Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Jeremiah 17
5Thus says the Lord:
Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,
whose hearts turn away from the Lord.
6They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.
They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.
7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
9The heart is devious above all else;
it is perverse— who can understand it?
10I the Lord test the mind and search the heart,
to give to all according to their ways,
according to the fruit of their doings.

It is perhaps the most famous photograph ever taken. Late in December 1968, as the Apollo 8 spacecraft orbited the moon, the crew of Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders oriented the craft in such a way as to get photos of the moon's surface. At the end of their fourth orbit, Borman reoriented the craft to allow for communication with mission control. At that moment they saw it. As they looked over the mass of the moon below they noticed an “earthrise” as the earth emerged from behind the moon. It was at this moment that Anders snapped the photo.

The amazing thing is that the photo was never meant to be taken. Borman, Anders and Lovell were not space tourists but scientists, charged with taking moon photos in anticipation of Apollo 11's moon landing. Despite this NASA understood the remarkable nature of this photo and shared it with the world.

Back on earth, the photo was viewed in a variety of ways. Some saw it as the triumph of the American space program (remembering that this was a race) while others took a different view. It was hard not to miss how vulnerable the earth looked, a small blue dot in a sea of vast space. There was a first look at our breathtakingly beautiful planetary home presented in context for the first time.

John McConnell, the founder of Earth Day saw it, and was inspired to make it the basis of the Earth Day flag he designed. Others saw it too, and were galvanized by this image of a fragile earthly home. Nature photographer Galen Rowell has described the image as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken".

I recall finding the photo, about 15 years ago, in a very old National Geographic. I recognized it immediately and clipped it out and put it on the bulletin board above my desk. This happened around the same time I was working on my qualifications to become an Interim Minister and this little photo seemed to speak to me in the midst of all this study. As I thought about interim ministry, and the idea of ministry in a transitional setting, I kept coming back to this “earthrise” picture. Then one day I saw it. I got a little tape and gave that picture a caption: “Change your perspective.”


7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.

Today's readings all seem to revolve around the idea of blessing and curse, or blessing and woe and all seem to give voice to the familiar theme that the righteous will prosper and the wicked won't. In Jeremiah 17 and Psalm 1, those who trust in God and follow God's ways will thrive while those who live in the “way of the wicked” will perish.

It is easy, in the face of all of these words, to imagine a some stark choices and clear directions to follow. The way of the righteous and the path of the wicked must be clear, and our reward will come through the judicious application of such wisdom. Oh that it were that simple. Immediately before Psalm 1, back just a few pages, is the story of Job. You remember Job, the righteous man who loses everything and then must contend with three so-called “comforters” who spend several chapters trying to get Job to own up to his sin. Surely, they say, you did something to offend God, for otherwise you would not suffer so. But he didn't. And all his loud complaints go unanswered until the very end of the book when finally God speaks from the Whirlwind and says (in effect): Yes, your friends are idiots and no, you cannot begin to understand my ways. Accept this and move on.” Job does, and his life resumes, and what we are left with is a single book that defeats most of the simple “wisdom” that neatly allows the righteous to prosper and the wicked to suffer.

Of course, we already know that the wisdom formula is deeply flawed. The biggest jerk at the office seems to get the promotion and the nastiest mom has the most beautiful children. People do unspeakable things and get away with it and I go a touch over the speed limit and I see flashing lights. So if we need to set aside the neat righteous-wicked formula, what are we left with?

We are left with some remarkable Hebrew poetry. And what's more, it is the poetry that I think holds the key to finding a way forward. Let me explain: Back in 1985 two American scholars, independent of each other, unlocked the secret of Hebrew poetry and presented their findings to the world. Odd that 3000 years had passed, and a few hundred years of intensive study, and the key came to two scholars at the same moment. (They sued each other, by the way -- to illustrate the dog-eat-dog world of biblical scholarship)

Robert Alter and James Kugel both discovered that what seemed like a repetitive devise in this poetry was in fact something else. To illustrate, from Zechariah 9:

Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!
Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem!
See, your king [a] comes to you,
righteous and having salvation,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

It sounds like a restatement: “gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey,” but it is not. What Alter and Kugel discovered was a “heightening” in the poetry, an intensification that comes when you restate the idea in the second line. Kugel described it this way:

“[idea] A is so, and what's more, [idea] B is so.”

In other words, when the two ideas are put together, each is more meaningful than the individual idea. So let's go back to Jeremiah:

7Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
8They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.

Each idea is intensified by the way the poet describes them. These ideas were never meant to create either-or worlds where things are defined as good-bad, positive-negative. The poetry defines the movement. Those who trust in God are like trees planted by water, and what's more, it is as if the very roots of these trees extend into the stream. This is the kind of perspective we are meant to have: The key to well-being is trusting in the Lord, and what's more, those who trust in God can never fail.

Picture again that famous photograph. This is a picture of the planet earth, and what's more, it is rather vulnerable looking sitting out there in space. Find the “what's more” and you will find a fresh perspective on whatever you're pondering.

The congregation will meet today, and what's more, we have an opportunity to recommit to our shared mission.

The renovation is nearly complete, and what's more, we have the chance to reinvent ourselves in the new space.

The community continues to say “yes” to this congregation, and what's more, we can say “yes” to them in our welcoming ministry.

We have changed our surroundings, and what's more, we can also change our perspective on church growth and evangelism.

We have been given a new beginning, and what's more, we can begin to reflect that in our life together.

Ultimately, this is a call to reject the either-or thinking that the world seems to thrive on. Since we know that all the neat formulations about what will happen to the righteous and the wicked are not really accurate, we are left with the need to see the world from a new angle. Like our friends on Apollo 8, we need a new vantage point beyond the narrow thinking that surrounds us. We trust in God, but things won't always unfold as we plan. We work for the Kingdom, but it won't come tomorrow. But God is with us, and what's more, God will never be farther from us that our own breathing. We can trust in God, and what's more,we can trust in God to guide us today and everyday. Amen.


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