Ordinary 25C, September 22, 2013

The Balm in Gilead Looks Like My iPhone

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!
The process of preparing a sermon each week is a strange and odd thing.  I suspect that sermon preparation is something most people would rather not see…sort of like sausage-making or open-heart surgery. All of you have arrived here this morning expecting to hear a word from the Lord spoken by your thoroughly imperfect, occasionally inelegant, but always earnest pastor.  When you listen to my sermons or anyone’s sermons, you probably don’t have a strong curiosity about how it got written, as long as I show up with something reasonably reasonable when 11:15 rolls around.
Well, today I’m going to take the risk of telling you about the ugly process I went through this week. I promise, there is a point to the stupid story you are about to hear about my stupid week.  This was a week in which I was gob-smacked more than usual by the Holy Spirit and now that it’s Sunday and I’m standing up here before you, I feel compelled to honestly confess that I totally deserve every blessed moment of the week’s misery. 
But despite, or maybe because of my stupidity, I think I learned something important about idolatry, grief, and the unbelievable power of human self-delusion and denial.  And all of these lessons were cheerfully delivered to me by the Holy Spirit via the comedian Louis CK, Bruce Springsteen, and my local Apple Store.  And, believe it or not, all of these have something to do with the text from Jeremiah.  Because Jeremiah is really, at its heart, a book about idolatry, grief, and the power of human self-delusion and idolatry. 
Here’s what Jeremiah asks in our text this morning.  Is there no balm in Gilead?  What a totally silly question.  Of course there is.   I even brought it with me.  (Hold up the new iPhone).
Do you know what this is?  This is an iPhone 5s, the new phone released this past Friday by Apple.  My balm in Gilead is this phone.  It is my idol.  It is the healing balm for which I stood in line for 3 ½ hours on Friday morning.  And so did a lot of other people all around the country. 
Understand that I did not plan this expedition. I’m not that crazy.  I was sort of forced into line by circumstance.  Two days before releasing the new iPhones, Apple released a new operating system for all their iPhones. I downloaded the new system to my old phone because I thought it would help my old phone run a little better.  
Well, that was a really terrible idea.  Installing this new software on my old phone was the final insult to its system.  All dayThursday, I missed a bunch of calls, received texts hours after they were sent, couldn’t access my email or my calendar, totally lost track of who was liking what on Facebook, and couldn’t a score for the Pirates game.  I was totally and utterly rudderless.  Well-played Apple.  Well-played.
When I woke on Friday morning, I hadn’t planned on getting a new phone.  I thought I could wait a couple days.  But when my friend called to tell me that she was in line at the Apple store to get a new phone and did I want to come join her, I hesitated for about a minute and said, sure…how long could it take?  My balm was on the horizon.  A shiny new idol.  How I could I resist? 
It took 3 ½  hours.  But finally…I had it.  (Hold up the phone again)  Isn’t it beautiful?  Shiny?  Fast?  And look…it can read my fingerprint so I don’t have to put in a passcode.  So it’s magic too.
After standing in line for 3 ½ hours, I went to a meeting at the seminary and by mid-afternoon on Friday, I was heading home to finish the sermon which I had mostly done on Monday. 
I got home, went to my computer, turned it on and instead of the comforting “boing” of a laptop booting up, I heard alarm bells.  I never knew laptops could make that sound, but evidently they do when the hard drive is completely fried. 
To make a long story shorter, Jesus saves and so do I, but the last back up I had done on my computer was two weeks ago.  Which meant my mostly written sermon from Monday was gone.  Kaput.  All gone.
So, on Saturday afternoon, once I had a functioning computer, I had to begin this sermon all over again.   I had to start all over again with the weeping prophet Jeremiah and this beautiful yet haunting passage about what happens when a group of people get so caught up with the things that seem important, that they lose track of what really matters.   I had to face the fact that idols come in all shapes and sizes, and I was as guilty as anyone of slobbering over all of the external things I think are critical to keeping my life running smoothly.
Which is, of course, what happened in Judah.   They got caught up in the day to day struggle of trying to keep their lives running smoothly – which for the people of Israel meant trying to scratch out an existence as a small country surrounded by much bigger and much more powerful enemies.  The people in Judah, as spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, motivated by anxiety and fear, had lost sight of their covenant with YHWH and wandered off to go after worthless things and, in the process, had become worthless themselves (Jer. 2:5).  The people had given in to the easy and less-demanding comfort of false idols, all the while deluding themselves with a false sense of security they would always be ok because YHWH lived in Zion. As Jeremiah puts it, they became stupid children with no understanding who had become skilled in doing evil and did not know how to do good (Jer. 4:22).
God looks down on the earth and what does God see?  People standing in line for iPhones. 
Like every human being who has walked this earth since Judah fell in 587 B.C., the people of Judah fell hard for all the shiny things that they imagined would make them secure.  And human beings sure do love shiny things.  Bombs.  Guns.  New cars.  The soothing balms of food and alcohol.  The idols of money and power.   All of those things we imagine can protect us or make us feel good.  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 hole that is God-shaped in every human being.  
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. 
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 for God 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 (Jer. 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 they not listen?  Why do we not listen?  Why do we not listen to the sirens that sound around us every day, warning us that we’re staking our faith on idols and balms that cannot save us?
The onerous drone that we hear every day can become overwhelming.  An economy still sputtering.  Families facing cuts in food stamps.  People struggling to pay their bills.  Friends and family struggling with physical and mental illness in a fractured and frustrating system of health care.  Just this week, think about what have we had to wrap our tired minds around?  The continuing impasse in Washington, D.C.  Chemical weapons and unreliable allies.  Old wars, civil wars and the very real prospect of new wars.  The death of dozens in Chicago.  A mall bomb in Nairobi. The deaths of thousands in Syria. 
Given what is going on in the world, it is small wonder we turn to balms and idols and anything we can get our hands on. It is not surprising that we rely upon easy, comfortable balms when there seems to be no answer to hard questions. We cling to idols when everyday anxiety threatens to choke us up and leave us weeping like Jeremiah.  Nobody wants to wade into the muck of deep human misery that Jeremiah experiences.
 My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick…
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 Saturday afternoon, as I was floundering around, trying to recreate my sermon, I watched a clip from the Conan show on Friday night.  Conan’s guest was Louis C.K. who is a really great comedian.  Louis was talking about his decision not to allow his teenage daughters to have a smart phone because he thinks they are thoroughly toxic for the human soul.  Although he didn’t use the word, “idol,” his description of what smart phones do to us as human beings really resonated with me given the week I had with technology.  And what he said also resonated with the kind of deep down grief you hear in this text from Jeremiah. 
What idols do – whether they are iPhone or foreign gods or sports teams or anything else – is take away our ability to just be who we are without doing something to distract us from the very real pain that life hands to us.  The average Judean lived in constant anxiety about weather, flooding, drought, children dying in infancy, epidemics and other harsh realities of ancient agrarian existence.  Living with tension and anxiety certainly made turning to idols an almost an irresistible force. Our lives in the 21stcentury are certainly less precarious than those of the ancients, but we do live with anxieties that are simply a part of being human.
On the Conan show, Louis CK described those everyday moments in which we feel a deep sadness.  And when those moments wash over us, Louis says we turn to the closest idol available.  For me, it’s this (hold up the iPhone).  For you, it may be something else.  But it’s what we do when we feel lost and vulnerable. 
Louis CK said that one day he was in his car and a Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio and while listening to it, he was filled an almost unspeakable sadness and longing.  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 for us just to allow ourselves to be sad, to just cry about things that really deserve to be cried about.  About the loss of a friend or a job.  The absurdity of old age and the stress of trying to find our way in youth.  About the terrible beauty of raising children and the awful pain of letting them go. 
We can make an idol out of anything.  A spouse or a lover.  A miraculous healing or a chronic illness.  An imagined hurt or a real one.  Anytime we’re in a place in which we turn away from who we are meant to be before God, we are worshipping an idol.  Anything that distracts us from being fully present to the Creator who loves us, and fully engaged in the world God entrusted us to care for and love on God’s behalf is a balm that will ultimately disappoint us in the end.  
There is no balm in Gilead.  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 even purchase, no matter how long we’re willing to stand in line.  We can not escape the terror of simply being human while we traipse upon this earth.  The only meaning we can hope to claim as sure and lasting is the identity we have as children of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ.  That is the only promise in which our hearts may find rest.  This is the reality that lays beneath every other reality — the peace of Christ, the love of God and the gob-smacking companionship of the Holy Spirit which comforts us, challenges us, weeps with us and invites us into God’s future. 
Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Here’s Louis CK on Conan (9/20/13)

And a bonus song:  “Jungleland”  from “Born to Run” released in 1975.