Sunday, September 11, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "Zone Rouge"

Jeremiah 29:4-14

The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims to all the exiles I have carried off from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 Build houses and settle down; cultivate gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Get married and have children; then help your sons find wives and your daughters find husbands in order that they too may have children. Increase in number there so that you don’t dwindle away. 7 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare. 

8 The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: Don’t let the prophets and diviners in your midst mislead you. Don’t pay attention to your dreams. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I didn’t send them, declares the Lord.

10 The Lord proclaims: When Babylon’s seventy years are up, I will come and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 I know the plans I have in mind for you, declares the Lord; they are plans for peace, not disaster, to give you a future filled with hope. 12 When you call me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you. 13 When you search for me, yes, search for me with all your heart, you will find me. 14 I will be present for you, declares the Lord, and I will end your captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have scattered you, and I will bring you home after your long exile, declares the Lord. (Common English Bible)

“Contextual Chaos: How to Stop Taking the Bible Out of Context,” Week One

In most every church I visited in Scotland, there was a monument or memorial of some kind to the Scots from that area who were killed in “the Great War,” or World War I. The big grandpappy of these memorials is the shrine in Edinburgh castle, with the names of all the dead, all the tens of thousands of them, inscribed for eternity in massive tomes along a solemn stone hallway. And cast throughout Scotland, there are memorials in its image, giving honor and dignity to those who died in both world wars in the fights against reactionary ideology and fascism.

But perhaps the most profound, most moving, and, really, most disturbing memorial—of a sort—to the First World War’s western front that I have ever heard of is the front itself, the Zone Rouge, or Red Zone, in France that covers some 460 square miles of battlefield. Those 460 miles got their Red Zone label by having been rendered completely unfit for human habitation as a direct result of the war’s privations and consequences. As the French government documented, verbatim, in its assessment of the Zone Rouge after the war, “Completely devastated. Damage to properties: 100%. Damage to Agriculture: 100%. Impossible to clean. Human life impossible.”

Tens of thousands of pounds of unexploded shells, grenades, and ammunition are recovered from the Zone Rouge annually, but even at that rate, it is estimated that it will be another 700 years before the Zone Rouge is returned to its pre-1914 state.

In four years of war, humanity turned a swath of land larger than from here to Portland and out to Clatskanie and back uninhabitable for a length of time so great that if the war had taken place when Robert the Bruce won Scotland’s independence against Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the land would only just now be habitable again.

That is the sort of dimensions we are forced to talk about, required to talk about, and need to talk about when we discuss the overcoming of strife on a truly grand scale. It is a dimension that we fail to take into account, I think, when we approach the prophet Jeremiah in the Hebrew Bible, and especially with his famous pronouncement in 29:11 that God has a plan to prosper us, a verse that we take out of its context and, in so doing, completely ignore the dimensions of strife that Jeremiah is prophesying all around that singular verse that we so frequently cite and cherish.

This is a new sermon series for a new season—summer is at long last giving way to autumn, and after an entire summer devoted to a verse-by-verse series (our exploration of the life and reign of Solomon), we will be returning to three thematic sermon series, one after the other, to get us from here to—believe it or not—Christmas! And the first of these thematic sermon series concerns a habit that I often see, whether in everyday conversation, or on social media, or even by other pastors that I see in the papers or on the telly: taking verses of Scripture out of context.

(The best—and funniest instance—of this I’ve seen is a cartoon of a fellow trying to remove the lid of a pickle jar and in between grunts of effort, recites Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” to which his wife says, “Twist the lid, Tom, not Scripture.”)

It is a mightily tempting vice to engage in—after all, you’re citing Scripture, what could be wrong about that? Well, first of all, Satan cited Scripture to Jesus in the wilderness, so it is possible to use Scripture for ill just as surely as we use it for good. But by taking chapter and verse out of the remaining chapter—or chapters—that surround it, we treat the Bible less like a book (or a collection of books, really) and more like a collection of fortune cookie wisdom: eat a cookie, or a communion wafer for that matter, get a verse.

And that is simply never how Scripture was intended to be used. The original manuscripts of the New Testament do not come with chapter and verse annotated into them—all of that came from later compilers. So let us, if we are to remain true to the original spirit of the authors of our sacred texts, try so far as we are able to set aside the taking of a single verse and instead look at some of the most famous verses from Scripture and (a) actually see from whence they came, and (b) understand how we can move away from taking such verses out of context and start taking such verses to heart!

We begin this series, then, as I said, with one of the most famous pronouncements of the prophet Jeremiah: that God knows the plans that God has for you, and they are plans for peace, not disaster, and of a future filled with hope. So of course we’re apt to take something like that out of context for the sole reason that it reassures us, it makes us feel good. And that was surely part of the prophet’s original intent as well when he preached those words on behalf of God.

But we are not Jeremiah’s original, or even likely intended, audience. Jeremiah is what we call an “exilic” prophet, meaning that his career coincided at least in part with the exile into Babylon of the Israelites after Nebuchadnezzar II sacks Jerusalem in 586 BCE and, per Babylonian wartime policy, takes Jerusalem’s religious and political leaders into exile in Babylon, and it is to those leaders that Jeremiah writes this passage from chapter 29—it’s a letter to them, written from Jeremiah. Babylon’s exilic policy had the twofold effect of both decapitating a conquered peoples of its leadership while also centralizing the best and brightest of Babylon’s conquered subjects all in one capital city.

And that circumstance is simply not our own. How could it be? This church and this town are our home, we are as far from being exile as we possibly can be. So we have no way of knowing from our experience what Jeremiah is really talking about, instead we have to learn it for ourselves.

This verse and passage from Jeremiah 29 really begins two chapters earlier, in chapter 27, as the themes of a God who is in ultimate control of the peoples’ destiny in spite of the terrible lot they find themselves in really begins to take shape as a driving force of Jeremiah’s theology. For Jeremiah, God is still in charge, even as God’s people face defeat, humiliation, and ruin. His bottom line is that God is still active, still reigning, and still seeks real change from Israel—and from us—towards good.

In chapter 28, this message comes to a head in a back-and-forth with a priestly opponent of Jeremiah, a man named Hananiah. As for the contrast between the two, I’ll borrow here from the Hebrew Bible scholar Louis Stulman, in his Order Amid Chaos commentary on Jeremiah:

Hananiah represents a belief system of a hopeful future without the dissolution of the old world order…His “ideology of continuity” accepts the old ways…(For) Jeremiah, such a view is misinformed and in stark opposition to long-standing prophetic tradition. Hananiah is out of touch with the historical moment and with the sovereign claims of YHWH which demands definitional transformation as prerequisite to new world constructions. Jeremiah sees “transformative discontinuity” as a necessary component for fresh networks of hope.

What does all that mean? It means that a person like Hananiah, who is trying to shut Jeremiah up for a fool, represents the mode of thought in a crisis that if only we could get back to the old way of doing things, everything would be okay. Except, well, a saying about the definition of insanity comes to mind. You don’t do something over and over and rationally expect a different result. But that is precisely what Hananiah does, which is what spurs Jeremiah’s rejoinder, which at least thematically, does carry over from chapter 28 into 29.

And that rejoinder boils down to one simple truth, one immutable reality in which we must live our lives: hope must arise out of an encounter with suffering.

Hope cannot arise out of a vacuum, otherwise, what would you know what to have hope in, or to hope for? No, hope, true hope, can only come once we realize and understand the full scope and scale of just how deep the strife in this world really is. Only until we can grasp the true depth and profundity of the existence of something like the Zone Rouge, a wasteland so deep and so barren that for hundreds of years it can only ever be a wasteland, only when we arrive at that level of knowing, can we even begin to reach for hope.

Because yes, the Zone Rouge is still a wasteland now. But hundreds and hundreds of years from now, the hope is, it may not be.

Yes, Israel is in exile now. But the hope is that decades and decades from this prophecy from Jeremiah, they will no longer be. And that hope is borne out. Only about fifty years after Nebuchadnezzar II sacks Jerusalem, the Persian monarch Cyrus the Great in turn sacks Babylon, liberates the Hebrews, and allows them to return to their homeland to worship God as God has called them to do.

And until we can empathize with the sheer depth of Israel’s desire, of Jeremiah’s desire, to be loosed of the shackles of imprisonment and exile, only then can Jeremiah’s words of God having plans to prosper us, to give us peace and a future filled with hope, only then can those words really mean to us what they were meant to mean when Jeremiah spoke them, and not a microsecond before.

Put a different way: Jeremiah 28 and 29 are written for and to the people who lost a loved one on September 11, 2001. It is written to those experiencing that magnitude of suffering, and are in need of hope equal to their suffering.

We do not get to claim a stricken peoples’ need for hope as our own. We have not earned that right and that privilege. We do not get to push the fast-forward button towards hope when we have not immersed ourselves in the pain and hurt of the people who gave us this verse-long expression of hope that we have co-opted and claimed as our own.

We do not get to treat Scripture, or our own theology, so haphazardly and recklessly.

So rather, let us be patient with ourselves, and with God, that what we need to know, in this life at least, will indeed be revealed to us, whether today, or tomorrow, or years later…in God’s good time.

May it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 11, 2016

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