“Only a Crying God Can Help”Dr. R. Dale McAbee Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1 Year C – Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – (Proper 20)
My joy is gone, 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 Zion? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? 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!
Jeremiah’s heart is breaking with inconsolable grief and he holds nothing back as he gives full voice in a painful lamentation. And in the artistry of his preaching we lose track of his voice and we hear the voice of God. Earlier God is so angry at idolatry and injustice that Jeremiah is told to stop praying for the people. Here God’s heart is breaking and God wants fountains of tears to replace eyes so that weeping might occur night and day unstopped. If God earlier had been a conquering warrior and a rejecting husband, this passage offers us a “crying God.” A crying God Kathleen O’Connor observes, “interrupts the theological discourse and offers a glimpse of relationship without violence.” (Troubling Jeremiah, p.401). Such an image of God is a stunning transformation and opens up new possibilities for religious experience.
So who is Jeremiah? He lived from 628 – 586 BCE, during the reign of King Josiah and his successors. Jeremiah was possibly the son of the High Priest Hilkiah under King Josiah and it was Hilkiah who had recovered the lost scroll of the torah which lead Josiah to institute reforms that purified the practices of worship. Hilkiah was a descendant of Abiather who was a descendant of Eli who was priest when the tabernacle was kept at Shiloh. Thus Jeremiah comes from long priestly lineage that stretched back for generations.
There was a revival of faithfulness to Torah after the discovery of the lost scroll. 2 Chronicles 34:33 says Josiah removed all the detestable idols from all the territory belonging to the Israelites, and he had all who were present in Israel serve the Lord their God. As long as he lived, they did not fail to follow the Lord, the God of their ancestors.
But the revival was short-lived. Josiah died in 609 in a war with Egypt, idolatry resumed, and soon Jerusalem became embroiled in the politics of Babylonian Empire building.
Jeremiah’s ministry after the death of Josiah had been to warn that the coming invasion could not be avoided. Even though many believed that Jerusalem was “special” and was beyond the reach of occupation since “God lives in Jerusalem,” Jeremiah preached otherwise. The call to be a light to the nations and to embody Torah was forgotten and in the hands of kings and TempleHigh priests had become an arrogant exceptionalism. The understanding of covenant was corrupted and had petrified into a toxic political and theological doctrine:
We are God’s chosen people and therefore no ill can befall us.
But we know the rest of the story. In 597 according to the closing words of 2 Chronicles
God brought up against Jerusalem the king of the Babylonians,who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. He carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the Lord’s temple and the treasures of the king and his officials. They set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there. He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power. The land enjoyed its sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were completed in fulfillment of the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah.
And it is here; at this intersection of trauma and the breakdown of denial that I think we can best understand the relevance of Jeremiah for us today.
We hear a lot about the word trauma these days especially with the medical diagnosis of PTSD in the news all the time. Many of our returning soldiers experience what is called post-traumatic stress disorder. The word trauma is from Greek and means wound. Physicians speak of physical wounds to the body as trauma and certain hospitals are designated Trauma Centers because they are equipped to handle horrific car and motorcycle accidents.
Psychologists and counselors use the word to describe the emotional response to accidents, assaults or natural disasters and the intrusive feelings and flashbacks that can keep the person from coping and transcending the original traumatic experience. (http://www.apa.org/topics/trauma/index.aspx)
As we ponder this passage from Jeremiah it is also very helpful that we have just sung Carolyn Gillette’s hymn to the mournful Passion Chorale tune.
We love to sound your praises, to lift our hands above. To sing how grace amazes, to celebrate your love. Yet, God your world is grieving, is your heart grieving too. May we cry out, believing, laments can honor you. (Songs of Grace: New Hymns for God and Neighbor). “May we cry out, believing laments can honor you.” We don’t like to do that.
The passage today is about eyes that won’t stop crying. We don’t like that either. We live in an aspirin commercial world where the jingle “haven’t got time for the pain” becomes our theme song for life. But Jeremiah takes time for his pain. He lingers with his soul shattering experience. He allows empathy and compassion to wash over him.
So many times in my pastoral counseling with people experiencing loss have I heard, “I can’t let myself cry, I’d never stop.” I don’t think that’s actually humanly possible. But that is the fear. It just feels too vulnerable. Some of us have been told, “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Others have been told, “I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Yet I am certain that any time we gather for worship many of us come holding back the tears.
We come into the sanctuary bringing our memories of experiences that have shaken our worlds, and robbed us of our sense of safety and security.
Some of us come to church on Sunday morning having been hit recently by someone who promised to love, honor and cherish us.
Some of us linger in the bathroom every morning getting ready to go to school because we know that as soon as we get on that school bus the bullying and harassment will commence again.
Ken Medema said it so clearly years ago in a musical about community, “If this is not a place where my tears can be understood, where can I go?”
Could we let Jeremiah’s words become ours? Is your joy gone? You can be fully a part of this community and not have to pretend to be happy. I know of one church that changed its name to “The Fellowship of Excitement.” You don’t have to feel excited to belong here. Do you feel dismay? Do you feel undone and hopeless? “Come Ye Disconsolate,” says one old hymn. Your brokenness is welcome here as well. Have you experienced a loss that leaves you wondering if you have a future? You are not alone. We will be with you as your community of faith and pray your words for you when you can’t find strength or desire to do so.
It has been Kathleen O’Connor’s recent book Jeremiah: Pain and Promise that has helped me lift Jeremiah’s poetry out of the dustbin of history and place it front and center in our lives. Drawing from trauma and disaster studies, she reads the text asking not so much what did it mean, but rather, what is the text trying to do? One review notes
O’Connor shows that although Jeremiah’s emotionally wrought language can aggravate readers’ memories of pain, it also documents the ways an ancient community-and the prophet personally-sought to restore their collapsed social world. Both prophet and book provide a traumatized community language to articulate disaster; move self-understanding from delusional security to identity as survivors; constitute individuals as responsible moral agents; portray God as equally afflicted by disaster; and invite a reconstruction of reality. (http://www.amazon.com/Jeremiah-Promise-Kathleen-M-OConnor/dp/0800699300)
So what is this passage trying to do for us today? It is taking us straight into the very essence of God’s own broken heart. You don’t find the philosopher God of dusty theology who is above feeling. William Sloane Coffin spoke truthfully many years ago. Eulogizing his son Alex who died tragically in a car accident Coffin says, “My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break”
I remember the first funeral I ever conducted. A nurse was driving to work when a tree fell into the path of her car and killed her. It was tragic and world shattering to so many who knew and loved her. It felt senseless. I felt moral outrage as I pondered, “what if she had just stopped to get a coffee on the way to work.” Fate and God’s will and “he will not suffer thy foot to be moved,” all felt like useless drivel in the face of such a death. But in the end I found words that pointed us in the right direction when it comes to finding what we need to move forward. Pointing to our Christian story I said, “God too knows the pain a tree can bring.”
It is the wisdom of Jeremiah’s poetry and it is the heart of the Christian message, in the end, “only a crying God can help.” Jurgen Moltmann writes…When Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian of the German resistance-movement against Hitler, was imprisoned by the Gestapo in Berlin, he had a similar encounter with God. He wrote in a letter, “Only the suffering God can help.” In their religions, men in their distress are searching for divine power, but the Bible brings us to the powerlessness and the suffering of God, because “through His wounds we are healed.”
A few months later Bonhoffer was brought to the gallows in the concentration camp of Flossenbürg and died with the words, “This is the end, for me the beginning of life.” For Bonhoeffer the suffering God was not only a consolation in his own suffering. He also discovered that we are called “to share in the suffering of God in the world. Christians stand with God in God’s suffering.”
When the Archbishop of El Salvador Oscar Arnulfo Romero met God at the grave of a murdered priest, he experienced his second conversion. From that time on, he discovered the eyes of the “crucified God” in the eyes of the poor and homeless children of his crucified people. In the poor, the homeless, the naked, the imprisoned Christ, Son of Man and World Judge is already present among us and is expecting us, our fellowship and our justice.(http://www.wordmadeflesh.org/the-cry/the-cry-vol-7-no-4/only-the-suffering-god-can-help/)
O God, when our worlds are shattered and we are overcome, we come to you and feel your broken heart beating with ours. And someone we know, we are not alone. Amen.
About the Writer: Dr. R. Dale McAbee lives in Louisville, Kentucky where he is Chaplain at Baptist Health Louisville. For nineteen years he has worked with Psychiatric and Rehabilitation patients and well as those in treatment for Chemical Dependency. He is also a Fellow of American Association of Pastoral Counselors. For the last three years he has served as Choirmaster of Concordia Lutheran Church. A native of Spartanburg, South Carolina, Dale earned the BA in Music from Furman University, the Master of Divinity in Pastoral Care and Counseling at Southern Seminary and a Doctor of Ministry degree from Columbia Seminary. In the spring of 2009 he served as Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care at Saint Meinrad Seminary, Saint Meinrad, Indiana.
Scripture and Music
Jeremiah 8:18- 9:1
1 Timothy 2:1-7
We Believe in One True God
More Love to Thee, O Christ
I Surrender All
Jesus, Lover of My Soul
There Is A Balm in Gilead
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
There Is A Balm in Gilead (William Dawson)
Be Thou My Vision (Alice Parker)
More Love to Thee, O Christ (Lanford or Burroughs)
Prayer of St. Francis (Allen Pote)
You re the Only Jesus Some Will Ever See
Make Me A Servant
O Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go