Prophet of Tears

(Jer 8:18-9:1; Lam 1:1-3, 3:19-23; Luke 13:31-35) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, September 22, 2019 – UBC Digby

The fertile Annapolis Valley is strewn with broken corn stalks in the fields, apples pummeled to the ground, and even the giant squash are in such short supply that the famed Pumpkin Regatta in Windsor is cancelled, this year.

“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” So cried out Jeremiah, in the Middle East, in the 6th century BCE. Earlier in chapter 8, the word of the Lord was: “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered…” (8:13) “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” (8:18) “O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears.” (9:1)

There are many occasions for tears in human life. You might have quite a few yourself, right now. Jeremiah found many, back in his day and age. He is known as ‘the weeping prophet.’ He was called upon to speak many warnings and judgments upon his own people, and upon the nations around him. And it was hard. The message was at times a heavy burden for Jeremiah; it was like a fire in his bones!

It seems he felt this so deeply, and was so sad for his fellow Hebrews who had gone astray. And he was sad for the disasters that were coming upon them. He lamented the loss of their good relationship with God.

Jeremiah has to lament, or he just wouldn’t make it. He has to let it out. Let the tears out. The anger. The disappointment. The fear. The heart-ache for his people. We read together from the Bible book of Lamentations, which has been credited to Jeremiah. The words of sadness pour out, for the Hebrew people who were in trouble. It was their own fault, and the fault of their enemies, I’d say.

A lament – a prayer of sadness and regret – goes hand in hand with what Richard Foster called ‘the Prayer of Tears.’ Weeping can often be praying, and at its best, tears end up being powerful and beautiful.

John Chrysostom wrote: The fire of sin is intense,  but it is put out by a small amount of tears, for the tear puts out a furnace of faults, and cleans our wounds of sin. (De Paenit

There is a tricky thing about reading this big book of Jeremiah – fifty pages. The events and prophetic speeches are not all in chronological order. As with other things recorded in the Bible, getting the order of things is not always important. The human authors and the Spirit had other ways of organizing the biblical material. 

And here, in Jeremiah 8, it is not completely who is speaking the lines. Is it mostly Jeremiah? Or is he speaking the word of the LORD? And are they like the words of Lamentations: they become poetry for the whole people to claim and name and refrain?

Maybe it is all of the above.

So, when we read, My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick, it is Jeremiah’s words, but is this what God is saying, feeling, expressing? For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Jeremiah the prophet of old, he cries, yes; but God also weeps for the people.

God weeps. We read this in scripture. We have that verse about Christ, famous for being the shortest verse in the Bible. In the old, Authorized Version, John 11:35 reads, “Jesus wept.” Creator God has to lament too; as Jeremiah of old shows us. This is the loving nature of the Trinity.

I never shall forget the first time I heard the modern hymn, ‘God Weeps.’ It was at a Baptist Peace Camp, in Wolfville. You know that there is a Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, do you? Well, perhaps twenty years ago, they met in Nova Scotia. The worship leader was an amazing musician. And he introduced this powerful song, ‘God Weeps.’

God weeps at love withheld,
                   at strength misused,
                   at children’s innocence abused,
and till we change the way we love,
                                                              God weeps.
God bleeds at anger’s fist,
                   at trust betrayed,
                   at women battered and afraid,
and till we change the way we win,
                                                             God bleeds.
God cries   at hungry mouths,
                   at running sores,
                   at creatures dying without cause,
and till we change the way we care,
                                                              God cries.
God waits   for stones to melt,
                   for peace to seed,
                   for hearts to hold each other’s need,
and till we understand the Christ,
                                                              God waits.
(Shirley Erena Murray © 1996 Hope Publishing Company)

All the scriptural story of God weeping, of the prophets crying out, of the people lamenting what seems to be their fate… it all is preserved for us to influence us. To lead us to lament and cry. And be turned toward the light of a new day.

The people weep. The words of the prophet becomes words for the whole people of God, and for us, all these thousands of years later.
Is there no balm in Gilead? 
Is there no physician there?
Why has the health of my poor people
not been restored? (J 8:22)

  This verse inspired a hymn, a spiritual. We will sing it at the end of our time. And what do we sing? 
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.

It takes the word of Jeremiah 8:22 very personally. Maybe we think of our own salvation from sin and evil, and the healing of the soul brought to us by the cross of Jesus. 

The verses of this spiritual, interestingly, speak of being discouraged about one’s ministry, our work for God in the world. Thinking our work is in vain. Not being able to preach or pray like the great apostles. Simple discouragement. And we sing it together.

It is the work of all the people that can be hard. It is our shared failures that can be big. It is our deep losses that call us to lament together.

Joyce gave us just a glimpse of the big gathering of Baptists last month called Oasis. One of our action items, was to agree upon a Resolution in Response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and to claim an Apology to the first peoples of this land. Here is one example of a community lament, of sorrow for sin, of confession and repentance: turning around. Let me quote at some length from our statements. And these are but short excerpts.

We as Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada acknowledge that we have not lived in right relationship with the Indigenous peoples of this land. While we have in theory affirmed that everyone is created in the image of God (Gen 1:27), we have not recognized in practice the inherent, God-given dignity of Indigenous peoples. Despite the hospitality offered to our ancestors, we have not acknowledged the long-standing historic and official claim of Indigenous peoples to this land. We have not kept the promises our forebears made in the form of treaties, specifically the Peace and Friendship Treaties (1725-1779). And even when some of our own, such as Silas T. Rand (1810-1889), spoke out against colonialism, we ignored or silenced them.

Whether we recognize it or not, our prosperity in the Maritimes came in part through injustices and abuse done to Indigenous peoples. Our houses, our schools, our retirement homes, our churches — all of these sit on unceded territory governed by official treaties of peace and friendship. We might have claimed ignorance in the past, but ignorance can no longer be an excuse for inaction. As Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, we recognize and confess our complicity in the Residential Schools and in the broader system of colonialism. We mourn the broken relationships we have caused between children, families, communities, the rest of Creation, and God, and we must humbly ask for forgiveness both from God and from Indigenous peoples.

Though we are late coming to an apology, as Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada, we come in a spirit of humility and proclaim our alignment with and endorse the apology given by CBM’s Executive Director Terry Smith in 2016.

Here are a few words from the Apology itself, now our Apology:

We are grateful to those who served and led the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and affirm the excellent Calls to Action. We renounce the Doctrine of Discovery and Terra Nullius by which European Christians took that which wasn’t theirs, sadly in the name of God and the Church. It is untenable, unacceptable and wrong for them to have done so, and we acknowledge our ongoing complicity through our failure to call out and stand against these systemic acts of injustice. We acknowledge that we have benefitted from them and ask your forgiveness.

Along this pathway, we will call upon our churches to renounce all forms of injustice and discrimination. We shall embolden our churches, schools and institutions to embrace the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples. We will encourage our churches to participate in opportunities for education and the resetting of our relationship.

The New Testament book of James says, ‘confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (5:16) And, as Psalm 30 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” (30:5)

Jeremiah the prophet wept.
God weeps; Jesus weeps; the Spirit prays with sighs too deep for words. 
We weep. That joy may come with the morning.

Prophet of Judgment

 (Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-281; Luke 15:1-7) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, September 15, 2019 – UBC Digby

A woman in New Zealand told about a little sermon her daughter gave one day for their family devotions time. The daughter was nine years old.  Here is Lucy’s sermon: When I think about God I think of a person who would never murder or kill anyone.  But when you think about it you wonder because wasn’t it God who swept the angel of death over Egypt?  It makes you think doesn’t it? Is God against it or is he not? I mean what had the boys done to die? It was Pharaoh wasn’t it?  Now do you realise how little we know about God? I hope this made you think, thanks for listening. (Brian McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration, 2016, pp. 110-111.)

We are thinking about God as we hear words of scripture, words of the great prophets. We are walking with the prophet Jeremiah now. We are merely sampling from the 52 chapters, fifty Bible pages of ancient speech and drama. Today, we glimpse this prophet of judgment, bringing a tough message with tough language and tough imagery.  Through years of dramatic events in Judah, Jeremiah pursues his message, warns his people, and eventually leaves the holy land, like so many of his fellow Jews had done.

Our biblical prophets are people with big personalities. As we study Jeremiah, we find several portraits of this man, here. He is a prophet of severe judgement, against his own people, and outsiders. He is a person of deep caring love for his people, a weeping prophet, with inner struggles. He is a preacher of the truth who battles falsehood. He is a proclaimer of scripture and a composer of scripture, sharing what he learns from Almighty God.

Today, these words – the LORD says:
I speak in judgment against them.
My people are foolish, they do not know me.
They are skilled at doing evil,
but do not know how to do good.
The whole land shall be a desolation.

The lyric of Psalm 14 goes well with Jeremiah’s word from the Lord.
Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
There is no one who does good.

We, we don’t really like bad news, warnings, and harsh correction in our religion, do we? If you did, you would be attending a church where you’d get a direct verbal rebuke much more often. 

Preachers with sermons like those of Jeremiah are negative, nasty, and not compassionate, we might think. Our mind easily, as Richard Rohr says: [The dualistic mind] presumes that if you criticize something, you don’t love it. Wise people like the prophets would say the opposite. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September 11, 2017)

A real prophet, in any age, loves the people and the religion. That is why he or she is a good person for the job. He cares so deeply about what is going on, that divine warnings can come from his mouth.

I think immediately of one of the people who was a pastor to me in my young years, and who is still a friend. This week he will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his ordination as a Baptist Minister. He is a unique personality. He is very opinionated. He speaks often of what he likes and what he dislikes: he’s known for this. He’s famous for saying: ‘I do not approve!’ He knows what he believes, and what he likes, and he sticks to it! Here are some examples, from a book he wrote a decade ago, about Christian Hymns. He was inspired to write this long essay because of two church services he’d been to in one day, that, he would say, failed. Let me quote:

Recently, an order of service asked a neo-classical, elderly, white, Anglo-Saxon, United Empire Loyalist congregation to sound as close as possible to a southern United States afro-american congregation — of a hundred or more years ago. It was pathetic. Obviously most of the people could not comprehend the meaning or the context of the spirituals. (R. H. Prentice, Hymns at Heaven’s Gate: The Use & Abuse of Hymns, Gaspereau Press, 2008, p. 14)

On the same day as the above experience, another congregation sang hymns that were perfectly attuned to the people who had gathered, but were misplaced, brutally torn apart, leaving some to wonder what had gone wrong with the message of familiar hymns. One hymn, by F. W. Faber, ‘There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,’ was ripped apart at the seams with three consecutive but crucial stanzas missing: the very three that contained the whole kernel of the hymn’s message. The result was tragic. ( Ibid, p. 15) 

These judgments about hymn-singing sound so much like the man who wrote them; this is so quintessentially him. 🙂 But I say this lovingling: because I do love and still respect this opinionated chaplain. He is a beloved man. Today, in a church where he served as youth pastor, 50 years ago, people in their 60s who were in his Baptist Youth Fellowship are having a big reunion to celebrate him! He has always been able to tell people how they are going astray because he also cares so much for them. And people love him for his opinionated attention and faithful compassion.

Like Jeremiah of old, the best prophets of our day are those who speak out, and speak strongly, while they love us and our world. Out of intense caring comes intense action. Look for genuine compassion in the loudest voices: this will help us know who to heed and who to forget. Not every loudmouth is loving!

Richard Rohr has written of six characteristics of biblical prophets. He says one is this: [Sixth,] prophets simultaneously announce and denounce. They announce God’s reign of justice and peace and publicly denounce the world’s regimes of injustice and war. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., they hold high the alternatives of nonviolence and disarmament and lay low the obsolete ways of violence and weapons. (Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, September 14, 2017)

The Good News, proclaimed, has it’s bad news. We call it all, Gospel, Good News. For the good gets the final word.

So we end with the words of our great Prophet, Jesus, the Messiah, the Saviour. Skim through the middle chapters of Luke. Christ says things like:
You hypocrites! Chapter 12.
Unless you repent, you will all perish. Chapter 13.
You hypocrites! Chapter 13.
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Ch. 14.

But Jesus also says this, Ch. 15: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices.

Jesus: the Shepherd of the sheep, the Good Shepherd of the sheep! We start to get the message that the God who looks like a stern judge, truly cares so much, and loves all of us deeply. God comes after us, looking for us, seeking and saving the lost. 

Along with Psalm 14 we could remember Psalm 23. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me – pursue me – all the days of my life. 

When you hear the words of some prophet of judgment, bearing down on your conscience and your actions, look in that also for the Love that pursues you. The Holy One is chasing you down, 
because we have strayed, yes; 
because we are loved and we belong, yes!

Involvement in Outreach

(Jeremiah 18:1-11; Luke 14:25-35)

Sun, Sept 8, 2019 – UBC Digby – J G White

Yesterday, our local fire department had five calls to answer: two alarms at a local hotel, one car off the road, one pole on fire when wires were struck, and one tree landed on a house. It takes sacrifice to serve as a firefighter. What if there was no local fire department? What on earth would we do?

There is great cost in joining a fire department. But there is also great cost in not helping, in not becoming a servant. So to in Church. In our Christian Faith we speak of being disciples – followers and workers of Jesus, of God. Two thousand years ago, Jesus had dozens of close followers. Today, He has millions… supposedly.

So, recruitment into this movement is important, into this Jesus Movement, the Way. Joining up is costly, to us who have done so. In 1937, Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave the world his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship,’ and its influence is powerful still today. Bonhoeffer’s most famous phrase from it is: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Perhaps this whole books comes out of Jesus’ words, “Take up your cross, and follow me.”

Let me put Bonhoeffer’s words in context with this quotation. (p. 99)
When Christ calls a [person] he bids him [or her] come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like that of Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world.

In the ways we invite people to join God, to come to Jesus, we remember that there is a cost of discipleship. We just heard words of Jesus. ‘Count the cost of being My disciple,’ He says, still today. Christ used extreme language to get His point across. ‘Hate your family, give up everything you own, carry the tool that will execute you!’ He is not a literalist, but Jesus is a realist. Discipleship to Him is costly.

There is also a cost of nondiscipleship. What do we loose out on if we convert, but do not truly follow as disciples? In 1980, Baptist thinker Dallas Willard brilliantly wrote an article about this, for the magazine Christianity Today. What do we lose? Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, [it costs us:]
a life penetrated throughout by love,
faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good,
hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging circumstances,
power to do what is right & withstand the forces of evil.
In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10). (Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines, 1988, p. 263)

Today, we heard that famous Bible bit from Jeremiah, about the potter forming something from the clay. We love this scene! But notice, this prophetic word is a severe warning. God is preparing to smash the people of faith, because they have been faithless, and make something new of them.
We must count the cost of non-discipleship.

We keep these things in view when we reach out into our community. When we, inside, go outside, and go on mission. We are in our mission field. Dennis Bickers says: (The Healthy Small Church, 2005, p. 115)

When one goes to the mission field, there are new languages to be learned, new foods to eat, new cultures to understand, and new stories to hear. To effectively enter into and impact the mission field, we must first understand it and then translate the biblical story into a message that can be understood and accepted by the culture we seek to reach.

This is our work together, now, Church. And we are well on our way. For I believe each of us is deployed in our community in lots of places, and we already know the culture of our mission fields.

Me? I am a hiker and nature lover. Remember my first couple years here? I got us reading Bunyan’s classic book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, and watching it on film. I preached on the pilgrimage theme all the time. I had friends who had walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain come and testify to their experience. I scheduled spiritual walks and invited you to join me outdoors.

But I did not find any of you to join me in this passion. That’s OK. If I want to start a fresh expression of Church that happens outdoors, with hikers, I will just have to do that on my own with a few hikers who are believers from other congregations. And I know a few. Pray that I will find the right teammates to help start some spiritual hiking.

You, you know the culture of the golf club, or of the fishery, or retail stores, or farming, or of a seniors apartment. Your life intersects with the Baptist Church, and something else. Those are your people. You may have a mission there.

Involvement in outreach is all about when we are out, not when we are in. When we are in, when we are here, we may be preparing and training, but outreach itself does not happen in this building, on Church property. Outreach happens when the Church – the people – are out and about.

I recently read a story in Mosaic, by Leanne Friesen, Pastor of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church, ON. Regarding evangelism, she speaks of youth today

What I certainly see is a huge passion for service and for helping others and for stepping in and really doing what I would call ‘God’s work’. At our church, we have two sisters, one is 15 and the other 22, and they actually formed an organization called Sisters for Sisters. Every year, they do a fundraiser for an organization in the city. One year, it was a breakfast to raise money for the native women’s health centre. Another year, they were doing a dinner for a different group. What’s interesting is that they don’t necessarily feel insistent that they have to get up, like I have at some point, and say, “By the way, we are all here so I can tell you about Jesus.” I was taught to do this…yet there’s such a longing in their hearts for social justice, so there’s a lot of great starting points with our next generation that may look a little different than my generation. (Mosaic, Fall 2017, p. 7)

Finding our starting point – this is so important. The Jesus we want people to have is so demanding, and so giving! To be a disciple, we go, and work at making other disciples of Jesus. We come together to be ‘boomeranged’ back out there, for the work at hand. The work of living abundantly.

So throw yourself into us, the faith community, to be boomeranged back into the wider community, where you are deployed. Don’t come in here never to zoom out into service. That would be like the problem in one of Sharon’s favourite songs of childhood. “My Boomerang Won’t Come Back.”

Let’s not let our town, our streets, say we never came back to them, once we entered the Church. Jesus is here for us. Jesus is out there for them.
Reach out!

Saving Water

(Jeremiah 2:4-13; John 7:37-39) – J G White
11 am, Sunday, September 1, 2019 – UBC Digby

We read our first detailed warnings from Jeremiah of old, today. Chapter 2. The ancestors did wrong and turned away from God. Their priests did not know God. Those prophets spoke on behalf of Ba’al, not Yahweh. They changed their God! They forsake the Fountain of living water.

Years ago I had a job that involved saving water. I worked for a university at their research station on a large island in Shelburne county. We lived in one of the old lighthouse keepers houses. We had electricity. We had a gigantic propane stove and grill. We had a boat to get back and forth. I think my boss had a cellular telephone. But we did not have good well water on the island. It was so brackish and dark.

So the lighthouse keeper’s houses had cisterns in the basement: the rainwater drained from the roof into the large concrete container that took up a third of the basement. We kept a close eye on the water level of the cistern, as the summer went on. Every four or five days one could take a bath! In a bit of water. As my boss would say to visitors: just a couple inches of water. Wash down as far as possible, wash up as far as possible, then wash possible

There are two houses on the island, but in the basement of one, the concrete cistern would not hold water anymore: it was cracked. Useless.

Many peoples around the globe are water saving cultures. In deserts, on islands, and so forth. It is vital to survival. How different this is from being here on town water, or having your own wonderful well that never goes dry. Think of that ever-flowing water along the side of the road in Weymouth. 

This is living water – flowing water. It is the image of the prophet in Jeremiah 2. And the picture Jesus paints, more than once. Let anyone who is thirsty come to me…‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ (Jn 7:37, 38) 

When unending, fresh, living-giving, living water is available, why rely upon bottles and barrels and sandy cisterns? This is the question God poses through Jeremiah’s voice. 

…my people have… forsaken me, the fountain of living water, and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer 2:13)

I wonder what cracked cisterns I have occasionally dug for myself. I like church and a lot of religious traditions. Instead of the Holy Spirit, I rely upon organ music, or nice hymns, or fancy prayers, or thoughtful books. The tools of our Faith can become more important than the God of our Faith. 

In my better moments, I realize how sentimental and nostalgic I can be. Maybe like you, I get attached to the past. I love the good old days, and like to preserve them. Thanks be to God, I’ve had a couple special moments this year, God moments, Divine encounters, in which I felt inspired and realized, “These are the good old days here and now! Thank- You, Master!”

I like my lifestyle, my freedom, my standard of living, my great expectations for how wonderful life will keep on being for us here. Do I worship my middle-class luxuries more than the Saviour who sacrificed Himself completely? 

Some people get locked-in to their thoughts, their opinions, their religious convictions. I have a tendency to think outside the box, and explore spirituality on the edges of Christianity. I sometimes am warned by 2 Timothy 4:3&4 For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.

The good news in the warnings of Jeremiah, and of Jesus, is that there is a fountain of living water for the human spirit. There is a Holy Spirit, there is a Saviour, there is a loving Creator. Our challenge, is to keep choosing to drink freely from the free Source. It is as free as that spring from the spigots in Weymouth. We need not worry about saving water – keeping and protecting our spirituality. The saving water – the water that saves – will not run out on us.