mary.
Maybe our willingness to not only let our lives be formed by these stories, but stake our lives on them, does not depend on surely or yet, but another word altogether. Not a words that will bolster our confidence, or even give us a good, logical reason to have faith in God’s presence and vision. Maybe the only word that matters is the only one that allows us to hear the good news of God in the first place: yes.
Yes, I will listen. Yes, I will trust. Yes, I will try.
If we can start to say yes to God, then surely we will be willing to take the risks necessary that we all may yet live together in peace.
1Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds. The Jewish Study Bible. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 1166.