22nd sunday in ordinary time
Readings for This Sunday: Jeremiah 15:15-21 | Psalm 26:1-8 | Romans 12:9-21 | Matthew 16:21-28
“O Lord, you know.”
That’s what Jeremiah says at the beginning of the reading this morning: “O Lord you know.”
That’s got to be pretty comforting, doesn’t it?—that assurance that God knows, that God is aware of what’s happening, that God is not ignorant, or naïve or absent. I’m reminded of the story of the duel Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal had at Mt. Carmel. They were seeing whose god was better by seeing which god would torch their respective altars the most emphatically. The prophets of Baal start, and Elijah comes out—well let’s be honest—he comes out doing his best Richard Sherman imitation. He comes out trash talking them as they were praying and praying and nothing happened. Our translation cleans it up: “Maybe your god is meditating,”[i] Elijah says. But a more accurate translation is that their god is in the bathroom, in desposed..you know. Baal’s bowel movement.
[i] 1 Kings 18:27.
I mean, come on, you’ve got to love this stuff!
So there’s comfort here. God knows. God is aware of what is happening.God is not ignorant, or naïve, or absent, or indisposed in the bathroom.
And yet, if we give it a little more thought about what God knows, we might start to get a little uncomfortable. God knows that Judah is on the brink of collapse. As Jeremiah writes this. The country would fall within a few decades. The future was dark, but nobody seemed to care.
But we can bring it closer to home too.
God knows that there’s this kid at school who has it out for me. God knows my dad doesn’t pay attention to me. God knows I’m struggling to make ends meet for my family and the deck is stacked against me. God knows I feel trapped in a relationship. God knows I’m deep in depression and I can’t find a way out. God knows I’m at the end of my rope.
“O Lord, you know,” Jeremiah says. “You know that on your account I suffer insult.” You know that my suffering has come because I fell in love with your way—“your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart…” So:
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
And then this flash of anger:
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.[i]
I suspect the truth of Jeremiah’s experience is something that all of us can grasp. Perhaps you’ve felt as much yourself, even to the last couplet, even to Jeremiah’s accusation of God:
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
like waters that fail.
That’s pretty powerful stuff. Are you allowed to say that? Are we allowed to say, “You’ve failed me God”?
The answer, of course, is yes. Jeremiah says it. And so does Elijah, and Job, and about a third of the psalms say essentially that. Jesus says it on the cross. You see, it turns out that our ancestors in faith knew what we know today as well. Our suffering must find a voice. It needs a place to be spoken if it is to not take us over and destroy us. It needs a voice if we ever hope to overcome evil with good.
Or say it this way: God knows our suffering, and it doesn’t destroy God either. If it is anything, lament is language of faith. It assumes that God values relationship and is open to being personally affected by suffering.
That’s the hope that we see embedded in the Romans text. We can love one another. We can outdo one another in showing honor. You can bless those who persecute you, bless and not curse them, because God is a God who suffers on our behalf. And because the Holy is affected by us; God is a God of justice: “Vengence is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
It is hope in this promise that things will somehow equal out that helps us along in this way of faith that goes so counter to so much of what we see around us. It is this promise that among the things God knows, God knows what is fair and right and good and true—that God knows justice. It is the promise that our suffering may have some meaning, even if we never understand what it might be. It is the promise that God lives in the tension that we sometimes know all too well—that God knows this too.
I mean, how else do you explain Jesus’ understanding that his own suffering is necessary? How else do you explain the acceptance of his vocation to “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”?[ii]
—as hard as it is for Peter and for us to believe it.
—as much as we would like it to be different.
God knows Jeremiah’s pain. And God knows yours too. But that’s not all of it. It seems that God also knows mercy. It seems God knows how to wait better than Jeremiah does. It seems that God may just see the bigger picture.
The problem is not God’s heavyhandedness.[iii] It’s not that God doesn’t care. It’s that ancient Judah is sowing the seeds of its own destruction. It’s that most people are living with blinders on. It’s that we are spending so much time in our partisan bubbles and consumptive pursuits that we can’t see the world dying before our eyes.
The problem isn’t God. The problem is there is work to do and Jeremiah is tired. He’s worn out, and he needs something to keep him going. And God knows it. God knows it.
But God also knows that Jeremiah’s life is wrapped up in the life of those around him. They share the same fate.
And so, as much as God knows what Jeremiah knows, and even more so—God knows love too. And God’s love leads to patience, even as God will not stoop to their level or leave them in denial. God knows Jeremiah’s tension because it exists within the very life of God who will let none of it go. And it compels God to compel Jeremiah. Because Jeremiah’s own suffering may just finally compel the people. Jeremiah’s public display of God’s own agony may finally allow the world to turn.[iv] And what else could love possibly want?
Jeremiah must take his peculiar and sometimes agonizing commission as God’s representative more seriously than he has. He is to bear up under the mounting tension between God and the world that is gripping the core of his being. Because this is what he was made for. Because this is what love would have him do. Because God knows.
Ann Lamott knows too. In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, she affirms, “I’m here to be me, which is taking a great deal longer than I had hoped.”
Jesus knew too. Jesus understood his own path, even as his followers did everything to resist it. In Jesus, God again takes on our suffering in order to save our life.
Is it any different for you and I? We will know God’s call in our lives when it makes a path for others to follow, no matter that the way is sometimes hard. And God knows it can be.
And so, perhaps we are left with this one last seed of hope from Lamott’s book Plan B:
“Help" is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn't matter how you pray—with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, "Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.”
And so a final surprise for Elijah and us. Maybe God is in the bathroom after all. And God is certainly with you now. Amen.
[i] Jeremiah 15:18, NRSV.
[ii] Matthew 16:21, NRSV.
[iii] Jeremiah 15:17.
[iv] Cf. Stephen L. Cook’s commentary in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2011), 7.
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