I had a very painful experience this week. It was probably one of the most disheartening moments of my life.
It happened Tuesday morning as I was heading to Reality Tuesday for breakfast. Before I left the parsonage, I had placed my communion chalice in the backseat along with my backpack and other things I needed. Typically, my communion chalice is kept in my church office, but I had it with me because I had used it during a nursing home visit and needed to bring it back.
As I opened the door to pull out my backpack the tragic occurred. My chalice fell and landed on the asphalt. It smashed into pieces. The chalice was a Christmas gift given to me before my first Christmas Eve service as a pastor. It had been used in worship services and nursing home visits ever since. There are a lot of memories in this chalice. These were special moments of serving people and sharing the Living Presence of Christ with them.
Communion is very important to me. It plays a huge role in my theology as a pastor and in my personal devotion. So to see this symbol of our communion with Christ and each other broken was a deeply painful experience. I’m not sure I was the same the rest of the day.
However, as I look at this broken chalice it seems to me that it serves as a symbol of something that is also deeply disheartening. Where this chalice once serves as a symbol of our unity in Christ’s love for us, I believe the chalice now serves as a symbol of our disunity that we so often live into. This shattered communion chalice is a symbol of brokenness. The chalice is a symbol of tears that have been shed. It is a symbol of restless nights and anxious moments. It is a symbol of frustration and anxiety. Truly, where this chalice once served as a means of offering the transformative grace of Jesus Christ it now serves as an unfortunate messenger of the state of our churches today. Our churches are, sadly, just as broken as this communion chalice.
Today, I find myself much like Jeremiah in our passage from Jeremiah 8:18-9:1. I find myself grieving and in tears about the state of the church, especially in the United States. When I look out across our churches I cannot help but feel many of these emotions that I just mentioned. I cry when I hear of a church that is not welcoming of all people. I have spent restless nights wondering how the church might be stronger in our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?” I have often found myself quite frustrated when the church struggles so often to do just that. Like Jeremiah, I want the pieces of the church to be put back together. Like Jeremiah, I often find myself wondering what is the medicine or the cure for the church’s problems and frustrations.
Jeremiah tears and agony found in this morning’s Scripture reading are some of the most powerful words from Jeremiah’s discourse. He is expressing his profound grief about the situation he sees in Israel. If you remember when we mentioned Jeremiah’s calling a few weeks ago we said that he was called to be a prophet to his people. This meant he was called to speak challenging words to his friends, family, and the entire people of Israel in hopes that it would inspire them to a deeper faith in God. Jeremiah lived in a time when the people of Israel had fallen into a sense of complacency. They believed everything was fine and that there was nothing to worry about. Jeremiah knew the people had fallen short of God’s desires. He was called to remind them of this. It was a call that would challenge his life and made him an outcast from his friends and loved ones.
Jeremiah’s call was not easy and it wore on him. As a pastor and prophet, you cannot help but feel the emotional weight of the responsibility of caring for your people. This also includes the weight of the struggles, pains, frustrations, or other difficult moments that exist within a community. Jeremiah felt all of these emotions from the pain of witnessing his people struggle so much and it brought him to tears. He was in grief over what he saw in the hearts of his people.
Jeremiah’s heart broke for his people. What we see in this passage is a deep love and desire for his people to recognize their struggles and to accept God’s grace. This is a prophet who wore his heart on his sleeve and expressed his pain, frustrations, and sadness over a community that struggled to recognize and obey God’s love. His heart broke because Israel had broken the communion of relationship between themselves and God.
There is something else about Jeremiah’s weeping. What Jeremiah weeps over, essentially Israel’s desire to live for themselves and not for God, was symbolic of God’s tears. The things that broke Jeremiah’s heart also broke God’s heart. God cries when the Lord’s people choose a different path than faithful obedience. It broke God’s heart to see Israel happy with a complacent faith that never took seriously discipleship or their relationship with the Lord. Through these tears and grief, Jeremiah was trying to tell the people of Israel that God’s heart was broken.
What about us? If Jeremiah reminds us that God’s heart was broken for the Lord’s people, then what does this say to us? The things that break our heart about the church also breaks God’s heart. Jeremiah’s tears show us that God’s heart breaks for the ways we so often choose to live as the church today. When we think of “church,” we are thinking of the ongoing witness of Jesus Christ into the world. God’s heart breaks when we are not living into our witness through our words, actions, and deeds.
There are so many ways that express this. God’s heart breaks when the church looks more like the world than a community of people who are willing to love each other no matter the difficulty. It breaks God’s heart when the church continues to be segregated, even though the kingdom of God is void of the cultural, racial, or socio-economic boundaries that we so often create. It breaks God’s heart when the church is not welcoming to all people, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, black or white. It brakes God’s heart when we communicate messages of distrust instead of the message of hope, peace, joy, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation that is found in faith in Jesus Christ. It breaks God’s heart when we are so busy that we ignore our faith, even though faith in Christ is what sustains and prepares us for holy living.
The temptation is quite real to respond to all of these things and say, like Jeremiah, where is the balm? Where is the medicine? Where is the doctor? Where is the help for my people, Jeremiah cries out? Where is the help, God, for when the church struggles to be the church?
Our help is our hope. The physician Jeremiah sought and we need is Jesus Christ. Jesus is the hope of grace that comes and brings wholeness in places of brokenness. So often, we want to think we are the healers and the medicine to make the church, especially in the United States, reflect what God wants. Here’s the good news: We are not the author of healing and salvation for our churches. Jesus Christ is the medicine of grace and the salvation of life. We need Christ’s grace to show us the way forward through our struggles, so that we may reflect characteristics of hope instead of characteristics of brokenness. We have the physician that Jeremiah was searching for in this passage. As a community and church in the United States today, we must be willing to seek after Christ’s grace in the midst of our tears, struggles, and frustrations and allow Christ to guide our church to reflect more of his love each day.
Even though like the communion chalice we may be broken and even though we may struggle, the hope and the good news is that God is not done with us and continues to pour grace into us. God is still reaching out to us and guiding us to be the church that the world needs for us to be. God takes the pieces of our brokenness and struggle and uses them to share grace, hope, joy, love, patience, kindness, and unity of vision to us. The greatest hope is that when we weep for the church, God weeps with us, but, more importantly, works with us to share something greater about God’s love for us and the world.
There is hope in the tears. Even though the communion of relationship, our chalice, may seem broken from time to time, never give up the hope that God is speaking and is bringing healing and hope to our lives and our communities. We are going to shed tears for the church, both the church universal and here at Trinity. We are going to have moments when we are like Jeremiah and at the end of our rope. Yet, in these moments of tearful agony we are reminded that God is shedding those same tears and, even more, is building up the church to be the witness of hope and love that the world desperately needs.
Jeremiah never gave up on the people of Israel. God never gives up on us even when we continually fall short on what it means to be the church. So, my friends, if this is the case then we have no reason to give up on the church and our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We have every reason to cling to the hope that is Christ working in us and through to bring healing not only to the church, but also the world.