Sunday, September 4, 2011

Jeremiah's 9/11

A Meditation on the Words of the Prophet: Jeremiah 9:1-24.  "Let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water."


What do you do, what do you say, and how do you begin to pray on next week’s anniversary—the tenth anniversary of 9/11?  I guess I have to confess: I’m ambivalent.  Part of me wants to weep.  Like Jeremiah: 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!  There’s still grieving to be done. 

But part of me wants to cry out in anger—for the missed opportunities in the ten years since, for the miscalculated payback, for the lies and the wars and the awful consequences for thousands of families.  Families around the world.  What do you do?  Do you weep?  Do you cry out? 

But this morning, I’m wondering.  Maybe there’s a more important question.  At least: in the faith community, for those of us in the church.  Does God have something to say—to us?  About 9/11, about everything that’s happened since.  Not the God of America; but the Creator of the Universe, the God who made every human being in the divine image.  Is there a word from that God—as we turn back to 9/11 and think things through and hold our country and her choices up to the light?  How do we read our tradition?  Jesus and Jeremiah and the rest.  Is there a word from the Lord? 
Now Jeremiah was living through his own kind of 9/11.  Out of the east had come warriors, invaders, striking terror at the heart of his people.  These Babylonians—whose ways were strange, whose language unknown—ransacked Jerusalem’s gilded temple; they ravaged the city’s pinnacles, her highest places.  Brought them down.  For Jerusalem, it was like their World Trade Center had been toppled; their Pentagon crushed.  This was their 9/11.  Terror was the Babylonian strategy.  And then those same invaders, they marched Jerusalem’s best and brightest—priests and poets, financiers and scholars, artisans and engineers—they marched them all off into exile.  All the way to Babylon in the east.  Jerusalem eviscerated.  Jerusalem silenced.  Jerusalem traumatized like never before. 

Do you remember those first couple of weeks?  September 2001.  All we could do was watch: firemen digging through the rubble, politicians wrapping themselves in flags, journalists asking ‘what comes next’.      

So Jeremiah’s watching and grieving all these losses—from Jerusalem’s margin, from its edge, from something like today’s West Bank.  Anathoth.  Might be today’s East Jerusalem: geographically close to the heart of things, but culturally distant.  Babylon’s not interested in the Podunk preachers of Anathoth.  They’ve got bigger fish to fry, powerful places to topple and trash.  So Jeremiah’s watching and grieving from the margin, from the edge, from Anathoth.

And what he sees he mourns.  A band of traitors.  Grown strong for falsehood.  They do not know me, says the Lord.  You read these words, thousands of years later, and you can feel this poet’s pain.  Jerusalem is a mess.  A heap of ruins, a lair of jackals.  A desolation without inhabitant.  The holy city terrorized and eviscerated.  Nobody’s safe.  “Call for the mourning women to come,” Jeremiah cries from East Jerusalem; “let them quickly raise a dirge over us, so that our eyes may run down with tears, and our eyelids flow with water.”  See what I mean?  Every word is distress.  “For a sound of wailing is heard from Zion; ‘How we are ruined!  Because we have left the land, because they have cast down our dwellings.’”  Jeremiah’s 9/11.  Israel’s 9/11.  Because they have cast down…our dwellings.


But I want you to notice the turn in this text.  Because this grieving, this weeping, all of this preacher’s poetry: it’s all prologue, preface, prelude.  To the word.  To the word of the Lord.  To the word of the God of Israel, the Creator of the Universe, the God who made all humankind in the divine image.  “Thus says the Lord.”  That’s where this is all going.  That’s where Jeremiah is taking his people.  His shattered, broken, desolate people.  “Thus says the Lord.”

I wonder if you might read these two verses with me, the last two in our reading this morning, that last paragraph beginning with “Thus says the Lord.”  Jeremiah 9.  Take a moment, find it in your bulletin, and read it with me.

“Thus says the Lord: Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom; do not let the mighty boast in their might; do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.”

Let those who boast boast in this.  Now a little bit of Hebrew will go a long ways here.  And that little bit of Hebrew is ‘hallel.’  The word ‘hallel.’  In English, H-A-L-L-E-L.  As in hallel-lu-jah.  Let those who ‘hallel’ ‘hallel’ in this.  Hallel-lu-jah.  That they understand me.   That they know me.  I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.  Let those who ‘hallel’ ‘hallel’ in this.  For in these things I delight.  Says the Lord.

Says the Lord.  In the aftermath of Jeremiah’s 9/11, in the aftermath of Israel’s collapse, in the aftermath of our own 9/11, God indeed has something to say.  To us.  There is a precious and provocative word from the Lord.  “I act with steadfast love.  I act with justice.  I act with righteousness in the earth.”  Let those who ‘hallel’ ‘hallel’ in this.  “For in these things, in these things, I delight.  Says the Lord.”  There is a way by which we turn again toward the light.  There is a way by which we return again to God.  Steadfast love.  Justice.  Righteousness.  There’s hope, says the prophet.  Dynamic hope!  Hallel-lu-jah!  Hallel-lu-jah!

But.  But ‘hallel-lu-jah’ comes with a cautionary word.  So we might say, picking up on Jeremiah this morning, we might say that our national love affair with wealth, with prosperity, has let us down.  Greed has made us mean and ignorant and more than a little bloodthirsty.  Ten years after our 9/11.  We’ve got the Tea Party and a badly broken economy to show for it.  Our love affair with wealth has let us down.  So no more boasting in wealth.  The word of the Lord.  A cautionary word.  No more.

And we might say, with Jeremiah, that our national love affair with might and warfare has let us down.  Has it made us safer?  Has it made us kinder?  Has it made us a more just people?  We’re looking more and more like a flailing empire, like an empire addicted to war and drones and deadly adventures all over the world.  Our love affair with warfare has let us down.  So no more boasting in violence, in might.  A cautionary word.  No more.  The word of the Lord.


Maybe you remember that another Jeremiah, a contemporary Jeremiah got himself into a whole mess of trouble for his preaching in the weeks after our 9/11.  I’m talking of course about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, then the pastor of Trinity UCC in Chicago, the largest United Church of Christ in the country.  He was Barack Obama’s pastor in Chicago.  For a while. 

And in his first sermon after the terrorist attack, Jeremiah Wright lamented all the violence that preceded it.  American violence.  American greed.  It’s a vexing, and a searching, piece of preaching.  “Violence,” he says, in the passionate tradition of his people, “violence begets violence, hatred begets hatred, and terrorism begets terrorism.”  It’s almost like he’s channeling his namesake.  Channeling Jeremiah of Anathoth.  Sure, he’s angry.  At poverty and war and the unholy alliance of big business and the national security state.  But he’s also sad, profoundly sad, and worried.  Out on the margins of American society, the fragile south side of Chicago, this Jeremiah worries that America’s heart turns too quickly to payback, too mindlessly to revenge.

September 23, 2001; and Jeremiah sees it coming.  More war.  More weapons.  More death.  More of his black Chicago kids sent off to fight Dick Cheney’s battles is faraway places.  He sees it coming; and it breaks his heart.  It just breaks Jeremiah’s heart.  It’s really a remarkable piece of preaching.  My opinion.  Worth watching on You Tube. 

But these ten years later, questions abound, all kinds of them.  Was Jeremiah Wright blaming the victim—twelve days after a horrible disaster?  Was he saying all those folks—in New York, in DC, on those three hijacked planes—was he saying all those folks deserved what they got?  That somehow America had it coming?   

Obviously FOX News played it that way; the opportunity to skewer a great progressive and a prophetic black voice was just too good to pass up.  Most of the mainstream media followed along.  The controversy got so hot—in 2008—that candidate Obama had to revoke his membership at Trinity.  An apparent embarrassment for Obama.  And a sad moment in the history of a great church.

But go back to the video of that sermon, to the entirety of that sermon.  Watch it, and I think you’ll find that Jeremiah Wright is much more of a poet than a punk, much more of a pastor than a madman.  Don’t go boasting in might, he says.  Don’t go hunting for payback, for more war, for more violence.  Let those who boast boast in this.  Let those who ‘hallel’ ‘hallel’ in this: I act with steadfast love.  I act with justice.  I act with righteousness in the earth.  Says the Lord.

And then Jeremiah Wright, the pastor, says to his Chicago congregation: I’ve been asking myself all week—what should my response be?  I’ve been watching video of folks falling from those buildings: folks holding hands, black folks and white folks.  And I’ve been asking myself—what should my response be?  To this madness?

And then, quietly, he answers his own question.  This is a time, he says, to his people; this is a time for self-examination.  “This is not a time for me to be examining other people’s relationships with God.  This is not a time for me to be fixing other people’s faith, insisting on change in other people’s lives.”  This is a time, Jeremiah says, for self-examination.  Am I listening to God in my life?  Am I paying attention to God’s word?  Are we spending enough time together?  And am I walking the walk?”

I swear in this video, at this point, you can just about hear a pin drop.  Those thousands of congregants at Trinity UCC are paying close attention to their pastor.  “Am I walking the walk?” he asks.  “Because this is a time for self-examination.”


So that’s what I want to say to my church this week, as we prepare for this tenth anniversary.  Let this be a time for self-examination.  Let us turn, each of us, to God’s steadfast love, to God’s justice—and ask ourselves:  Am I walking the walk?  Am I listening?  Am I paying attention to God in my life? 

Jeremiah opens a door to the heart of the divine.  And here’s what we find there—steadfast love, justice, and righteousness.  And what a gift for us!  What an awesome gift and an awesome responsibility!  So let this be our time, this week, for self-examination.  How am I doing with my neighbors, with my enemies and adversaries?  And how am I doing in my relationship with God?  Am I serious about turning my country toward compassion and a vision of shared prosperity?  In these things I delight.  Says the Lord.  In these things I delight.  How about us?

You know how we’ve got that great energy every week—when we get into it singing GLORY, GLORY, HALLELUJAH WHEN I LAY MY BURDEN DOWN?  Next week I want that to be the most radical, the most political, the most decisive moment in worship here.  Let those who ‘hallel’ ‘hallel’ in God: in God’s grace and God’s mercy and God’s steadfast love and God’s justice.  Let those who sing HALLELUJAH mean HALLELUJAH!  No more boasting for us in violence and might.  No more boasting for us in warfare and wealth. 

There is a way by which we turn again toward the light.  There is a way by which we return again to God.  Steadfast love, justice and righteousness.

So let this be a week for self-examination, for reflection, for choice.  Let those who ‘hallel’ ‘hallel’ in God.  Let those who sing HALLELUJAH mean HALLELUJAH!