Don’t Look Away

Luke 16:1-13

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:

 “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”

 (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”)

 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

 For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

On this warm Sunday morning in late September 2019, you and I sit in the liminal space between two tragic anniversaries.

A little more than a week ago, the entire nation marked the 18th anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. Eighteen years ago, my son was just a baby so he has no memory of that day when it felt like the world was coming apart at the seams. But he has heard everyone else’s memories of that day replayed again and again and again every September 11th for the past 18 years.

In a few weeks, we will mark the first anniversary of events that happened much closer to home on October 27, 2018. On that day, my son was no longer a baby. He was a 17- year old, sleeping late on a Saturday morning, when gun shots rang out from a synagogue just ½ block from our house. My son will always carry the memory of the sights and sounds of that day, and the days that followed it, when it felt like the world was coming apart at the seams. 

As my son has grown into a young man in the time between those events in 2001 and 2018, there have been other tragedies with their own sights and sounds.

There have been more terrorist attacks and mass shootings, not only in places of worship, but also in grocery stores, and night clubs and movie theatres, and even in schools, affecting young people the same age as my son.

There have been wars and more wars, some of which have lasted the entire duration of my son’s life.

There have been financial disasters. Natural disasters. Epidemics.  

As Jeremiah says:

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

Is it any wonder that in 2019, we have raised an entire generation of kids who never seem to look up from their phones?  

For our children and grandchildren’s generation – and let’s be honest here, for many of us in the Boomer generation – when the problems just seem to keep on coming, looking down at our phones is one of the many, many ways we avoid the pain of living a human life.

I once saw a You Tube video in which the comedian Louis CK describes those moments in which we feel a deep sadness about human tragedy, loneliness, anxiety and fear.  And when those moments wash over us, Louis says we turn to the closest idol available. For my son, it’s his phone.  For older people, it may be something else.  But when we feel lost and vulnerable, what we want most is for the feeling to go away.

Louis CK said that one day he was in his car and an old Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio and while listening to it, he was filled an almost unspeakable sadness.  He said he had to try hard to resist the urge to pick up his phone, maybe text a few friends, and find a distraction that would make the sadness go away.  And he said he realized that it is so hard to just allow ourselves to cry about things that really deserve to be cried about.

If you don’t know who Louis C.K. is, he was once one of the most popular comedians in the country. He’d had a successful TV show, standup comedy specials galore, and sold-out nationwide tours. Shortly after I saw this clip of him talking about his inability to deal with sadness, the news hit about his misconduct with numerous women.  Which makes me wonder how deeply sadness soaked into the soul of a guy who seemed to have it all, yet couldn’t stop himself from wounding others.

We are human beings. We can and do make anything an idol. It isn’t just about the kids and their darn iPhones. It’s about us.

When the world feels as if it coming apart at the seams, our instinct is to look away, to distract ourselves from events and issues that seem beyond our ability to solve or cope.

The great theologian John Calvin once said that “man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” When life gets hard, we will turn to anything and everything except God and each other.

Which is, of course, what happening in Judah in this story we heard from Jeremiah.  The people to whom Jeremiah is speaking knew something about sadness and fear and anxiety. For the people of Israel, the day to day struggle of trying to keep their lives running smoothly meant trying to exist as a small country surrounded by much bigger and much more powerful enemies who attacked Judah all the time and pretty much wanted to see them destroyed.

Motivated by anxiety and fear and feeling absolutely vulnerable in the shadow of their enemies, the leadership and people of Judah stopped trusting their covenant with YHWH. They grabbed onto worthless things to make themselves feel bigger and safer and more powerful.  In the process, they became worthless themselves. As Jeremiah puts it, the people of Judah became stupid and reckless like children (Jer. 4:22).

The Judeans were able to delude themselves that what they did or didn’t do really didn’t matter. They would always be ok because, after all, they were a chosen people and God was a permanent resident of their land.

Like every human being who has walked this earth before and since Judah fell to the Babylonians in 587 B.C., the people of Judah fell hard for all the shiny things that they imagined would keep them secure. 

And human beings sure do love shiny things.  Bombs.  Guns. The soothing balms of food and alcohol and Netflix.  A bigger wall, a better security camera, a fence to keep out the neighbors. The idols of money and power and the idea that if we just work harder, we’ll be invincible. We attach our hopes onto all of those things we think can protect us or make us feel good or at least make us feel better. 

And it never seems to work out, does it?

The people of Judah found this out the hard way.  Despite the warnings of prophets like Jeremiah, the people of Judah drifted so far away from being the people God desired them to be, there was nothing left but to do but let the rug be pulled out from under them by an invading army. The Babylonians hit Judah like a ton of bricks.  The once fruitful land became a desert.  All the cities were laid in ruins (Jeremiah 4:26). 

The alarm bells of broken idols are ringing loud and clear in our text today. 

And the voice of God asks in sorrow, why did they do it? “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”

Why indeed?  Why did the people not listen?  Why do we not listen?  Why do we not listen to the sirens that warn us that we’re staking our lives on idols and balms that cannot save us?

When the worst happens, we ask, “Where was God?”

To which Jeremiah might reply, the better question is: People of God. Where were you?

The average Judean in Jeremiah’s time lived in constant anxiety about weather, flooding, drought, children dying in infancy, epidemics and other harsh realities of ancient agrarian existence.  Living with that level of tension and anxiety explains why turning to idols became an almost irresistible force for ancient Israelites. Our lives as Americans in the 21st century are certainly less precarious, but we also live with the anxieties that are simply a part of being human.

In every generation, you can observe the way in which all of us, every one of us, are lured to the things that fill us up as we attempt to fill in the space in every human being that is God-shaped.  As St. Augustine so astutely observed, we are cranky, anxious creatures with restless hearts, endlessly searching for a place to land.  Until we come to the place when we understand that no other idol is going to fill our God-shaped spaces.  Our hearts will wander restlessly until they rest in God. 

Eric Pickersgill is a photographer who got an idea for a project entitled, “Removed” one summer when he was at an artists’ residency in upstate New York. He was sitting in a coffee shop one morning when a family of four sat down to eat breakfast at the table next to him.  There were two girls and their dad, and the three of them were on their phones and not talking to each other. The mom didn’t have her phone out, but she was sitting there looking out the window, looking so isolated but within arms’ reach of the most important people in her live.  That picture, that moment with the family, made a deep impression on Pickersgill.

He says that after that experience, he challenged himself to be intentionally more present to the people around him. But three nights later, after seeing the family in the coffee shop, Pickersgill fell asleep with his phone in his hand, and was jolted awake by the sound of his phone slipping out of his dozing grasp and hitting the floor with a thud.

He looked down at his empty hand and noticed it was still in the shape as if he was holding the device. An empty hand almost frozen in the shape of a phone.

The image woke him up in more ways than one. He went on to take a series of photographs of all sorts of people in all sorts of places, looking down at their phones.

But when Pickersgill poses the people, right before he takes the photo, he takes the phone out of their hands and asks them to hold the pose. The resulting images are striking. One of the most famous is a photo of a man and woman with their backs to one another, lying in bed, each looking at their empty hands where a phone would be. Without the phone, the images look distorted. Sad. Less than human.

I think this photographer is a little like the prophet Jeremiah.

Jeremiah could see the people of Judah trying to fill their God shaped spaces with idols that distorted their relationship with God and with one another.  And he could see the catastrophe coming out of this. Nothing, not even the balm of Gilead can save them.

Despite what the song says, Jeremiah seems to have his doubts that there is a balm in Gilead, and if we’re honest, so do we.

There is no balm that will make whole the families and communities destroyed by gun violence.

There is no balm that will bring back the homes destroyed by the hurricane that destroyed so much of the Bahamas.

There is no balm that will stop the warming of the oceans or the violence in the Middle East or the hatred that divides so much of the world.

There are no easy answers for the healing of a sin sick world. 

The balm that will ultimately heal us is beyond our ability to prescribe, procure or purchase. 

What will heal us is the goodness of God, and the goodness God plants in our hearts that helps us to heal one another.

The parable we heard in the reading from Luke today ends with Jesus’ assertion that we cannot serve two masters.

We cannot serve the gods of wealth and power and protection, and still serve God. We cannot choose to lean on idols so we can feel less vulnerable, less afraid, and less human, and still depend upon God.

We cannot turn our eyes away from the world’s sadness and brokenness, and still follow Jesus Christ because He always leads us to sad and broken places.

This is news that is both good and terrible.

I pass by Tree of Life Synagogue nearly a half dozen times a day. I can’t avoid the corner, but over the past year I found I developed a habit of averting my eyes when I drive by. I have some friends in other parts of the neighborhood who deliberately avoid driving down my street because the reminder is still far too grim.

At the Tree of Life Synagogue last week, the leaders of the congregations who worshipped there took down an ugly blue tarp that was covering a fence erected after the shooting to protect the sacred space from further violence. The result was a complex that looked abandoned and dismal.

In place of the ugly tarp, the congregation put up a white banner covered with silkscreened artwork done by young people from all around the country to bring back some light and vitality to the corner of Shady and Wilkens Ave. Most of the artwork was created by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and Newtown High School in Newtown, Connecticut – all scenes of horrific mass shootings.

Now when I pass by Tree of Life, those young artists, who have experienced the very worst that humans can do to one another, show me something important.

Those 101 kids prophesy to me everyday.

Their prophecy is rendered in colors and symbols of reconciliation and peace that echo the ancient voice of Jeremiah as he spoke God’s Word to the Judeans:

“The world is terrible, but it is also beautiful. Don’t look away.”

“The worst will happen, but love will win. Don’t look away.”

“Death will destroy the body, but resurrection and reconciliation is real. Don’t look away.”

Don’t you get it? As the church of Jesus Christ, we are called not to look away, but to keep our heads up, our eyes wide open, and even weep when we encounter the world’s pain, knowing that we are called to participate in God’s reconciling work. Friends, that is the only hope we have, and the only balm we need.

This is the reality that lays beneath every other reality — the peace of Christ, the love of God and companionship of the Holy Spirit which comforts us, challenges us, weeps with us, and promises us God’s future. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.