Sermon: It’s Like Burning Fire Shut Up in my Bones

roseBy Rose Berger, preached at St. Stephen’s & The Incarnation Episcopal Church (Washington, D.C.)
June 25, 2017

Jeremiah 20:7-13, Psalm 69: 8-11, (12-17), 18-20, Romans 6:1b-11, Matthew 10:24-39

[Piscataway people on whose land this church stands. Bishop Budde, Pastor Sam, Rev. Linda. The Beloved Community that gathers at St. Stephen’s and the Incarnation.]

The prophet Jeremiah was asked to carry out one of the most difficult tasks ever assigned to any servant of God.[1]

During the last years of the kingdom of Judah, Jeremiah was to prophesy to King and Congress that because of their sin their fragile nation would be subsumed by the Babylonian Empire and they would all forcibly removed to the capital city of Babylon.

For speaking out on this, Jeremiah was imprisoned, opposed by false prophets, threatened with death, and viewed as a traitor.

Yet through him God prophesied the exile and the return of the people of Judah. He prophesied that through this time of exile and return, God we renegotiate God’s contract with God’s people. He would write them a new covenant (31:31-34). One written not on stone tablets, but in their hearts. In their very bones.

So what’s happening in Jeremiah and in chapter 20?

Jeremiah has been provoking a political crisis by undermining the power of the king. He’s been provoking a moral crisis by accusing religious authorities of doling out religion as an opiate of the people, concerned more about rules and protocol than converting the peoples’ hearts to God. He is provoking a theological crisis by claiming that the Temple–as center of religious and political power–had become its own idol. That the very Temple itself, the very workings of the social order, have blinded God’s people to the gift of God’s liberating justice.

To this end, Jeremiah determines that something drastic must be done to get the attention of the powerbrokers.

Jeremiah decides to call in what amounts to a “bomb threat” on the Temple.

In Jeremiah 7, we hear the prophet mouthing God’s own terroristic chatter: “I will tear it down. I will destroy the house named after me, the one y’all put so much trust in. I will wipe it off the face of the earth, just like I’ve done in the past.”

In today’s language, Jeremiah’s call might sound like this: “What do we want? Justice. When do we want it? Now! What’ll we do if we don’t get it? Shut it down! Shut it down! Shut it down!”

The commentators say: “These statements by Jeremiah aroused the anger of the priests and King.”

As a result, Jeremiah was put under a gag order by the government. He was kicked out of the Temple chambers by the religious leaders. He was warned not to speak in public.

What did Jeremiah do? Did he pack up his satchel and go home? Did he lay low until things cooled down? Did he look for a more opportune time to raise his concerns? No he did not.

When Jeremiah was banned from speaking publicly in the temple, he simply submitted his prophecy in writing. He presented a scroll to be read aloud in the Temple before the king and religious reps.

Poor Baruch, Jeremiah’s friend and scribe (36:1-10), drafted up the statement and had to be the messenger. When the scroll was read in chambers before the King, the king became enraged.

The king took out his sword and cut the scroll in two. He ordered both halves to be burned.

Then he issued a warrant for Baruch and Jeremiah’s arrest (36:20-26).

This definitely would have been a good time for Jeremiah and Baruch to slip over a border or take sanctuary in some church. Did Jeremiah do that? No he did not.

Instead, Jeremiah dictated another scroll to Baruch with the same words and the same prophecy against the king (36:27-32). And sent it back to the Temple to be read aloud. Jeremiah persisted in his truth-telling.

This is what it looks like to practice a “hermeneutic of disruption” — not a “hermeneutic of discontinuity” — but a method of interpreting events that disrupts the status quo in order to tell a more fundamental truth.

And so it goes, with Jeremiah persisting in making himself heard by whatever means necessary. And the king trying to shut him up by whatever means necessary. He’s thrown him in jail, flogged, put in stocks for public humiliation. Jeremiah has been warned. Jeremiah is silenced. And yet, nevertheless, Jeremiah persisted.

***

But what happens to our brave rebel in the passage we have today? This passage is called Jeremiah’s Complaint. Here we see the insidiousness of a pervasive narrative of lies and how they seep into our bones.

Here in these verses of Jeremiah 20:7-13, we see that the prophet Jeremiah has internalized his own oppression. Dr. Ruby Sales says, “if we are not careful, we only recycle the very thing we are resisting.”

Jeremiah and buddy Baruch are caught between God on the one hand and Country on the other.

Jeremiah’s Complaint to God in our verses today: You lied to me about how this was going to work. I warned you that I was tired of the mockery. You force me to say things that get me in trouble. I want you God to be SILENT.

So here we see that God has been warned, God has received Jeremiah’s explanation, and God has been silenced by Jeremiah.

And yet …. NEVERTHELESS … God persisted. Even when Jeremiah is determined to “unfriend” God, to block God from his page, when Jeremiah is tired of God not picking up when he calls, even when Jeremiah wants to shut God up the way Jeremiah has been shut up–nevertheless, God persisted. It’s like a “burning fire shut up in my bones” says Jeremiah about the prophetic truth. This is the persistence of God.

**

Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on the prophets. He says that the prophet has to maintain a delicate balance between truth and hope. “In a dramatic way, truth precedes hope. Thus they are related, but in a sequence. It is of course possible to stay too long in such truthfulness, forever critiquing and warning and analyzing. But of course there is at least as much danger, if not more, of rushing too soon to hope, before truth breaks the denial. Hope practiced in denial is no hope at all. Thus a prophetic [community] must have an acute sense about the world and know, in context, what word needs to be uttered and what word needs to be heard.”[2]

I would put it this way: The prophetic action is one which creates a disruptive crisis of truth in the present… by bringing forward wisdom from the past … in order to triangulate on a hoped for future.

**

I want to close with the example I’ve alluded to but not named so far. An example from the Senate hearings on the nomination of Mr. Sessions to be U.S. Attorney General.

I choose this  example in order to put the SACRED TEXT in CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT so that we are more skilled in deciphering our own theological SUBTEXT.

You may recall in February of this year the Senate hearings to debate whether to confirm Senator Jefferson Beauregard Sessions as Attorney General of the United States, as the top law enforcement officer in the nation.

In the 30 hours of debate, an unusual event occurred[3]. Can anyone tell me what it was? The senator from Massachusetts, Democrat Elizabeth Warren, used her time to do what? And what happened?

So let’s slow it down a little bit.

In Feb. 2017, Senator Warren is reading a letter written in March 1986 by Mrs. Coretta Scott King. This is a letter Mrs. King sent to the 1986 committee reviewing whether then-lawyer Jefferson Beauregard Sessions should be given a federal judgeship for the Southern District of Alabama.

Does anyone remember who the head of the Judiciary committee was in 1986? I’ll remind you by reading the cover letter to Mrs. King’s testimony[4]:

To: The Honorable Strom Thurmond, Chairman

Dear Senator Thurmond:

I write to express my sincere opposition to the confirmation of Jefferson B. Sessions as a federal district court judge for the Southern District of Alabama. My professional and personal roots in Alabama are deep and lasting. Anyone who has used the power of his office as United States Attorney to intimidate and chill the free exercise of the ballot by citizens should  not be elevated to our courts. Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters. For this reprehensible conduct, he should not be rewarded with a federal judgeship. …Sincerely, Coretta Scott King

[Why does Mrs. King know so intimately the workings of this particular southern lawyer? Where was he born? — Selma, Alabama. What took place in Selma? In early 1965, Dr. and Mrs. King, under the auspices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference made Selma, Alabama, the focus of the efforts to register black voters in the South.]

So now let’s come back to this past February. Senator Warren decides to “center” the voice of Coretta Scott King in the nomination hearing for Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, just as Coretta Scott King had “centered” the experiences of “elderly black voters” in her letter from 1986. Warren is interrupted in this first by the Senate presiding chairperson and then by the Senate majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, who says:

“Senator Warren has impugned the motives and conduct of our colleague from Alabama, as warned by the chair. Quote: “Senator Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.” I call Senator Warren to order under Rule 19.”

Now this is a rule devised in 1902 to prevent fist fights and dueling between our elected representatives.

The senate then votes on whether or not Sen. Warren has impugned the character of Sen. Sessions. (They do not take a vote on whether he impugns his own character by his actions.)

The senate rules 49-43 that she, Senator Elizabeth Warren, has indeed impugned the character of Senator Sessions. As a result, she was told to leave senate chambers and she was not allowed to speak for the remainder of Sessions’ nomination hearing. After this vote, Sen. McConnell explained his actions. “Here’s what transpired. Senator Warren was giving a lengthy speech. She had appeared to violate the rule. She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

In the meantime, Sen. Warren had exited the chamber and was sitting in the hallway.

This might have been an opportune time for Sen. Warren and her staff to slip back up to Boston or at least off to Starbucks. But did she pack up her briefcase and go home? Did she decide to lay low until it all blew over? Did she wait for a more opportune time to raise her concerns? No. She did not.

Instead, she fired up FacebookLive and gave a 15-minute speech explaining what had happened and read Coretta Scott King testimony in full to an audience of 6 million viewers.

Warren later told CNN, “They can shut me up, but they can’t change the truth.”

THAT is “Like Burning Fire Shut Up in my Bones.”

**

Sen. Warren was acting in the tradition of the Prophet Jeremiah. She created a crisis of truth in the Senate floor by bringing forward the wise counsel and experiences had by Coretta Scott King and elderly black voters from Alabama with Mr. Sessions in order to triangulate on a hoped for future. A future in which the Attorney General of the United States, the top law enforcement officer in the nation, would honorably carry out the words carved over the entrance to the Supreme Court: “Equal Justice Under Law.”

Sen. Warren brought her scroll to the senate chambers. She attempted to read it. Sen. McConnell metaphorically “took out the sword” of his rule book “and cut her scroll in two.”

I am quite certain that he would have burned both halves of Mrs. King’s letter if he could have. “SHE WAS WARNED,” he said. “SHE WAS GIVEN AN EXPLANATION. NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED.”

We too must persist in these dangerous days. We may get tired. We may feel God has betrayed us. But the truth is, to shoplift language from Brokeback Mountain: God “can’t quit us” and we must not “quit God.” We must persist.

Walter Brueggemann writes: “In a dramatic way truth precedes hope. They are related, but in a sequence. A prophetic [community]– and Saint Stephens is a prophetic community — must have an acute sense about the world and know, in context, what word needs to be uttered and what word needs to be heard.”[5]

We must persist in our hermeneutic of disruption for the sake of the truth. Because it is on truth that our hope rests.

So my final words are these: PERSIST, my beloved, take courage and PERSIST as our God has PERSISTED with us! AMEN.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] The Seal of Baruch, Jeremiah’s Scribe by Kyle Pope http://ancientroadpublications.com/Studies/BiblicalStudies/SealofBaruch.html

[2] Prophetic Leadership: Engagement in Counter-Imagination (2011) by Walter Brueggemann http://arl-jrl.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Brueggemann-Prophetic-Leadership-2011.pdf

[3] “Republicans vote to rebuke Elizabeth Warren, saying she impugned Sessions’s character” by  Paul Kane and Ed O’Keefe (February 8, 2017; Washington Post) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/powerpost/wp/2017/02/07/republicans-vote-to-rebuke-elizabeth-warren-for-impugning-sessionss-character/?utm_term=.410559ffdc9f

[4] Letter from Coretta Scott King to Chair of Judiciary Committee (March, 19, 1986) https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/3259988-Scott-King-1986-Letter-and-Testimony-Signed.html#document/p1

[5] Prophetic Leadership: Engagement in Counter-Imagination (2011) by Walter Brueggemann http://arl-jrl.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Brueggemann-Prophetic-Leadership-2011.pdf

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