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


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.

[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.  

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