Jeanne Marcus: Darker Valleys

Seekers Church
Jeanne Marcus 

October 21, 2001 – Recommitment Sunday

Darker Valleys

Jeremiah: 34:27-34

Months ago, I signed on to preach on Recommitment Sunday as part of what was envisioned as a series of four sermons by Learners and Teachers that would have a common theme. The first of these was to be on September 16. However, September 11 changed everything, including our sermon plans.

In big and small ways, even the things that have stayed the same since September 11 seem very changed. In my own life, daily things have taken on increased meaning and importance. I take great joy and gladness in my family returning home at the close of the day: and I tell them that more often. And, walking my dog, nothing has changed about the times and places, but the beauty of these autumn days is registering more intensely-the vivid blue sky, the glowing golden leaves, my narrow little street, sheltered by the arching of venerable old trees. I no longer take these things for granted, and so, they have taken on new meaning.

I pay attention to the things that can stand up to the challenge of September 11 — not everything can. The activities, words, and objects that still make good sense take on even deeper meaning; and they take on different meanings as well. Here is one example from Seekers' life together: the Reflection that was chosen to introduce our liturgy for Recommitment season. It is from Elizabeth O'Connor:

"There are certain hours which give a new heart and a new spirit. They are hours when the veil between the spiritual and the material world seems to be rent and when one knows that if all of life could be lived based on what is seen in those moments then it would be closer to what God intended. They are the times of reality in which to make a commitment — a commitment which will be lived out in the valleys, over long dry stretches when the vision is gone but the memory is alive nonetheless."

Before September 11, thinking of the "hours that give new spirit" that O'Connor mentions, I might have imaged times I had experienced Spirit's presence on silent retreat at Dayspring. Now I would also include the hours just after the terrorist attack when I chose to watch two images repeatedly, to remember: first, of the second plane smashing full throttle into its World Trade Center tower, an image of rage and despair. The second was the collapse of the tower less than an hour later, which seems an image of the collapse of a one cherished way of viewing the world: that through our prodigious intellect, willpower and economic resources, we could construct a world exactly to our liking that would most assuredly endure.

Before September 11, words about "living out [commitments] in the valleys, over long dry stretches when the vision is gone" probably would have invited me to envision times when my inner journey was feeling barren, or when my personal relationships were feeling rocky and strained. These personal concerns remain, of course; but they are played out in a world that for many privileged Americans like me is more obviously violent, painful, terrifying and uncertain. Reading the passage now, I envision much darker valleys than before, with the dry stretches much longer, parched and rocky.

What I've been hearing in Scripture has changed: these last months' scriptures are the same we read every third year, but the questions I'm bringing and what I'm willing to hear has changed. For me, this is especially true of our readings of the prophet Jeremiah, whose words have accompanied us almost every Sunday since the September 11 attack. Jeremiah is not an easy companion, but he seems a trustworthy one for difficult times. I still remember how uncannily resonant his words seemed the week of September 11. If you recall, the passage that week began:

"At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-a wind too strong for that."

The passage continued with images of wastelands, of darkness and emptiness, of unnatural silence and of cities in ruins. They seemed to meet me right where I was. Therefore, I have paid special attention to what he has had to say to us in the weeks since then. Today's reading from Jeremiah is the last we will read together: next week, we move on. Today's reading is also from one of the very few extended passages in Jeremiah that is meant to offer hope.

Because his words have seemed such meaningful accompaniment in this time, I would like to spend some time trying to capture Jeremiah's wisdom, at this moment in time when we might be asking just the kinds of questions his writing has always been meant to answer.

To put Jeremiah in a little historical context: he wrote in the Southern Kingdom of Judah during a period when its power had been in decline for some time. It had recently lost its independence and become a vassal state of Egypt; and now the Babylonian army had just defeated Egypt. Judah was just a piece on the checkerboard, handed over from one Empire to another: its location was important, but its political institutions meant so little to the world that this change of imperial masters meant no more than if Judah changed the address to which it sent its tribute money.

Judah should have been developing a robust awareness of just how limited its control of its destiny really was. Nevertheless, it believed that God was on its side: that is one of the things that the Jerusalem Temple meant. Therefore, like a small dog who does not realize its true size, Judah's king soon declared his country's revolt from Babylon. It took the Babylonian army no time to reach Jerusalem, to suppress the revolt, and take the king and his entire court of high-ranking military and administrative officials back to Babylon. They also took along the Temple treasury and most of its precious furnishings.

The dominant thinking in Jerusalem seems to have quickly settled into an official view that things had been scary for a bit, but life was moving on for those that remained. There was a new king, appointed by Babylon, but still in the dynasty of David, so that was good. The Temple still stood, assuring all of God's presence and support: and the city's walls were still high and strong. Jerusalem wanted everyone to start shopping again, so to speak; everything would be fine after an unfortunate short period of instability.

This is when Jeremiah's prophetic mission to Jerusalem began, in that time of unwarranted complacency. What Jerusalem didn't want to see, but what Jeremiah kept impolitely pointing out, is that there would be no real and lasting return to normality; and that, in fact, unimaginably worse was yet to come.

Jeremiah saw only destruction ahead. Moreover, what made this even more painful for him is that he saw there was nothing that could stop what was to come. This is worth emphasizing, because we may be more accustomed to prophetic voices calling us to a repentance that will lead to salvation. The prophetic pattern we most easily recognize is, "Repent and be saved": we're told what to do to get right with God-whether that's seen as closer religious observance, or treating the dispossessed and marginalized with justice and compassion; then, if we will obey, we will avoid evils that would otherwise come

This is not Jeremiah's message. Jeremiah does not hold out hope that any sort of human response is going to stop what is to come. Relying on the Temple as a source of God's protection will not save Judah. Jerusalem's multiple trading alliances will not save them. Playing one military power off against another; its steep hillside location and its high fortified walls; its national army: nothing will save. None of the human stratagems; none of the problem solving; none of the clever attempts at remaining in control; though they may have worked in the past, now all will fail to divert the coming crisis.

When the day came when Babylonian army returned to finish what they had begun the first time, Jeremiah advised, Jerusalem should simply surrender. Surrender would be the only way to make it out alive and in one piece.

All this, remember, when all the other public voices are not even recognizing that anything is wrong. You can hear the anguish in Jeremiah's voice. He is frantic: so much is at stake and no one is paying any attention. Moreover, you can hear the grief — the overall tone of the book is one of grief: both Jeremiah's grief, and God's. It is clear that Jeremiah loves this people and this land; chapter after chapter records Jeremiah's broken heart because no one is listening and that so much of this goodness will be lost.

To those who believe they are in control in Jerusalem, he is such an annoying voice: depressing, whining, de-moralizing. He is inconvenient, too; undermining the pieties and assurances of those whose believe it is up to them to publicly name what is real. Jeremiah is considered a heretic, and treasonous, both. The temple/palace coalition arrest him repeatedly, put him in stocks, put him in prison; they toss him down an empty cistern. They so much do not want to come to terms with what he has to say.

10 years after the first rebellion, as spectacularly unsuccessful as it was, Jerusalem does it again. Judah's puppet king, handpicked by the Babylonians, despite the past, and despite all that Jeremiah has repeatedly warned, again declares Jerusalem's rebellion from Babylon. An unbelievable miscalculation: this time, when the Babylonian army arrived, it leaves nothing behind. It burns both the palace and the Temple; kills off the dynasty of David; destroys the city, and carries into exile anyone who had any importance in the city. Only those with no political power, no position, no learning, no useful resources — only the truly poor — are left behind.

As I mentioned before, today's reading from Jeremiah is from one of his very few passages of hope. Not optimism, clearly, but it is a message of hope. When Jeremiah is writing this passage, the second invasion has not yet come: and he still insists that these days of pain and terror cannot be avoided. Nevertheless, if the people of Judah will persevere through the worst, holding to their faith in God through the days of horror, then there will come a time when God will be experienced once again as the Holy 1 who is planting and building.

Jeremiah says that on that day, it will be like receiving a new covenant. It will not be like former times, when God rescued God's people from Egypt, and later gave Moses the Law on the mountaintop amidst great signs and wonders. This time, the covenant will be quieter, less spectacular, but also more intimate. "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people."

The "new covenant" will be a lot like the old covenant: the terms are no different, nor is the relationship that God is offering. It is new in only one sense: this time, it will be an inner reality, instead of something external. This time, we will each of us know that it is true because we feel its truth in our hearts.

So, when we read Jeremiah this year, what do we hear? I think that Jeremiah wants to show us that there are times when all the ways and means a group has habitually used to build its position have led finally to a very hard situation. We are used to relying on our own resources, our own ways of taking care of business. These may have been founded on some very good first principles; they may have been serving us well for quite a while. Nevertheless, at some point, they have veered away from what is truly life giving, and have even been sowing the seeds of future conflict or dysfunction; but we have not cared to notice.

There may come times when the dynamics that have been put into play have taken a group of people far enough down the road that it seems impossible to stop. Events seem to take on a destructive momentum of their own. Our standard ways of meeting the world no longer yield the results we want; yet we cannot seem to find the new options that can turn things around. None of the places that we have habitually put our trust is helping; nothing is able to bear the weight. It becomes harder and harder to believe that our own efforts will save us, no matter how painful it is for us to recognize this possibility.

When Jeremiah tells Judah to surrender, he is not saying that everyone ought to give up, crawl home and lie down in the fetal position. His is not a counsel of despair and emotional withdrawal. He simply wants people to stop living in a fantasy, believing that they can keep going down a dead-end road because God is on their side. He wants people to look around with clear head and open heart; they should be doing what can be done, but also clearly recognizing the real ways in which they are powerless to make everything work out well.

At the end of the day, Jeremiah tells us, we may find that the remaining options for doing it our way, and using our habitual ways of providing ourselves security, are running out. We may come to the end of what our problem-solving brilliance, our arms, our defenses, our diplomacy and our national gods have to offer us; we learn the limits to what they can accomplish. Then it may be that our hearts turn, and we learn once again that only putting our trust in a Loving Presence that is beyond ourselves can carry us through. Then, says Jeremiah, we will find God's word has been written in our hearts, a new covenant that is the same as the old one, but now we know where to look. God is with us, which may be different than God is on our side. God is with us, just waiting to be found.

Today is Recommitment Sunday. Earlier we stood in the circle and re-affirmed our relationship with and commitment to this small Christian community, this local expression of the Body of Christ, and fragile earthen vessel.

My commitment to Seekers Church is one of those things that has stood up to the challenge of September 11. In addition, predictably, it is taking on different meanings while staying the same. It is too early to know how these different meanings will be named or embodied. Much depends on future happenings over which, it is becoming clearer to us, we have such limited control.

I can easily imagine that our commitment to Seekers during the next year will present us with new questions and challenges. We have already begun to focus more on the larger national life around us, recognizing the faith necessity of speaking in community about our public institutions and decisions. However, these areas present new difficulties in listening to each other, as we have learned in recent weeks.

It likely will be a year in which we will need to be available in new ways to each other's uncertainty, fear and grief. Moreover, perhaps we will find we need to respond to financial uncertainties among us in new and caring ways, as well.

If Jeremiah is a reliable guide, then it is likely that the next year will teach us important lessons about the limits of our ability to solve our problems or to keep ourselves safe through our human efforts alone. However, this Christian community, to which we have just recommitted, can help us remember what Jeremiah also showed us: that God's loving presence remains with us, always: indeed, it is written in our hearts.

After September 11, words and actions take on new meanings. Recommitment to this Christian community today feels like a deeper and more important commitment. Our lectionary readings, like those from the prophet Jeremiah, are pointing us to new truths. Today, Jeremiah teaches that when we have to let go of our habitual ways of achieving security and control, we can learn once again that God's loving presence remains always with us.

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