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The Dance of Merrymakers

Sermon - 3/23/08
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Jeremiah 31:1-6, 12-13

Once again we come here, reminded of how a charismatic, controversial preacher was publicly crucified, and who will not be silenced, his followers say, by the powers of this world.

But enough about Barack Obama's pastor J.

Isn't it striking how once again religion and politics have become so enmeshed in public life.  I've just glanced at the title of the newspaper this morning as I left the house, and it said something about Pastor's re-thinking their sermons as a result of all the controversy around the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (and Obama's comments about his former Pastor).

But I did not intend to get into that controversy this morning. . . . .however, I cannot help myself J.  I mean, what Pastor does not dream of having his sermons debated on national news?!  Even if it would be somewhat controversial and include disparaging remarks made about him, for now, I just want you to note how religion is a good thing when it comforts and soothes us, but when it causes unrest, when it challenges the holy icon of American civil religion, when it dares to say anything other than "God Bless America", well, then it is to be condemned. 

And we call this "religious freedom".  Excuse my cynicism.

The snippets of the sermons by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright that have been played for us in the news and on www.YouTube.com were indeed disturbing.  And it's no surprise that candidate Obama would distance himself from them.

But folks, here's the lesson -- the teachable moment for us:  the feelings you felt if you saw that on the news, or if you looked it up on YouTube and heard his sermon after 9/11 saying 'God damn America', those feelings you felt, the revulsion, anger, whatever it was -- those are the feelings of the people in power when they heard the preaching of Jesus condemn them.

And that's what got him killed.

We sometimes forget that Jesus was not crucified for being nice.  He did not die to make us feel better.  He was executed because his message of the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven -- that is, a different empire with a different ruler -- was seen as a threat to worldly power, the current empire, and the current ruler.  So they killed him.  They buried him in a tomb.  They sealed it shut.  Matthew tells us they even posted guards so that the dead would-be King would remain dead.  And the only Lord and Savior of the world would continue to be the one that had always been Lord and Savior on the throne in Rome.

And it almost worked.  There was no reason to believe it wouldn't work -- it had always worked before.  The brutality of Roman justice was swift and sure.  Only this time, it was different.  This time, death would not have the last word.  This time, the power of Rome would be matched and surpassed by the power of God.  This time, a new possibility would arise where none was expected.

We can look upon Easter as something radically different, something radically new.  And it is.  But it is also wholly consistent with the character of God as revealed throughout Hebrew scripture. 

Case in point is the text this morning from another Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah, from chapter 31, reading 1-6 and 12-13:

At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people.
2Thus says the Lord:
The people who survived the sword
   found grace in the wilderness;
when Israel sought for rest,
3   the Lord appeared to him from far away.
I have loved you with an everlasting love;
   therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
4Again I will build you, and you shall be built,
   O virgin Israel!
Again you shall take your tambourines,
   and go forth in the dance of the merrymakers.
5Again you shall plant vineyards
   on the mountains of Samaria;
the planters shall plant,
   and shall enjoy the fruit.
6For there shall be a day when sentinels will call
   in the hill country of Ephraim:
‘Come, let us go up to Zion,
   to the Lord our God.’

12They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion,
   and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord,
over the grain, the wine, and the oil,
   and over the young of the flock and the herd;
their life shall become like a watered garden,
   and they shall never languish again.
13Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
   and the young men and the old shall be merry.
I will turn their mourning into joy,
   I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.


If you know anything about the context of Jeremiah, you know how incredible this passage is.  Jeremiah was the last prophet of the kingdom of David.  The 10 Northern Tribes of Israel had been dispersed, that portion of the nation destroyed by the Assyrians, and they ceased to be.  Jeremiah here makes a reference to it when he speaks of the hills of Samaria -- that was the land of those 10 tribes.

The two tribes of Southern Judah, with its capital of Jerusalem, were all that was left.  And Babylonia was about to destroy that.  Jeremiah tried to warn that nation of its imminent doom, but their over-confidence in the protection of God would not allow consideration of such a possibility.  And then when Jerusalem did indeed fall and that period of Babylonian captivity began, Jeremiah changed his tune.  He spoke not of judgment, but of grace.  Not of doom, but of hope.  Not of mourning, but of a time of dancing.

And so he set forth a stunning vision of a new life in a restored land, filled with joy and merrymaking.  And it is thus an apt description of Easter, for the joy of Easter.  That is why the lectionary committees have selected it as one of the passages to be read on this Easter Sunday.

Last week, on KLCC's radio broadcast "Sunday at Noon", I was asked by a caller of the biblical prophecy as it relates to modern Israel.  And I said that prophecy is not about fore-telling, but is about forth-telling.  That is, speaking for God about what is happening in the world today.

And this text is a great example of that.  It is not a prediction of future events, but the assurance of God's intent.  This is what God desires, that the future of Israel should be like.  The love of God is such that this is what God wills for the people of God.

And as Christians, we believe that the love of God expressed for the people of Israel is a model of God's love for all humanity.  Thus, this is not just the hope of one nation, but it is the hope of all nations.

Be that as it may, in many ways, modern Israel today represents a very specific fulfillment of this vision for God's people.  Having just returned from Israel, I can tell you it truly is grace in the wilderness.  Where a people who quite literally survived the sword of the Holocaust.

But as you are also aware, the holy land is a deeply conflicted land, where true and lasting security and peace seem but an elusive dream.  Even thought the polls repeatedly show a vast majority of Israeli's want to trade land for peace and support a two-state solution (to give statehood to the Palestinians), and even though we were told by both Palestinians and Israeli leaders alike that 90% of the issues that separate them have been resolved in previous negotiations, still the resolution to the current crisis seems as far away as ever.

One of the things that became powerfully clear on my trip was the depth of the feelings of anger and frustration and resentment on both sides.  The rocket attack on Ashkelon by Hamas, and the counter-attack on Gaza by the Israeli defense forces (all carried out while we were there in Israel), brought out all kinds of reactions on both sides. 

And thus the conflict continues in a downward spiral of retaliatory violence that no one seems to want or to know how to stop.

I was asked at a presentation that I gave here on Monday night, reporting on that trip, if I saw any signs of hope.  This is, after all, entering into Easter, it is the season of hope.

Does the hope that we have because of our faith in God reveal to us if that Easter experience has any meaning beyond our personal lives, and in such a complex problem as peace in the Middle East.  If it does not, what hope can we have that God cares for any other problem that we face in the world today?  Or that the assurance of God's love for an entire nation, as expressed in this text, also applies to us?

I struggled at first with my answer to that request for signs of hope because I realized I was looking in the wrong place.  The facts on the ground, as they say, have become so problematic, the peace negotiations so bogged down, each side at each other's throat, we typically see little sign of hope. 

Like the disciples on Good Friday, we see only worldly power.  The power of the cross.  Silence of the tomb.  Save for a few crazy women who saw something else, we nearly missed the resurrection.

And I realized that I had become no different.  I had become focused on Good Friday instead of Easter.  On the power of government to destroy rather than the power of God to create.

So what gives me hope is what should always give us hope -- not what governments do or do not do, but what God is doing.  And when we look for signs of what God is doing, we get a different picture.

Diana Butler-Bass was speaking here in Eugene while I was in Israel, many of you went to hear her over at First United Methodist Church.  Though I missed her, I have read many of the things she has written about new life in the church, especially her most recent book "Christianity for the Rest of Us".  Which provides a great story of hope for progressive churches like this one, I recommend it to you.  But writing in Sojourners, she tells of a chance encounter she had with Episcopal Bishop Daniel Corrigan.

Corrigan was the first Bishop to ordain women to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church.  Both a prophet and a pastor in a dynamic, spiritually vital, progressive congregation, as Easter approached, she happened to overhear a parishioner question this liberal lion, in the twilight of his life:  "Do you believe in the resurrection?".

Deeply curious as to how this non-literalist would answer such a challenging literal question, Butler-Bass listened carefully.  The Bishop said:  "Yes, I believe in the resurrection, I've seen it too many times not to".

So here's my story of hope, my witness to the resurrection.  I saw it not in the Church of the Nativity, built over the place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Nor the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built over the place where he died at Golgotha, and the tomb where he was laid.  I did not see it in the Galilean Sea or in the muddy waters of the Jordan River.  Nor in any of the other many holy sites -- way too many if you ask me.  But after 9 days of endless dialogue with various leaders of all walks of life about the great complexities of such a small land, worn from travel and perplexing conversations to the point of exhaustion (just trying to sort it all out), my resurrection experience came where I least expected it:  on the way home, in the taxi ride to the airport.

The rest of the tour group had left the day before, I was there by myself, coming out of Bethlehem to visit some friends of Ibrahim Hamide (a local friend), his family, just by chance hooked up with a German Lutheran pastor who was working in Bethlehem, and we shared a taxi out of Bethlehem to Jerusalem.  And I asked the taxi driver if he'd be willing to take me on to the airport, which he was.

Yazeed is an Arab who lives in Jerusalem.  20% of Israel, by the way, are Arabic.  Yazeed is a Muslim in name, but not in practice.  He had found his own spirituality driving a cab in the holy city.  Trained as a mechanical engineer, he went to work for one of the car companies -- Audi, BMW, or somebody.  After a couple years, he saw person after person pass him up, promoted over him, because, he felt, he was Arab and they were Jewish.  He changed companies thinking it would make a difference, but once again he was passed up for promotions.  He finally came to the conclusion that as an Arab, he had little chance of gaining in his profession.

Discouraged, depressed, he quit and became a taxi driver.  It was very difficult, and at first he was quite bitter about life and his fate.  And then he began to engage his riders.  And he soon discovered that it didn't matter who he picked up -- Jew, Muslim, Christian, religious, non-religious -- he found good in every person that got into his cab.

One day his fare was an ultra orthodox Rabbi.  And because he is fluent in Hebrew, the Rabbi thought Yazeed was Jewish.  They began this wonderful conversation about being a Jew in Israel, the Torah and the like, until the Rabbi discovered that he was an Arab.  Initially shocked at this realization and taken aback, Yazeed gently challenged the Rabbi to see him differently.  Not as a foreigner but as a friend.  And with a series of insightful questions, he slowly won over the Rabbi's goodwill.  By the time they got to their destination, he had made a new friend.

Yazeed's bitterness has been replaced with thankfulness, and he sees now only the good in every person he meets.

If an Arab taxi driver, the victim of discrimination in a Jewish nation, can befriend an ultra orthodox Rabbi, is this not evidence of God at work?  To reconcile a divided land and people, if only one at a time?

If Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland can continue to abide by the Good Friday peace accords signed 10 years ago, is this not evidence of new life in God where once only death and strife was possible?

If a racially divided nation like South Africa can peacefully end the oppression of Apartheid, is this not evidence of what God can do in our nation as we, at last, honestly and sincerely face race issues and perhaps begin to live the dream where all truly are treated equally as children of God?

If the Berlin wall can be torn down without firing a single shot or losing a single life, is this not a sign of God's intent for the holy land as well? 

A land without walls that separate us, and where the presence of the holy brings peace and understanding instead of conflict and hatred.

If non-violent peaceful protest can change civil rights in this country and bring an end to the terrible war in Vietnam, can we not through our voices and actions change the course of our nation and bring an end to poverty and racism and the wars that we fight?

To show the desire of God that swords be turned into plowshares and mourning for the dead be turned into the joy of life.  That we may truly sing "God Bless America", "God Bless Israel", "God Bless Palestine", "God Bless Asia", "God Bless Africa", "God Bless Europe", "God Bless the World"?

Is this not our message?  The message of hope, of transformation for our lives and the world.  The message of good news that we have to share on Easter -- to bring that to the world?

History, you see, is full of Easter stories.  The resurrection that keeps happening.  To bring new life where once was only death.  And when we see God at work in the miracles of life and the goodness of others all around us, we will know hope.  We will feel the presence of God.  We will see the resurrection.  We will know that Jesus lives.

And then we can join the dance of the merrymakers.

May it be.


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