This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on September 18th, 2016.
The lament alone is why Jeremiah has been nicknamed the “Weeping Prophet.” Chapter eight is a prophetic poem is the source of the well-known spiritual There is a Balm in Gilead. The “balm” is healing medicine mentioned briefly in Genesis when a caravan of Ishmaelite’s traveling from Gilead to Egypt with a gum-like substance used to close and bind wounds (Gen 37:25). The rhetorical question “Is there a balm in Gilead?” is used to explore the depth of a spiritual and moral crisis in the Israelite community.
The mixture of God’s anguish and the grieving community in Jerusalem are interwoven in a lyrical mourning of the terror to come. In the face of demoralization and suffering, this lament has stood the test of time because these words touch the deepest parts of all humanity. The humanity of Jeremiah is evident through his own grief and depression. Jeremiah is lamenting for the community and for the God of his people. He is holding the tension between God’s anger and sadness and the profound loss of that Israel is and will continue to experience.
Jeremiah is preaching from his own humanity in the midst of personal and communal depression. Grief and depression are common human experiences that the American culture pushes against. Community leaders that reveal their own humanity have been known to be the most effective in leading groups of people through a difficult season. Abraham Lincoln is an excellent example of a leader who embraced his humanity, warts and all, to bring a country through the internal darkness period it would have experience. Lincoln struggled with depression all his life and even experienced two dark seasons of the soul where he was put on suicidal watch. Through all these personal trials, Lincoln prevailed as a successful leader bringing a country through civil war, racism and devastating turmoil. Many other faith and community leaders have similar stories of personal grief, loss, and depression that have given them the courage to become what Henri Nouwen calls wounded healers.
Pain and depression are a reality that so many people inside and outside the church experience at least once in their life. These difficult seasons that we all face need to be normalized beginning in the pulpit. Acknowledging mental health issues is one way the Church engages the world outside their walls. For what happens outside the church always shapes and affects those inside the church. This includes health concerns, political turmoil, and social movements. Jeremiah is addressing a difficult season of deterioration affecting his people spiritually, emotionally and physically using lamenting.
This season of turmoil has idolatry at the root of the problem. Idolatry always has the potential to become a relationship breaker, a loss of covenant between God and God’s people. This covenantal deterioration has led to a nationwide disaster.
The Assyrians have left the land of Israel alone during the reign of King Josiah, but now things are different with King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians ruling the ancient Middle East. Josiah’s reform rid the land of Assyrian idols following the discovery of the Deuteronomic scrolls. After Josiah had been killed in battle, Jehoiakim took over on the throne with a whole other approach to rule and religion. Jehoiakim’s leadership has allowed foreign worship breaking Israel’s covenant with God. No help seems to be found for these deep spiritual wounds. The haunting reality is that clergy were part of the problem for Israel’s turmoil. They allowed much of this behavior and the people had no one to tell them the truth. Self-interest blinds and harms, greed oozes like open wounds, and fear builds walls that separate. What is the role of clergy today? Are religious leaders helping or hindering their congregations? Like Jeremiah, clergy are called to have fierce conversations with God’s people about the current event inside and outside the church. The harsh truth is that the false prophets of peace have lied to the people and perhaps even themselves. Peace cannot be found by ignoring the root issues of idolatry like racism, sexism, greed, and lust.
The temple failed them like the scarcity of medicine from Gilead. The old covenant has been broken, and no medicine can close these wounds. Now a new covenant is needed.
For the time being, the people of God must lean into a season of lament which feels the counter culture. Laments are like original fairytales unlike the happy ending Americans are used to experiencing. The original Cinderella ends with gruesome images of the stepsisters cutting off toes and heels to fit into the glass slipper.
It is not easy to linger in the depths of tragedy without knowing the second chance may come. Jeremiah doesn’t believe in participation trophies. The harvest of summer did not come; salvation did not arrive. Separation from God is brokenness, a brokenness that all must accept and lean into for even the small possibility for healing and wholeness. There is no easy way out, no cheap grace so, for now, the lament will have to do.
Cheap Grace is crying out for help with little effort to meet God in the middle, to partner with God and do the hard soul work of repentance. The Hebrew word for “brokenness” or “hurt” comes from the action of breaking pottery. This is interesting imagery considering God’s use of the potter and clay metaphor in chapter 18. Jeremiah is a spiritual leader who intercedes on behalf of God’s people. Being a prophetic preacher is much more than just speaking truth to power. It is about embodying our own humanity and the humanity of others by seeing both victim and victimizer. Many great leaders like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have brought change by means of prophetic and human leadership in their time.
Buechel Park Baptist Church, Louisville, KY
Tags: lament, grief, depression, wounds, healing