Jeremiah 29:1-7, 10-14
Ezekiel 37:1-2, 11-14
If you’ve ever doubted the human proclivity to hear only want we want to hear and, even more than that, to honor and reward the people and institutions that tell us only what we want to hear, you may be surprised to know that there is an entire book of the Bible devoted largely to this phenomenon and the suffering it brings to both teller and hearer.
I’m speaking specifically of the prophet Jeremiah, though many other prophets also had to speak a hard word.
If you have always thought of the gospel as the good news, which it is, you make think it both Jesus’ job and mine to tell you only things that encourage, uplift, and inspire, to give all of us some sweet talk to help us make it through another week.
I am not opposed to that, of course, but I am even more interested in words and actions that facilitate deep healing, lasting change, holy connection, and beloved community.
And that is why I have chosen this week to stray from the Revised Common Lectionary and to draw upon scriptures that might more directly speak to our current situation, which could be understood as, among other things, an unwelcome extension of an already unwanted and painful exile.
I am speaking, of course, of our recent surge in Covid-19 cases, a surge that prompted us to take the difficult step of suspending in-person worship—again—until the numbers come back down to a less-threatening level.
You see, a prophet’s primary job is to tell God’s honest truth—even when it hurts—for the long-term well-being of God’s people. Unfortunately for Jeremiah, his tenure as a prophet to the people of ancient Judah came at a time when the truth was something no one wanted to hear. Namely, that because of their mistreatment of the poor and their worship of other gods, Jerusalem would be conquered by the Babylonians. The temple would be destroyed, the community scattered, and many of the people deported to Babylon, where they would live in exile for some 70 years.
Even after the nation had fallen, the exile had begun, and the people had lost everything, there were false prophets and rulers who insisted that things really weren’t that bad, that the people would be back in Jerusalem in no time, that the God they had ignored, the God they feared had abandoned them, would soon make everything better.
That kind of talk drove Jeremiah mad. “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace,” he said of the leaders’ reassuring and totally baseless happy talk.
For Jeremiah, the problem was denial, the people’s refusal to acknowledge reality for what it was. He understood that only a humble grappling with the truth could stop the people’s bleeding and make room for repentance, recovery, and restoration.
The prophet Ezekiel faced a different problem, that of a people so crushed by the truth, so worn out by suffering, so devastated by despair that they were all but dead, nothing but dry bones. Where Jeremiah confronted a people unwilling to acknowledge the truth of judgment and exile, Ezekiel encountered a people unable to hear a word of hope.
It seems to me that our nation faces both of these problems and more.
There are those, for example, who continue to deny that Joe Biden won the presidential election fair and square, and there are those in such despair about the state of our democracy that they have all but stopped participating in it.
There are those who continue to deny the deadly seriousness of the Covid pandemic or that our local situation is again dire, people who refuse to take any action to protect themselves or others. And there are those so disgusted by this near-destruction of our social fabric and so exhausted by the need for ongoing and renewed Covid protocols that they have not only put their lives on hold but now wonder if they will ever know the fullness of life again.
There are those who have a hard time acknowledging the many ways in which the Biden administration has thus far failed immigrants, voters, and the climate, and there are those who fought so hard against the injustices of the Trump administration that they have nothing left to give.
There are those who are so grateful that our church is still here after 18 months of pandemic separation that they can’t see the ways in which we are hurting, and there are those who are so fed up with separation and masking and not singing that they have dropped out or moved on.
In situations such as these, it would be easy for one group of people to point fingers at the other; it is natural for everyone to be eager to find others to blame. But the truth—God’s honest truth—is that we’re all hurting, we’re all in need of concern and compassion, hope and healing and a future worth living in.
Still, even those of us who want to address the hurts don’t always know what to say. False hope is just another form of denial, and optimism—well, even the writers of “Ted Lasso” know that people-pleasing optimism gets us only so far and that deep healing and true hope requires something much more complex.
And this is where God’s love comes in, as embodied by ancient prophets and the modern-day church. As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says, it is the church’s holy work to (1) “practice grief in the face of denial” by telling the truth, and (2) “practice hope in the face of despair” by telling the promise.
Indeed, truth-telling and promise-telling are what we do most Sunday mornings and many times in between. In showing up for God and one another, we declare the truth of who we are and who God is and we commit ourselves to following the ways of Jesus. In welcoming any and all to Christ’s table and in living out the good news of God’s extravagant love, we proclaim the gift of God’s promises.
Truth-telling sometimes looks like grief, as when we make the hard decision to suspend in-person worship until local Covid numbers come back down. Promise-telling looks like hope when we pray and then choose to do what we can to make God’s promises of love, justice, healing, and community come true.
And sometimes truth-telling and promise-telling means living fully into what
To the exiles who wanted nothing more than to get out of Babylon and return to Jerusalem, God said to bloom where they had been planted.
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take partners and have children; multiply. Seek the welfare of the place where you are in exile—be that Babylon, or YouTube, or a worship service without congregational singing—and pray to God on its behalf, for in the welfare of the place where you are you will find your own welfare. It may take a while, but I will fulfill my promise to bring you home, to restore your life, because I have plans for you, plans to give you a future with hope.
To the exiles who had surrendered to despair and isolation, who lived as if they were already dead, God spoke a word of resurrection.
I am going to open your graves and bring you back to your school and your office and your church pew. And I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will restore you to the fullness of life in your own time. And you will know that I, the Holy One, have done this.
Yes, beloveds, these are trying times, and sometimes we feel it’s all we can do to just get by, whether that is denying how bad things really are, giving in, giving up and dropping out, or something else altogether.
But we serve the God of life, and our God has has plans for our future that involve a whole lot more than just getting by—plans for flourishing and rejoicing, plans for healing and justice, plans for peace and community.
So let us build houses and plant gardens. Let us keep right on living and giving and growing. Let us grieve all we have lost and choose to trust in God’s promises. Let us tell the truth and share the hope.
And let us refuse to let go until we have been blessed.