THE WAVERLY PULPIT
Richard Secrest Hays, M.Div.
First Presbyterian Church of Waverly
211 Schmitt Dr., Waverly, Ohio 45690 + 740.947.2905
Sunday, June 25, 2017
Are You Being Chased?
An extraordinary and compelling crucifix hangs on the wall of the Cathedral College Chapel at the Washington National Cathedral. The observer can’t help but be drawn to this curious piece of art. The crucifix, sculpted from bronze on wood by Gurdon Brewster, depicts an additional figure on that Celtic cross with Jesus. They hang together, facing one another, their arms lovingly wrapped around each other.(1)
It evokes a number of biblical images. There is the father embracing the wayward, penniless, repentant, younger son on his return home. There is Mary desiring to cling to the risen Christ. There is Thomas, with his fingers in the risen Jesus’ wounds, declaring, “My Lord and my God!”
Farther afield biblically there is Ruth clinging to Naomi declaring that she will go with Naomi to Naomi’s homeland and that Naomi’s God will be Ruth’s God. There is the embrace between the estranged brothers Jacob and Esau when they meet after years of separation following Jacob’s youthful deceit. There is Elisha desiring two measures of Elijah’s spirit as the older prophet is whisked away to heaven in the fiery chariot.
Who is the second person clinging to Jesus on the crucifix? It is you, me, anyone, everyone in need of that embrace. Each of us is there on that cross, timelessly wrapped in the arms of the crucified Christ. The title of this crucifix is “Welcome Home.” Good, solid preaching, at its best, always urges every hearer of the word, beginning with the preacher, to allow the embracing arms and heart of God to enfold them. Pastoral preaching is always about “Welcome Home.”
The 20closeAn error occurred.th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr gave powerful voice to a 1902 aphorism by a Chicago journalist, Finley Peter Dunne, who described the work of newspapers as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” Niebuhr used the words about the work of preaching. Sermons need to have two purposes: the first is to comfort those who driven to the margins of society by their own sin as well as societal sin; the second is to afflict with a view to bring them to repentance those who are so insensitive to the working of God’s grace in their own lives that they cause others to spin out of control in their own and society’s sin. The word that afflicts is prophetic preaching. At its best, prophetic preaching exhorts every participant (again, preacher first) to “Leave Home,” to be driven by the Spirit into the wilderness of today’s world, to wrestle with and defiantly to speak God’s counter-cultural word to the monumental injustices that afflict so many of God’s people and which other of God’s people cannot or will not see.
Thus preaching must be pastoral and prophetic. For all of us are sinners in need to be called out for our sinning against God “in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone,” as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer penned so eloquently in the general confession for the original 16th century Book of Common Prayer, words still used today. Yet even in his prayer, Cranmer concluded with pastoral grace: “In your mercy forgive what we have been, amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways.”
The prophet is always caught on the prongs of this dual nature of the word. Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knew that God would likely change the divine mind about destroying the people. Oh, how Jonah wanted to revel in that outcome. And when he finally did God’s work, forgiveness was exactly what God provided the sack-clothed and ash-wearing Ninevites. And Jonah was angry.
Jeremiah was as vituperative a prophet as any, yet he too was caught between pastoral grace and prophetic witness. Like Jonah, Jeremiah was angry at God. He prophesied as God commanded and nothing happened. The people didn’t change nor did God smite them. Instead, all his preaching made him a laughingstock, the butt of everyone’s jokes and derision.
Jeremiah had the misfortune of living in a time of great social upheaval. I suspect he would really identify with the events of today’s world. God had given him the unpleasant task of warning the people of Jerusalem that their city will be destroyed. Leading up to today’s reading, Jeremiah has expressed his grief and anger at his task. He doesn’t hold anything back. In very strong language, the prophet accuses God of having conned him into being a prophet. Some translators from the Hebrew temper Jeremiah’s language by using a milder term such as “persuaded” or “enticed.” Either way, the implication here is that Jeremiah found himself helpless before God’s powers of persuasion (or simply God’s power) and he is now suffering the consequences.
Jeremiah is in a no-win situation. He is compelled to speak against Jerusalem and all he gets is abuse. But when he decides to stop speaking, the word of God burns inside of him, and he has no peace then either. To make matters worse, God seems absent, both when Jeremiah speaks and when he remains silent. The prophet seems so confused that he can’t see straight. In these seven verses he starts with an invocation (which is really a “calling out” of God), follows that with a description of his predicament, a confession of confidence, a petition, and finally a command to praise God. Jeremiah can do this because he has an intimate, personal relationship with God. He also represents the people of God who, whether they realize it or not, are just as confused about how to deal with God.
We can often identify with the prophet. We can’t understand what God is doing. We wonder why God isn’t doing something more. We wonder when God is going to act. We think that God should be doing something different than what we perceive God is doing. We don’t see honest and sincere prayers being answered. God doesn’t seem to be explaining very well what God is doing. God has deceived us with both talk of punishment and talk of grace. We are frustrated to say the least, and upset bordering on anger.
We can’t write Jeremiah off as being a nut case. He is very human. We can’t psychoanalyze him into a nice padded pew in an out of the way chapel. He is front and center at the chancel. He is as earnest as he can get. His lament, his outcry, his harsh words leveled at God, is really an expression of faith! He is being spiritual to the deepest recesses of his soul.
Lament, and even anger at God, is not the opposite of faith in God. Doubt and struggle in the face of vocation do not negate his vocation. The prophet mightily struggles with the realities of his life of faith, but his railing, his questioning, his crying out is not blasphemy. There must be room for that struggle in the life of faith. True faith seethes at times, runs smack up against knotty issues, gets perplexed at the seeming incongruities of faith. A placid, unruffled, unquestioning, unchallenged faith is suspect.
The life of faith is not always serene. It is not quiet submission to the will of God. A faithful life struggles with God and God’s will, as surely as Jacob wrestled with God at Bethel and as Elijah fled in lonely fear following the defeat of Jezebel’s prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. It is only through the struggle that we get reassurance that God’s grace is, when all is said and done, truly all sufficient. When Jeremiah is uttering his lament, God does not come to him in a thundercloud, a burning bush, or the rich silence of a morning meditation. God does not seem to respond to Jeremiah at all. Nevertheless, Jeremiah’s lament turns to praise. Even in the midst of his despair and anger, Jeremiah knows that the God who has overpowered him is the sovereign God whose grace is sufficient.
Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has rescued the needy from the clutches of evildoers.
The trials of faith can be like the hound of heaven thundering down on us, chasing us for all that grace is worth. If we aren’t being chased by questions, doubts, pain, raucous lament, then our faith may be beyond resuscitation. 20th century theologian Paul Tillich, a contemporary of Niebuhr, wrote that grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness, when we walk though the “dark valley of a meaningless and empty life,” when despair destroys all joy and courage.(2)
Jeremiah’s prophetic task takes him to the edge of despair. He experiences the silence of God and the derision of his fellow countrymen, even to the point of feeling violated by that same prophetic calling. But when he expresses his pain, he does so in the faith language of his people. His response to pain reminds us that there is room for lament in faith, and indeed for public expression of pain in worship, for the grace of God is sufficient. Welcome home!