“Nitroglycerin in a Crystal Goblet”
Matthew 10:26-39, Jeremiah 20:7-13 Rev. Anne Weirich, January 20,2013
On New Year’s day, I saw a great documentary film called Searching for Sugar Man. It was produced in South Africa in 2012, and is up for an Oscar. If I gave away the end, a summary of the film could be a sermon in its entirety. My pastor friend that I saw the movie with walked out of the theater saying, “Yep, that will preach.” But in the hopes that some of you will download it from Netflix or some other source, I won’t give away the end. The beginning, is another matter. The name of the man being searched for, Sugar Man, refers to a line in a song. The song was written and sung by a man named Rodriguez. The album, as we used to call vinyl records, was recorded in the late 60s. The producer of the film noted that during this era, you could walk in to any white, middle class, Afrikaans home in South Africa and without a doubt, there would be three albums near the turn table. One would be The Beatles Abbey Road. The second would be Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters. And the third would be an album called Cold Fact by Rodriguez. Have you ever heard of Rodriguez? Or an album called Cold Fact? Me neither. But it turns out that Rodriguez was more popular than Elvis Presley ever was in South Africa. In the film, people from South Africa talk about how during the 1940s through the 60s there was massive conformity. In the white, Afrikaans world, there was almost perfect order. The government was strong and had political and moral influence. Apartheid was rampant. Black citizens were completely segregated and highly discriminated against, of course. One man said, “In those days, most of us didn’t have the words to talk about how things might be different. and then we heard Rodriquez sing. There were two little words in one of his songs on Cold Fact that gave us the vocabulary to even talk about anti-apartheid. And those two words were ‘the establishment.’” Which led to talk of anti-establishment. The song this man was talking about is called, “THIS IS NOT A SONG IT'S AN OUTBURST: OR THE ESTABLISHMENT BLUES.” Listen to a few of the verses: The mayor hides the crime rate council woman hesitates Public gets irate but forget the vote date Everyone's protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting you're not like all of the rest Garbage ain't collected, women ain't protected Politicians using, people they're abusing The mafia's getting bigger, like pollution in the river And you tell me that this is where it's at Woke up this morning with an ache in my head I splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed I opened the window to listen to the news But all I heard was the Establishment's Blues.
Rodriquez’ song goes on to list other things that he, like Jeremiah, can no longer keep shut up in his bones. He sang out with deep conviction, in his sweet, strong voice, against all the corruption, the sin and stain of civil rights violations, the wounds of poverty and broken heartedness of industrial pollution. Would it help you to intuit the pathos if I told you that he wrote his music from his home in Detroit? He pointed a finger at the obvious. He named it. He called it out into the light of day. And he condemned it loudly saying - this is not a song - this is an outburst! Those who made the film said that, in truth, Rodriguez sparked them in their movement to end apartheid. Talk of the establishment let to talk of anti-establishment. Rodriguez was their Jeremiah, their Frederick Douglass, their Harriet Tubman, their Dr. King. Rodriguez - from the United States. Rodriguez, which the search discovered, from a land where virtually no one had ever heard of him. Rodriguez who had an agent, a strong recording contract and distributor, who never made a dime for all the music sold in South Africa. Rodriguez, who never even knew his music was played in South Africa. It’s a good story. See the movie. There is redemption. There is justice. Like I said, it will preach. Both of our passages today are responses to some of the same things Rodriguez sings about. Jesus’ words, “So have no fear of them,” refers to the people who will persecute the disciples when he sends them out as he says, “like sheep in the midst of wolves.” (Matt 10:16ff) He tells the disciples that not just the Temple priests will be after them, but governors and kings as well. Their words and actions in the name of God will have strong political repercussions. Jeremiah’s words are spoken centuries before, just after he is released from the stocks. He was placed there by Pashur - the chief officer in the Temple - for howling out against the Temple and the kings of Judah for idolatry and the horrible excesses that go with idolatry. Jeremiah, speaking for God - described in graphic detail all that would happen to those who failed to listen. Despoiled by Babylon - kings and priests, treasure and resources - all would be carried off into exile. The cities would be emptied - one and all - leaving the aftermath of war and destruction and horrors to be hissed at. Jeremiah lived and prophesied a long time - through the rise and fall of several kings of Judah. He was called to his life as a prophet to the nations before he was born. And from the beginning, he was embroiled in the politics of the day. Jeremiah started during the reign of King Josiah. Josiah was king during a time when Assyria controlled Israel and permeated their culture. The covenant between God and God’s people was long forgotten - a relic. One day, an ancient scroll was found in the Temple during the repair of some wall. The scroll was read. Josiah, upon hearing the words, which most agree were probably Moses’ teachings on the law from the book of Deuteronomy, rent his garments, put on sackcloth and ashes and began a series of religious and cultural reforms. Josiah and his reformers cut deeply. Assyrian ways were discarded. Pagan temples were destroyed. All worship of God was concentrated in the Jerusalem Temple where it could be rigorously watched by the official priesthood. The prophet Jeremiah supported these reforms. There was a catch, though. Old testament historian Bernard Anderson notes that Josiah’s reform was accompanied by an upsurge of nationalism. Anderson writes, “The
centralization of worship in the Jerusalem Temple, though it purified the land., actually led to a proud confidence that God was on the side of the people and that no evil could befall them.” Riding on this proud confidence, Josiah engaged in part of a larger battle in the region and lost his life to invading Egyptians while bargaining for power. So Assyrian rule was traded for Egyptian rule and eventually Babylon’s heavy yoke. The next puppet kings of Israel, feeling that their good faith in God had not been rewarded, returned to previous ways. The Temple once again became a place for pagan rites and rituals. This is when Jeremiah cries out to God saying, “I have become a laughingstock all the day long. Lord, you have enticed me, you have overpowered me, I must shout death and destruction!” He is responding to this infected nation. He is trying to get them to feel God’s pain, God’s excruciating, heart-wrenching, exquisite pain, over the fact that the nation must die in order for the healing balm to be administered. Over and over again - Jeremiah tells Israel that God’s wrath against them has been unleashed - like a dread warrior (20:11). And this wrath is so inescapable - so final - so overwhelming - that the dishonor is eternal (20:11d) God’s answer to Jeremiah’s lament is shocking to us. Walter Bruggeman says that God’s words through Jeremiah, “confound conventional notions of the Bible” in that the steadfast continuity of God’s commitment to God’s people is not upheld. He says, It is important to recognize. that the Bible dares this unthinkable notion, and that it was asserted to real men and women in real historical circumstances. The prospect of . discontinuity is an important dimension of biblical faith. This. bears witness to one aspect of God’s inscrutable way with God’s people. This text asserts something about the human prospect that we would prefer be left unsaid.”
Have you read Alan Paton’s lovely and painful book, Cry the Beloved Country? It is a complex and rich story that takes place in South Africa in 1946. The central event in this book is the murder of a young white man by a black youth during a robbery. The irony of the murder is that the young man was one of the few white men working against the oppression of the black people. All considered him a good man. His death was tragic as well, because it was done by a youth who was also good, but was drawn into the plot because he was desperate. The shooter always insisted it was an accidental shooting. Jarvis, the young man’s father, spends some time going through his son’s office after the murder. He reads through some of his son’s writings and discovers there a man he did not know - but who taught him much in his scattered notes. His son holds his country up to the light of his moral compass - a Christian compass - and finds so much to lament. He writes a litany of sorts, listing things that were done in some innocence - for the good of all. And he also without fail, intones back a litany of error: It is not permissible to keep men unskilled for the sake of unskilled work. It is not permissible to add to one’s possessions if this can only be done a the cost of other men. It is not permissible to [destroy a tribal system] and replace it with nothing, or by so little
that a whole people deteriorates, physically and morally.” The truth is that our Christian civilization is riddled through and through with dilemma. We believe in the brotherhood of man, but we do not want it in South Africa. We believe that God endows man with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply. we are therefore compelled, in order to preserve our belief that we are Christian to ascribe to Almighty God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, own own human intentions. Thus even our God becomes a confused and inconsistent creature, giving gifts and denying them employment. I don’t know what you hear when you listen to these words written in a novel fifty or sixty years ago. But I think I hear the whisper of a form of preaching called a jeremiad - named, of course, after Jeremiah - as an homage to his style of speaking. Jesus’ words in Matthew are a jeremiad, too. It is no surprise that later on, when Jesus asked his disciples who people were saying that he was, the answer was, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah.” (16:14) Jeremiah’s lament - his sharing in God’s pain, God’s pathos - is something that should compel us to form our own jeremiad - our own litany for our times and our place - for our nation and our church. There are plenty of things that could be on the list, as we all know. Our denomination takes some strong and costly stands on everything from gun regulations to the rights of the Palestinians that we can adopt. And we can form our own for Lansing and even ourselves and our relationships with one another. We can ask ourselves, what is there before us that we are afraid to explore too deeply. We can do this. But it is hard to do this and talk about it. Barbara Brown Taylor says that people like Jeremiah knew what it meant to be bearers of God’s word. She said, One spoke it at risk of one’s life - not only because of the reaction it might provoke, but also because of its origin. To put God’s word into a human mouth was to push flesh to its limit. It was like carrying around nitroglycerin in a crystal goblet or describing the Pleiades over a tin can telephone.” She says we still try to speak God’s word, but we don’t count it as a risk anymore. Rather Taylor says that instead of sounding like there is fire shut up in our bones we sound more like people who are blowing on gray coals, hunting around between breaths for anything we can toss on top of them to keep them from going out. This seems to work about as well as those pressed wood logs from the grocery store. They keep the fire burning, but they don’t look and feel like the real thing.
One day, Jarvis gets to the last words that his son wrote before he died. And what he read stopped him from being afraid of what had happened. The final jeremiad read: I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away and because I need
for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie. I shall do this.because I cannot find it in me to do anything else. I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe. Therefore, I shall try and do what is right, and to speak what is true. I do not do this because I am courageous or honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that. When we submit our generation, ourselves to Jeremiah’s text - to Rodriguez’s lyrics, Dr. Kings’s “I Have a Dream” speech, to the words of an ancient scroll, to Jesus’ call to lose our lives, we find the way is hard. We encounter things from the human prospect that we would prefer be left unsaid. We don’t like to be the ones to carry nitro in crystal glasses. Then we listen to the last couplet of Jeremiah’s jeremiad from today and we must believe that in the very hardness comes the joy. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of the evildoers.” And we are reminded, that sometimes, when sing to the Lord, it’s not a song, it’s an outburst! There seems to be an inherent joy in all that is endured for the sake of righteousness. There seems to be a reward to faithfulness that follows close upon an act of fidelity and solidarity. The opposition to hardness and pain seems to be the knowledge that in our inner lives we have a clear testimony to the rightness of our own hearts. And this seems to be where our happiness should lie. We are in the world first to be faithful and good. Our happiness comes from this life of obedience rather than in all the forms of self-pleasing that we are so used to. And we are blessed upon this way - for we have one who is far more than Jeremiah come back to earth. We have the star that does not play false, a compass that does not lie - the Son of the Living God. We have the one who says to us - “Do not fear them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered.What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.so do not be afraid.”
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