Monday, October 7, 2013

Jeremiah & Images of Hope

For the past few Sundays our Old Testament readings have been taken from the Book of the prophet Jeremiah.  His public ministry spanned tumultuous years in Israel’s history which culminated in the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 586 BC. 

Prior to that, Israel underwent significant religious and political reforms under King Josiah.  Jeremiah was critical of both, saying of the religious reforms that they changed things on the surface, but did not emanate from a changed heart.  His most scathing words were aimed at the politics of his day.  Swept up by a sense of nationalism, Israel sought to take advantage of what it perceived to be the weakness of other major powers in the region – Egypt to the south, Assyria to the north, and Babylon to the east of them.  Josiah sought to regain land lost 100 years earlier.  Jeremiah was highly critical of what he saw as over-reaching.  After Josiah died in a battle with the Egyptians, successive Israeli kings, severely weakened, vacillated between going it alone or making a pact with one power over and against another.  With great consistency Jeremiah was critical of these moves.

As a reward for his words, the prophet was ignored, ostracized, ridiculed, beaten, imprisoned, and even dropped into a well and left to die.  Last week’s reading found Jeremiah under house arrest because he proclaimed loud and long that the besieging Babylonian army was going to destroy Jerusalem.  Apparently his cousin Anathoth took these words to heart because he came to Jeremiah with a proposition.  He wanted Jeremiah to buy his family’s ancestral land.  In essence, Anathoth wanted to liquidate everything he could and get out while the getting was good.  Jeremiah bought the land through a very public transaction process and used the occasion to proclaim that a time would come when houses would have value and fields would be harvested: bold words from one whose city was under siege.

All of this brings us to today’s readings from the Book of Lamentations – a series of poems attributed to Jeremiah written from the depths of despair and anguish after the fall of Jerusalem.  If you had a chance to glance at Friday’s e-news letter you might have seen a painting of Jeremiah by the Russian artist Ilya Repin.  In it Jeremiah is leaning against the only part of the Temple wall not to be destroyed.  All around him lay fallen stone and snapped timbers.  In the background we see billows of smoke rising from various parts of the city that are on fire.  There is a look of shock, of horror, of terror on Jeremiah’s face that mirrors the look we saw on peoples’ faces at the World Trade Center and at the Pentagon twelve years ago.  Not only did the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem and the Temple, they led off into captivity anyone who had any value; leaving behind only the elderly and the infirmed. 

It is from this awful experience that today’s readings come from the Book of Lamentations.  Just five chapters long, it is comprised of a series of poems that constitute a mournful cry.  But even in this dark time through his dark words, Jeremiah manages to proclaim one of the greatest articulations of hope in our faith tradition: 

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
    they are new every morning;
       great is his faithfulness.

Alexander Pope famously wrote that hope springs eternal in the human breast, but in the Christian tradition, hope (like faith and love) is a gift from God; something implanted in us that emerges in us when we are cast down to the depths.  Like Jeremiah, perhaps you know what it is to have everything stripped away, to be down to nothing, and at that moment to know within you a spark, a flicker, an unwavering light that tells you this is not the end, but rather is the bedrock from which will rise a new beginning.

In the Jewish calendar, last Tuesday at sunset began of the ninth day of the month of Av – Tisha B’Av.  It is the historical date for the destruction of the Temple.  It is a day of mourning marked by reading the Book of Lamentations, eating an egg dipped in ashes, and fasting for twenty-four hours.  It is also a day grounded in the hope that from the temple ashes will rise a new, magnificent edifice.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “One who mourns Jerusalem will merit seeing her happiness” (66:10).

All week long I have been meditating on the image of an egg dipped in ashes and then eaten.  The egg represents life.  The ashes stand for the Temple ruins, but ultimately for any and every precious thing in our lives that has been lost or destroyed.  In life there simply is no way to remain immune from suffering and loss.  No one’s egg remains unsoiled forever.  The process of eating the ashened egg suggests that we cannot walk away from life’s challenges and defeats, that we somehow must take them into ourselves, that we must acknowledge them as part and parcel of who we are.  But I think the act of eating life and death also does another thing.  It takes both to that place inside us where hope abides, where hope endures. 

That is one symbol of hope that I encountered this week.  Let me tell you about two others that crossed my path.

One came from an article by Heidi Grogan where she described the raku angel her husband gave to her and the particular process this type of pottery goes through in order to produce its brilliant, liquid-looking colors.  At its creation, the angel was fired in a kiln heated to 18000F.  Glowing hot as it was pulled from the oven, it was transferred into a metal can filled with combustible materials; things like newspapers, old leaves, and even garbage.  The heat of the angel caused all this material to catch fire, and there sealed in the burning debris it remained until it cooled.  When it emerged from this process the paints that had been applied prior to kilning shown forth in unpredictable, metallic-looking colors and patterns.  The brilliance of the finished product would not have come to life without the horrific process it went through.  What does that suggest about hope in the midst of challenge?

But this angel’s journey was not finished.  Grogan relates that one day while dusting, she accidently knocked it off the mantel where it graced the room, sending it crashing to the floor below and shattering it into many pieces.  She came home the next day to find her husband patiently at work gluing the pieces back together.  “When I am done,” he said, “I will paint all the fracture lines.”  “No,” she responded, “I want to let her scares be.” 

It seems to me that hope does not look like rushing forward to restore what once was.  Rather, it is intertwined with waiting; waiting for what will be to emerge.  A sense of hope allows us time to discover what God imagines for us – be it from the fire of a kiln and refuse or from the restoration of brokenness. 

The other image of hope I encountered this week comes from a Wendell Berry poem called The Sycamore:

In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

“It bears the gnarls of its history healed over.”  “It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.”  It stands as a powerful symbol of hope.

In the coming weeks we will see how the surly and contentious prophet Jeremiah himself becomes a voice of hope.  He will send this message to those taken captive:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.  Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah will proclaim that there is a way to be God’s people in this new and alien place.  He detects the hand of God present in all that has happened, is happening, and will happen.  God’s people are the egg dipped in ashes and eaten.  They are the angel made brilliant by fire and repaired after shattering.  They are the mighty sycamore whose thriving contains within it mangles of what it has suffered. 

Hope is good company when you are entertaining lament.  It gives us the courage we need to dream of a better day.  From the depths we may cry out words that express our deepest pain.  But from that place we also find these words:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;

they are new every morning;
       great is his faithfulness.