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Monday, November 21, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 15 -- Kings and Court Jesters

This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is about kings and court jesters; about power and foolery. Instead of focusing on a single text this week, we're going to start with a paradigmatic text in the Hebrew Scriptures -- 1 Samuel 8 -- and then watch its implications play out in a number of different texts in John's gospel.

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For more on the tensions between views of the monarchy in the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann is still the man. His Prophetic Imagination is still a classic, and it's relatively short and readable. The tension throughout the texts is really drawn out by Brueggemann, along with Bruce Birch, Terence Fretheim, and David Petersen, in A Theological to the Old Testament (Abingdon Press, 2nd edition 2005).

For a recent, concise, and excellently written take on the links between the cross and foolishness, check out Robert C. Saler's latest book, Theologica Crucis: A Companion to the Theology of the Cross, available through Cascade Books.

And on a 100% completely unrelated note, just absolutely nothing to do with this podcast why would you even think it would be, check out the Hamilton soundtrack. Just because it's good.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The violence that is in my hands

Crispin de Passe (1564-1637)
Jonah 3:6-9 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”
---

There is an old, old story I think about often.

It's a story about an angry, sad young man from a backwater town in a occupied corner of a world-spanning empire. The story goes that God tells this young man to get up and go to the capital city of this empire -- this violent empire which has occupied and oppressed his people -- and tell them to be nicer and to say they are sorry and to stop committing violent acts. The young man, understandably, does not want to do this. He runs away. There is a storm. A big fish. A prayer. The young man, eventually, goes to the capital city. He tells the people there to stop doing the terrible things they've done. Amazingly, they listen to him. The young man doesn't feel any better, though, because all of the awful things that have happened in the past are not magically wiped away by the success of his mission. He is angry. And God talks to him about how angry he is, and why.

And that's how the story ends. We don't know what happens next. Probably because it's up to us to decide. In a way, it's like one of those old 'Choose Your Own Adventure' stories.

There have been times in my life where I have compared myself to this young man. There is something noble about it, a false humility to it -- to say, "Oh, yes, I ran from God for so long, and then I stopped running and reported for duty, and now I am doing what God wants me to do." That's a nice narrative.

But I am not that young man.

I am a citizen of that capital city. And there are a lot of angry voices who are telling me that this city, and what it represents, needs to change.

To repent. Which is a word, in Hebrew, that just means, "to turn."

In the story, the king of the city listens to the angry young man. In a silly and satirical scene, he orders everyone in the city, including the animals -- what have the cows ever done to anyone -- to put on mourning clothes. It is an act of repentance, at once somewhat foolish and yet powerful in its own right. And he says this: "All shall turn from their evil ways and repent from the violence that is in their hands."

The violence that is in their hands.

And that is the phrase that has been echoing in my head for the past week. Because I have been thinking a lot about what I need to repent from, what I need to return from. I have been thinking a lot about what I need to drop. About the violence that is in my own hands.

Here are a few things I think I need to repent of. Here are a few types of violence I think are in my own hands:

1) Cynical detachment
When I choose a cynical detachment over a critical engagement, I'm using cynicism to try to prevent myself from being hurt. Cynicism allows me juggle the violence in my own hands like a hot coal, trying to keep from being burned without dropping it. It won't work -- and it will burn others in the process. I think I need to repent of -- to turn from -- cynicism and turn towards engagement and connection.

2) Privileged hubris
When I choose snarky humor over real action, or when I dismiss the real concerns of marginalized people and groups because "I just don't think it will happen," then I am revealing the hubris that comes with privilege. I need to turn from privileged hubris and turn towards a posture of humble listening.

3) Standing By
When I choose not to interact and intervene in situations where someone is being hurt, I choose passive standing-by instead of active coming-alongside. I am preparing, this coming weekend, to lead a training for college students on what we call "pro-social bystander intervention" or "positive bystander intervention." We teach students that they have the responsibility to intervene to prevent interpersonal violence and abuse. It's a lesson we all need to learn, not just on a college campus, but in our society as a whole. We are responsible for each other's safety. We have a responsibility to intervene. I need to turn from passive standing by to active intervention and solidarity.

3) White Supremacy
With the election into the highest office of the land of a man who used blatantly racist rhetoric, and that man's appointment to a White House position of another man who is an overt white supremacist, it would be easy for me to deny my complicity in white supremacy. Surely not I? I am no bigot. But there is more to white supremacy than open bigotry. Here is one definition from my friend Alicia at Chasing the Promise, from a dialogue I participated in at a recent conference:
White supremacy establishes whiteness as superior to other racial identities through the elevation of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of white people over that of people of color. This includes the centering of the theological, rhetorical, aesthetic, and economic priorities and preferences rooted in whiteness as well as the appropriation and rebranding of cultural expressions sourced from people of color.
At the conference which Alicia writes about, I shared one of the ways in which I participate in this system -- by centering my questions and efforts about the church in the issues facing predominantly white churches in this country. In their statement following the election, the Black Lives Matter movement said the following: "White supremacy fortified the decision to disregard racism and sexism as serious variables in the outcome of this election." So you see the tie between white supremacy, and my cynical detachment, and my privileged hubris. I need to turn from white supremacy and turn towards the centering of the needs of people who are different than me -- the centering of the needs, wants, concerns, perspectives, feelings, and desires of people of color.

4) Sexism
Again, with the election of a man who has bragged about sexual assault, and who uses gendered rhetoric that I literally train college students to interrupt and challenge, it would easy to say: not me! But when I fail to listen to the voices and stories of women, when I interrupt or talk over or pretend to have some sort of expertise that I don't, I participate in a sexist structure. I need to turn from misogyny and turn towards a centering of the stories of women.

What I've written here about sexism and white supremacy, I could also write about heterosexism, about ableism. About the hundreds of ways that I center the needs and concerns and stories of "people like me" over and against -- that last phrase is important -- the needs and concerns and stories of people who, in one sense or another, are different than me.

In the story, people put on sackcloth to indicate their repentance. This was a symbolic action which would have been widely understood in its time as a sign of mourning and a break from normal day-to-day activity. But our society sometimes lacks such commonly held symbolism; and, just as importantly, sackcloth would have been more than symbolic. It required a very real divestment of the regalia of power, including a disarming of the populous and the halt of normal economic activity. The symbolism was overt; but a concrete disruption accompanied it.

And so, as I consider what my sackcloth will look like over the coming days, weeks, and months, I'm thinking about action. I'm thinking about concrete attempts to release the violence that is in my hands.

Some of those actions are likely to be continuations of things I'm already doing. Like facilitating Bystander Intervention Trainings at Georgetown. Or working with Friends of Sabeel - North America, whose younger members and staff are working to make the organization more intersectional and more attuned to anti-oppression work in our organizing. Or working with some of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our society, those who experience chronic homelessness and severe mental illness, in my job at the Georgetown Ministry Center.

But a lot of these actions are going to have to come from a place of humble listening and re-positioning. Some real soul-searching and internal work.

So I'm going to write a follow-up post to this one, once I've had a bit more time to do some of that internal work. But those two things -- the internal work of repentance, and the external actions of repentance -- don't happen in isolation from each other. They're not as easily split up as two blog posts.

They go hand-in-hand. And when we're hand-in-hand...well, it's a lot harder to hold on to violence, isn't it?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 14 -- Scapegoats, Breathing, and F Words

This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is the last in a series brought to you through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church. We've been focusing on texts from John's gospel. If you've tuned in because of the series at Crossroads, I hope you'll keep listening!

This week we're looking at John 20:19-14. In this story, Jesus appears to the gathered disciples (he's already appeared to Mary Magdalene, the first evangelist) while they are locked in a room out of fear that they will meet the same fate at the hands of religious and political authorities as Jesus had.

As I say at the very beginning of this week's podcast, I know people are feeling a lot of intense emotions right now, including fear, so this seemed an appropriate week to talk about fear, and scapegoating, and the need to keep breathing.

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Have a question, a comment, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with"? Send me an email!



If the piece about scapegoats and scapegoating caught your interest, you might want to check out the work of French anthropologist and theologian Rene Girard, in books such as I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning and The Scapegoat. James Alison is a Catholic theologian and a contemporary interpreter of Girard's work; check out his Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay. I first learned about Girard's theories through the writing of Tom Fox, a Quaker and member of the Christian Peacemaker Teams who was killed in Iraq.

For a powerful read on the care we need to take in approaching the concept of forgiveness, particularly for traumatized individuals and communities, I'd recommend the concluding chapter of Pamela Cooper-White's book, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response. It's a timely read. The chapter actually begins with a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship, which is a book I'm going to be reading over the next few months because I think it has a lot to speak into our current situation. Another timely book that I'm picking up to re-read is Parker Palmer's Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit. If anyone is interested in some sort of online reading group, feel free to email me.

Last week, Leigh preached at Crossroads on the same text the podcast was about. You can read her sermon here or listen to it here:


Also, I had a few people mention that they'd like to words to our new theme song, written by the fantastic Pat Dupont. So here you go:
The sound of the world is so loud
I'm trying to hear you over the crowd
'Cuz everybody says, everybody's always saying that
You've gotta be strong and popular
But I'd rather be weak
Which means that success for me
Is if the whole world thinks that I'm a fool

But I'd rather be weak
Which means that success for me
Is if this podcast only gets one star

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 13 -- Bodies, Limits, and God's Weakness


This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is once again brought to you through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church as part of their Faith Beyond Belief: Reclaiming the Art of Christian Practice series.

Each week for the next few weeks we'll be fooling with a text from John's gospel. This week we're looking at John 1:9-14, which tells us that the divine logos (remember the first episode of this particular series?) "took on flesh and lived among us." So we're talking about flesh this week -- about bodies, limits, and divine weakness.

A quick note about the translation I just linked to -- it uses the male pronoun to talk about the logos (Word), but it doesn't have to. If you want to hear more about that, and about some of the other details of this text, you can check out the short intro I did for this week's Faith Beyond Belief session.

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Have a question, a comment, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with"? Send me an email!

A few references came up in this week's podcast that I wanted to say a bit more about.

There are hundreds, even thousands, of possible resources I could point you to if you're really interested in the historic debates within the Church about how Jesus can be both human and divine at the same time. If you really want to get into the weeds on this, I'd suggest Jurgen Moltmann's critical take on it in the second section of his book The Way of Jesus Christ. And if you're really, truly, irredeemably geeky, email me and I'll send you the Christology I wrote up for my systematic theology class in seminary. [[nerd]]

I once again relied on Dr. Sharon Ringe's excellent book, Wisdom's Friends, for this episode -- this time in reference to connections between Wisdom (hokhma/sophia) and Word (logos) in John's gospel. If you're interested in that, she does a much better job than I at explaining it, so check out Wisdom's Friends.

Here's a Huffington Post article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow about the Jewish festival of Sukkot and its connections to vulnerability and fragility. He writes:
Every night, Jews pray to YHWH, the Holy Interbreathing of all life: “Spread over us the sukkah of shalom.” Not a fortress of invincibility, a palace of triumph and security, a temple of orderly and muttered prayer — but these huts where anything might happen. From outside, a storm. A robber. From inside, an “O!” of radical amazement at the awesome beauty, awesome terror, of the world around us. A breath of some new way of praising the One Who Breathes us. The teaching: We, all humankind, live in a sukkah, vulnerable. No great Twin Towers, no Pentacle of Power, is invincible. Only the shared knowledge of that truth can bring us peace.
Next week will be the last week of the John series in cooperation with Crossroads UMC, so be sure to tune in next week to talk about breath and breathing. And remember to breathe, and to take care of your fragile, vulnerable body and the fragile, vulnerable bodies of those around you this week, especially as this anxiety-inducing election season comes to its climax. Be gentle with yourself and with each other. Peace.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 12 -- Fooling with Endings


This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is brought to you through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church as part of their Faith Beyond Belief: Reclaiming the Art of Christian Practice series.

Each week for the next few weeks we'll be fooling with a text from John's gospel. This week we're looking at John 21:15-19, in which Jesus has a conversation with Peter about restoration, love, service, and change.


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Have a question, a comment, or a scripture you'd like "fooled with"? Send me an email!



I've already mentioned Dr. Sharon Ringe's wonderful book on John's gospel numerous times; this week I'm also going to mention Gail O'Day's in-depth commentary on John in Volume IX of the New Interpreter's Bible commentary series (Abingdon Press, 1995).

Also referenced this week is the work of William Bridges, best known for his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, the 25th anniversary edition of which is available from De Capo Press. Bridges identifies three phases of transition, which he labels “Endings,” “Neutral Zone,” and “New Beginning.” He offers the important insight that transition begins with ending, and that there is a tendency to “fail to discover our need for an ending until we have made most of our necessary external changes” (pg. 11).  By ignoring endings and “the important empty or fallow time” that follows them, we undermine the possibility of a new beginning and a new phase of growth in our lives (pg. 17).

If you're interested in a very concise commentary on this passage, or on any of the other John passages we've been looking at over the past few weeks, you can check out the series of short mind-podcasts I've done for Crossroads UMC as part of their series. These are 5-6 minutes of quick context and content about each week's passage, and I have them organized on my SoundCloud site in a handy playlist:

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 11 -- Fooling with Stewardship, Fooling with Politics

This week's episode of Fooling with Scripture is brought to you through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church as part of their Faith Beyond Belief: Reclaiming the Art of Christian Practice series.

Each week for the next few weeks we'll be fooling with a text from John's gospel. This week we're looking at John 2:1-11, in which Jesus rather famously turns water into wine. But we're going to focus on the character of the steward, and what this character might have to tell us about a particular church word (stewardship) and a particular dirty word (politics).

This week I'm also excited to introduce our new theme song, written by my friend Pat Dupont. You can listen to some more of his music on SoundCloud.

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We're still abiding/staying/dwelling/meno-ing in John's gospel (and if you don't get that joke, you need to go back an episode), so I continue to recommend Sharon Ringe's book on John's gospel: Wisdom's Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Westminster John Knox, 1999).

Also, if I piqued your interest about this scripture and about the broader implications of the term stewardship, you can check out a previous sermon I gave on this text:



Questions? Comments? Scripture you'd like fooled with? Email me!

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 10 -- Fooling with Friendship, Fooling with Church Words

The 10th episode of Fooling with Scripture is brought to through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church as part of their Faith Beyond Belief: Reclaiming the Art of Christian Practice series.

The folks at Crossroads invited me to offer the first Sunday morning message for this series as well, so if you're interested in seeing/hearing that, there's a video available on their website. Sermon starts around minute 40 and is about 20 minutes long.


Each week for the next few weeks we'll be fooling with a text from John's gospel. This week we're looking at John 15:7-17 (or so), in which Jesus calls his disciples "friends."

Like this blog and the podcast? Please consider becoming a Patron!



This whole series, and this episode in particular, is very heavily indebted to a class I took in seminary with Dr. Sharon Ringe. The class as a whole, and her book on friendship in John's gospel, has been hugely influential not only in how I understand John's gospel but in how I understand my faith and ministry as a whole. Check out Wisdom's Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Westminster John Knox, 1999).

Another hugely influential book, which I quote in this episode, is John Swinton's Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Abingdon: Nashville, 2000). Here's the full quote of which I share an excerpt, from page 148-149:
Jesus' friendships were always personal, as opposed to instrumental, primarily aimed at regaining the dignity and personhood of those whom society had rejected and depersonalized. Jesus' friendships reached beyond the socially constructed identity of individuals and, in entering into deep and personal relationships of friendship with them, he was able to reveal something of the nature of God and enable the development of a positive sense of personhood based on intrinsic value rather than on personal achievement or outward behavior. Whether he was calling to Zacchaeus, the much hated tax collector, to come down from the tree and eat with him (Luke 19:2) or preparing for his death while communing with his friends (Matthew 26:26) the friendships of Jesus reached beyond social expectations to reclaim the personhood of the other.
This type of friendship is catalytic. Unlike other more instrumental relationships such as those found in counseling and psychotherapy, which set out specifically to do something, it is a form of relationship that acts as a catalyst that enables health and rehumanization simply by being there. Unlike many agents with whom people with mental health problems may come into contact, the task of the Christlike friend is not to do anything for them, but rather to be someone for them -- someone who understands and accepts them as persons; someone who is with and for them in the way that God is also with and for them; someone who reveals the nature of God and the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ in a form that is tangible, accessible, and deeply powerful.  
Finally, I mention hearing the pastors of Highlands Church in Denver give a presentation in which they talked about the "How we do what we do is more important than what we do" principal. You can actually watch/listen to the presentation using Facebook live below, or just check out what the folks at Highlands are up to on their website.

Friday, October 14, 2016

It's been five years and I still need such grace

Five years ago, now. I can hardly believe it.

Five years ago, this month, my parents drove me to Connecticut so I could check myself into the acute ward at Silver Hill Hospital. It was a gamble -- there wasn't a guarantee that there would be a bed free. But I couldn't wait for there to be an opening in the longer-term care house. I didn't think I would make it.

And so I watched the leaves turn in a wire cage, open to the sky, smelling of quiet decay and cigarette smoke, before I finally managed to talk my way out of the cage and across the street into the big white house.

Two weekends ago, I was thinking about that house.

I was sitting in a room on the second floor of the farmhouse at Georgetown University's beautiful retreat center in the Shenandoah. The grounds were thick with fog -- of course, when you're in the mountains, it's not really fog, it's just being in a cloud. A cloud, on a mountain, and a quiet sort of transfiguration.

And I looked out on the grounds, beautifully obscured, all edges softened, and remembered my last day at Silver Hill. How I walked around the house -- the house where I'd learned about radical acceptance, and mindfulness, and interrupting the chain, and riding the wave -- walked around the house in the snow and the fog. Stared at the stream and the pond where I'd watched leaves flow by, disappearing over the small waterfall, imagining them as my thoughts, free to drift away. Peered through the trees, now silently skeletal with winter, to the buildings where I'd learned from newly sober drunks and meth heads and nervous teenagers with body dysmorphia and addictions to painkillers and middle aged women with eating disorders, so many people old before their time or worn ragged by time, honest in their presence and their speech.

If we were a body, we were barely held together by the sinew of desperation, after the collapse of the exoskeletons we'd grown in a world for which we were, somehow, made too fragile.

That was five years ago. I still need such grace.

I am not fixed. Not cured. The sickness that was in my bones, my fragile skeleton that I held so carefully as I walked in the fog on that last day five years ago now, is with me still. I see it out of the corner of my eyes, even on the good days. I hear it in my voice when I tell people how good my life is.

I am not lying to them. My life is good. It is very, very good. I am so grateful for it.

But my skeleton, if stronger now, is still made of the same bones.

Photo by Father Greg Schenden, SJ
And so I sat in the farmhouse in the Shenandoah, and in between beautiful conversations with students I looked out into the fog. Into the cloud. And thought about Silver Hill.

And thought about transfiguration.

And thought about a voice saying, "This is my Beloved Child."

I felt a deep peace, there on the mountain. I'll tell you about what I heard, or didn't hear, in that stillness and silence. Some other day. Some other time.

But today, I will tell you:

It has been five years, now. And I still need such grace.




Monday, October 3, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 9 -- Word, Words, Words about the Word

The 9th episode of Fooling with Scripture is brought to through a partnership with Crossroads United Methodist Church as part of their Faith Beyond Belief: Reclaiming the Art of Christian Practice series.

Each week for the next few weeks we'll be fooling with a text from John's gospel. We won't go in order through the gospel, but we are starting at the very beginning -- the first 5 verses of the first chapter.

Check it out:



I mention Dr. Sharon Ringe, who was my professor at Wesley and with whom I took a class on John's gospel. If that's intriguing, you can check out her book on John's gospel, Wisdom's Friends: Community and Christology in the Fourth Gospel (Westminster John Knox, 1999).

If the idea of God revealing God's self in a variety of different ways piques your interest, there's plenty to dig into -- that's a very ancient idea. In fact early Christians held to an idea called "the Two Books," in which Scripture was one book/revelation and nature was another. If you really want to geek out, you can check out Dr. Ted Peters, who taught a class on science and theology that I took at Lutheran Theological Seminary, who summarizes different theories of how science and religion interact with each other in his article "Theology and Science: Where Are We?"

Have a question, a comment, or a scripture you'd like fooled with? Send me an email!

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Monday, September 26, 2016

Fooling with Scripture, Ep 8 -- A Sermon About Bad Real Estate Decisions and Hope

The 8th episode of the Fooling with Scripture podcast consists of a sermon I shared with Georgetown University's Protestant Ministry chapel service in St. William's Chapel on Sunday, September 25th, 2016.

The text for the sermon is Jeremiah 32:1-15, though it also references Psalm 91.

Check it out here or on iTunes!



My understanding of the book of Jeremiah is heavily influenced by a class I took with Denise Hopkins at Wesley Theological Seminary. She assigned a number of different texts for the class, but particularly influential were Kathleen O'Connor's book Jeremiah: Pain and Promise, which looks at the book through the lens of trauma, and Terence Freitheim's commentary published by Smyth & Helwys.

The sermon also mentions Andrew Solomon's book The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, which I've mentioned often before and I'm sure will again. The relevant quote is on page 293:
I have taken the phrase [The Noonday Demon] as the title of this book because it describes so exactly what one experiences in depression. The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to seem them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance.
If that piques your interest, you can check out another sermon I gave on the topic by clicking here.

I mention in the sermon that Jeremiah is often associate with the book of Lamentations, which is a true statement, but the associate is likely not accurate. For a powerful and relevant take on the book of Lamentations -- including the possibility that it's true authors were likely the people left in the land after the exile, many of whom would have been women -- I'd highly recommend Soong-Chan Rah's recent book with InterVarsity Press, titled Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times.

I'll go ahead and post the text of the sermon below, but if you like this podcast and others like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon and sending me an email with any questions, comments, or suggestions!

---
Prisons, Prophets, and Noonday Demons
A sermon preached by David Finnegan-Hosey in St. William's Chapel, Georgetown University

September 25, 2016

7pm

The prophet Jeremiah was no optimist.
            That’s important to keep in mind as we dig into tonight’s scripture reading, with its intertwined themes of hope and hopelessness, despair and faith. In church tradition, Jeremiah has been referred to as “the weeping prophet.” In addition to the book bearing his name, he is often associated with the Book of Lamentations which, as its title implies, consists almost entirely of songs of lament and recollections of tragedy.[1] Whatever else might be said of Jeremiah, he cannot be accused of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.
            Tonight’s reading wastes no time in painting a dire picture of Jeremiah’s current predicament. A powerful foreign army is laying siege to the capital city. Jeremiah is in prison, essentially charged with sedition for speaking out against his own government in the midst of a war. And King Zedekiah – the king of Judah, the ruler in Jerusalem – comes to question Jeremiah. “Why?” the king asks the prophet. “Why, in this time of all times, are you speaking out against me, saying that our people will lose this war, be cast into exile? Why are you saying these horrible things? Why don’t you honor and respect our nation and its symbols? Why can’t you say positive things about your countrymen? Why, Jeremiah, do you have to be so negative all the time?”
            It’s a question Jeremiah must be weary of answering. He has preached and written and prayed aloud so many times before – has said that God has compelled him to speak out against the failings and sins of his own people. He has cried out against the injustices of the temple and of the crown. He has begged, pleaded with crowds and with elites to listen to him, to heed the word from God to repent, to turn back to the way of justice, the way of God.
            But this time, when the king asks, “Why do you keep saying this awful stuff?,” Jeremiah just says:
            “Well, God told me to buy my cousin’s field off him.”
            It’s a strange story, to be honest – oddly specific in its detail and wildly irrational in its implications. For the next nine verses, Jeremiah recounts the dry and clerical particulars of his purchase of a piece of the family farm. We hear how much it cost; who signed what; where and in what container the receipt would be stored.
            It’s not the most gripping of scriptural narratives, but it does have a purpose. It confirms that this sale really took place, that it was legal, public, well-recorded, well-established. Jeremiah’s not joking. This thing happened. We’ve got it on video.
            And that’s strange. Because such a purchase seems to go completely against everything that Jeremiah has been hearing from God and repeating to anyone who would listen.
            Jeremiah has been saying, over and over again, for chapter upon chapter of this book, that all is lost, that there’s no hope for Jerusalem, that the city is going to fall, that the invading evil empire is going to win, that the rulers of Judah are going to be dragged into exile. And then God says, “Hey Jeremiah. Why don’t you buy some property outside the city?”
            Though the text does not record it, we can imagine Jeremiah’s response. “But…why? Why would I buy this field if all is lost?”
            “Because,” God says, “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” Someday. Somehow. There will be peace. There will be justice. And this seemingly nonsensical act is a prophetic sign of this future hope.
            To act out of hope in such a hopeless situation makes no rational sense. And God says: “Do it anyway.”
            But here is what I am really interested in this evening: why does Jeremiah offer this story as a response to King Zedekiah’s questioning? The king confronts the prophet, demanding to know why the prophet is speaking in such harsh tones, and the prophet suddenly tells a story of irrational hope?
            Remember: Jeremiah is the weeping prophet. The critic. The voice of doom and gloom.
            Jeremiah is not accustomed to voicing hope.
            But when his motivations are challenged, he responds with this story. It’s as if he’s saying, “Why do I speak the way I do? Not because I want to. Not because I enjoy being negative or critical. It would be easier to just remain silent, to ignore the unrelenting voice of God, or perhaps to simply collapse into quiet despair. It would be easier. But I speak because, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite my own feeling of hopelessness, God assures me that some day, some way, there will be a hoped-for future of justice and of peace.”
            It makes no sense to speak out. It makes no sense to buy a field.
            But Jeremiah says – God says – we must do it anyway.
            I wonder:
            Is there anyone in this room who has felt some hopelessness this past week?
            Is there anyone in this room who has experienced some recent despair?
            Is there anyone in this room who has wondered, “Why bother?”
Why bother speaking out for justice? Why bother working for peace? Why bother leading a life of compassion? Why bother with faith or hope or love?
            Why bother, for that matter, trying to come together as a worshipping community, here at Georgetown University – why bother trying to build relationships across dividing lines of race and experience and theological understanding?
            Why bother, when it might not work, when this week and the next and the next we might be met by news of renewed violence across the world or right down the street? In Syria or in Charlotte? Why bother, in the face of a seemingly endless stream of names turned into hashtags by bullets? Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott, just this week? Why bother, why risk, why hope, when it hurts to do so, when the evidence for the rationality of despair seems so much more overwhelming than the evidence for the possibility of transformation?
            If you have felt any of this, in the past week, or month, or lifetime, then I am not here tonight to tell you that your feelings are wrong.
You see, there is a lie that goes around, a lie made even more dangerous by its proximity to the truth. And the lie goes like this: “The community of faith is a community of hope. Therefore, feelings of hopelessness, of despair, of deep hurt, are foreign to our community. They have no place here.”
            But Jeremiah’s story tells us that hope and hopelessness are wound tightly together in the narrative of our faith. There is not a neat line between faith and despair. Rather, the lines are intertwined, wrapped around each other. Jeremiah’s trust in God’s future, represented by the purchase of a piece of land, only makes sense when understood against the background of fear, of terror, of trauma that he and his people are facing. His faithful action does not ensure that everything is going to be ok – no, not by a longshot. Jeremiah’s action is not coming from a place of sunny optimism. But God says: “Do it anyway.”
            Earlier we were called to worship with the words of Psalm 91. It’s a beautiful piece of poetry. But it does not shy away from acknowledging ugliness. In verses 5 and 6, the psalmist speaks of “the terror of the night,” of “the arrow that flies by day” – perhaps today it would read, “the bullet that flies by day” – and of “the pestilence that stalks in darkness, “ of “the destruction that wastes at noonday.” In Latin translation, that last phrase is rendered as “the noonday demon.” “The noonday demon” is the name that theologians and church authorities in the Middle Ages gave to the phenomenon we might call depression. They used it to describe, in the words of contemporary author Andrew Solomon, “the thing that you can see clearly in the brightest part of the day but that nonetheless comes to wrench your soul away from God.”[2] The noonday demon was no stranger in communities of faith – in fact, it was thought to especially target monks and people committed to a holy life, strangling out faith with a despair immune to sunlight.
            Modern understandings of psychology have moved away from blaming mental health struggles on supernatural spirits. And I, for one, am exceedingly grateful for modern medical understanding. And yet there is something about that image, “the noonday demon,” that perfectly captures the reality of depression and despair, whether situational or clinical. In fact, Andrew Solomon’s book on the topic of depression is called The Noonday Demon for exactly that reason, he explains:
The image serves to conjure the terrible feeling of invasion that attends the depressive’s plight. There is something brazen about depression. Most demons – most forms of anguish – rely on the cover of night; to see them clearly is to defeat them. Depression stands in the full glare of the sun, unchallenged by recognition. You can know all the why and the wherefore and suffer just as much as if you were shrouded by ignorance.[3]
Perhaps some of you have been visited by this noonday demon, this despair that seems immune to the sunniest of days. Perhaps it’s something that comes to you because of events in our nation and in our world. Perhaps it’s something that just seems to have always been with you, as long as you can remember. Either way, know you are not alone in this room. You are not alone in the community of faith.
No, far from it. You see, I can imagine the noonday demon, haunting Jeremiah as he sat, secluded, cut-off, imprisoned. I can imagine it lurking in the corners of jail cells with so many other prophets and paragons of faith, imprisoned for speaking the truth. Like Paul, who would write his most joyful letter from prison, not because of the hopefulness of his situation but because of its hopelessness. Like Jesus Christ, arrested, jailed, executed, who, you will recall, cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
            Or like the modern-day prophet Dietrich Bonhoeffer who, centuries later, himself imprisoned for participating in a failed plot to overthrow Adolf Hitler, would cite the story of Jeremiah in a letter sent from a Nazi jail to his fiancĂ©e Maria:
When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that ‘houses and field and [vineyards] shall again be bought in this land,’ it was a token of confidence in the future. That requires faith, and may God grant us it daily. I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to the world in spite of all the hardships it brings us.[4]
Bonhoeffer was speaking of the faith of Jesus, crucified and raised again. We base our faithful action not on the apparent possibilities of today but on the often invisible, seemingly irrational hope of future resurrection.
And so, tonight, we have the words of the psalmist, and the story of Jeremiah, and the words of Bonhoeffer, and the words of Jesus, to remind us: we who gather together in communities of faith are no strangers to the noonday demon. We are no strangers to despair. And we are called not to deny that reality but rather to name it, to give voice to that which otherwise would have power over us in our voiceless-ness. We are called to name our experiences of despair, of depression, of trauma, to name them to God, to hold them up in front of God and to hold space for the possibility of a word from God, guiding us into faithful action.
            And what guidance does God offer us?
Buy the field.
In spite of all evidence to the contrary.
In spite of all the reasons for despair, in spite of the apparent reality of the present, act as if you had faith in God’s resurrection future.
            Buy the field.
Work for peace.
Buy the field.
Act for justice.
Buy the field.
            Do the hard work of community.
Buy the field.
Risk vulnerability and compassion.
Buy the field.
Do it. Anyway.
Amen.  



[1] Norman Gottwald, “Introduction to Lamentations,” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 1141-42.
[2] Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression (New York: Touchstone, 2001), 292.
[3] Ibid., 293.
[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer and M. von Wedemeyer, Love Letters from Cell 92 (ed. Ruth-Alice von Bismarck and U. Kabitz; London: Harper Collins, 1994), 48-49. Cited in Terence E. Fretheim, Jeremiah (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 459.