Fleming Rutledge is a preacher and teacher known throughout the mainline Protestant denominations of the US, Canada and parts of the UK. She is the author of seven books and has received a grant from the Louisville Foundation to complete a book about the meaning of the Crucifixion.
One of the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church, she served for fourteen years on the clergy staff at Grace Church on Lower Broadway at Tenth Street, New York City.
Fleming and her husband celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2009 and have two daughters and two grandchildren. She is a native of Franklin, Virginia.
Jeremiah and the Human Dilemma
Christ Church, Sheffield, Massachusetts
JEREMIAH AND THE HUMAN DILEMMA
Sermon by Fleming Rutledge Epiphany VI, February 11, 2007
The prophet Jeremiah, who lived in the sixth century BC, is tremendously interesting to modern people. For many, many centuries Isaiah was the most beloved Hebrew prophet, and he is still read in the church far more than any other. In modern times, however, Jeremiah has become a favorite. The reason is that Jeremiah shows us his heart. He has left numerous descriptions of his state of mind, in his own words. We know more about Jeremiah from the inside out than any other Old Testament figure. That’s what interests us in our day. We are more attracted human psychology than we are to divine revelation.
That would have dismayed Jeremiah, of course. Like all the other Hebrew prophets he was a God-intoxicated person. He lamented and complained mightily, but there was no doubt of his overriding devotion to God and to the mission that God had given him. Here is just one example of his personal struggle, in his own words—note how his moods change almost from line to line, as he passes from indignation to submission to lament:
O Lord…remember me and visit me,
and take vengeance for me on my persecutors…
for thy sake I bear reproach.
Thy words…became to me a joy
and the delight of my heart;
for I am called by thy name,
O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers,
nor did I rejoice;
I sat alone, because thy hand was upon me…
Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?
of thing comes up time after time in the very long book of Jeremiah and we
can’t help feeling for him. His life was largely a misery to him. He struggled
for years to call the people of
The book of Jeremiah is very difficult to teach. I have taught almost every book of the Bible and this is the only one that I felt I had to break up into various pieces according to themes, rather than taking it verse by verse. It just doesn’t seem to have any logical progression from one chapter to the next. We think it was put together from various portions of the prophet’s teaching over a period of decades without much coherence. However, more and more in recent years I have come to believe that the shape of the Bible as we have it is part of the Holy Spirit’s intention. Let’s take today’s reading for example.
5 Thus says the Lord: “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm, whose heart turns away from the Lord. 6 He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.
7 “Blessed is the man [person]…whose trust is the Lord. 8 He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
9 The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? 10 “I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.”
The first two parts seem logically connected. The person who trusts in human potential instead of God’s life-giving power is like a scrubby plant that can never thrive because it is in the desert (this is not like the beautiful Sonoran desert that blooms—the barren Judean wilderness is meant). This is contrasted with the lovely image of the person who trusts in the Lord. Such a person is like a tree planted by an unfailing source of living water.
But then Jeremiah suddenly says, The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it? This sweeping, all-inclusive statement doesn’t seem to have any connection to the image of the thriving green tree by the stream. Moreover, he then goes on to say, I the Lord search the mind and try the heart, to give to every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings. That makes me feel very uneasy. If the human heart is corrupt and deceitful beyond all things, and if God is going to assess everyone according to his or her doings, then what confidence can we have? The same indictment of the human heart appears in various other places in the Bible:
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually (Genesis 6:5)
The hearts of men are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. (Ecclesiastes 9:3)
God looks down from heaven upon the children of men to see if there are any that are wise, any that seek after God.
They have all fallen away; they are all alike depraved; there is none that does good, no, not one. (Psalm 53:2-3)
According to the Scripture, there is a vast disruption in the creation that has affected every human being ever born. The apostle Paul picks up this theme in Romans, citing Psalm 53. There is no one righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10). This is a central teaching in biblical faith. We surround ourselves with all sorts of defenses against these bleak truths, but in our essential selves, our “unaccommodated” selves (King Lear), we are dislocated; we are estranged; we are essentially alone; we go to the dead.
Poor Anna Nicole Smith: she had a bodyguard, she had a personal nurse, she had a gentleman friend; but she perished all alone in a hotel room. “In the midst of life we are in death,” says the Prayer Book. What about the astronaut, Lisa Nowack? Madness is in the human heart… who can understand it?
But, we say, we are not crazy or obsessed or out of control; we are upstanding members of our decent and orderly communities. Here is the challenge for us as Christians. No matter how upright our lives may appear to be, we share in the human condition. The prophets and apostles summon us an understanding of this reality, well described in the famous words of John Donne: “No man is an island, entire of itself…Therefore do not ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
We are all involved willy-nilly in
a world-wide web of human misery, no matter how much we may think we have
nothing to do with the corruption of the larger powers. Yesterday on NPR there
were a number of interviews with people who had been fired from their jobs. As
I listened I began to have the overwhelming impression that almost all of us
would do almost anything to keep from being fired from our jobs, especially if
we had no other immediate prospects. This fear keeps us from speaking out,
taking a stand, disturbing the peace. Maybe our company is involved in
dishonest practices, maybe a fellow employee is being mistreated, maybe it is
necessary to fool around with the figures just a little, maybe a little bribe
isn’t so bad. Take this all the way up the ladder and we arrive at Halliburton
and other contractors in
There is nothing I want to do in my life more than convey an abiding love for the greatness of the Bible. Its words are filled with power and majesty. It is titanic, yet it tells the truth about the smallest incidents and most insignificant people. It omits nothing. Every person in it is recognizable in one way or another. Yet its depiction of the human condition is ruthless and relentless. It is a long saga of idolatry, apostasy, chicanery, violence, deceit, and the well-deserved judgment of God. And yet…and yet.
Since we do not have time in one
sermon to look at the intricacies of the entire book of Jeremiah, or even of
one whole chapter, we are going simply to leap over thirteen chapters and read
one of the most important passages in all of Scripture. Let us hold in our
minds the picture of the human heart, deceitful
above all things, and desperately corrupt. We are skipping over whole
chapters describing the determination of the people to pursue their course of
self-destruction. Remember the words, I
the Lord search the mind and try the heart—reminiscent of our Collect
addressed to the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from
whom no secrets are hid.” Recall also the concluding words of our reading: God
searches our hearts to give to every person
according to his ways, according to the fruit of his doings.” We are up
against a stone wall here. The human heart is desperately corrupt and beyond
self-help. The history of biblical
Jeremiah, Chapter 31. The whole chapter is incredibly beautiful; how I would love to read the whole thing! Beginning with verse 27:
Behold [says the Lord] it shall come to pass that as I have watched over [Israel] to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will in that day] watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord…
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel… not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke…But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people....
Jeremiah 31:31 (almost the only verse that I can actually remember the number of)—the New Covenant passage. Here is the plan and purpose of God to overcome the resistance of the human heart. Here is the great action that the Lord is preparing to redeem his creation from its bondage to sin. Here is the renewal of the world and the salvation of the human race, the healing of the human heart and the reordering of all human relationships. For you will recall the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (I Corinthians 11:24-5)
This is the best possible illustration of the necessity of the Old Testament. The New Testament (the New Covenant) simply does not work without the Old Testament. The Old Testament is the operating system of the New. The words of Jeremiah from the sixth century come true in the words and actions of our Lord Jesus Christ in the new century of the new era. God’s covenant is written on the human heart. How Jeremiah must be rejoicing in heaven to know this!
As we prepare to come forward to receive the gift of our Lord’s own body and blood, his life poured out for the making of the New Covenant, we can bring all of the burdens of our hearts. Our condition was hopeless, but now it is taken up into Christ’s divine life. Everything is changed for us. The next time we are tempted to go along with whatever the corrupt world is doing, we can say to ourselves, “I am a creature of the new covenant. God has written his commandments in my heart. I am not the same person that I was. I have been planted by the stream of living water, and if there is a drought, I will still be fed by the unconquerable purpose of God.”
Blessed is the man [woman]…whose trust is the Lord. She is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”