Sermons

Exhibit A: The Prickly Bits on the Long Arc of History

Ancient Testimony – Jeremiah 15

January 29, 2012

by Abigail Hastings

I apologize if you came today expecting the next chapter of the Jacob cycle, as Donna mentioned last week. I can contribute this however, found not so long ago in the caves of Machpelah where Jacob was buried. Lost verses that say: “And Jacob said unto Leah, the wife acquired through trickery, ‘Leah, thou of mine unbidden bed, you are not comely of face and I cannot build a great nation with you at my side. I therefore will cleave unto your sister Rachel and our marriage shall be an open one.

And Leah said unto him: ‘Oh. hell. no. Go to sheol, you jawbone of an ass.’”

Some time ago, my sister Nancy, who is a prison chaplain in a high security prison in North Carolina, wrote to say she was powerfully discouraged. An inmate who had always treated her with utmost respect came in to make a phone call to his ailing mom. While she was dialing the number, this guy decided it was a good time to air out his privates. Completely out of the blue. Completely unexpected from this particular inmate.

She wrote: “You know that verse in Jeremiah 15:6 when God is very discouraged and states that we are ‘going backwards’? And then God states, ‘I am weary of showing compassion.’ This is one of those rare moments when I can say I felt ‘God-like’ in having those kind of feelings.”

I told her that sounded like the godly thing to do. Only I hadn’t heard that verse before. I knew that God had second thoughts about us—but I thought that had been worked out with the flood and sealed with a rainbow.

Our dad was a biblical scholar. In his study, his holy of holies, he had two pictures on the wall: Jeremiah, his favorite prophet, and Hank Aaron, his favorite baseball player. You might say there’s no better representation of the Bible than that—Jeremiah, the curmudgeonly old neighbor, tried to get people to behave, which they won’t, which forced him to be the prophet of doom and gloom; and Hank Aaron, the embodiment of New Testament optimism of “running with perseverance the race set before us” and “fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith.”

A running metaphor again, but this one for Jeremiah. God says: “Jeremiah, if you get tired in a race against people, how can you possibly run against horses? If you fall down in open fields, what will happen in the thickets along the Jordan River?” (Jer. 12:5) You could say Jeremiah and Yahweh had a real love/hate relationship.

Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet” but growing up I thought of him as “the crybaby prophet.” What a whiner. The problem with me and Jeremiah is that I just hadn’t lived long enough. There is plenty to weep and gnash about, I know that now.

But that God feels this way too? That’s news. “I am tired of giving you a second chance,” says the Lord. What do you know—maybe we really are created in God’s image after all.

Last week Donna beautifully outlined ways in which we need to “understand the God of our tradition.” God is not the solver of problems, she said, so much as the presenter, begging us to find our true humanity.

But true humanity is complex—all we want is problems to go away, or to at least improve. We want to believe Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” 1 Proof, please. Just a little proof to hang our hearts on.

But you don’t find silver arcs on the desks of business executives. A miniature pendulum is more like it—they know it’s a more reliable predictor of what lies ahead.

So we get weary. Lord, we do get weary—and we can’t even try a little tenderness because we are hollowed out. Spent. Ka-put. Despair would be an improvement. Live long enough and you’re riding the pendulum—problems we thought we’ve solved, swing back again.

Exhibit A: Evan and I both went to school in Birmingham AL—he went to Birmingham Southern (Methodist), I went to a Baptist school, Samford. A hundred years ago when I was there, I thought, how wonderful, I go to an integrated college. It was only in my sophomore year that I learned that the young women of color were on campus just in order to have suitable dates for the black basketball players.

Now see, that’s changed. I can report that Samford currently has over 300 African American students. Progress, right? And what is that 300 in relation to the overall student body demographic? It’s about the same—brace yourself—as it is here at Judson. (I choose to believe the reasons for the similarity are different.)

We fill time and stay busy and don’t want to admit that we are duped by the “myth of progress.” Like at the end of a romance, we wonder how were we charmed into believing that everything was going to be¬—every day in every way—better and better?

It’s said that “history is something that happens to other people” — but before we look at how the human record affects us, let’s go to the emotional core of the feelings of disappointment that seem to settle in our bones, for me most notably whenever a Presidential election cycle comes round. I especially despise hearing things said against the President that are exactly the same things I said about the last one.

In spite of the fact that I hated Jeremiah growing up — did I mention that my dad had no pictures of his five children in his study? — Jeremiah is now my patron saint. He rails against the human condition, howls at God’s abandonment, decries the prospect of improvement, and notably, let’s Yahweh yell right back. Along with the Psalmist, you’d be hard pressed to find greater expressions of raw feeling and truthfulness.

You don’t find much of that in the New Testament, save for cranky John the Baptist and whatever the hell’s going on in Revelations. The context shifts with the coming of Jesus and the new brighter commandments. By the way, I love this Jules Feiffer quote I came across recently: “Christ died for our sins. Dare we make his martyrdom meaningless by not committing them?”

You see, Jeremiah and others in the Old Testament practiced the art of Lamentation. Will Braun writes about embracing lament, “the paradoxical combination of action and despair, trust and doubt, humility and superiority. It requires trust,” he writes, “that if we walk into the valley we will eventually, with the help of God and others, be able to walk out again. [Walter] Brueggemann says we can hope to walk out with new energy. Processing pain publicly, he writes, can generate ‘passionate social power.’”

Braun also cites Nancy Duff of Princeton Seminary who suggests that in admitting the feelings of vengeance, of utter despair, and even brazen accusations against God, “we are taught that true faith mitigates such intense feelings.” Lamentation even allows us to give up. “It allows us to rely on God and the community,” Duff says, “to carry forth hope on our behalf when we ourselves have no hope in us.” 2 Perhaps this is what irrational exuberance is really all about.

And here we come to the second erroneous thinking, I think more dangerous than the first: the myth that nothing ever changes.

CHURCH OF THE DIVINE I knew that the building had at one time been a church, but I didn’t know it was a church church. That’s it on the cover of your bulletin. The First Congregational Church in New York moved from downtown (Chambers Street) to 548 Broadway in 1848, and was renamed the Church of the Divine Unity and had congregants like Horace Greeley and P.T. Barnum. That congregation became All Soul’s Unitarian, still active today.

Then we were the Fourth Universalist Church in 1852 (originally on Murray Street), pastored by Rev. Edwin Hubbel Chapin, one of the most popular preachers in the city—the first Sunday evening service had over 2,000 in attendance with hundreds turned away. Fourth Universalist moved to Central Park West and 76th Street and is still active today.

A fine but unremarkable cast iron building replaced the church in 1874 and for most of the next century was a manufacturing site—men’s garters on my floor. Now UNIQLO is at street level—it’s a clothing store that began as Unique Clothing Warehouse over 25 years ago in the Hiroshima Prefecture of Japan. Now you think I brought all this up to say, see how things change—but that’s not the point. The point is the little known story of 548 Broadway that took place in 1911.

You’ll recall that in March of that year, the devastating fire at the Triangle Waist Company took the lives of 145 workers, most of them young immigrant women, most who jumped to their death.

Something else happened that year—on May 5th, on the Crosby Street side of my building, a worker had tossed a cigarette onto an awning that caught smoke, smoke that billowed up to the 4th floor where I live. The awning never caught fire, but the young girls working in the building saw the smoke and panicked, the memory of March 25th still fresh. They rushed for the narrow stairway which became so crowded, the balustrade gave way and the girls fell to the floor below, killing two of them and injuring a hundred more.

I’m going to quote Machiavelli now: “human events ever resemble those of preceding times [because] they are produced by men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results.”

I’m not sure about that but I do agree with what Mark Twain said: “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

History repeated, right there in my building, not because a threat was real, but because fear often dominates the choices we make. Fear most always leads to tragedy of one kind or another, and tragedy at some point in life is fairly guaranteed. “The world breaks everyone,” Hemingway writes, “and afterward many are strong in the broken places.”

The trick, you see, is finding a way to be strong in the broken places—and this is how things can change.

After the tragedy in my building, just one month later, the New York legislature formed the Factory Investigation Commission, the first and most comprehensive review of working conditions ever formed in the U.S. They not only looked at fire hazards but other things that contributed to the “daily menace” of the work environment, including sanitary conditions, child labor, lead poisoning and occupational diseases. This March will be the 100 year anniversary of one of the most important responses to tragedy in our nation’s history—the Commission’s report chronicled a record of wrongs, and a start to righting them.

Donna reminded us last week that “we are going to get a long term promise from the divine … in which justice and freedom will prevail—and short term non delivery.” That suggests to me that we need to alter our expectations. Success may have many fathers, but the mothers of invention are the gospel’s clarion call.

Success, after all, is not what we were promised—what a mean verse that is in the Psalms that “goodness and mercy will follow us,” but perhaps never quite catch up. I think our definition of success may be different, more the formula of Woody Allen who said: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

I’m not saying that’s an easy assignment. We need to weep and wail and throw a little pity party, then carry on. At my subway stop—Prince Street—I get a visual of that in the art installation called “Carrying On” —194 silhouetted people and the many things they carry. 3 As you can imagine, the idea of it took on special meaning after 9/11. We carry on.

I think I need to leave you with this word of caution, spoken in this room over forty years ago, by our longtime rebbe, social inquisitor, and part-time kill-joy, Howard Moody:

I’m tired, as many of you are, of irrelevant social protest, of impotent electoral politics, of seemingly ineffective means of forcing change in our system and society, but we dare not give up.

If the church has given up because we did not stamp out racial hatred, or bring peace to warring neighbors, or feed the hungry masses, then we suffered from the most arrogant of all sins—pride—but apathy may be a deadlier sin....

Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured; but we can reduce the number of tortured children.

[“Are We Standing Where We Stood? Some Uneasy Reflections on
Fourteen Years with the Right Woman,’” September 27, 1970]

So carry on, my co-conspirators in hope—who may yet believe in a new world despite evidence to the contrary. Carry on.
 

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1 This quote, attributed to King (used in his “how long, not long” speech, among others) and now woven into the rug of the Oval Office, is a paraphrase from an 1853 sermon by Unitaria`n minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker of Massachusetts: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.”

2 Excerpts from “A Walk in the Dim Valley,” by Will Braun in Geez magazine, Winter 2011, p. 23.

3 Prince Street subway art and explanation of the “triple pun” of the title here: www.janetzweig.com/public/06.html

 
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