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Monday, September 26, 2016

It's Hard to See Hope From Here (Jeremiah 32)

            The state of the world today has me adrift at sea, in a boat without an anchor, afloat in a thick fog.  I don’t know if I am miles from land, or if I am about to run onto rocks that will rip through the hull and send me to the depths.  I am frustrated, sad, uncertain, and exhausted. 
            Yet, there is another a deeper feeling, and my brokenness cannot silence.  There is a low hum that never quiets, never quits, that is always there reverberating in my soul.  It began at the cross and grew in tone and texture on Easter morning.  I am an Easter Christian following the resurrected Christ.
            We are an Easter congregation that has hope even on the darkest day.  On Friday, we know that Sunday’s coming.  It doesn’t mean we’re happy all the time.  And we do get broken.  Right now, I feel broken.  But the light emanating from the empty tomb is there.  The hum of the Holy Spirit is there. 
            A few weeks ago there was a pipe bomb in Manhattan.  And a man associated with ISIS stabbed nine people at a Minnesota shopping mall.  These are reminders.  Violence is always possible, in any community.  It is hard to have hope that this era of terrorism will pass.  A broad historical perspective suggests it will pass and be replaced by deadlier evils.  But standing in the thick of it, it feels like we’re just waiting, wondering if the next attack or mass shooting will happen in our town.  We must pray.  But sometimes even with prayer, it is hard to see hope from here.
            The pipe bomb incident and the mall stabbing were not actually what pushed me to depression.  It’s what came next.  First, I experienced something quite hopeful.  Heather, Angel Lee, Carlin and Enam, Beth Roberts, and I were in Atlanta two weeks ago for the New Baptist Covenant Summit of 2016.  Did you know there are over 60 different kinds of Baptists in America?  In 2008, former president Jimmy Carter tried bringing Baptists together.  He thought if he could promote unity among Baptists, then we Baptists could be agents of unity in America.
Many of the Baptist denominations are primarily African American.  So, bringing Baptists together is also bringing black and white people together.  In Atlanta we heard from many Christians, our brothers and sisters from across America who are black.  They told of the pain they have experienced living in America.  Some shares stories that are pretty intense, testimonies of blatant discrimination.  It was hard to hear, but all of us joined together to walk in these stories. 
Then, this past week, I traveled to Campbell Divinity School where our own Beth Roberts is alum and Heather Folliard is a current student.  Campbell is having a series of discussions this semester on race relations within the body of Christ.  How can Christians who are black, white, Arabic, Cherokee, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Ethiopian – how can we all join together in showing the world what the love of God looks like by the way we love one another?  Students and professors at Campbell are discussing this all semester and they invited me to the join the conversation.  That’s hopeful. 
However, as we met in Buies Creek, North Carolina, at Campbell, Charlotte was burning because another African American man had been shot by police.  This was a few days after what happened in Tulsa. 
Make no mistake: sometimes white suspects get shot by police officers.  Sometime black suspects survive these encounters.  That is so.  But, the running narrative in America is a black person, especially a male, is more likely to be considered suspicious just because he’s black.  And public consciousness is less likely to be upset when an officer kills a black suspect.  It is as if the death of black men just isn’t big of a deal.    
Black men are afraid that a simple traffic stop might lead to death.  Black men have to live with a constant fear white men don’t have.  Before I was married, I was stopped by police quite often.  I had a lot of tickets.  Never, when I saw those blue lights in my rear view mirror did I think I might die.  Never!  Every time black men are pulled over they have to be hypervigilant and they fear that one wrong move could get them killed.  It is not fair that I am treated on way by the police, and a black man is treated another.
When I go to Campbell or to Atlanta and the New Baptist Covenant, I am filled with hope.  When I think about Terrence Crutcher dead in Tulsa, and Keith Scott dead in Charlotte, I struggle.  I want to inherit the dream cast by Dr. King.  I want an America free of racial hatred.  Right now, that seems light years away.  Right now, it is hard to see hope from here.
Someone I talked with this past week asked some powerful questions. 
·        Why aren't we all grieving for two men whose lives were cut short?
·        Why are we spending so much time pointing out how one "should" act instead of recognizing the loss of human beings created in God's image?
·        What does the Church look like when tragedy strikes and the church is broken open and poured out for the kingdom?
In the New Testament, more commentaries have been written on Romans than any other book.  The Apostle Paul says in Romans 12:15, “Weep with those who weep.”  Weeping in solidarity with one who is wounded is an act of discipleship.  At Lazarus’ funeral, Jesus wept for the pain of those he loved.  He knew he would raise Lazarus, but he wept out of his compassion for Mary as she wept.  As he rode into Jerusalem, he wept for the city lost in sin (Luke 19:41-44).  Weeping as an expression of God’s love is the right thing to in America right now. 
I don’t know if the deaths of Terrence Crutcher or Keith Scott happened because these men were black.  I don’t know.  But I know they are dead and they leave behind people who loved them.  I know God weeps when one of his children – one made in his image – is hurt.  If God is weeping, then I should too.  To align myself with God, I weep for these guys.
I also promote the expression #blacklivesmatter, and I do so because so many people in America act like black lives don’t matter.  Black people tend to get multiple year prison sentences for drug possession and drug sales.  White commit the same crimes at the same rate and end up getting 6 months and probation.  And there’s a ripple effect.  Many years in prison takes years from your life and no one seems to care. And you can’t get a job when you get out. 
In Atlanta, we were told about Dallas community where all the services – gas stations, grocery stories, banks – were gone from a certain low-income, black community.  Whites from a church in North Dallas in a wealthy community came to visit the poor community.  Churches from each community were in partnership.  The whites from the wealthy community were shocked that the only institutions open in the economically ravaged black community were payday lending institutions. 
And what about convictions.  In the cases of black young men killed by the police – Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice – there have been acquittals; no convictions.  .  A lot of black people feel like the system is stacked against them and they live in fear.  It shouldn’t be that way. 
#blacklivesmatter is not saying all police officers are racist or are bad or are out to get black people.  Most are honest, public servants.  All the police officers I know want to protect and service.  The stories of the many good things police officers do are never reported in the media.  We have to tell those stories. #bluelivesmatter.  We must appreciate, support, and love police officers.  Please hear me that. 
#blacklivesmatter is not saying all lives don’t matter.  Of course God loves all people.  The picture in heaven, which we as church hope to reflect, is a gathering of people from every race, tribe, language, and nation.  That multi-colored, multi-cultured image is found in Revelation 5 and then again in Revelation 7:9-10.  We don’t want HillSong to be a white church.  We don’t want HillSong to be a black church.  We want to be a Revelation 7 church.  And we’re on the way to that.
We have people from many cultures right here in our church family.  We are in relationship with two congregations that speak other languages, Karen and Spanish.  We reach for this diversity not for diversity’s sake but because we want our church to have fuller expression of who God is.  When we expand our vision of the body of Christ, we see more of God.
We now have a lot of black people at HillSong.  We say #blacklivesmatter because we want to stand with our members who are hurting.  When one of is injured all of us hurt.  This is us.  In the Garden of Gethsemane, knowing the cross was coming, Jesus wept because sin leads to death. We join him there and with him, our Savior,  weep over sin and death.   
One more way to explain why it is so important for Christians to focus our love by standing in solidarity and saying #blacklivesmatter is the analogy of the house on fire.  At the fire station, the call comes in.  “We’ve got a house burning down on Elm Street.”  The firefighters DO NOT shrug their shoulders and say, “All houses matter.”  We know all houses matter.  They give their attention to the one that’s on fire.  In our church, we know all lives matter.  But right now, our black brothers and sisters feel like their house is on fire.  We – followers of Jesus of all races and colors (what a privilege we have to be in a diverse church) – we lead the call to wake America up and say that Jesus cares about people and because of that we love people who feel unloved right now.  #blacklivesmatter.
I look at my friends – my brothers and sisters in Christ; I say that; and I am filled with hope.  But, then, I talk to other Christians who don’t feel the same way.  I go on Facebook, I talk to people in person, and I hear many white Christian friends rail against the idea of #blacklivesmatter.  They gripe that all people who say that phrase are thugs and looters and criminals.  I hear Christians speaking damning words against the victims and against communities that are in pain.  Instead of the compassion of Christ, I hear judgment. 
Why would anyone oppose expressing love and offering help to hurting people?  And yet I hear Christians deny systemic racism.  I don’t know how it could be denied, but compassion gets kicked out of the conversation and is replaced with argument and anger and more pain.  In the midst of that, it’s hard.  It’s hard to see hope from here. 
This is where Jeremiah has something beautiful to offer because he found himself about as far away from hope as you could imagine.  He didn’t want to be a prophet, but God tells him that God had planned his life even before he was born (Jeremiah 1:5).  On career day Jeremiah’s classmates had their pick – Shepherd, Merchant, Torah Scholar, Farmer, Soldier.  They could fill out the career day form with their first, second, and third choice.  Jeremiah got a different form.  Jeremiah, you can be a prophet, a prophet, or a prophet. 
He hated it.  He says to God in Chapter 20, “you enticed me.  You overpowered me” (v.7).  In the Hebrew way of thinking, the verb used in Jeremiah 20:7 was the same one used to describe a rape.  In calling him to be a prophet, Jeremiah felt God had overwhelmed him.  But God was dealing with his people when they had sinned against him for generations.  God needed a prophet to speak a hard word and whether he liked it not, Jeremiah was that prophet. 
This all happens in the 6th century BC.  Babylon is a major world power and by the time we come to Jeremiah 32, the capital of Judah, Jerusalem is surrounded by the Babylonian army.  They will break through soon.  Inside the walled city, Jeremiah, the reluctant prophet is in jail because of his prophecies.  The king has Jeremiah locked up.  The leaders at the palace ask him, “Why do you say, ‘Thus says the Lord: I am going to give this city into the hands of Babylon?’”  He’s been telling a truth they haven’t wanted to hear.  Their generations of turning away from God have led to God allowing them to fall into enemy hands.  But they didn’t want to hear it so they imprisoned Jeremiah when he said it. 
            For Jeremiah, the situation could not be worse.  The city is surrounded, and starving.  What will happen when the Babylonians finally break through?
Will the people be massacred?
Will they be enslaved, dragged to exile?
What will happen to the great city of Zion and to the temple Solomon built, one of the wonders of the ancient world?  It’s hard to see hope from there.  Very hard. 
At that moment, in the jail, once again, the word of the Lord came to him.   
“Buy a field at Anathoth from you cousin Hanamel.”  What Lord?  Say that again?  The great prophetic act you want me to perform is to buy a farm?  Um, hey God?  The Babylonians are all around.  I can’t even get to Anathoth. 
Right then, his cousin Hanamel arrives.  He’s a jail visitor’s pass.  Baruch, Jeremiah’s right hand man is there.  Baruch and Hanamel have brought witnesses and legal documents.
Jeremiah just stares at Hanamel.  “Let me guess? You want to sell me a field?” 
The description in Jeremiah 32 is unusually detailed.  All documents are officially signed.  All signatures are notarized.  Jeremiah instructs Baruch to put the parchments – deeds of sale – in a clay pot, the 6th century BC version of a safety deposit box. 
Why does God speak this word to Jeremiah?  Buy a field?  Every field in Anathoth is going to belong to the Babylonians in a week.  But God tells him that what he has done is a sign of what God will do.  God says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.  … I will bring upon them all the good fortune that I now promise.  … I will restore [them]” (32:15, 42, 44).  God says exile is coming and it will be bad.  But he also promises it will not be the end.  On the other side of the valley of the shadow of death is new life.  Shalom – the Hebrew idea of peace, wholeness, community, and right relationships - will come again to people who put their trust in the Lord.  In the midst of calamity, God tells Jeremiah to speak a word of hope.
I take courage from God’s promise to Jeremiah and the people in that desperate situation.  As I said, with the state of race relations in America, it is hard to see hope from here.  And for HillSong, that’s devastating because we’re talking about our church family.  Yet I see hope, and I think the best hope in our situation is God’s church.  We – the Body of Christ - weep with those who weep, we stand with those who feel they have no voice and no power, and we speak peace.  Acting as disciples, we go out of our way to love our neighbors and work for their flourishing. 
We Christ followers who comprise the Body of Christ work for our society’s good when we see those in pain, sit with them in their pain, listen to their stories without judgment, and sitting together recognize that we are all broken.  We help each other. That’s how we see hope from here and help others see it.  We love with our presence, our ears, our arms offering embrace, our actions, and our hearts.  Just as God promised Shalom would return when it seemed impossible, His eternal Kingdom will one day come in full and all good will be restored.  Until that day, we Christian gives signs of the Kingdom and participate in its coming by being Christ to all people and especially to those who feel like they are being burned. 
It is hard, no question.  Jeremiah knew it was hard, but God spoke to the difficulty direct.  “See, I am the Lord, the God of all flesh; is anything too hard for me” (Jer. 32:27)?  Our society’s struggles are so massive and race relations are so broken, it seems the problems are utterly intractable and a solution seems impossible.  But we don’t look at the size of the problem.  We look and see God and we know nothing is impossible.   Nothing is too hard for God in Jeremiah’s time or ours.
We see hope because we know who God is.
We – the church – work for shalom in our community as we stand in a new and lasting covenant of love with each other and God.  We work for this because we know who God is.
We walk out of church arm-in-arm bonded together as brothers and sister, sons and daughter of God, determined to breathe life into our community by loving people and giving extra doses of blessing to those who hurt the most.  We go out to serve and love knowing God will bless our efforts. We able to do this because we know who God is.
Yes, hope can be hard to see, but we see it clearly. We see it because we know who God is and we know we are His. 

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