Holy Cross Monastery, West Park
Those of us who read the Bible according to the liturgical calendar have spent the opening days of Lent with the thunderings of the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is very un-Anglican. There is no gentle reasoning, no appeal to good sense, to care to see that everyone is incorporated. There is just a roar, a roar of outrage at the injustice of his society and the faithlessness of the people to whom he felt called (impelled) to speak.
It has taken me many years to be able to respond to Jeremiah with anything like profit. For a long, long time I was much more put off by Jeremiah than I was inspired by him, and that is putting it mildly. In my private scripture study I avoided the book, even though I have been studying the Bible with eagerness since I was introduced to Bible study in college. When Jeremiah was read in our services I found that I was tuning out, no matter how I tried to listen.
All of this has troubled me. And it troubled me deeply enough to try to figure out what was going on. If God was addressing me through the words of this most disagreeable prophet, why did I find it impossible to listen to his words?
Well, the answer is no puzzle at all, and at the same time it has proved to be a mystery that has occupied my thoughts for many years. It starts with a simple situation: I don't like being yelled at. I didn't grow up in a culture that admired thundering as a means of communication, and such yelling as we had in my family was always a good deal less than loving. The overtones that come to me with the words of Jeremiah are painful.
Then I have to add our old friend guilt to the picture. I don't have a healthy sense of guilt. I don't know any other American who does. I have some healthy ideas about guilt, but my emotional reactions don't mesh with my healthy ideas. I find that Jeremiah's thundering sets off the most retrograde of my guilt reactions: I feel blamed for everything, I feel like it is "all my fault", I feel that I am guilty just because I exist and that there is no way to get out of this dilemma. Given that I react the way I do, what person with any sense would want to listen to something like the Book of Jeremiah the Prophet?
Of course Jeremiah didn't grow up in our culture, and he presumably wasn't operating with my unfortunate sense of guilt. He lived in a society that communicated with very different ways than we do, and therein lies the difficulty for me. How do I listen to the words of a man who was in so much pain because he saw his people trapped in fruitless, destructive and hurtful patterns of behavior and was impelled to express what he saw with such force?
What I know for sure is that I have to find a way to listen because the problems that Jeremiah saw haven't gone away. Though I find it so difficult to listen to, it is still true that we all too easily push the problems of society and of the poor, about which Jeremiah thundered so loudly, out of sight and out of mind. I can use the very rage that I hear coming from this prophet as a reason to ignore what he is saying: who is going to pay attention to someone who yells like that?
The answer is that I must. Because, difficult as Jeremiah is to listen to, I also hear the grain of truth coming through. God's call is the same as it was 2,500 years ago. The poor, the needy, the helpless, the outcast among us are always the special focus of God's love to the human race, and have a special claim on our love as well. This is so central to our religious tradition that it can hardly be said that we are religious at all if the claims of the poor are not central to our concerns.
And like any decent ideal, the call that we hear to serve the poor has no end. It is always there, no matter how much we have accomplished. We may have done a lot, but there is much more left to be accomplished. And it is just here that I have to be careful. If I am not to be weighed down by my old friend Guilt, I have to be careful to realize that this is not necessarily blame being laid all over me like a blanket.
What my habitual reactions of guilt and pain often keep me from seeing is that Jeremiah is talking to me about love. He's speaking, he's yelling about the love of God directed to us, always filling us more deeply than we can imagine, always calling us beyond what we think our capacities are. Jeremiah calls me to put my love where my mouth is, and to let me be stretched beyond what I think is possible for me.
So one of my Lenten projects is once again to listen to Jeremiah. I need to hear the love that called him and forced him to speak, to cry out. I need to know how desperately important it is to heed the kernel of his message and how far I am from doing it. And I need to know that it is God calling me to this listening, calling me with love, calling deeply enough that it involves some shouting.
Do I find this easy, after all these years of exploring it? No, I do not. But I do need to do it. I really do.