a sermon on Jeremiah 8:17-9:1
preached on September 22, 2013, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
This has not been a good summer for baseball fans in New York. The Mets fans among us are pretty well adjusted to the season coming to an end in mid-September, but Yankees fans just aren’t quite as prepared for the way the Bronx Bombers haven’t lived up to expectations this summer—though apparently from the little I’ve heard it’s not quite over yet!! All in all, there is so little joy among baseball fans in New York this year that you’d think Casey had just struck out in Mudville!
But baseball is only the beginning of the things that are dragging down our hearts and minds these days. With each passing day, there seem to be more reasons to join the prophet Jeremiah in his lament:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
It has been a tough few months in our world. We narrowly escaped what would have likely been a nasty and long entry into the ongoing civil war in Syria, and I’m not sure we’re fully out of the woods yet. We’ve had little option other than to just watch as incredible floods in Colorado and fires in California have left thousands displaced from their homes. Terrorist attacks continue around the world, as at least 39 people were killed by an armed attack on a mall in Nairobi yesterday that continues even now and at least 75 more people were killed today when two explosions rocked a church in Pakistan. Closer to home, women and men and children keep getting attacked by shooters armed with guns that seem to have little place among us except to bring deeper and broader violence, this first on Monday in the midst of a busy military office building in Washington, DC, as 13 people were killed, then on Thursday in a city park in Chicago as another 13 were wounded, including a three-year-old boy, not to mention the countless other violent crimes involving guns that aren’t quite spectacular enough to merit mention on the nightly news. And if that weren’t enough to make your hearts heavy, this week the House of Representatives voted to cut $40 billion a year from the basic programs that help feed the poor in our country, removing four million people from those eligible to receive these benefits in a time when we still have the highest poverty levels in two decades. All these things leave me crying out with Jeremiah, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
Jeremiah’s cry went well beyond this, though. His original lament in our reading this morning was rooted in a world under attack. Just before these verses, the prophet describes the arrival of troops from the north as the people hear “the snorting of their horses” and “the neighing of their stallions,” and yet the prophet’s cries here make it clear that the people still have not responded to God’s invitation to find a new and different way. “Is the Lord not in Zion?” he asks. “Is her King not in her?” Everyone assumes that the destruction about to be let loose upon Israel can be blamed on the absence of God in their midst, and even God does not deny this, responding by saying, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?” The people seem to have it coming, yet they also assume that God will step up and save them, even though the seasons shift and turn and nothing has changed.
But this seeming anger is not the only divine emotion expressed here. The people of Israel are not just “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” to quote the famous sermon title of Jonathan Edwards, great preacher of the First Great Awakening. The prophet here insists that God is up to something more and very much interested in finding a new way:
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!
God clearly does not take joy in bringing down those who go astray but instead cries out with deep and real lamentation because things have taken such a nasty turn. God is not happy to pursue vengeance or restitution for the ways the people have offended but rather desires to restore the full health and wholeness of God’s people. God does not seek to kill the people who have so deeply offended but rather weeps day and night for the slain of the people of Israel.
These are incredibly different words than those we heard only a week ago. Last Sunday we heard about how God rejoices when one sinner comes to repentance, about how God’s rejoicing is so deep and broad and wide that it gives us room to transform our own words and actions in our world so filled with pain and hurt. Yet these words of lamentation from Jeremiah this morning do not describe a different God but the same God. The same God who rejoices when humanity lives into God’s new way also weeps when we make a huge mess of things enough to put a whole people or nation or world at risk. The same God who rejoices like a shepherd finding a lost sheep or a woman locating a lost coin falls into mourning and dismay when any of God’s people are hurting. The same God who invites us to join in rejoicing because of God’s deep and wide grace for all creation also invites us to join in lamentation not only when there is no joy in Mudville, Flushing Meadows, or the Bronx, but also in Damascus, Nairobi, Peshawar, Chicago, Washington, or the homes of the hungry and hurting around us.
If we take all these words seriously and wish to join the full divine embrace of joy and lamentation, we may have to think differently about some things. We must take care when we claim God’s blessing upon us for the joy that comes our way, for if this divine blessing so fleeting that it becomes easy to question the presence of God in times of trouble, we have misunderstood the depth of God’s grace. We must not give thanks to God that we aren’t quite as bad off as that person over there, in whatever form that thanksgiving takes, for God does not rejoice in our good state but rather longs for justice and peace and relief for those who are in greatest need. And we must not feel the immediate and constant need to embrace some nugget of good in every situation, as we might do in trying—always ineffectively, I might add!—to comfort the family of one who has died with trite words that their loved one has “gone to a better place” or that untimely death is “part of God’s plan.” God does not offer words like these but instead cries out as we hear from the prophet today:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick….
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt;
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
With each passing day, I am more and more convinced that God ultimately desires our deepest and greatest honesty—our true, deep, heartfelt rejoicing when there is life to be celebrated and our honest and true lamentation when pain and hurt and strife are the real marks of the day. When we deal with others, then, the best we can offer them is time and space to make these same expressions of joy and sorrow, of thanksgiving and lament, for we know and trust that God is present with us and joins us wherever we are, in our joy and in our sorrow.
This amazing gift of God’s presence in joy and sorrow also calls us to transform our own lamentation for the pain and hurt of our lives and our world into action. We are called to cry out and work for peace in the midst of the wars of our world. We are called to respond with compassion and hope to those whose homes and lives have been touched by natural disasters. We are called not just to root out those who instigate horrible acts of terrorism but to enter into new ways of relationship with others in our world so that the anger and hurt that make such fertile ground for these things can finally be set aside. We are called to demand full enforcement of our current laws around gun control and to speak out for new, reasonable measures to prevent the kinds of massacres that keep happening, not just in dramatic incidents every couple months but every single day in so many places around our country. And we are called not just to make a difference for the hungry in our own community as we have done so well in our work with the Grace Church Food Pantry but to work on a broader scale to ensure that all people have access to the healthy food that they need to be well.
So may we join Jeremiah and God in the lamentations of our days, not just because there is no joy in Mudville or the baseball season hasn’t gone as we hoped but because there is yet more pain and sorrow in our lives and our world. And even as we lift our voices with cries of pain and hurt and dismay, may we join in God’s work of transforming this sadness into joy, of melting down the weapons of war to become the instruments of peace, of making a new and different way for all God’s people, for there is a balm in Gilead,the health of all people will be restored, and the sorrow of all will be washed away. Thanks be to God. Amen.