I remember being struck in the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001 how the assigned readings from the lectionary, particularly from Jeremiah, seemed so eerily current. They were addressed to a nation in distress, a people wounded, wondering where God was, facing devastation.
And now, 15 years later–starting the 6th round of these 3-year cycles of readings–we’re back in Jeremiah, and the prophet seems to be speaking once again to the anguish of our time. The first 8 chapters of Jeremiah are full of condemnation and accusation of the nation of Israel’s deceit and corruption and God’s dismay and weariness at the people’s refusal to return to God’s ways. “Why then has this people turned away in perpetual backsliding?” God asks. “They have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return. I have given heed and listened, but they do not speak honestly; no one repents of wickedness, saying, ‘What have I done!’” It’s as though God is reading the New York Times over coffee in the morning, and every few paragraphs, crumples up the paper and pounds on the table. “What did he say?” God asks incredulously. “What has she done now?” “Jeremiah!” comes the Divine command. “Tell them. Point out their lies. Look at my poor people dying!”
And Jeremiah is exhausted from the effort. Exhausted from trying to compete with all the other noise and getting blamed for being a messenger of doom. “My joy is gone,” he cries. “Grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: ‘Is the Lord not in Jerusalem, or Washington, or Aleppo, or the Congo, or Baghdad?’ ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’ For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, [Jeremiah moans], I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”
Jeremiah is the master of lament. In fact, there’s a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations, the Lamentations of Jeremiah. “How lonely is the city that once was full of people,” it begins, as Jeremiah looks upon Jerusalem after its people have been taken off into exile. But lamentation is not only for the aftermath of tragedy. It is also for those times when tragedy can still be averted, when the depth of the crisis, the reality of the situation and the consequences of the decisions being made right now can be seen in all their terrifying power. Lamentation is appropriate to help us get a grip on just how much is at stake, how much we have to lose. When we can feel deeply and fully just how far we have gone astray, when we can see clearly where this current trend is taking us, we may finally be open to the possibility of getting our act together and re-orient ourselves to head in a direction that we actually may want to go–a direction that is life-giving, ot death-dealing.
There’s no “going back again,” of course. That is never possible. The world and time never stand still. But the greatness and goodness that is possible is always drawing us forward, God is always making all things new.
“Is there no balm in Gilead?” Jeremiah wonders. Back in the 6th c. BCE, Gilead was thought of as a place of healing and medical care. The balm in Gilead was probably resin from balsam trees, the “balsam of Mecca,” and the balm was probably some kind of topical ointment. But it was a surface treatment, not unlike a bandaid in our day, and alas in Jeremiah’s day and in ours, bandaids are utterly inadequate for the job. What is needed is more like a heart transplant, a complete change of heart, a radical–as in “root”–transformation.
Anyone who’s had surgery–a joint replacement, or organ transplant, or other repair–knows that the surgery itself is only part of the healing. In fact, usually, hopefully, you’re anaesthesized during the surgery. It’s the aftermath, the slow, painful, aching mending of tissue and bone that requires the real patience and courage.
We have arrived at a place where the chasm between income levels, the distrust and despair between races and religions, the toxicity of our environment, the polarity between political parties and segments of our population is so deep and wide that easy and painless solutions won’t do. There is no balm in Gilead that will smooth things over. It is going to take deep sacrifice across the board, painful adjustments of expectations and assumptions, humbling realizations of responsibility and openness to a new order. Balance sheets of profit and loss will need to be examined with new eyes, factoring in the cost to future generations and our environment in our short-term expenses and plans.
The days of the church merely continuing on with business as usual, even exploring new ways to attract people here, are over, as once thriving churches are now closing their doors, including the church I came from in Syracuse. Here in Vermont, here in Bennington, –this least religious state in the nation–the climate is even more challenging, as families are reluctant to send their children to a free summer camp held in a church, for fear they will be proselytized, and the faith community is at best an afterthought when community events are planned. We will have to shift our efforts from attracting people here to going out where people are, bringing the good news of God’s love there, witnessing in acts of service and justice that our God is a God of justice and compassion. When or if people do come to join us in worship and fellowship, we must offer words and music and rituals that are accessible to those who may have never been in a church, many of whom are digital natives, finding ways that bring the wisdom and worth of our tradition into the 21st century in a way that communicates and touches heads and hearts. The “old hymns” and “old ways” are not banned forever–we can still find ways to feed hearts and minds for whom they have meaning–but if our children’s children and beyond are to know and experience the love of God, we will need to find new ways to express and embody that.
Jeremiah could speak truth to power because he also experienced the grief and pain and hardship of the people. That is what gives one the right to be a prophet, or to be a leader, really. “You know what you people should do…” is not the beginning of any advice you should pay attention to. That is not the voice of one who understands the full consequences of where we are and where we must go. “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.”
How like our God, who became flesh among us in Jesus, to fully experience the pain and suffering of humanity, who knows our grief, who knows even our death. And the community that lived on in His name and spirit, also understood –in its most faithful times– what kind of servant leadership was needed. Generations after Jesus, even a generation or so after the apostle Paul, wrote in Paul’s name to a community led by Timothy. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity…”
So in the midst of this highly contentious and troubling presidential campaign, let us at the very least heed this advice and pray for our leaders and those who would be our leaders. The children in a video created by the Salt Project, a Christian resource group based in Indianapolis, offered some great advice to the next president of the United States. Here are some of their pleas and prayers–”Support the homeless and give them shelter.” “Build more community centers so kids and teens have a place to go.” “It’s gonna be hard, so my advice is to try to have some fun everyday.” “Have ice cream everyday.” “Get rid of homework.” “Make America a peaceful and non-violent place.” “Donate to charities and organizations, create more jobs.” “Respect everyone, no matter their color or gender.” “Keep guns off the streets, so loved ones won’t get hurt, and to make all gun laws strict. And keep guns from teenagers and in the neighborhoods.” “Remember being nice is better than being mean.” “Listen to us kids because if we ruled the world, no one would be homeless and there would be less crime.” The last little boy, as the credits are running, says, “And everyone would live in harmony, and there would be no bank robberies too. That’s my advice.”
“Unless you become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God” is how Jesus put it.
“Offer prayers for kings and presidents and candidates and all who are in high positions…” Here’s a prayer “For One Who Holds Power” by the late John O’Donohue. May it be our prayer as well, as we think of President obama, Hillary clinton, Donald Trump, and all who “hold power”–
May the gift of leadership awaken in you as a vocation,
Keep you mindful of the providence that calls you to serve.
As high over the mountains the eagle spreads its wings,
May your perspective be larger than the view from the foothills.
When the way is flat and dull in times of gray endurance,
May your imagination continue to evoke horizons.
When thirst burns in times of drought,
May you be blessed to find the wells.
May you have the wisdom to read time clearly
And know when the seed of change will flourish.
In your heart may there be a sanctuary
For the stillness where clarity is born.
May your work be infused with passion and creativity
And have the wisdom to balance compassion and challenge.
May your soul find the graciousness
To rise above the fester of small mediocrities.
May your power never become a shell
Wherein your heart would silently atrophy.
May you welcome your own vulnerability
As the ground where healing and truth join.
May integrity of soul be your first ideal,
The source that will guide and bless your work.” [John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, p. 147]
May we hear the pain of God’s people and the earth, and may we pray with our lives for healing
of the nation. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark