Fire in the Bones

Prof. Stephanie PaulsellSermon by Professor Stephanie Paulsell, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, and Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, Sunday sermon June 21, 2020. (File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications)



Everything I read or hear or watch these days seems to bear directly on the moment in which we’re living. Do you find that? Even if they were created in a different time, poems, novels, movies, music have all felt so deeply relevant. As a church community, we experienced that surprising relevance over the last couple of weeks, as we dipped into our archive and listened to sermons from Professor Walton and Rev. Gomes. Because even though those sermons had been written for other Sunday mornings, in other years, they spoke powerfully, and precisely, to us in our own.

The same is true of the scripture passages on which those sermons were based. “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God” rings with a certain specificity in these days. “I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” makes a claim on us that is impossible to ignore.

Our lessons this morning, so beautifully read by Kayla and Annalisa, also reach us in this moment, as if they had been written yesterday.

The prophet Jeremiah, whose voice we hear in the first lesson, lived, as we do, at a pivotal moment in history. One empire was coming undone and another gaining in strength. As the Assyrians gave way to the Babylonians, you could probably feel the tectonic plates of history shifting beneath your feet. Jeremiah felt it, felt the force of history bearing down on him and his community, and God’s presence in the midst of it, calling Jeremiah to the dangerous work of speaking out. He tries to remain silent but, as he puts it, when I don’t speak out, “then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.”

Even if you’re not familiar with the prophet Jeremiah, his description of the pain of not speaking, the pain of keeping pain inside, unexpressed, might sound familiar. His image of a fire shut up in his bones has been drawn on through the centuries by people who had something to say but faced impediments to saying it — women, enslaved people, survivors of violence, protesters. It’s provided the title for many books, from a biography of the Bible translator William Tyndale, to Professor Albert Raboteau’s account of African American religious history to the memoir of the New York Times columnist, Charles Blow.

The context for this passage, though, is less well known — or at least, I didn’t know it until I began to study it. Jeremiah’s lament actually follows a description of an encounter between Jeremiah and the police. A priest and “chief officer in the house of the Lord,” a man named Pashur, had heard Jeremiah standing in the temple court and delivering his message from God. “Disaster is coming to this city and the towns all around,” Jeremiah was proclaiming, “because you have refused to hear me.”

Pashur responds violently to this proclamation. He beats Jeremiah and puts him in stocks—making of him a public spectacle to be mocked and humiliated. Pashur keeps Jeremiah in stocks all day and all night; not releasing him until the morning. The text says nothing about Jeremiah’s physical suffering, the pain he would have experienced by having his body restrained all night long. But it does tell us that Jeremiah, upon his release, gave Pashur a new name. Your name is Terror-all-around, Jeremiah said to him. Not because of the terror he inflicted. But because Pashur’s refusal to listen to Jeremiah would allow the terror of an invading army to enter Jerusalem. Jeremiah pleaded with Pashur to open his eyes to what was actually happening in the world and to tell the truth about it. You put yourself and your family and your friends in danger, Jeremiah told him, when you prophesy falsely, when you refuse to face the truth.

After this comes the passage Kayla read for us this morning: Jeremiah’s lament, directed not toward Pashur this time, but toward God. “You have enticed me, and I was enticed,” Jeremiah cries out. “You have overpowered me, and you have prevailed; I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me.”

Why is God’s prophet mocked? Because he has a message no one wants to hear: His message is: Violence and destruction are coming! A message so terrifying that some would rather silence the messenger than heed his warning. As if silencing the prophet would keep the prophecy from coming true.

Jeremiah knows this, and so he tries to keep silent, tries not to speak in God’s name. But not speaking also has a price: a burning inside, a fire shut up in his bones. “I am weary with holding it in,” the prophet says, “and I cannot.”

This is a familiar story, the elements of which have been repeated over and over throughout history. The violent repression of the one who questions a society’s view of itself. The fear of the prophet’s message, and the attempt of those threatened by the message not to hear it — whether by ignoring it or diminishing it or mocking it or by killing the messenger. The prophet’s realization that even if it means losing their life, they can’t keep quiet. “I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

Prophets who bring us bad news about ourselves and our world are often rejected, or worse; we prefer our prophets to offer us a vision over which we can have some control. It’s easier to hear that we can go back to our normal lives now than it is to hear that we have a long way to go with the coronavirus pandemic, that a vaccine might be long in coming, and that life might not return to what we remember. It’s easier to hear Dr. King share his dream of equality than to hear him say, as he does in his last book, that: “Racism can well be that corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western civilization.” And it was easier for the people of Jeremiah’s time to hear him say “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord” than it was for them to hear him stand in the courtyard shouting about violence and destruction.

In our own moment of reckoning, the voices of those who have felt a fire locked up in their bones by white supremacy and the systems that enforce it have broken through into our national consciousness — the result of the long faithfulness of generations of Jeremiahs who have stood in the courtyard pleading to be heard, those who, like the prophet, were weary with holding it in. If you heard George Floyd’s brother testifying before congress, you heard that weariness. I’m tired of the pain I’m feeling, he told our lawmakers, and I am asking you to make it stop. Some of us have been listening to these prophetic voices intermittently — that’s a big part of white privilege, I think, the ability to listen when you feel like it. Others of us don’t have that luxury. Black parents who pray every time their children get behind the wheel of a car that they will not get pulled over by the police don’t have the luxury of tuning out.

What are we being called to by the Jeremiahs of our day — the prophetic voices of grieving family members, of protesters in the streets? At the very least, we’re being called to tune in and see what is happening all around us. And more than that, to care, to make the concerns of those grieving family members, and worried parents, and protesters our own. To resist sliding back into the way things were, not just in this extraordinary moment, but for the rest of our lives. To pass this shared concern onto our children and children’s children so that the racism that Dr. King knew could plow our civilization under gets taken apart and ground to dust first. And to write on our hearts the lessons of both the coronavirus pandemic and the pandemic of racist violence — that each life bears profoundly on every other life; that we need each other to protect each other’s health and well-being; that we depend on one another for our very survival.

The passage from the gospel of Matthew that Annalisa read for us, part of Jesus’s instructions to his disciples before sending them out to teach and heal, reminds us of Jeremiah’s call to look directly and honestly at what is happening around us, but also to face our shared history. “For there is nothing that is covered up,” Jesus says, “that will not be uncovered and nothing secret that will not become known.”

The late, great American novelist, Toni Morrison, used to write about what she called “public secrets”— histories that we may not have been taught, or that we have known but tried not to know, that continue to live a “quietly throbbing life” beneath the surface of our lives and our society. This week, parts of our shared history that aren’t often visible in our national life came into the light: the history of the destruction of Black Wall Street in Tulsa in 1921 by an armed, white mob, and other histories of terrorism against communities of color. These stories of thriving Black communities torn apart by their white neighbors are unbearable, the view of what our society has perpetrated and tolerated, sickening. But as James Baldwin famously put it, “nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Or as Jesus put it to his disciples: tell in the light what you hear in the dark; what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

Over these past months, we’ve often heard the time we’re living in described as “apocalyptic.” Often what is meant by the word “apocalypse” is a kind of cataclysm at the end of the world. But what apocalypse actually means is revelation, or even more literally, uncovering. This is surely a time of uncovering. An uncovering of the quietly throbbing public secrets that have shaped our life as a nation. A revelation of violence, anguish, grief and rage; an unveiling of the destructive grooves that racism and inequality have ground deep into the structures of our lives.

In his forty years of preaching, the prophet Jeremiah often called upon his listeners not to turn away. His voice still carries after all this time, urging us to stay turned toward what this moment has to reveal--to us, within us, around us. His own lament shows how painful staying turned toward the truth can be. But even as he shakes his fist at heaven, Jeremiah winds his lament around a little fragment of a hymn, a hymn of praise for the God who cares about those in need, and rescues them. On either side of that fragment, Jeremiah writes despairing, fearful words. But at the heart of his lament is the irresistible pull of God’s compassion, by which Jeremiah, and all of us, are called, again and again, to stay turned toward one another and the history we share until we and the world are transformed.