Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9; Timothy 2:1-7
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
Of all the prophets in the Old Testament, Jeremiah’s story is the most heart wrenching. Sure, Elijah gets chased by Jezebel and her band of Baal priest goons, but he also gets to ascend into heaven in a sun chariot. Poor Jeremiah doesn’t want to be a prophet in the first place—though he seems to have been assigned the job before he was born—and the end of his life brings him only exile with a disobedient people—his fellow Hebrews—to the land of Egypt after witnessing Jerusalem captured by the Babylonians and the Temple destroyed. To his credit, Jeremiah is never falsely optimistic. In fact, he is pretty pessimistic throughout his writings as he points out the conviction to sin his people have adhered too instead of choosing the God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Much of his writing reflects the pattern: sin, judgment, lament, sin, judgment, lament over and over again. It was as if Jeremiah knew this would be the pattern of his people and that it would lead to their destruction and try as he might, he could not persuade them, convince them, or even heal them of their sinful nature that drove them away from God.
Though Jeremiah speaks of the sinful nature of God’s people and the judgment that incurs, his most expressive and touching writing is the lament he shares with God over this pattern of behavior. Note the language of our reading from Jeremiah today: grief, my poor people, we are not saved, I am hurt, I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me, I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people. The prophet speaks the word of God. These are words of great suffering and despair. They are a lament that cannot be soothed. The God who cries these words is not a God of wrath, but a suffering God, a God who is desperate in his grief and loss of that which is most precious to him—us. This is a God of compassion.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “You show your humanity by how you see yourself not as apart from others but from your connection to others.” I think God has been seeing his connection with us long before Jesus was born. The challenge for God has not been in judging us, but in allowing the free will that, more often than not, distracts us from our relationship with God. Think about it. The moment Adam and Eve plucked that piece of fruit and ate it, they immediately became self-concerned. That self-concern then set them apart from all other things, including God. That disconnection led them down the path of self-loathing—the need to cover their nakedness—and shame—their timidness with God and reluctance to walk with him in the garden—and would eventually lead to their exile. Where their hearts had been open and interconnected with the Creation and Creator, now, because their self-compassion began to lack, they entered into a harsh and judgmental relationship with themselves that eventually leads to the belief that questions their self-worth and God’s love for them.
Anthony Ray Hinton was on death row for 28 years after being wrongfully convicted of the 1985 murders of two people in Birmingham. Regardless of how you might feel about his conviction or its eventually being overturned in 2015, his story is one of self-forgiveness and the power of self-compassion. During his arrest and trial, no one would listen to him or even believe him—including his state appointed defense attorney. They wouldn’t even listen to or believe his employer who testified at the trial that Anthony had been at work at the time of the murders. He was angry at the justice system and its failures and he stopped talking—literally. He writes, “When no one believes a word you say, eventually you stop saying anything. I did not say good morning. I did not say good evening. I did not say a how-do-you-do to anyone. If the guards needed some information from me, I wrote it down on a piece of paper.” He was angry and hurt and had given up the deep-seated hope that is tied to our compassion, not our optimism.
That is one of the lesson the prophet Jeremiah offers us. He is not optimistic because he understands the reality of the situation of his people but because he knows that optimism is not the thing that drives our hope. Hope requires something different from optimism. When the sky falls and the day turns to blackness and darkness has seeped into our lives, we find it difficult to be optimistic. We can’t keep it on the sunny side of life, but we can dig into our faith and with the courage of our compassion find the places of hope that yearn for the light God has promised will shine into every darkness.
In the fourth year of Anthony Ray Hinton’s imprisonment, he heard the man in the cell next to him crying. In that moment he says, “the love and compassion I had received from my mother spoke through me and asked him what was wrong.” The compassion of another sparked the compassion within to reach out to one who was hurting. The man told Anthony that his mother had just died. Anthony replied, “Look at it this way. Now you have someone in heaven who is going to argue your case before God.” He had found his voice again and it lived in his compassion. For the next twenty-six years after that night, he worked to focus on other people. He says, “every day I did, I would get to the end of the day and realize I had not focused on my own.” He started a book club in the prison as a means of escape—everyone joined.
During those 26 years, he watched 53 men and 1 woman walk to their death. At five minutes before their execution, he and his fellow inmates would begin banging on their bars. A sound that reverberated throughout the prison, a lament and a cry, “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!” Anthony says of those moments, “We became a family, and we did not know if they had any other family and friends there, so we were banging the bars to say to those who were being put to death, ‘We’re with you, we still love you right up to the end.’” Anthony found love and compassion not only in his mother’s home but in one of the most loveless places in the world—death row. That compassion did not change his sorrow or lament, but it did deepen his joy and his hope. It strengthened him and gave him the courage to keep going, to find healing, to forgive, to lay the burden of judgment—his and others—down.
The words of God that Jeremiah offers an exiled people, a people of little optimism are a reminder of hope. They are the words of a God whose heart has been broken open by the condition of his people—not shut in judgment. When we close our hearts, we cannot find peace and we cannot love. To live with an open heart, a compassionate heart takes courage. It means we are able to feel our own pain as well as the pain of others, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick….For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” We are finally connected at the very foundation of our experience—our suffering. We know suffering at the beginning and ending of our lives and all the times in between. And it is this suffering that connects us to one another and encourages our compassion.
There is something in us that wants to make God a god of judgment because that is easier for us. It is easier to see our differences than it is to see our similarities. I don’t know why that is, but when we realize that we are much more alike than we are different and that the basis of our common humanity is rooted in the same basic desires—freedom from suffering, fear, and anger, and a desire for joy and peace—then it becomes a lot harder to judge and a lot easier to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself.
Jeremiah didn’t want to be a prophet. He knew the people of God too well and how their hearts distracted them from the love of God and drove them to sinful ways. Anthony Ray Hopkins didn’t want to be a death row inmate. And once he was there, he shut down wanting only to wake up from his nightmare reality. Both lament—one in words and the other as a clanging cymbal. And their lament is God’s lament giving voice to the compassion and the hope of our faith.