Commentary on Jeremiah 8:18—9:1
As I write (the date is July 8, 2016), it is three days since the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, two days since the fatal shooting of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, one day since the fatal shooting of five police officers during a subsequent protest in Dallas, Texas.
Our nation is reeling from shockwaves of violence, intolerance, anger, suspicion, and fear. At this moment it feels like our whole country is a powder keg, about to ignite, fueled by long legacies of racism, xenophobia, heterosexism, religious intolerance.
And Jeremiah says:
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?” … “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? Oh 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 8:18-9:1)
The events that I and everyone I know are reeling from today will not be so fresh or so raw by the time this passage appears in the lectionary, but neither will they be so far off. Earlier in chapter 8, Jeremiah demands that the people of Judah behold the mortal wound that afflicts their entire nation. They must stop pretending that nothing is wrong, stop turning away from the blood and the stench, stop ignoring the voices of the wounded and oppressed, stop silencing those who testify to the wrongs that have been done them. And to political and religious leaders, Jeremiah tells them to stop claiming they have the magic words or the special liturgies that will make everything better. They do not (Jeremiah 8:11).
Jeremiah looks upon the wound. Jeremiah hears the cry. And Jeremiah’s response is overwhelming grief and sorrow. It afflicts his body at the core of his being. He repeats the testimony of people from across the nation. They do not all offer the same testimony. Some are searching for God and not finding her. Some voice their hopelessness and frustration. All of them are asking questions, and so is Jeremiah. Don’t we have resources? Don’t we have medicine? Don’t we know, somewhere, what kind of radical change is needed, and how to bring it about? Why haven’t we committed? Why do we keep suffering from the same affliction? The prophet, too, feels powerless, and in this moment can only weep for those who have been slain.
You are preaching at a different moment, but our nation will still suffer from its wounds. More recent events will have exposed them in new ways. To prepare for the sermon, you must first behold the wounds, try to understand what has caused them, grasp that there is no quick fix. The preacher must listen to the testimonies, not just of those who are close, but also of those who are far. I speak of geography, but I also speak of identity, ideology, politics, culture, history. It is easy to listen to those who are like us, who share our views, and it is easy to mourn when they mourn. But why are those people so angry? What history separates “them” from “us”? What hard words do they have for me and my congregation? When we leave our echo chambers, we may grow in compassion. We will find there is more to grieve than we could ever have imagined. And for this moment, we are called to stay in the place of grief.
When you listen, you will know what testimony your people, too, must hear. The Spirit will empower you to speak the truth so that you can show your congregation what they, too, must see, both inside their community and far and wide in the country they call home. Invite your congregation to grieve. Invite them to hear and see one another in the grief each one holds close, and invite them to open their hearts to the pain of those who are far away. This will feel unfamiliar and strange to many of them and, likely enough, to you. September is not Holy Week; it is Ordinary Time. And apart from Holy Week, funerals, and special vigils, our congregations are not often accustomed to the practice of communal lament. Jeremiah’s testimony and prayer offers an opportunity to teach the people to grieve together, to create space for shared lament, and to surrender to the overwhelming sorrow that courage and virtue are not strong enough to vanquish.
If you are tempted to follow the lament with words and rites of assurance, of comfort, of hope, talk of resurrection and new covenant, new creation, reconciliation — hold back. Don’t give in to that urge. Not yet. On the day we let ourselves grieve together, we must not move too quickly for that quick fix. It won’t fix it. It will not restore our sight and health, but submerge us once more in the dark disease of denial.
There is one more temptation to resist: so often we are told, “don’t let them see you cry.” Ministers are advised to be just the right amount of vulnerable, be approachable and human, but don’t bleed all over your congregation. The latter is good advice. But this grief is not about our own personal lives. This is a grief for the nation. Jeremiah weeps for the people. God weeps for the people. If you, like Jeremiah, like God, are moved to tears by this people’s pain, take a breath, and keep testifying.