The God Who Weeps – Jeremiah 8.18-9.1

September 22, 2013 – 18th Sunday after Pentecost

Jeremiah is often called the weeping prophet and in this morning’s passage, we get a glimpse of why he’s called that. Chapter seven and the first part of chapter eight has again laid out the people’s “perpetual and unrepentant backsliding”1 and the impending doom facing them. (Until  I started reading Jeremiah for this set of sermons, I thought backsliding was just a Baptist word. Now I know it’s from the bible.2 Although I believe it appears just once.)
    What we hear this morning is a very different voice from the words of judgment that precede this passage.

READ Jeremiah 8.18-9.1

    This passage from Jeremiah has that very familiar line about a balm in Gilead. And you might already be humming in your mind, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole. There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” And the choir will sing that hymn later in the service.
    Gilead was a region east of the Jordan river known for its healing ointments–probably derived from a plant that grew in that area. People went there for healing. It might be that if you couldn’t find an answer for your medical issue with your home town doctor or the big city doctor, you made a pilgrimage to Gilead to find healing.
    Only in this chapter in Jeremiah, there is no healing. Even in Gilead. Some of the people over whom Jeremiah weeps are already dead. “O that my head were a spring of water…so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” Jeremiah laments. And apparently, the woundedness of others is so great that there is no healing.
    Jeremiah cries not for physical wounds as much as spiritual wounds. These are not wounds that can healed with a special salve or prescription ointment. This is a disease of the spirit; a poison in the soul. The people have turned away from God even when God has sent prophet after prophet after prophet to warn them. The people have assumed their religious rituals in the holy places will be enough to satisfy God while they continue to live greedy, self-serving, self-absorbed, fearful lives. They make most important what is not important. They can recite the law and the ten commandments but it doesn’t change their lives a bit. God has given them every opportunity to turn their lives around and return to a right relationship with God but they keep saying, “I’m not really interested.” Jeremiah, one of the many prophets sent by God to woo the people back to God is “burdened by their refusal of insight, recognition, contrition and repentance.”3 And so he weeps.
    “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night.” Have you ever felt like that? That if you let yourself cry, you would never stop? Day and night you would weep.
    
    If you were here last week, you might remember that I said one of the things that makes reading the book of Jeremiah difficult is there are sudden changes in who is speaking. The tone and subject changes abruptly and often it is not clear just who is the speaker.
    While I’ve talked so far as if these are the words of Jeremiah, I think it’s just as easy to hear these as the words of God. And perhaps it is more significant if these are the words of God lamenting, weeping endlessly, for the people. And not just any people but “my poor people” or in some translations “the daughter of my people”4–both of which sound like terms of endearment.
    What is it like to hear these as God’s words?
    “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
    God’s people are feeling deserted by God. They ask, “Is the Holy God not in Zion?”
    And then there’s what could be God saying, parenthetically, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”
    The people again lament that God appears to be absent. “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
    Then we hear God’s lament again, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me…why has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
    And then even God has the capacity for endless crying, “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people.”
    It’s not clear if God is weeping endlessly or if God wishes to weep but cannot. Perhaps God is longing for the relief and exhaustion of crying.
    If it is God speaking in this passage, we might imagine God as a betrayed lover or a yearning parent. What if we imagined God in Jeremiah like the yearning father in the parable of the prodigal son? He’s done all he can to support and allow his child to grow up and make his own decisions and now he is cut to the heart by those decisions. If you love someone–parent, child, partner, niece or nephew, grandchild or dear friend–it is agony to watch them make choices in their lives that you know will bring them pain and suffering. But ultimately you know you cannot step in and fix everything or make all their decisions for them or make it all better (even though we often try for quite a while).
    What if these verses are God’s “lament for…people who are feeling deserted by…God”?5 One commentator says it is the people’s “own behavior that has them trapped, but as anyone who has taken part in a 12-step recovery program can attest, it is hard to identify the rationalizations and excuses that perpetuate destructive habits. Wanting to change destructive behavior does not always produce the means to do so. [God] hears their desperation and their panic and mourns for them in their agony.”6
    When the people lament, “Is the Holy God not here with us in Zion?” God would say, “Yes! I am here. But not the way you expect me.” “The people have bought into a gospel of ‘cheap grace,’ expecting God’s protection and deliverance, at no cost to” themselves.”7 With no change of heart or life.
    And don’t we still practice that kind of religion in our own day and time? We want our own personal American dream with a little side of God to make everything okay. We’re not particularly comfortable with Jesus who says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” Our own self-interest and greed and fear drive our choices much more often than does our trust in, or obedience to God.
    And if you think that’s a little harsh, I’m right in there with everyone else. The messages all around us are to get what we can while we can before someone else takes what could belong to us. We live in a culture that sees all our resources as scarce and those who are entitled to them better hold on to them now or they will end up going to people who are not worthy of them. We fear what will happen if someone gets in line ahead of us or gets more than us or gets a piece of the pie we think they don’t deserve.
    Most of the time we think we’re making our choices because they are practical, reasonable and expected. But most of the time, if we’re honest, we barely recognize our role in turning away from God. And then we might hear God’s call to live in a different way and we, who have grown comfortable with our life the way it is, say, “I’m not really that interested.”     
    What we see in the prophets (and you may have experienced this in your own life) is that “we rarely change until we are forced to, until our pride and vanity are stripped from us.” Sometimes, as one writer says, “the pain we seek to avoid may be the very one that both opens the door to the divine and reintroduces us to right relationship with our fellow humans.”8
    That is hard to say broadly in a sermon because there are so many variations on pain and so many qualifications I want to add. And so many circumstances in which I would not say this just yet.
    It’s one thing to say something like this to someone in a tender conversation in my office–to tentatively wonder about the possibility that God might be present in this suffering. Never that God desires or wills the suffering. Never that the suffering of violence afflicted by someone else is ever something to submissively endure. And never that any of us wishes for suffering or pain. But given that life includes pain–it is mostly inevitable–do we not sometimes experience that “our pain can be the very path to grace”9?
    But before we ever get there, perhaps it is enough to recognize that God weeps too. God weeps for all that is lost. For all that is wounded. For all that is dead. God feels pain and suffers too.
    I wonder if in those times when God seems absent, if God is weeping, or longing to weep, and we have a hard time recognizing this part of the face of God.
    But if God weeps, then we, too, are invited to weep. For all that is wounded and broken and lost and dead.
    When we have experienced disaster or trauma, we typically shut down emotionally–for good, self-protecting reasons. In time, “weeping awakens sorrows, and releases buried feelings from [our numbed] spirits.”10 In this weeping, God invites us back to knowing and feeling. In this weeping, God invites us back to life.

* * *
1 George W. Ramsey, “Exegetical Perspective – Jeremiah 8.18-9.1” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) 75.
2 Jeremiah 8.5
3 Dwight M. Lundegren, “Homiletical Perspective – Jeremiah 8.18-9.1” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) 77-79.
4 New American Standard Version translates it this way.
5 Sharon Peebles Burch, “Pastoral Perspective – Jeremiah 8.18-9.1” Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010) 76.
6 Ibid.
7 Ramsey, p79.
8 C. E. Morgan, “Grace Hurts – Conversion in Flannery O’Connnor’s Fiction” Christian Century, 21 August 2013, 34.
9 Ibid.
10 Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 68.

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What Kind of God? – Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28 / Luke 15.1-10

September 15, 2013 – 17th Sunday after Pentecost

This is our fourth week with Jeremiah and Jeremiah will be our worship companion through the third Sunday in October. So we’re getting some time to walk around with him.    
    Jeremiah emerges in the context of national disaster. The events which it tries to make sense of took place around 2500 years ago. Now it could be really easy to say this is a story that is far removed from our postmodern world today. But just say, “Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Israel.” That’s where the book of Jeremiah is happening. Over the course of about 150 years, the two tiny countries that now basically make up the country of modern day Israel were invaded again and again. First they were invaded by the Assyrians (whose empire was essentially in modern day Syria). Then the Egyptians start moving into their territory. Then the Babylonians (whose empire is essentially modern day Iraq) defeated Egypt and invaded the southern kingdom (the area whose capital city was Jerusalem). The Babylonians invaded three times over the course of about 15 years.
    I’m saying all this to highlight this is not a story we know nothing about. Think about the suffering and trauma that is happening now in Egypt, in Syria, in Iraq and all the countries in between them: Israel, Jordan and Lebanon. Plus the two border countries: Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
    We can imagine some of the suffering, the disaster, the trauma in which people are living day after day, year after year, generation after generation. We see it and read about it in all our media outlets. We see the deaths from mortar shellings and assault weapons and gassing. We hear the cries of children who are starving. We know about disease that takes hold. We see the lines of refugees. We read about the panic of families fleeing their homes, the end of economic opportunities, the destruction of roads and buildings and neighborhoods. And we hear the reverberating question, “Where is God?”1
    Jeremiah is written for people when the worst happens, when the world is turned upside down; when we ask, “Where is God?” and wonder how we will make sense of anything at all again.
    We are not strangers to this story.

    In Jeremiah chapter 4 we hear words about the disaster that is coming and the unmaking of creation. Listen particularly to verses 23-28 and you’ll hear a reversal of the creation story from Genesis 1.
READ Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28 (This is God speaking about the time of the impending disaster.)

    These are words most of us are not very comfortable with. We don’t like this God who sends a punishing hot wind; who undoes creation; who makes the land a desolation; who will not relent or turn back. God’s own people are accused of being skilled in doing evil; being without understanding and not knowing God.
    But in this text of judgment and destruction, there’s a tiny little phrase where God says: “yet I will not make a full end.”

    The book of Jeremiah is a strange mix of blame and anger, hurt and anguish. It lurches from sermon to lament to oracles of hope. Metaphors are introduced and then abruptly disappear. Who is speaking changes without warning. It is not a smooth, coherent book. One scholar says Jeremiah resembles a collage of unrelated objects “all glued together by some not entirely clear connections.”2 Some have said it is an “unreadable” book.
    Kathleen O’Connor who teaches Old Testament at Columbia Seminary in Atlanta writes about the book of Jeremiah using the lens of the study of trauma and disaster. “Trauma and disaster studies arose from the bloody smear” she calls it “that was the twentieth-century.” This is an interdisciplinary conversation about the long lasting effects on victims (and even the the generations that follow them)–the long lasting effects of trauma and disaster.
    We experience trauma and disaster as individuals and communities experience trauma as a collective. Think of 9/11. Or for those who are old enough, December 7, 1941 (the bombing of Pearl Harbor). Or World War I, or World War II, or Vietnam, or Korea or Iraq or Afghanistan. Or Hurricane Katrina or Sandy or the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
    In all of these catastrophes, people search for meaning. We try to make sense out of the suffering.
    One of the things disasters do is “disturb what [we] think, feel, and believe. They distort perceptions and shut down ordinary life.”3
    Kathleen O’Connor is talking about public disasters but the effects are similar when we experience disaster and trauma in our own individual lives.
    The wounds of trauma often leave us without words to describe what it is we feel or think or believe. We may be able to string a sentence together to ask for a glass of water but we have no way to put language together to express what we have experienced.
    Another effect of trauma is a state of shock which shuts down our feelings and we “lose access to knowledge of [our] own pain, loss and grief.”4
    The last effect Kathleen O’Connor describes is the way “trauma and disaster destroy or at last undermine trust in God, other people, and the world.”5
    Jeremiah is trying to help people, whose lives have been devastated, make sense of their world again. And this book can help us too in the trauma many of us have experienced in our lives–whether it is a collective trauma or an individual one.
    But it’s not like we can just open to chapter whatever in Jeremiah and find “the answer.” There are a multitude of ways Jeremiah tries on to find “the answer.” But what often happens in a trauma or disaster is that the traditional answers don’t work any more. None of them are “adequate for this moment, and something new, different, and [even risky] must be said…in a wholly new circumstance.”6 But finding something new to say–making some interpretation–is difficult when you may not even be sure what it is that is happening and what it is you are living through and therefore it may take a long time before you are able to figure out what it is that can or should or wants to be said.7
    We see that at play in this passage where God’s fierce anger calls for the unrelenting destruction of creation–and there is also the phrase “Yet I will not make a full end.”
    Can both of those things be true at the same time? I know it is possible to cling to the belief that God is with us in all circumstances and to feel abandoned by God in the midst of trouble. This passage feels like that.
    Walter Brueggemann who also writes on Jeremiah says this passage with its two ideas mashed up together recognizes “that lived reality is not so single, neat or obvious as to permit [a] single, [unified] unchallenged” interpretation. This kind of biblical text invites us to live with things unresolved which Walter Brueggemann says might even be “a God-given, God-enacted unresolve.”8

    Now it’s fascinating to me that the lectionary pairs this passage in Jeremiah, that’s mostly about destruction but perhaps not complete destruction, with the parables in Luke about the shepherd and the woman who both lose something, search diligently and then rejoice with others when what was lost is found.
    These parables are extravagant views of God’s “profound compassion for the lost.”9 Which I don’t want to hold up and say, “See! The answer is God’s love trumps all.” (Although that is definitely my theological bent.) But I do want to see these parables as another view to hold alongside what we hear in Jeremiah.
    I have a friend who is both a pastor to people and a shepherd to sheep and I wrote her about the first parable about the sheep. “If you have 99 of your 100 sheep all gathered together are you really going to leave them–leave them in the wilderness where they could be scattered or attacked–and go out to find one missing sheep? Wouldn’t you be better to cut your losses and be happy you’ve got 99 sheep still with you?”
    My pastor, shepherd friend Catherine wrote back,
“I have stayed out looking for a lost lamb, but all the others are safe in the barn at that point, and I do get very frustrated when only one is missing. I have not yet though given up on a lost lamb. It is much more ominous when only one sheep is missing, because sheep do not tend to stay out alone. When two are missing, I often adopt the Little Bo Peep shepherd ethic of ‘leave them alone [and they will come home’ but when it is only one, that means trouble and I head out to look.”10

    So what if the One we worship is the One who creates the universe, who breathes the breath of life into us, who judges, who uncreates, who brings destruction, who does not completely destroy, who seeks the lost–especially those at great risk. Could we hold all those truths together? Loosely? Allowing the God who is beyond all our words and metaphors and answers and images to be just that?

* * *

1 Kathleen M. O’Connor, Jeremiah: Pain and Promise (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011), 15.
2 Ibid., 29.
3 Ibid., 3.
4 Ibid., 4
5 Ibid.
6 Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones – Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 87.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., 93.
9 The Access Bible – New Revised Standard Version, ed. Gail R. O’Day and David Peterson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), NT111, n.Luke 15.1-2.
10 Personal correspondence with the Reverend Catherine Foote, September 13, 2013.