“I Am Appalled”
A sermon preached by the Rev.. Douglas M. Donley
February 26, 2017
University Baptist Church
Thank you Laura Potratz for putting to music what few others would dare tackle. This scripture shows up in the common lectionary, but is often glossed over, in favor of getting to the good stuff, the more positive message. But this day, I find myself wanting to linger a moment on this text and see what it has to teach us.
The book of Jeremiah is a series of laments about the state of the world. Jeremiah is tasked with speaking words of judgment from God to a people who don’t want to hear it. Jeremiah gets little relief. The more he rants, the more his people ignore him. Many of us can relate to Jeremiah’s lonely protests. Jeremiah was written in the last throes of the reign of King Hezekiah, the last king of Judah. He tells the people that unless they clean up their act, they will be thrown into exile. The people did not heed Jeremiah’s warnings. They all but called his rants fake news. Most simply ignored him. And eventually, the unthinkable happened. The temple was destroyed, the Babylonians came in and took them into a 70- year exile, becoming refugees once again. Jeremiah’s words are the last hope for the people—the last chance for them to turn toward God and redeem themselves, save the land.
But, in the end, the people would not listen to lonely Jeremiah. As the book opens, Jeremiah tells how God feels about Judah’s behavior. It’s part legal indictment and part lovers quarrel. Let’s see if this can give us any insight into our situation today.
The oracle begins with God asking “what did I do wrong? Was it the freeing you from slavery? The granting you this plentiful land? It sounds like a parent berating a wayward child. Why did you do this? Didn’t I teach you better than this? Am I not a good enough parent? What do you have to say for yourself? I don’t want to hear it. Answer me!”
Of course it is a rhetorical question. The answer is, God did nothing wrong. But the people did wrong things, appalling things. And therefore they deserve divine punishment.
“I am appalled” is the word of God to the people of Judah. It’s not that God is angry or disappointed. It’s gone way beyond that. “I am appalled” is what a parent says to a wayward child. It’s dripping with disdain and shame. This oracle from the book of Jeremiah reads like a trial with a disappointed parent as the judge. God judges the people guilty of many things, including bowing to gods that are not God. Jeremiah would later call that idolatry.
We can make several easy comparisons, like when we worship money more than we worship God. When we are addicted to fossil fuels. Like when we are mean and callous to the most vulnerable among us and call it Christianity.
About what do you think God should be appalled? Doesn’t it feel good when God is mad at the same people we are? Anne Lamott wrote “You can safely assume you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Is God only appalled at our enemies? Or is there something about us that appalls God?
Some of us have been on the receiving end of judgment. It’s no fun being there. We defend ourselves if a little bit of the indictment is an exaggeration, even though the core is true. We don’t want to live there in the judgment seat. Imprisoned by our guilt. So we deflect, blame others, run and hide. Anything but fess up and take the heat.
Many of us are appalled by the leaders of our country. There’s plenty to be appalled about.
Jeremiah says, “They follow other gods, even though they are no gods.”
Thomas Steagald puts it this way in his commentary in Feasting on the Word: “they have long since turned from the deep well of God’s goodness and have instead, tried to quench their deepest thirst with the thinnest of tonics, with leaky pots full of maggoty gruel: elixirs of gold; drafts of pagan alliances; double shots of worldly power and bloody militarism; cauldrons of boiling idolatries, poisonous leaders, false prophets, and unrepentant kings. Like saline for a people adrift at sea, these brews only intensify their thirst.” (Year C: Volume 4, p.6)
The people need the living water of God, but they instead dig cisterns, essential for desert life, but not eternal. They go the way of all things and crack. You need to trust in something greater. Put your energy toward something more powerful and sustaining.
The people are accused of forgetting. That is what leads to destruction. There is so much focus on the new, the shiny, the innovative. But if you have forgotten the roots, then you are not grounded and you whither away.
Christianity has gotten a lot of airplay on the thought that God is eternally appalled by our very existence. This is the whole idea behind original sin: that we are so sinful by our very nature that we are powerless to win God’s favor. The only thing that can appease such an angry God is blood sacrifice—something that Jesus did on our behalf. This idea makes God into a monster, and us into pawns. It takes away our power and agency. If God is appalled, so goes the thinking, then the only thing we need to do is say the magic words that Jesus died for us and we will get our own personal get out of hell free card.
But Jeremiah is telling us that God is appalled and there is something we can do about it. Reorient our allegiance. Stop complying with unjust laws. Stop propping up dictators. Speak the truth in love. Repent and embrace a better narrative.
The behavior of our president has been appalling, but no more appalling than on the campaign trail. All of the racism, the narcissism, the lies upon lies, the refusal to follow protocol, to respect those who disagree with him and his worldview, the vilification of the press, the deregulating of our country’s environmental safeguards, all while enhancing his own wealth and then refusing to be held accountable. It’s all appalling. But it’s not surprising. 63 million voters didn’t care about this, or perhaps were more appalled at the Obama administration. Just like in the time of Jeremiah, even if you say that God is appalled, it may well fall on deaf ears.
Here’s the thing. It’s not about the president, appalling as his behavior is. It’s the way that we have let it get to this point. And I think the problem is that God’s side has not been compelling enough. So how do we embrace a narrative that is better? How do we craft a bolder vision? How do we preserve what is being destroyed? I don’t have an answer to that, but I think Jeremiah is right in reminding people where we have come from. Reminding them that there is a better way that mean-spirited bigotry; that there is a better way than scapegoating and deflecting. We need to embrace and live a different reality—one where we find hope and support for the outcast. One where we live by the Beatitudes, blessed are the poor in Spirit, blessed are the merciful, blessed are those who weep, the meek, the pure in heart, those who seek after righteousness, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake…
Former UBC member and Bell Choir founder Allan McCormick wrote on his Facebook page the other day a set of insights to how we got here. See if you can see yourself in his words:
Warning: the following post contains language that is difficult to read and not my usual way of expression.
I grew up in a family of racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Catholic, anti-semitic, protestants who knew very little about the protestant reformation, and thought Lutherans and Episcopalians and Mormons and so many others weren’t “true Christians” and yet tried very hard to be good citizens and “good Christians.”
My mother had one African American friend from our years in Gary, Indiana. His name was Truman. I met him once or twice on our occasional visits to Gary.
Growing up, we lived with my maternal grandparents, good people who endured much in the first seven decades of the 20th century.
Even though cursing wasn’t common in our household (except for the very rare “sheister berries”)…we heard such things as “nigger in a woodpile” or “trying to jew me down” on a regular basis. We were taught that our Catholic or Lutheran or Episcopalian neighbors weren’t Christians. We learned to avoid queers (in spite of the one in our midst).
We all belonged to Masonic organizations that excluded (at that time) anyone who wasn’t a non-gay WASP. I got out very quickly.
We had two or three African American families in our town. The local farming community depended on migrant workers for the cheap labor to support the economy. We were poor, yet put on airs to seem equal to the more affluent members of our community.
When my grandfather sold his house after my mother died, a Latinx family bought their house and wonderfully rehabbed it. Our next-door neighbors were furious. “We don’t want those dirty mex’cans in our neighborhood.” The church I grew up in had many lgbtq children who had grown up there and my mother and other parents sat mutely while their “friends” railed on about the evils of homosexuality. That same church had later fallen on hard times and was barely surviving when it had an opportunity to share the facility with a growing Latinx congregation. They refused the opportunity. You know why.
We are facing times when all of those old hatreds are being exposed again and lots of folks are now, again, still, fighting for their (our) lives.
What’s my point? Growing up in the USA as privileged humans (i.e. white, non-gay, Christian, not recently immigrated…) carries a whole lot of racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic… baggage. You cannot be “not” any of these things. It’s ingrained in our culture. What you CAN do is be “anti” all of these things and work hard every single day of your life to banish these notions from our collective psyche.
In the late 1940s, the remarkable Oscar Hammerstein II, wrote the following lyrics for an astoundingly perceptive song in the musical “South Pacific.”
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
Yes, you’ve got to be carefully taught to be prejudiced. You also have to be carefully taught to be good and caring. You have to be carefully taught to be loving and generous. That’s what the church is about. We are to be as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves. We are to create in these walls a safe place to exist, to celebrate art, to grapple with issues theological, personal and political. We are to create a sanctuary, a refuge, a place where we work out our salvation with fear and trembling and make it safe for others to do the same.
Saying, perhaps with God, “I am appalled” is a good starting point. But it’s not a good ending point. But if we end there, then we’re just angry and nothing improves. Anger can motivate activism. I’m glad that Laura Justin and others have lists of ways to be activists in this day and age. We need to take prophetic action in such a time as this. And Like Jeremiah, it might not always be pretty. But it has to always be truthful and faithful. If we can do that, then “I am appalled” is not just a slogan, like “I am woke” or “I am Outraged”. It is a springboard to action with which God is pleased. That’s what the church is for. That’s why we’re here. Thanks be to God.