7O LORD, you have enticed me,
and I was enticed;
you have overpowered me,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all day long;
everyone mocks me.
For the word of the LORD has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long.
9If I say, “I will not mention him,
or speak any more in his name,”
then within me there is something like a burning fire
shut up in my bones;
I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot.
The prophet Jeremiah uttered these words roughly 2,600 years ago. The leadership of the kingdom of Judah, where he lived, was playing a political dangerous game at that point. Judah was caught between two superpowers vying for domination in the Near East: Egypt to the southwest and Babylonia to the northeast. The king of Judah did some double dealing, pledging alliance to both superpowers. However, ultimately the Judean leadership put their bets on Egypt. Which would turn out to be a fatal mistake. In the year 587 BC, the Babylonians attacked Judah – and Egypt failed to come to Judah’s aid. Jerusalem was sacked, the temple destroyed, countless people slayed, and the remaining upper class taken into exile. A witness of this time is Psalm 137, which opens with the famous words, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, where we wept, when we remembered Zion’.
Now why would God let this happen to his chosen people? Well, it’s not as if God didn’t try to warn his chosen people. God sent the prophet Jeremiah to convey the divine message that fooling around with the Babylonians is not a good idea. Jeremiah very reluctantly followed God’s call. He knew that he was to proclaim a very inconvenient truth, a truth that went against a political and military leadership that had made up their minds. He went to the king, but, surprise, surprise, his message, God’s message, was not received kindly.
Jeremiah was deemed unpatriotic, a traitor, and repeatedly jailed and beaten. Jeremiah went to the king with scrolls on which the words of God were written. The king slowly and cruelly cut those scrolls apart slowly and threw them in a fire as he made Jeremiah looked on. I hope you can understand Jeremiah’s lament a little better now: The word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long…’
When the Babylonians overthrew Judah, Jeremiah didn’t even get the satisfaction of saying, ‘Told you so!’ As Jerusalem was under siege, a group of upper class folks saw the writing on the wall, escaped and headed to Egypt, seeking political asylum. They took Jeremiah with them – against his will. His traces were lost somewhere in the desert…
Can you imagine what it must be like to see the truth, to know the truth, to feel the urge to proclaim the truth from the rooftops – and to know at the same time that the truth would get you into immense trouble? That it wouldn’t be received kindly, but with hostility? I recently read somewhere, ‘People don’t want to hear the truth; they want to hear their opinion from someone else’s mouth.’ Now ain’t that true? I’m guilty as charged, even though I try to keep an open mind.
I want to share another story with you: In the congregation I served before I came to St. Matthew’s, there is a member who is a physician and who, at that point, worked for the county hospital. He is one of the kindest, gentlest, soft spoken and most thoughtful people I’ve ever met. His words and actions are steeped in faith. He truly cares – for his patients, and his neighbor.
Since some time after I left that congregation, he has assumed the position of Contra Costa County Health Commissioner. After the COVID-19 crisis became prevalent, I saw him repeatedly on TV, sharing information calmly and professionally and deliberating on county guidelines and recommendations. I have to say, I was proud of him.
But soon the backlash started. On Facebook and on the internet platform ‘Next Door’, which is meant to build neighborly community, I saw the most ignorant and the vilest verbal attacks on him. Corona is a hoax, it’s not any worse than a flu, it’s a conspiracy by left wing media etc., why are all those restrictions being put on us? Inevitably he was called a NAZI for supposedly taking freedoms away from the American citizen in a dictatorial fashion. When I read all that, I started fearing for him – and started praying really hard for him and his family.
This past week, his wife shared that he and his family indeed have received many threats, and that there wasn’t only verbal and physical harassment happening at his office, but that it has spilled over to their home. And she said, ‘I can understand why so many health commissioners around the country have quit. How can they do their work under such circumstances, in such a hostile environment?’
And I am appalled, disgusted even, and angry. Is this how we treat each other? Has the climate in this supposedly Christian country come down to this, literally come DOWN to this, fostered by political leaders who don’t seem to know how to have civil discourse anymore? I understand that people have different opinions on the whole Coronavirus thing, that people are affected differently, and that guidelines and restrictions hurt many financially – that there are people out there who are frustrated. But to attack and threaten someone who is doing his best and is constantly reviewing scientific findings to inform his decisions – someone who truly cares about his neighbors and wants to prevent unnecessary suffering and death – is despicable.
But, ah, it’s so easy to kill the messenger when a whole societal and economic system is built on a foundation, which is actually pretty weak, because it disregards the basic needs of its most vulnerable members. But then, as we see in the story of Jeremiah and countless others who have spoken the truth in a hostile environment, this is nothing new.
Jesus of course knew about that. After all, he was executed for telling an inconvenient truth. In today’s gospel, he doesn’t beat around the bush as he tries to prepare his disciples for what is to come.
‘As you tell them the truth of God’s kingdom, in which everything will be turned upside down and the powers of this world overcome, in which the last will be first and the first will be last, in which those who are able to humble themselves for the glory of God and the sake of their neighbor will be lifted up – as you tell them this good news of God’s kingdom, you will encounter opposition, even hostility.
For there are too many who are comfortable with the way things are, who don’t want to rock the boat, who just can’t imagine what a world in which everyone is reconciled with one another and with God, in which justice and love reign, might look like. There are too many who, like those formerly privileged exiles, who prayed, ‘By the Rivers of Babylon, where we sat down, where we wept, when we remembered Zion’, pine for the restoration for something that may have been a good thing for them, but not necessarily for others, and who can’t see a different future because they are shackled by the past.
And so of course, there will be divisions, even between family members. But the truth has to be proclaimed in word and deed. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. I’m not saying this is easy. You may be insulted, hurt, even killed. But beware that, in all of that, you keep your soul, you keep your humanity, you keep your integrity, and don’t fall prey to fear and complacency, and don’t settle for foul compromises.’
Now I have to be honest, these words really hit close to home for me. For how often do I chose to mince words, make them more palatable or just stay mum, modify my actions lest I offend someone?
But there is a cost to discipleship, a cost to follow Christ. And what does that mean for the times we are in? In times we witness how the dark underbelly of a free market economy is revealed during the pandemic we go through; in times we witness the frustration of our siblings who have experienced harassment and systemic oppression for centuries because of their color of skin? In times that seem to be a-changing the world we are used to?
How do we proclaim the kingdom of God come near, a kingdom of true justice and peace for all? How do we keep our soul, our humanity, our integrity in such divisive times?
I don’t claim to have the answer, but I’ve been thinking and praying about this a lot. And I invite you to do the same. If we need any encouragement to stick to our God, we just need to look at Jeremiah, who may have gritted his teeth, but went through with his mission. We just need to look at so many throughout history who have defiantly stood up to the powers of the day in the name of God and in the name of love. And most of all: we just need to look at Christ, who took up his cross, who died for the truth of a world in need of being cured – who died for you, for me, for the world.
Proclaim this news from the rooftops.
Picture by Maria Oswalt on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German