I have a confession: sometimes as a preacher, there in the middle of a sermon, I am brought to tears. Sometimes these are tears of sadness at the overwhelming mess that we’ve gotten ourselves into. Other times they are tears of joy and thanksgiving at the awesome beauty and love of Jesus Christ. I recall an instance when I was a bit younger and had preached a sermon in which I had wept. Afterwards a friend of mine approached me and encouraged me not to be ashamed, reminding me that the prophet Jeremiah was also known as the weeping the prophet. And here in our Old Testament reading this morning we are confronted with the tears of the prophet: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick….O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”
A while back Pope Francis wrote The Joy of the Gospel in which he lamented the fact that so often we leave church looking as if we had just come from a funeral when in fact we ought to be full of joy because the gospel fills us with all joy. I believe this to be true and yet within the joy of the gospel there is room for tears. For the tears of God’s people, for the tears of the prophets, for our tears, and for the tears of Jesus.
Why does Jeremiah weep? “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick,” he says. But why? Because his people are weeping: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” Or rather, God’s people are weeping. And so the tears of the prophet, sent as he is by God, are in some sense God’s own tears. Where are God’s people weeping today?
And why are God’s people weeping? Because they are pressed upon on every side by their enemies. When the word of the Lord first came to Jeremiah he was afforded two visions. The second was of a “boiling pot, tilted away from the north,” (1:13) which foreshadows a coming invasion from the north (4:6). And indeed, toward the end of Jeremiah’s prophetic ministry the Babylonians invaded and sacked the city of Jerusalem taking God’s people captive and leading them into exile. This is all material that we learn of later in Jeremiah. For now, the words of Jeremiah here anticipate Israel’s weeping at the coming destruction.
Indeed, the words of the Psalmist today come perhaps some time after this very destruction and exile: “O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance; thy holy temple have they defiled, and made Jerusalem a heap of stone.” And again, “The dead bodies of thy servants have they given to be meat unto the fowls of the air, and the flesh of thy saints unto the beasts of the earth. Their blood have they shed like water on every side of Jerusalem; and there was no man to bury them.” Israel are wounded and the prophet wonders, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”
Jerusalem destroyed; Israel pressed down and made the laughingstock of their neighbours; gaping wounds. Does this sounds a bit like the Church at various times and in various places?
God’s people are weeping, or they shall weep, at the opposition they will face at the hands of the nations. And just what is the cause of all of this turmoil? It is, according to the Lord who speaks through Jeremiah, Israel’s own idolatry. They have, in a sense, brought this upon themselves. You know the story, I’m sure. God through Moses leads Israel out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea, in order to bring them into the land of promise. But instead, Israel wanders around in the wilderness for 40 years, a stiff-necked people, whose characteristic unfaithfulness stands in stark contrast to the faithfulness of God. Israel is a whore, God the lover who will not let her go. Indeed, the lover whose love will bring Israel home at last.
Israel’s unfaithfulness takes many forms from complaining and general disobedience to outright idolatry, the worship of other gods. In the late Modern West we wouldn’t be caught dead bowing down to funny wooden statues but surely we have idolatrous temptations of our own. Individually, but also corporately as the Church. I wonder, what idols is the Church tempted to worship this day? Might the Anglican Church in particular be tempted by certain idols? I wonder what they might be? Respectability, perhaps? The affection of the world? I do not know exactly but we cannot take Jeremiah seriously and not be confronted with the reality that we might not be so different from Israel. Perhaps the life of Israel is a figure for the life of the Church and God’s engagement with her?
At any rate if this is the case, and it may be, then perhaps some of the ailments that the Church is faced with today—perhaps some of our wounds—are self-inflicted. Of course, Israel’s wounds were self-inflicted in the sense that they were the result of her own idolatry but they were also—and this is not an easy thing to comprehend—a manifestation of God’s judgement. In a similar way, might the wounds of the Church be in some sense a sign of God’s judgement?
A hard word but again, something that Jeremiah and the Psalmist force us to consider: “Lord, how long wilt thou be angry? Shall thy jealousy burn like a fire for ever?” The fire of God’s judgement was upon Israel not to annihilate her but to refine her. The fire of God’s judgement, the fire of His love, it is a refining fire. Indeed, earlier in Jeremiah God’s judgement takes the form of His word that goes out like a fire to consume, ignite, and devour his people (5:14). Perhaps we like Israel need to be consumed by the raging fire of God’s word?
I’m going to take a bit of a risk here and broach a subject that I do not have time to really get into. We are Catholic Christians, all of us. But we are Catholic Christians that are living out their faith in the Anglican Communion which is a global body made up of autonomous national churches. So, for example, we are members of the Anglican Church of Canada but by virtue of various instruments set up in the Communion we are in full relationship with the Church of England, the Anglican Church of Kenya, and churches in over 162 other countries.
Over the last 20 years or so the fabric of the Anglican Communion has been torn over matters of human sexuality and marriage. And this tearing has led to painful divisions not only between Anglicans in different places—between Western Anglicans and those in the Global South, for example—but also between Anglicans in the same place. For example, the last decade has seen division enter the Canadian and American churches resulting in many theologically conservative clergy and laity and churches and even dioceses leaving The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada to start the Anglican Church in North America.
This is not news to most of you I am sure and I mention all of this not in an attempt to settle the debates, even as they continue, but only to pose a question that Scripture demands we ask: Is it possible that our division—that our gaping wound—is a sign of God’s judgement? Is it possible that this is a consequence, natural or otherwise, of some unfaithfulness, some idolatry on our behalf? Some failure to live into our vocation as God’s people and to bear His healing, His peace into the world?
The prophet weeps: “For the hurt of my people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” Maybe we too ought to cry some holy tears over the hurt that we have caused, all of us. Perhaps the Anglican Communion could use a season of tears—perhaps we need to acknowledge our wounds, resist the temptation to minimize the seriousness of them, resist the temptation to avert our eyes and tell ourselves all will be well. Perhaps we need to see our wounds and to weep a fountain of tears. Perhaps we need to feel the full weight of our unfaithfulness, of our idolatry: “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.”
Perhaps we need to do all of this and then repent, every one of us. In the words of the Psalmist: “O remember not against us the offences of our forefathers, but have mercy upon us, and that soon; for we are come to great misery. Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy Name; O deliver us, and be merciful unto our sins, for thy Name’s sake.” Indeed, throughout Jeremiah God is always calling Israel back to himself: “Return, faithless Israel…I will not look on you in anger for I am merciful,” (3:12). God’s word to Israel, to us, is always a word of mercy, of grace, because his word to us is always Jesus Christ.
And so just there in that place where we behold our wounds, our unfaithfulness, our idolatry, God’s refining judgement, there in that place of lament where it seems as if we have crossed a line, just there we may see through our tears all that remains, hope. Just there we may yet find the grace of God, which after all is really only good news to those it finds dead enough to raise. Just there we may find Jesus Christ, the one who took our wounds upon himself, and by whose wounds we ourselves are healed.
In Luke’s gospel as Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem, the very city over which Jeremiah wept, do you know what he did? He wept. And on the cross he embodied the very cry of Jeremiah: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” Forget Gilead, there ain’t no balm anywhere in the world that can heal the gaping wounds of God’s people, nor the wounds of the world. But let me tell you, Christ’s tears, mingled with his blood, are balm enough to heal our gaping wounds. So let us weep, and let our tears be mingled with his, and let us hope. Hope that his beauty and his faithfulness and his love is strong enough to heal our gaping wounds should we once again turn to him. Amen.
Sermon was preached by Fr. Jonathan Turtle at the Church of St. Mary and St. Martha on The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost (C), September 18th, 2016.