“Where Do We Go from Here?”

November 13, 2016


Jeremiah 31:27-34

I Timothy 2:1-7


In First Timothy we hear the advice given to early Christians living in difficult times: “Supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”

We may long for peace and quiet. We may want to live in godliness and dignity. We may pray for kings and the president and president-elect and members of Congress and judges.

But the Congregational understanding of Christianity does not allow us simply to sit quietly and pray while the world hurts and rages around us. The old Pilgrim Hymnal had a section of hymns labeled “Pilgrimage and Conflict.” That’s how the Congregational tradition of the United Church of Christ understands the life of faith. Pilgrimage and Conflict. One hymn tells us: “A heavenly race demands thy zeal,” while another asks, “How shall we love thee, holy, hidden Being/If we love not the world which thou hast made?” Archaic language carries a modern sentiment.

We live out our faith in the world of politics and economics rather than take on a passive, other-worldly spirituality. In this way we seek to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and our neighbors as ourselves.

Both politics and faith are public acts. The political process is the way that our communities and our state and our nation organize our common life, allocate our resources, and deal with shared problems. Politics is about the values we honor, the money we allocate, the process we follow so that we can live together with some measure of justice, order, and peace.

For people of faith, concern with politics is never simply about the triumph of one party or another. Far more is at stake.

I think everyone was ready to have this election season finished. But not everyone liked the way it ended. And I think that all of us, even those who are pleased with the results, are living with a lot of uncertainty right now. The Washington Post article announced: “No one has a clue what kind of president Donald Trump will be.” The New York Times reports: “President-Elect’s Inner Circle Includes Clash of Visions” and “Anti-Trump Activists Begin Strategizing.”

As soon as the results were in the question surfaced: Where do we go from here?

We come this morning to the end of a series of readings and sermons from Jeremiah. And who is better than this prophet to address us on this Sunday after the election?

This is the prophet who warned the leaders and the people, the king and the residents of Jerusalem, of God’s coming judgment, of the tearing down and plucking up that was coming. This is the prophet who spoke hard words against false hope and told of impending disaster when others said all would be well. This is the prophet who told exiles to build homes, to plant gardens, to pray for the welfare of their captor nation. And this is the prophet who, as we heard this morning, announced the new thing that God would do, who spoke of real hope in the face of real suffering and who turned the sight of the people toward the future once more.

This morning we hear three suggestions for a way forward.

A call to responsible living in the present time.

The hope of a new covenant.

The announcement of the forgiveness of sin.

Jeremiah calls the people to live responsibly in the present time.

Does anyone here remember the old B-52’s song that asked: “Who’s to blame?” They sang:

Who’s to blame when parties really get out of hand?

Who’s to blame when situations degenerate?

Of course, they were talking about the Saturday night gatherings the spiral out of control, but it now seems as though both political parties are out of hand and the situation of our common life as a nation has degenerated.

Who’s to blame?

Democrats look for scapegoats.

Republicans are developing enemies lists.

Both seem to think there is plenty of blame to go around.

After disaster, the people of ancient Israel sought to discover who’s to blame.

It couldn’t be them. It must be someone else.

Probably it was the older generation. The parents have eaten sour grapes and their children’s teeth are set on edge. This was a popular proverb among the residents of Jerusalem who were taken off into exile in Babylon. God, it seemed, was punishing the people for the sins of their ancestors.

In our nation we have seen how the sour grapes of slavery continue to set the teeth of generations on edge long after its abolition.

We currently continue to have an insatiable appetite for the sour grapes of fossil fuels and are close to the point when our children of countless generations will have their teeth set on edge by climate change.

We recognize the truth of this proverb.

But Jeremiah announces that God will take a different approach. The people hear the good news that, as one person put it, “they are not shackled by the failures of their forebears….Their fate hangs on their own righteousness or unrighteousness—as does ours.”

The words of the prophet sets us free from a past that we cannot change and brings us into a present in which we ourselves can be changed by God’s grace and so become those who shape the world for our time.

Yes, it is important to look at how we got to where we are today—to recall the grapes of wrath and greed, the grapes of fear and despair, the grapes of racism and sexism and homophobia on which we as a nation have been feeding. But we need to recognize that our own appetites have set our own teeth on edge.

We look at all of this, not to assign blame but to find the ability that we have to respond to any situation.

Since last Tuesday there have been numerous reports of attacks on Muslims and Hispanics and African-Americans. Gay, lesbian, and transgender people worry about their safety. It is as though some have taken the vile rhetoric of this election as license.

But in response a growing number of people have taken to wearing safety pins—maybe you’ve seen this—as a way of saying: “I am a safe person, a friendly face, a source of support.” Responding to hatred by being safe people, by being a congregation that is a safe place might put us on the outside of polite society in the coming years. But in doing so, we take responsibility for ourselves, our congregation.

We are called beyond blame to responsible living in the present time.

We also hear the promise of a new covenant—that is, our eyes and our hearts are pointed toward the future.

Jeremiah was not one to create false hope. He lamented that other prophets cried “Peace. Peace.” when there was no peace.

But listen again—the day is coming, he tells us. We don’t know when, but the day is coming. New opportunities will present themselves, so act accordingly. This is not the time for despair or resignation. We don’t need to act like scolds, shrilly calling people to wake up and see how terrible things are—to “know the Lord” is how Jeremiah put it.

Instead we are called to act out of an awareness that God will make a new covenant, that, as we pray, the kingdom will come.

Our nation constantly needs attention. Our common life requires participation.

Physicists tell us that “Nature seems to be less interested in creating structures than in tearing structures apart and mixing things up into a kind of average.” This election, we are told, was about just that—disruption, blowing up the system. Or as Jeremiah puts it, “breaking down and plucking up.”

Once, ancient Israel was a mighty nation.

By the time the words of Jeremiah that we heard this morning were spoken, the nation of Israel was destroyed. Their place of worship was destroyed. The people were living in exile in a foreign land. The message from Jeremiah was usually “you can't unscramble an egg.”

Left to themselves, there is a general tendency for things to decay, to fall apart. Religious words like sin help us to get a handle on some of this.

Left to themselves, things decay. People get tired. People give up.

But we are not left to ourselves.

In the physical world, physicists tell us, atoms and molecules are never entirely left to themselves. They are almost always exposed to a certain amount of energy and material flowing in from the outside. And if that flow of energy and material is enough, then the steady decay and degradation can be partially reversed.

The same is true for our life together. When outside energy and material enters a life, an organization, a people, a new quality of being alive develops.

Covenant means that we are not left to ourselves. The promise of a new covenant means that what was regarded as the certain end is not seen that way by God. We are not left to ourselves and our own devices.

In the midst of a despairing and hopeless situation, Jeremiah announces that there is a power at work doing something unexpected, something undeserved. Jeremiah, who can be even gloomier than I often am, Jeremiah announces a power at work in the world that brings new life where we might expect no life.

In the midst of change and uncertainty, God is continuing to do new and amazing things with this congregation;

In the midst of change and uncertainty, God is continuing to do new and amazing things in our individual lives;

In the midst of change and uncertainty, God is continuing to do new and amazing things in our nation and world.

We hear the call to responsibility.

We hear the hope of a new covenant.

And we hear of the forgiveness of sin, which is the ability to begin anew after responsibility has been shirked, after covenants have been broken.

Sin is that separation that we know so well—the separation from our neighbors, the separation from God, the separation even from the best within ourselves. In saying that God will no longer remember the sin of the people, Jeremiah is pointing toward a new possibility and a new power coming into this world.

Perhaps you have known that forgiving another person, forgiving yourself releases a tremendous amount of energy. I hope you have experienced this. Everything that was being used for resentment, for anger, hatred, or self-loathing is now available for something more positive.

In the same way, accepting the forgiveness of others, the forgiveness of God creates new possibilities in your life. I hope you have known this as well.

God says: I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sin no more.

The power and possibility of God’s forgiveness creates new power and possibility in us.

Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop who knew firsthand the abuse and oppression of apartheid in South Africa, tells us: “To forgive is not just to be altruistic. It is the best form of self-interest. It is also a process that does not exclude hatred and anger. These emotions are all part of being human. You should never hate yourself for hating others who do terrible things: the depth of your love is shown by the extent of your anger.”

Human forgiveness is a discovery most often unearthed while we are living in the pain of being ourselves.

Responsibility. Covenant. Forgiveness.

Where do we go from here?

In the direction of the same goals we would have been moving toward regardless of who won the presidential election. So get up and get going.

We need to continue to do the work that we are already doing, recognizing that is still unfinished. Maybe there will be more resistance, but we will continue to: work for interfaith understanding, cooperation, and acceptance, include people of all sexual orientations in the life of our nation as we do in the life of our congregation, strive to overcome the racism that clings so closely, speak the truth about the reality of climate change before it's too late—and time is running out, pursue paths of economic justice, live toward peace, and—I’ll keep saying this until it happens: in all things seeking the good.