“…my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”
The book of the Prophet Jeremiah has been described using terms such as “soul-searing”, and “conscience challenging”, even as it promises hope to the wounded in body and spirit.
Now, historical facts from the period in which Jeremiah wrote are very limited, but we can safely say it was a time of turmoil and upheaval. So soul-searing and conscience-challenging are easy to imagine, but what about hope? How does that feature? Some knowledge pertaining to the upheaval in so far as it was a product of the political and military events of the time, may help us make some sense of the book. And, it may even help us discover its relevance for our time.
The Assyrian Empire, Far East of the Promised Land, was weakening. The Neo-Babylonian Empire became dominant. This happened around the 700 years before the time of Christ. In response to Egypt and Babylonia fighting for dominance in the region, factions developed among the Israelites. A series of invasions took place, the major ones being that which destroyed Jerusalem and wrought deportation of the majority of the Israelites – the cream of the crop, so to speak – into captivity in Babylonia. This destruction and deportation began in 597 and continued until at least 587 BCE. During that time, the Babylonians broke down the city walls, killed an enormous number of people, leveled the king’s palace and completely destroyed the temple that had grown into an enormous complex of resplendent beauty under the care of King Solomon, David’s son. The Babylonian invasions shattered domestic, social and economic life; and, above all, the people found themselves sliding toward despair and calling into question their relationship with God and God’s very intent for them.
Yes, the Babylonian exile (597 to 537 BCE) was a time of immense theological disruption for the people. Not only was the fabric of life ripped apart, the symbolic world that supported all of life collapsed as well. Serious questions arose. Had God forgotten the people? Why? Was it really because of their sinfulness? How could a loving God allow such devastation? Worse yet, was God less powerful than the Babylonians? What would become of God’s Chosen People? What about the covenant?
Jeremiah’s writing is filled with covenant language. Israel and God are partners in a type of covenant common in the ancient world – bound together by a web of mutual promises. In Judaism alone the covenants are numerous. God makes covenants with humans at important junctures in the story of salvation:
• In Eden, before and after sin
• With Noah, after the flood
• With Abraham, over land, circumcision and descendants, to name a few areas
• With Moses
• With David
• And with Jeremiah, God makes “A New Covenant”
Now “covenant”, while similar to “contract”, has different layers of meaning. Covenant is, first, about relationship. Each party commits to a certain series of actions. There’s no end date. Contracts codify the exchange of actions or possessions, while covenant binds parties personally. And while contracts are mediated by a governing authority made up of humans, in Jewish covenant, God is the only authority.
In Jeremiah’s writing, Israel has defaulted on its obligations and, in our passage today, the Divine Partner in the covenant expresses deep dismay in a pouring forth of pathos language – part legal argument, part lover’s quarrel.
Jeremiah is aghast on God’s behalf. He acts as mouthpiece, proclaiming God’ utter disbelief that the Chosen People could have chosen against the Almighty who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea and through the wilderness.
Through Jeremiah, God indicts priests, prophets and kings – leaders, believed at that time to have been installed by God, to both mediate the Divine Presence and to assist God’s people in pursuit of their sacred purpose.
What is your sacred purpose? We’ll come back to that…
The leaders of the people became blind to God’s purposes. They led the people astray. They all stopped seeking after God’s will, and Jeremiah seems to feel he is the only one who is sensitive to the irony. No one follows God’s ways anymore, or even attempts to discern what those ways might be. Now the story is beginning to seem like there’s cross-over potential in terms of being relevant to our own day and age.
How do we, in New York City in the year 2016, discern a lively word in Jeremiah’s writing? How do we navigate the historical, cultural and political distance that separates ancient nation from contemporary urban faith community? We really can’t unless we’re ready to intentionally and openly acknowledge that we truly and deeply believe that we, like the ancient Israelites, understand ourselves to be a people “claimed by a gracious God”.
Not everyone does. I’m betting you know and love as many people as I do who just can’t invest in the whole “God thing”. And maybe that’s fine.
I, personally, get a great deal from all the facets of our common life in worship and ministry. The stories, for instance. The stories we tell in worship matter to me. From the very beginning, Israel knew itself to be a saved people. That identity came to its greatest highpoint when they found themselves saved from bondage in Egypt.
In Jeremiah’s time, however, these powerful stories are no longer being told. Even the priests have forgotten.
The Israelites have come to this place of spiritual malaise because they’ve failed, at decisive moments, to remember and practice the great narrative of their origins. They’ve lost the thread of joy, relief, gratitude and peace that came of deliverance from Egyptian captivity.
We, as Christians, understand who we are by telling stories of God’s gracious and mighty acts.
• We know ourselves to be delivered, by grace, out of darkness and into light – out of bondage and into freedom
• Baptism and Holy Eucharist contain the story of our salvation, if not our entire identity, through use of an economy of words and actions even more powerful and eloquent.
When we stop telling, enacting, and truly living by our own saving narrative, other stories will rush in, and they cannot help but begin to direct our lives.
(I was catching up on Friday with a certain volunteer florist in our midst who told me how much better she feels now that she has shut off the television and is not subjecting herself to the media onslaught of election coverage. I loved it! We agreed that when we fill up our awareness with worldly content, it leaves no room for the Word of God to become lively in us.)
“…my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.”
Isn’t God saying something like that to us now?
To know how to answer that question, you may find it helpful to quietly reflect upon how it is you define glory and profit. What would those words mean in your life without the material goods, without the clothing, the cash, the vacations? How would you experience “glory” without physical trappings or adulation from the masses? And what does “profit” mean? Is it the exclusive province of the balance sheet? What does profit even mean without numeric expression? When you think of your sacred purpose…what are the stories of your glories? Your profits?
When we’re shaped by the stories of the world, stories other than the story of God’s saving acts for us and through us, we risk losing those markers that speak earnestly of our trust in God – markers that love to call up from within us new capacities for compassion and generosity – toward God, toward neighbor, self, stranger, even enemy.
Yesyesyes, this can be so challenging – so conscience challenging! After all, we live in a world that makes the false claim that the wealthy can endlessly enrich themselves at the expense of the poor – without consequence! We live in a world culture that accepts this arrangement and imposes a maze of related values in such a way as to skew much of our day to day relationships and lives.
Part of the blessing of telling and re-telling our stories of God’s saving acts is that we are easier able to remember that our lives, and all it takes to sustain us, are gracious gifts from God – not rights and privileges. All we have is received at the hand of a God who loves everyone – a God who wills the well-being of each and every person in this world (even those we cannot imagine God caring for).
A person, or a community, that remembers its story as a story of God’s grace, becomes one who is delivered from the bondage of anxious self-aggrandizing. Glory and profit, then, become terms that begin to describe responses to the question, “What does God want to do in me and through me for the sake of the world?”
Only when we align our choices – individually and corporately – with the concerns of God in the world, will our lives make sense and make a difference.
In closing I’d like to share a story, which happened last Wednesday, in which I came to a deeper understanding of glory and profit. It’s a story, I think, of sacred purpose.
I got on the F train heading to work and, just as I felt relief from the oppressive heat of the subway platform, relishing the frosty air, my heart sank just a little bit because I realized that someone was just about to break the code of silence you can almost always count on during the morning rush. In this case the guy was actually getting ready to resume what I came quickly to find was an ongoing rant.
The man was about six feet tall and looked, beneath his do-rag, to be about sixty years old. He was very energetically holding forth about racial injustice. He spoke very eloquently, yet with anger and aggression, about how black men are being killed every day.
I had been praying Morning Prayer – I have an app on my phone – and as a result, I think I was in a more open space in my head and heart – more attuned to the flow of spirit. The ranting man – and yes, child, my brother was ranting – was making perfect and powerful sense to me. I knew that everything he was saying was true, if not in terms of facts, then surely in terms of essence.
The truth-telling ramped up as a young Latin woman engaged him. She was determined to correct his take on the unfortunate history of this nation as pertains to racism.
The man went on, meeting her point for point until she was joined by another Latin woman who had a big smile on her face. Suddenly all three were talking at once and over each other and yet I could discern the core of each one’s message. It was crazy in the best way possible! Pentecostal even! And never once did it threaten to escalate into anything like a dangerous place.
At 2nd Avenue the ranting man exited the train car as if nothing had happened and moved on to the next one to continue his…ministry, I’m thinking is the right word. I sighed and felt, for an instant, that we’d now get into the silence-is-golden place of most morning commutes. But no, it was not to be! I looked up and five middle-aged black men had entered the car. The leader cheerily announced their presence and their offer of gospel singing. I wanted so much to laugh out loud. I sat up a little straighter and looked around the car to see if I could catch anyone else who might be thinking, like I was, that the irony in this turn of events was simply delicious.
The men sang beautifully, a chorus that included the words, “…ain’t gonna worry…” They were so good! I wished I’d been the first to hand them a dollar. But I was second, which ain’t too bad!
The thing that I think is so significant about this occurrence is that it happened now, in this day and age. I suppose it’s significant that it happened at all. But this day and age in the United States is the day and age when a movement is in full throttle trying to stir up the kind of fear and anger and hatred that truly scares so many of us who lean more toward what I like to think of as enlightenment. And if enlightenment sounds too hierarchical, then compassionate. Imagining a more compassionate world. Remembering the story of our lives as God’s very own. It is the antithesis of those who seem so driven by the kind of fear that makes them seek to disaffect others in order to make themselves feel more important or “richer”, whatever that means. Something about the particular pair of events in that subway car spoke to me of the kind of hope that God, through Jeremiah, espouses. I believe it is the kind of hope that all our faith traditions, at their very best, seek to promote and celebrate.
As the train pulled into the West 4th Street Station, my stop, I got up and did catch the eye of a gorgeous young woman who was coming to sit next to the place I was getting up from. “You can’t make this stuff up!” I said. She smiled a big beautiful smile. “What a great day!” I said and exited the train almost walking on air.