Sermon 11-15-20 The Rev Jen Van Zandt
But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. 3 For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia[a] and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations[a] I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn. 10 Hear the word of the Lord, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.” 11 For the Lord has ransomed Jacob, and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
It’s wonderful to see you all here this morning, those of you who could make it. Kim and I were joking a few minutes ago… it’s a little weird to see more people in the sanctuary than just the two or three of us. But I also hope for those of you who chose to stay home, that you feel affirmed in your choice and that you are as connected here as the people who are in this sanctuary today. This is a special day, not only because it’s the first Sunday that we could re-enter the sanctuary, but it’s also the celebration of the Skinner’s who have been serving as Parish Associates for 5 years! So, for however many Sundays we will be able to be together, I’m so glad that we can worship and celebrate.
I’ve actually shaped this service based on these two joyful events and chose the hymns and the texts, which are among Sherm and Lorrie’s favorites. Interestingly, both of these texts are texts of hope; future hope, while in the midst of exile. Those of you who are at home and may not be able to return for a while, I hope these texts are helpful. I also hope these texts are helpful for all of us here, because we know that half of our congregation is unable to be here. Still, while we’re here, we have to wear these masks, we have to stay six feet apart at least, we can’t shake hands, we can’t put our hands on the back of someone in front of us, or hug, we can’t sing, we won’t be able to socialize at a coffee hour down the hall… Let’s face it, we may have to make additional sacrifices and continue to flex, and be creative; especially if things get even worse than they are now, before we are all restored in body and community.
But this text in Jeremiah paints a glorious picture of a foreshadowing of what’s to come. It says there will be a great festival where we can sing songs to the height of Zion (and at the top of Church and Birch) so that all can hear our praise. We’ll have radiance on our faces over the bounty of grain and overflowing vats of wine and oil. We’ll have healthy young flocks and herds. Life will be overflowing with stability and freedom, and well-being. It will be a restored creation, a restored community, and routed solely in God’s power.
There is one verse I decided to leave out. It’s verse 14. It says “And I will give the priests their fill of fatness”.
Looks that one is already come to pass. (I gotta get back on that covid diet one of these days). But metaphorically speaking 6 years ago when the Skinner’s first arrived, for those of us who were here then, we were in a time of challenge. Let’s just say… we were having our own exile and going through some growing pains. John Molacek who was our seminarian of three years, was actually about to leave, and while that was necessary for his growth, sharing leadership is one of the blessings of ministry and I found myself in a bit of an exile. James Newsome who talks about this text says, “exiles are those of us who live in resignation, believing no newness is possible, the kind of hopelessness that is not explained merely in modern psychology terms but rather it is a theological crisis. Yet, it is the ground for healing and newness; a healing and newness that can only come from God.”
I would say, and I am saying, that the Skinners were life savers. But not at first. Not at first… Because… when they first came here, they were church shopping, and I did not know that. But week after week they would come through the line and they’d introduce themselves. They never said who they were or what they did, they just said “we enjoyed your service so much today”, “we enjoyed your sermon”. After about the third week I said to John Molacek our seminarian, “go down to coffee hour and find out who these people are!” And John did. About 45 minutes later, John came up to my office with quite a swagger. He says “they’re both retired, Presbyterian ministers.” They were gone for a couple of weeks and then they came back and they said “Hi, we’re Sherm and Lorrie, do you remember us?” and I said, “Do I remember you? I know who you are! The secret’s out!”
With their arrival, there was a newness, a new beginning that I could see start to blossom. After I finished my respite leave, and the Skinner’s who had covering the church, they approached us and said “we’d like to become Parish Associates”. In that newness and in those new beginnings, promises were being enacted, reminding us that there is new Mission and Ministry to be had; a relief from over work and suffering, and new life began. And so it did five years ago when they became, formally, Parish Associates and an active part of the new life that has blossomed since then. And they’ve added tremendously to the life, the mission and the ministry of this church, and to me as a friend, and colleague; especially regular participation in worship and the creation of many, many worship services. But six years later, here we are together in another exile.
James Newsome goes on to say that “worship is actually an act against exile”. Whether together or independently apart, we are choosing an act against exile. The whole of chapter 31 actually addresses a community in exile (Jeremiah doesn’t name the Babylonians by name) but that’s who he’s talking about. God is inviting Jerusalem (and us) into a new reality that we don’t quite trust just yet, except that it’s rooted not in our resolve, but in God’s resolve. God is the one who interferes and intervenes always to liberate us even when it hurts, when it’s hard and when it’s long-suffering.
When new life begins, sometimes it’s not always what we expected, but always something utterly new. In a playful way, as we expect more cases to continue to surge and the heartache that the numbers are just growing exponentially, there’s also been, as you know, a tremendous shortage of yeast and flour because people are learning how to bake. Who would have thought that being forced to stay home would teach us how to bake bread and break bread with one another, which we’ve been doing now separately apart for 8 months. Yahweh is here to tell us that he is going to bring us in and through. He is going to gather us. He will lead us. He will let us walk and worship again, together.
It is a pilgrimage that we are on, my friends, but we will be headed home. That includes all of us who can’t worship together because it’s safer to be at home. Yahweh’s deep resolve to be a shepherd, to help us in, and through. Not only enduring Covid but all the other things we are enduring on top of Covid.
This passage describes a new life, that we can trust, because we’re not in charge of it, God is. God will overcome everything, including the power of fear and death, which will be shattered and broken so we can live together as not only a people of faith, but a people of trust. God is not asleep! God is active in our lives and we will be better for it. Thanks be to God Amen.