Tears, Bottled and Poured Out

Sermon: Tears, Bottled and Poured Out

Texts: Psalm 56; Jeremiah 9:1; Luke 19:41-44

Date: March 17, 2019

©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church


           If God was catching all the tears you shed in your life so far, what kind of vessel would God need?  A little perfume bottle?  A bucket?  A milk truck tanker?  An ocean bed? 

           It’s a sweet, comforting picture the psalmist paints of God keeping track of our tears.  “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle.  Are they not in your record?”  [Psalm 56:8]  Still Speaking Devotional writer Quinn Caldwell took this text as the heart of his devotional not long ago.  He found the image heartwarming in the way it portrayed God’s nearness: “God there in front of me, close as close can be, catching my tears as they fall. Not wiping every tear from my eye; not promising that mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Bending down from on high, celestial bottle in hand, and gathering my tears—my tears!—as if they were liquid gold. As if they were precious. As if they mattered.”[1] It’s a lovely way of affirming faith that God knows us and is aware of our suffering.  The psalmist, looking forward to a day when foes will be vanquished, asserts faith that God is standing with them in this difficult, tear-soaked time: “This I know, that God is for me…In God I trust; I am not afraid.” [Psalm 56:9b, 11a] 

           Quinn’s devotional suggests that our tears are not just precious but precious evidence in the case for our humanity. He writes, “If the psalmist has it right, your tears aren’t something to hide, to be embarrassed about. They are to be honored. Not that being hurt unto tears is a good in and of itself. But in a world where pain seems inevitable, God thinks this evidence that you still have a human heart, even after all you’ve been through, is precious indeed.”  God thinks we matter enough to notice our tears and maybe even catch them.  And God rejoices that we are still human enough to shed a tear now and then—maybe even for someone besides ourselves.  God wants us to think all kinds of heartache in the world are worth our tears, our precious tears, which may be glittering with compassion as well as glistening with our own personal griefs and sorrows. 

           We gather this morning in the shadow of yet another hate-fueled mass murder, the killing of nearly 50 Muslims in New Zealand while they were gathered for their Friday prayers.  One of the news items I read about it said that the first victim of the shooting, one of the worshipers standing near the door of the Mosque was saying “Hello, Brother,” to the assassin just before he was shot.  It’s hard to imagine the depth of depravity that motivates someone to lash out with such violence against what he named as “white genocide.”  This is white supremacy at its most poisonous.  It’s worthy of an ocean of tears. 

           Perhaps you wept over this and other hateful acts of violence; perhaps not.  I am not here to judge what makes people cry and what leaves us dry-eyed.  I do want to lift up something that biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about in his classic book The Propehetic Imagination.  He describes in an early chapter the development of what he defines as “royal consciousness.”  Royal consciousness began to develop in our Hebrew forebears’ history when David and then his son Solomon began building an empire.  Under Solomon royal consciousness reached a pinnacle.  Solomon used military conscription, excessive taxation and forced labor to create a level of affluence (for the upper classes, at least) previously unseen in Israel and Judah.  The result was a home grown echo of the Egyptian empire Solomon’s ancestors had fled in the Exodus.  The royal consciousness is committed to achievable satiation—having enough and too much of everything. 

           Solomon tried to domesticate religion during this period as well, building a fabulous Temple and restricting access to it and therefore to God.    Royal consciousness is legitimated by a flattened religion, “an ‘official religion of optimism,’ which believes God has no business other than to maintain our standard of living, ensuring his own place in his palace.”[2]

Royal consciousness was not really interested in people’s experience; it was interested in their behavior, which could be managed.  Bruggemann points out that royal consciousness eventually leads people to numbness, especially to numbness about death.[3]  The Solomonic establishment embodies the loss of passion, which is the ability to care or suffer.  Apathy, the absence of pathos, is a hallmark of royal consciousness.  So is denial that the king won’t live forever and that the empire will one day fall, as empires do.  Royal consciousness doesn’t want to deal with mortality and suffering. Numbness is the order of the day. 

The Prophetic Imagination was written not just to address biblical history but to challenge contemporary Christians dwelling in empires to notice parallels in our experience.  The book was written in 1978 and recently revised.  Back in ’78 Brueggemann couldn’t imagine what we would be experiencing in terms of the 24/7 news cycle and the constant flood of mostly bad news coming our way.  He could see that a consumer society that focuses on what people have rather than what they experience, a society aimed at satiation, had some things in common with Solomon’s empire.  He could see then that denial of death and numbness were factors in our culture.  He could not have had any idea what a temptation numbness is for us now in 2019.  But holy cow; some days that’s all any of us wants: numbness. Does the most recent mass murder moves us to tears?  If it does, it is overcoming a massive force that would keep us apathetic.  Apathy—the absence of pathos—is not just a psychological coping mechanism but also a feature of royal consciousness in our day that just wants the economy to keep humming along, that is only interested in whether we’re buying our share of goods and keeping quiet.

Brueggemann makes a case that the prophets are God’s answer to royal consciousness on many levels.  “The proper idiom for the prophet in cutting through the royal numbness and denial is the language of grief, the rhetoric that engages the community in mourning for a funeral they do not want to admit.  It is indeed their own funeral…Grief and mourning, that crying in pathos, is the ultimate form of criticism, for it announces the sure end of the whole royal arrangement.”[4]  He goes on to suggest Jeremiah is the clearest model for prophetic imagination and ministry, because of the way he employs the language of pathos and grief—his is a “ministry of articulated grief.”  We heard just one verse of Jeremiah’s expression of grief as he prophesied about the end of Israel’s empire in his day: “O that my head were waters and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep night and day for the slain of my poor people!” [Jeremiah 9:1]  Jeremiah experienced grief on both sides, the people’s grief at their exile and God’s grief over the hard-heartedness of the people that led them into this mess.  He knows there will be a painful ending of what was before a new beginning can take root in the stump of his people, and he grieves and invites his people to grieve with him. 

Jesus picks up this prophetic mantle, in a sense, when he weeps.  There are two mentions of Jesus crying in the gospels; one is at the grave of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35, “Jesus wept”), and the other is in the text we heard this morning.  The latter half of Luke 19 is an emotional roller coaster.  Jesus has just paraded toward Jerusalem on a donkey, accompanied by shouts of joy, Hosanna! Hosanna!  When he sees the city, he weeps over it, even though a few moments before he may have been feeling jubilant.  The holy city is in the grip of yet another empire and destruction of the Temple and its environs is looming.  Jesus will not be numbed, will not buy into the apathy of the oppressors or the silence of the terrified populace.  In Luke’s gospel his next move is to cause a scene at the temple, driving out the sellers and money-changers there.  His rage is grounded in his profound grief over missed opportunity, over seeing his beloved people who cannot manage to live in peace. 

Christ still weeps, I imagine, over the state of the world.  The words he addressed to Jerusalem, sobbing, are depressingly applicable for us and our world: “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace.  But now they are hidden from your eyes.” [Luke 19:42]  Weeping is the only thing Jesus can do at this moment.  And it may not seem like much.  Yet it is in itself a prophetic act, as Walter Bruggemann would frame it.  Tears can be a prophetic critique of the royal consciousness that leads to deadly, death-like numbness. 

I say tears can be a prophetic critique of the royal consciousness rather than asserting that they are always prophetic and helpful because sometimes tears maintain power that needs reforming.  I hadn’t thought of this before reading Robin DiAngelo’s excellent book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism; but she includes a chapter on white women’s tears that gave me pause.  She writes, “The term white tears refers to all the ways, both literally and metaphorically, that white fragility manifests itself through white people’s laments over how hard racism is on us.”[5] What she means is that white people’s tears too often put the focus on how bad we feel about racism rather than keeping the focus on the real suffering of those who bear the brunt of racist systems every day.  Our feelings may be hurt when we are given feedback about our racist behaviors, which we may hear as moral judgment even though unaware white racism is inevitable in our culture.  Crying can distract from the real work of dismantling racism because people tend to immediately attend to the person crying rather than the issue at hand.  Robin tells a story of a training incident when the trainer pointed out that a white woman was reinforcing the racist idea that she should speak for a black man in the room, interpreting what he was trying to say.  When the trainer pointed out what she was doing, the woman erupted in tears and the training came to a complete halt as most of the room “rushed to comfort her and angrily accuse the black facilitator of unfairness.  (Even though the participants were there to learn how racism works, how dare the facilitator point out an example of how racism works!) Meanwhile, the black man she had spoken for was left alone to watch her receive comfort.”[6]  I get that.  I’ve been brought up in a culture that has this whole trope of the damsel in distress, and I might wield it unconsciously as a way of reminding people that it’s really all about me and my kindred and our right to remain comfortable at all times.  Tears can reinforce power arrangements as well as undermine them. 

That said, the world might be better off if we were all expressing grief over the genuine suffering of this world, pouring out a few more tears.  It is a mighty temptation to give into comfortable numbness, especially when we are not directly involved in a particular tragedy or travesty of violence, or when others are bearing the burden of unjust social arrangements.  We need to face into pain and give evidence of our human hearts if we want things to shift for the better.  Brueggemann, as always, says it well: “This denying and deceiving kind of numbness is broken only by the embrace of negativity, by the public articulation that we are fearful and ashamed of the future we have chosen. The pain and regret denied only immobilizes. In the time of Jeremiah the pain and regret denied prevented any new movement either from God or toward God in Judah. The covenant was frozen and there was no possibility of newness until the numbness was broken. Jeremiah understood that the criticism must be faced and embraced, for then comes liberation from incurable disease, from broken covenant, and from failed energy.”[7] In our time and place, criticism of white supremacy must be faced and embraced.  Clearly, white supremacy provoked the latest murderous attack on Muslim immigrants in New Zealand; in case we weren’t sure, the killer left a manifesto that spelled it out for us.  Now is the time for all of us who enjoy white privilege to engage in, as Bruggemann puts it, a “public articulation that we are fearful and ashamed of the future we have chosen.”  To deny the ongoing power of white supremacy in our imaginations and social arrangements is to stay frozen, to stay stuck where we are.  Our grief over what we have inherited and frequently accepted without protest must be expressed before liberation can come about for all of us. 

O that our heads were a fountain that we could weep for the slain of all our poor people!  Such tears, we hope and pray, will be caught up by God as precious evidence that we still have human hearts. 

[2] Brueggemann, Walter The Prophetic Imagination Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978, p. 43

[3] Ibid. p. 46

[4] Ibid. p. 51

[5] DiAngelo, Robin White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism Boston: Beacon Press, 2018, p. 131

[6] Ibid. p. 133


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