"The Invisible Blanket"

Sunday sermon from October 6, 2013
Text: Jeremiah 8:18-9:3
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

Jeremiah is a good thing to read in a week when the country feels like it's falling apart. Again. For the past several weeks, the lectionary has led us through the central parables of the Gospel of Luke, and so we have had occasion to think in some depth about Luke's theological relationship with money and wealth. We have attempted to do so with as much theological reason as possible. But now, as the time for reason has apparently evaporated from our national political conversation, so too has the lectionary moved us from Luke's financial advice to the powerful, passionate, probing lamination of the weeping prophet, Jeremiah. For Jeremiah, as apparently for us, the time for reason has past, and it is simply the time for mourning.

At first, it might sound a bit like anger. The city of Jerusalem is about to fall to the armies of Babylon, the exact historical event that Jeremiah has been warning them of for what must feel like years at this point. The Babylonians have a habit of removing their conquered people back to Babylon itself, and so this invasion threatens to separate Israel from the land that God had given unto her; for Jeremiah, there's no explanation for this other than that God is punishing Israel for her failure to keep the covenant they swore together upon the entrance into that land, upon the moment when they stopped wandering through the wilderness so many generations ago. And of course it's not bad enough that the Israelites disobeyed God and brought this wrath upon themselves; they haven't even particularly listened to Jeremiah, even though he did at one time have the ear of the King, but they have wanted nothing of his visions. Nobody likes the bearer of bad news. So yeah, it sounds a bit like anger: "Oh, that I had in the desert a traveler's lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them! For they are all adulterers, a band of traitors ... they have grown strong in the land for falsehood ... they proceed from evil to evil."

If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because the current media climate in this country is saturated with this strain of Jeremiah. I told you this was going to happen - we saw it two years ago, and I said then that this was just going to keep happening, and you didn't believe me or you all still voted them into office or frankly we just get the politicians we deserve and you all get the politicians you deserve and Oh! that I might leave my people! Canada seems nice. Australia, maybe?" But there's something more than anger in the words of Jeremiah this morning, and something more than anger even in the bickering and self-aggrandizing loud-mouthing that accompanies so much of our modern political discourse. There's something more than anger: it really is mourning. It's lamentation. With the enemy very much at the gates, and hopes of some obvious deliverance dashed, as destruction of his country becomes more and more evident, Jeremiah's righteous anger descends into grief. "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."

And of course it's not just theoretical. Jeremiah's not just grieving over what he watches on TV. No, quite the opposite: Jeremiah's grief could hardly be more personal. With the enemy at the gates, it is his friends, his family, his home, his people: this isn't the prophet simply annoyed that he lost a political argument, though I think elsewhere in his prophecy we might find exactly that. No, here in the eighth chapter it is a grief we, too, know all too well: the grief of loss. The grief of decay. The grief of inevitability and despair and death. The place he knows is about to die. The people he knows are about to die. And so I do think we know this grief all too well but do not confuse it with the outrage over a political machine that so rarely bends itself to our collective will; no, Jeremiah's grief is nothing so remote. Rather it is the much more intimate and much more devastating grief that normally attends the daily experience of being human: the grief of loss, the grief of decay. The grief of inevitability and despair and death.

I don't know each of your stories as well as I would like but I feel sure that grief has found you in some shape or form; it may be the memory of the distant past or it may still have its grip upon you this very morning. Perhaps it waxes and wanes with the changing of the seasons; perhaps it is a day in the calendar that pushes you to some unwanted memory. Jeremiah says that dismay has taken hold of him: that's exactly how it works, of course; grief takes hold of us and will not let us go and all of a sudden the world darkens. C.S. Lewis, after the death of his wife in 1960, put pen to paper and chronicled the journey of his own grief. He published those notebooks, under a pseudonym, as the collection called A Grief Observed. He says this:

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid ...At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. And grief still feels like fear.

The invisible blanket. Whether in sackcloth and ashes or simply the traditional black of the mourning widower, humanity abounds with ways of marking and making distinctive the time of grief and the activity of grief, an acknowledgement that grief separates us from the world and with that blanket wrapped around us it makes the world see us as through a fog and it makes us see the world as through a fog, as though life had somehow lost focus in our grief and as though to those on the outside we have somehow ourselves gone out of focus. It's like we think grief is its own kind of mental illness, like it brings with it some kind of irrationality that requires us through custom and costume to quarantine those who grieve. You know, David just hasn't been the same since she died; or, you know Susan just isn't herself anymore, like something of their fundamental humanness left alongside whoever left them. Be it self-imposed or simply the function of the long habit of the human race, there's something dehumanizing in how we think about grief, like those who are lost in mourning have somehow lost their equal citizenship, like even when we ourselves find ourselves wrapped in that invisible blanket that it deprives us of some fundamental standing in communities that otherwise love and uphold us. There's something wrong in how we think about grief, like grief is a problem, like grief is a disease, and like grief is a disease that only time can cure.

But let me suggest that in Jeremiah's grief there is some different vision of grief itself. Because Jeremiah's grief is not accompanied by fog or distance or some radical departure from his own faculties. That's the whole point: Jeremiah's grief, Jeremiah's mourning, Jeremiah's dismay come precisely from the fact that even in grief, especially in grief, he is resolutely still the prophetic witness to the truth of Jerusalem: that her citizens have broken covenant, that her people have been unfaithful in the eyes of God and to the laws of God, that Jeremiah alone is the one who sees the world as it is. Surrounded as he may be by a blanket of grief, it does not preclude him from seeing the reality of the world; in fact, it may be that, given the inevitability of destruction and the reality of Israel's political situation, it may be that the ability too see the world as it is and the necessity of grief are fundamentally intertwined. "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!" My eyes a fountain of tears. We so love to pretend that grief exiles us from the reality of the world. But for Jeremiah, to see the world as it is is to see with a eyes that are fountain of tears, to see with the eyes of those who mourn, to see with the eyes of grief.

All of which means that, for Jeremiah, grief itself is not the problem. Grief itself is not the disease. No, for Jeremiah, the world, of course, is the problem. The brokenness of the world is the problem. Injustice is the disease. Human frailty is the disease. With Jerusalem on the brink of destruction, violence and hatred are the disease, and grief is the natural human result of seeing the reality of the world with healthy, unshielded eyes. Grief is that moment when we see the world as it is: not when we change the channel to find something a bit lighter than the evening news; not when we medicate ourselves with cheap entertainment or easy living; not when we do whatever we can just to tune it out. In a too-sick-and-unreasonable world, grief may be the healthiest and most rational response. Of course there are times for each of us when grief grips us and we cannot let it go. But how many more times, given a choice between seeing the broken world as it is and distracting ourselves with something so much more digestible, how many more times have we hid our grief somewhere deep inside and simply pretended not to see. So grief may feel quite a bit like fear, but in actuality it takes an extraordinary amount of courage. Opening our eyes, encountering the world as it is, it takes an extraordinary amount of courage. No wonder Jeremiah wants to run away -- "Oh, that I had in the desert a traveler's lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them!" - but the faithful choice, the right choice, the courageous choice, is to stay even in the midst of destruction and grieve.

Of course it is an impossible task and an impossible request and in this text it is only made possible even for such a one as Jeremiah by the good news of the Gospel, which is that God is in this grief. In fact you may have caught in our text this morning a deep ambiguity, which is that for the length of this lament it sounds for all the world as if it is coming from Jeremiah's voice and then at the end concludes with "Thus say the Lord." Now, given the details there's simply no way that these words of mourning are not to be heard from Jeremiah's lips. But somewhere along the line they have also become God's words of mourning, God's words of grief, God who weeps like Jeremiah for his people and sees like Jeremiah the world as it is, so much so that their words echo in unison: "For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me." There's simply no way to read this lament and not find God and his creation weeping side by side.

But God is in this grief not simply as companionship, but with purpose, because in God's hands our grief has the capactiy for transforation. Because the unhappiness of seeing the world as it is is inextricably bound to the capacity to imagine something more beautiful and more righteous and more like to the prophetic vision of God's justice. This is, of course, Jeremiah's fate in God's hands: that even as he mourns the destruction of the city, and even as he loses himself to grief, Jeremiah remains an instrument of God's promise and God's covenant and God's mercy. In fact it is precisely in his grief, in his prophetic vision of the world as it is, in his prophetic vision of the world as it could and will be that Jeremiah finds his place within the grand scope of God's providence. The words of this prophet plant themselves deeply in the imagination of his people, and with God's help, and with God's vision, and by God's grace, Jeremiah's grief becomes a powerful tool for the transformation and redemption of Israel, for the redemption of God's creation. Grief is not a detour in the journey that God calls Jeremiah to walk; much to the contrary, grief is the journey that God calls Jeremiah to walk. The question for us is to wonder how too we might serve the transformation of the world, how we might find ourselves within the imaginative scope of God's providential redemption, if we can but muster the courage to grieve?

It's this invisible blanket that we carry around with us. It's this invisible blanket that helps us see. For me it calls to mind the blue security blanket that Linus always carries with him in all of the Charlie Brown comic strips that littered my childhood. If you don't know, one of Charlie's friends is a young boy named Linus who has a deep psychological connection to his blue blanket; he carries it with him everywhere he goes, much to the mockery of his friends and peers; much to the chagrin of his parents. The blanket marks Linus as just a bit unhinged, a bit unhealthy, a bit abnormal. A repeated gag over some period of the comic strip's life was that Linus's grandmother in particular was dead-set on permanently depriving Linus of his blanket -- you see, he's too old for that kind of thing; he needs to grow up and face the world; what's he so afraid of carting that ridiculous blanket around? And so Linus would inevitably return from a visit to his grandmother's house with some harrowing story of how his blanket had just narrowly escaped capture or separation or, God forbid, destruction.

But for as much suffering as the the blanket brings to Linus, the truth is that, over the half-century-long course of the comic, Linus's blanket accomplishes some amazing things. The truth is that the blanket is never really just a blanket; in Linus's hands, it has a nearly unlimited quality of transformation. It is, on occasion, fashionable: as a neckscarf, as a cape, as a sportcoat; it is, on occasion, utilitarian: as a whip, as a flyswatter, as a slingshot; it is, on many, many occasions, an instrument of joy: as a hammock, as a kite, as, in one baseball game gone awry, a stand-in for second base. The truth is that while Linus is made to feel strange or different because of his blanket, as much as those around him use his blanket to push him aside, the blanket actually does a surprising amount of good, and the blanket creates a surprising amount of beauty. It turns out that it's only when you take the blanket away that Linus goes a bit crazy. But when he has it at his side, when he embraces it as his own, he's the most helpful and most reasonable guy in town. I wonder if the invisible blanket we carry is much the same, and not at all what it seems: that is, this thing that feels like fear but is actually the prophetic vision of what might be. This thing that feels like disease but is actually the measurement of the difference between the world as it is and the world that God calls into being. This thing that feels like horror but is actually an imaginative slice of God's kingdom. Friends, in our grief God is working for the transformation of all things. As Linus might say, that is good grief, Charlie Brown.