September 18, 2022

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

“Sharing Grief”

Friends, it is good to be home again in Regina at First Church after a long time away. Nick and I enjoyed some holiday time, first in Quebec and Ontario, and then travelling around Germany. We visited Frankfurt, Erfurt, Wittenberg, Leipzig, Berlin, Dresden, Nurnberg, Heidelberg, and Cologne. Of course, we visited lots of churches and saw major Martin Luther historical sites, plus some castles and museums, river boat tours, and more.

Then we attended the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Karlsruhe. I was one of the delegates representing The Presbyterian Church in Canada. I also attended the Pre-Assembly program for Indigenous Peoples, as a non-Indigenous ally who wanted to listen, learn, and bring Indigenous people’s concerns and priorities forward. And I served on an assembly committee that was responsible for recommending program priorities for the next eight years of the WCC until the next assembly.

Worship and thematic plenaries at the assembly were quite wonderful, and I enjoyed meeting Christians (and lots of Presbyterians) from all over the world. We had “home groups” each day for discussion and reflection, and ecumenical conversations on various topics. I participated in one that was focused on a new tool for dialogue on how churches engage in moral discernment.

I was one of relatively few people (about 40 out of 4000) who got Covid at the assembly. It meant that I missed the last two days, and we had to extend our stay for my quarantine. But all in all, it was a good experience.

But even though I’m feeling happy and hopeful today because I made it through Covid and got home this week, the lectionary text from the prophet Jeremiah is a lament.

Perhaps you’ve heard before that Jeremiah is sometimes referred to as “the weeping prophet.” After all, much of what God gave him to announce to the people was judgement, disappointment, and calls to repentance. Jeremiah’s job of bringing mostly bad news to the people was a difficult one, but his role was critical as he called them to turn back to God and to live lives of justice, righteousness, and goodness.

The context of today’s passage is that the people of Judah and Jerusalem have been conquered by their enemies. Many have been killed, and others have been exiled.

But Jeremiah is not only weeping because of what happened to them. He’s weeping because he considers that they have brought it on themselves. The theology in the text is that the people have turned away from God, worshipped idols, and done abominable things, and that the consequence of their sin is to be conquered by their enemies.

Of course, we would question such a theological assumption today. But whether the people’s suffering is their own fault or not, their sadness and struggle is real, and Jeremiah is weeping for them and with them.

And in as much as the prophet speaks the words of God to the people, God also is sharing the grief and sorrow of God’s beloved people too. Even if the prophet believes that God is the one who is punishing them, nonetheless God hears their cries and empathizes with their pain.

As I read and reflected on this passage from my quarantine in Karlsruhe, it resonated with my experience at the assembly. Although the great gathering of almost 4000 people was referred to as the “resilient assembly” that managed to gather only one year later than planned due to the pandemic… And although there was much joy and celebration as Christians prayed and engaged together from around the world… One of the major things I heard in the conversations was how much our Christian siblings are suffering and struggling in many parts of the world.

There was a young delegate from Ukraine in my home group. I heard the voices of Indigenous people being impacted by climate change in many parts of the world. Presentations and speeches showed that racism, sexism, ageism and ableism inside and outside the church affect many. And delegates from so many places brought concerns about poverty, conflict, and struggle in their communities, pleading with the WCC to advocate for them and their serious needs.

As a white, middle class, and middle-aged delegate from North America, I became very aware of my privilege and comfortable life, and felt a deep sense of responsibility to stand in solidarity with those who are struggling. I found a few ways to do that at the assembly.

The first was to advocate for the priorities of the Indigenous People’s Pre-Assembly in my position on the Programme Guidelines Committee. I listened carefully during the Pre-Assembly, and later at the committee, I spoke up to advocate for their proposals.

The next was to actively listen to the people who were in my home group. As we reflected on the daily themes, texts, and plenaries, and as I got to know the contexts from which my new friends came, I realized that it was more important to listen than to speak, to seek to understand rather than to explain my own situation in Canada.

So I spent more of my words reflecting what I had heard from others… about their feelings around the fact that both Ukrainian and Russian church representatives were together at the assembly, about their sense of exclusion when disabilities were not acknowledged in the plenary that was based on the story of Jesus healing the blind man, about the place of women in their churches and societies, about their longing for justice and freedom and peace.

And finally, I did the small and simple act of buying and wearing a Romella collar. A Romella collar is just like a regular clergy collar, but not attached to a shirt. You just snap it on around your neck like a choker-type necklace.

The Romella collar was conceived by the Rev. Romella Robinson, the second woman to be ordained by the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan. Although the Presbyterian Church is making strides by beginning to ordain women, women’s leadership roles are still very limited. They aren’t allowed to preach or to be the leader of a congregation, and they don’t wear the clerical garb that the male pastors do.

As an ordained woman, and recognizing the call of God in her life, Rev. Romella made for herself a simple collar to wear around her neck, claiming the recognition and role that she knows God has given her.

At the assembly, an organization of women clergy from Korea were telling Romella’s story and selling Romella collars to other women clergy from around the world.

Although my experience as a called and ordained woman has been much easier in this generation in Canada, I will wear the Romella collar in solidarity with my sister colleagues in Korea and Pakistan and so many other places where their gifts and callings are not yet fully recognized.

The words of the prophet Jeremiah today remind us that no matter the reason for our pain, our suffering, or our sorrow, God hears our cries, acknowledges and even FEELS our pain, weeps with us, and stands in solidarity with us.

And like the prophet himself, we also are called to stand with those who struggle in many and various ways.

That means giving our time and attention to neighbours and strangers in our communities who are sick, hungry, or otherwise struggling.

It means paying attention to the struggles of our world, and offering what we have to share in service and mission.

It means not putting our heads in the sand and pretending that everything is okay because we’re okay, but opening our ears to listen, our minds to understand, and our hearts to weep with those who weep.

One commentator asks in response to this text: “How do we hear the cries of the people far and wide?” And then she answers: “We should lament. Things are not the way they are supposed to be, yet we have what we need for healing and wholeness. There IS a balm in Gilead. There IS a physician there.”

Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour, who came to walk beside us, sharing our joy and our sorrow… Jesus, who loves us and shows mercy towards us, even when we have caused our own struggles by our sin and selfishness…

Jesus is the great physician, the hope of all the world. Let us trust in him as we walk together as one People of God throughout the world.