In cultures where Biblical names are frequently used, Jeremiah is a common name. To my ear it’s got a very stately sound to it – I envision a Jeremiah standing up straight, eyes wide open, ready for what comes. In the Bible, the prophetic book of Jeremiah is substantial and significant: for even the casual Bible reader, it would be hard to miss its whopping 52 chapters, side-by-side with Isaiah as the two largest prophetic books in the Hebrew scriptures.
But once one opens the Bible to this particular book and starts reading, well, these aren’t the happiest words you’re going to find. As described by seminary professor Phillip Hyatt, “Jeremiah’s early messages to the people were condemnations of them for their false worship and social injustice, with summons to repentance. He proclaimed the coming of [an unidentified] foe from the north, symbolized by a boiling pot facing from the north in one of his visions, that would cause great destruction… Later, he denounced the people for their dependence on the Temple for security and called on them to effect genuine ethical reform. He predicted that God would destroy the Temple of Jerusalem… if they continued in their present path, [and for that prediction he] was immediately arrested”. That only describes the first half of his prophetic career, before his people were taken into exile, but you get a sense here of the intensity of his message. The book and prophetic career of Jeremiah is sort of the inverse of the adage, “every cloud has a silver lining,” as it was his repeated task to bring harsh predictions to a people who were unlikely to pay much heed to what he was saying on God’s behalf.
Jeremiah has for centuries carried the nickname, “the weeping prophet”, both because of the disheartening message that he brought and specifically, chapter 9 verse 1 in which the prophet cries, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people.” It makes total sense that the prophet, even early in his career, would be moved to tears after bringing such a continuous string of challenging, uncompromising messages to the people. Unless you were just a naturally abrasive person, bringing that kind of tough news over and over again takes its toll on you. And it also tells us about the grim times in which he lived. As we think back two Sundays ago, when our scripture lesson reported that the teenager Jeremiah was reluctant to accept God’s call on his life, it may not just have been that he felt young or unprepared. Chances are pretty good that he was already an astute observer of the mess that his land was in, and being selected to repeatedly name those things, both to his neighbours and to people in high places, guaranteed that he would make a lot of enemies and would live a difficult life.
So, you may wonder, why am I telling you all this? Because Jeremiah embodies a hard but necessary aspect of religious life, and that is, truth-telling when the truth isn’t happy. For me as preacher, having chosen to do a brief sermon series about this prophet, I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I skipped past the tough stuff, and only touched on his call, the visit to the potter’s house, and (spoiler alert!) his moving words about having God’s message written on our hearts.
Being together in a faith community is a good thing. At our best, together we can offer welcome and encouragement to one another. Together we can notice when things aren’t quite right for someone, or when they’ve all of a sudden gone absent, or when a heavy load is being carried. Together we hear the good news of a God who, as Creator, Christ and Spirit, is actively involved in our lives. Together we wonder, and pray, and praise, and sing, together we listen in silence to the still small voice of holiness. My Mom used to refer to going to Church in order to “recharge her batteries” – not just from the theme of the day or the sermon, but from renewing acquaintances, hearing the voice and feeling the touch of long-standing friends, being informed and invited into Church-led initiatives for community connection.
In order to have any legitimacy at all, though, religious life – whether the Jewish faith of Jeremiah, or Christianity, or any world religion – also has to include the courage to wade into the hard places. (Those of you who heard my dear friend, Rev Michael Ward, preaching here this summer will have heard a bit about the work done by that the congregation he served for 35 years, Central United in Calgary, which is well-acquainted with Ministry in the hard places of life.) As Jeremiah pointed out to his contemporaries, to live a life faithful to God was not just a matter of showing up at Temple and assuming that whatever the priests were doing was sufficient for the fidelity of the nation; it was up to each of them to embody God’s concern for widows, orphans, refugees, and people living in poverty. That key tenet of Judaism is part of our Christian heritage as well – that concern, not only for the folks who gather within these walls, but for the life circumstances of the world beyond these walls.
While it’s posted here and there in the Church, and finds its way into our PowerPoint every Sunday, we don’t often look at the Mission Statement of this congregation, but it calls us to discern the needs within and beyond, and to respond actively:
Ralph Connor Memorial United Church’s Mission as a Church Community is:
- to nurture the spiritual exploration and growth of all our members and adherents;
- to be an intentionally inviting Christian community that seeks, welcomes and embraces new members;
- to reach out and become an agent for social justice in our neighbourhood and in the global community.
In particular, that third point spurs us to go beyond what is current and comfortable. It’s what encouraged and enabled us to start the Bow Valley Refugee Project in 2015, it’s what pushed us to become an Affirming Ministry in 2019, and I believe that it directly connects to the vote we will be having next Sunday regarding the Building Accessibility project (if you’ve not yet been to an info session about that, we’re having one this morning, after Worship). The phrase “agent for social justice” may not imply the intense fullness of what Jeremiah was about in his time and place, but it does call us to continue to talk the talk and walk the walk of those who believe that the will of God explicitly expresses an insistent desire for inclusion and justice.
As Church, we are called – as Jeremiah was – to take sides on issues that may be regarded as divisive. As Canmore https://www.canmorepride.ca/pride-festival-2022 prepares for its Pride celebrations two weeks from now, and Banff-Lake Louise https://banffpride.ca/ two weeks after that, our visible support and participation will confirm that to be Christian is to be open, not closed, to the reality of gender diversity.
Throughout September and into October, we once again mark the Season of Creation in our Sunday services, signified by the liturgical colour orange. Though care of this planet seems like a 100% natural fit for a Church to be advocating, something that shouldn’t even be controversial, the division of attitudes in North America calls us to be visible in our support for a lot of things we used to think were just common sense. From the solar panels on the roof of Gordon Hall to minimizing our use of single-use non-recyclable items to showing up at climate and environmental rallies, our engagement or disengagement will state with clarity what we believe about this planet and the God whose glory is shown through it.
Then at the end of this month we have the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, or “Orange Shirt Day.” As one of the denominations that was directly involved in the Indian Residential Schools, fidelity to Christ demands that we, as a United Church congregation, fess up to our culpability, and provide ways and means for ourselves and the wider community to build respectful, specific pathways to justice, reparations, and reconciliation. And to flag a specific aspect of this, the Tseshaht First Nation on Vancouver Island has confirmed that the ground-penetrating radar survey of the former Alberni Residential School site began on July 11th of this year, and when the report is released United Churches will be called to account, as Alberni was one of the more notorious Indian Residential Schools (IRS), and one of the fifteen run by the United Church and its Methodist/Presbyterian predecessors.
Not just in these formal community events, but in the way we conduct ourselves as communities of faith, and our willingness to raise a voice at injustice – both Ralph Connor here in Canmore, and Rundle Memorial in Banff – either affirm or deny our connection with the prophetic tradition. As Jeremiah found, not everything about the life of faith is smooth sailing, and while the safe life of never taking an unpopular stance may be comforting in its own way, it’s not faithful. That’s not to say that our commitment to truth-telling releases us from the need to be compassionate and fair; please note, that after delivering so many pieces of tough news on God’s behalf, the prophet Jeremiah was not primarily feeling angry or super-adversarial toward the people; he was feeling heartbroken. His heart and, I would argue, God’s heart, were broken by the inability of the people to hear, internalize and act upon the calls to faithfulness. And while it may seem like a strange thing to be called to, I believe that this is part of our call as Christians: to care so deeply for the needs of those whose needs are ignored or denied by the ways and rules of the land, to care so deeply for the earth, water and skies and all the flora and fauna that live there that we continually teeter on the precipice of heartbreak. God is not unmoved by the plight of those for whom life is a challenging thing, and as disciples of Christ we must not keep a safe distance either.
In the way we relate to one another, in the way we as a congregation relate to our neighbours, in the way we as the United Church of Canada demonstrate a willingness to speak the truth to power, our depth of connection to the God of life is shown. May these active, prophetic, and at times heartbreaking ways of being, be embraced and expressed. Amen.
References cited and consulted:
Bratcher, Dennis. http://www.crivoice.org/lectionary/YearC/Cproper20ot.html
© 2022 Rev Greg Wooley, Ralph Connor Memorial United Church.