This sermon was preached by Rev. Shannan Vance-Ocampo on Sunday September 11, 2016 at the Northville United Presbyterian Church on Jeremiah 4: 11-28
I do not like today. I do not like September 11th.
That day brings too many memories to my mind.
Bad memories, sad memories.
You see, I had just been ordained, I was less than three months into ministry in the first church I served. Just across the lower NY bay from Manhattan. A congregation filled with members who worked in the financial industry in lower Manhattan. In the county in NJ that had the highest number of deaths in NJ on September 11th.
So, I remember today. I remember every minute of it and what happened. How we had members of our congregation and community missing. How a Session member’s husband never came home that day. An emergency meeting of clergy in the area, huddled in one of the church buildings trying to figure out what to do and how to be leaders.
Co-leading an interfaith worship service later that day in the evening in one of our churches. The pews filled with shocked, grieving people. Families who didn’t know if their loved ones would return. People in business suits coming in off the boats streaming over to NJ from NYC–their clothes covered in soot and sitting down in the Sanctuary.
And I remember the day after being asked to come to the local hospital, the chaplain there was overwhelmed and needed help. People were checking into the ER because they were in shock and some were suicidal. I sat in a draped off makeshift room with a young woman a few years old than myself and her husband. Pregnant with their first child. She had to run out of the Towers where she worked and was caught up in the dust cloud as the buildings crumbled. And she was now miscarrying her baby on the day after.
I remember all of these things. They are seared into my memory. I remember being in stunned shock for days–doing my job, being a pastor, but really not knowing what to do other than hold many hands and give many hugs. And listen.
I remember the sky, the color it turned over my office. The smell in the air even in NJ.
Then I became angry. My anger and rage at what happened was very great. I wanted someone to pay for what had happened. I started to believe that war was a good idea. I celebrated the idea when I watched TV in the evenings. I began to turn my back as a Minister of Word and Sacrament on the Gospel I had promised to uphold. I wanted violence. I wanted the quick fix. In my anger I forgot about Jesus.
Thankfully as in most things, God intervenes.
And when God intervenes it doesn’t always knock you over the head. So we need to stay watchful for where the Holy Spirit is about to come into our lives and do a New Thing.
God intervened in the form of a person, a Roman Catholic priest–Rev. John Dear. About a month after September 11th I went to a conference I had previously signed up for that he led. And John ministered to us. He re-taught me the Gospel I knew from the congregation that raised me. He re-reminded me about the Jesus of Peace. He re-renewed my faith in nonviolence. And my soul that was sick with violence was healed on that weekend. And I went back to my ministry and my life reminded of the God that loved me, that loves this world, that calls us to love others, and is insistent on peace and not violence.
Ever since October of 2001 I have dedicated my ministry to peacemaking and nonviolence. And I have never looked back.
I do not tell this story about myself in order to draw attention to me, or to what happened in my life fifteen years ago. Thousands of people have their own individual stories. Every one of them is a sacred story. Mine is just one of those.
I tell the story to bring out the power of anger and what it can do to someone.
What it can do to your faith.
What it can to do your heart.
What it can to to your soul.
How it can damage your relationship with God.
My anger started to consume me. And it started to turn me towards the things that would turn me away from God in the most significant way there is: in turning me towards violence.
Anger can cloud your judgement.
Anger can make you act irrationally.
And anger can in the most uncontrolled circumstances–turn you away from God and lead you towards sin.
As a Presbyterian I believe in the power of Confession–that act we undertake at the beginning of each time we gather for corporate worship. But I also believe it in my own life. So every year I tell this story as part of my Confession. How anger consumed me, thankfully it boiled hot in me for only a month. Now I am only sad. How anger pushed me to supporting war and violence, how anger got close and whispered in my ear that visiting pain and raining down death from the skies onto whole communities, many of them filled with children and innocents would somehow be acceptable and that I could reconcile that with my faith in a loving and peace-filled God–believing somehow in some sort of twisted way of thinking about justice that had to do with the world, but not with God.
All of this as I look back it today was sinful.
I was sinful.
I had let my anger control me–eat up the space in my soul intended for God. And anger had taken over and I had forgotten God. It wasn’t until I arrived at this retreat and someone ministered to what was broken inside of me, that I got my bearings. I look back at that now, just a few months after being ordained to serve as a Minister of Word and Sacrament–and charged to lead other people to relationship with God–how scary that was. I would have lost everything to my anger, and as a leader in the Church–If I hadn’t been turned back around, I fear I might have taught anger to those in my care. And rather than being the pastor who brought people to God, I could have been the one that taught things that kept us far from God. I am so grateful for that retreat in October of 2001. I am so grateful for John Dear, for the moments I had with him that weekend, and for some other moments of ministry I have been able to share with him after that day. I am so grateful that God gets involved in our lives and jumps in at just the right moment. And I am so grateful that my heart still had one crack open in it, hardened by anger as it was in that moment–to notice when the Holy Spirit showed up while sitting in a retreat.
What does all of this have to do with Jeremiah? This passage we have heard in worship today is difficult, confusing–it talks about the destructive power of God–perhaps an angry God. Jeremiah talks about a “hot wind” that will not be selective, but will destroy everything in its path. Passages like this in the Bible startle us because there isn’t a conclusion to them, there isn’t a redemption at the end. One commentator puts it this way:
“Two of the prophet Jeremiah’s contributions to the history of the tradition especially stand out. One is the bringing forth of the new covenant between YHWH and the people of Israel. The other is his fidelity to God in the face of great odds.”
Jeremiah is known to be a prophet who is in for the long haul. He spent decades of his life talking about God and the Mosaic covenant. In the passage before us today, we are early in his life, Jeremiah is a “young prophet.” Jeremiah spends much of his early “career” as a prophet in describing all the works and rituals that can get you right with God. Eventually, nearly 30 chapters later we hear these verses from God:
“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)
Jeremiah realizes many chapters later, many decades later, in his life that life and obedience to God isn’t all about actions–but about deep soul-work, living with God in your life and in your heart. A changed reality–what some call an experience of rebirth.
But, today’s passage shows us a Jeremiah who is desolate on the inside. He can only imagine God’s power as scorching, hot and angry–killing everything in its path. He cannot imagine another way forward and his blinders are on. There is no good ending. Today’s passage is about Jeremiah’s soul, and how broken it is because he cannot see a way forward and only sees anger and dislocation–violence and total destruction. We have the long-view on Jeremiah because we, the readers and hearers and study-ers of the Word of God thousands of years later know what happens at the end. But right here, in Chapter 4, where it records Jeremiah in that instant where he is confronted with the recklessness and separation of God and God’s people–there is nothing else but an angry God killing everything in way. An angry God who doesn’t stop for anything, not even a blade of grass. Everything is consumed in the fire. Just like us, Jeremiah doesn’t have a crystal ball–he cannot see 30 years into his future. And at this point in his life he is brought so low, he cannot summon the faith to even imagine the future with hope. All he sees is violence as the way forward.
Kill everything, absolutely everything, and then start again.
So where are you in these two personal stories I have shared today? Where do you resonate in my story–hear notes of your own life? Where are you in Jeremiah’s story–where do you hear a part that sounds like what has gone on perhaps in your life?
Today’s passage and today’s story is about pain. But it is also about what comes after pain.
The next thing.
As those who believe in God, who trust in God we know a few things for sure:
Violence is not of God.
Violence is not God’s Plan for our lives.
The winnowing in our lives may be very difficult.
Things may change in ways we do not want them to.
Life can be out of control.
Anger is not God’s way for us.
I close with these powerful words from theological Sharon Peebles Burch, whose commentary on this passage helped me so much this past week as I thought about what to say today.
Hear her words as we close:
“Many people today are in the process of reconstituting the values and expectations that are no longer sufficient to their social, cultural, or economic realities…..When people have been forced by circumstances outside of their control to consider alternative views, they often are unable to conceive of anything that might take the place of the ideas they assumed were eternal. If those are ideas are not true, they can see only that their interior landscapes are laid waste, utterly barren and without hope of restoration.
Jeremiah speaks their language. He does not sugarcoat how difficult his adjustments were or promise that all will be well. His message is that God is ever present and that people are equipped not only to survive change and disruption but also to thrive in ways not known ahead of time. Jeremiah’s ability to portray pain, emptiness, and abandonment and yet remain in faithful relationship to God is a powerful message of persistence and hope to people who suffer.”
May God be with you and me in the journey of reconstituting our lives and our communities–maybe in completely new ways – and going forward in hope, love and peace.
Quotes from: Feasting on the Word, Pastoral Perspective on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 by Sharon Peebles Burch Westminster John Knox (2010) pages 50-52.