Ask the Frequently Unasked Question

Sermon: Ask the Frequently Unasked Question

Texts: Jeremiah 2:4-13; Psalm 81:1, 10-16

Date: September 1, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church

 

Prick up your ears, aging Boomers and former Hippies and surviving Beatniks! Who among you remembers “The Age of Aquarius?”  I’m talking about the song that was in the Broadway musical “Hair,” the song that was a smash hit when recorded by the Fifth Dimension in 1969.  Do you remember? Sing it with me! “When the moon is in the Seventh House / And Jupiter aligns with Mars /Then peace will guide the planets / And love will steer the stars / This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius / Age of Aquarius /Aquarius! Aquarius! / Harmony and understanding / Sympathy and trust abounding /No more falsehoods or derisions / Golden living dreams of visions / Mystic crystal revelation / And the mind’s true liberation / Aquarius! Aquarius!”[1]

Are we there yet?  Don’t you wish?  The song’s on my mind because I was reading the September issue of Funny Times and ran across a piece by one of my favorite comic writers—a fellow who goes by the moniker “Swami Beyondananda.”  In his column, someone has written to the Swami complaining that we have been at the “dawn” of the Age of Aquarius for fifty years now, but the world has not changed.  We’ve got the same old world order where money rules, environmental destruction is so profound some are calling it the sixth great extinction, and we have leaders whose heartlessness and ignorance seem to know no bounds.  Where’s the harmony and understanding? Where’s the sympathy and trust?  When can we expect this Age of Aquarius, exactly?

Swami Beyondananda answers with good news and bad news.  The good news is that the Age of Aquarius is on its way.  The bad news: first we must go through a dark passage because every worthy quest requires a test.  The Swami aptly nicknamed the time we’re enduring now as the “Age of Nefarious.” Channeling new lyrics from the fifth dimension during meditation, he offered this re-write: “When the goon moves into Lincoln’s house / and stupider aligns with Mars / Then greed will rule the planet / and fear obscure the stars. / This is a warning, it’s the Age of Nefarious, Age of Nefarious…Nefarious! Nefarious! / Harmony and understanding / sympathy and trust don’t count here. / Just a twisted cynic mission/ breeding fearfulness, division/ Time to tell a brand new vision / Go for fusion ‘stead of fission / Turn Nefarious…to Aquarius / Nefarious…to Aquarius.”[2]           The Swami cracks me up.  But he is also a truth teller, and a positive person who believes we can do better, that the Age of Nefarious could turn into the Age of Aquarius; “we can shorten the Nefarian Age through our conscious, loving, laughing actions.”

Is this the Age of Nefarious?  It feels like it some days.  I’m quite sure that the era the prophet Jeremiah was living through seemed like the Age of Nefarious to him, too.  It was a tumultuous time in the Southern Kingdom of Judah, where Jeremiah had his prophetic career.  He had high hopes that the religious reforms of King Josiah would take hold and save Israel from conquest by neighboring powers.  However, they did not.  Jeremiah “prophesies the impending fall of Jerusalem with all its horrific implications. The people refused to believe him because they thought that Jerusalem would always be safe…Jeremiah suffered personally because he was prophesying exile for 70 years and this was an unpopular message. King Zedekiah… supported rebellion against Babylon and Nebuchadrezzar came and destroyed Jerusalem after a terrible siege. The city was [laid waste], including the temple, and further officials were taken into exile. The Governor set up by the Babylonians was assassinated in 582 BCE and further deportations occurred.”[3]  It was a terrible time, a nefarious age.

The text we heard today is difficult to date but it doesn’t really matter because it contains Jeremiah’s central themes—he was a “same song/ gozillionth verse” kind of prophet throughout his long career.  The reason I wanted to preach on this text today is because he repeats a question that is NOT being asked a couple of times.  Did you hear it?  He says that the reason his people are having such a hard time is that they are not asking an essential question: “Where is the Lord?”  Where is the Lord?

Swami Beyondananda’s column, the one that contains the “Age of Nefarious” song, is titled “FUQ’s: Frequently Unasked Questions.”  That would be an excellent title for this section of Jeremiah’s prophecy—Frequently Unasked Question.  The prophet might say frankly that the reason his people are so F.U.ed is because of this F.U.Q., “Where is the Lord?”  They’ve wandered so far from God that they’re not even asking where God is any more.  They’re no longer telling the story of how God raised them up out of slavery, brought them through the wilderness, and led them into a plentiful land filled with good things.  They’re not remembering where they came from.

Even the priests in the Age of Nefarious have ceased to ask “Where is the Lord?”  Those who handle the law don’t know Yahweh; the rulers transgress against God; the prophets run after the local god of fertility and good fortune, Ba’al.  All the leaders are going after things that do not profit, says the prophet.  But it’s not just the leaders, though they bear a heavy responsibility; it’s the whole people who wandered away, went after worthless things and became worthless themselves.  The Hebrew word there which is translated “worthless things” is literally “wind.”  They chased the wind, or a vapor, and became as insubstantial as a dissipating vapor themselves.  Another translator, noting that a central problem as far as Jeremiah was concerned was worshiping Ba’al, nicknamed the agricultural idol the Lord of Delusion.  The people went after the Lord of Delusion and became deluded themselves.  So the people find themselves in a world of hurt because of that Frequently Unasked Question, “Where is the Lord?”

We don’t live in a theocracy, nor do we want to.  Most of us, I think, don’t want to be under the rule of leaders of some kind of American Taliban that believes the most vital area of religious concern is within the confines of a woman’s womb, or otherwise regulating whose sexual activity falls within narrow confines of “normality” as they define it. We don’t want that kind of theocracy; we don’t want to live in the Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead.  Yet I believe we can apply Jeremiah’s insight to our nation.  The Frequently Unasked Question “Where is the Lord?” is an expression of recognizing something that is bigger than ourselves, a Ground of Being and source of values that transcends mere selfishness, control of women, defending racist systems, and profit.  “Where is the Lord?” might be re-phrased into questions like these: “Where is our shared humanity?” “Where is the greater good?” “Where is our concern for the seventh generation after us?” “Where is our Love for the Earth and all its creatures?” “Where is our compassion for those who are suffering?” Or, drawing on ideals from American values and virtues, “How are we creating a more perfect union?” “How are we promoting the general welfare of we, the people?” “How are we securing the blessings of liberty?” “How are we establishing justice?” How are we working toward domestic tranquility?”

If we recognize these as Frequently Unasked Questions in the current moment, we may recognize our commonality with our brother Jeremiah.  Jeremiah calls upon the heavens as a witness to the state of his nation–to be appalled, to be shocked and desolate over the way the people have forsaken God.  There is a note of profound sadness in the way he describes the people forsaking God, the fountain of living water, and digging out for themselves cisterns, cracked cisterns that can ultimately hold no water.  Jeremiah expresses the broken-heartedness of God like no other prophet.

Psalm 81 echoes the pathos of God who lets the people who no longer want to listen to God follow their own counsels and gives them over to the consequences of living according to the desires of their own stubborn hearts.  Even while they are digging their own graves, their own leaky cisterns, God expresses a desire to feed them with the finest wheat, with honey that flows from the very rocks.  Verse 10 of the Psalm brings to mind a nest of baby birds under the care of attentive parents: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. Open your mouth wide and I will fill it.”

What God offers to fill the people with is not junk; it’s not plastic pony beads or globs of oil or computer microchips going into the mouths of the hungry little ones.  It’s not flashy thumbs-up signs or diamonds, not gold nuggets or keys to the Senate washroom.  God wants to fill people with gifts of bread and joy, justice and mercy, communion with God and with one another.  Open your mouth wide and I will fill it, says our God.  Hunger after justice and righteousness, as Jesus says.  Thirst for the living water of Spirit.

Opening ourselves to be filled with such abundance begins with the F. U. Q., the Frequently Unasked Question, “Where is God?”  It’s interesting that these texts from Jeremiah 2 and Psalm 81 happened to come up in the lectionary just at the time we are wrapping up our summer sermon series titled “Where in the World is God?”  When the worship team chose this as a theme, we weren’t necessarily thinking of it as a significant Frequently Unasked Question.  We just thought it would be a question a variety of folks could grab hold of and run with; with such a well-travelled congregation we supposed we’d hear about thin places around here and around the world.   But what we heard during the course of the summer, I think, really proved the value, the weight of the question, “Where is God?”

Let me just review a few of the answers that were articulated with incredibly rich stories behind them. Where in the world is God? In houses of worship.  In surviving a suicide attempt and starting life over as a new man.  At the table at one’s beloved home. In the magnificent grace of an elephant on the savannah.  In a North Dakota sunrise. In a person’s last breath as they relax into the arms of Spirit. In God’s nudge toward a ministry of feeding people.  In unexpected visions of saints at an ancient abbey.  In being submersed in water and grace. In voices raised in song by a community of friends around a campfire, under the moon.  In loving and being loved.  In coincidences.  With Christian sisters and brothers. In a voice heard on a bench in Paris claiming one as an instrument for the glory of God.  Going inside to one’s soul by going outside to creation with wonder, curiosity and awe.

Harmony and understanding / Sympathy and trust abounding /No more falsehoods or derisions / Golden living dreams of visions / Mystic crystal revelation / And the mind’s true liberation.  I’m not saying this is exactly the dawning of the Age of Aquarius right here at Eagle Harbor Church, but just look what sort of testimony bubbles up from faithful people who ask and answer the frequently unasked question, “Where is God?”  A whole mess of folk who recognize that Love steers the stars speak their truth, and the Nefarian Age recedes a bit.  It’s a beautiful thing.  A hopeful sign that the Age of Nefarious is not the only reality unfolding.

How do we take this practice of asking “Where is God?” out of the sanctuary into the wide world?  It’s a Frequently Unasked Question that really needs asking.  It needs asking in our personal lives, our personal devotion and spirituality.  The spiritual directors I’ve been engaged with in the past have listened to my talk about my life and prompted deeper reflection by simply asking, “Where was God in that experience for you?”  It’s a fruitful question.  “Where is God?” is a question that can be applied to our community relationships as well.  It’s the kind of question we might practice asking ourselves especially in the heat of interpersonal conflict, a question that might give us just enough breathing room to consider grace, forgiveness, and love that casts out fear.

“Where is God?” is a question that must be asked in political and economic systems as well.  Faithful people might need to take this query under cover; we may need to become what the Charter for Compassion calls “secret agents of compassion.”  Even if we don’t expressly use God language, our tradition leads us to take a larger view of human life than the leaky cisterns of our own stubborn and selfish hearts.  Where is God?  Here’s a handy crib sheet, some broad hints from a gospel parable about inheriting God’s kin-dom: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and in prison and you visited me…[Jesus the Incarnate One says ] Just as you did it for the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Weary of the Age of Nefarious?  Let’s ask the frequently unasked question “Where is God?” again and again and see how it leads us into the Light.

 

[1] https://www.lyricsbox.com/the-5th-dimension-age-of-aquarius-lyrics-vv2dwrs.html written for the 1967 musical Hair by James Rado and Gerome Ragni (lyrics), and Galt MacDermot (music)

[2] Swami Beyondananda “FUQ’s: Frequently UNASKED Questions” Funny Times September 2019, p. 3

[3] http://otl.unitingchurch.org.au/index.php?page=jeremiah-2-4-13

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