Restoration 'R' Us

A Sermon on Psalm 126, Jeremiah 31:7-9 and Mark 10:46-52

This summer I ended my vacation with a visit to Gettysburg. I hadn't visited the museum there since the newly restored Cyclorama was unveiled. Four years ago, this 360-degree panoramic painting of Pickett's Charge, a defining moment in the most famous battle of the Civil War, was re-opened to the public. I had been thinking about seeing it for some time, so when my drive home from the Northeast brought me back down Route 15 and through Gettysburg at Noonday, I stopped, had some lunch and went inside the museum, to stand in line.

Before you get to see that amazing work first created well over a century ago by a team of artists led by Paul Philippoteaux, you are shown another amazing piece of art: a 21st century video, narrated by Morgan Freeman. It presents an overview of the entire war, before moving through Gettysburg's great three-day battle. Then, you are moved to a place and time before movies, to art that recreates days gone by with paint, on canvas. It's so large – as long as a football field – that it feels like the first IMAX. You really must see the Cyclorama to believe it. It's a restoration par excellence.

The loving, careful attention paid to restoring this work of art makes me think of the wonderful work done here at All Saints' over the past several years, first with the stained glass windows in the Historic Church, and then, with the church's foundations. As 21st century human beings, awash in social and global change, we still need historic things to be restored. To restore is to return to a former time or condition or vitality. Restoration is what many human beings like to do. But before we even begin, restoration is what God is always ready to do – in all of us and for all of us and through all of us.

Our lessons today teach us about the God who restores. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” Psalm 126 begins, “then. . .was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” But that was then, and this is now. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev,” the Psalmist continues. “Bring rains to our drought-stricken lives,” a more modern version puts it (Eugene Peterson, The Message). With Hurricane Sandy coming, we don't need to pray for rain.

But back in the sixth century before Christ, the children of Israel needed to pray. They had been defeated, exiled, and held captive in Babylon. This Psalm was probably offered as a prayer by pilgrims on their way back home to Jerusalem. They are pleading with God again, crying out for help to rebuild their devastated country. They have been delivered from danger and death before, but now, with a new crisis looming, they petition God. Again. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev.” This stormy image – torrential rain – is rooted in something more gentle: tears. Torrents from heaven become tears on earth. These images remind us that, especially when it's God's help we need, asking for help so often begins when we finally stop holding our tears back and just cry.

“With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back; I will let them walk by brooks of water,” says Jeremiah (31:9). This sound-bite from Jeremiah's prophecy, a book of the Bible almost as long as the Psalter, comes more than a century before the great crisis of Israel's history: the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 BCE. That temple was the dwelling place, the sacred space of the Lord God of Israel. The temple's destruction in 587 – and the ensuing exile – created a loss so large for Jeremiah and his people, a grief so great that, today, we cannot begin to fathom it. Or can we? Perhaps September 11th is the closest experience we have to compare with what happened in 587 BCE. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann told a story at our clergy conference a couple of weeks ago in which an older man who belongs to his church, who has lost much of his life's savings in the days since 9/11, said simply, with great sadness, “I want my world back.”

The children of Israel also wanted their world back. They wanted their fortunes restored. And they looked to God for help and for hope. The Jeremiah passage we've just heard is in the middle of four chapters (30-33) filled with comfort and hope, overflowing with promises of a reversal of fortunes and of God's restoration. Over and over again, both before and after today's three verses, if we were to read those chapters, we will hear God speak the same comforting words through the prophet Jeremiah: “I will restore their fortunes (30:3). . .I am going to restore their fortunes (30:18). . .When I restore their fortunes (31:23). . .I will (32:44). . .I will (33:7). . .I will. . .(33:11). . .I will restore their fortunes (33:26). . .”

God keeps reassuring God's people that restoration is what God has done, restoration is what God still does, restoration is what God will do, once again. Now, their weeping has turned into tears of consolation and rejoicing. God has heard their cries for help. God will again restore their fortunes. Indeed, restoration is what God does. This is Good News indeed.

And the Good News is that God is still restoring God's people, through Jesus. Which brings us to the miracle story of today's Gospel, the healing of a blind man. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks Bartimaeus. It's the question we heard him ask his friends James and John last week. But the blind man's simple answer is quite different from the grandiose one of the disciples, who asked, “(Let us) sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in glory” (10:37). Bartimaeus says, “Let me see again” (10:51). He wants his sight restored. This is a different kind of restoration than the one the Psalmist and Jeremiah have been talking about. It's God's restoration of one man, one soul at a time.

Often, restoration is about buildings, be they cycloramas, churches or temples. But restoration is also about the other kinds of fortunes. And restoration is about the fortunes of those people of God whose lives are broken and hurting and who need healing and restoring. Restoration is about God breaking into the world of the Psalmist and Jeremiah and Bartimaeus, about God breaking into our world, one person at a time. Restoration is all about God, and restoration is all about us.

“The mission of the church,” our Prayer Book Catechism tells us, “ is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (p. 855). “Restoring our fortunes” may have to do with riches or wealth. “Restore our fortunes” may be the genuine prayer of someone who has lost a job, a home, a pension. But there's more to restoration than money, more than mere bricks and mortar, more than canvas or paint. Our fortunes are also about our destiny, our destination, our eternal home. When we let God rebuild our very lives, rehabilitate our broken bodies, reconstruct our inner temples, we are letting God restore our very best fortunes of all. When we let God do this, to amplify our 2013 Stewardship theme, we will feed and restore others, because we have been fed and restored.

Blind Bartimaeus cried out to Jesus. Then he cried out again, even louder: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus restored his sight, but only after Bartimaeus asked for help. He cried out, perhaps weeping tears, seeking divine aid, looking for what the song calls “amazing grace.” And the grace of sight – God's pure gift of restoration – is given to a man who now follows Jesus.

Before we can restore others, we must first be willing to be restored. Before we can love our neighbors and ask to help them, we must learn how to love ourselves enough to ask for help for ourselves. First, we must ask for help. First, we must get to a place where we are no longer afraid to cry, to cry out to God, to weep, to sow with tears. Then God can dry our tears, console us, love us, feed us and restore us. At each visit to Gettysburg, I have wept many tears. And I have come to believe that my own restoration has, miraculously, something to do with the restoration happening there over the past 150 years – something to do with the restoration happening here, at All Saints'. Yes, it is God's restoration that is already happening among us, so we can help restore the world, with songs of joy.

—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
October 28, 2012