MARY LEE TALBOT
“I watch with sadness and pain the injustice and violence by humans on other humans,” said the Rev. Frank A. Thomas. “I see rape, sexual molestation, exploitation of the poor, harassment of the LGBTQI community, racism, nationalism, mass incarceration, genocide, greed and the devastation of our common home.”
Thomas preached at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday ecumenical service of worship in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Did Heaven Make a Mistake?” The Scripture text was Lamentations 3: 20-24.
The prophet Jeremiah, like Thomas, looked on the world and saw gall and wormwood. And like Jeremiah, when he is downcast, Thomas remembers: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness … therefore I will have hope in God.”
The Book of Genesis, Thomas told the congregation, claims that humans have dominion over the earth. “But we really are animals — animals trying to be moral. We are moral animals until we are scratched, or someone threatens our interests, and we go straight to our animal instincts.”
Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso wrote in Midrash: Reading the Bible with Question Marks, “Do humans deserve the gift of life? Did heaven make a mistake?” (Sasso and her husband, Dennis, served the Hebrew Congregation of Chautauqua in 1973).
When God was thinking about forming the first human one, four angels were arguing the pros and cons of this part of creation. The first angel said the human should be created so they could dispense love. The angel of Truth said the human should not be created because they would speak falsely. The angel of Righteousness said the human would do good deeds while the angel of Peace said the human would be full of strife.
The angels were tied 2-2, and God had to break the tie. God threw Truth to the ground, and the other angels begged God to let Truth arise from the earth. Thomas said God’s decision “is not incorrect. God wants to create in spite of humans. If Truth had remained an angel, humans would not exist.”
Thomas said he despairs that humans can change. “I am hurt and angry that we have discarded what is civil and peaceful. We just do our own thing. We have fits of rage and want to do things our own without consequences to ourselves or our neighbors. We don’t know what we do want, we are just ‘mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.’ ”
In wrestling with his despair, Thomas dreams of everyone having their own place, undiminished. He said in his struggle for hope, “I am too much on the side of the angels and believe in love, justice and mercy. How do I ignore hate?”
Thomas asked, “Are we really stupid enough to drop nuclear weapons on ourselves? Someone asked Albert Einstein how he thought the third world war would be fought. Einstein said, ‘I don’t know about the third, but the fourth will be fought with rocks.’ ”
Maybe it is time to bring back truth and close up shop on this present experiment of life, Thomas said. “Remember the ark? Everything was going to be fine after the flood. Maybe heaven made a mistake, the experiment did not work, so just let us die.”
He continued, “Yet this text comes screaming out of the depths and into my mind: I have hope because the steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never end.”
It is only because of God that things are not worse in the world. The reason is God’s hesed, translated from the Hebrew as steadfast love or faithfulness, to act in a loyal and loving way.
“This is the only reason not to burn it all down,” Thomas said. “Hesed is used 240 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. The strength, steadfastness and love of God, taken together, never fails. God’s covenant of love never ceases.”
The covenant between God and the Israelites was one of reciprocal rights. “It is based not on what you have to do, but what you want to do,” Thomas said. “Israel sought the protection of God but might not always deserve it. God, the strong party, offers love and grace to the Israelites, who live with sin, enemies and alien culture around them. For God to do hesed is to be hesed.”
Thomas told the congregation, “Hesed is beyond even the covenant that God made. We will not be abandoned even when we are unfaithful. God’s mercy is new every morning. It is not money or power or medicine or science that hold us together, it is the steadfast love of the Lord.”
Sasso said that God’s throne was established on hesed. Heaven was wobbly until the Holy One propped up the leg of the throne with hesed.
“Our world is precarious, wobbly, and God props us up. We would have already been consumed, but God’s mercy never comes to an end,” Thomas said.
The Book of Lamentations is attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, after watching the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar II and the Neo-Babylonians. In the first 19 verses of Chapter 3, Jeremiah portrays himself as a man set up as a target for God’s wrath. In verse 20, Jeremiah calls to mind the steadfast love of God that never fails.
Thomas said, “God’s mercy will not allow me to put my despair on others; it will not allow me to hate those who hate me. God’s steadfast love will not allow me to brutalize others or call someone a racist unnecessarily.”
We will address those issues, he told the congregation. “We will march and vote and argue but we will not hate. When I was growing up we were not allowed to use four-letter words. Any adult in the church could whup us for using them. And the number one word we could not use: H-A-T-E.”
After Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York City policeman on July 17, 2014, two police officers were shot in their squad car. The wife and daughter of Garner went to the spot and laid a wreath.
“They propped up the world,” Thomas said. “When people who are hated show that kind of love, they are God’s hesed. Heaven did not make a mistake. Hesed is greater than human mistakes. We have to slide mercy underneath what is wobbly. Steadfast love never ceases; it is new every morning. Heaven did not make a mistake.”
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor at Chautauqua Institution, presided. Erroll B. Davis Jr., director of the African American Heritage House at Chautauqua, read the Scripture. Joshua Stafford, who holds the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organist and is director of sacred music, played an improvisation for the prelude. Members of the Motet Choir sang “Hymn of Mercy,” with music by Dan Forrest and words by Eileen Berry, based on Hosea 14:1-4. Rebecca Scarnati provided oboe accompaniment for the anthem and the hymn “Morning Has Broken.” The offertory anthem, sung by members of the Motet Choir, was “My Hope is Arisen,” with music by Peter Latona and words from “Aurora lucis rutilat,” translated by J.M. Neale, and “Victimae Paschali,” translated by Jane E. Lesson. The postlude was “Toccata,” by John Weaver. The Geraldine M and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provide support for this week’s services and chaplain.