Harrowing Of Hell
September 15, 2019

Reversing the Perfect Storm, One Person at a Time

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon, click here.

Today we encounter Jeremiah, an Old Testament prophet, known as the “weeping” prophet. Not a very distinguished nickname, but an apt one. He lived in the kingdom of Judea around the 7th c. BC, under the reign of five different Jewish kings; four of which couldn’t stand him. He was really a pain in the neck. His “thing” was “Babylon,” and over and over again he agitated in favor of befriending them, and, in turn, spurning Judea’s alliance with Egypt. 

Now for those in political power at the time this kind of talk was treasonous. Often Jeremiah was beaten and exiled, and, even one time, thrown into an abandoned cistern to die of starvation. He got out, pesky prophet.

Good advice to Jeremiah would have been for him to just keep his mouth shut, or better yet, immigrate to Babylon, if he liked them so much. But the fate of the prophet is a complicated one. Prophets are not social reformers or predictors of the future. They are poets who hold, despite themselves, the deepest hopes, and worst fears, and most profound longings of their people–and they can give that up about as easily as a robin can give up her song.

And so, despite himself, Jeremiah kept saying: “The Babylonians are coming. They will destroy our nation, exile our people, and cast us out of the land that God has given us…and this is our fault! We have brought this upon ourselves.”

No one, incidentally, likes to hear “you have brought this upon yourself.” It is irritating. The kings of Judea didn’t like it. Clearly there was something about the alliance with Egypt that was working for them; and they believed that their decisions were the right ones, and that Jeremiah was an idiot, if not a traitor.

In the end Jeremiah was taken to Egypt by a Judean Governor, and it is believed he was stoned to death there. But until then Jeremiah, the weeping poet, if you will, kept speaking out, not because he liked his message, but because he loved his people; even when they did not love him back.

Too often, the moment we hear a prophet we have an opinion; and we say to the prophet… “That is your opinion.  I have my own.” But here is what makes a prophet a prophet: they truly see from the outside in like a weatherperson reporting on a storm; naming what is happening and saying what the outcome will be. Their words are exacting and demanding, and, sadly, we only know their rightness in hindsight.

What the prophet sees is how our choices don’t align with God’s will, and won’t work out because they can’t work out in the world as God designed it. And if we keep pushing the dysfunctional plan, (like trying to put a square peg in a round hole) we only cause a bigger mess.

I’ll give you an extreme example: bombing non-combatants in a war. To do this once might be an accident; twice might show carelessness; but time and time and time again-that would be a bad plan that causes the bigger problem of planting animus in the hearts of the victims; and things go from bad to worse.

Which brings me to Jeremiah’s core point: there will be no recovery from a bad plan, until one takes responsibility for the part they played in bringing about the mess in the first place, and re-engages the world as it was designed to be engaged.

The prophet sees the mess and sees a bigger mess a-coming and cries out…and is ignored because people feel they know better, or, more often, they don’t want to give up the benefit that is accruing to them in the short-term. So, they ignore the prophet, or jail the prophet, or kill the prophet.

Or, at the very least, tell the prophet to quit being so “judge-y” and self-righteous. No one likes that because they too think that they have an objective perspective on whatever storm is a brewing that gives them insight that is equal to the pesky prophet. Everyone thinks they are the weatherperson, even when, in reality, they are a drop of rain in the storm.

And here is the truth; most storms blow over, but occasionally, as in the days of Jeremiah and the Babylonians, a perfect storm settles upon the land, as Dorian did over the Bahamas, just sitting there and wreaking havoc. 

Now if the storm sits there long enough, it gets normalized. And the rain falls, and the wind blows, and the water rises, and titration sets in-which is a fancy word for the frog (or should I say bullfrog) in the pot of water that is slowly heating up on the stove.

Life in the perfect storm is just the way life is, and you go on, not worrying; and over time, listening less and less to that guy Jeremiah. And anyway, what could you possibility do about it if you DID believe the prophet?  Life is complicated and you’re just one person. What can one person do when Dorian is sitting over you and won’t go away?

It is hard to even know what the right thing to do is. 500 years ago, it was so much easier. If a poor beggar came through your town and you gave him a basket full of tomatoes, God would smile upon you, and your neighbors would pat you on the back because you did a Gospel good deed.

But today, if you gave a beggar a bag of tomatoes, one might say you’re facilitating laziness, and another might accuse you of supporting big-AG, and someone else might say you don’t care about immigrant laborers… just because you gave a beggar a bag of tomatoes. It is so complicated.

It is so hard to do the right thing, and by the way, what good will one bag of tomatoes do in the long run anyway? Really? And the grief you get for trying to do the right thing? Really? Maybe it is better to ignore the fact that the water you are in is getting hotter and hotter and hotter.

And then, we come to church today; and we hear the Gospel of Luke, and we have these two stories of things that are lost and then are found. And good sense would say, don’t risk the 99 sheep to find the one, and don’t waste time looking for the coin, when you could probably, in that same amount of time, double your money with a good investment, or by working overtime.

But Jesus gives us these two lessons to help us respond to Jeremiah’s core message: that there is no recovery until we take responsibility and re-engage the world as it was designed to be engaged. Anything less only makes a bigger mess.

So, when the sheep is lost the shepherd stops and immediately goes to find it.

When the coin is lost the woman stops and immediately lights a torn to find it.

Here is the point: The minute we realize we are in the storm or the pot of water on the stove, stop and immediately do something about it.

There is no recovery, until we immediately take responsibility, and we change our ways. That is one Kingdom of God lesson we hear from Jesus today.

Here is another Kingdom of God lesson we mine from the same parable: that one person makes a difference; that one person matters; that God rejoices in the actions of each and every individual. And so, if a person is lost in a storm of her own making, and she turns around, and owns her actions, and make amends… God rejoices!

That is part of the Gospel message today. What each one of us does makes a difference in the world around us. We can’t do everything; we can just do our thing. If, for me, it is giving tomatoes to the beggar, God rejoices. If it is your thing to work for laborers’ rights, God rejoices. If it is your thing to grow drought resistant tomatoes, God rejoices. And all of these things work together, because we believe that God made us each with purpose to share our unique gifts for the benefit of the world.

Just as we know that a perfect storm is made up of thousands and millions of individual actions that come together at a given moment in time to wreak havoc on a place; so too can thousands and millions of individual actions come together to heal the world…and God rejoices!

Jeremiah kept proclaiming that Judea would be destroyed by the Babylonians, if the people did not repent and own their misguided ways and change. And they did not, and Judea was destroyed by the Babylonians. Ownership and repentance and restoration took 400 years. Jeremiah, of course, didn’t live to see this, but it didn’t matter, because he knew what he did in his time mattered to God, and that God would remember, and God would rejoice!

We may not ever witness the impact of our individual or collective changes, because we are rain drops not weatherperson, but God knows, and that matters, and God will rejoice!