Sunday, October 7, 2007

Song of the Lonely City: a World Communion Sermon

Song of the Lonely City
Lamentations 1:1-11
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1)
This is a day when we imagine a world-wide community. We gather under the promise that “people shall gather from east and west, from north and south,” to sit at Table in the Kingdom of God.
How ironic that we are given a poem about a city that fell apart! Once it was a great city, a “princess among the provinces.” Now the streets are empty. The playful laughter of children is replaced by bitter weeping. The once-busy city is described as a lonely woman, a widow who cannot be consoled. The dream of community has been fractured. Today it’s worth reflecting on how this happens. A community is an interactive series of human relationships. How can it become a shadow of what it once was?
Some time back, I tried to take a shortcut from on the way from Harrisburg to Bloomsburg. The map suggested Route 61 north, somewhere around Frackville. I took the exit, went over the hill, and found myself in a strange site. The road I was traveled took an abrupt detour, with an ominous sign: “Warning - Danger! Underground Mine Fire.” Just beyond it, there was another sign: “Welcome to Centralia, Pennsylvania.”
I had heard about this place, but was not prepared for what I saw. There were sections where the asphalt road had melted and pulled apart. White smoke billowed out of gashes in the ground. The grass was burned yellow. Trees still standing had no leaves. Stovepipes spew steam and carbon monoxide from beneath the soil. At St. Ignatius Cemetery there was a freshly dug grave – the grim joke among the locals is that you can be buried and cremated at the same time, no extra charge.
The most haunting sight was how empty that community had become. Centralia is nearly a ghost town – just a handful of houses remaining, inhabited by seven survivors who can’t afford to buy another or are too proud to move. The coal mine fire has burned underground for forty-five years. Most of the row homes that once stood together are were plowed under or hauled away, although a few solitary places stand all alone.
Now the reason I describe all of this is to tell you how Centralia got this way. Two things happened: a mistake and the poison. The mistake was when somebody burned some garbage in 1962, and it was a little close to the coal vein. Nobody intended it to catch fire, but it did. It hasn’t gone out. And then the poison got in the soil and in the air. That’s when everybody began to move away. The community came unglued.
There are mistakes. There is poison. This is what somebody like Jeremiah is lamenting in the poem we heard today. The mistakes – the human errors – are the things that start the fire. The poison is what keeps being generated. As Jeremiah describes a lonely city, smoldering and steaming after invaders destroyed it, he can’t help but remember all the mistakes and bad decisions that brought the city to this point. As he considers the wreckage and the desolation of what is still their home, he sniffs the poison in the air: all the blaming, the denial of responsibility, the warlike tendencies.
This is not, of course, what God wants for us. God wants people to live together in peace, to dwell in unity as sisters and brothers, to live without division or destruction. God wants the one community of human beings to get along.
At times, God allows us to live with the consequences of our actions. Surely that’s what the poet means by saying, “the Lord makes us to suffer for the multitude of transgressions.” God did not make the mess; people did, and they have to live with the consequences of what they've done or left undone. It’s just that simple.
Nobody can blame God for the mistakes we make or the poisons we manufacture. Historian David McCullough talks about the Johnstown Flood, another Pennsylvania disaster that destroyed a city. After the flood, some preachers on higher ground declared it was God’s judgment on a guilty land. McCullough says slyly, “If that’s the case, God should have better aim; the flood blasted into churches and missed most of the bordellos.”
No, don’t blame God for that one. The Johnstown Flood happened because wealthy Presbyterians up in a hunting camp didn’t take care of a dam, showing little regard for the peasants downstream. Maybe you noticed: God doesn’t usually fish us out of our blunders or our short-sightedness.
What God does provide, however, is forgiveness for our mistakes and fumigation for our poisons. That’s what happens in the cross of Jesus. It was the mistake of humanity to nail him there, yet he took that – and all the poison that surrounded it – he took it away.
In the words of one early preacher, “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has … broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… that he might create in himself one new humanity… reconciling people to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” (Ephesians 2:13-16)
This is what gathers people from east and west, from north and south, to sit at one Table in God’s kingdom. It’s the promise that nothing needs to have the power to divide us. Thanks to Jesus Christ we are brought together - - one to another, all of us to God. The pains and poisons of the world never need to break us apart.
As we come to God’s Table, we have the opportunity to leave our mistakes behind, to let God’s love cancel them, and then to begin living toward God’s dream of “one humanity.” The promise of the Gospel is that every ghost town is haunted by the Holy Ghost. Every painful ending has the promise of a new beginning. Every divided family and destroyed home can be rebuilt somewhere by the God who wishes us all to be rebuilt.
These are the promises of broken bread and poured-out wine. And they are available to every last one of us – taste and see!

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