1st Sunday after Trinity
Proper 7: Jeremiah 20.7-13; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew
O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in you,
mercifully accept our prayers and, because through the weakness of
our mortal nature we can do no good thing without you, grant us the
help of your grace, that in the keeping of your commandments we may
please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
THE opening phrase of Jeremiah takes me back to 1996 when,
during a summer of hospital chaplaincy, I was visiting a woman whom
I will call Maria, who had married into a family that dominated and
effectively silenced her. In the few remaining days of her life,
she began to tell me how that felt, to weep about her
disappointments, and to dare to reach out to God, whom she believed
in, but had always seemed distant.
On my way home from overnight duty on the first Sunday after
Trinity, I went to church. The preacher quoted an alternative
translation of Jeremiah's words: "O Lord, you have seduced me, and
I was seduced." I wrote in my journal:
The reading came to me with Maria's
voice, "O Lord, you have enticed (seduced, raped) me, and I was
enticed, you have overpowered me and you have prevailed. I have
become a laughing stock all day long, everyone mocks me." Suddenly
I had a frame of reference for Maria: she appears to me as a woman
who has been overpowered all her life and feels powerless to fight
back, even to speak her name as an individual with self-esteem and
dignity. Her identity is defined in relation to others.
There are many Jeremiahs and Marias in the world - people for
whom, in their loneliness and desperation, God appears at best
untrustworthy, seeming to play with their lives and holding them of
no account; at worst, letting people abuse them.
In a time of violent upheaval, the young Jeremiah was called to
a dangerous, thankless task of speaking to people who were being
overpowered by the Babylonians. He had persevered doggedly, but had
been reviled. We hear from him soon after he had been struck in the
face and left ignominiously in the stocks overnight by a priest,
Pashur, the son of the chief Temple officer.
On his release, Jeremiah lambasted Pashur, and launched into
this lament to God about the impossibility of his task, and his
helplessness in resisting God's power of persuasion. It may sound
familiar. St Benedict understood the feeling, and told any monks
who had been asked to do an impossible task to explain to the abbot
why it seemed unmanageable, but, nevertheless, to do what the
abbot, having heard their perspective, was asking. He would have
empathised with Jeremiah's lament.
So was Jeremiah hopeless? No, he lamented, and lament usually
ends up in hard-won praise. Jeremiah lamented his way to hope by
recalling that the Lord was with him as a dread warrior. The lament
that "they that hate me without a cause are more in number than the
hairs of my head" (Psalm 69.4) provides the context for Jesus's
reassurance that "even the hairs of your head are all counted. So
do not be afraid."
It is a challenging, hope-filled assertion that God knows what
we are up against, has counted our enemies, and calls us to
traverse the path from sharing Jeremiah's feeling of being
inveigled by God to the security of which Jesus speaks. Knowing
that we are known delivers and deepens praise from trite blandness
into honest dependence, honouring the lament without rushing to
easy resolutions that deny the pain of Jeremiah's accusation, of
Maria's silencing, or of our own desolations.
Jeremiah kept going. Paul reminded the Romans that there was no
going back. Having been baptised into Jesus's death, they cannot go
on living in sin; having died with Christ, they will live with him.
They must move forward, deliberately, walking in newness of life as
an ontological imperative in hope - the hope which allowed Jeremiah
to lament, which turns us to pray the collect.
Jesus said: "A disciple is not above the teacher . . . it is
enough for the disciple to be like the teacher." Later, he cried in
abandonment: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He, too,
has felt discarded by God.
After reflecting on the sermon, I took Maria a postcard of the
Dominus Flevit Chapel in Jerusalem, and wrote on the back
the description of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. She literally held
on to that postcard, and even her husband thanked me for it. The
life of faith is not always serene, but it is filled with hope.