Pathos Unleashed

Jeremiah 8:18-9:2
September 22, 2013
Mary Hammond

I can’t begin to mine the pathos inherent in the text before us today. It is deep, wide, and raw. Jeremiah lived and prophesied in perilous times of social upheaval and impending catastrophe. While the Israelites of his day gave lip service to God, their lives did not reflect the covenant their ancestors made with the Holy One generations before. Nevertheless, they felt invulnerable. It was unthinkable to them that Jerusalem could ever be destroyed. God would never let that happen! Their denial was buttressed by disinformation disseminated by court prophets, priests, and kings alike.

However, Jeremiah knew better. He warned the people about the consequences of their smug complacency and offensive behaviors. He urged them to return to the covenant of their forefathers and foremothers. He stood alone amid a multitude of naysayers.

For all his efforts, the prophet was ridiculed, rejected, pursued, and dismissed. He was thrown in a cistern; he was jailed; he was threatened with death. With a grieved, vulnerable, and exasperated heart, Jeremiah both loved and persisted. He never gave up, even when he wanted to.

The passage before us today is poetic at its core, with a melange of voices woven together intricately in unbroken succession. Can we even tell who is speaking when? The text does not say. It takes some time and reflection to consider this. Even then, scholars disagree as to whether the primary voice is that of Jeremiah or God, so fused are their hearts.

As Jeremiah weeps for his people, the echo of God’s anguish can be heard. As Jeremiah fantasizes about retreating to a backwoods cabin far removed from the tragedies unfolding before his eyes, we touch the weariness of both his heart and God’s.

The contrast between the pathos of these voices and the impatience of the Israelites is striking. “Is God no longer in Zion?” they inquire, as if they can just command God to show up at their convenience. This is the story of countless humans over the ages who cry out for help when they are in crisis, but as the crisis abates, they are back to their old ways. The people wait passively for rescue instead of making changes in their lives that will lead them to a more viable future.

This passage reminds me of those today who actually say, “We can’t work for peace and justice, because the world has to get worse and worse for Jesus to come back! If we tried to make things better, we would delay the return of Christ!” These, too, are waiting for God to fix everything on their behalf as the world crumbles around them.

“Is there a balm in Gilead? Is there a doctor in the house?” Jeremiah cries out. “Can’t something be done?” he wonders. We, too, pose this question. A “balm in Gilead” most likely referred to the resin from balsam trees used in perfumes and medicines. In ancient times, it was a soothing substance applied to alleviate pain. But in reality, a balm was not enough in this situation. Instead of bandaids, the people needed heart transplants.

Like Jeremiah, we live in perilous times. God weeps, Jeremiah weeps, and we weep. We grieve with God over the destruction of this planet we call “home” as we seek more sustainable lifestyles. We sorrow over humanity’s propensity for war as we pursue the ways of peace. We agonize over the tragedies that accompany mental illness, as we try to pull back the curtain on these realities.

Several years back, an Oberlin College student shared her experience of being utterly overwhelmed by both the sorrows of the world and the limitations of what she, as one person, could do about them. She mentioned the phrase, “compassion fatigue,” which is familiar in non-profit circles that do direct relief work with vulnerable populations. The weary student continued, “It isn’t just compassion fatigue that I struggle with. It is compassion psychosis.”

Do any of you ever feel this?

This young woman was expressing a deep sense of helplessness and paralysis about the state of the world and her place in it. She was trying to figure out both how to love this world with the love of God, and yet how to live with the costliness of such love.

A couple weeks ago, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson spoke at Oberlin College. In their discussion with each other, the audience was reminded how important it is to keep asking questions for which no answers are readily available. Perhaps these are just such questions. They are worth struggling with.

A student recently commented about how comforting it is to read Augustine on the problem of suffering. “It helps to know that, nearly 2,000 years ago, he was wrestling with the same questions we have today. I stand in such a long line of people who have wrestled with these questions,” she said.

In our solidarity and identification with the heart of the Holy One, small seeds begin to bear fruit. Discernment comes gradually. Wisdom is forged through trial and error, step and mis-step. Compassion psychosis gives way to a sense of calling, making the path forward less paralyzing. Weariness is replaced by the strength to love.

The smoldering embers of hope cannot be extinguished by the destructive fires of disaster. Amid the patience of sustained faithfulness, grace slowly and relentlessly multiples. Day by day, bit by bit, step by step, we are empowered to emulate the tenacity of Jeremiah and identify with the pathos of God.

My Spiritual Director considers it a special calling and gift to carry the sorrows of the world with God. Can you imagine a world in which all of her inhabitants did that? It would soon be a very different place. Amen.