September 22 Sermon

A TIME TO MOURN

A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on September 22, 2013 (Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

    Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

    10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”    – Luke 16:1-13

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We have been reading passages from the prophet Jeremiah for a few weeks in our worship services.  Last week we read of Jeremiah’s warnings about how the people of Judah and Jerusalem would be conquered as God’s punishment for continuing to worship idols – the gods and goddesses of nature and prosperity.  And for trusting more in their own wealth and military power and cleverness than in the God who had made them a people, saved them from bondage, and given them a land of their own.  This punishment at the hands of a conquering army was – according to Jeremiah – God’s own doing.

That prophecy came true.  Jerusalem fell in 587 BCE.  The people couldn’t believe this could happen, but it did.  It was such a traumatic experience that the echoes of it are found throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, and even into the New Testament.

I remember reading this passage from Jeremiah in our worship shortly after the events of September 11, 2001.  That was a terrible tragedy in this country.  We still feel the aftereffects to this day.  But I dare say it was not nearly as terrible as the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem for God’s people.  Their kingdom came to an end; all of their impressive and sacred buildings were destroyed.  It was a time of overwhelming grief and mourning for the people.

That grief and mourning are expressed in these words of Jeremiah: “My heart is sick.”  “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”  (Jeremiah 8:18; 9:1)  Perhaps you have known that kind of grief at some time in your life – when you felt sick, and the tears just kept coming, day and night.

The question that interests biblical scholars is, “Whose words are these?”  Are they the prophets, or are they God’s, spoken through the mouth of Jeremiah?  It turns out they could belong to either.  Or perhaps they are even a kind of dialogue between Jeremiah and God.  But imagine that God had brought this terrible calamity on the people of Jerusalem – and yet the same God was heartsick with grief over their destruction and suffering.

That may seem strange at first – that God would both cause this disaster and feel sick about it.  But I would bet that some of you parents have had a similar experience – where you have had to discipline and punish a child of yours, even though you hated to see them miss out on something they had been looking forward to, or even though they felt terribly hurt by it.  You know that old expression, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you?”  My guess it that is true sometimes.  It is possible for someone who loves us to punish us, and to feel terrible while doing so.

The popular singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg wrote a song many years ago about his father, whom he described as disciplining him as a young man with “a thundering, velvet hand.”  (“The Leader of the Band”, from the 1981 album The Innocent Age)  What a way to describe the discipline of love!  That is the kind of love that God had for God’s people in the ancient city of Jerusalem.

This is an important piece of prophetic poetry for our time – and for all times – as people of faith.  Because we all know grief and mourning at some point in our lives. Grief is unavoidable, because it is the result of the loss of things that matter to us.  Most of us have experienced losing a loved one.  My first encounter with loss and grief was as a teenager – my grandmother died when I was in high school, and one of my high school classmates was killed in a car accident.  Many deal with death at an even younger age.

All relationships bring with them the inevitability of loss.  The great 20th century British writer C. S. Lewis lost his beloved wife to cancer.  He wrote, “The pain I feel now is the happiness I had before.  That’s the deal.”  That is the deal.  Anyone or anything that can bring us happiness can also bring us grief when it is lost.

Many people wonder what one can say or do for a friend who suffers loss and grief.  A lot of well-intentioned responses aren’t particularly helpful: Like, “I know how you feel.” (We don’t).

What has been helpful for you when you were grieving? (Ask for people’s experiences)

Usually, the best thing we can do for someone who is grieving is to be with them, and let them cry.  And perhaps cry with them.

It’s important to realize that we can mourn the loss of other things besides loved ones.  Many things can cause us grief: the end of a relationship or marriage; the loss of a dream; the loss of our physical abilities and independence (many of you know about that).  I remember when I could no longer play basketball.  I dread the day I can’t play golf any more.  It won’t be the end of the world for me, but it will be a time to mourn.

The good news of the prophet Jeremiah is that the God of Israel – the God who created us and loved us and who desires that we be free to love and serve God in return – the God who sometimes will discipline us when we do stupid and hurtful things – this God will be there with us in our toughest times – in our moments of loss and grief.  We may not always feel God’s presence.  We may wish God might instantly take away our pain – but that doesn’t happen.  But God mourns for us.  God cries for us.  And somehow, there is comfort in that.

In fact, God mourns for a world brimming over with loss and grief that goes far beyond our own lives.  God grieves for innocent kids shot on the streets and in the parks of Chicago.  Yesterday, several of us visited the powerful Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, which tells the stories of the millions of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and even disabled children who were put to death by the Nazis in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.  But it also remembers the stories of other organized efforts to wipe out entire racial or ethnic communities.  God says, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (Jer 8:21)

This brings us to this strange parable of Jesus in Luke 16 – a parable that is only recounted in Luke.  It doesn’t seem to fit with other teachings of Jesus – encouraging believers to act shrewdly, and to make friends by means of dishonest wealth.  I have read several commentaries on this parable, and everyone struggles with it.  The only way I have been able to make any sense of this story is to believe that Jesus was being facetious when he told it.  We don’t usually think of Jesus being funny – having a sense of humor, but I think there is more humor in the gospels than most would imagine.  This story is so ridiculous I don’t see how it can be taken seriously.  A master would commend his manager for cheating him in order to get a job with his debtors?  I don’t think so!  Would those debtors then hire someone they have known to be dishonest?  I doubt it!  Would friends who only care about money welcome you when your money is gone?  No way!  And can any shrewd businessmen welcome you into “the eternal homes?”  Can’t be done.

I think Jesus is telling us – with a humorous story — that all of those other idols – those pretend gods that seem so appealing to us: money, power, beauty, popularity, etc, — they might be with you when you’re on top, but when life falls apart and you’ve lost what was dear to you – they won’t even know you.

But the God of Israel, the God of Jeremiah, the God of Jesus will stick with us through our darkest days.  The kingdoms of Israel and Judah came to an end, but a generation later a remnant of faithful people were able to rebuild Jerusalem and its temple.  It wasn’t just like the old days, but it was a new chapter in the life of God’s people.  When the best man the world had ever known was unjustly crucified, there was terrible grief.  But then there was resurrection.  God doesn’t prevent the pain.  God doesn’t take away the pain.  God sticks with us through the pain.

That is a God that is worth believing in, worth worshiping, worth receiving discipline from, worth loving.

Amen.

Robert J. von Trebra

After the sermon, we played a recording of “I’ll Stand by You” by the Pretenders, from the 1994 album Last of the Independents.

YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=maAyfcO-X3k

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