And the walls come tumbling down
| Jeremiah 31:27-34
||Sun, October 18, 1998
|The prophet got onto the bus. He had long unkempt hair, jeans with the expected holes in the knees, a dirty nondescript shirt. Even though there was empty seats he stood near the front and glared at the people in the bus. As the bus passed the new high rise condominiums, you know the type, 20 shiny floors, locked iron gates, security systems and sometimes even a doorman or guard; the prophet stirred to life ....
"See those gates, those security cameras, and the private cops standing guard. People think they are there for their safety, Nice secure living, Ha! Don’t they know that their homes can easily become their prison, The world is being kept out, but they are being kept in. Turn those cameras around and these buildings become prisons."
To the relief of the commuters on the bus he got out at the next stop. A prophet tends to make us uneasy, pointing out the obvious that we have all been trying to ignore.
Jeremiah had been doing just that for years. Proclaiming the coming disaster of the invading armies of Babylon.
They had chased him out of town a number of times. Once some ruffians threw him down a well and left him to starve. The king had burned his carefully written letters. He wasn’t often welcomed. And now that all the worst of his prophecies had come about he found himself returning to Jerusalem to see the destruction, and hear the lament of the people but finally on this last visit before being dragged off to Egypt against his will he was bringing a message of Good News. God was making a new covenant with the People. Jeremiah didn’t need to point out obvious truths of the coming disasters the people were now living them.
Most of us now can name the truths about our world and our church and our selves. Truths like despite the #1 status the UN has given Canada, we are aware of the poverty which is the reality for many Canadians. We have heard of the questionable actions of the police in our own backyards last fall during APEC and wonder if our society is as free as we think. We have over fished; the cod are gone and the salmon seem to be following them. We have over polluted, over consumed and forgotten are call to care for creation. The country itself is at risk of breaking apart. Governments of all sorts seem to have lost the compassion for the people.
And now even the sins of our church, long since ignored, are in our minds. The United Church is not without a painful history. The abuse in the residential schools has become those sour grapes that Jeremiah spoke of. We can taste the bitterness of the sins of our past. Repentance and reconciliation are still in the future it seems.
The pride of being the "largest Protestant denomination in Canada" still hangs like an albatross around our neck. Even the union of the founding churches was marked with strife and disagreement between the new church and the remaining Presbyterian church.
It is time to let go of this myth about our church we are no longer the big player in society that we once were. In 1961 the membership of the church was 2.6 million from a population of around 18 million. In 1996 it 1.8 million out of 28 million. From 14% to 6% of the population. Like in Jerusalem so long ago the walls come tumbling down. Do we hear the prophet? Do we hear Jeremiah calling out to us now?
In the midst of all the chaos Jeremiah stood and proclaimed good news that has rang on down through the centuries.
The days are coming says the Lord when I will make a New Covenant with the people. Not like the old one which you have broken.
This message of good news was declared to the people after they had accepted the destruction of those things they hung their pride and hope on. After they understood the Sins and brokenness of their society and of their own lives.
The days are coming friends when God will call us to be the Church within the broken world, To be God’s people and bearers of the grace and love of our God to all the world.
There is a great deal of momentum left in the structures and traditions of our Church and we personally have many strengths to offer. We have knowledge and education, wealth, stable families and good friends, homes to live in, community to call our own. The United Church is indeed the "largest protestant denomination in Canada".
Jeremiah’s message from God is that these things are all for not. The covenant God offers us is not of our own doing. There is no value in what we bring to the deal. The sins of our society and our Church cancel out any thing we can claim. Our good works do not balance the formula. But then God does things from a different worldview. The view of a loving creator who has thrown away the balance sheet. Jeremiah declares that a New covenant with our God is breaking forth.
I have witnessed this miracle of God’s New Covenant breaking forth during my 8 months at First United. For many of the people living in the downtown east side the walls have already tumbled down. They live at the frayed edges of our society and Church. Where there is no false sense of safety and well being, for they are living on the outside of the iron gates and are barred from the warmth of the buildings. The camaras watch them to make they keep on going.
Yet a surprising thing occurs, the promise of God’s Love is there in ways we may puzzle at. Let me share with you a few stories of faith and love.
There is a fellow named Walter who lives on the streets. Walter is 89, and the most cantankerous fellow you could imagine. He snarls and swears. Most of the time he is bent over muttering to himself. One day a young fellow saw Walter and cried out:
"Walter, brother, I love You"
and he meant it.
He put his arm around the bent old man and asked:
"How you doing Walter"
And he really wanted to know.
I stood watching Gods love shine upon and from this cranky old man whose life was harsh and unforgiving. Unconditional love is an amazing sight. They both have already heard Jeremiah’s message both the message of destruction of society and New covenant in God’s love for us, with us and through us.
Another fellow told me his story: He had been a successful worker at CN rail. Earned pretty good money but had always had trouble with alcohol. He crashed his car one day after drinking all night and he nearly died. But it didn’t stop him from drinking. One day while working he didn’t hear the train coming and was hit by the locomotive and dragged 200 feet. With broken ribs and punctured lungs, a severe concussion, a broken arm and leg he dragged himself to his car and while attempting to start it he passed out. He said if he had managed to get his car going he would have been dead. In the hospital for weeks he again nearly died. The doctors told him he was lucky to be alive.
I was amazed at his story and it wasn’t over. He realized he had a serious problem and needed to change his life. He quit his job gathered all his money, 18000$ and set out to Vancouver from his Ontario home. His friends told him if he did that he would end up using hard drugs. He didn’t think it would happen to him.
Within two weeks of being in Vancouver he was using cocaine and living with a women who encouraged his habit. Two more weeks his money was gone and so was his new friend. Broke, hooked on the drugs and alcohol, still experiencing pain from his injuries he had fallen into the to familiar despair of life at the edge of our culture. The walls had come tumbling down.
I first met him one Sunday, when he ask for prayers because he was an alcoholic and needed strength. This was his first public announcement of his condition. God’s grace breaking through.
The real capper to this story is his interpretation of his life. " I know that God has always been with me, taking care of me and watching over me."
Nearly dead more times than he can remember, broken and fallen and yet a faith I marvel at. With no pretensions of doing it himself he places his trust in God.
Another Sunday a man drew in my attention to offer prayer. "I need courage and strength to cope with the abuse I experienced while at the residential school in Port Alberni." Inside I gasped. Now there is a face and name attached to the suffering when we talk of residential schools. Despite this man’s painful memories of the Port Alberni residential school he could come to a United Church and ask for prayers. His cry "brother I hurt, I am in pain sister, pray for me". How could we do otherwise.
Their in the midst of the frayed edges of society and our Church. Reconciliation starts. When the walls have come tumbling down we stand before our God in our mutual need of reconciliation with each other and with God; then wounds can be healed and new life can begin.
While we worry about losing the walls of the church, the power and influence of the largest protestant denomination in Canada, people on the frayed edges of our society and Church make bold statements of faith, God has always been with me, God will give me strength and encouragement and people declare God’s love, "Sister, Brother, I love you".
Are we there too, without acknowledging it? We all share the human experience of suffering and sorrow. Many of us know loneliness, even in a crowd. Death has touched our lives in the loss of friends and family. In the destruction of living in this world God is waiting for us to let go of the false security of iron gates and watchful cameras, private security guards, of good education, RRSPs and trust funds or any other worldly crutch and instead turn to the promise made so long ago when God declared:
The days are coming when I will make a New Covenant with you not like the old one which you failed to keep but one in which I will be your God and you will be my people.
And the walls come tumbling down and God’s love is found shining through.
Thanks be to God.