The world that we find Jeremiah in is in chaos. There are military and empire powers from neighboring countries just outside the borders, conquering their closest ally. Allegiances are being made and devastated and left useless.
Jeremiah was a prophet to the kings of Judah, the southern kingdom. The northern kingdom of Israel had been destroyed 100 years ago, their people scattered and the land occupied. He started prophesying under the King Josiah who was known as a great king, bringing reform and honoring the covenant with God that the people had been called into at Mount Saini with Moses and the tablets. But old habits die hard, and when Josiah died in battle, his son didn’t seem to share the ideals Josiah had set forth. With King Jehoiakim, Jeremiah is already on the run and denied access to the temple.
The world as they know it is in chaos and the prophet’s call is to help explain why—they were worshiping other Gods and ignoring the cries of those in need. Jeremiah is putting everything into the call that there is still time for the people of Judah to return to God, to worship God, to care for the widow and the orphan and the sojourner, to care for the vulnerable, but also, being so clear that if they don’t, there are going to be consequences. With Jehoiakim, there is little time before Judah is no longer an independent kingdom, just a matter of time before Jerusalem falls.
23 years into Jeremiah’s call and work of a prophet, when he was about at the halfway point of his career, God calls him to write down EVERYTHING. Imagine that. Kelly and I just had a conversation the other night where she ask me “What else did you say we needed from the grocery store?” Me: “Yeah, I don’t remember.” Kelly: “We talked about it this morning.” Me: “Nope, nothing there.” 23 years later sounds like a daunting task, which is probably why it took a year.
Then, they waited for a fast day to be called—a day when the temple would have people gathered, when they would be in a state of repentance, when they would be contrite, when they might be open to change. Maybe they were, but really, it ended up in the hands of the powerful. The words that they heard were so concerning, concerning that they might rile up the people against the will of the king, concerning that they were condemning the powerful, concerning that they spoke of the end of nation, regardless, so concerning that they needed to take them to the king.
And the king, takes this year’s worth of painstaking, handwritten work, and takes it apart, line by line, and turns it to ash. No one will see it then, no one will know, no one will be accountable, no one will know if he was wrong so he can’t be wrong. He thought if he could destroy the words of the prophet he would render Jeremiah, and the prophecy, and maybe even the God who called Jeremiah, useless.
This, of course, is not the last documented book burning.
Some 350 years after King Jehoiakim, starting in 212 BCE, the emperor of China Qin Shi Huang burned the work of Confucius and ordered the killing of the scholars.
A little more than 2000 years later and just over 80 years ago, as the Nazi party in Germany solidified their power, they used that moment in 1933 to burn literature and ideas that were “un-German.” Anything that questioned war, supported independent thinking, Jewish… All this included Hemingway and Hellen Keller, Jack London and Karl Marx, HG Well, Kafka, James Joyce, and Tolstoy. German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, whose 1820 play included the words: “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”
Between those, of course, we have the destruction of works that were seen as un-Holy or maybe even evil: Bibles written in languages other than Latin, anything by Martin Luther, early church leaders whose theologies “lost”, Mayan codex’s during conquest, I could go on but you too would look it up on Wikipedia.
And every year, the American Library Association compiles a lists of the books that people want the most to challenge and ban. 8 of the top 10 books challenged in 2019 were primarily for LGBTQI2A+ reasons. The other 2 were the Handmaids Tale and all Harry Potter which is ironic because both are about the rise of authoritarian and the attempted destruction of ideas and people who disagree.
But let’s stay here for a second, with those 8 books. Perhaps if there are no stories about gay people, gay people will cease to exist. And if there are no stories about persons who are transgender, they’ll just disappear. To paraphrase Heine: where they’re willing to removed someone from the history of literature, they’re willing to kill. Every year on November 20th, names, faces, and stories are lifted up of Transgender persons how were killed. This past year, 350 trans person were killed worldwide, most often, they are the most vulnerable in society, forced to the edges so others can pretend they don’t exist. Sometimes their name isn’t known, like no one misses them. Today we might not even need to burn books, just sew enough doubt to destroy an idea, that makes truth suspect, that stokes fear that breeds a fanatical certainty-regardless anything else we’ve experienced, learned, known, been taught.
But, what we can learn from the Handmaids Tale, and Harry Potter, and the lives of LGBTQI2A+ persons, and the Reformers, and Confucian scholars, and Jeremiah and Baruch—ideas, theologies, ideologies, ways of being can’t’ be destroyed in fire, or in exile, or in death.
God makes that clear to Jeremiah. God says: I will make a new covenant-promise-arrangement-understand. I will go out on a limb even thought my heart has been broken again and again. I will reach out. I will try again.
And this time, it’s not written stone that can weather away. And it’s not written on paper that can be cut apart, it’s written on the hearts of all that God created, all who God loves, all whom God desires a relationship with, which is everyone. And it’s a covenant to call us back to the words Jeremiah had been calling out for 20 years, and the words of all the prophets, and the word of Jesus would call us to: Love God. Love others. Love God by loving yourself and loving others. Care for the vulnerable. Free the captive. Heal the sick. Love God and love others. And when others try to destroy the hope, destroy the love, destroy the ideals and the calls of mercy and justice, when they try to burn our promise thinking that will end it, it burns anew into our hearts, lighting a flame into the darkness, bringing light and hope, giving us courage a new.
And God’s promise to the people is that by this love you will know God. You will live in connection and relationship with God. Like spouses or partners who choose each other, every day, until loving is an act habit. Like the Sheep who asked when did we see you sick or imprisoned or naked and care for you? We choose God, choose love because it is engrained in our hearts and until it is engrained in our hearts, that it is who we are.
It is that covenant, that call to love written on our hearts that offers a kind word to a stranger, fills tote bags for vets, finds and supports housing for families, that says Black and Brown Lives Matter and then acts to make the world more just for everyone in it, says a prayer for each trans life lost then treats each living trans person with dignity and respect, cares for the earth and uses resources intentionally, spends and gives money knowing it is reveals our hearts, forgives, wears a mask, stays home, apologizes when they mess up. I’m sorry.
This is who we are, people of the word, written in to our very beings, coursing through our veins, and showing up in action—to love. Beloved community, may that love burn in you, may it be a light to the world. Amen.