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Psalm 91; Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Emily Dickinson

“Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;

And sore must be the storm

That could abash the little bird

That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,

And on the strangest sea;

Yet, never, in extremity,

It asked a crumb of me.”

Emily Dickenson’s Hope is the thing with feathers is poetry at its best. It both affirms and causes us to see in a new light some aspect of the human condition. It has imagery that is both evocative and imminently relatable.

Hope is a little bird inside our soul, that sings a tune that has no words yet who’s tune we all have heard.

Yet do not mistake the sweetness and softness of hope for weakness. Hope is a thing that endures through the storms and gales of life. Through the strangest seas and most powerful storms, hope abides through all the turmoil of life.

Dickenson tells us that Hope provides, yet it does not ask of us. It gives but does not take, provides but does not demand. This is perhaps my one quibble with Ms. Dickenson’s description of Hope. For hope does demand something of us- not something tangible, but something deliberate. Hope demands a choice. I believe we must choose to hope.

Of the three great virtues that the Apostle Paul describes, Hope, Faith and Love, Faith is often thrust upon us, a reflection of God’s faithfulness for us that we have in different measures at throughout our lives. Love, for its part, is a multivalent jumble of odd feelings, actions, and expectations that sometimes happens to us and sometimes we fall into. Hope, however, is a choice we must continue to make.

Our readings today are expressions of this hope; our first reading is selections from psalm 91. The psalms are our poetry and song collection in the bible; memorably, it includes a vision of God protecting us as an eagle protects her young; one of the great images of care and protection in the Bible. The modern song it inspired, “On Eagles’ Wings”, is one of the most beloved hymns of the late 20th century, often sung at funerals, accompanying many through their deepest valleys of grief.

We must note that this psalm is poetic more than a theological treatise to be taken literally; we all know of people who live in the shelter of the most high, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, yet still suffer the pains and troubles of life. Some of them are in this room right now. One of them is in our second reading

Yet the hope of God’s protection, God’s wings covering us as an eagle protects her young in the nest continues to drive them – to drive us -- forward and onward through the hard times of life.

This hope is the same hope that Jeremiah displays in our second reading. We met Jeremiah last week while he was singing the blues. This week in our reading he does not weep; it is not that he is out of tears, but rather that his hope abides in him alongside his grief and his sadness.

Although our second reading might seem a little arcane at first, I promise the story is one we can relate to.

In it, Jeremiah has been imprisoned in the palace for his singing of the blues, for telling the truth about the corruption in government and religion and God’s upcoming judgement against the Kingdom of Judah. Jeremiah became a scapegoat for King Zedekiah as things were not going well; the Babylonians had attacked and placed the city of Jerusalem under siege.

It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to realize that wars, especially wars of conquest, are very tumultuous. Especially when it comes to legal contracts, and especially especially when it comes to land ownership. After all, if an invading soldier wants your farm, what army will you stop him with to prevent him from stealing it? If you have the right paperwork, is there any guarantee that the next government will honor it?

Most folks, not even the rocket surgeons, would think that in the middle of an invasion would be a terrible time to buy some land. But as I mentioned last week, although Jeremiah sings the blues, it does not mean that he has given up.

Instead, he knows that although judgement and immediate pessimism is appropriate, Jeremiah is able to see beyond the immediate storms that assail them to a farther shore, a distant horizon where the sun shines brightly. As our passage ends, “thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

Jeremiah chooses hope. In additions, he chooses for this hope to not be a private, hidden thing, known only to his soul. He chooses for his hope to be expressed publicly; “in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard.”

This is not the naiveté of someone who believes everything will be easy and peaceful; he harbors no illusions about the immediate fate of the city and his nation. Jeremiah knows that they will fall.

But he also knows that our immediate circumstances do not dictate our ultimate destiny. Indeed, Jeremiah asks that the deeds and legal documents be stored carefully in earthenware jars, so that they may last for a long time. Jeremiah knows that there will be pain and sadness and suffering on the road. We know he knows this because he has sung about them, bared his soul to the world about the immediate fate of his beloved people as he told the truth and sang the blues.

Yet, even in the midst of that stormy weather forecast, there is something else there. Hope, the thing with feathers. The thing that keeps him warm in the times of deepest gale and storm.

As we prepare for our moment of silent prayer and reflection, I will leave us with this poem; “It’s a long way”, by William Stanley Braithwaite. This poem reads like something Jeremiah could have written himself, thinking about the storm clouds coming forth, for his people, the suffering and work that will happen in the future, yet in the distance, remembering always the sun, shining in the horizon.

It’s a Long Way

William Stanley Braithwaite

It’s a long way the sea-winds blow

Over the sea-plains blue,—

But longer far has my heart to go

Before its dreams come true.

It’s work we must, and love we must,

And do the best we may,

And take the hope of dreams in trust

To keep us day by day.

It’s a long way the sea-winds blow—

But somewhere lies a shore—

Thus down the tide of Time shall flow

My dreams forevermore


Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13

Information about the First Nations Version available here

One of my professors in seminary, Greg Mobley, used to tell us that the closest we, as modern minded people in the west could get to understanding where the Hebrew Prophets were coming from was to try to understand the Blues.

When I say the blues, I don’t mean simply being sad; but rather the genre of music born out of the African American experience in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s that eventually birthed almost all modern popular music: country, R&B, rock and roll, jazz, and hip hop all are descended from those Delta blues, by way of Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, or Harlem.

Blues music, isn’t one note emotionally- it’s not all about sadness or despair; there’s anger, there’s joy, there’s bravado, there’s love and lust, there’s the whole range of human expression. What is unique about the blues lyrically is that it tells the truth. There is no idealism in the blues, and there are no easy answers, no tears that are easily dried, just the simple and hard truths of hard lives.

Likewise, our prophet Jeremiah felt the struggles of his people not from a distance but in a deeply personal way. I believe that he would have fit in nicely in the Mississippi Delta. Known as the weeping prophet, his words have provided voice for many who are suffering from pain, just as the words of BB King or Aretha Franklin have in our time.

Jeremiah said, “My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick.” BB King sang, “The Thrill is gone, the Thrill is gone for good.”

Jeremiah said, “Listen! The cry of the daughter of my people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” Robert Johnson sang, “Lord, I feel like blowing my old lonesome horn Got up this morning, my little Bernice was gone Lord, I feel like blowing my lonesome horn Well I got up this morning all I had was gone”

The Prophet, telling the truth, weeping over what has been lost, that Jerusalem has been defeated, her treasures raided, her temple torn down and her children exiled.

The Blues Singer, singing the truth, that their beloved is gone, left like a thief in the middle of the night. The thrill is gone, and the world is lonesome. All I had is gone.

The blues and the prophets like our Jeremiah, and our Jesus, are at times raw and real. Indeed, one of the hardest things for us to hear both in the blues and from the prophets- both ancient and modern- is that it might already be too late; Bernice is already gone, the harvest is past and the summer is ended, climate change is not a distant issue for the future, but a present lived reality.

The system has failed us. The famous balm of Gilead is noted mostly for its absence. There is no easy way out.

Thus we should not mistake vulnerability for stupidity. The truth is never foolish. Robert Johnson and Aretha Franklin knew exactly what they were doing. Jeremiah is not an idiot. Jesus is no dummy. Our gospel reading today reminds us that we are called to be discerning, to work the system- albeit to ends that the system might not reward. But even so, often those systems will fail us; our plans fall by the wayside. Sometimes there is little left for us to do but sing the blues.

But for a moment let us take a step back and learn a little more about our readings. Jeremiah was not actually a bullfrog, he was a Hebrew prophet that lived in the 7thth ish century BC in Jerusalem. He originally rejected being a prophet as he said he was too young, but as happens in the Bible, when he started complaining about it, God put the words in his mouth and sent him on his way.

The kingdom of Judah was in a precarious position at this point. Although King Josiah was vigorous and reform minded, doing good work reforming the operations of the temple and the state, he had just been killed in battle, and King Jehoiakim came to rule. He was no King Josiah; he undermined his predecessor’s reforms, and corruption abounded. The people of God were not in a good place, and Jeremiah saw that it would not get better.

Jeremiah is especially upset about the abrogation of the temple’s responsibilities; the temple was supposed to mediate between God and the people of God, atoning collectively for the sins of the people through ritual sacrifices and other good works.

Yet the men in charge of the temple preferred to preach about the easy lies instead of the hard truths. Healing becomes impossible when sins are not acknowledged, and they would not be able to find a balm in Gilead because there would not seek it. The temple authorities ignored their past and, refused to discern good from evil in the present, and ignored the future of the people in their care.

But this does not mean we are called to give up on our systems, our ways of doing things; indeed, how we engage with them is vitally important, as our gospel reading suggests.

This parable, often called the parable of the shrewd or dishonest manager, is one of the most widely debated parables of Jesus.

In the story, there’s a manager of an estate, a farm, a plantation, and he’s been made aware that once the owner’s coming back, he’s not going to have a job anymore. The manager says, basically, well, that’s no good- I’m too old to go back to digging ditches, and too proud to be a beggar, so to get a new job, I need to make folks like me.

There’s a concept in the business world you may have heard of: OPM- Other People’s Money; resources that aren’t ours personally. People tend to be a little more free and loose with those than their own. This manager certainly is. He starts making deals with people over their debt with his boss. When the boss comes back, he doesn’t punish the man; his attitude seems to be more of the “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” type.

People have often wondered who is who in this story metaphorically- is God the boss and Jesus the manager? Or are we supposed to be the manager?

I believe our translation today- the First Nations Indigenous American translation does a good job of getting us to the heart of the parable’s meaning; what is the meaning of success? Is there a way to interact with the system- especially the systems of wealth and money, that serve the Kingdom of God?

The shrewdness that Jesus alludes to is not about accumulating the most wealth; I made that mistake when reading it, so conditioned am I to looking for getting the most as shrewdness. What Jesus calls shrewd is the ability to give away as much as possible. He reminds us that there’s not much use for wealth beyond a certain amount other than to get more of it. This is especially true in the long run; we can’t take it with us.

Jesus prods us into asking the question: What if instead of us serving our wealth, our wealth served others. Help each other out, especially the poor and outcast, Jesus says; that way if you’re ever in need, they’ll help you out too.

Many of the concerns Jesus had were the same ones that Jeremiah had: How do we determine what can be healed and what is beyond repair? When are we called to work the system, and when is it too late? Is the system beyond repair? If so, what’s next? What should normal people do in the middle of this slow rolling disaster? When are we called to shrewdness, toward using wealth for giving it away? What about when is all we can do is sing the blues?

To sing the blues is not to give up; it is not to give up hope or fall into despair; it is to bare the soul to God and our fellow humans in a way that calls attention to the pain in the world. It is a recognition that the end has come and gone already. Yet the Good News is the singer is still here, and because of that, even through the tragedy and pain, God is still here. What more do we really need?

As we enter a moment of silent prayer and meditation, I invite to consider: when have we worked the system and made things better? When was a time that all we could do is sing the blues?

1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

So a sport that I’ve recently picked up is Sanda- Chinese kickboxing. If you’re not familiar with martial arts, it’s a full contact martial art that lets us use our hands, our legs, grappling, and to use throws.

My background is in fencing- I did it for a while and hope to get back into it once my gear fits again, and as a child and teenager I did some Karate, so the punching, kicking, and the footwork is familiar to me- this doesn’t mean I’m good at it, but it is familiar. What is new is the takedowns and the throws. If you’ve never had the experience of throwing someone or being thrown, oh boy, it’s wild. Throwing and being thrown is very different from the way we normally encounter the world. There are a lot of choices to be made when throwing someone, and some of those choices have some particularly nasty consequences. But there’s also things that you can do, especially when training or sparring, to make the fall easier and safer.

I will note for safety’s sake, kids, don’t try this at home, and no we did not go straight into this- we trained extensively on how to fall and how to roll- no i’m not going to do one right now, but trust me, I can. Key tips for everyone is to tuck your chin, don’t try to break your fall with outstretched arms, and engage your core muscles, and try not to let your head hit the ground.

I say this because a couple of weeks ago we had an exercise where everyone had to throw everyone else in the class. I was waiting in line when one of my fellow students was in the process of being thrown over someone’s shoulder and for a split second, he was on his back, parallel to the ground over this other guy’s shoulder. His eyes got wide for a second and he made a short gasp sound. The throw ended a split second later and he fell safely. Afterwards I went up to him and joked, “Nick, it looks like you saw God there for a second.” He replied, “Just wait until it’s your turn.”

And so I did. I think I understood; when you’re in the process of being thrown, there is very little you can do to change where you are. Of course, you can do work before it to not get thrown, and you can recover in different ways, including falling properly or rolling correctly, but in that moment, that split second, you are, at the mercy of your thrower. In a violent situation this can get very bad very quickly. It’s why the best means of self-defense is often to run away. Seriously.

Yet, thankfully, the folks in my class have a good rapport, and we work to not injure each other while training. Even if as a beginner I screw something up, my classmates won’t take it out on me. This is a profoundly Christian message.

So much of what we are called to do and show as Christians- forgiveness, grace, and yes, mercy, are a reflection of what God has already done for us. They are a recognition of our own powerlessness in the face of forces beyond our control; cosmic ones, yes, but also social ones, such as ignorance. In addition, I believe this is a calling for us to end cycles of retribution, violence, and exclusion as we can, following the example of Jesus. We are called to gather each other in, not drive each other out.

This is what drives the heart of our first reading. This letter, known as First Timothy, was traditionally understood to be a letter from the apostle Paul to Timothy giving some advice. Now we believe that this letter was probably not written by Paul, for many of the same reasons we don’t believe that Hebrews was not- the language used in this letter is different, than a letter like Galatians, Romans, or first Corinthians, and the church situations described in it are not the ones that Paul would have known of.

Instead scholars now believe it was someone else who wrote this letter- who we don’t know- probably around the year 150, although possibly as early as the year 100. They aren’t the theological masterworks of some of the other letters of the New Testament, and as letters of specific advice, this letter contains some things that are quite useful and some that aren’t.

Our section today is one of the nicer parts. It contains a phrase that is sometimes used as part of church services- I believe we have used it in our assurance of pardons after our prayer of confession on Communion Sunday- “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance: that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”

It also contains the phrase that you might recognize from the hymn “Immortal, Invisible”.

But the main thrust of this passage is not literary references, but mercy. That is, our author did not receive the punishment that perhaps he “should” have. As someone who was, in his words “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence”, he was not condemned by God or the fledgling Christian community, but rather, after he had turned away from his violence, accepted and eventually became a leader in it.

The story from Acts about Paul’s conversion, tells us that after Paul was knocked down from the heavenly light, he was blinded for a number of days, and left completely in the care of Damascus’ Christian community. Paul, once powerful, was rendered powerless. Yes, Paul had that same moment of helplessness that I had in the middle of being thrown. Yet his landing was made gentle. The community did not exact the justice that was rightly theirs to seek. They showed mercy instead.

Mercy happens when we pull back from retaliation, when we recognize that cycles of violence and exclusion do little more in the end then have us commit more violence and exclude more people. Just as God gathers us in, we are called to call each other into community, not call each other out, forcing each other out of community.

Perhaps Jesus’ parables are, for once, more straightforward. Jesus tells two stories in our Gospel reading; the first is a famous one for liberal and progressive Christians. Jesus tells the story of a sheep who wanders away. Instead of ignoring the sheep, shunning the sheep or even in more drastic terms, killing the sheep, Jesus goes to find the sheep, and return them to the flock.

Different commenters from different cultures have had much to say about this story. Some have noted the joy of the sheep at being saved. Others have focused on the joy of the community and the flock at being made whole. Today, going with the theme of being picked up, I relish the imagery of the sheep being carried on the shoulders of their shepherd. The sheep is totally helpless, yet trusts in the shepherd’s abundant mercy to not harm it. Instead of punishment for the sheep, the shepherd seeks only reconciliation and healing.

Let us go and do likewise.

As we begin our moment of silent prayer and reflection, let us consider the many ways we have been shown mercy, and how we might show it to others. Amen.

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