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Readings: 1st Sunday after Trinity

13 June 2014


1st Sunday after Trinity

Proper 7: Jeremiah 20.7-13; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39

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. Amen.

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.

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