|Aretha Franklin, LA, 1972|
Lent 3 + March 7, 2021
Toward the end of this morning’s service we’ll watch two of the 20th century’s great musicians – Gospel legend James Cleveland and the indescribable Aretha Franklin – singing ‘Amazing Grace’ with a gospel choir in Los Angeles in 1972. And we’ll be watching a community singing a hymn that captures their lived experience of struggle, their lived experience of vulnerability, as a community—in a strange and difficult and dangerous century, but a century which has seen movement and progress, and struggle and change. As Aretha Franklin sings – “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me” – you can feel that struggle and sense her people’s experience of the companionship of God, the presence of grace in the very midst of exile.
So we have that to look forward to. Aretha Franklin and James Cleveland.
We’ve been talking about exile ourselves these last many months. We’ve been using the metaphor of exile to represent our own experience of 2020 – the pandemic and its many disruptions, the surging violence of white nationalism, the grotesque brutality inflicted on black bodies in communities across the country. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and on and on and on. And I’ve suggested to you, we’ve suggested to one another, that in exile we have a choice to make: whether we bury our heads in the sand, simply to escape the discomfort, or whether we embrace – with the prophets, with our ancestors in faith – whether we embrace the raw, ragged openness of faith; the raw, ragged openness that grieves so much pain, but celebrates vulnerability and anticipates opportunity and seeks God even and especially in the brokenness. Raw, ragged openness. Shared faith, tender faith, fragile faith – cultivated and nurtured together in exile.
And this is what you’ve done – so many of you – cultivated a fragile faith together; risked a raw, ragged openness together. You’ve done this as church leaders, on so many Zoom screens, leaning into practical problems with confidence and care. You’ve done this in generous conversation with Koinonia communities, naming hurt, trusting hope, insisting on sisterhood, brotherhood, connection. You’ve done it among our children and youth, and with interfaith partners demanding justice for immigrants, and you’ve done it in your own prayer lives, in your own meditation practices, in your own openness to grief, loss, kindness and new initiatives. You have not buried your heads in the sand; and instead, you have wept and laughed, you have blessed the Lord wherever and whenever you have had a chance, and you risked a raw, ragged openness together. And friends, that’s church.
And I think Jeremiah – a raw and ragged prophet, if ever there was one – I think Jeremiah discovers in his own fragile faith a kind of receptivity to the passions of God. The passions of God for the people in exile. This morning’s reading is one of the most buoyant, one of the most dynamic, one of the most joyful texts in all of scripture. Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah himself has wept and worried through this exile, and he’s despaired for his people and called them out for their meanness and shortsightedness. Jeremiah has had a rough go of it through this exile, and his faith has worn thin. This raw, ragged openness thing – it’s hard on a prophet.
But now Jeremiah hears the voice of God in a new key, the promise of Yahweh in a new key, the sweet and welcoming sounds of grace: and Jeremiah’s ready for it.
Listen again to some of this language, some of this poetry:
“Thus says the Lord” – and you always know a prophet is serious, when he says ‘Thus says the Lord’ – “Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword have found grace in the wilderness.” And that’s just for starters: “The people who survived the sword have found grace in the wilderness…I have loved you with an everlasting love…” This is God speaking. This is the Maker of the Universe, the Lord of Love calling out to all of those in diaspora, to all of those in exile. “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” Yes, the disruptions have been brutal and hard, and our losses have been many. Yes, the powers and principalities of empire have inflicted bloody damage on our communities, and on our neighbors, and on our institutions too. And yes, we have been scattered by so much fear, divided by so much distrust, and we pay a price, we continue to pay a terrible price for all of this. But God’s heart does not despair. And God’s passion is rekindled now. Jeremiah feels it in his bones. Jeremiah leans in close to hear the new words God speaks to exiles. And what he hears is this: “I have loved you with an everlasting love.” God is doing a new thing now. Because God’s love is deep and everlasting and resilient and full of hope and promise and grace.
So, parenthetically, when you watch Aretha Franklin sing “Amazing Grace” in just a little bit, I want you to think Jeremiah. Jeremiah wasn’t a sober, preachy, didactic, buttoned-up fellow. Jeremiah was pierced through with worry for his people. Jeremiah was agitated by injustice and political ignorance and militarism and poverty. Jeremiah wrestled fiercely with his own doubts, and then shone like sunshine when love came to town. Jeremiah was something like Aretha Franklin singing in front of that choir at the Missionary Baptist Church in LA on a steamy summer’s night in 1972. “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. Tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
That’s Jeremiah in the 6th century BCE. That’s Jeremiah calling out to the exiles. And again, the language here, the poetry is exquisite and robust: “I am going to bring them from the land of the north” – and remember, ‘Thus says the Lord’ – “I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame together, those with child and those in labor together, a great company.” You hear what this God is saying, this God of Israel, this God of love and justice and amazing grace? The whole people shall be gathered. Of all abilities they shall be gathered. Of all families and genders and ways of loving they shall be gathered. Of all races they shall be gathered. With all their experiences, with all their pains, with all their doubts, with all their joys. “A great company, they shall return home.” And remember, ‘Thus says the Lord’: “A great company, they shall return home.”
And if we do, Jeremiah says, and I just love this part, if we do pay attention and follow, if we do return with that great company, we “shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord.” We shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord. Again, friends, that’s us. That’s got to be us. This year and every year. We are not called to be the chosen frozen. We are not called to be the perpetually disappointed. We are not called to be the united church of confusion, either. We are called – by this God, by this God who gathers and loves and reconciles – we are called to be “radiant” with hope, to be “radiant” with possibility, to be “radiant” with delight in the plans of the One who gathers not just a few, not just the well-healed, not just the sophisticated—but the great company of creation, the great company of siblings, the great company of friends, for feasting and dancing and singing and praying and praising. We shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord. Our friends should pass by this church – on their way to school, on their way to work, on their way to yoga – and they should say: “That’s the church of those radiant folks. That’s the church of those radiant folks who just don’t give up. That’s the church of those radiant folks who keep coming up with new ways to shine and new ways to overcome and new ways to celebrate the goodness of the Lord."
And in that spirit, I want to lift up this morning the 21-Day Food Justice / Racial Equity Challenge that’s coming our way in April. Here’s another way this church of Jesus’ disciples is committed to partnership with God, and to partnership with a wonderfully diverse community of friends, allies and accomplices. Is food insecurity an issue in New Hampshire and New England? You know that it is. Is food insecurity exacerbated and intensified by systemic racism and inequities baked into the American experience? You know that it is.
But we intend to live and create and move into a future that is designed in the imagination and passion of God. We intend to live and create and move into a future that is open to God’s passion for racial justice, abundant communion and economic sufficiency for all. And because we do, we hear what Jeremiah hears. We hear God calling us to step out, to shine, to improvise and create. So a great group of our friends has designed an exciting three-week challenge – that partners us with a very urban and very new church in Boston and with food systems experts at UNH to address racism in our economy, to meet it face to face, and then to dream God’s dream of radiant justice in New England, of radiant sharing and community, of harmony and connection and communion with the planet itself.
Again, says Jeremiah’s God, and ours. “I will build you, and you shall be built.” Wow. Again, says Jeremiah’s God, and ours. “You shall take your tambourines—like Miriam, remember Miriam?—you shall take your tambourines and go forth in the dance.” Again, says Jeremiah’s God, and ours. “You shall plant vineyards, and the planters shall plant and shall enjoy their harvest.”
Friends, I want you to risk hearing what Jeremiah hears. And I want you to risk seeing what Jeremiah sees. We are tired out here in exile. And we have endured so much. In more than a few ways, we have lost our way. But God’s heart does not despair. And God’s passion is rekindled now. There are tambourines to shake, movements to lead, systems to be dismantled, vineyards to be planted, hungry friends to feed. And the goodness of God will lead us home. And grace will lead us home.