SERMON ~ September 18, 2022 ~ Pain

September 18, 2022 ~ Proper 20 ~ Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost~ Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:


“Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there? / Why, then, has the health of my people / not been attended to, restored?” — Jeremiah 8:22-9:1

I think most of you know I was ordained and hold my pastoral standing in the denomination known as the United Church of Christ. And as I think you also know being a pastor is not simply a second career for me but it’s more like a seventh career.

I get reminded of that career shift to pastor at a monthly meeting because, among my denominational responsibilities with the U.C.C., I am on my fourth go-around— I served three stints back in New York— I am on my fourth stint with an Association Committee on Ministry. Among other things this committee works with candidates for ordination.

On the committee I am currently an advisor to a candidate for ordained ministry. I have an expectation he will be ordained sometime in the Spring. Why?

He has completed nearly everything my Association requires. The only pieces remaining are an ordination paper and an ecclesiastical council at an Association meeting. Approval for ordination is granted only at an ecclesiastical council at a full meeting of an Association.

This means he has finished his 90 credit Master of Divinity Degree, experienced a mentored practice with an ordained pastor, done psychological testing, completed Clinical Pastoral Education— CPE. What exactly is CPE?

CPE encompasses 400 hours of class work and supervised field work. The field work is usually done at a hospital, jail or hospice setting. The person effectively works as a chaplain at one of these settings. 400 hours of work is equivalent to a full semester of upper level education.

These kinds of requirements are not exclusive to the United Church of Christ. While there are exceptions, generally these and/or similar and/or alternative requirements tend to be what many pastors in Main Line churches need to accomplish before ordination.

In denominations with a Congregational way of doing things, which would include American Baptists, the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, the one of this church and the United Church of Christ, each individual Association in those denominations set the criteria. Therefore, precise requirements may vary greatly. I happen to have served in three Associations which required everything I outlined.

Some change is, however, taking shape in the degree work requirement. In part this is because there are many tiny churches— not small churches, tiny churches— who cannot afford the cost a pastor with a full blown Seminary education. So denominations are organizing alternative educational tracks to ordination.

These tracks are still rigorous but not as rigorous. Candidates who take these paths to ordination are likely to be called, usually very part time, to these tiny churches.

Well, the work I do with the candidate I’m mentoring has reminded me of my own journey through the process. First Parish in Brunswick sent me to Seminary, so my mentor was here in Southern Maine. But I was at Bangor Seminary, 100+ miles north.

So I sometimes made an intentional trip South just to see that mentor. But I also constantly wrote letters, reported to the committee about my progress at Seminary, about supply preaching assignments, about any issues I felt arose on my journey.

Put another way, this was and needed to be a two way street. I needed to be proactive in my contacts with the Association and my mentor. In turn the Committee and my mentor needed to be in contact with me. It’s a process. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the Scroll of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician there? / Why, then, has the health of my people / not been attended to, restored?” (Slight pause.)

One of the key things to which we need to pay close attention in this reading is ‘who says what?’ What does God say? What does Jeremiah say?

The vast majority of the words we hear in this passage— mostly a lament and we get a lot of that— is venting by the prophet. Jeremiah is an expert at venting.

This is not to say the anguish expressed is unwarranted. The pain we hear is real. The venting leads to the famous, poetic plea to God which asks why there is no balm available, asks God about the lack of a physician in the land.

But we do have to read the passage carefully. When read carefully we then realize Yahweh, God, makes just one statement. “Why do they provoke me to anger / with their graven images, / with their carved images / with their useless foreign gods?” (Slight pause.)

I need to say two things about what God is portrayed as saying. First, this is clearly a compassionate God. Despite what the Prophet intones about no balm or physician, God is not absent. God is real. God is present.
In fact God grieves, is in pain, over the plight of the people who face both drought and the threat of an invading army. And God is also in pain that Israel has broken the covenant relationship by worshiping false gods.

So in these words we discover God is not an impassive deity. God is not a distant deity. Yahweh feels the anguish of the people for and about whom the prophet speaks.

Yes indeed, God feels aguish over the faithlessness of Israel. But at the same time God loves these people deeply and cannot abandon the community. God walks with these people no matter what the circumstance, no matter what happens.

There is a second thing to be said about the words of Yahweh, God. God throws the ball back into the court of the community. Since God directs the question about graven images, carved images, foreign gods at Jeremiah and not at the people God is asking a question about the people. Hence, what is left open by God is the people might turn toward God, might work with God. (Slight pause.)

Let me take very different tact here in terms of explaination. I am a baseball fan. Back in 1962 a new team came into existence— the hapless 1962 New York Mets. No team has ever lost more games in one season— 120 to be percise. One Charles Dillon Stengel— “Casey” Stengel— their first manager, famously said about that atrocious team: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

I hope you won’t find the comparison too blasphemous if I suggest that is exactly what God is saying to the people. “Can’t anyone here do this?” “Can’t anyone here be attentive?” “Can’t anyone here be proactive?”

“Can’t anyone here cooperate?” “Can’t anyone here do the work to which I call them?” “Can’t anyone here discern my will?” “Can’t anyone here love?” “Can’t anyone here keep covenant?” (Slight pause.)

All that brings me back to my own journey to ordination and ministry. This is a sometimes ignored truth: human civilization was born of cooperation, people working with people. Being proactive and interacting as I did, is a necessary human trait.

If one is a candidate for ministry that person needs to be proactive and not presume a paternalistic Committee on Ministry or a mentor will get them through the long and complex process. A candidate for ministry needs to actively work with the committee and the mentor. It’s a two way street.

It’s a simple reality that even so called ancient times needed to interact with people once in a while to survive. The “lone ranger”— someone who does not need others— is an interesting concept, but it’s not workable in real life, in the real world. Everyone needs to rely on others. (Slight pause.)

Guess what? God calls each of us— each of us— to some form of ministry. Yes, God walks with us so God needs us to be pro-active. God needs us to do, to work, to be people of action. There is no question about the fact that God loves us. But God is neither paternalistic nor manipulative.

Further, we need to remember how the love of God among us is really displayed. The love of God is displayed through our actions. God has no voice but ours, no feet but ours, no hands but ours.

So let me propose this idea: we are the balm in Gilead. We are the physicians. Please note: I did not say ‘I am the balm’ ‘I am the physician.’ I said we— we together— we need to embrace the work of God. We— we together— we need to embrace the will of God.

Especially in this time of transition, communal action needs to be the balm, the physician. Taking action to do God’s will was a truth in Jeremiah’s time. Taking action to do God’s will is a truth here, now, today. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “This is an aphorism which circulates in clergy circles: ‘The Gospel is not about how to get to heaven after you die. The Gospel is about how you can help heaven be present to everyone with whom you come in contact before you approach the pearly gates.’ The Gospel message needs to be put into communal action now. Communal action— that sounds like a covenant community and a community in covenant to me.”

BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry God’s peace into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of God’s Word in our action. Let us recognize that God’s transforming power is forever among us. And may we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one and nothing else. Amen.

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