Sermon October 9 2022 Thanksgiving Rev. Betsy Hogan
How do we make sense, for now, of Bible readings that were written way way way back then?
It’s kind of the perennial evergreen question for any faithful people who locate at least SOME of the content of their faithfulness in words: in written and ‘made sacred’ books of stories and poetry and wisdom passed down for generations and for centuries as “revealing” the way and the will of Godness for people evermore.
Because always and invariably, those words reflect to some degree their context. Place names are specific – we look at them millennia later and they mean nothing to us. Norms simply assumed correlate not in the least with our own experience here. Sheep, shepherds, lepers, Samaritans, the Babylonian exile – it all feels utterly alien at a literal level, because it IS.
And so how we deal, how people of faiths attached to sacred WORDS written down millennia ago in sacred BOOKS have always dealt, is we read things allegorically or we read them metaphorically.
We spiritualize what the words say, so that what they said THEN can be translated into the NOW.
Either we do that allegorically – directly exchanging the THEN actors in a story for actors that make more sense NOW – like in the 1980s how the passage about the ten lepers was often preached by drawing comparisons to those suffering from AIDS, or how we often reimagine the Christmas story in our own context, who are the shepherds? Who are the wise men? --
Either we do it allegorically, or we do it metaphorically – extrapolating from the concrete details of the story into a more spiritual meaning. Like how Israel “wandering in the wilderness” gets understood as paralleling a sense WE might have of feeling alone or abandoned or directionless and uncertain. Or how “try fishing on the other side of the boat” gets understood as a teaching about letting go of past norms or traditions or taking risks.
It's just spiritualizing sacred words so that they have meaning that transcends the specific context in which they arose. And it’s not only actually the point, but it’s HOW they’re sacred in the first place. Because their meaning DOES transcend context. The notion of “how can stuff written millennia ago be in any way meaningful NOW” is utterly ridiculous – or at least betrays a quite sad unwillingness to read the Bible creatively in the same way we read anything else.
Because ordinary novels or poetry or discourse – if we read them and they pull us in, it’s because we’ve allowed them to transcend their own context and speak to us now. I will never live in a Little House on the Prairie, but did I drink up like water how tiresome it was to be eldest blonde-haired Mary Ingalls, beset fore and aft by her stronger and more spunky little brown-haired sister Laura, constantly pulling on her hair-ribbons and sticking out her tongue at her? Oh I sure did.
That’s not just the how of words, but it’s also the why. And it’s the how and it’s the why of our scriptures too, just as surely. We’re MEANT to spiritualize these words, to translate their context to our own – that’s how they live.
But here’s the thing.
Sometimes, the fullness of the context still matters. Does it matter when the disciples are all in the boat on the sea of Galilee and a storm comes up and Jesus quiets the storm, does it matter that the disciples are fishermen, that they make their living on the sea, that they’re probably pretty good rowers – it really doesn’t.
Make it a metaphorical boat on a metaphorical sea with a metaphorical storm – we’ve all been there, we can feel it. And Jesus rebuking the storm with “peace, be still”, we can feel that too. There’s nothing lost. We get the full meaning.
Even the story of the healing of the ten lepers that we heard from the Gospel of Luke. Yes, one of them is a Samaritan, not Jewish. And so when Jesus tells them to go show themselves to the priest and he can’t, he’s not allowed. So he turns back to JESUS to say thank you. And so yes, if I were Martin Luther, interested in a Protestant Reformation, that context would matter because it’d underline that the power is God’s, so say thank you to God, we all have that direct and intimate relationship with God, we don’t need the mediation of a priest.
But apart from that, since I’m not Martin Luther? And it’s Thanksgiving Sunday? All good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. And it’s good to remember to say thank you. Like Leper #10. Not because God needs to hear it, but because it reminds us we’re not alone. We’re held in this life. We’re in that relationship.
That’s the full meaning, and we get it. Martin Luther aside, there’s not much lost if we just… make it allegorical… replace Leper #10 with ourselves. And remember to say thank you.
But the same is NOT the case in the reading from the prophet Jeremiah. And that’s actually really important, if we want the meaning of these words of Jeremiah to come through for us whole. With nothing lost.
Because this is the word of God, the words that the prophet Jeremiah speaks, to the people of Israel in exile. And it’s not spiritual exile, it’s not metaphorical exile, it’s actual literal exile. And that really matters. The context really matters.
It’s the sixth century before Jesus, and Israel has basically gotten completely crushed by Babylon, the epically powerful kingdom of what’s now roughly Iraq. Jerusalem’s been sacked, masses of Israelites have been murdered, and the remainder have basically all been dragged back to Babylon to be enslaved there.
They’re in exile. They’ve been exiled from their own land, hauled away in chains. Which at a time when a people who lived on a land associated their God with that land, like God only lives there, pretty much means they feel exiled from God. Or worse, in fact, they feel like God didn’t care and just let them get taken away.
It’s real, this exile. It’s dislocation and abandonment and having their identity stripped from them – it’s emptyness, nothing, despair. In Psalm 137 they talk about being strangers in a strange land, but they’re even strangers to themselves now. They were God’s people, but they don’t live where God lives anymore, so who are they now? Because it might be difficult for us to grasp that notion of God being attached to geography, but that’s the context of this reading and it’s real.
It's not metaphorical – oh, I hardly recognize this place anymore, I feel increasingly marginalized here, it’s like being in exile far from home – it’s not metaphorical. It’s real. And I underline that because I cannot tell you how much commentary and how many articles I read this week about how the church is “in exile”, about how Christians are “in exile”, in this place.
And we are not. We’re just not. There is a VAST difference between loss of pervasive overt cultural influence… and exile. There’s a VAST difference between losing centralness and losing the status of socio-cultural default and losing socio-political clout, as a culture shifts away from being monolithic with us at the top – and being in the exile described in our reading.
And that difference matters. Especially because, if we’re being honest, most of us might have to admit how much they feel the same. But they’re just not. Emotionally adjusting to having to share space isn’t the same as being exiled.
But that doesn’t mean there’s not a word for us too, as people of faith now, from Jeremiah in this passage. Just as surely as a there’s a word to Israel about surviving actual exile.
And it’s this: live like you believe the goodness persists. Jeremiah pulls it all down to the personal, to the intimate, to the domestic. To the ordinariness of the life we lay down – at once, on a day by day basis, but at the same time as an expression of essential trust. That the goodness persists – underneath and around and within… whatever else.
For the people of Israel what it amounts to is “bloom where you’re planted” – because the goodness persists, and yes, even in exile, even in Babylon. Which for us may not sound terribly radical, but that’s exactly because by the time Jesus is living out Jewish faithfulness with those who’d pass on his words and his Way to US, the lessons of the Babylonian exile had been learned.
Because the people of Israel did what Jeremiah told them to. The lessons of the Babylonian exile were learned. That God ISN’T limited geographically. That God is the God of God’s people wherever God’s people are.
So “bloom where you’re planted” Jeremiah says to the people of Israel, for whom everything is alien and wrong and chaos, and he says it to us too. Lay down the order of an ordinary life like you believe the goodness persists in all of it. Just day by day. One morning at a time. On purpose.
Build, plant, make families, make community – all of it, just the ordinary pieces of ordinary days, like you believe the goodness persists in all of it. Like all of it matters.
Because it does. It’s a good word, I think, almost 3000 years later, on a Thanksgiving Sunday. If we feel metaphorically like we’re in the middle of a stormy sea, if we’re trying to remember to be the one leper allegorically who turns back to say thank you, it’s a word in literal exile we can translate for ourselves into now.
How do we say thank you for all good gifts around us, sent from heaven above? Just live like we believe that goodness persists. Thanks be to God, its author and source. Amen.