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Fire in the Bones

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Rev. Elizabeth Michael
Preached at University Presbyterian Church, Chapel Hill, NC
June 25, 2017

During the year of seminary I spent working as a chaplain in a public psychiatric hospital, I would lead worship on Sunday mornings and then walk to the units to make my rounds.  There was a nurse on one of the units—his name was Darryl.  He was a gregarious man, with a big smile and an easy laugh.  We chatted easily through the week, but on Sundays, he had this habit that made me a little uncomfortable.

Each Sunday, when he saw me walk in from the worship service, he’d turn to me, sling an arm around my shoulder and say, “Preacher, I need a word from the Lord today.  Give me a word, preacher, what’s the word?”

Well, over the course of a couple weeks, I tried a couple of different answers to this question.

The first time, I tried to explain that I’d slaved for countless hours over that morning’s sermon, that he really needed to hear it in the context of the whole worship service, among the people gathered, that to try to sum it up for him would violate the whole nature of the Proclamation of the Word, that I was sorry, but I really couldn’t boil down fifteen minutes of thoughtful theology and carefully chosen language into a word.

The second time, I stammered out something about being Presbyterian, which I hoped would be sufficient explanation for why I couldn’t produce a word from the Lord on demand.

The third time he asked, I blurted out, “Jesus loves you, Darryl!” and gave him a self-conscious smile and an awkward thumbs up.  He responded with a good-natured grin, but we both knew he wanted more.

The fourth time I was supposed to make rounds through Darryl’s unit, I stopped outside the door, remembered his uncomfortable line of questioning, and decided to wait to visit that unit until his shift was over for the day.

Give me a word, preacher, what’s the word?  Well, I confess that today I’m feeling some kinship with my 25-year-old self who found herself embarrassingly silent in the face of Darryl’s earnest and important question.  Today feels like a good day for a word from the Lord.  And today I’m finding such a word difficult to summon.

So when the lectionary offered up Jeremiah this week, I couldn’t resist.  Jeremiah is a man well-acquainted with the word of the Lord.  He was only a boy when the word of the Lord came to him.  “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” said the Lord.  “Before you were born, I consecrated you.  I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.  And I have put my words in your mouth.”  And when the Lord said this, the Lord reached out a hand and touched Jeremiah’s mouth.  The language is so beautiful and intimate, we might imagine that the touch is a maternal gesture, the soft caress of a loving parent bringing comfort to her child.  But in the Hebrew, there is no such gentleness.  In the Hebrew, God does not touch Jeremiah’s mouth, but strikes it, with all the power of a whirlwind.  The word of the Lord lands on Jeremiah’s lips not like a feather, but like a firestorm.

No sooner did it land on his lips than it made itself at home in his body.  He was the local preacher’s boy, so everyone expected him to have a silver tongue, but Jeremiah’s proved incendiary.  The people of Jerusalem would be going about their business, and there was Jeremiah on a street corner, shouting, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I am going to bring such disaster on this place that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle.’”  There’d be perfectly polite prophets making the rounds of the city, saying “Peace, peace,” to everyone they met, and Jeremiah would break in angrily, “There is no peace!”  And when conversation turned to the current political climate, when people spoke about how strong Judah was and how wise its king was and how ludicrous it was to imagine that neighboring Babylon posed any threat, Jeremiah would just start weeping.  He was always that way—if he wasn’t announcing imminent catastrophe, he was crying uncontrollably.

Jeremiah is known as the weeping prophet.  His book contains more laments than most of the rest of the prophets put together.  He weeps out of love for God’s wayward people, he weeps for the futility of his own efforts, he weeps out of agony for the misery of his vocation, but mostly he weeps because no one else can see what he sees.  Ever since the day the word of the Lord alighted on his lips, Jeremiah has seen what’s really going on in Judah.  He sees how the people have turned away from the Lord God, walking right past the temple to worship the more fashionable gods down the street.  He sees how they have failed to live into the covenant the Lord gave them, how the richer are growing richer and the poor poorer and no one is caring for one another like God taught them to.  He sees Assyria and Babylon and other countries surrounding the fragile kingdom increasing their military might, and he knows its only a matter of time before the violence makes its way to Judah.  And if all that weren’t enough, he also sees the unbearable grief of God, who weeps over God’s unfaithful people.  The problem is, no one else can see any of this.   So Jeremiah continues to cry out to ears that will not hear, even as each day he weeps with greater sadness over the way that life is so far from the way God meant it to be.

Now Jeremiah’s weeping has its own power to it.  I’ve mentioned before how Walter Brueggemann understands the prophet’s grief to be the most potent form of his critique.[1]  Brueggemann says that the powers opposed to God keep their power by keeping the people numb.  That we have a remarkable way of adapting to our circumstances, even when those circumstances are exactly the kind God longs to set us free from.  We get so used to lifting those big heavy bricks on our backs while Pharaoh’s army snaps their whips……used to taking our orders from kings when it is the Lord who demands our full allegiance…used to living in a society where the rich feast and the poor starve…used to yet another day’s news that includes mass shootings and bombings and wars upon wars…we are numb and have forgotten that there is any other way to live.  It takes a prophet’s tears to break through our numbness and remind us that all is not right.

So for most of the years I’ve been preaching Jeremiah, I’ve been trying to turn my attention to the places of numbness in the world.  I’ve tried to let the prophet show me what unholy ways of life in my own life and community have become normalized, tried to see where I and my community are so interested in maintaining the status quo that we have closed our ears to any word of God that might disrupt that way of living.

But this time around with the prophet feels different.  Maybe because there has been so much weeping lately.  Just this week, weeping over the loss of life of a 14-year-old Muslim girl on her way home from prayer and a 22-year-old college student coming home from North Korea.  Weeping for a friend who worries that her three-year-old with severe developmental disabilities will have to be institutionalized if the proposed cuts to Medicaid become law.  Weeping from communities of color, who this week witnessed trials that recounted the deaths of three more black men at the hands of law enforcement officers, and weeping by a wider community that realizes all of us are captives of a racialized system that shows no hint of relinquishing its power over us.

I recount those headlines not to invite us into the posture of despair that is a temptation for any who open a newspaper these days, but to point to the ways that Jeremiah’s tears are overflowing into more and more eyes.  And there we can actually find some hope.  For wherever the tears of solidarity corrode barriers that anger and violence cannot shake, there is a way made through the wilderness of hostility and isolation by which God’s people might once again find each other.  And whenever the “ache of God penetrates the numbness of history,”[2] there is a moment of potential when all existing powers might be realigned.  Just ask the women who carried burial spices alongside their tears to the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

So perhaps this is a moment in our life together as a nation when the word of the Lord might sound forth anew, drawing hearts and minds to heed it.  As Christian people trying to be faithful in this world, might we tune our ears afresh to a teary, often cranky prophet?  Give us a word, Jeremiah.  What’s the word?

I will not be so bold as to speak for the prophet, but based on his life and message, let me suggest just a few places we might look for that word.

First, I’m reminded of a story Barbara Brown Taylor tells about Jesus that might as well be about Jeremiah.  She writes about being at a retreat where the retreat leader asked participants to think of someone who had been as Christ to them.  Most of us know how those conversations typically go.  We think quickly of people of great compassion, people of deep prayer, people who exude love and graciousness and gentleness.  But Taylor says this conversation unfolded differently, when “One woman stood up and said, ‘I had to think hard about that one.  I kept thinking, ‘Who is it that told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?’”[3]

In the prophetic tradition, the first thing the word of God does is confronts.  That’s how Jeremiah ends up in those stocks and how Jesus ends up on that cross.  The test of whether we have ears to hear will be whether we can receive from other lips the truth about ourselves, particularly a truth that is difficult to acknowledge.  And this part I say in the spirit of personal confession: particularly those of us who carry into the world the privileges of white skin, adequate financial resources, and American citizenship, we will be helped by listening to the voices of the vulnerable as we open our minds to the truth about ourselves and our place within the world.  May the word of God break open the truth, that it might set us free.

Next, we might look for the word of God as Jeremiah did, amidst all the weeping.  I invite you to tend first to your own tears; see the places where the grief of your heart mirrors the grief of God’s heart.  And then look around you for the tears of others, the corporate groaning that announces that something is not right.  Notice how those tears wash away all the debris that the world’s wayward priorities have constructed before your very eyes; let them leave you clear-eyed for the kingdom.

And finally, we might turn our attention to the interior life.  Jeremiah talks about the word of the Lord as a force so powerful that it burned within him, a force that could be neither contained or ignored.  Where is that conviction that pulses forth from the core of your being, that energy which can be neither hidden nor subdued?  Maybe it’s just a low-burning ember at this point, or maybe it’s a full flame.  We do well to be careful here, for such urgency is not necessarily of God, but it may well be a divinely-planted seed of call.  Tend that fire carefully; pay attention to how it flickers and flames; try taking another small step or two in the direction in compels you; see what the Lord might do.

The word of God confronts and disrupts, but it always, always frees.  Ask that weepy old prophet whose hands are bound in stocks as he cries out to God for relief.  “The Lord is with me as a strong defender; therefore my oppressors will not prevail.  He will rescue us from the clutches of evil.”  May it be so, Amen.


[1] Much of this sermon is drawn from Brueggemann’s read of Jeremiah as found in The Prophetic Imagination.

[2] Brueggemann’s phrase.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, “Truth to Tell,” from “The Perfect Mirror,” copyright 1998 Christian Century Foundation., 89-92.


Elizabeth Michael , Interim Associate Pastor


Phone: (919).929.2102 ext. 112


Elizabeth joined the staff in September of 2016 and counts it a tremendous privilege to learn and grow alongside the saints of University Presbyterian. A native North Carolinian, Elizabeth studied music and religion at Presbyterian College and received her M. Div. at Princeton Seminary. Her life and ministry have been shaped by work with Presbyterian churches in South Africa, a season of living in intentional community alongside the ecumenical Church of the Saviour in Washington, DC, and the chance to be a part of a team welcoming home citizens returning from incarceration. Her spiritual life has been consistently nourished by immersion in the community of faith, most recently at Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church in Durham, where she served as Associate Pastor for seven years. Elizabeth has a deep love for Christ's Church, a deep hope in the gospel's reconciling work in the world, and a deep joy in the life of ministry. At UPC, Elizabeth offers support to the church's caregiving and worship ministries, among others. Outside of work, she tries to take full advantage of her library card, the local food scene, national parks, and friends who live in places fun to visit.