Sermon preached in September 22nd 2019
'The harvest is past,
the summer is ended
and we are not saved ....
O that my eyes were a fountain of tears.'
from Jer 8.18-9.1
I find this is one of the most poignant passages in the Bible.
I read it in the present chaos of my own land and its leaders. I also find myself preaching on it in the week that leads up to the fortieth anniversary of my own ordination. (In London Diocese in those days you could choose to be ordained in July of September. There were so many ordinands it needed two services anyway). I have been re-reading my journals from that time. A very different world and church is found there. We were expecting a very different harvest.
And yes, I weep.
Jeremiah has been called the weeping prophet. His grief was to live and prophecy among a people descending steadily into chaos and exile, and in crisis over their relationship with God. And it broke his heart.
Not surprisingly his relationship with God was raw, often angry and vulnerably honest. In more than one place he accuses God of exploiting and using him.
But he is not an exception in the Bible.
Over two thirds of the psalms begin from places of raw lament, grief, anger, anguish and tears. They do is so because in a world like ours this is where faith often has to work itself out … this is where we must seek God, and struggle for meaning and hope in what is happening.
Can you relate to that?
Today's psalm is an example:
'Lord, how long will you be angry?
Pour out your wrath upon the nations
for we are brought very low.
Help us, O God of our salvation
for the glory of your name;
deliver us.' Ps 79
By contrast this kind of robust, even belligerent language of protest and questioning finds little place in Christian worship, hymns and intercessions. Those who remember the Alternative Service Book of the CofE may recall how it even put brackets around those verses in the psalms that expressed angry sentiments - because they were not thought appropriate in 'Christian' worship.
- they were sort of spiritual health and safety regulations.
But when Jesus pronounces a special blessing on those who mourn – then there is a positive place in the Kingdom for negative emotion. And St Paul said 'weep with those who weep' – he didn't say 'cheer them up'.
Part of the trouble is that we have traditionally been a culture embarrassed by tears and what is true in society have been true in church. We apologise for them. They hint at instability or weakness. We call it 'breaking down' - like some machinery that has developed a fault. This is an issue for women and men alike – but it is revealing that mental health campaigns for young men in our society - who have the highest suicide rates - focus on how good and healthy it is to express tears and emotions openly. The same is true in worship and prayer.
We need the language and expressions of lament, protest and questioning for a variety of reasons:
i. Life is difficult. Faith is not always easy. God is not always obviously around. This world can be a chaotic and frightening place. It doesn't help to ignore this and only use positive, upbeat language and hymns.
ii. Feelings do not decompose if you bury them. Someone one wrote that 'unshed tears can leave a deposit on your heart. Eventually they form a crust around it, the same way mineral deposits paralyze a washing machine'.
Furtherrnore 'pain is that is not transformed gets transmitted' (Rohr). It will leak out somewhere, often in more toxic ways. I engage on a variety of websites that explore topics facing the Christian church. They are helpful ways of staying informed and of discussing issues. But one of the increasing features of these discussion threads is the undertow of anger, blame, bitterness and criticism that keeps surfacing – very often directed everyone else, 'them,' and especially 'leaders' and those we expect to be sorting all this out but are not! It has been said that the sign of our coming to maturity will be that we call tell our story without blaming anyone else for it,
Meanwhile the one person not directly addressed on these threads – is God.
Well the Bible knows better.
iii. The absence of lament in our prayer and worship can mean we have nowhere to tell the stories we need to share and bring to God – to embrace the pain and seek meaning and hope together. Instead we will tend to believe that to even feel like that is a failure of faith.
But faith that can only speak to God in positive, upbeat or submissive terms is neither trusting nor reverent. It is just polite. But what use is that? By contrast the prayer of raw protest in the Bible is a sign of trusting faith. It is the practicing of faith, not the absence of it. It is the antidote to despair.
I once spent time talking to a priest from the Sudan. Tragic scenes from his war-torn land had been on the news yet again. I was struck by the uninhibited expressions of grief and mourning as they buried their dead. 'Tell me about the place of lament in your culture', I asked him. Joseph looked straight at me - 'lament is what keeps the faith in the Sudan alive. We cry out to God and he hears us.'
iii. Finally, lament is not just for ourselves and our own stories. We do not put brackets round a psalm and move on when it is using language or describing a situation we cannot identify with or even be comfortable with. We are not praying just for ourselves. We are part of the stories of others – known and unknown – including those around the world for whom, today, that experience is all too real.
'The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.'
So how was your summer?
What of the harvest?
Where does this speak into our story
- and into the continued turmoil of
our times this morning?
We must bring it all to God – with whatever will express it.
And he will hear us.