Sunday 22nd September 2019 (Year C)
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 & Luke 16:1-13
Let us pray
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer amen.
The Places of Exile
In Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a Son he writes:
I shall look at the world through tears. Perhaps I shall see things that dry-eyed I could not see.
The prophet Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet”, and knows what it is like to look at the world through eyes that have cried. In the lament we read from Jeremiah 8, the prophet cries out:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)
The prophet was living at a time when God’s people had turned away from his ways. They had provoked him, as we read verse 19, because they worshiped idols, instead of the living transcendent God. They had chosen to fill their longing with the tangible gods that could be seen and touched. This is not too dissimilar to what is happening today. We too, can tend to fall into the trap of living just for the gratifications of the here and now, which bring no lasting joy. Verse 20 reminds us that when we harbor idolatry in our hearts, we turn our backs on the salvation and freedom that God offers. The prophet Jeremiah captures this in verse 20:
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
Jeremiah is not only concerned about the fate of God’s people in terms of the looming exile that is hangs over the horizon, but he weeps over the state of their broken relationship with God; over their pursuit of idols, rather than the God who had liberated them in times past, and freed them from slavery and bondage. He weeps over their inner exile, that soon is to become a physical exile to Babylon, after Jerusalem and its temple are destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonian empire.
Exile is being estranged from home. We too can become estranged from God, and become exiled. We can live as if exiled from God in our daily lives. Exiled from his grace and forgiveness, exiled from his love and mercy, and thus unable to bring hope and healing to those around us.
But by His grace, He is always calling us home.
Some years ago, when I was in Central America, I met some priests who had lived through the brutal civil war in El Salvador during the 1980s. Part of the church had forgotten Christ’s command to stand with the oppressed, to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger in. Part of the church had sided with earthly power, wealth and did not care about the oppressed at the downtrodden. Some had bowed before the idols of wealth and security. It was as if large parts of the church were more interested in maintaining the status quo by supporting the powers that be, rather than to do what was prophetically right in terms of standing against injustice.
The priests I spent some days with, told me about the Salvadoran bishop Oscar Romero, who was bishop of the capital San Salvador during the terrors of the civil war. When Oscar Romero saw the suffering of the people, he began to speak up on their behalf, and denounce the structures of injustice and violence all around him:
When the church hears the cry of the oppressed it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.
He went on to say:
There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried.
Like the prophet Jeremiah, Oscar Romero wept over the suffering that was all around him, and as a modern-day prophet, he both denounced the structures of violence and power that gave rise to suffering, and also called the church back to stand with those who were being oppressed.
The church today would do well to heed the example of Jeremiah and Romero, for we have lost the art of embodying a prophetic word, we have lost the practice of lament. We have lost the ability to weep over our suffering world. In the Hebrew scriptures, lament is not a passive state of inaction, but rather an opening up to the pain of others. In the Hebrew scriptures, Lament usually goes hand in hand with a prophetic call for things to be different.
If our hearts become hardened, then we cannot lament, and we cannot feel the pain of others. Hardness of heart comes about when we turn away from the God of love, and when we do, we can begin to harbour bitterness, envy, pride, jealousy and a desire for self-preservation over and above care for others. When we allow these things to take root in our hearts, we create a space for violence. Violence towards ourselves and others, from which we need healing
In verse 21 Jeremiah fully identifies with the pain of God’s people.
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
In Jeremiah 8 the prophet laments that his people need healing, but there is no physician to heal them. He references Gilead, which was a hill region east of the river Jordan. A healing medicinal balm was extracted from some of the trees there. Jeremiah asks the rhetorical question:
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
For our world to be healed, we need inner healing. We need to receive again the healing balm of God’s love and forgiveness. Where all bitterness envy and strife are replaced with the beauty of God’s presence welling up within us
[9:1 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
Our world is straining under the brokenness of being separated from the source of life. God is calling us back, so that we can be filled with the water of his life, that our lives would be the ‘springs of water’ that Jeremiah speaks of, that can flow out to others. That we may recover the beauty of lament, weeping with those who weep, and always carrying within the hope that God is with us, even when we may feel to be living in exile.
For do we not worship a God who not only entered into our broken world in the frail form of human flesh? Did our savior not go the place of exile? To the place of darkness, wrath, rejection, exclusion and torture, exiled as a rejected king by the imperial powers of the day? And in going to that place of exile, and not responding to his torturers in violence, but in forgiving love; he teaches us a better way…
Our God, who knows what it is to have tasted exile and suffering, calls us this morning from the bondage and exile in which we so often live. He calls us back to a place where we can be restored, healed and forgiven. He comes to change our hearts from hearts of stone that does not feel the pain of other, to hearts of compassion.
May our lives be like the healing balm of Gilead this week, bringing healing and hope wherever we go.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning was now, and ever shall be. Amen.