Two bits of scripture: the first from this morning s Old Testament lesson, from the prophecy of Amos; the second from a book we don t read very often the book of Lamentations. From Amos, chapter 8: Behold the days are coming says the Lord, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. From Lamentations: Jerusalem sinned grievously, therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness.
Over the last two years or so, I have come to appreciate the people and community of St. James’s so it means a lot to me to have to opportunity to preach here. But, if I could choose, I would rather have any Sunday but this to preach for the first time. I have just got back from two weeks teaching in Belgium at the medieval University of Leuven. Leuven is six hours ahead of Richmond. Jet-lag kept me awake far into the night so I switched on the television.
I don t speak Flemish. I didn t need to. Some words are the same in any language: Bill Clinton , Monica Lewinsky and Starr Report.
Flipping channels, I even found the BBC version of the story in English with Flemish subtitles. And this was the week that Belgium was experiencing the worst floods in 70 years!
O, God! How I longed for Jay Leno ! But the truth is, we are now far beyond the soothing balm of humor. We are far beyond the purgative effects of satire. There is no balm in Gilead. There is no comfort for the people. I don t know about you, but I feel shame. I feel dirty. We have been defiled. America needs to take a shower. We need to find a way of being together when people are hurt and angry with each other.
We feel the anguish of the nameless poet of Lamentations. It doesn t take much imagination to change the name of the city in the passage from Lamentations: Washington sinned grievously, therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness. It is easy to bridge almost 3,000 years and know again with Amos that there is a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.
Where is the glory? Where is the radiant power of God? Where is the glory that brought our ancestors to Plymouth Rock and Ellis Island near Liberty s shade? Where is the glory that created a new nation indivisible under God? Where is the glory that freed the slaves? Where is the glory that led the march on Washington? Where is the glory that tore down the Berlin wall?
Eyes which saw the glory of the coming of the Lord now see nothing but shame. Shame has turned the pride of our nation into a dung heap. Our leaders burrow ever deeper in the stench of lies and hypocrisy as they try to stay elected.
What is the religious issue? After I got back on Friday night my daughter called from Phoenix. I was telling her I had to preach at St. James s for the first time this Sunday and was feeling a bit nervous given what was going on in the world. She told me that the Phoenix newspapers were full of reports of preachers jumping piously on the bandwagon of the seventh commandment. (That is the one about adultery , isn t it?).
Is adultery the religious issue as the preachers would have us believe? Perhaps it is. Is the religious issue forgiveness and repentance as the President would have us believe? Perhaps it is. Should the President resign as the editorials suggest? Perhaps he should. But if he does, roses will surely not blossom at once upon the dung heap.
The book of Samuel describes how David got Bathsheba pregnant and murdered her husband so he could have her for himself. Nathan the prophet denounced him. David repented. God believed him and allowed David to keep his throne. But the final word of God to David was so terrible that he would gladly have relinquished the throne to have kept the life of his son. … Would I have died instead of you, O Absalom, my son! we read towards the end of 2nd Samuel.
What is the religious issue? The religious issue is deeper than adultery, though God surely cares about faithfulness. The religious question is not whether the President gets to keep his job or not, though God may surely have a view on the matter. The religious issue is not character . If character were indeed the ultimate issue, then God would never have made a shyster like Jacob a father of Israel nor David her king. The religious issue is not primarily forgiveness, though God certainly pardons and absolves all those who truly repent .
In the midst of life, we are in death: of whom may we seek for succor but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased? Where is God? What is God like? What is God doing? That is the religious question of the day.
The first part of the answer is that God is the God of history. Even the seventh commandment comes from the God who first says I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. It is God, the Lord of History and events, who led Israel through the Red Sea and made her a great nation. It is the God of history who, when he was displeased, exiled her beside the waters of Babylon. The God who cradled Mayflower on the breezes of freedom, sank also Titanic on the iceberg of pride.
The God of history is the God that we need desperately today, not simply the God of the seventh commandment. The one true God of history, the God of the Mayflower and Titanic, is the God of grief and the God of hope. Why do the polls even now show so many citizens endorsing their President s job performance? Cynics will say the economy is good, so people feel good. I wonder if something else is going on. I wonder if the God of grief is not using the people of the land to call out to those burrowed deep in the dung heap of power. The people of the land are speaking out their grief at the waste of it all, telling their sorrow that no one seems to care. In doing so, they are speaking the grief of God. Is it nothing to you who pass by we read in Lamentations behold and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow. Maybe the spirit of the God of History has spoken already through the sorrow of the people. God is serving notice on those who burrow in the dung heap. The sadness of the people, our sadness, is the sadness of the God who goes with us to the cross.
We cannot say for sure what God is doing at this point in our history. We cannot be sure of the shape of the future. But we know that the God of grief is also the God of hope. Whatever is said about the character of our leaders, we know that God s character brings life out of the grave.
We feel powerless as we wait for God s future. What can we do? Dare I make one very simple suggestion? Think of it as homework from church. Try this for size. If you haven’t yet bought your copy of the Starr report don t. If you have already bought it but haven’t read it don’t. Let God s future start with you. Instead, dust off your Bible and turn either to the prophecy of Amos or to the book of Lamentations. And read. In my Bible Amos is only ten pages long and Lamentations is eight. That s a lot shorter than the Starr report. Read. Let the anonymous lament over the fallen City of Peace give voice to your grief at the shame in our own capital. Read. Let the words of Amos the goat-farmer ring in your ears and in your heart that, through you, they may begin to resonate in the heart of our nation. Read. And let the call of the prophet restore our leaders to the work of justice they have been called to.
Read. That at least your home may be a beacon of dignity shining above the squalor of accusation and counter accusation. Let the famine end. Let the words of God once more be heard in our land.