12/2/2018 - Testify to Love: Out on a Limb - Jeremiah 33:14-16

Testify to Love:  Out on a Limb

Jeremiah 33:14-16

December 2, 2018

Emmanuel Baptist Church, Rev. Kathy Donley


The Rev. Heidi Neumark is a pastor in New York City. She spent 20 years at Transfiguration Lutheran Church in the South Bronx before moving to her current pastorate at Trinity Lutheran in Manhattan in 2003. In her first book, Breathing Space, she talks about attending a child’s birthday party in the Bronx.  It was held in the home of the child’s great-grandmother.  Her grandmother had died of AIDS after a long struggle with drug addiction.  Heidi noted that one uncle was not at the party because he was in prison. Another uncle, age 16, came in at the end, wearing the colors of his gang. Pastor Heidi remembered that gang member from an earlier time, when he was a shy and sad 6-year-old.  He still seemed small and frail to her, but now also armed and dangerous and endangered.

The party was held on a Saturday, the Saturday before the first Sunday in Advent, which led Heidi to reflect, an occupational hazard.

She wrote, “The gap between the rich and the poor—Longwood Avenue in the South Bronx and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan—remains as wide as ever. We turn people away from the food pantry because we’ve run out of canned stew, canned beans, canned tuna, cereal and powered milk. Yet this is the busy season at Dean and Deluca down in Soho where my husband works on his feet 12 hours a day trying to meet the insatiable demand for imported foie gras, truffles and caviar. Sometimes he wraps up single sales totaling over $1,000.  He couldn’t join us at the party because he had to work overtime.  The distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be tears at my heart.”

She goes on, “At least it’s Advent.  Probably the reason I love Advent so much is that it is a reflection of how I feel most of the time. I might not feel sorry during Lent, when the liturgical calendar begs repentance. I might not feel victorious, even though it is Easter morning. I might not feel full of the Spirit, even though it is Pentecost and the liturgy spins out fiery gusts of ecstasy. But during Advent, I am always in sync with the season.

Advent unfailingly embraces and comprehends my reality. And what is that? I think of the Spanish word anhelo, or longing. Advent is when the church can no longer contain its unfulfilled desire and the cry of anhelo bursts forth: Maranatha! Come Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!”[1]

Jeremiah spoke to a people in exile, a people living where the world as it was, was incredibly far from the world as it should have been.  They were a people longing for home, longing for things to be set right, longing for justice.  Jeremiah says “the days are surely coming” “Surely” means it is a sure thing, you can count on it.  The time is not now, but it is coming.

Now, as Jeremiah speaks, the people are in despair. They are captives of a foreign power, living far from home.  Jerusalem is destroyed and the temple is in ruins.  But Jeremiah delivers a promise, that in the future people will dance with joy in the streets of a restored Jerusalem, and there will be laughter and healing and weddings and prosperity and security and peace.  “After a long and terrible night, said Jeremiah, a brilliant morning would dawn and a generation of God’s people would wake up in safety in a place renamed Justice.” [2]

God promises a return of righteousness.  Righteousness is the right ordering of the world in ways necessary for life to flourish.  God promises a future in which the Righteous Branch of David’s family tree will rule in accord with the God’s will and that will bring peace and joy and justice.

You see, most of what Jeremiah had to say was against previous leaders who had failed to render justice.  False prophets told the kings what they wanted to hear, that nothing bad would happen, that they would get away with their corruption and evil, but not Jeremiah.  Jeremiah had repeatedly warned that there would be consequences for their dishonesty and abuse of power, for their shedding of innocent blood and practicing oppression and violence.

The people understand that they are also suffering because of their ruler’s corruption.  The exile is seen as God’s punishment for that.  But in these verses, God is promising a restoration, a re-establishment of systems of governance which will lead them in righteousness.[3]

You and I are mostly the kind of people who want to emphasize grace and forgiveness, rather than judgment and punishment.  But rightness and wrongness, goodness and evil actually do matter. And perhaps this Advent, we might be particularly ready to hear about Righteousness.

This year, we look around and ask ourselves, “how did it come to this – that being openly racist is fashionable, that anti-Semitic speech and acts of violence are on the rise?  When did it become normal for our government to use tear gas on children?”  We see gerrymandered districts and blatant voting suppression and power holding on to corrupt power and daily injustices against the poor and marginalized and we are ready for some Righteousness. 

We are longing for an order that allows life to flourish in our cities and towns and rural areas.  “We long for the day that is surely coming when in God’s future the poor are not sent to shelters or forced to sleep on the streets.  We long for the day that is surely coming when God’s future has no space for violence, when we will stop producing body bags because there are no dead soldiers to fill them.”[4]  Like the people in Jeremiah’s time, we are longing for integrity and justice and peace to prevail.

Jeremiah’s people were looking forward to the arrival of the Righteous Branch at some time in the future, but from our vantage point in history, we understand that person to be Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus is the one who showed us the fullness of righteous love. Jesus demonstrated God’s way of justice, which does not mean that people get what they deserve.  Rather it means that people get what they need in order to live, no matter how weak or marginal they are.[5]

In Advent 2018, we stand on the Branch of Righteousness who is Jesus.  The righteous love he proclaimed is wider and deeper and stronger than any solution we can devise by ourselves. Others may seek security in political, military, social or economic power, but we are out on a limb with Jesus. 

We are out on a limb with Jesus.  That’s how it seems to me sometimes.  It has been 2500 years since Jeremiah talked about a Righteous Branch and it often feels like there hasn’t been enough movement in that direction.  Continuing to trust that God’s kingdom is breaking into this world feels a bit ridiculous, like a goat out on a limb.

It may seem foolish, but it is the way of faith and hope, the way that leads us out of despair.  And it reminds me of Walter Brueggemann’s suggestion that exile is where some of us find ourselves these days and that it is not necessarily a bad place to be, because God comes to people there.[6]

The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann spoke of hope as the divine power that makes us alive in this world.[7]   Hope is the divine power that makes us alive in this world.  If Jesus is our model of justice and righteousness, then we will see Christ’s reign whenever what is just and right prevails.  

The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue last month was devastating and tragic, and I do not seek to diminish that.   But did you see the response -- people of every faith and no faith showed up at Jewish houses of worship all over the country and poured money into funds for survivors to express their compassion and solidarity.  That is righteous love.  That is hope, demonstrating life in this world.

Asylum seekers are being held in our own Albany County Jail.  They came to our border seeking a safe place to live, but they are being detained as if they are criminals.  More than 300 attorneys and translators have volunteered to help them get swift access to legal aid, telephone calls and medical treatment.  One local group, The Legal Project, became aware that these people arrived with only the clothes on their backs.  They have been collecting underwear and socks, which have to conform to the strict rules of prison garb. They can only be white, with no wire or plastic parts in the women’s bras.  Their goal is 6 sets of underwear and socks per person.  There were 300 detainees at the prison this summer and new groups continue to arrive.  That’s more than1800 sets of undergarments donated to restore a sense of dignity.  That’s righteous love in action.

There’s a church in the Netherlands that has been holding a worship service for the past 800 hours.  Bethel Church in the Hague is trying to protect a family from being deported.  Dutch law forbids the police from entering a place of worship while a service is happening.  The family fled Armenia in 2010 and have not been granted asylum.  They now reside in an apartment within the church.  The church has been holding continuous worship since October 26.  People from across the country come in to keep the service going around the clock.

 “There are already more than 450 different priests, pastors, deacons, elders from around the country, every denomination, wanting to be put on the rotation to participate in this service,” Axel Wicke, Bethel’s pastor, said in an interview on Thursday.

“Even from abroad we’ve gotten help — there have been sermons held in English, French and German,” he said. “It’s quite moving to us. I often see a pastor handing over the service to another pastor of another denomination who they would ordinarily not have anything to do with, liturgically.”[8]

Righteous love restoring hope, keeping us alive in this world.

When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964, Dr. King said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

We live in Advent time, between what is dying and what is being born, between the despair of fear-mongering and power-grabbing and the divine power of hope.  We recognize the sufferings and injustice of our world, but we lean into God’s promised alternative future.  The days are surely coming when unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the last word.  Even so Maranatha!  Come Lord Jesus!  O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.  Amen.

[1] Heidi Neumark, Breathing Space (Boston:  Beacon Press, 2004). p. 211

[2] Leonard Beechy, “An Evening Time and a Morning Time”  The Christian Century, November 17, 2009 https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2009-11/evening-time-and-morning-time

[3] Patrick Miller, New Interpreter’s Bible Volume VI, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001) p. 826.

[4] Gary W. Charles in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 1, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009),  pp.6-7.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, “Sheep-Preoccupied Shepherds” in The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann, Vol 2 (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 61.

[6] Walter Brueggemann,  Hopeful Imagination:  Prophetic Voices  in Exile (Philadelpia:  Fortress Press, 1986), pp. 93-95

[7]  Jurgen Moltmann Theology of Hope, (Minneapolis: Augsburg/Fortress Press, 1993) p. 24.

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/29/world/europe/bethel-church-netherlands-deportation.html