Sunday, December 7, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Experiencing the Lives of Others"

Jeremiah 8:8-11

8 How can you say, “We are wise; we possess the Lord’s Instruction,” when the lying pen of the scribes has surely distorted it? 9 The wise will be shamed and shocked when they are caught. Look, they have rejected the Lord’s word; what kind of wisdom is that? 10 Therefore, I will give their wives to others and their fields to their captors. From the least to the greatest, all are eager to profit. From prophet to priest, all trade in falsehood. 11 They treat the wound of my people as if it were nothing: “All is well, all is well,” they insist, when in fact nothing is well. (Common English Bible)

“The Power of Half: How Dividing Something Changed Everything,” Week Two

The Abers were a heavily indebted suburban family with a mortgage on a three-bedroom home, student loans, and maxed out credit cards.  They drove used cars and could not afford health insurance after the…father…lost his long-time job as a computer engineer.  His unemployment had run out and he could not find work.  The…mother (Ann) worked for $9 an hour as a full-time hospital receptionist.  Their three children, ages 16, 10, and 8, lived at home.  Their daughter, 16-year-old Alice, was pregnant.

Ann made $1,324 a month after taxes, but the families (sic) total expenses were $1,545 per month, and even with a combined $540 in food stamps, the family couldn’t make ends meet.  Within a month of time compressed into one hour, the family didn’t even buy groceries for the first two weeks.  And when Alice was arrested for bringing a weapon to school, the family couldn’t immediately afford to bail her out…(and) they managed to pay their mortgage with cash, but then got an eviction notice because they had no record of the payment.

The Abers, fortunately, are not a real family—they are a figment, a fiction invented for the purposes of a simulation run by our own Community Action Program here in Longview, for folks here in town to try to simulate living within the means of an impoverished family.  Unfortunately, though, the challenges faced by the Abers are the exact same ones faced by families here in town—families who may be your neighbors, families who may in fact be yourselves.

And at least for an hour that day, people tried to live out the Biblical dictum of walking in another person’s shoes—albeit still presumably with their own warm shoes still on, in a heated room rather than out in the elements or in an inadequate home with boatloads of deferred maintenance.  But that sort of empathy is what is required of us, if we are to ultimately live out a truly Christian life.

How many of you will wake up the morning of December 26 and think to yourselves something along the lines of, “Wow, I’m glad all that work is over with for another year?”  How many of us will get to that dangling week between Christmas and New Year’s and feel like we just OD’ed on everything pepperminty  and jingle-belly? (But if you still want your peppermint mochas after Christmas, just brew your regular coffee and squeeze a tube of toothpaste into your mug.  Ta da!  You’re welcome.)

Well, if that applies to you, then maybe we need to halve back on all of the trappings of December?  Because this *isn’t* the Christmas season, not yet—the Christmas season is 12 days long (hence the song.  No, really.) and it actually doesn’t end until several days into January of next year.  But to help us now, in the task of preparing the way for the Lord this Advent season, I’ve selected a memoir by a father-and-teenage daughter duo, Kevin and Hannah Salwen, entitled “The Power of Half,” which gets its title from their family literally liquidating and selling half of their family’s entire net worth: half of their home value (and subsequently moving into a smaller home), going from two cars to one, the whole nine yards.  And they learn a lot as they cleave away at their material lives, including exactly how much they have to begin with, and they decide to give away that half they liquidated to anti-poverty initiatives in rural Ghana in West Africa.  Last week, we heard from Hannah in her chapter entitled, “Realizing How Much You Have,” and this week, we’ll hear from her in her chapter entitled, “Experiencing the Lives of Others:”

A major problem of motivation is that most people cannot even begin to feel what people with less means go through every day.  Many people feel pity for people less fortunate than themselves.  But the big leap is from pity to honest understanding.  For me, a very important step in our project was to look at my life compared to others.

Have you ever heard the old Indian folktale of the blind men and the elephant?  In the story, a group of blind men touch an elephant and then describe what they are feeling.  One rubs the tail and thinks the elephant is like a rope; others compare the parts to a wall or a snake.  The point of the fable is that people see only a small portion of reality.  We live in a narrow world, and it’s so important to see things from different perspectives.

So what on earth does this “experiencing the lives of others” sentiment have to do with what Jeremiah is saying here in his eighth chapter?  Because, if you recall what I said in last week’s message, Jeremiah’s world is one of complete and utter loss: of his home, of his homeland, of his country, of his dignity as an Israelite Jew.  And he cannot escape this life of his that he has been consigned to when Babylon conquers Judah, sacks the capital city, Jerusalem, and destroys the Jerusalem temple that King Solomon built.  As Hebrew Bible professor Louis Stulman writes:

Jeremiah himself…is a prisoner of such a world.  He cannot escape (and neither can we).  The prophet from Anathoth is never afforded the opportunity to speak as mere outsider or messenger.  He must participate in the anguish of God and in the death of Judah’s world.  Like the God of Israel, Jeremiah endures the pain of rejection and bears the sorrow of scorn and reproach.

Jeremiah is immersed in this travesty, there is no possible out for him.  That is why we need to try to understand and experience his life if we are to take full meaning from his prophecies.  And in point of fact, he lends a word to how we manage to isolate ourselves from the experiences of others in this passage from Jeremiah 8, when he says, “How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the Lord,’ when the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?”

The passage for today begins with that verse, but that verse actually comes from the middle of a prophecy—I had to do something I really don’t like to do for the sake of giving an effective sermon, and slice out all of the context of the preceding verses, but otherwise, there would be no way for me to effectively communicate this sentiment to you in one go.  Don’t blame Jeremiah, blame me.

So how does the ‘lying pen of the scribes’ factor in here?  The scribes were a part of the religious elite in Jerusalem, who, along with the priests and the monarchy itself, were responsible for the handing down of religious teachings and traditions from one generation to the next.  And as we established last week, the scribes completely fell down on the job in acquiescing to Shallum’s and Jehoiakim’s move away from the worship of God that their father King Josiah insisted upon right back towards the Ba’als that Israel had been enthralled with for far too long already.

The scribes’ false teachings lead, Jeremiah says, “the wise (to) be put to shame…dismayed, and trapped.”  Trapped in what?  Trapped in a world put forward by the scribes, by the priests, by the king himself, constructed only around one narrative, that the only acceptable form of worship is the worship of the Ba’als, and at the expense of experiencing the genuine worship of God.  The scribes, under the king, shut off an entire world, an entire reality, centered around the love of a God who called them to be His children and to treat His children justly and lovingly.  A God who is actually worthy of our worship.  A God who was experienced by others, possibly even these scribes’ parents.

But they shut off others from that experience.  And Jeremiah is rightfully taking them to task for it.

And today, voluntarily in our choices of what perspectives and viewpoints we consume, we tend to act just like the scribes of Jeremiah’s time: we shut ourselves off from the experiences of others.

Let me use an innocuous example--I can probably find a Kansas City Chiefs bar in the greater Portland area somewhere where I can pretend I am still in Kansas City and not living amongst you, my lovely Seahawks fans!

But that is a problem in the big world, though…for us as people, for us as the church, for us as Christians.  Because we can talk until we are blue in the face about how we are not of this world and are merely passing through and to remain uncorrupted by the world—and while that last bit is in fact Scriptural (James 1), that does not mean we should not have roots in this world that extend far beyond the bubbles we set up for ourselves around hearth and home.  Because without venturing outside of our bubbles, we are liable to do the same thing that Jeremiah laments at the end of this passage: to not recognize the wounds and hurts of God’s people, to insist that everything is well when everything is not at all well.

And that—more than anything else—is what is, I think, characterizing the national debate taking place right now over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  Some of us, instead of seeing a concern, insist that all is well, all is well, when so, so many of our brothers and sisters of color will tell you things are anything but well.

It isn’t just Ferguson, or New York, or “race relations,” whatever that means, either.  It’s everything.

We sit down to a festive meal in a warm dining room with our family and we think to ourselves, “All is well,” when just down the road, when just across the river, when just a stone’s throw through town, a person in addiction is choosing that night between getting shelter or getting high.

We decorate our Christmas tree with ornaments and tinsel and lights, we admire the beauty of our handiwork, and we think to ourselves, “All is well,” when halfway around the world, another Christian, or another person, or another family, has no house to decorate to begin with.

And I can well imagine that two thousand years ago, at an inn in Bethlehem, an innkeeper looked at his books for the night, saw that he had a full house, and thought to himself, “All is well,” even as a nine-months-pregnant teenaged girl labored to give birth to the Messiah this innkeeper had awaited.

Far too often, our lives are imperfect and incomplete, and we use our religion as a security blanket to make that broken state of affairs okay, or at least excusable, so that we can continue to worship God in comfort, when in fact worshipping God has never, ever, been about our personal comfort.

God, even in the form of a tiny newborn son, was always far, far bigger than our personal comfort.

That’s what these attempts are to get us who are not impoverished to try to experience poverty.  Without experiencing others’ discomfort and danger, we are always going to be less liable to care about it…and to care about finding a solution to it.

May we, then, take as our example the Christ who had divinity itself and surrendered it in order to experience our human discomforts and dangers, so that, as a human He might one day save us all.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

December 7, 2014

(Note: If you'd like to take part in a short poverty simulation like the one I talked about today, please click on the "Spent Game" link on the side of my blog.  Spent is a program run by an agency in Durham, North Carolina, and their awareness work with this simulation is top-notch.)

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