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
6 Walter Brueggemann, Like Fire in the Bones – Listening for the Prophetic Word in Jeremiah (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006), 87.
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.