This is my final Sunday with you as your Sabbatical minister and I want to say how much the last four months have meant to me, and what an honour it has been to be with you. I have been warmly welcomed by everyone and have had engaging conversations with many of you. While I was not a stranger to this congregation before May, I have certainly gotten to know you much better over this summer, and I count that a privilege and a blessing.
Heather and I had originally planned that the two of us would share the role of sabbatical minister, but as many of you know, John Willis, the husband of Bari Castle who is the minister at Armstrong, was taken ill early this year and Heather has been relieving Bari during this time. Next Sunday, I will be presiding in worship in Armstrong as Heather begins a cross-Canada road trip that she has been planning for a long time as a personal Odyssey of discovery.
So, we all begin new journeys. For Trinity and your minister, Jeff Seaton, it is a new journey because while all relationships change and evolve with time, after this sabbatical time of refreshment and reflection, the opportunity for renewal and re-engagement is particularly potent.
This morning’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah may not sound on first hearing like it speaks to this theme of renewal and reinvigoration of relationships but in fact it does. I’ve mentioned in earlier sermons as we dipped into this most dismal of prophetic books that the main theme to which Jeremiah returns again and again is the impending conquest of the land of Judah by the Babylonian empire. Jeremiah blames the Judeans themselves and in particular the arrogance of their leaders who have not paid God the homage that is due.
We are in the 32nd chapter and this prophecy of gloom and doom and the chastisement of an unfaithful people have gone on and on. But now Jeremiah introduces what seems an odd and rather mundane subject into the discussion. Most of today’s passage is about his decision to buy a parcel of land. We learn more in these few verses about the land transfer system of the ancient world than we do anywhere else. The question is, why is this significant?
Well, the legal details are not in themselves important, except to the extent that Jeremiah’s recital of them serves to confirm that he has actually bought the land. He’s not kidding around. There is no dispute. The prophet may be anticipating that people will not believe that he has actually bought the land. So he needs to give them all this detail to assure them that he has. But the question “why” remains.
These last few chapters of the Book of Jeremiah are often called the “Little Book of Comfort”. While there is still a lot of bad news, Jeremiah’s main theme is no longer the chastisement of a sinful people, but the assurance that God will not abandon them even when things turn from bad to worse. Buying land at a moment when the enemy is at the gates is Jeremiah’s way of demonstrating the extent of his trust in God’s grace. There will be a new morning, a return from exile and a revival of the people of Judah as a nation – those are the promises on which he bases his decision to undertake this act of commitment to the land of Judah by investing in it.
It is not often that we hear about the economic affairs of Biblical figures and for me that adds to the power of Jeremiah’s action. He is not just speaking words of comfort to the people in this time of disaster; he is acting on them to demonstrate that he believes in the assurances of God.
I mentioned earlier that John Willis has been ill for some time. He has been undergoing treatment for Burkitt’s Lymphoma all spring and summer. When Heather spoke to Bari a week or so ago, she was told that there are no cancer cells showing up in the tests that the medical team have been doing recently. That doesn’t mean they aren’t there. All the doctors will say is that if the cancer is still there, it cannot be detected.
Bari and John have two choices about how to respond. They can live in despair and fear, like the people of Judah cowering behind the walls of Jerusalem waiting for the Babylonians to strike, or they can choose to live in the spirit of Jeremiah by trusting in God’s promise that even in the face of disaster, God does not abandon us. And what is more, God calls on us to live as if there is a future, even if that bright future lurks below a very cloudy horizon.
Bari and John, wisely I think, have elected to live in the mindset and belief that the cancer is gone. The two of them plan to enjoy life to the full every day. They will be changed by their experience, in some ways for the worse as they will live with the worry of the cancer’s return, but in some ways for the better as they will taste life more richly for having almost lost it.
Loren Eisley was a naturalist, anthropologist and philosopher active in the middle of the last century who often wrote of the spiritual insights that he gained from his time in the natural world. This story comes from a time when he was working in dense forest. He awoke one morning to hear the outraged cries of the parents of a small bird. They swooped and dove around an implacable black raven who, Eisley saw, still had a few of the entrails of their little nestling hanging from its beak.
Suddenly and surprisingly the complaining cries of the parents were joined by dozens of other small birds from a variety of species drawn by their sympathy for the parents and the recognition that the same tragedy could easily have been theirs. They fluttered around the black giant sitting implacable on his perch. They seemed to Eisley to be pointing their wings at him in accusation. The raven was the bird of death, a murderer in the heart of life. But the raven mutely sat there; formidable, unmoving, unperturbed, untouchable.
“Then”, Eisley recounts, “the shrill scolding cries faded to silence. The time for judgment had come, the time for the judgment of life against death.”
Eisley continues, “I will never again see the power of life so forcefully presented in the face of death. I will never again hear that judgment in notes so tragically prolonged. With the stilling of their protest, those birds forgot the violence done to that young one. And then, in that clearing lit by shafts of sunlight to resemble a vast cathedral, the crystal note of a single sparrow lifted hesitantly into the sudden stillness. At first the melody fluttered, painfully alone, but then, another bird took it up, and then another, and that one passed it to yet another, doubtfully at first, as though the presence of some evil thing could not yet be forgotten, until finally all those tiny songbirds took heart and many throats sang together in the symphony of nature. They sang joyously because life is sweet. They sang jubilantly because sunlight is beautiful. They sang exultingly in the promise of spring. They sang with total disregard for the brooding shadow of the raven. They sang of life, not of death.”
This is the imponderable balance that we live with as human beings. We know that nothing is permanent. It is not only death that ends things. Things come to an end every day when the sun sets. Tomorrow will likely be the same as today, but come some tomorrow, the world will be changed completely.
We who are part of the United Church of Canada know that this institution that we love is undergoing drastic and unforeseeable change. The average member of most of our congregations now is 65 years old or greater. We don’t have the resources, most importantly the human resources to do what we once did.
The uncertainty of the future causes us to look at how we need to change to adapt to the current circumstances if we are to go forward. In a few weeks, I will present a workshop for this congregation to consider three significant changes that the General Council is proposing to make that will adjust the scale of our institution by, in effect, merging Conference and Presbytery, merging all streams of ministry into one and funding national church structures through direct payments from congregations, rather than as it is currently done with payments from the Mission and Service Fund.
A church is not primarily a bureaucratic structure, however. The contemplated institutional changes are not the most important aspects of our church that are in flux. The various faiths that make up the world are coming into contact with each other more and more. What was once was known as Christendom is receding into history. What we have learned about the cosmos and the nature of the universe challenges our theology in ways that we have not encountered since the time of Gallileo. Our theologies and our understanding of God and God’s relationship with the world are evolving. Faith is no longer a universal social expectation, but an option for those who are inclined that way.
The United Church has been an institution that embraces differences in doctrine and belief from its inception. Our founding creedal document, the Basis of Union, was patched together after all, from the doctrinal statements of the three founding churches. There is a wide range of opinion among those who participate in the life of the United Church as to how we understand and relate to the divine. The question of whether there should be limits to the breadth of this theological diversity and what, if any, those limits should be, will continue to be part of our shared life.
The Song of Faith that we sang to open this service is the latest expression of our shared belief, but it is neither definitive nor final. That document is in conversation with three other creedal statements that we have adopted over the decades. What is unique about this latest statement is that now we are singing our faith. The songbirds in Lorne Eisley’s story attest to the power of music to stir our spirits with the love of life even in the face of death.
The raven may not be tapping at our chamber door. The Babylonians may not be massed outside the walls of our United Churches, seeking to carry us off to a strange land. The future, however, is uncertain. Our comfortable time as the dominant Protestant church in Canada is over. But when we sing together we affirm our faith in a way that speaks a truth more powerful than reasoned argument can convey.
There is no record as to whether or not Jeremiah ever took possession of the land that he bought just before Nebuchadnezzar’s army stormed into Jerusalem. In all likelihood he died far from home with those who were carted off to Babylon. But the message of hope at the heart of this story is not a promise that our desires will be fulfilled. It is certainly not a promise that evil will not come upon us or that death is not a part of life. The message of hope is that life is stronger than death and even in the face of change and uncertainty, even in the face of the end of things as we know them; God renews the promise that life is good. And it is so.
God is with is, we are not alone. Thanks be to God.
Rev. D. John Burton reserves all rights © 2016. You are welcome to use, copy, edit or reproduce these sermons with copyright attached. Publication is prohibited.