Re-Imagine: A Straight Path
The last few weeks we’ve been reading the prophetic lectionary texts, passages from the great prophets of the Hebrew people. We know from our study that prophets were an important part of the life of the Israelites after the monarchy began.
Prophets were usually ordinary people who were given the task by God of pointing out injustice and wrongdoing. Basically, they were the burr under the saddle of the people and the monarchy, always preaching some version of you’d better get yourself right with God or watch out.
Jeremiah was a prophet of Israel who had a long career lasting over 50 years during some of the most unsettled time in the entire history of Israel. When he started his prophetic work, things were looking good—Josiah was king and long-needed reforms were taking place. But things went downhill from there and as Jeremiah preached his message of destruction and warning, he became, shall we say, less than popular with the people in power at the time.
Sometime during Jeremiah’s tenure as prophet, as he had predicted, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem, destroying the city and taking the people into exile. Jeremiah was carted off to exile, too, with many of the citizens of Jerusalem.
I guess you could say that he had reason to be gloomy. Jeremiah is known as the “Weeping Prophet,” and if you sat down and read the book of Jeremiah you would be deeply, terribly depressed. Jeremiah is a book full of relentless predictions of God’s judgment, foretellings of the end of the monarchy, prophecies about the destruction of the city. Next year, in fact, we’ll be taking four weeks to look more closely at the prophet Jeremiah and his message of gloom and doom. Can’t wait!
You’ll have to take my word on the gloominess of Jeremiah, though, if all you read is the passage from today’s Hebrew text. Today’s passage comes from a section of Jeremiah—three chapters—known as the “Little Book of Consolation.” Remember, the people have started to experience what Jeremiah had predicted—likely the fall of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon. They are feeling the pain of their separation from God and feeling a bit hopeless about their future.
Into this situation, Jeremiah, the prophet of gloom and doom, shocks the people with his positive predictions. In today’s passage specifically he is telling the people to reimagine what they are seeing all around them, to remember the grace and goodness of God and to count on God coming through for them in the end. God would not leave them. God would, instead, gather the people together and guide them home from this exile. All the people, even the weak ones, the blind, the lame, those caring for young children, everybody, led back home from exile to promise, on a straight path.
Jeremiah preached this cheery message right as the exile was beginning, so everywhere the people looked there were discouraging signs. Jeremiah’s earlier predictions were coming true. Now it was up to the people to decide whether they could believe that God stood ready to lead them home to a new life and promise by a straight and direct route. This was a leap of faith for them!
I am preconditioned to feel nervous about miscommunication anytime I make plans to meet up with someone. I will admit that cell phones have largely alleviated this worry, but I still carry the memory that birthed the nervousness. When I went to seminary I lived in community there on the seminary campus. All the students in our school lived on campus together, with their families, all in one place. As you might imagine, this was a situation rife with blessings and also with difficulty. Most of us who were there were living away from our families and home countries, and we tried to be family for each other. We didn’t always understand what we were doing, but we tried our best.
One of these occasions I particularly remember was the naming ceremony of a new baby in our community. The parents of this baby were from Ghana and it was so important to them to have the whole seminary community present for the baby naming and for the ceremony to be videotaped for their families back in Ghana.
About a half an hour before the ceremony began the parents realized that the batteries in their camera were completely dead. No one on the seminary campus seemed to have any more batteries, so the new parents asked me and one of our seminary professors to run down the road to the town, run in the store, pick up some batteries, and come back before the ceremony. (Please remember this was long before cell phones). On the way into town the professor and I decided he would stay in the car while I ran into the store and got the batteries.
Or so I thought.
So I went in the store, bought the batteries, and came out. But the professor and the car were nowhere around. I waited for awhile. Then I went back into the store to see if maybe he had gone in the store. Then I went outside and walked all around the perimeter of the shopping center. Then I went back to wait. Then I went inside the store again. Then I walked around the shopping center…you get the idea. This went on for two hours. TWO HOURS. Until finally I was coming out of the store, frantic about the baby naming ceremony, and I ran into him coming in the store. The frustration we were both feeling just exploded. Apparently there had been some miscommunication. He thought he was supposed to park and come into the store to meet me there. In that very small shopping center both of us had gone around and around and around…in the store, into the parking lot, around to the other shops, apparently just missing each other each time we turned a corner. For two hours. Had you been watching the whole scene from afar I expect it would have made really great comedy, but for me and my professor…well, it was a terrible experience.
Needless to say we both missed the baby naming ceremony. The family eventually found someone else with a camera and went ahead without us. If I think about it I can still feel the frustration of going around and around and around and not finding each other so we could get where we needed to be. It’s a terrible memory.
When the Hebrew people heard the prophecy of Jeremiah in his little book of consolation, they were in the middle of exile—carted away from their homes and desperately missing the life they once knew. Things were not looking good for them. Into this dismal situation comes Jeremiah, telling them that God would lead them back, by streams of water, on a way where they would not stumble, down a straight path. A straight path.
Like my memory of that confusing situation in seminary, there was in the collective memory of frustration that the Hebrew people shared…a memory of taking a journey. You recall the story of the exile, when the people were miraculously led out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land? They ended up in Canaan for sure…a distance of about 250 miles that should have taken them about a month’s journey…after FORTY YEARS. Forty years of wandering around the desert and dreaming of finally finding their way home.
So, fast forward hundreds of years of Israelite history to the time of the Prophet Jeremiah, when the people had been carted off into exile, away from their homes, desperately longing for a return home. How anxious do you think they were to start out on a journey?
No wonder they couldn’t believe the little book of consolation…no wonder Jeremiah’s words seemed foreign and strange to them. Here they were, in the middle of exodus in Babylon, hearing loud and clear Jeremiah’s words of condemnation coming to be in real, live color…and they were having a hard time imagining a return to Zion that would include everyone and would proceed along well-watered byways and, most of all, would be a straight path…directly home.
Around here we are reimagining commitment. Next week is our commitment Sunday when we will have the opportunity to come forward to mark our individual commitments to financial support of this community of faith and the support of our presence, our time and our talents.
Advance notice of this Sunday, next week, may well be enough to make you want to stay home and skip it altogether. Why?
Well, being part of a community of faith in downtown DC—a real part, not just an occasional attender or a vaguely interested party—I mean a real, invested member of this community of faith, is kind of crazy.
After all, if you pause even for a moment to look around at society and the place that organized religion has (or doesn’t have) in society at large, you will want to dismiss the idea altogether. Nobody cares about organized religion much these days. The days of attendance out of obligation or even guilt are gone. Who would come to church when they have the option of staying at home?
And what about institutional religion and its general effectiveness?
No matter what we do…no matter how hard we try and how many Shalom scholarship events we sponsor and how many cans of food we collect (by the way, we started a drive for canned food items today, so be sure to check your bulletin), no matter how many dollars we can eke out of the budget for mission projects, there is no possible way that we are coming even close to meeting the needs that present themselves all around us. It can get discouraging.
And, here we are, a little community of people, trying as we might to keep up this massive sanctuary and to be a little place of light in a world of darkness. On some days we accomplish this goal, it’s true. On some days it’s just a list of headaches, starting with peeling plaster and ending with outrageous electric bills.
We’ve been listening for years now to a prophecy of gloom and doom. We can see the reality in which we live. We know that we cannot save the world.
Yet…something keeps us here. Something keeps us trying, investing our lives, looking for places in which we can be a blessing to this world deeply in need of blessing and healing and peace.
I wonder if this awareness is enough to keep us reimagining?
Because God is not done with us yet.
In a world where despair and discouragement, failure and inadequacy are the order of the day, can we summon enough courage and faith to act believing that God is not done with us yet, that God has healing to accomplish in this world, that after years and years of confusion and discouragement, God has and God will provide a path that runs along abundant streams of waters, that leads us home to the kingdom of God, realized, by a straight path?
We might very well be too busy remembering the times we’ve gotten lost…when we’ve acted out of fear and lived into a reality of limits and meanness instead of possibilities and lavishness.
This day, hear the words of the prophet Jeremiah and remember the people of Israel. They were in utter despair, having been torn away from everything they knew. Yet God had a plan of homecoming for them. And God has one for us. God always has a plan of promise and future.
Our task this day is to look beyond the budget we’re having a hard time balancing, the peeling plaster, and the big electricity bill. God is busy in this place…there’s no doubt about that. Will we have the courage to set aside our regular limitations and focus instead upon God’s promises and possibilities for our future together?
This day we are invited to reimagine commitment, to go into this week ahead to think about how and what we are willing to commit to the work of God in this place.
All alone we may be sucked back into a mean way of thinking, full of limits and impossibilities. Together, though, we are filled with courage, strengthened by the commitments of each other, called to take steps of faith down a path we will soon find is not one of confusion, not one of getting lost, but instead a straight path to the future God has planned for us and for this whole world.
Calvary community: we are looking toward a week of thinking and praying about our commitment to the work of God in this place. I will tell you that I don’t think God thinks of us in terms of failure. We may look around and feel discouragement, but God is a God of new possibilities, nourishing streams of water, and straight, straight paths. If only we are willing to reimagine our own commitment, God is ready to create the impossible here, to turn us and our efforts into considerably significant parts of making God’s kingdom come to be in the here and now.
Reimagine your commitment, today. God is ready to lead us from the despair of what we can see, the memory of hard times, to a straight path of freedom and faith.