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Jeremiah is confusing. The whole book, which we will get only glimpses of during our 6 weeks of study, is full of different metaphors, poetry, song, prose, allegory, all kinds of literary genres thrown together with theologies and cultural pulls we don’t accept or recognize. It might be enough to make one wonder why their pastor is preaching on it. I’ll tell you, when it has come up in the lectionary before I have skipped past it, because of all the aforementioned reasons, and yet, just because something is difficult to hear does not mean it doesn’t have something important for us to hear.
Jeremiah had something for hisaudience to hear, his audience being the people of Israel during an invasion. It was a time a great stress and trauma, as is any time in which a homeland is invaded, loyalties are divided, leaders are dispersed and neighbor is pitted against neighbor – ask Ireland, Rwanda or Bosnia. Those crises, like Jeremiah’s, often ask the same question – Why is God, if God is worth anything, not protecting us from evil and suffering?
Maybe this is a familiar question to you, too. Maybe you’ve asked it yourself, because it doesn’t take a crisis to wonder what control you have over your own life or to consider just what exactly this God you keep hearing so much about is actually doing. Trauma, any kind of trauma, makes us consider such existential things, and we all deal with trauma of some sort. One of the measuring methodologies for this is called an ACE score – adverse childhood experiences. It measures the long-term impact of things like physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment, the imprisonment of a close family member, or violence visited upon the family. Such scores impact a person’s risk factors for chronic disease, mental health issues, and general well-being. It’s helpful to know, when reading Jeremiah, that the people to whom he is speaking the harsh voice of God are people who likely have high ACE scores.
Most scholars think that Jeremiah is written down after the facts, as in after the Babylonian armies have conquered Israel, destroying the temple and hauling off the leadership to exile in Babylon. This means that Jeremiah is written down for people already traumatized, not people anticipating trauma.
Such trauma informs us, it changes the way that we think, feel and act. And, perhaps most importantly for our discussion today, it changes theology. There are many of us here who have heard the adage, “God never gives you more than you can handle,” right? Not only is that not in the Bible anywhere, anyone who has had more than they can handle on their plate will reject that idea wholeheartedly. Ask Job, or the people of Israel at the time of Jeremiah, it seems like God is giving them WAY more than they can handle and, they’re beginning to imagine, God may be doing that on purpose. The God of Jeremiah has a very specific message, after all – what’s up with all y’all? Why have you rejected me? It was you all who went after things that do not profit, you all that worshipped other “gods,” you all that defiled the land and made heritage an abomination. In other words, God “says” through Jeremiah’s words, I didn’t givey’all anything – that was all you.
Does Jeremiah’s God blame the victim? Does Jeremiah’s God insist that the traumatized community be traumatized again by a God without much mercy at all? Or is this something else entirely? We should be clear that while blaming the victim is not a very good therapeutic model, prophetic language is not therapeutic language. The purpose of the prophetic voice is not to comfort, but to awaken, not to appeal to the mind, but to jolt the heart, evoking shame and desire at the same time. A scholar on shame, Helen Merrell Lund, suggests that the kind of shaming that Jeremiah heaps upon Israel can point to a wrongness in the self or a wrongness in the world in which a person (or a nation in this case) is judged. And maybe this is a cooperative effort on the part of the people and God, exposing an inherent wrongness in the world itself, a sentiment that feels very familiar.
What, after all, are the things we do that lead to life? This is the shaming component of Jeremiah’s words, asking the people to consider what they have created before laying all the world’s evil at God’s feet. In Jeremiah’s time, the main function of God is to support armies. In a multiply-divine universe, the way that you know your God is best is that your army is victorious. That’s an imperial way of thinking about Divine action.
Jeremiah uses this metaphor of cisterns and water, a familiar image to his listeners of something that is life giving in the desert. Water is scarce, you must be able to store it effectively to survive. YHWH, in Jeremiah’s metaphor, is living water and we the cisterns that cannot hold it if we have cracks in our foundations. If we do not do the things that make for peace, we will not have peace. If we do not do the things that make for community, we will not have community. If we do not do the things that connect us to God, we will not be connected to God. That’s not judgment in Jeremiah’s eyes, that’s just the deal. As Walter Bruggemann says in his work on this text, “Israel need not generate it’s own water or conjure it’s own life. It is freely given by this gracious partner of a God who is (in another metaphor that is problematic today) owner and husband. But Israel has rejected such a free gift that embodies it’s very life, and wants to be it’s ownsource of life – which of course leads only to death.” The “wrongness” that the people, and certainly Jeremiah, might see can be alleviated, God says through the prophet, by beingdifferently in the world.
That changes how God works, though. God is no longer about protection, but rather about direction. God offer us a way to be, a path, a set of rules if you want to be dogmatic about it, or a set of directions, an orientation that does not include arming yourself more heavily or hoarding more money, but rather asks us to seek our “protection” by investing in each other and reaching for compassion.
Jeremiah uses a metaphor of family to talk about this direction, and it isn’t his metaphor. He borrows from an earlier prophet, Hosea, who used the family household as a metaphor to speak about the nation’s previous collapse. We must acknowledge that it is full of patriarchal and misogynistic language and imagery, and it doesn’t sit well on our own sensibilities as we hear the words of the prophet echo across the centuries. But this story wasn’t written for us, this story and metaphor would have been familiar to Jeremiah’s audience and can be critical for people struggling in crisis to use as they search for a lost identity. Jeremiah roots his prophetic language in the old traditions to remind his people of their identity and to push them to solidify themselves with dedication to their tradition. It’s Fiddler on the Roof, only set in the ancient near east.
In Fiddler, Tevye wrestles with his own family, trying to preserve tradition in a changing world. The crisis looms, the soldiers close in and this man argues with God throughout the musical, and then argues and shames and guilts his family into trying to stay the course before slowly realizing that they are staying the course, but the road is different for them. They must seal up the cracks they have in their own ways.
The trauma-informed people of Israel, and the people of the village of Anatola in Fiddler, have a good deal in common with we trauma-informed people today, who know something of disaster and turmoil, of mass causalities and war, of the long-term impact of greed and inequality, though we also praise these things, truth be told. We also have cracks in our cisterns that cannot effectively hold the water of life, of compassion, of love or trust in an authority, a power greater than that which we can produce or quantify or know.
There is room for some corporate guilt to be laid down. When we continue to think that we can win enough wars to create peace, we can create enough wealth at the top that it will “trickle down” to those on the bottom, when we think that we can build high enough walls to keep “them” out, whoever “them” is at any given time, we are wrong.
The people of Israel in Jeremiah’s time are seeking something from God – namely protection. They want God to protect them from Babylon because they assume that this is how God works. You just go about your merry way, doing whatever you’d like and then, when you get in a jam, along comes God to rescue you. It was the part of the plot of all Superman cartoons that I never liked – Hey, Jimmy Olson and Lois Lane! Quit making poor decisions and Superman won’t need to rescue you from the collapsing tunnel or stop the runaway train!
What God offers us instead is direction. God offers us choices about what is life-giving, and, yes, we find them in scripture, but mostly we find them in the voice of experience, our collective experience, listening to and with one another, as the Spirit guides us along the way. For the life-giving things are based in trust and faith, which do not offer us security or certainty, save the security and certainty of God’s presence and our capacity. I say these words as we all know that west Texas was visited again by gun violence yesterday, another mass shooting in our midst. We do, I hope, lift up prayers and lament to God for such trauma as we also collectively lament that we’re not sure what to do about this and wish God would just protect us all. So I hope that the prophetic voice can be heard as loudly, reminding us that there is something not right with the world, and it is notjust upon God to remedy it, or to save us from ourselves. Wemust also take steps, make choices, stop reaching for the wind and remember who we are, and whose we are.
May this meal, this morsel and sip made feast, be our starting point once again, for a reminder that we cannot hoard the bread or drink all of the wine and expect this meal to give us Jesus. We have to respondto God’s call, we have to do our part.
May God bless us in the effort. Amen.