Walter Brueggemann: Holy Week 2020: Until the Dancing Begins Again

I have been noticing (as we all have) that graduations are being cancelled, and weddings are being postponed. During the spread of COVID-19, this is not a time for such assemblages of joyous celebration.

Ironically, during a time of disaster in ancient Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah noticed some similar circumstances. Three times he observes that weddings had been cancelled in Jerusalem, because it was no time to celebrate and not a time to bet on the future. The correlation with what many of us are facing due to COVID-19 is haunting.

In Jeremiah 7:33-34, Jeremiah acknowledges weddings are ending as death shockingly increases and the bodies of dear loved ones literally pile up.

In Jeremiah 16:7-9, he notices they are not even having funerals, let alone wedding feasts.

In Jeremiah 25:11, he anticipates the land may become a ruin and a waste.

More than any other witness in the Old Testament, in this painful moment, Jeremiah leans deeply and honestly into the difficulties being faced by his people. When the city cannot assemble for rites of passage, it is sure evidence that social life is stressed beyond measure. Likewise in these current days, it is only the foolish who would insist on assembling and misinform their flock that Jesus will protect us from the virus. Jeremiah could not have identified with such poor judgment, because the whole world of social possibility had been shut down in his own time.

And yet, at the same time, the prophet anticipates that in this place of waste, disaster, and devastation, the sounds of festival celebration will again be heard. Life will resume in its rich social thickness. Amid the sounds of social gladness, there will be songs of thanksgiving sung to the God who restores and revivifies.

“Give thanks to the LORD of hosts,
for the LORD is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!”
(Jeremiah 33:11)

This God has the capacity to restore, recover, and revivify! This is the God of homecoming after displacement. This is the God of Easter who has not quit, not even on that dread Friday or that misery-lasting Saturday. It is no wonder that the older son in the parable heard “music and dancing” (Luke 15:25). The reason for the music and dancing is: This brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found. (Luke 15:32)

This kind of restoration can only be rendered in song and parable, two of the great trusts of the church!

The song of thanksgiving that Jeremiah anticipates puts me in mind of the great German anthem, “Now Thank We All Our God,” written by Pastor Martin Rinkart during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) as a table grace for his family:

"Martin Rinkart was pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony, the town of his birth. The walled city was a refuge for many fleeing war and pestilence. Left as the only clergyman in town, he often buried as many as forty or fifty persons in one day. Although his wife died of the pestilence, Rinkart survived." [1]

He wrote not only during the long-running war but in the face of a fatal epidemic that decimated the population as he presided over their many deaths. We do well to ponder this simple table prayer of gratitude amid pestilence:

Now thank we all our God with hearts and hands and voices,
who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
who, from our mothers’ arms, hath blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
with ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
and keep us in God’s grace, and guide us when perplexed,
and free us from all ills in this world and the next.

The context of his work, not unlike our own in these difficult days of COVID-19, was a scene of relentless death. Yet Rinkart wrote and sang of thanks! The hymn invites us to cling to God’s grace that “frees us of all ills” in all imaginable futures.

The rhetoric of Jeremiah, echoed by this German prayer-hymn, provides clues for our ministry now. We may identify two accent points that recur in this rhetoric.

First is to engage in relentless, uncompromising hope. This is more than a civic assurance that “We will get through this.” It is rather the conviction that God will not quit until God has arrived at God’s good intention. There is a purpose at work in, with, under, and beyond our best resolves. That holy purpose is tenacious, steadfast, and relentless, that we and all of God’s creation will come to wellbeing. The task of the church is to hope in a way that is grounded in the good, faithful resolve of God.

But the second task of ministry is the work in the meantime to be witnesses to the abiding *hesed* (Hebrew for “steadfast love” that I translate as “tenacious solidarity”) of God that persists amid pestilence. It is the witness of Jeremiah that, in the midst of abandonment, God has not abandoned. Or to change the figure with Jeremiah, the seemingly barren wilderness is grace-occupied (31:2).

That witness is performed by both word (at which we are pretty good!) and by act. The act is performed by neighborly gesture in a time of fear, by neighborly generosity and hospitality in a time of self-preoccupation, and by neighborly policies in the face of predatory greed. The work of the church is to empower and summon to such policies and to celebrate them as they appear among us. These new policies need not be aberrations for the sake of an emergency. They may indeed be the “new normal”!

The work of ministry is to render the virus as penultimate, to see that even its lethal force is outflanked by the goodness of God. Thus we have this simple witness of Pastor Rinkart with his willingness to sing and pray, even with death as close as his own household. Faith is indeed “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

That faith does not yield to death because it knows in the deepest ways that the goodness of God will not fold in the face of the threat of death. It boggles to know that that faith is entrusted to fallible folk like us. Jeremiah anticipated that the wedding, singing, and dancing would begin again, perhaps soon. In the meantime he waited with truth-telling, honesty, and courage.

[1] A New Century Hymnal Companion: Ag Guide to the Hymns ed. by Kristen L. Forman [Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1998] 421.

Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.