Jeremiah is listening. He hears the sound of grief coming at him from two directions. From the direction of God’s people he hears wailing and lamentation: women keening, men moaning. It is a wailing that fills the land. At the same time, but from the direction of heaven Jeremiah hears God’s great distress and pain … a wailing that fills the skies.
God’s distress is empathic. If God’s people are in pain, God is in pain.
Because pain is infectious for warm-blooded beings who cannot help but feel one another’s pain, Jeremiah, who is caught between God’s grief and the people’s grief, is himself aggrieved. In a domino effect, Jeremiah, too, erupts in a great wailing and mourning. His own lament spills out of him.
The language in this chapter is chaotic, confused and confusing. It is disorienting. It is impossible to distinguish God’s lament from Jeremiah’s. It is impossible to decipher where one sentence ends and another begins.
Grief is like that. Grief blurs vision and confuses language. It erupts from us in fits and starts, in fragments and shards, in sobs and groans.
Grief is inescapable for we who are mere mortals. But here’s what Jeremiah tells us: that not even God is beyond grief. Even the Immortal One, the Ancient of Days, suffers grief.
As any parent can attest, their child’s pain is a parent’s pain. So too with God. The people’s pain is God’s pain. And we give God plenty of pain, plenty to grieve over.
It doesn’t matter if, as in this case, the pain is self-inflicted. Jeremiah is quite clear on this point. Israel’s grief is self-inflicted. They brought it upon themselves. The trouble they are in was caused by their negligence in attending to holy things.
Sometimes our grief is self-inflicted. We sometimes come to grief by our own fault, our own bad habits, our own lapses of judgment, our own aching too, too much for what is not good for us.
Whether self-inflicted or otherwise, none of us gets to escape grief. Many of us know grief all too well: as an unwelcome but stubborn companion.
Theologian Frederick Buechner is said to have claimed: “In every small town there is enough grief to freeze your blood.”
I look out at the congregation and I know the truth of that sentence: in every small town, in every congregation (after all, we are the size of a small town), there is enough grief to freeze your blood.
Grief is inescapable. But, so is this: frozen things can be thawed, warmed, melted. And this: we have the capacity to warm and thaw frozen places with our presence in each other’s lives.
When Peter, my husband, was ill I wept. A lot. Too often. I wept in doctors’ offices at every new bit of bad news. I wept in Peter’s hospital rooms as he suffered pain. I wept when we were home and some new calamity had befallen him.
We are supposed to be strong and brave for the one we love who is hurting. I was failing at that.
Well, one day I finally managed to apologize to Peter, to say how sorry I was that just when he most needed me, I kept dissolving into tears and speechlessness. Do you know what Peter said? He said he liked it when I cried. He was touched by it. He told me it comforted him and made him feel even more deeply loved and less isolated by his illness.
In his pain and dying, in his grief over leaving this world he so loved, Peter cherished my tears. He was comforted by my grief.
One of the Deacons of this church recently came to grief. A week ago Anne Pritchard fell off a ladder. (I have her permission to speak about this today.) She broke multiple bones in her legs. She suffers from compression fractures and bruised ribs and is in a lot of pain. She has had two surgeries and perhaps more to come. Between the major injuries and the secondary injuries Anne can barely move.
Yesterday I was speaking with her on the phone. She couldn’t stop talking about the cards, calls and visits she has received from Old South Church. The cards are taped to the wall in her room. The e-mail messages are in her Inbox, undeleted. This outpouring of care during her suffering brings tears to her eyes. We have not relieved her of her pain, her grief, or the long road to recovery still ahead. But we have made her burdens bearable.
That is what is so very moving about this passage in Jeremiah. Yes, it is confused, disoriented. It is raw, ragged and guttural. But it is authentic. It is touching. It is profoundly moving the way God weeps for God’s people; and the way Jeremiah weeps for God and God’s people. This threefold wailing, this communal keening is so deeply moving, because each cares so very, very much about the other.
This is warm-blooded stuff. This is what it takes to melt frozen expanses. It doesn’t remove the grief, but it does the next best thing: it makes it bearable.
In some sense our Christian discipleship is measured by the ways we are engaged in this warm-blooded work … this thawing, empathic work … this work of hurting because the other hurts and, in what ways we can, making each others’ burdens bearable.
As a congregation, we do this in myriad ways: a financial grants program by which we send money to tender ministries to those who are among the least and the lost; through our Prayer Box ministry as we receive and pray the prayers left here each week; through our Mission Trips; by participating in benefit walks and benefit concerts and benefit auctions (for the hungry, those with AIDs, with cancer); in our advocacy work with Greater Boston Interfaith Organization; in appeals for emergency relief for those in New Orleans, Haiti, Chile, Pakistan; in pastoral care; in daily ministries here to those who enter our doors seeking succor, assistance, forgiveness, prayers, a listening ear, a kind heart.
We do it by being bearers of God’s mercy. By practicing forgiveness. We do it by studying kindness and expressing generosity.
In the past six months, the clergy of Old South Church have organized and participated in the funerals of three of our own who were homeless. Two men and one woman, all of whom died before their time … who lived on the edges, whose distress was great, whose grief was boundless. We did not relieve them of their terrible burdens of mental illness, addiction and wretched poverty, but we befriended them. We walked with them. We sent them home to God.
This morning we name the warm-blooded ministries of Old South Church’s Congregational Care & Support Committee and its Care Crews. This is not so much to celebrate this ministry. No, we have an agenda! We hope to entice you to participate in one of the Care Crews. We hope to invite you to join those who visit the homebound, write notes and cards to persons in special circumstances, give rides, prepare meals. There are some 60 people who serve on our Care Crews. We could use twice that.
Back to the Jeremiah. Jeremiah is at his wits end. The grief of his people, God’s grief, and his own grief are heart wrenching. It is unbearable.
Biblical scholars are not certain what has so afflicted the people. Scholars suspect it is a drought: a long, parching, horrid, killing drought … scholars suspect that infants and the elderly, cattle and sheep are dying. There is no rain in sight. No end in sight. No help in sight.
Jeremiah hears the keening, the wailing. He is desperate! He cries out to the heavens: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Is there no help, no succor, no assistance, no pity, no warmth?”
Here’s what the Church says: “Yes! Yes! Yes! There is a balm in Gilead. We may not relieve you of your grief, but we will make it bearable.”