Texts: Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28; Luke 15:1-10
It’s our first Sunday back in this building which is feeling both familiar and new. It’s the opening Sunday of the Christian Education year. And it’s the fifteen year anniversary, today, of the 9/11 attacks.
Any one of these three could be the focus of a worship theme. But with all three we have a full plate.
One of the most startling realizations I had this past week was that for all of our young people starting Sunday school today, 9/11 is an historical event. Something to read and hear stories about, but not something they, you, experienced personally. Even our high school seniors were just two or three years old when it happened. Recent college grads were in their first years of elementary school. The post 9/11 world is the only world you’ve known. Fifteen years ago our country was the big kid out on the playground, and got sucker punched in front of everyone. We’ve been hitting back ever since, uncertain how to heal.
I love how our lectionary scriptures keep us grounded in a bigger story. A story that stands on its own, yet manages to speak something fresh into our time. Today’s two readings share a common theme of loss, with Jeremiah anticipating an impending loss, and Luke offering parables that conclude in celebration, on the other side of loss. Loss is something that happens at every level of existence, from the national loss of an event like 9/11, to personal loss – a sheep, a coin, a parent, an ability, losing our bearings, losing our religion, losing our mind. Loss.
Civil rights veteran John Perkins is fond of saying that a leader is someone who is willing to enter into the pain of their people. By this definition, the prophet Jeremiah was an exemplary leader of the people of Judah during a period of national crisis. His public witness spanned 40 years before and during the great exile, when Jerusalem and its temple were crushed by the Babylonians. Everyone of social standing was carried away in exile. Only the poor were left behind to work the land.
Jeremiah is sometimes known as the ‘weeping prophet.’ At the beginning of chapter 9 he cries out, “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.”
Chapter four, which we read part of, contains an even more visceral description of Jeremiah entering into the pain of his people. In Verse 19 he cries out, “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent; for I hear the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war.” His people are about to be swallowed up by the violence of a massive empire, and Jeremiah is about to have a heart attack. He feels the anguish and anxiety in his capillaries. Being a prophet can be hazardous to one’s health.
Just as aside, it’s interesting to see the rise in the emphasis on self-care these days. There’s a growing awareness, a healthy awareness, that taking care of your own heart is not only good for you, but good for the movement. Jeremiah could have used this counsel.
Jeremiah 4 continues with a remarkable passage. There are only two places in the Hebrew Bible that contain the poetic Hebrew phrase ToHu va BoHu. In English it is translated as “formless and void,” or “formless and empty,” or, the more poetic, “welter and waste.” It shows up here in Jeremiah 4:23. The other, much more familiar reference, is Genesis 1. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And the earth, it was formless and void.” ToHu va BoHu.
In Genesis, this characterizes the beginning point of creation. It is the condition of chaos and disorder into which the god, Elohim, speaks, and thus creates. It’s an account of structure emerging from no-structure that unfolds kind of like a time lapse video that we didn’t take of our stage and kitchen renovations. Start with the void right after demolition, and watch it emerge from nothing more than an idea. Seth Trance and Ajay Massey skillfully play the part of Elohim. The configuration takes shape, all the infrastructure is set in place, and finishing touches are made. It is complete, but merely beginning. The stage is set, so to speak. The platform is ready for action, the backdrop is ready for artistic expression, and the kitchen is ready to start cooking up all kinds of goodness. The kitchen is almost ready.
In Genesis, Elohim utters language into the formlessness and void. Light! Land! Creatures of sea, earth, and sky. Humanity. Order and life emerge from disorder. Scattered atoms and molecules co-ordinate and co-operate. Creation flows forth in ever more complex arrangements, creating and recreating itself.
Humans are birthed with god-like powers, in the image of Elohim. The bright light of consciousness burns strong within them. More than other creatures, they subdue animal instinct. They will soon start making stuff, making decisions. And Elohim saw it all, and lo, it was very good.
This is the cosmos that Genesis 1 narrates into being. This is the sacred world of original blessing and goodness that permeated the Hebrew mind. The world into which the children of Abraham and Sarah, the children of Israel, are born, called to be a blessing to all people.
And so when Jeremiah samples this phrase from Genesis, he conjures this entire meaning-making structure of Hebrew myth. But for Jeremiah, the prophet of weeping and anguish, creation has gone terribly awry. The prophet says, “I looked on the earth, and lo, it was formless and void, Tohu va Bohu, and to the heavens, and they had no light. I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking…I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.” When Jeremiah looks at what is happening to his people and land, he sees Genesis 1 in reverse. The video is playing backwards. The people, the birds, the light, are gone, and we’re back to welter and waste. The world that he loves has been un-created. It is a picture of devastating loss.
And it’s important to recognize this as a double loss. There is the loss of temple, and land, the loss of precious lives, the loss of political independence. That’s one kind of loss. But there’s another form of loss that is equally or perhaps even more anguishing. There is the loss of a coherent way of making sense of the world. A crisis of meaning. By evoking the foundational meaning-making myth of his people, Jeremiah is acknowledging that not only have the structures of their buildings been leveled, but so too has the structure of their minds. A people whose identity was attached so closely to land, temple, and king, now has none of those. Not only did their god not protect them, but, as far as they could imagine, their god turned against them, rousing their enemies to come and destroy them. And now, neither they nor their go have a place to call home. They have been exiled from all they hold sacred. The stories they told about themselves and their divinely ordained destiny no longer fit their present reality.
After the weeping, what’s next? In the late 60’s psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five stages of grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. But when a loss messes with the mythic structure of our minds, there’s even more work to be done.
If we can recognize ourselves, and our nation, in this story, we might wonder if we too have undergone a double loss in the last 15 years. We’ve done well in the rebuilding of the physical structures, but our national myths and sense of collective meaning are not near as solid. I wonder if this is one of the reasons why “Make America Great Again” has captured the imaginations of so many people. It’s an incredibly powerful myth. We were once a blessed and great people. We will be great again. Never mind that the further you go back in time toward the elusive golden age, the more and more people are disenfranchised, the closer we get to outright patriarchy, slavery of Africans and genocide of Natives. But myths and facts don’t always rhyme, and when our meaning making structures have been rendered formless and void, we need a myth to give shape to our reality. Even the postmodern allergy to meta-narratives is itself a kind of myth. We can shoulder all kinds of losses and make it through to the other side of acceptance, but when we lose our story of who we are, and how we fit into the bigger picture, we are truly lost.
Why is it that a professional football player who is refusing to stand for the national anthem until something is done about black suffering is getting so much attention these days? Could it be that his action is a full on threat to the kind of myth some folks are trying to hold on to with all their might? A myth of our own inherent goodness and benevolence and blessedness. For the myth to really work, everyone has to stand and pledge their allegiance to it.
When I sat down to write this sermon I didn’t set out to talk about myth, but that’s obviously the direction it took. We are starting the Sunday school year today. More than just learning information and Bible stories, I suggest that the most important learning we can be doing together is the learning of an alternative myth to the ones we are regularly told. And this is a very Anabaptist and Mennonite approach to what faith and religion offer us. Rather than teaching us how to be nice and well-adjusted people within the political and economic systems we inhabit, our Christ-centered faith has something to say about the very underlying assumptions of what it means to be blessed, to be successful, to be human.
Our faith proposes that the death of Jesus of Nazareth on a Roman cross is the ultimate myth-busting event of history. The gods of empire, nationalism, and more recently, consumer capitalism, rely on the myth of their own goodness in order to survive. They are there to protect and shepherd us into safety and prosperity. They are watching over us for our well-being. Yea, though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we will fear no evil, for they are with us. The nation’s arsenal of weapons will guard us. The market’s vast array of consumer goods will comfort us.
But when the one who was without fault challenged the goodness of the entire program, gathering and embracing the people it left behind, going on a rant in the sacred precincts of the temple that the leaders of his own people had worked so hard to restore to make Jerusalem great again….When that one was deemed a threat to the whole project, and brutally and publicly executed, it exposed the whole mythic framework of the empire, and any religion that colludes with it. It rendered it formless and void of any power to save those who most needed salvation.
The earth shook, the sky went dark, the temple veil was torn in two, and the age old myth that had ruled the world for so long was uncreated. For those with eyes to see, this was ground zero of the apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalyptic world ever since. The old myths are still gasping for breath, grasping for attention, but we’re not buying it.
You also don’t have to buy anything I’m saying. It’s one way of reading the meaning of the Christian gospel.
And that’s not the end of it.
The gospel speaks not only of crucifixion and myth-busting, but also offers a myth of its own, a story into which we can live. It’s a story where death is followed by resurrection. New life, not of our own making, but life given back to us, freed from illusion, energized by love rather than fear, motivated toward restorative justice rather than vengeance. It’s a story in which everything and everyone belongs. It’s a story which includes death and loss, but transcends it within a wider circle of abundance and life which leads to more life. It’s a story in which a single sheep and a single coin, a single life, is deemed valuable enough to go on a great search, to light a lamp and look under furniture. To poke around in the darkest corners, until the lost one is found. And when she is found, to not interogate or point fingers or lay blame, but to put out an invite to the entire list of contacts, and throw a celebration, a great fiesta, because what was lost has been found. And the earth and heavens rejoice.