Lamenting A Last Supper

Notes from
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Trinity UC Kitchener

Text: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Imagine the generations that have come before us, and those who will follow. On this last communion Sunday at 74 Frederick St, I recognize that buildings come and go, expanded and renovated, then levelled.  Ministers, too, come and go, and specific members of choir and congregation – but the people of God keep going, as we have done for millennia. 

Trinity are returning to high ground our Methodist congregation claimed 176 years ago, 3 blocks west. We will be tenants of a congregation to whom we sold another building 120 years ago. The last time we were ‘between buildings’ we worshiped in the Opera House for a couple of years. We’re moving, again!

Berlin was an agricultural market town, and homesteaders along the Grand River, recently appropriated by the Crown and denied to the first nations despite repeated promises during the American Revolution and War of 1812. My own refugee ancestor Bill Bruce homesteaded just upriver, as I told you last month.

Railways overlaid the rivers and roads of Queens Bush, and Berlin boomed. We made everything a farmer needed: boots and farm implements and furniture. We exported to the new western provinces through confederation of a new nation. The ‘Methodist Mafia’, centred in Toronto, thrived in those days.

Twentieth century industries developed into Bauer skates, Kaufman boots, Beatty appliances, Budd Automotive, Electrohome – and of course, munitions. Fortunately, late capitalism also brought us jobs in a booming insurance industry here, and post-industrial late century universities saved our bacon.

In the 21st century, there are 750,000 in the Waterloo-Wellington LIHN, and a third to a half of us were born outside Canada and are visible, racialized minorities. German is no longer the second language to English but Mandarin. RIM, Google, Shopify, and myriad start-ups dominate digital age Kitchener life.

Empires rise and fall. China’s ‘One Belt’ circles the world, as Trump’s vision narrows, and Free Trade yields to national and ‘Fair Trade’ agendas. The people of God, people of the book, Abrahamic faiths are thriving, with more than half of global Christians south of the equator. Does Trinity look like our world, as our Methodist forebears reflected agricultural and industrial times? No.

Our Methodist and United Church forebears increased social mobility, improved distribution of income and opportunity, widened universal access to health care, social service, and education.  We are the proud legacy of the ‘civic generation’ of the last mid-century. We, their barbarian narcissist offspring, observe increased income disparity, reductions in collective goods in favour of individual freedoms, and complain at our waning influence as ‘digital immigrants’, strangers in our own land.  We used to make stuff. Now, what is our legacy? 

Individually or collectively, we wonder why God lets bad stuff happen. Is some angry wrathful vengeful god punishing people? Self-centred and self-serving, we are blind and deaf to our complicity. Our ancestors found their place, as Methodist Mafia in the 19th century, and United Church civic leaders in the 20th. Perhaps God wonders why we in our time just whine about the bad stuff, instead of asking: ‘what side of the fence are you on and who’s there with you?’

What’s your God like? Is divinity a big, tough guy, masculine, scary, bearded? Guys are like that, in our subculture. We mostly seem angry, even when we are sad, or even glad. People who appear like that may fit assumptions that God punishes in order to teach. Worse, we privileged may do the same to the weaker one, even accept abuse from the stronger. That’s not my God.

What if your God wept at what folks make of their freedoms, at the bad choices we make, and at the consequences that follow, individually, and collectively? What if God rues our ways, our end of our relationships with each other and with what is holy, and wishes we’d just try to be less bad, not to merit better consequences, but to ask and offer the cutting of some slack? That’s my God.

That’s how I read the prophet Jeremiah this morning. As boom times changed to bust, as political games of elites playing fast and loose with alliances with Egypt and Assyria in turn, along came the Babylonians, and death, destruction and exile to those who had been so proud. Jeremiah dreamed of what God intended, and what God hoped, and realized that God did not rage in punishing wrath, but that God wept at the consequences.

Let’s re-view a wider vision of the roots of our religious tradition, over millennia. More than 3000 years ago, a movement of some ‘hapiru’, refugees in the eastern Mediterranean and Nile Delta, were on the move. Another movement came from the Tigris-Euphrates (our Iran/Iraq) to Asia Minor (our Turkey/Syria). We tell a story of Abram and Sarai, told by God ‘lech lecha’, ‘get up and go’.

Later in that 3rd millennium BCE (before common era), another wave of nomads and agriculturalists wash or seep into that same holy land from the deserts to the south, and some east, to mix with the nations already in the land, in conflict, integration and assimilation. We tell a story of Moses and Miriam, ‘let me people go’ from bondage in Egypt, into a full generation of wandering as displaced people in the desert.

Finally, 1,000 years before Jesus, David and Solomon cobble together a united monarchy of 12 tribes, Israel in the north, Judah in the south, centred in Jerusalem with a first temple there competing with northern shrines in the frontier where David started as a guerrilla. Rags to riches to rags in three generations, the nation split in two, and by 750, the Assyrians rule the north.

When Jeremiah the prophet comes from his farm near Bethlehem to the city, Jerusalem, he doesn’t know he’s halfway between those origin stories and the crisis times of Jesus. He just knows that up north in Israel, with Ahab and Jezebel, the rich got richer and pretended to be global players, and got crushed between Assyria and Egypt. He sees the next wave coming from Babylon, already conquering Assyria and cruising down the seacoast to rich Egypt.

Jeremiah warns the elite in Jerusalem, and encourages those who try reform. He says the tides of Babylonian empire are too big, and Jerusalem and Judah too weak for a fair fight. He tells them to let Egypt and Babylon war, and accept the fallout at home. They mock him, lock him up, and ignore him.

We know how the story ends. Babylon beats Egypt, levels the temple in Jerusalem, and exiles the literate elite to the mid-Euphrates (Iraq) leaving the ‘people in the land’ who will be Samaritans by Jesus’ time. Jeremiah is left in Jerusalem, as a political prisoner, then moved to Egypt who liked his words, just as the exiles had found them seditious. He gets murdered in Egypt anyhow.

The exiles will rewrite their religion in exile, and come back under Persia (Iran) rule to build a second temple starting around 500 BCE, desecrated under Greek rule, and expanded under Roman rule before Jesus comes along. The second temple in turn gets levelled in a revolt a generation after Jesus. Jeremiah does not know that – just as we don’t know our future. What’s his legacy, and ours?

Jeremiah’s God wept at the decline and fall of Judah and Jerusalem, and at the exile to Babylon. The legacy of generations that came before inspired pride, making many things less bad, or better. Weep for those good things being lost. The legacy of the privileged who would not listen to Jeremiah, to reform to avoid the predictable preventable fall like Israel to Assyria before them? Shame.

Our God does not punish in wrath. However, our God is not the liberal fool trying to give us self-esteem by protecting us from consequences and affirming our bad choices, nor a helicopter parent hovering to protect us from any harm. We get to manage our end of relationships with what is holy, and with each other. We live and learn. As a result, God weeps a lot. Jeremiah voices it.

We were lamenting today at a last supper. The church supper the night before was more fun, with more people attending, and bigger portions of food than communion today.  The point is not always fun. People say they want a funeral to be a ‘celebration of life’, but if you loved one you lose, you weep in pride for all that’s good in what they shared with you. You weep in shame and regret for what you didn’t think, or say, or do, when it was possible.

This is not a maudlin indulgence and refusal to celebrate, this ‘last supper’, this memorial meal expression of the sacrament. This is a sober second thought, preparing us for the next chapter, where we may better recognize the predictable preventable pains, and suffer them together with mutual care.

When a couple comes for a wedding, I do say they don’t know what’s coming. God knows, and isn’t telling me. If they knew it all, they would never wed. Instead, we face it a day at a time, with enough for the day. So with the next years of Trinity: we’re in the middle of this story, not at the end, nor perhaps even the end of the beginning. God knows, and isn’t telling me. 

Life is not a problem to be fixed. God knows we have enough managerial skill at Trinity, and reports since 1978, now posted on our website, offer solutions that we did not apply. In the inexorable passing of an industrial age, the rise and fall of empires, our people of God are not in charge. What is our legacy, in making life better, proudly, or in resisting our loss of privilege, shamefully?

Life is a mystery to be suffered and celebrated with passion and compassion.  That includes taking time to lament, but not to wallow. We recognize the legacy that we are given, lamenting our losses with pride and regret – so that we can get on with creating our own legacy in our turn, with more pride, and less regret for the part we played in this community.

So we came to the table, for our last supper at 74 Frederick, surrounded by a host of witnesses. We remembered other ‘last supper’ moments, in Egypt at Passover before Exodus, in an Upper Room before Good Friday and Easter – and with Jeremiah, before the Babylonian conquest and exile. May God equip us to build upon their legacy of passion and compassion, to re-present the people of God in our time and place. 

God of Jeremiah
Who loves us through good times and bad
Who remains ours in boom and bust
Whose relationship is one of tears and laughter
Remind us once more who we are, and whose we are
What you have entrusted to us, and what we have made of it

Then assure us once more
Of your grace and favour toward us, 
of your mercy and forbearance
That you do not rage and threaten,
 but weep and mourn, with us and for us,
in the face of all our choices
Individually, each of us, 
and collectively, all of us.

Lord, you know we’ve been reaping – 
more than we planted, more than we earned,
In fields our elders prepared for us, 
filling storehouses our children will need
These have been boom times,
 and yet we can already feel the fear of fall:

“The harvest is past,
The summer is ended,
And we are not saved”

Lord, you know how we’ve been sharing
What we’ve hoarded in fear, 
whom we’ve rejected in terror
How we’ve claimed our anger
as if it were yours
In the face of others’ needs, 
even in our good times, 
let alone in our hard times
God, forgive us – 
and teach us to forgive others

Assure us that you are not mad – 
but remind us that you are not glad
Show us that you are sad
in the face of our choices
and of their consequences
Not the wrath of God, 
but surely, the balm in Gilead…

We’re waiting on you now.. 
give us ears to hear

Prophet: Jeremiah 8:18-22

18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
  my heart is sick.

19 Hark, the cry of my poor people
  from far and wide in the land:

‘Is the LORD not in Zion?
  Is her King not in her?’

(‘Why have they provoked me to anger
with their images,
          with their foreign idols?’)

20 ‘The harvest is past,
the summer is ended,
          and we are not saved.’

21 For the hurt of my poor people
I am hurt,

  I mourn,
and dismay has taken hold of me.

22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
          Is there no physician there?

Why then has the health of my poor people
          not been restored?

*O that my head were a spring of water,
  and my eyes a fountain of tears,

so that I might weep day and night
  for the slain of my poor people!

Poetic paraphrase…
The World, The Wound of God
Daniel Berrigan

sorrow beyond healing,
heart faint within me.
hear it, an exile’s cry:
abandoned I am, my God
far, far as clouds that brood
anarchic, unmoored
in a blameless sky!

Ring-around, season and season
in sweet ordaining;
planting, scything, sheathing,
harvests abundant.

Our portion – famine.
nettles, grubs, wasting hungers.
is there in Gilead
no balm?
What of our wounds, where
in the world, that
wounded Healer?