I can remember when the word "furlough" was a happy word. It was a happy word because it meant that somebody in your family was coming home from military duty for a while. "Furlough" for me brings up a memory of standing, as a small boy, in Union Station in Louisville, waiting for the train to cane in with my cousin Paul in his jaunty sailor cap and his stories of battle in the Pacific.
But all of a sudden the word "furlough" has taken on some sinister meanings, hasn’t it? Now when we say "furlough" we really mean out of work and out of pay for a few days, or many days, or who knows what? And this weekend for a whole lot of Washingtonians and for a good many of you, furlough means anything but a picnic, anything but a pleasant break from the routine. Now furlough means, "How do I pay the rent? How do I take care of the next tuition payment?" And maybe even, "Where can I find a better jab?"
But, you know, I’m convinced this morning that the reason most of us are so threatened by this business of a federal government furlough has nothing to do with paying the bills. It has nothing to do with the money we need to get by; a few days here and there will do some damage, yes, but many of us can survive on a lot less than we have. And we will survive. It’s not the money.
No, I believe that the issue with furloughs has to do with our idea of what it is to be successful. We just don’t want anything to tarnish the image of being successful. We have to stay busy, we have to earn a lot and spend a lot, we have to be relentlessly on the move in order to look successful. And for a whole lot of us, there is no substitute for upward mobility. Either you are moving up in the social scale, the economic scale, the status scale – either you are moving up or you are moving out.
And so if you are on furlough it means that somebody has classified you as "non-essential". What a horrible label that is! Non-essential, not needed; who needs you? They’ve shut down the government; who will even notice? And what difference will it make?
Well, the difference it makes for a whole lot of us is that we have so gotten into upward mobility that unless we are roving on and roving up, we think we are going nowhere. We just have to be moving up. Do you remember the theme song from the TV show, "The Jeffersons?" "Movin’ on up, Fish don’t burn on the grill, movin’ on up."
So the real estate folks try to sell us what they call "starter homes", on the assumption that when you get that mortgage paid down a little, you can move on up into a larger house, a larger yard, and a larger mortgage. If you are into upward mobility, you expect to move on up.
Upward mobility has affected the Christian ministry too. Plenty of pastors stick around a few years and then start looking for bigger churches with more people and more dividends and more of everything; I was once a member of a church whose pastor left us after a grand total of nine months’ tenure because, as he said, he wanted to go to a "sounding board" pulpit, where lots of people would pay attention to what he said.
Upward mobility. Lots of us are looking for it. And lots of us are wiped out when anything threatens it. Got to move up: up, up, relentlessly up.
Now the Scripture speaks too of moving up. The Bible speaks of God’s people having a certain upward mobility. But it is quite different from what l’ve just described. The Bible speaks of a God who brings us up from where we once were, but the way He does it and the purpose for which He does it …that’s quite different from the upwardness we give so much attention to.
When we read the 147th Psalm a few moments ago, I wonder if you noticed how many times the word "up" is used. God is also into upward nobility, but it's very different. The psalmist describes God’s kind of upward mobility as being "built up, bound up, and lifted up". So will you listen up!
First, "The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel." "The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel."
You see, what God does is to take folks who have no special background, no extraordinary resources, no particular advantages, and builds them up and make them powerful. What God does is to take the disadvantaged and tell them they have power; what God does is to take the poor and remind them of the riches of the human spirit. And what God does, what God always does, is to pour His Spirit upon flesh. And when you really feel that happening, you find out that no financial setback can really harm you. No furlough can take away your self-esteem. And no short paycheck can shortchange your personal power. "The Lord builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel."
India is a land that has not received the Christian faith very well. There are just a whole lot of built-in resistances to Christ. The traditional caste system creates much of that resistance. Up here at the top, the aristocratic Brahmins, with prestige and advantage and influence; and down here at the bottom, the untouchables, the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor. Members of the untouchable caste are forced to live in slums; they are not supposed to have any contact at all with people of higher caste. In some places they are not even allowed to walk on the same paths or sidewalks that others will use.
Well, one of our missionaries tells the story of a church in one Indian city, a church which had reached middle caste people and even a few of the upper-reach Brahmins. They had prided themselves, in fact, on being a community of solid, respectable citizens. But, just a year or two ago, the church needed a new pastor; and guess what they did? They called as their pastor, as their spiritual leader, a young man who had grown up on the streets of Calcutta, who did not even know who his parents were, who had begged for bread daily until he was eighteen years old. They called an untouchable as their pastor. And those who once would not have allowed this young man even to stand close to them would now lower them into the waters of baptism. Now this untouchable would hold their hands when they needed comfort. And this untouchable would stand at the Lord’s Table and break the bread and lift the cup for them. What does it mean?
"The Lord builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. " And nobodies became somebodies because of Him.
And today, in this very place, right here in this church, God is gathering the humble folks, ordinary folks, right alongside teachers and lawyers and physicians, and He is working a work of grace that I can see every day. God is gathering people who have Ph.D.'s and people who have nothing more than a degree from the school of hard knocks. He is taking some of us who didn't think we could do anything, and He is giving us a meaningful work to do. He is taking some of us who felt we would never get anywhere, and is sending us to school and sending us into the workplace and sending us into places of influence. Who would have thought it? But it is happening!
"The Lord builds up Jerusalem; He gathers the outcasts of Israel. " He is strengthening us and moving us up on His own scale of upward mobility. Just one question about it: why? Why? What does He want to do with us? What will all this power be used for? Built up, for what?
Well, there is more. God is doing something else on His scale of upward mobility. Listen to this one: "He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds." "He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds." Built up, bound up.
You see, not only is our God working to empower the weak; not only is our God bringing somebodiness to those who thought of themselves as nobodies; but also our God is healing the brokenhearted and binding up the wounded. Our God is dealing redemptively with all of us who thought we were too sick, too wounded, too broken, to be of any use.
Let me be candid here about my own feelings about this church. There are days when I just marvel that God gets anything done here. So many of us are wounded. So many of us are hurt. So many of us have suffered all sorts of pain. So many of us have weathered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. And you just wonder how we can have church at all.
Somebody cannot continue to serve on a committee because the marriage is going sour. Somebody else cannot pay attention to teaching the Sunday School class because there are a whole lot of unresolved guilt feelings. Still another starts to do a ministry with needy people and pretty soon you find out that he holds in his heart all kinds of feelings of rejection. Someone else cannot concentrate on committee work because he is so afraid the job is going to be cut off.
I confess to you there are days when I look at what we are trying to do and who is trying to do it with all these handicaps, and I say, "Lord, how can we have church here? How can we have church, because these folks are a mess! Lord, send me some folks whose lives are flawless; Lord, send me some folks whose spirits are intact to run this church. Lord, where can I get some people who have no problems to run your church?"
But you know what? Whenever I ask that question, the answer keeps on coming back, "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds and that's the only way they will be fit for service in the Kingdom. Folks, if we could find perfect people to staff this church, then they wouldn't know how to be church! You won't know how to be church until God has healed your brokenheartedness and bound up your wounds.
And so we as a church full of folks who are wounded but who allow the Lord God to bind us up, we are infinitely more powerful than a church filled with yuppies and buppies. As a church of folks who have tasted hurt but who are being healed by the compassionate Christ, we are vastly more powerful than a church that is into perfection and image and upward mobility. Our hearts have hemorrhaged, yes; but week by week we are seeing God reach down and heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.
I only wish all of you could hear what I hear in my study or in your living rooms or beside your hospital beds. God is reaching down and healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds.
But again I ask, why? What is this all for? What is this all about? God is building us up; God is binding us up. But what for? Where is it all headed?
Listen to the psalmist one more time: "The Lord lifts up the downtrodden, he casts the wicked to the ground." God’s upward lift, God's upward mobility: "The Lord lifts up the downtrodden, he casts the wicked to the ground." Here is the clue I've been looking for: God has built us up as a people; God has bound up our wounds, so that we may share with Him in lifting up the downtrodden and casting down wickedness.
God has given you and me some strength so that we can lift up others. God has put power into our hands so that we can reach out and care for others. God has put into our church's control some property and some finances and some heart power and some brain power so that we can reach out and find the oppressed and the lonely and the desperate and give them hope. God has built up Jerusalem and gathered us outcasts so that we can share with Him in lifting up the downtrodden. Built up, so that others can be lifted up.
And God has bound up our wounds and healed our broken hearts, again, so that we can understand the weary, so that we can give comfort to the distressed, so that we can bring possibility to the hopeless. And every time one of us sits down to counsel with a hurting heart; every time one of us offers the Gospel of salvation to a sinning soul; every time one of us, all of us, use our gifts to dry the tears or bring love to the unlovely, then we have shared in God’s mission. Bound up, so that others may be lifted up. All that counts is the kind of upward mobility of which the Apostle Paul spoke:
"I press on … because Christ Jesus has made me his own ….One thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
Built up, bound up, and therefore lifted up.
There is a price for all of this, by the way. The Lord Christ said, "And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me." Sounds pretty successful, upward mobility. "I will draw all men unto me".
Oh, but have you heard? Have you seen? Do you know how He was lifted up? Alone on a Cross, stretched across a cold gray sky, with the humble and the thieves and the rejected near Him. "The Lord builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel."
Do you know, have you seen how they lifted Him up? Up, up, relentlessly upward, high on that cross that crowns the world and caps off its whole history, slicing His side with a spear and pounding great gaping wounds in His hands, His feet? Yet those very wounded hands heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds.
All of this – lifted up on this cross, disgraced, humiliated, furloughed from life, that He might lift up the downtrodden and draw all humanity to Himself.
Draw near now to this Table; feed on Him in your hearts by faith and let Him build you up. Draw near to this Table where lies the wounded healer, and let Him bind you up. Draw near and then go forth to lift up your own hearts and to lift up the fallen, in the name of the one who, though trodden in the dust, is lifted from the grave, lifted up for ever.