"Jeremiah – A Protrait of a Contemplative Activist" 3 of 4 in a series on Contemplation in the Bible (Jeremiah 1:1-10, Jeremiah 4:19, Jeremiah 5:26-29, Jeremiah 20:9)Mark Longhurst, April 29, 2018
Part of the Easter series
the scripture readings can be found at the bottom of the page
Jeremiah – A Protrait of a Contemplative Activist
Rev. Mark Longhurst
April 29, 2018
Scripture: Jeremiah 1:1-10, 4:19, 5:26-29, 20:9
Jeremiah is a mystic with God’s Word burning in his bones. He’s one of those prophets whose language is so extreme, violent, and offensive, that it is often uncomfortable to read. He is R-rated, He holds nothing back, spares no metaphor, and wields his broken, bloody heart, which is also God’s broken, bloody heart, for all to see. He functions, then, as one of those literary poets that we know is great but who resides on our shelf collecting dust. We place his disaster-ridden scroll alongside Dante Aligheri’s visions of hell and Charles Bukowski’s drunken pulp.
Dire times, however, call for dire poetic and prophetic imaginations.
Ancient Israel is at its end. The Assyrians have already conquered the north. Southern Israel, otherwise known as Judah, has survived over these years by the skin of its teeth. They have eeked out an existence through realpolitik negotiation and pinball-like protection from whichever superpower happens to be ascendant in the moment: first Assyria, then briefly Egypt, until yet another Empire appears on the horizon. Encroaching from the East are the Babylonians, a rival power rising up to conquer the conquerors.
Jeremiah steps into this breach, sees and names the writing on Israel’s wall: it is over. There is no escaping defeat. Jerusalem’s ramparts are no match for the Empire’s chariots, soldiers and swords. Israel is a puny nation sandwiched between greater powers; they are not the Babylonians main threat, of course, but they stand in the way, and you never know when puny nations become useful, or at least profitable, as vassal states. It’s time, then, for Jeremiah, and for Israel, to accept the unbearable burden of reality. It’s time to realize that the oncoming war will destroy sacred places and objects, that cultures will be decimated, that people will be deported, that innocents will die. This is what the Empire does, and this is what the Empire will do.
God picks Jeremiah as a prophetic communications secretary and throws into the political mess. He receives a call in chapter one, a call similar to Moses, to be a deliverer. Like Moses, he questions his fitness for duty; he says, “Truly I do not know how to speak. I’m just a boy.” The call functions similarly to other prophetic calls in the Hebrew Bible, except this time, instead of delivering the people from slavery like Moses, he is announcing God’s intention to delivery the people into the hands of their oppressor. Sometimes God’s messengers do not have good news to share. Or, as a mentor to me used to say, the gospel or good news first is bad news before it is good.
Prophets are public mystics. They do not receive God’s fiery word for their own personal edification (or torment); but rather they function as messengers of God’s Word to the people and king. Prophets are often in fundamental tension with kings. They dwell, as Richard Rohr says, on the edge of the inside. Jeremiah is, chapter 1 says, a pastor’s kid from Anathoth. Anathoth is an insignificant village about an hour’s walk from Jerusalem. Jeremiah carries with him the villager experience of crushing poverty, Assyrian over-taxation, and Jerusalem’s urban economic complicity at the expense of the rural poor. He dwells on the outside.
And yet Jeremiah, outsider that he is, has inside access. We’re told in this sprawling book that he maintains several friends in high places – an elite scribe named Baruch, for one (chapter 45); a prominent Jerusalem man and family named Shaphon, for another (26:24). Jeremiah is a confidante and thorn in the side to kings, and, as disturbing as his poetry is – people listen to him.
In our present day of mainline decline and evangelical soul-selling, we have no real equivalent of the ancient prophet. Ancient Israel built the faithful moral voice into their political structure. The prophet Samuel warned about the injustice that kings would bring, and so the prophet is the one who holds the people accountable to God’s vision of wholeness. The prophet is the one who cries out on behalf of Yahweh for justice and the needs of the poor: “scoundrels are found among my people. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness.” They know no limits in deeds such as voter suppression, or ever more tax-breaks for the rich at the expense of the poor, or a ban on Muslims entering from certain countries, or the denial and suppression of science. They know no limits in deeds of wickedness.
The closest American equivalent to the ancient prophet is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Martin Luther King could phone LBJ on the same day that he went to jail for nonviolent civil disobedience protesting racial inequality. Like MLK, Jeremiah balanced both access and critical distance. He dwelled on the inside….but at the edge. There are other prophets on the inside and the center in Jeremiah’s day and our day, but these are, Jeremiah tells us, false prophets. They only tell of perpetual good news and they say “Yes, Mr. President whatever you say, Mr. President,” but Jeremiah rails against them: “They have dressed the wound of my people carelessly, saying peace, peace, where there is no peace. (6:13-14)
They have dressed the wound of my people carelessly. Jeremiah’s task, then, is to display the wound in order to dress it. It is the same task as that of Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and the force behind the new museum in Montgomery, Alabama dedicated to the victims of lynching. At this new museum, 800 large steel columns hang, each of them representing an American county and bearing the names, if known, of those murdered. To quote the New York Times, there hangs the name of Park Banks, “lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman.” There hangs the name of “Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for walking behind the wife of his white employer.” We carry such trauma and woundedness in our collective hearts. There is no escape from the wound, no possibility of healing unless we first expose it.
Jeremiah’s vocation of displaying and dressing ancient Israel’s wound comes at great personal cost. The grief of reality nearly crushes him. His people have not seen it yet; they see extraction and profit, the daily quest to consume, and God’s blessing on the powers-that-be. When others are dining in their private clubs, Jeremiah, the mystic of grief cries out: “My anguish, my anguish, I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart.”
Jeremiah is not mentally ill, or, if he is, he has become mentally ill because of his isolated task of carrying reality’s tragedy in his body. His people are about to be destroyed and the Word of God burns within him. He would prefer to look away from Judah’s imminent defeat, from Babylon’s brutal exile, but he cannot. He is called, chapter 1 says, to build and plant, that’s another sermon, to pluck up and pull down, to destroy and overthrow.”
At times, he would much rather abandon that call. He even tries: “If I say I will speak any more in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in, but I cannot.” (20:9) The nature of the unenviable prophetic vocation is such that it contains a double negative. Jeremiah cannot not speak God’s Word. He is one with God’s Word.
Mystics are those, some say, who are one with God. Divine union is the end point of the classic mystical itinerary in the Christian tradition. It’s the possibility and presence of Christ within us that is often lost in Protestant Christianity. But the popular misconception of such language is that divine union is a stage enjoyed apart from the hurly-burly, or worse yet, disconnected from the darkness, carelessly dressing the wound or avoiding the wound altogether. There’s a phrase for that in spirituality circles since the 1980s: it’s called spiritual bypassing, and it occurs when we use religion to overlook, cloak or cover our emotional and psychological needs.
Jeremiah does not fall into this trap. Maybe his psyche could have used a day or two relief through spiritual bypassing, but Jeremiah is a mystic gifted instead with Yahweh’s terrifying words in his mouth and the burdensome holiness of tears. He is one with God, but that oneness is lament rather than repose. The great Jewish writer Abraham Joshua Heschel even suggests that God’s very Self is grieving through Jeremiah. There is no clear line where Jeremiah’s heartbreak and Yawheh’s sorrow begin. He writes that “Jeremiah depicted the dramatic tension of the inner life of God. [His] words are aglow with the divine pathos that can be reflected, but not pronounced: God is mourning Himself.”
There is much good news to share, and many good news sermons to preach, even in dark times, and yet sometimes I think that we bypass the grief and the tragedy. But the gospel is death before it is resurrection, bad news before it is good news. Perhaps one surprising gift of healing that our current historical moment is offering us is this: God is mourning Herself.