Sunday, August 31, 2014


Adversary from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

27For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Jeremiah 15:15-21

15O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
In your forbearance do not take me away;
know that on your account I suffer insult.
16your words were found, and I ate them,
and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by your name,
O LORD, God of hosts.
17I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
under the weight of your hand I sat alone,
for you had filled me with indignation.
18Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.

19Therefore, thus says the LORD:
If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me.
If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless you shall serve as my mouth.
It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them.
20And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze;
they will fight against you but they shall not prevail over you
for I am with you to save you and deliver you,
says the LORD.
21I will deliver you out of the hand
of the wicked
and redeem you from the 
grasp of the ruthless.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.

It is my hope that nobody will need this sermon. It is my hope that we will all shake hands and smile at the end of this service, and never have to think about it again.

However, if that was my belief, I would be saying something very different.

The prophet Jeremiah lived through deep trauma and testifies to the horror he and his people experienced. “Oh LORD, you know; remember me and visit me.” It is my hope that no one here will live through that kind of pain.

There are profound moments of darkness in this world, where chaos seems to rule and the world doesn’t make sense. It is tempting to believe that nobody close to us ever has to go through that, but we know that we live in a world where suffering exists.

There’s a lot of tradition, much of which is supported by scripture, that one should give one’s worries over to God, trusting that God will take care of them. As Paul’s letter to the Romans says, God works all things together for the good of those who love God. Matthew also urges us not to worry about tomorrow, but to focus on the troubles of today. Those passages, and the trust in God they portray, provide a lot of comfort in an anxious world. They can help keep a person from feeling overwhelmed, and give them the faith and strength they need to continue.

While this kind of theology is a great help in the daily struggles that grind at us,  sometimes we cannot give our worries over to God. Some wounds are deeper than our faith, waves of psychological and spiritual pain that sweep us off the rocks to which we cling: the grief of a sudden death, the fear of one who suffers violent abuse, the silent howling of one who has been sexually assaulted. Traditional responses, the rocks of our faith, no longer hold meaning. We cannot hold on to what used to hold us up. When someone suffers that level of trauma, their whole world plunges into unspeakable, soul-wrenching darkness. “Why is my pain unceasing, my wound, incurable, refusing to be healed?”

Jeremiah lives in that darkness, his whole ministry is defined by it. Jeremiah's Judah lives with the trauma of death, abuse, and assault daily and on a national scale. There is no one left to say "give it to God." And to a person dealing with these trauma, there's not always a way to hear it.

There is not an analogue in American cultural memory for the catastrophe of the Babylonian captivity. the closest we get is New Orleans in the days following hurricane Katrina, where society simply ceased to function in the wake of a natural disaster. For ancient Judah, the armies of Babylon were the force of nature that stripped away everything on which they thought they could rely, including their relationship with God. The catastrophe of Babylon’s conquest of Judah has broken down every support system and comfort they had, including temple worship.

Jeremiah had been a Levite, a temple assistant. Before babylon invaded, he was educated, respected, and gratefully living out his calling. “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart.” But in the chaos after the conquest, “[the word of God] is all that is left for Jeremiah; it is nothing and yet it is everything.” The theology of the temple, and of the Judean monarchy, has failed, so Jeremiah, who had internalized the word of God, writes his own lament, his own confessions, because there is no prayer strong enough for the deep wounds of his soul.

But on an individual level, many of us have, tragically, lived through that kind of trauma. All of us, at one time or another, have felt grief that turns our anger against God. Jeremiah stands in for us, expressing the frustrations that we are culturally conditioned to keep to ourselves. After all, we’re supposed to be happy all the time, right? “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice;” Trauma and grief can reach a point where those experiencing kit withdraw from their social interaction as a defense mechanism, joy becomes so foreign it cannot be approached.

Jeremiah uses language that is disturbing and foreign to the theology which most of up hold dear. God is supposed to be present and accountable always, a very present help in times of trouble. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me?

But Jeremiah is not walking through that valley, he lives there. Surrounded by the atrocities of war and plunder. So he speaks in ways that don't fit with what we've come to expect from scripture. Jeremiah, and the nations to whom he preaches, do not feel as though they can count on God. Their experience is that nothing is predictable, and they have no control over their own lives. “Truly, you are to me as a deceitful brook, like waters that fail," Jeremiah says to God.

We are not the first interpreters to be troubled by Jeremiah's theology. John Calvin, one of our foremost theological ancestors, wrote “If we take the words as they appear to mean, they seem to border on blasphemy; for God had not without reason testified before, that he is the fountain of living water.” That description, of God as living waters, is spoken by Jeremiah earlier in the book. The prophet here is throwing God's own words back in his face, and with them, the entire covenant. From Jeremiah's perspective, God has abandoned his people and broken the covenant. Jeremiah’s trauma-fed accusation is that God is not the protector of Judah, but an adversary. jeremiah feels trapped between God and God’s people. “Under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation.

We don't find much assurance in the words of a prophet who doesn't trust the God on whose behalf he speaks. So Jeremiah, instead of giving assurances he doesn't have, gives us the language to hang on to God with both hands, a way to tell the truth of deep suffering and to still have God as a part of our lives, even when we lost sight of the assurances we have.

There is resurrection after disaster. The exile kicks off a renaissance in Jewish thought, giving rise to synagogues, rich literature, and even the concept of monotheism. Perhaps Jeremiah can see those things coming. Perhaps he knows that one day other prophets will offer clearer hope, and other generations will be able to hear it.

But for now, the people are withdrawn from their social support systems. Trauma robs us of our ability to connect with others. People who have endured that level of violence against their souls cannot reach out in love, or hope, the trauma has robbed them of that capacity. Jeremiah, as spiritual leader and prophet, is given the primary purpose of maintaining the integrity of these people's relationship with the God of their ancestors. He has to keep a relationship with God strong enough to survive the trauma.

In the abyss of anguish, that means hanging on to God as an adversary. Jeremiah gives the people a way to express themselves without endangering any fragile healing at work. Their faith isn't just shaken, it's shattered. But out of that mess, “[Jeremiah’s prayers] provide a way to pray that gathers in the afflicted, draws them back from social isolation, articulates doubt, and shows how it is possible to cling relentlessly to God in the wreckage of their world.”

I hope that this way of doing theology remains distant to us. I hope that we will be able to leave here and take only the joyful sounds of "Jesus loves me." I hope that we can see that there is more to the story, that the prophets that write after Jeremiah, like Isaiah and Zechariah, can fill us with hope. However, if that had been true for everybody, we would not need the prophet Jeremiah's words.

There are people in this room who have picked up the pieces from trauma, who have stared profound grief in the face, who have endured abuse, who survived sexual assault. There may be people here who will have their faith shattered by some future disaster. Jeremiah led an entire nation in pleading with God, "I thought I could depend on you!” There may be people who have wept that same prayer. Jeremiah sets the example that “challenging God’s apparent unreliability in this manner is fully spiritual. It is language of fidelity, because it assumes God values relationship and is open to being affected personally be a believer’s suffering.

There are places of profound darkness in the world, from which human eyes cannot see the light that shines. There are places where people cannot hold on to hope, because something has removed that capacity from them. And yet a light shines in the darkness nevertheless, and the darkness cannot extinguish the light. Dr. Kathleen O'Connor reads Jeremiah's words as a model for how to hold on to God when we have lost all hope:

“Here is what to do in the pit of hopelessness: cling to God, even when God has slipped away. Yell at the top of your collective lungs. Hold tightly, mercilessly, and with every ounce of strength, shout and scream at the deity…Lay it out so you can see it yourselves and can see each other in the deep, unending wound. God is hidden there in that space.”

In that space, we find Christ crucified. Divinity hidden on a cross, joining us in the depths of human suffering, sharing Jeremiah’s feelings of abandonment, taking part in the grief and trauma which are part of life in a broken creation.

Jeremiah’s laments accuse God of being absent in trauma, because how could a loving God possibly allow so much suffering to those whom he had covenanted to love and defend. When Christ announces he is heading to the cross, Peter tries to protect him. But Christ’s mission is to participate in the whole drama of human life. That has to include the disaster of the cross, or the title of Emmanuel, “God with us” means nothing. Jesus cannot let Peter’s short sighted love stop him from his obedience to eternal love.

There is promise of resurrection, sure. But before Christ can promise to be with us, even to the end of the age; he must cry out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When we are living through trauma, we may not be able to take comfort in the resurrection we hope is coming, because the nature of trauma is that it breaks down hope and leaves us wordlessly empty.

And God replies, even in the pit, we still have a future. “Therefore, thus says the LORD: If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me.” There is a resurrection after the cross, there is a return from exile, there is a loving God at the end of lament. But until we get there, I think Jeremiah shows us that it's ok to be honest with God, to struggle with faith, to doubt, and even to feel like an adversary of The LORD.

Perhaps Jeremiah's theology is a preview of the crucifixion. It is suffering, and bleak, and horrifying. We have lost some of the scandal of the cross over the years, placed it on too many items of jewelry and made it normal. Jeremiah's adversarial relationship with God is offensive to most of us, troubling and uncomfortable. Perhaps we are too quick to gloss over it and get to the happier resurrection, or even to join Peter in saying "God forbid it, Lord! this must never happen to you!” But perhaps that is us setting our minds not on divine things, but on human things.

But it's ok to rail at God. It's ok to accuse him of not holding up his end. It's ok to sit at the foot of the cross, or in the ashes of exile. Jeremiah shows us how to hold on to faith when we cannot be faithful. But Christ goes to the cross so that we will not have to face our trauma alone. Christ shows us that God is faithful even when we cannot believe God when he says “I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked and redeem you from the ruthless.” We know, therefore, out of exile, and death, and crucifixion, comes resurrection, and we know the story doesn't end it tears of lament, but in tears of joy.

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