Friday Meditation: Ginny Wilmhoff
May the words of my mouth and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
In 2011, I began a Master of Victorian History at the University of Manchester in England. I had previously studied at Mt. A., earning a BA in History and Religious Studies, and I dreamed of becoming a professor. Doing the Masters was the first step along that path. And I loved learning about the New Poor Law of 1834 by reading Oliver Twist; exploring people's new conception of time as they moved from life on the land to life as factory workers; and viewing Emile Zola's take on both the seductive delight and exploitation of consumers through the new department stores. And yet, after I attended an open house day for the PhD programme at Manchester, I realized that I was not willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be a professor. The jobs in academia are now few and far between, and I was not willing to take on the unstable life of an academic.
While I was coming to this realization, I began to feel a call to the priesthood once again. Back in undergrad in 2002, I had discerned a call to ministry, but I was a Roman Catholic. My denomination did not allow women to be priests, so at that time, I had put my call on the back burner. While I was in Manchester, though, I finally decided to become an Anglican after several years of soul searching, and while participating in parish life there, I began to feel a call to the priesthood once again. I entered the discernment process with the Diocese of Manchester, and after my studies were over, I got a job as a parish assistant. And then, my plans all fell apart. Just before I was to complete the last step in the discernment process before seminary, the diocese told me that due to immigration regulations, they would not be able to hire me after I graduated. I was devastated.
Life went on, though. While I was in England, a couple of people had mentioned the Episcopal Service Corps to me. The Episcopal Service Corps is a one year American volunteer program. Young adults live in community, working for churches and social service agencies in exchange for housing, a stipend, and student loan forgiveness. I applied and was hired as a case manager by the Bethesda Project, a Philadelphia non-profit serving the homeless and formerly homeless. I would have 20 men on my case load with severe mental health and/or addiction diagnoses, and my job would be to guide them through the social service system while also helping them with daily needs. I had never been to Philadelphia, had never even seen Rocky, was completely clueless when it came to US governmental systems, and knew next to nothing about schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, or addictions. I was scared out of my mind.
And yet through the relationships I built with those men, I learned what it means to trust in God. These men had lost everything. Their families had abandoned them, or they had abandoned their families. They lived on the bare minimum of government assistance. They had multiple health problems accumulated from their time on the streets. Their minds and their desires had betrayed them, and they were strangers even to themselves. And yet, they got up each morning and supported and loved one another. Through accompanying them to appointments, being yelled at by schizophrenic men, celebrating birthdays, helping them obtain health insurance, enjoying summer picnics, enduring the frustrations of the addiction treatment system, and even mourning the loss of one of these men, I bonded with each and every one of them. None of that had been a part of my life plan, but without that experience, I would not have learned what it means to love, what it means to have your heart broken for another, what it means to sacrifice for another. It had not been a part of my plan, but it had been a part of God's plan for me.
In our Old Testament reading this evening, we heard from the prophet Jeremiah. He lived through a time when the people of the Kingdom of Judah were caught between the designs of three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Jeremiah begins his prophetic ministry by calling the king of Judah, King Josiah, to conversion and reform; the prophet feared that without conversion, God would allow the kingdom to fall into foreign hands. King Josiah did enact reform, but his son, Jehoiakim, like many sons, went in the opposite direction of his father, reinstating pagan practices. He was power hungry and not willing to listen to the prophet. Finally, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 598 BCE, and many of the people of Judah were carted off to exile in Babylon in 586 BCE.
Jeremiah himself ended his days in exile in Egypt. Abraham Heschel has described Jeremiah as the prophet of God's pathos or divine sympathy. Though the prophet preached judgment, he ardently pleaded for conversion because he believed that God is merciful and would accept His people with open arms if they would only repent. And Jeremiah took his ministry personally. Jeremiah was willing to undergo suffering in order to get his message across, and the people's lack of conversion broke his heart. At one point, God demands that Jeremiah not get married, not have children, because once the kingdom is destroyed, the future for people will be one of terror and not of hope.
And yet, that is precisely what the people are given in the passage we heard tonight, hope. Chapter 33 of Jeremiah is couched in a larger section filled with a vision for Judah's future. Chapter 33 itself contains seven oracles which proclaim a new future for Judah.
Hope does not lie in a sudden reversal of fortunes for the kingdom and its people; unlike a Hollywood movie, destruction will not be averted at the last moment. The oracles have been written while the people are in exile in Babylon, so the kingdom has already been destroyed. Jeremiah is reminding the people, though, that God's vision is bigger than their's, that God still has mercy and compassion for His people, that a new future does lie in wait for them.
What will that future look like? The people of Judah see Jerusalem in this way: 'a waste without human beings or animals’, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without inhabitants, human or animal...' It is a place without the promise of life. It is a kingdom once held by unstable, weak kings, kings that lost their kingdom because they sacrificed to idols, because of their need for power. Yet, God promises that the kingdom and the city will once more be filled with life. The city will be ruled by kings, strong in the love of God. And priests will one day be able to offer sacrifices once again, and thank-offerings will be brought to the house of the Lord which will be rebuilt. In an oracle which was read this morning at Morning Prayer, we heard these words: '[T]here shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank-offerings to the house of the Lord.' God had asked Jeremiah to refrain from marriage as a sign to the people that Jerusalem would be destroyed, that life would not be possible there. Here, though, God shows the people that though new life might not be possible there now, Jerusalem will one day be ruled by a wise and good king; it will be a place where priests bring thank-offerings, a place of marriage, a place of new life.
And this peace and prosperity will all be due to the power of God. The God who will bring about this new life is the God who created heaven and earth: 'the Lord who made the earth, the Lord who formed it to establish it—the Lord is his name.' Jeremiah is exhorting the people to trust in this creator God, the God who made a covenant with His people, an unbreakable bond that will never be sundered. They are to call out to this God, and He will answer them.
Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known...I am going to bring it recovery and healing; I will heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them; they shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.
The people themselves will not be able to bring about the recovery of the city. Instead, only God will be able to cleanse them from their sin, restore the city to them, and bring about the new life of which they dream. They must trust in the mercy and the love of God.
Because of human fallibility, the restored city is often just out of our grasp. In Christian theology, the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ allows us to see and experience what life lived with God looks like. That does not mean we will enjoy the earthly prosperity and security promised in Jeremiah in this life; human fallibility still prevents that from happening. At the same time, we will have life lived securely with God in the next. While we are living in the exile of this life, God is calling us through the prophet Jeremiah and Jesus Christ to live according to this vision, according to God's vision. Even when it is difficult to trust, even when we are living in exile, God wants us to live in His life in the here and now.
The times we live in today may feel similar in some ways to those of Jeremiah. We have political leaders who are beyond narcissistic, only concerned with their own personal gain and not the welfare of their people. We live in a modern and post-modern environment in which many of the foundations we have trusted in the past, religion and even science, are no longer trusted by many people. Since the 2008 recession, many millennials have not been able to trust that they will find jobs that will support them. Even if we do find work, we can't trust that our jobs will be stable ones, carrying us through the next few decades of our lives towards retirement. We, like the people of Jeremiah's day, feel like we are in exile. We no longer know what to trust or even how to trust, and the result is often anxiety, emptiness, escape, or despair.
And yet, God is still there for us. When we trust in the greater vision of God, that God knows things that are hidden from us, that God sees us, loves us, and will care for us, the results can be surprising and extraordinary. We may never have politicians that get things right, that really care for their people. We may never have stable futures with jobs that pay us good salaries. We may never achieve all the things we planned for ourselves. At the same time, God has a plan for us; it may only be truly fulfilled in the next life, but it will be fullfilled. Trusting in God in this way, what we have been calling this year the Via Affirmativa, won't be easy or without cost; Jeremiah trusted in God, forsook marriage and family, and was even taken prisoner, living in exile in Egypt. And yet, he was transformed by the love of God.
One of my favourite bands, Hey Rosetta, has a song called "Psalm." The lyrics go like this:
But often it happens you know
That the things you don't trust are the ones you need most
So it's cautiously into the dark
But you see before long that your eyes will adjust
And under the night you can hear
The full moon rise like a psalm in the air
And the air goes into your lungs
And around in your heart and on through your blood
It goes cautiously into the dark
And you see before long that we all have a part
And under your skin you can feel
That the fear that you feel is what will set you free.
We may feel a lack of courage to enter the darkness we fear, but even if we go cautiously into the night, the moon of God's promise, God's vision for our lives, will guide us. And don't be surprised if the air enters your lungs, goes around your heart, and on through your blood, transforming you along the way.