Text: Jeremiah 8:18-22
Some of you have heard me talk about my four friendships that began in kindergarten and that lasted through the first several years of elementary school. The five of us—Troy, Roy, Paul, Thomas, and me—were inseparable. We stuck together through thick and thin. If one of us had to put our nose in the circle drawn on the blackboard because we had ventured too far off the path from recess, we all felt the pain. If one of us was sick and missed a day of school, all of us felt sick. We celebrated one another’s successes and carried each other’s burdens—as well as five, six, seven, and eight year olds can.
As we aged, and I’m talking when we got to be eight and nine, our time together became more infrequent. While our connections remained strong our tradition of “play dates” seemed a bit awkward so we began drifting apart. But it was Troy and I that held the deepest connection and as a result we continued spending time together. I shall never forget the fall of our fifth grade year. Troy and I decided we would go to the Cleveland County fair together. Our first ride upon arriving was the bumper cars. We decided that we would ride in the same car rather than split up and be in different cars. We also decided that Troy would be the driver—I was young and didn’t know better yet. As the ride began, everyone’s car started moving all over the floor and bumping into one another. But not our car. No matter how hard Troy pressed the go pedal, or in which direction he turned the steering wheel (which supposedly made the car move), our car would not move. After what seemed like an eternity, but probably only a few seconds, Troy became distressed banging on the steering wheel and screaming wildly. And I did what I usually do when I get nervous—I started laughing uncontrollably. Troy and I learned a lot about each other that night at the Cleveland County fair and while bumper cars can put a stress on a friendship, it only deepened ours as we, in solidarity, demanded our tickets back from the ride operator.
It would be a few months later that Troy would slip me a note in between our classes at school. As I settled at my desk and the teacher began the class, I inconspicuously opened up the small piece of folded paper my friend had discreetly placed in the palm of my hand. Immediately, my eyes welled with tears for the note began, “My family is moving next month. Dad got another job.” For the first time in my young life, my heart broke. It took everything within me to make it through the rest of that school day and once home I ran to my room, fell on my bed, and sobbed for the rest of the day and night. The next month was filled with sadness and grief. It was almost impossible to let myself feel the joy of our friendship because the sadness was so real and intense. My heart was sick. The day before Troy and his family moved my parents took me to his house to say goodbye. Even now, when I think about that goodbye, I can still feel the heartache I felt that day.
The young and the old alike live through heartbreak. It is part of the human condition. Whether as a child it is having to say goodbye to a friend moving away or as an aging adult the death of a spouse, our hearts break. Our hearts break over small losses and large ones. If we live even just a short while, we come to know grief and sadness of heart break. But heartbreak is not just the path to grief and sadness. It is also a path to God. One spiritual teacher says, and I paraphrase here: There are two paths to God. One is great love. The other is great suffering. It is this suffering/this heartbreak that the prophet Jeremiah reminds us of this morning. And it is this suffering that I have been thinking about all week long. Now I know that talking about suffering and heartbreak doesn’t make for an uplifting sermon but I cannot think of more relevant words for this past week than these from Jeremiah that describe what it feels like for one’s heart to break. And besides, it could be that the person sitting beside you this morning has a breaking heart. So we should pay attention.
It was theologian Karl Barth who said a preacher should preach with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. If there is truth in Barth’s words, then how, this past week and in recent months, could one not hold Jeremiah’s words in one hand and the images from Syria in the other hand?
“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Oh, listen! Please listen! It’s the cry of my dear people
reverberating through the country.
Is God no longer in Zion?
Has the King gone away?
Can you tell me why they flaunt their plaything-gods,
their silly, imported no-gods before me?
The crops are in, the summer is over,
but for us nothing’s changed.
We’re still waiting to be rescued.
For my dear broken people, I’m heartbroken.
I weep, seized by grief.
Are there no healing ointments in Gilead?
Isn’t there a doctor in the house?
So why can’t something be done
to heal and save my dear, dear people?
Every day this past week, as I have studied and prayed this lament from the prophet, I have listened to journalists and news anchors give their daily updates on the Syrian ceasefire that began at sun down this past Monday hoping against hope that it would hold. I have watched videos on my hand-held device and looked into the faces of Syrian children, women, and men covered by bomb dust starving and living in the midst of rubble; and I have asked, “Is God no longer in Syria?” I have repeated Jeremiah’s words, “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt…” as I have prayed for Ned and Marian Walsh, members of our church, who left three days ago for Jordan where they will minister to Syrian refugees. I hung my head in grief last evening when I read the report that U.S.-led airstrikes mistakenly hit Syrian forces killing dozens of Syrian soldiers on Saturday. Day and night I am haunted by that image of that policeman carrying the lifeless body of a young child from a beach in Turkey—a child believed to be a Syrian refugee. I know, we don’t want to have to think about it. It’s too much. We already have enough pain and grief and sadness to deal with in our lives. I feel it too. Can’t we focus on something positive?
As I have longed to turn my eyes away from the images I have asked: “Are there no healing ointments in Syria?” I don’t want to remember the face of Omran Daqneesh—the 5-year-old Syrian boy who appeared, shocked and bleeding, sitting alone in the back of an ambulance after being pulled from his family’s home in Aleppo after it was hit by a bomb. “Isn’t there a doctor in the house? Why can’t something be done to heal and save God’s children in Syria?” The cries of the prophet are loud and clear today: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. My heart breaks.”
When the Book was no longer open in front of me, it was this verse that lodged in my mind and pierced my heart. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt. My heart breaks.” It was these words that made me wonder about the things that break the heart of God. It is so easy, and human, to get caught up in the things that cause our hearts to break. A friend moving away. The loss of a love. The death of a beloved pet. These heartaches/sufferings are real and surely God offers us comfort in times of heartache and suffering. And still the question would not leave me alone: What are the things that cause God’s heart to break?
Surely it’s not the political squabbling going on in our nation today. As concerned as I am about the upcoming elections – and let me say, I am very concerned – as passionate as I am about what is right and wrong in that process and in that outcome, is that what breaks God’s heart? I am not so sure. I am sure that God’s heart is not breaking over the fact that my 401k lost a half of a half of a half percentage point in the stock market last quarter. It’s not that our 401ks are not important. But God’s heart is not breaking over their losses.
But could it be that God’s heart is breaking because although we are the richest nation in the world there are people homeless and starving in every city and town in America, including right here in Raleigh. 795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy life. That’s about one in nine people on earth. Might God’s heart be breaking over the fact that as one of the most developed nations in the world we have the world’s highest prison rate, 724 people per 100,000. Might we imagine God’s heart breaking over the fact that 44 million Americans still don’t have health insurance? Do you think that God’s heart is breaking over the fact that our nations’ congress refuses to lift the embargo that keeps food and other essential supplies from our sisters and brothers in Cuba? People we know by name. I believe that God’s heart breaks every single time there is an abuse of power by those who are in power, when collectively and individually we choose violence and hate over peace and love, when children are more acquainted with the cries of war than to the sounds of laughter on the school playground. These are the things that break the heart of God.
So where does the prophets’ cries leave us? How are we to respond to the heart breaks and suffering of our world as we hold Jeremiah’s words in one hand and the news from Syria and other war-torn parts of the world in the other? Interestingly enough we may find our answer in the prayer of an American Baptist minister and relief worker, Bob Pierce who once prayed: “Let my heart be broken by the things that break the heart of God.” Our hearts must break by the things the things that break the heart of God.
Franciscan friar and Roman Catholic priest, Richard Rohr, writes: “Any journey of great love or great suffering makes us go deeper into our faith and eventually into what can only be called universal truth. Love and suffering are finally the same, because those who love deeply are committing themselves to eventual suffering, as we see in Jesus. And those who suffer often become the greatest lovers.” We talk about radical love—this is radical love.
Where is the hope in all this heartbreak and suffering? Here in our own country, it is the moms and dads whose hearts break over how their gay children are treated, so they form a group called PLAG to give each other support and care. It’s the mothers whose hearts were broken when their children were killed by drunk drivers, who form MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving who give each other support and care. It’s an organization called Stop Hunger Now who sees heartbreak in the hungry faces across the globe and packages food to send to them. Because when God’s heart breaks, our hearts break. And when our hearts break, the way to heal them is to love again, the way God loves.
Where is hope in the midst of heartbreak? In Syria, it is the men who wear White Helmets. There are hundreds of bombs dropped in Syria every day. And each time a bomb is dropped a group of everyday civilians responds to attacks. They are known as the White Helmets. They are the first to arrive on the scene. In a short documentary on these civilian first responders you can hear one of them say, “In the White Helmets we have a motto: to save a life, is to save all of humanity.” And so I say to us this morning, to establish God’s commonwealth here on this earth, our hearts will need to break over the things that break the heart of God.