“The Anguish of the Prophet, the Anguish of God”

October 2, 2016


Jeremiah 8:18-9:1


On the first Sunday in October we demonstrate our connection with Christians around the world by celebrating World Communion Sunday. We recognize that in spite of differences in nationality, economic condition, race, geography, and politics, we are united with women and men in every country through our common faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

In a sense, we at Congregational UCC live with these connections all the time. All year long members are traveling or returning from travels abroad. Students worshipping with us come from around the world. Our native lands are many and relatives can still be found in them. This morning John reminded us our friends in China.

Today, we’re just a little more aware that we are united with other Christians beyond national boundaries. We acknowledge our common faith and our common humanity.

And we acknowledge our common share in the suffering of the world.

With the arrival of October we have left the summer and entered autumn once more—the cooler days, the early dusk. The arc of our summer was a shadowed one, extending from the June shootings in Orlando through an extraordinarily strange election season to the recent and ongoing shootings of African Americans by police officers.

So the words of Jeremiah this morning seem to speak to us with a disturbing directness: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

We speak theologically and say that this is a fallen world—that we are alienated from God, from one another, even from the best in ourselves. In this fallen world there is war and terror and greed and human evil. In this fallen world, summers come and summers go and we are not saved.

We don’t like to hear that in America. In America we like to hear that we are exceptional—beyond evil, exempt from suffering and incapable of inflicting suffering on others. We like to hear that we are capable—on our own—of overcoming anything that might come our way. And if things are not going well, we like to hear that we can make America great again.

We don’t like to be told that suffering is real. And I don’t like to be the one to say it. But there it is, all around us.

We are so alienated that at the depths of our suffering that alienation can feel like abandonment.

It is hard to say who is speaking in the lesson from Jeremiah that we heard this morning. It could be the prophet. It could be the people of besieged Jerusalem. It could be God. But we hear words of despair: “The cry of my poor people is far and wide in the land: ‘Is the Lord not in Jerusalem?’”

Where is God in the suffering that is so real?

If we can find the courage to look beyond our own suffering to the hurting world in which we live, we begin to see our deeper connections with other people. And we begin to see a new way forward.

Several years ago now, Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote about those connections, saying:

We may tell ourselves that the current violence has “nothing to do” with the way that we’ve learned to close our ears when told that one out of every three people on this planet does not have enough food, and that one billion are literally starving. We may reassure ourselves that the hoarding of the world’s resources by the richest society in world history, and our frantic attempts to accelerate globalization with its attendant inequalities of wealth, has nothing to do with the resentment that others feel toward us. We may tell ourselves that the suffering of refugees and the oppressed have nothing to do with us. . . . But we live in one world, increasingly interconnected with everyone, and the forces that lead people to feel outrage, anger, and desperation eventually impact on our own daily lives.

God cries out to us. God calls to us in our alienation, in our separation through the words of Jeremiah: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.”

This morning we hear the anguish of the prophet. We hear the anguish of God who calls us into life on behalf of the suffering world. We remember that our actions toward the least of our neighbors are our actions toward God. The God we worship is no stranger to pain and sorrow and suffering.

The biblical hope of redemption is for the healing not only of the individual but also of the world. Our concern is not, “what Jesus did for me” but in the ancient words of the Nicean creed, what he did “for us and for our salvation.” God’s salvation—God’s wholeness and restoration—is cosmic in scope. It includes all of creation—of which we are blessed to be a small part.

So it is that in the Congregational tradition we find ourselves involved with the poor, the hungry, the outcast—with those throughout the world who are often pushed to the edges. By faith we recognize that we’re all in this together.

We are Congregationalists. We may not talk much about our faith. But at our best we are great at living our faith out in the open.

We who are many are one body. When we come again at the Lord’s Table, we come, as we do each time, as members of the one universal church. But perhaps today we come more consciously aware that we are not alone on our journey. We walk together with men and women, boys and girls who live in unknown places, in unfamiliar—often inhospitable—situations.

We come to the table together—and what do we find?

Wheat ground down and made into bread.

Grapes crushed into wine.

Signs of suffering. Signs that in Christ, God has joined all of us in our sorrow and suffering and still promises to be faithful.

We come to the table, not because everything is all right, but because we hurt, because we know others suffer, because the summer is over and still we are not whole, the summer is over and still the world suffers. We come because at this table the anguish of God meets our human suffering.

We live in one world. All people are our “companions”—that is, literally, those with whom we eat bread. We can head down, what Rabbi Lerner called “a slippery slope toward violence that will eventually dominate our daily lives.” Or we can join with all people at the table—and let our inclusive celebration of the Lord’s Supper be a prelude to this.

So World Communion Sunday turns out to be far more important than we might ever have realized.

This table is where we begin the work of bringing peace into the world. This table is where we return again and again to be nurtured in that work, work that we are incapable of doing on our own strength.

And now, by God’s grace, we discover that we are not alone. Here at the table we are joined by the church in all times and places.

Come, for all is ready.