This passage of Jeremiah occurs during the reign of King Jehoiakim. In the early days of Jeremiah’s career, Josiah was king of Israel. Assyria, who had conquered Judah was losing its power, and they left the people of Judah alone for a time. King Josiah rebuilt the temple. A version of the book of Deuteronomy was discovered during the construction that renewed their sense of pride in Judaism. They got rid of shrines that honored Assyrian gods. They closed shrines and places of local worship and brought all worship to the temple.
Josiah was killed in battle and Jehoiakim became king. Jehoiakim did not place the same value on religion as King Josiah had. Whatever spiritual ground that was gained during Josiah’s reign was lost under Jehoiakim. In today’s scripture, the people are feeling abandoned by God. But God has not abandoned them, God is suffering with them as they endure the consequences of their actions. The people were lied to by their leaders. There was no one to tell them the truth. That is why God sent Jeremiah.
Our reading for today starts out sad as sad can be. My joy is gone, grief is upon me my heart is sick. Who is speaking here? Is it Jeremiah? Is it God? Perhaps it is Jeremiah speaking on behalf of God, “the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land.” The people are crying out for God. Where is God? Is the Lord not in Zion?
God complains, “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols.” The people now crying out for God, have been worshiping idols. They have not been practicing their faith. They have separated themselves from God and are broken. God is there, but the people have turned their backs on God. Then they wonder why they are not being saved; God is just as anguished at their plight. God, through Jeremiah speaks in solidarity with them. My poor, poor people. Jeremiah asks, “is there no balm in Gilead? Gilead was a mountainous region east of the Jordan River and was known for its balm, a smelly resin from a native tree. The balm was a well-known medicinal ointment. There does not seem to be a balm for these people. The people are too far gone. They cannot recognize truth anymore.
The people of Judah were being manipulated and deceived by the religious leaders who should have been helping them. Instead of encouraging people to repent, the leadership encouraged the people to engage in rituals that were not of God. The leadership told the people everything was fine. The people were told they were in a period of peace, when, in fact, they were about to be invaded. Jeremiah knows what is coming and he knows that he cannot save the people from themselves. They will not repent; they will not see the truth of what is happening.
This sounds eerily familiar. It is difficult to know what is true anymore. We have been purposefully manipulated to distrust science. Some Christians have pit science and religion against one another, as though to believe one, is to forsake the other. It’s as if you believe in evolution or global warming you don’t believe in God. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and author says, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” I feel the same way about God.
Tangier Island is off the coast of Virginia on the Chesapeake Bay. The island is inhabited by an isolated community with their own distinctive accent. The people have earned their living from the waters surrounding the island via oysters and Chesapeake Bay blue crab for hundreds of years. The residents of the island are God fearing folks. They are religious to the exclusion of science. They don’t believe in evolution and they don’t believe in climate change. The irony is that their island will likely disappear into the ocean in less than 50 years due to rising sea levels brought about by global warming. The residents can see that more and more of the island is underwater each year. But they believe it is erosion and a good seawall is all they need. There was a rather famous exchange between Ooker, the mayor of Tangier and our current president. Ooker was being interviewed by CNN about climate change and mentioned his support for the current president, saying that he loves him like a member of the family. The president was so impressed with the mayor that he called him personally. The president told Ooker not to worry. The island had been there for hundreds of years, and he said, “I believe its gonna be there for hundreds more.” The president wasn’t necessarily lying, perhaps he truly believes that global warming is a hoax. But to speak as one with authority over the weather is dishonest. It is a lie to keep the people complicit in ruining our own planet. They are blindly announcing, “Everything is fine!”
God suffers with God’s people. Is there no balm in Gilead to save this island from the encroaching water? In a word, no. They’ve had scientists explain what is happening, but they refuse to believe it. Neither were God’s people saved in Judah. They were slaughtered. God sent a prophet to warn them, but they would not listen. God and Jerimiah can do nothing but lament. They weep,
[a] 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!
We’ve all had times of deep suffering in our lives. One very difficult time for our family was caring for our daughter Kelly because was born with some problems. She had surgery as soon as she was born and she needed another surgery when she was 1 year old. Her intestines were mal-rotated. This meant her intestines could bend back on themselves causing a blockage. A blockage would be a life-threatening situation and we were to go to the hospital immediately for emergency surgery. For Kelly’s first year of life, we couldn’t travel more than an hour away from home.
When she was one she had abdominal surgery to reorient her intestines. While they were there, they removed her appendix and inserted a piece of gortex in her chest to reinforce an area would pooch out when she cried.
The surgery was at Children’s hospital. I stayed with her through the night. The only way she would sleep is if I held her. They have those magic chairs at Children’s hospital. It is a chair by day that transforms into a bed by night. It is not a comfortable bed by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, it was a gift to be able to lie down. I gathered Kelly from her bed and laid her next to me in the magic chair. If you’ve ever spent time in a hospital you know that the hospital is not the best environment for sleep. Vitals signs must be checked every few hours. The way Kelly and I were laying did not make that task convenient for the staff. When morning came a nurse had to wake us up in order to do her job. I woke up with a horrendous headache. A combination of dry air and lack of morning coffee made it literally hurt to breath. My body ached from the strange positioning I had maintained through the night to keep Kelly comfortable. My soul ached with exhaustion from the stress of having a sick baby. I remember thinking, this is hell.
Then I thought, no, hell would be if my daughter didn’t need surgery, because she didn’t survive. I quickly talked myself out of my sadness. I was grateful Kelly had survived. I would endure any amount of discomfort if it would help Kelly.
Later with friends I was sharing about my experience. Another mom stopped me. She said, you know, what you’ve been through with Kelly has been difficult. It is okay to admit that. It is okay to acknowledge that pain. The emotional contortions I was putting myself through in order to stay grateful were exhausting. My friend saw that I needed to admit to myself, to my friends, to my husband and to God, that I was suffering. My suffering did not take away from my gratitude that Kelly survived. This was an appropriate time to honestly lament. God was already sharing my suffering.
I found this in my morning meditation from Richard Rohr, “When we carry our small suffering in solidarity with humanity’s one universal longing for deep union, it helps keep us from self-pity or self-preoccupation. We know that we are in this together. It is just as hard for everybody else, and our healing is bound up in each other’s. Almost all people are carrying a great and secret hurt, even when they don’t know it. This realization softens the space around our overly defended hearts. It makes it hard to be cruel to anyone. It somehow makes us one-in a way that easy comfort and entertainment never can.”
I invite you to take a moment to honestly acknowledge your own suffering, wherever it comes from. This is not a time for self-pity. This is a time for us as a community to acknowledge the pain and suffering that exists in our lives and in our world. We are in the suffering together and God is suffering with us. Let’s take a quiet moment to recognize our pain and express it together. In your bulletin we’ve provided some paper for you to write down your hurts, if you are so moved.
 “Tiny U.S. Island Is Drowning. Residents Deny the Reason,” Environment, September 7, 2018, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2018/09/climate-change-rising-seas-tangier-island-chesapeake-book-talk/.