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Sunday, November 24, 2019 | 9:30 a.m., 11:00 a.m., and 4:00 p.m.
Out of Time
Joseph L. Morrow
Minister for Evangelism, Fourth Presbyterian Church
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
Martin Luther King Jr.
There is a great deal I love about the Sahel region of Western Africa. Just south of the great Sahara desert, its epic landscape of windswept desert and rugged grassland sports every hue of green and brown. It is a cultural crossroads where one imbibes a symphony of languages from Hausa and Fulfulde to English and French.
But when I lived in a tiny town in the country of Niger as a mission volunteer some years ago, one thing not found in great abundance was bread. This was both a matter of taste and economics. Niger, in the mid-2000s, had endured a series of food crises aggravated by dwindling rains and changing climate. Nevertheless, bread in the forms I was accustomed to, sliced for sandwiches or cinnamon rolls for breakfast, were not at the top of the Nigerien menu.
So I decided to take matters into my own hands. By God’s grace, I found Suley, a Nigerien chef who received his culinary training in the capital city of Niamey, who agreed to guide me through my first attempts at baking sandwich loaves. The apparently straightforward project surprised me with its complexity. It required procuring flour from a market some 30 kilometers by motorbike, borrowing yeast from a neighbor, and adjusting the proportions of ingredients to account for searing hot temperatures and extremely dry air. Once Suley instructed me in the finer points of kneading dough, I managed to put my gooey mass into a propane stove that I nearly burnt off my eyebrows trying to ignite.
There are no temperature gauges on such ovens. Baking times are more or less guesswork. One has to intuit when the bread is done. As the smell of baking bread filled my nostrils and perfumed the guesthouse, my eagerness got the better of me. Suley stepped out the room only to come back finding me removing the loaf. On the verge of laughter, he playfully chided me with a light tap over my knuckles, “Surely it’s rising, Joe, but you must wait, for it is not yet ready.” It turns out he was right, for my haste was rewarded with a small nugget of soft unbaked dough at the center of my loaf. A testament to unruly impatience and a warning for your Thanksgiving dinners.
What scripture calls the reign of God or God’s kingdom evades easy description, but perhaps it’s best characterized by the impatient and persistent hunger it evokes in those who seek it. Jeremiah’s peers whisked away in chains to Babylon or forced into hiding in Egypt yearned for it. Jeremiah’s descendants under the dominion of the Roman Empire were desperate for it. And those who follow in the way and person of Jesus also crave it. We await what Jesus called true bread from heaven. We perceive it rising in the fiery crucible of history, but alas it is not yet ready.
For those of us gathered in this sanctuary today, the angst that accompanies our longing is partly rooted in an anxious view of time. We are a frenetic people governed by the second, minutes, and hours of the clock, checking cell phones or wristwatches to ensure we are in sync with its demanding rhythms. Like so many tasks, thrills, or hours of sleep we try to pack into our lives, we expect God’s promised future to cooperatively squeeze in. We demand it appear as instantaneously and conveniently as the filtering algorithms of Facebook or Twitter deliver us the news we most request and updates we desire.
But not all our impatience is unwarranted. When one of scripture’s most storied prophets says “Surely the days are coming,” it is difficult to not wait with bated breath. While that common refrain in Hebrew literature could portend destruction and judgment as much as hope and blessing, in several cases Jeremiah’s oracles enliven the aspirations of a twenty-first-century people.
“Surely the days are coming,” says Jeremiah in chapter 31, “when I will make a new covenant with my people, and I will write my law (my teaching) upon their heart.” But today we lament a loss of leadership in many dimensions of our lives. That loss is revealed in our frustration that passing laws and crafting policy are one of the few tools we have to restrain one another from cruelty toward our neighbor, to heal the mistrust in our relationships, and to manage our maddeningly inconsistent care for creation.
“Surely the days are coming,” says Jeremiah in chapter 16, “when I will gather the scattered and bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors.” But today our hearts grieve to hear of the 70.8 million displaced peoples worldwide fleeing crises and persecution, left to wander without any sense of security (“Figures at a Glance,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, ). Our hearts break to hear of youth in this city who cannot truly be at home on their own playgrounds, front porches, or driving in their cars. Our hearts ache at the thought of friends alienated from their own homes because of abuse, neglect, or from a sense of community because of isolation.
So when we hear “surely the days are coming,” it’s not as if the people of God petition for trivial concerns. No, the heavenly bread we seek is often the daily bread necessary for the survival of burdened neighbors and the redemption of those who have little hope. Alongside them, we echo the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that there comes a time when the cup of patience runneth over. Like the psalmist we cry out, “O Lord, . . . how long must I struggle with anguish in my soul?” “Get on with it,” we beseech God, for the needy among us are running out of time.
But as if to constructively channel our impatience, the church observes a liturgical cycle, made known to us in the rhythms of worship, that offers a foretaste of a future we cannot yet savor. The Presbyterian calendar puts Reign of Christ Sunday on the third or fourth Sunday in November. This rather recent addition to our calendar was precipitated by the actions of Pope Pius XI, who declared the Feast of Christ the King in 1925 as a theological response to rising ideologies of fascism and totalitarianism in Europe. By the Second Vatican Council in 1969, its placement on the Sunday before Advent solidified its place as an ecumenical marker of the end and therefore the beginning of the liturgical year.
On Reign of Christ Sunday, hope propels us past the Gregorian calendar and January 1 and into the divine future toward which Jeremiah points. And the liturgy, through our words, songs, and prayers, allows that future to spill over into our present moment. That movement of the future into the present marks a special kind of time that scripture commonly refers to as Kairos time. Distinct from the tick tock of chronological time we live daily, Kairos refers to time centered around decisive and opportune moments that transform everything in their wake. God’s Kairos arrives like a time capsule from the future unveiling for us a forthcoming pattern of life to which we are invited to give our attention and allegiance over and against competing ways and habits.
That terrain on which Kairos meets chronological time can be referred to as the realm of the secular. We are used to contrasting that word secular with religious, but theologian Luke Bretherton reminds us the secular has historically been infused with religion. It demarcates the here but not yet of God’s reign, contrasting the use of power as a profane and death-dealing act with its use as sacred and lifegiving. As such, according to Bretherton, the secular can be “complexly faithful and unfaithful, loving and idolatrous. . . . Political authorities may both participate in the reordering of creation to its true end and be . . . utterly opposed to God’s good order” (Luke Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy, p. 235).
As we watch the drama of secular time unfold, Bretherton encourages us not to sit idly waiting. Secular time can be quite generative for the people of God as the church creatively uses our rituals, forms of service, practices, and public voice to respond to the work of Christ and the Spirit, who tell the world the true shape of things to come. For Presbyterians who pride ourselves on being decently and in good order, it can be a charge to live life out of order, beyond the prevailing order of fear, greed, rivalry, and hate.
Yet the very model of leadership in God’s reign given to us by Jeremiah also seems out of order today. The shepherd appears antiquated and anachronistic to urban dwellers who mostly procure our meat from the butcher counter of grocery stores. By contrast, in Jeremiah’s time, shepherds were ubiquitous symbols of leadership and power. But good shepherds, those that gather rather than scatter, who nourish rather than poison, seemed as uncommon then as they do today.
Author James Rebanks, in his memoir of contemporary shepherding, refers to his work as a business and calling shaped by a different sense of time and space. In speaking of the experience of leading sheep out into pasture lands, he says, “There is nothing like the feeling of freedom and space that you get when you are working with the flock and the dogs in the fells.” “I escape,” says Rebanks, “the nonsense that tries to consume me down below. My life has a purpose, an earthy sensible meaning” (James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Day Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, p. 285). For Rebanks, life of pastoral purpose is lived on a landscape shaped by countless little and often unseen acts of tending and caring, not unlike the cumulative impact of the small acts of hospitality, advocacy, and comforting done by each of you daily as members and friends of this congregation.
Such actions free us from the ordinary sense of time and space, from the crushing expectations of a clock-driven and hyper-segmented society, and allow us to paint upon the landscape of eternity while still dwelling in the present moment. But who else can we look to for living outside of and beyond our own times?
One fierce model we have, a consummate shepherd in her own right, was Harriet Tubman, recently featured in a biographical film. She is that seemingly rare figure, boldly willing to live beyond the confines of her own time. From her work in the nineteenth-century United States on voting rights, care for the elderly, as well as acts of espionage and daring, which led to freedom for hundreds of enslaved Africans, Tubman far exceeded the narrow paths carved for women and those of African descent in her own time. And it all began with a religiously inspired and creatively initiated escape for emancipation from the plantation system. Upon receiving her freedom by crossing the Pennsylvania state line, Tubman told her biographer that “I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything; the sun came like gold through the trees, and over the fields, and I felt like I was in heaven” (“Harriet Tubman and the Underground Experience,” National Park Service).
What might it be like to experience the “glory over everything”? What might it take to experience a bit of heaven, the promised future, while dwelling in our own time? Perhaps it requires a willingness to sidestep time, to forgo a life of anxious waiting, keeping just enough holy impatience to not forget those who suffer until God’s reign comes. As such people, we would respond to Jeremiah’s annunciation of God’s reign with an equally forceful commitment to live by its claims. Might we respond to Jeremiah with a prophetic words of our own:
Surely the days are coming, when the people of God will create space and shelter for each other regardless of our background and perspective. Surely the days are coming, when the people of God will act to restore imaginative hope in the places we live, work, and inhabit. And when we, the people of God, bring those things to pass, God will show us the glory over everything.