Friday, September 20, 2013

Sermon: "Fountains of Tears"

"Fountain of Tears"
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

Numerous speeches are given after national and/or international tragedies - 911, the Virginia Tech shooting, hurricanes Katrina & Sandy, the Japan earthquake and resultant tsunami, the shooting of Gabby Gifford, the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre, and most recently the D. C. Naval Yard shooting, as well as others not as massive but more personal or closer to home. The speeches are usually full of words meant to inspire, motivate, and strengthen our resolve. For the most part they are good words - powerful words - patriotic words - inspirational words - comforting words - hopeful words. And, they do the job they are intended to do.

Such events usually are followed with appropriate sermons in places of worship. I have read several on the internet as well as created a few myself. Many of them are full of words meant to comfort - meant to heal - meant to spark a sense of hope in hearers - full of words about God's grace and love - full of good words - powerful words - insightful words - inspiring words - eternal words. And, they also did the job they were intended to.

But, we all know that words alone have not been, nor will they be in the future, enough. There used to be several books on my shelves full of short, pithy, thought-provoking sayings. Now, there aren't so many. A few years ago I looked up "words" in a number of those books and almost all of the quips had a note of warning in them about the danger of using words alone. Some of my favorites are: "Actions speak louder than words - and speak fewer lies." "People may doubt what you say, but they will always believe what you do." "Kind words can never die, but without kind deeds they sound mighty sick." "The Christian's walk and talk must go together." "Beware of using sharp words. You may have to eat them later on down the line." "Works, not words, are the proof of love." "Superior to a kind thought is a kind word; better than both is a kind deed." "It is vain to use words when deeds are expected." "Words should be used as tools of communication and not as a substitute for action."

Mind if I confess something to you? There were many times in my ministry and life when words didn't come. Sometimes when I was with people who were hurt deeply and appropriate words wouldn't come into my mind and out of my mouth, I cried. I cried, not because I couldn't think of anything to say, but because I hurt for and with them.

Words alone never bear the grief following the tragedies of life - they didn't after Columbine and they don't after the Navy Base Shootings or the deaths of faithful friends and family members and they never will. Besides words, it takes masses of people standing in line to donate blood - candlelight vigils and parades to honor those who've given their lives to help others. It takes fundraisers and raising money. It takes people putting their arms around one another and crying together. Yes, sharing words is helpful and important, but words are made more effective when the gathered people cry for and with the grieving as well as for one another.

In Urban T. Holmes' book The Priest in the Community he writes about a fellow Episcopalian priest who received a call to go to a parishioner's home. It was a summer afternoon and the father of the household had accidentally run over his only child - a child he and his wife had tried for years to have. The boy now lay dead in his own front yard.

When the priest entered the house he saw the parents clinging to one another - some of the little boy's blood was visible on the father's pants. The priest lost it. Before he could utter a word of sympathy he broke down and cried and cried and cried.

Holmes wrote: "I know of no pastoral counseling manual that says: 'First week uncontrollably when called upon for comfort.' Some would say that my friend had 'blown it.' I would agree with the couple, however, who told (my priest friend) some weeks later that there could be no more effective ministry than what he had done. He had entered with them into the mystery of death, fought the demons and found the angels." (1)

While after each national or international tragedy words and telethons have helped - while flying flags declaring our patriotism and pride and burning candles and wearing t-shirts have helped - it's the knowing that what motivates our words and actions - that the source of our words and actions are the tears of our brothers and sisters here and around the world. Fountains of tears were shared after the Boston Marathon act of terrorism, as we viewed the flooding in Colorado, the use of chemicals in Syria, and as another tormented soul emptied his weapons on the innocent in the D.C. Naval Yard. Willing shoulders have been offered - authentic empathizing hugs have been given -unbelievable acts of compassion have been expressed and those most in need of comfort and thus the whole world has been made aware of just how much we believe in community - how deep our caring for one another really goes despite the notable times when we fail to live up to our ideals.

There was once a prophet by the name of Jeremiah. He wasn't very well-liked by his people - prophets often aren't. He was constantly preaching AT his friends about their sinfulness. He told them that their beloved Judah was going to lose its place in the world and that their temple was going to be destroyed and that they were going to be exiled despite their favored sons and daughters status with God. Jeremiah said what he said because he believed that that's what God wanted him to say and because he cared as deeply about his nation and its people as God did. Jeremiah has often been seen as a prophet that not only came from the community of faith, but he was also a prophet who was a fan of his community, a prophet both for and against his own people.

As a result Jeremiah didn't just point out the sins of his people - even while he was warning them about what was going to happen if they didn't straighten - even though they deserved what was happening to them - Jeremiah aligned himself with them emotionally. He shared their pain. He wept with his people and thus earned the title of the "Weeping Prophet." When Jeremiah said, "Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn,and my horror grips me" and when he said, "Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night for the slain of my people." When Jeremiah said those things he was identifying with, sharing with his people and their grieving.

Want to know what the Bible scholars think it is we should glean from this passage? It's not that the people got what they deserved. It's not that God weeps when we sin. Rather, it is that Jeremiah reflects what goes on in God when God's people - all of humanity! - suffer, are in pain, hurt, or weep. It is that God weeps along with those who weep - that God grieves when God's creation grieves. God cares about us so much that God weeps when we weep! God experiences what we experience in this life. The whole point of God's coming to live among us as one of us - in Jesus Christ - was so that we would know that God understands our pain and our grief, what we go through in this life - that God identifies with us and shares the pain and the grief we experience. God cries with us and thus is one with us. That, my friends, is the Good News we have to share and not the sick interpretation that some so-called religious types/leaders march out whenever tragedy strikes. God is with us - God grieves with us. We witness about this Good News when we get alongside those who grieve and are hurting and grieve with them.

While there's some disagreement about whether this ever really happened or not, there's an oft repeated story about the Prince of Wales being invited to visit a military hospital after WWI. The most popular story claims there were thirty-six injured soldiers in the hospital and the prince willingly accepted the invitation. The first ward the prince visited had twenty-nine injured soldiers in it and the prince visited each one of them, thanking them for their sacrifices on behalf of Great Britain and the British Empire.

When the prince inquired about the other seven, he was informed that their condition was far worse and would never be able to leave the hospital because of the severity  of their wounds and it would be best to leave them alone. The prince demanded to be taken to see them as well. Upon entering this second ward he greeted each one of the severely wounded soldiers and thanked them the same way he had the men in the first ward.

Again when he left the ward he commented to his guide that he only counted six and inquired about the missing soldier. His host stammered as he shared: "Uh, sir, your majesty, that soldier is in a dark little room by himself because he is blind, dumb, and deaf. He's completely paralyzed and his only relief will come when he dies."

The prince asked to be taken to him as well. When they arrived at the man's room the prince quietly opened the door and entered the darkened room. He gazed with a heavy heart at the poor man lying helpless on his bed. He wanted to offer him a sympathetic word, a word of gratitude, but he knew it was impossible because of the man's deafness. He wanted to shake the man's hand but knew it too would be a waste of time because of the man's paralysis. He wasn't even able to offer the man visible signs of how he felt because of the man's blindness. Then it came to him.

He went slowly over to the bed, bent over the wounded man and kissed him on the forehead. The moistness of his lips mixed with the mixture from his eyes as he cried for him and with him.

Compassion, my friends, in whatever form it might be expressed is the balm - the ointment - the medicine - people need from one another. Just as Jeremiah in his day revealed to his people God's grief through expressing his own grief, so we do the same when we grieve with those who grieve in our day.

Fountains of tears have indeed been shed these last few years as we've faced tragedy after tragedy as a people and as individuals. My take is those tears have been a mirror of God's mourning with those most in need. God suffers with us - God is with us as we mourn in our hour of need. The Prince of Peace, God's son, Jesus Christ, much like the Prince of Wales, reaches out to minister to every one of us in our hour of need. It's a life-redeeming identifying with our suffering that he shares with us. Out of his suffering was born new life and hope and through him the same can happen within/to us.

Jesus Christ on the cross is the message many of us need to hear this day - that God in Jesus the Christ suffers with us. Jesus Christ off the cross- Jesus Christ resurrected - the possibility of new life for those of us who mourn - hope - is the message many of us need to hear as well. And they need to be expressed together - together they are the balm that comforts us. Jesus Christ suffers with us and through him new life is possible.

Crying for and with those who weep - shedding fountains of tears for and with those who suffer - that is the call of God on our lives this day - that is the ministry in which we are called to be involved as people of God.

"There is a balm to make the wounded whole" indeed, and that balm is, Jesus Christ, Lord, and Savior of our lives, Son of God, friend and master. We offer that balm when we share both with our words and our deeds of compassion - when we weep fountains of tears with those who weep - when we suffer with those who suffer. I know that it has been the knowledge that many have been crying for/with me thus reminding me that God is crying with/for me on this trying health journey that has provided me strength to continue the battle, hope, even joy that I am still able to share and grieve with others.

Thanks, friends and family!

1. Urban T. Holmes, The Priest in Community: Exploring the Roots of Ministry (Seabury Press, 1979).

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