Spending Time with Jeremiah in the midst of tragedy

jeremiahJoe LaGuardia preached this sermon on Sunday, August 25, 2013, upon his return to the pulpit following the tragic death of his father.

Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-8; Psalm 71:1-6

I.

I’ve spent a lot of time hanging out with Jeremiah these past couple of days.  I didn’t mean to.  I would have preferred spending time with someone else, like King David or Solomon.  Or, better yet, Jacob. Now that guy knows how to throw a party.

But its just Jeremiah for me.  You know him.  He’s the prophet whom God called to declare judgment upon Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel, around 600 BC.  He’s the prophet who faced traumatic adversity, house arrest, and exile.

This is the prophet whose life was so difficult, he is known as the “Weeping Prophet.”  He is credited with authoring an entire book in the Bible about grief—Lamentations—and gave voice to those who lost land, friends, and loved ones to evil, violence, or war.

I had to hang out with Jeremiah because that’s how God works sometimes.  You see, I don’t always choose what I preach on.  If I had my choice, you’d hear lots of sermons from the Gospel of Luke or Acts or something easy.

Instead, I use the lectionary—a group of Bible verses put together by the major denominations in order to help preachers teach through the entire Bible in a 3-year cycle.  Each Sunday includes scripture lessons from one of the Gospels, the Psalms, the Old Testament, and from the Epistles.  So every month, when I submit my preaching plan to the worship committee, I usually choose from one of these scripture lessons.

It was a little over a month ago that I submitted this Sunday’s scriptures texts:  Jeremiah 1 and Psalm 71.

You have on the one hand a psalm that balances hope and grief by an elderly poet who begs God to save him from his enemies and the evils that exist in a broken world; and, on the other hand, a prophet whose message is so hurtful to God’s people that his heart breaks for the world, and no cistern can contain his tears.

I’m not sure how I would have preached these lessons a month ago.  I’m never really sure what sermon God will bring from week to week.  I still don’t know exactly what or how to preach right now.

I’ve given a lot of thought about all the things I could say today.  I considered, for instance, echoing a sermon of one of my old preaching professors, John Claypool, who preached an award-winning sermon his first time back in the pulpit after the death of his young daughter.

He preached a message of heartache, but also of hope.  He compared his own journey as a father to that of Abraham, the Bible character who was once asked by God to sacrifice his own son.  The only difference, Claypool said, was that Abraham got to come down that mountain with his child still alive.  Claypool concluded: “Nevertheless, although I came down from that mountain empty-handed, I remember that each day with my child was a gift, each breath a work of God’s art.”

I also considered preaching a sermon similar to that by preacher, William Sloan Coffin, who also preached a memorable sermon after the loss of his son in a fatal car accident.  His message, also very poignant and stirring, was redeeming and filled with hope and a vision for a bright future.  He said that the moment his son died, it was God’s heart that was the first to break.

And, yet, after reflecting on these sermons, I couldn’t find any words that came easily or naturally—at least on paper—for this morning.   And simply repeating those sermons would not have been very truthful or authentic.

Instead, I decided that I would just share with you how my time with Jeremiah went this past week.

II.

Jeremiah and I sat down together on Friday night.  Within a few minutes of getting acquainted, he told me about his calling from God.

God called him when he was very young, you know.  And, like Moses, Jeremiah felt ill-prepared to carry the burden of God’s Word to a people who already had trouble listening to God in the first place.  “I didn’t even know how to speak,” he told me, “I was so scared.”

Then God gave him the plan of what was to be said, “I appoint you over the nations: to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.  For that, they—all of them, the kings, the princes, even your own family–will be against you, Jeremiah.  They will fight you, but do not fear, for I am with you to deliver you.”

Jeremiah also told me about the long days of preaching: the oracles and the message of judgments that he had to give to hostile crowds.  He told me about his eventual house arrest, about how he lost his land due to that very message.

He told me about how he, too, went into exile when the Babylonians finally invaded Judah, and how he wept.  Oh, did he weep:

“My anguish, my anguish!  I writhe in pain!,” He said,
“Oh, the walls of my heart!
My heart is beating wildly.”

I realized at that moment, as I passed a Kleenex to Jeremiah, that I was not alone in my own pain and grief.

III.

Between tears and the blowing of noses, Jeremiah told me that it got so bad, he had to speak God’s message, going from prose and poetry and back again.  He spoke in prose when things made sense and the world became a little bit more clear and orderly, and he had to speak poetry when things got so dark that no normal speech would do.

I knew what Jeremiah was getting at: He was trying to describe what its like to walk that fine line between clarity and chaos: It’s when the chaos comes that our prose-world comes to an end.

Its what one theologian called “narrative wreckage.”

“Narrative wreckage” happens when someone’s grief and despair becomes so bad and catastrophe so great, silence and speechlessness and sound itself ceases to exist.  The narrative a person lives by, a narrative that helps make sense of the world, no longer works and is dismantled by tragedy.  Until, eventually, poetry erupts in its place and gives birth to something new, something unheard of, something that gives a voice to a voiceless, speech-crushing situation.

It was at that point of my time with Jeremiah that I now needed a Kleenex; and while I dabbed my eyes for the thousandth time, he continued his testimony:

“But there was hope,” Jeremiah told me, “Remember, now, Joe, my words were also meant to plant and to build, even if it came in the form of lamentation and poetry.  Sure the trees would be razed and the evil thick, the grass charred to ash, but we would all plant something new, even if it was not as familiar, even if there was something missing from our lives.”

I took a minute to blow my own nose, to wipe one more tear; and Jeremiah went on to tell me about his poetry of consolations that came later in his life, the ones that you find around the 30th chapter of his book.  It was then that God said to Jeremiah and Judah, “Again I will build you, and you shall be built.”

“Oh there will be tears, but there will be joy too”, Jeremiah told me.  “Hey, remember when I said,  ‘With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water?’  It’s like that 23rd Psalm you’re always quoting to people at funerals, the one in which God says he would lead us, all of us, beside still, soothing waters.”

After that, we—Jeremiah and I—sat together in silence for a few minutes longer.  I must admit, it was an overwhelming silence, and Kristina noticed from the other side of the room where she was working on the computer.  She came over and sat with me and hugged me.  She didn’t say anything, didn’t need to say anything.  I think she might have grabbed a Kleenex of her own.

IV.

That night and the day after that, Jeremiah’s testimony kept resonating with me, and I realized we were not very different from one another.

God put him into a position he didn’t want to be in.  I could relate.

He had to come to a point in his relationship with God in which words—prose at least—became useless, “narrative wreckage”… Check!

Jeremiah had to find some redemption somewhere in the whole mess….

…And it’s there, at that point, that my own story starts to veer away from Jeremiah’s.  Whereas he had words to describe what God was doing in his life, what God was doing for all Israel—the larger vision related to God’s redemption and purpose–I still find myself struggling and wrestling and at a loss for words.

Whereas Jeremiah could rest assured that God was there for him, I still have trouble finding consolation in a gospel I was so sure would bring hope in my life no matter what happened to me.

And, unlike Jeremiah, I have to sit and do things that I’m still not comfortable doing, at least for now:

…Like trusting in a God who, according to Psalm 71, is a “rock” for us.  I think I have trouble calling God my “rock” right now because there was someone else who held the title of being my “rock” before three weeks ago.

…Like forgiving my enemies, which Jesus asks all of us to do.   Last week, I had a conversation with a good friend who was asked to forgive his estranged father when his father came to his home unannounced and apologized for the past.  My friend thought of my own father and how life is too short to hold grudges, so he forgave him.  He didn’t want to forgive his dad, but he did it because Jesus told him too.

…Like going to God in prayer.  Jeremiah had a powerful and honest prayer life.  I’m not there yet, getting there, but not quite.  The only way I know how to pray right now is by singing hymns and writing an occasional Facebook status.

…Like proclaiming words of consolation.  I’m sure I’ll get there some day because I’ve seen so many people in this church who have known loss and grief intimately who have managed to write new songs of hope in their hearts, who’ve crafted and created amazing words of consolation for others who also faced grief.     …I’ll get there some day, but I’m not rushing it.

V.

So, Jeremiah and I, we have a lot in common.  He has been a good friend this past week, and he has shown me how to put some things into words.  He’s also shown me some things I need to work on.

He taught me that even though all of us have similar experiences in the midst of grief, our own individual journeys of lament, and prayer, and of processing our sense of sorrow is uniquely different.

But that’s how God works, you know.  God is like that—He puts people in your life and scripture lessons in your heart.  He gives you songs to sing (or at least poetry that can break through the silence).  He gives you psalms that hobble between hope and despair because it’s only human to do so.  God does these and other things because God is in the business of bending our will to His own.  It hurts some times, but it happens one way or another.  It’s like what biblical scholar David Peterson once wrote:  “It’s when the room is at its darkest that the mere lighting of a candle will turn every head.”

For me, the darkness still lingers.  It is still here, but so also is Jeremiah and Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit, and you, my church family.  So is the old dude who wrote Psalm 71, and my Kleenex—that’s here too.  And that will have to do for now.  It will just have to do.

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