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.

Return

(Isaiah 55:1-9; Luke 13:1-5) – J G White
11 am, Sun, March 24, 2019 – UBC Digby

A flight attendant spent a week’s vacation in the Rockies. She was captivated by the mountain peaks, the clear blue skies, and the beautiful forest. She also was charmed by a very eligible bachelor who owned and operated a cattle ranch and lived in a log cabin.

At the end of this week, after a wonderful time with this bachelor, she has to return home to her job. While on board the place, she was pondering, “Should I go back to the city or return to the woods and stay with this man in the cabin for the rest of her life?” She was struggling but believes that God will give her an answer.

To refresh herself, she went into the rest room and splashed some water on her face. Just then, there was some turbulence, a ‘ding’ sound went off and then a sign in the rest room lit up: PLEASE RETURN TO THE CABIN. She did – to the cabin back in the mountains. (modified from Reader’s Digest [1/81], p. 118)

Isaiah 55 – a great chapter!  God invites: Come to me; I will make an everlasting agreement with you.  The prophet injects: seek Lord while may be found… Let them return to the Lord.  

This is the phrase that has caught my attention for more than a week.  Return. Return to the Lord. Who is returning to God and Christ now?

One month ago Sharon and I heard Dr. Joel Thiessen, Ambrose University, Calgary, AB, give lectures in Wolfville about how churches thrive.

Sources of Attendance (in Canadian Churches):

Thiessen’s observations: 1. In most churches about 10% of people in the pews we can consider converts.  

  1. People raised in the congregation (green):  One disadvantage in this group: they tend to be slower to change.  Same for many things, not just churches.
  2. The largest groups in congregations are those who joined it when they moved to the town, or who came after leaving a different one in the area.  

So, Thiessen asks, if a congregation is growing in numbers, is it flourishing?  Depends… Most growing churches in Canada are growing because of transfer growth!  Is that good or not? We often decide. These are important questions.

Many of those who enter the local Church now are people returning.  Not new converts. We knew this, I knew this, but I have always felt the ideal way is to reach new, unsaved, unchurched men and women.  Perhaps I need to rethink my goals. Pay more attention to how we include the people of Christian experience out there who are not in Churches?

I think of my pastor friend (Garnet Parker) who dreamed of organizing a new congregation in Hants County for all those people out there who had been hurt the the church in the past, rejected by church, whatever.  The Church of the Unforgiven, or something like that. There’s a lot to be said for finding a place for those who left the church for good reason.

People leave the Faith for many reasons.  Some reasons are quite serious. Why do people suffer so?  That’s a big issue. Always has been. Look at the conversation Sara read from Luke 13.  People talk to Jesus about why a group of people got targeted by Pilate and were killed. Why? They wonder why some folks got killed when a stone tower fell on them.

Jesus’ answer seems to be two things. One, He says, No, these people did not deserve what they got, they were not being punished for something. Yet He also says, Watch out; you turn around, or you might end up the same way.  

This is just one of many moments we have from the Bible where Jesus deals with the suffering of people.  And that is just one reason people give up on being practicing Christians.

It is their return to the Lord that interests us today, to use Isaiah’s phrase.  Many people who come to these pews are returning. Some of you returned to this church of your childhood. In fact, you may have been a member here for decades, having joined when you were a teenager.  [I have a whole sermon for you about this pet peeve of mine – the problem of keeping your membership in a local church after you leave – naughty, naughty! But I will give you that sermon some other day.]

Some of you coming here was a return to church in general, though not this specific one. You were away from it for years, then came to this fellowship.  

Some of you are folk who left some other nearby congregation, and found us after a while, and stayed.

Of course, Baptist congregations have operated for hundreds of years with membership. Though many of you regular participants are not members.  Perhaps today’s a good day to review our membership procedures. If we are happy with people returning to God, or returning to us in this Church, we must pay attention to how we welcome and include them/you.

Article IV – Reception of Members

Upon recommendation of the Deacons and a vote of the Church, a person may be received into membership:  This is one of the most important ministries of the Deacons in any church.

      1. i) By baptism – A candidate who gives satisfactory evidence of faith in Christ and a desire to live for Christ, is accepted for baptism.  Baptists got named “Baptists” because our emphasis on baptism.  We believe in individual freedom: the choice to be baptized into Christianity is a choice of the individual person, not of anyone else.  
      2. ii) By letter – A member of a Christian Church practicing baptism by immersion may be received on the basis of a letter of dismission and recommendation from that Church.  Of course, since we believe so strongly in the local church, the reverse is true.  When you, a member of Digby Baptist, leave, you transfer your membership to where you are.  YOU DO NOT STAY A MEMBER HERE. Oops. That is my sermon for another day. 😉

iii) By experience – This is a very interesting part of our identity here.  Not every Baptist Church is like this, even in our own Association or Denomination.  It is what is called ‘open membership.’ We respect Anglicans as Christians, and welcome them as full members if they so desire.  So too with Uniteds, or Lutherans, or other forms of believers. Also…

iii) By experience – A candidate may become a member of the Church if there is satisfactory evidence of Christian experience when:

      1. a) The candidate has been baptized by immersion but is unable, for satisfactory reasons, to obtain a letter of transfer from another church.
      2. b) Members of established Christian churches not practising baptism by immersion, may be received into full membership of this Church through their Christian experience and by vote of this Church.  They must first come before a committee of the Deacons’ Board and be given every encouragement to be baptized by immersion.
      3. c) If a candidate by reason of infirmity is unable to follow our regular form of baptism, the person may be received into full membership by a vote of the Church’s members.  We do not say here in our Constitution that another form of baptism could be used, but I would also recommend that. Once, I baptized a man with a bit of water poured over his head, because he was ill and in bed all the time.  
      4. d) By restoration – “suspended” members may be restored to fellowship.  The unanimous vote of the deacons and a majority vote of the Church is necessary in such a case.  This is another topic altogether – how members can get suspended, and then restored to fellowship.

No matter how someone joins us, or if they officially become a member of the congregation or not, our fellowship is called by God to welcome disciples of Jesus into our ranks. We are in the work of calling people to return to God.  Repent is another Bible word close to this, which means turn around.  

For so many this is not a matter of joining Christ for the first time ever.  It is a return. A new beginning. A fresh start. We all need this, from time to time.  Next Sunday here, we have a show-and-tell about our devotions, our prayer life, our use of the Bible, and so on. This week, show & tell God how devoted you are!

Celtic Christianity

(Genesis 15:1-12, 15-18; Luke 13:31-35) – J G White
11 am, Sun, March 17, 2019 – UBC Digby

I bind unto myself today
the strong name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
I bind this day to me forever
by power of faith Christ’s incarnation,
his baptism in the Jordan river,
his death on the cross for my salvation.

That’s from St. Patrick’s Lorica, #1 in our hymbook. Since today is the day for Patrick of Ireland, let us explore Celtic Christianity.  It is an ancient tradition of spirituality and prayer, thoughts and theologies, faith and culture, rooted in the British Isles hundreds and hundreds of years ago.  

Today’s Old Testament story, from Genesis 15, suits our theme, because it is such an earthy story.  With a bunch of animal sacrifices, God ‘cuts a covenant’ with Father Abraham. Family is promised to him, and a land to live upon. ‘Look at the stars: so shall your descendants be.’ “To your descendants I give this land.”  The Celtic tradition is strong in its connection with all creation.

Years ago, for our prayer time, Sharon and I used ‘A Contemporary Celtic Prayer Book.’  With each day of the week, the author suggests the basics of the Celtic tradition.

Sunday.  Celtic spirituality contains wonderful elements of joyful celebration.  Celtic prayer very often starts with taking pleasure in original blessing more than lamenting original sin.  

Perhaps we can see that night of God with Abraham as a ceremony that was not about sin.  Even with animal sacrifices, it was not about forgiveness or paying for wrongdoing.  It was simply about a Divine promise, a blessing to Abraham and his people.

The prayers of the Celtic tradition have become much more popular in recent decades.  The prayers express the joy and blessing of God’s creation of us, and of all things. One sourcebook for Celtic prayer was compiled in Scotland just over 120 years ago, by Alexander Carmichael. Thanks to John Dickinson, we have a copy of the Carmina Gadelica in our little prayer corner, in the meeting room off the Hall. Let me share today a number of Celtic prayers of old.
Thanks to Thee, God,
Who brought’st me from yesterday
To the beginning of today,
Everlasting joy
To earn for my soul
With good intent.
And for every gift of peace
Thou bestowest on me,
My thoughts, my words,
My deeds, my desires
I dedicate to Thee.  (# 42)

Celtic spirituality valued pilgrimages to holy places.  On Monday, some of us make pilgrimages to “holy places” of work: to hearth-side or to commute.  Some of us, confined or retired, continue our daily life pilgrimages on our walk with Jesus.  

In this season before Good Friday and Easter, we remember they way Jesus was called by the Spirit to spend forty quiet days in the wilderness.  Before we take up our next task or journey, the next chapter of our lives, we do well to spend quiet time in prayer and fasting. And then, with Christ, we journey on.
Of course, there are prayers for actual journeys upon the landscape.
The pilgrim’s aiding
God be with thee in every pass,
Jesus be with thee on every hill,
Spirit be with thee on every stream,
Headland and ridge and lawn. (# 275)

Tuesday.  Celtic spirituality had an intuitive wisdom for the connection of everyday life with the spirit world.  Angels are near!

There is something so beautiful and important when we learn that every moment can be sacred, and blessed, and be time well spent with our Master. Perhaps you say grace before meals: a prayer of thanks and for a blessing. What about at many other moments in your day? Here are some old examples.

The consecration of the cloth
May the man of this clothing never be wounded,
May torn he never be;
What time he goes into battle or combat,
May the sanctuary shield of the Lord be his. (# )

The consecration of the seed
I will go out to sow the seed,
In the name of Him who gave it growth;
I will place my front in the wind,
And throw a gracious handful on high.
As much as falls into the earth,
The dew will make it to be full. (# 88)

Celtic spirituality is attuned to the cycle of prayer.   Wednesday is the centre point of our week’s holy work cycle. I have always like this prayer, from the book, Celtic Daily Prayer, that comes from the Northumbria Community.  It is part of the Evening Prayer office.
Lord, You have always given
bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though I am of anxious heart,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always kept me
safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though You be silent now,
today I believe.   (pp. 22-23)

Every day can be punctuated with prayer.  Taking many breaks for prayer is a gracious way to live.

Thursday.  The pagan Celts believed in “thin times” and “thin places,” special modes of being when times and places of our world and the spirit world came close and intersected.  They practiced warm hospitality to wayfarers, whether from this world or the next. The Christian Celts easily accommodated this to the Communion of Saints.  Think of that amazing chapter, Hebrews 11.  All those faithful people of the past. We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, cheering us on today!

An older woman in the southwest of Ireland today  can think of inviting the whole company of heaven into her cottage.  These are her words:
I would like to have the men of Heaven
In my own house:
With vats of good cheer
Laid out for them…
I would like to be watching Heaven’s family
Drinking it through all eternity.

Friday. Celtic spirituality is paradoxical.  In early Celtic times saints fasted and sometimes stood for hours in cold water to discipline their passions.  

Through the centuries, however, there was a wonderful table hospitality among the Celts, a sense of celebration, night feasts with stories told and laughter shared – more in the tradition of Jesus, who loved to go to parties.

Jesus, as we noticed today, can scold people one minute, and weep for them in the next.  As we prepare for the story of His last passover with His friends, in Jerusalem, we see the traditional party and His tense praying.  The Passover was a celebration – of life: the people had been set free!  When Jesus sat down with His disciples in an upper room for the ceremonial banquet, he made it very serious… and went out from there to pray intensely in a hillside garden.

Our memories turn to all the times Jesus ate with strangers and with friends.  There is a lot to be said for a dinner party, and for an unplanned stop for coffee with someone.  Each little celebration matters. Sometimes, we appreciate every little meeting, every simple joy. The Celtic people had blessings for every little thing.  Like this charm of the Butter. Have you ever churned butter? I never have.
The charm made of Columba
To the maiden of the glen,
Her butter to make more,
Her milk to make surpassing.
   Come, ye rich lumps, come!
   Come, ye rich lumps, come!
   Come, ye rich lumps, masses large,
   Come, ye rich lumps, come!
Thou Who put beam in moon and sun,
Thou Who put food in ear and herd,
Thou Who put fish in stream and sea,
Send the butter up betimes! (# 382)

Remember: praying is serious business, and fun. It is a big task, and simple. Prayer is special, & ordinary.

Saturday. The Christian Celts, for greater part of two millenia, were neither puritanical nor dualistic.  They were close to the Earth’s cycles of fertility. They saw the Earth as good, sexuality as good, life as good – all being generous blessings.  The primitive worship moments we read of, like Abraham with those animal sacrifices, remind us that our faith in God can be down to earth.  Each physical bit of our lives can be experience of the Divine – the sacredness of the secular. Here are a few more prayers, for the most ordinary of things.  The ordinary matters to our God.

There are many prayers for healing. Ever twist an ankle?  Here is part of a Charm for Sprain.
In name of Father, Bone to bone,
In name of Son, Vein to vein,
In name of Spirit, Balm to balm,
The Three of threes. To the left foot.

Blood to blood, To God of gods,
Flesh to flesh, The Healer of healers,
Sinew to sinew, The Spirit of eternity,
To the left foot. The Three of threes,
To the left foot. (# 432)

How about a prayer to deal with envy?
Whoso made to thee the envy,
Swarthy man or woman fair,
Three I will send to thwart it:
Holy Spirit, Father, Son.   (# 156)

And how about a Prayer for seaweed? (I had a friend who collected seaweed off the beach for his garden.)
Produce of sea to land,
Produce of land to sea;
He who does not in time,
Scant shall be his share.

Seaweed being cast on shore
Bestow, Thou Being of bestowal;
Fruitfulness being brought to wealth,
O Christ, grant me my share! (# 363)

Our God – Father, Spirit, Son – is interested in every moment of life.  Our God is available in every moment of life. Our God has blessings for everything in life.  Our God is in our life.

Thanks be to God!