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
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
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:
go up to
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 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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.