There is No Time for Weeping (Jeremiah 8)

I thought I would post what I would have said, if I would have preached the other day. (Given that please forgive the very unpolished nature of this piece).

The love of a Parent is powerful. For instance, the other night L came running into our room balling. Now typically, I sleep like a rock but when one of our two children start balling in the middle of the night I’m up in a flash. That night, I was up and running toward L before I realized what was happening. In the middle of crying she said something about owls and was almost unconsolable. My heart melted, I hate seeing her scared of anything. Similar feelings come when she prays at night to be able to eat eggs again (she’s currently on an elimination diet that includes eggs because of some pretty serious food allergies). Finally, one of the good feelings a parent has is when they see their child excited and happy. The other day we were at an unnamed store and L found a piano she was totally into. She played with it and begged us to take the piano home. While we didn’t buy the piano it was fun to watch her take so much pleasure in making music, it brought real joy to both of us. For parents there is a 1 to 1 correspondence between how their child feels and how they feel. Whether pain, saddness or joy, we feel it.

The other day I posted a quote by Frederick Buechner:

“‘He who loves has fifty woes … who loves none has no woe,’ said the Buddha, and it is true. To love another, as you love a child, is to become vulnerable in a whole new way. It is no longer only through what happens to yourself that the world can hurt you but through what happens to the one you love also and greatly more hurtingly. When it comes to your own hurt, there are always things you can do. You can put up a brave front, for one, and behind that front, if you are lucky, if you persist, you can become a little brave inside yourself. You can become strong in the broken places, as Hemingway said. You can become philosophical, recognizing how much of your troubles you have brought down on your own head and resolving to do better by yourself in the future. Like King Lear on the heath, you can become more compassionate. Like the whiskey priest, you can become a saint. But when it comes to the hurt of a child you love, you are all but helpless. The child makes terrible mistakes, and there is very little you can do to ease his pain, especially when you are so often a part of his pain as the child is also a part of yours. There is no way to make him strong with such strengths as you may have found through your own hurt, or wise through such wisdom, and even if there were, it would be the wrong way because it would be your way, not his. The child’s pain becomes your pain, and as the innocent bystander, maybe it is even a worse pain for you, and in the long run even the bravest front is not much use.

This paints a good picture of what is going on in Jeremiah 8. This hurt is God’s hurt, and similar to the connection between child and parent, it is also the prophet’s hurt. The pain of YHWH is, in this passage indistinguishable from the pain of the poet.

But why do they hurt? Why so much saddness? Because the people have become numb, they have grown blinders, and are no longer aware and attentive of the cries of God.

The cries of the people show just how bad things have gotten:

““Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)
“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. (Jer 8:19–21 NRSV)

God is no longer in the temple. “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images?” They do not realize that it is their very actions that nullify God’s response to them. They have idols now in the temple, why would they expect that YHWH would continue to hold respond to them as though they were being faithful?

The people say, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” They try and remind God that the summer is up, it is time to be provided for, and yet this time the harvest does not come. The people are numb, they keep calling out all the while following business as usual.

This morning’s text reminds us that the Hebrew people had become numb to their own wrong-doings. The Hebrew people are facing a “sickness unto death” and yet the numbness keeps them from recognizing this. This is business as usual for Jeremiah’s audience, which makes God’s pathos, God’s grief even more constrasting. In describing this penetrating grief the text says that God’s heart is sick.

Routines

It is easy to be caught in the business-as-usual, routines of life. These are even necessary for survival. But when they take over, when they become the focus of our lives — to the point where we are no longer able to hear and experience God’s grief — then something is not right.

But we all need those moments that wake us up and remind us that we are connected to God. Moments that break us out of the flow. We often shy away from doing things that will be a little challenging, or uncomfortable, things that will put us outside of what we are used to (just look at attendence on the Sunday when we have unprogrammed worship!) but isn’t this exactly what we need in order to interrupt the numbness? Something that can break us out of it?

In Jeremiah 8, the poet asks a rhetorical question: Is there no Balm? The answer: “Yes, there is, but the people do not recognize the fact that they are sick, they don’t even know that they need this medicinical plant that easily available to them just east of the Jordan.” They are numb, moving not towards grace but towards disintegreation.

One of the ways we see this numbness so prevanelent in our society is in so many references to being machines rather than organisms (see the recent Droid commercial with the robotic eye at the end). We see ourselves as robots, doing what we are told to do, the more we follow the routine the better. The less we have emotion, the less we can personally get involved, the better. The more things we can do, the more productive we can do, the harder we can work, the better. This is living life as organism but forgetting that and living as though we were machines.

But this “unconscious incrementalism” leads us to a point where the hebrew people are, building “utilitarian religion” that simply helps us cope with these false-selves rather than create space for God to intervene and work in us and through us.

And isn’t that what we all want, why we are all here? At some point down the line I think this is what the Hebrew People wanted as well.

Tears

Jeremiah 8 gives us the picture of one way in which this numbness is broken, it is cracked not by new evidence, or better righteous living but through grief. The tears of the prophet break through the stonewall of the empire. It may be the only thing that can, because everything else has not grabbed their attention.

Practicing intervention is to practice grief. It is to recogize death, recgonizing the fragility of life, recognize the fact that we need help from God and from one another, it is to stop and listen so that we do not become people with blinders on running through life numb to the pain of the world.

In the empire there is no time for weeping, nor is there any need. Everything is expendable, everything is commodity.

The royal consciousness leaves no space for history, no space for tradition, and therefore no space for life and death. Everything is present right now, the king will live forever. Governments never consider that they have beginnings and endings, every government in the history of the world has an orgin, and if it hasn’t yet, will have an ending. If anything the OT teaches us that God is the only superpower and any regime that forgets that point will come to ruin. It doesn’t matter whether that regime is the the Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or the Hebrew people. And because there is no death and no history there is no space in the public for failure. We see this all the time on the news, everytime a politician or a celebrating is caught in a dirty act the last thing they do is confess and ask for forgiviness. In the royal consciouness there is only deal-making, blameshfting and anxious excuses.

Yet the poet prophet challeges this by identifying with YHWH who himself mourns. And Jeremiah makes the astonishing prayer:

“O 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! (Jer 9:1 NRSV)

He longs to be able to weep even more, because of the state of affairs he is in, he could weep all day and night.

Anne Lammot once said “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” And likewise, you can assume that you are being transformed into the image of Christ when you begin to love all the same people he loves.

This is where Jeremiah is at. He loves and weeps over those God loves and weeps over.

If the Hebrew people realized just how sick they were, just how numb they were to what they had lost they would grieve too. And that grieveing would puncture a hole in the current discourse, maybe the slow drip of tears from the prophets eyes can puncture a hole all the concrete laid down by the empire and allow something, something that is not a machine, to emerge through the cracks.

This sharing of love as well as sadness helps to break the numbness. There are things worth grieving over, we face real death all around us. We cannot be prepared for it. Those experiences, those tears always sneak up on us, if we are willing, if we don’t shun it. Nor can we pretend death does not happen. There is no use denying it, avoiding it, or running from it. This is what happened with the people of Israel. To be incapable of facing death is the royal consciounsess at work, it is to ignore the fact that we ourselves are living in a way that is unable to see the movements of Grace in our own lives.

So the response then is to find ways, disciplines, practices that hold the numbness at bay. That keep our whole bodies fully in this present world, to remember we are organisms and not machines, to remember we are to love just as we are loved by God who is like a loving parent. We seek to be like Jeremiah who took on God’s concern as his own, took on love and sadness that was evoked.

And isn’t this also the whole point of the new testament? In a sense, God becomes like Jeremiah, becomes human, comes to earth and carry’s out God’s concern through the person of Jesus Christ.

And Jesus spent time with both the numb and those were more open to his way. But it is interesting to note that consistently those who are open and receptive to him are those who are on the margins of their society. The poor, the prostitutes, those who are gravely sick, children, women, etc. What do you think it is about these people that made them more open and less numb in Jesus’ day.

And don’t forget what else it says.

Jesus also weeps.

God so fully identifies with the human situation that he takes on everything, even the deep emotions that go along with it.

If God can weep, so can we.

Jesus also cries out on the cross: “At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 NRSV)

God dies. Just for couple of days but God dies. If death is not welcome in the empire, it is part and parcel of the earthy kingdom of God. “Take up your cross daily…is to say, die every day so you may live.” This is not the message of contemporary consumer culture. If anything the message today is live, don’t let anything hold you back, be actualized with this product, this look, everything is permissible. Let know one tell you what to do or that you should limit yourself, or that you will someday die. That is all nonesense. Now is all there is.

And then God mourns, Jeremiah eyes are like a fountain, and Jesus weeps.

If the prophet’s concern, his love as well as his mourning are the indistinguishable from God’s, then this seems like a good place for us to start. And so may we make his prayer our own:

“O 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! (Jer 9:1 NRSV)

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.