It is good to be back. And it is a pleasure to have Beckford Parish worshiping as one body today. I want to thank those of you who helped lead the Morning Prayer services while I was away. And I want to thank Maddie MacNeil for coming to share her ministry of music with us, as well as Wilson Troxell for playing the organ.
N. read the lesson from Jeremiah. I want to preach on that lesson. Jeremiah is one of the prophets of the Babylonian exile. The exile is a major event in the history of the Hebrew people. We frequently read lessons in scripture that have the exile as their original context. I could spend the whole sermon framing the historical circumstances, but I’m not going to do that. Let me just say, like most prophets of this time, Jeremiah was trying to warn the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, that they had strayed from the Torah, the teachings of God, and that they needed to repent.
Jeremiah does not speak with his own voice. His words are written as oracles. An oracle is when a person speaks prophetically as if having a direct line from God. That is why Jeremiah writes, “Thus says the Lord.” It’s not that Jeremiah somehow believes that he is God, or that he knows God’s mind perfectly. This is a genre of writing that you will not find in any place other than the Bible and other ancient texts.
We do not know how widely read these words were when Jeremiah was writing or how well respected he was at the time. I will tell you frankly, that Jeremiah is one of the most difficult books of the Bible to read. It is not organized well. It was the subject of much revision. What we have might be a compilation of many scrolls that were all brought together under the assumption that they all shared a common author. We don’t know.
We do know that in the second chapter, Jeremiah is outlining the infidelity of the people. He uses a list of antitheses to make his point. It’s rhetorical device that describes conflict, like if I were to say, “I did this, but he did that. I went left, but he went right.” Jeremiah writes—speaking as God—“I delivered you, and you left me.” “I gave you a plentiful land, and you defiled it.”
He speaks about the priests… He’s not talking about priests like me! He’s talking about the priests of Solomon’s Temple. “Those who handle the law did not know me.” You can almost hear these words echoing into the New Testament where Jesus says “Depart from me, you workers of iniquity…I do not know you.” (Matthew 7:23)
Jeremiah writes: “The rulers transgressed against me; the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit. My people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” Of course “their glory” is their relationship with God, and God—through the voice of Jeremiah—laments their apostasy.
Jeremiah then sums up his case by indicting them on two charges. He writes, almost as if speaking to the universe as a jury in a courtroom, “Be appalled, O heavens…be shocked, be utterly desolate…for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.”
Isn’t that something? Think about that analogy for a moment. It is devastating. The people have left God—the fountain of living water—and have instead dug cisterns. And not just cisterns, cracked cisterns that can’t even hold water. This is a scathing criticism. He might have said, “You killed the cow, and now you’re buying milk—and not just milk—sour milk.” How pitiful can you get?
This is serious language. How do you feel when you read it? I suppose that might depend on how well you felt your relationship to God was going. If you’re pleased with your levels of devotion and your feeling of “connectedness,” then perhaps you just let the words slide on by and grab someone else.
But if you are someone who has been away…well, that makes things a little different. Especially if you have not just drifted away from church, but sought to dig a cistern to get water some place else. Because that does really make things different. Jeremiah says it’s not just one thing—it’s two. To leave God, and to follow something else.
And though these words make God seem petulant, even angry, it is still a cry of love, you know? It’s not like: “All right. Fine. You don’t want me, well I don’t want you.” No, no, no. Behind all these words is the cry of a dad wanting his son to come home.
Sometimes I wonder if the parable of the Prodigal Son is Jesus’ version of the exile. The themes in the two stories are the same. The people are unfaithful to God, they get their inheritance and off they go to a foreign land, and when they get there, they realize how good life was, and they come home with their tails between their legs. And what happens? God embraces them. They recommit to the law and the commandments, and they begin to rebuild their lives.
It seems like the theme of the whole Bible, really. People are created in the image of God, they sin, they return. Sin, return, sin, return, and inevitably back to sin. Why?
Well, there are all sorts of reasons, of course. I have known plenty of people who have been faithful, devout people and have quietly, almost serenely, slipped away. They weren’t really looking to do so. In fact, they kept coming to church—but something inside was content to just pull up the covers and take a nap. I don’t blame them for it, really.
There are times when the Prayer Book seems a million miles from life as we know it. Sometimes I look over the beautiful prayers that our Anglican ancestors have given us, and though I dearly love them, sometimes they seem like portraits in an art gallery: lovely to look at, but they don’t really go with my life right now. They don’t seem all that relevant.
Things start to seem a little dull around the edges. You want to pray, but you can’t. Anything is more interesting than prayer. It’s just that occasional feeling that no one notices that you’re out of the room. The routines of life spin merrily on, you keep doing what you’ve been doing, but you’re just phoning it in.
I know of plenty of clergy who have allowed it to happen. They get too busy, or too consumed with putting out the petty little fires. Some clergy get it into their minds that a parish is a problem that needs to be fixed, rather than a people who need to be loved. And they start to look over the lessons for Sunday like a salad bar at the end of the evening, and all they see is wilted old sayings. So they cobble a sermon together from varioius places, quotations that are just meaningful enough to seem relevant and…well… “that’ll hold `em, better luck next week.”
There are plenty of devout people who are in church every Sunday, and once they were like balloons filled up with the Holy Spirit. Shiny, beautiful, happy. But one day someone made the tiniest little pin-prick and the air started slowly seeping out. No one noticed for a long time because the air was leaking so slowly. And because it was such a little thing, even they could ignore it. The air was just…slowly…draining.
We could give it a word. A word might help. The Greek word ακηδία. It means, I don’t care. If you speak those words, you will feel terrible, but as long as you don’t speak them, you can live with them for looooong periods of time. You can adopt them as an attitude, and it will make you seem very cool, very… “with it.”
People may even mistake the attitude for being content, and happy. But eventually, no matter how well you think you can hide it, people will catch on. And there will be some pain in the silence.
It’s how some marriages dissolve. One person, or both, stop caring. It’s not all at once. Just a pin-prick here, and pin-prick there..little by little. This didn’t happen…that didn’t happen…it’s okay…whatever… Aκηδία. Listlessness. There was a parishioner I had…I used to greet him every Sunday morning, “Hey! How are you today!?” And every time he’d say, “I’m here.” Aκηδία.
And if you stay like that it’s like taking a nap late in the afternoon. You roll over and you know you should get up. First you think you can but won’t, and then you think you can’t. And the longer it goes, the deeper the depression. If I don’t care, who does? Who will?
I have known people to slip away completely from church. And it’s always a difficult sort of dance, because on the one hand you want to give people the freedom to miss a little church here and there. You don’t want to seem like the church police. “Why weren’t you in church?” But on the other hand, you care. You want to see them. You worry about them.
Sometimes people slip away from church just a little bit, just to get a little space. Maybe they just served on the vestry, they want a break, and that’s it. Or sometimes a sermon was a little too pushy. Or sometimes it has nothing whatsoever to do with anything in particular…
I care very deeply for people who find themselves drifting in that direction. And I can understand that sometimes people just sort of slip away to the point where their return might seem like a very big deal. They’ve missed for long while…it’s become a little embarrassing.
Here they come to church, and the regular folks say things like, “Howdy stranger!” I’m guilty of this myself, I’m ashamed to say. When we do that, it can seem like an innocent little joke, but it can hurt. The person might have had to screw up their courage to come back.
It might be why some people start going to other churches. Being a newcomer in a new place is can be easier than returning to the old familiar. Everyone hopes to see the newcomer again. The old face back in the pews… “Hmhf…where have you been?”
I think there are a lot of people who would love to come back to church, but they don’t quite know how to do it. They don’t want to answer any questions. They don’t want to be criticized. They love God; they miss being with people who love them; it’s very complicated.
No one wants to come home a stranger. I think that’s why we cry when we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. He’s not supposed to be welcomed home. And then he is. And whether you’ve been coming to church or not coming to church the story still hits home, because no one has been so fervent in the things of God that they haven’t slipped away just a little bit.
We all know what it’s like to walk that lonely road home, wondering if there is enough love to go around the table. Wondering if there “will come a time, when the memories fade and pass on with the long, long years. When the ties no longer bind,” and we find ourselves praying, “Don’t let me come home a stranger. I couldn’t stand to be a stranger.”
I don’t know any man, woman, or child who hasn’t had that fear. The fear that there just isn’t enough love left in the pot for one more prodigal son.
The good news, of course, is that with God there is always enough love. There are always open arms. Jesus is the answer God gives to the infidelity of his people. “…when we had fallen into sin and become subject to evil and death, [God], in his mercy, sent his only and eternal Son, to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us…to reconcile us…” (Eucharistic Prayer A) To say, “It’s okay. There is enough love in the pot for you. There is space at the table for you, even if you have slipped away. …plenty of love for you.” That’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Maddie’s going to come and sing this wonderful song by Robin and Linda Williams, “Don’t let me come home a stranger.”
If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider making a donation to the church where you feel most at home.
The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.