Sermon for Ordinary Time 34

20 November 2013

Jeremiah 23.1-6



In the summer of 1999 I had the immense privilege of initiating and coordinating the work of a Kosovan refugee centre.  65 Kosova Albanians had been airlifted from the camps of Macedonia having fled the ethnic cleansing conducted by the Serbian paramilitaries. 

As the war drew to a close and in the weeks following it I would arrive at the centre to find a small group of men sitting at a table in the sunshine intently listening to a radio.  They would be tuned in to a station that was broadcasting lists of names.  One list would be of those who had made it to the camps, another of those known to have been killed and a third list seeking news of those still missing.

One day I arrived to find that Sylejman was not at the table with the others.  There was an even more solemn atmosphere than usual to the small gathering of men.  One looked up and told me that Sylejman was in his room, his brother had been named in the second list, his body found down a well.

The passage set for today from the Old Testament is alive and relevant for our generation.  Not only for those Kosova Albanians in Manchester 14 years ago but for all who have had to flee their homelands as a consequence of war, oppression, famine and economic downturn.

Jeremiah 23.1-6 is probably the earliest we have of news from the exile.  There are no mobile phones to check up on family members to see if they made the journey or were left behind.  There were no radios to list the found, the missing and the killed.  Despair would have been great among the people as they were taken into captivity following the fall of Jerusalem.

Jeremiah offers a number of themes to ponder.

Firstly those who had been appointed to care for the people had failed.

The Kings, the prophets and the priests, the shepherds of the flock.

Following the economic collapse of 2008 many have sought to lay the blame at the doors of politicians and bankers.  But they were not alone in their culpability.  Few questioned whether they could afford the loans, few asked where the money was coming from, few asked about the consequences.  The poor and vulnerable were far off in many people’s minds. 

The sentiments are not greatly removed from Jeremiah’s.

And in recent days our church has been rocked by the scandal surrounding the former head of the Co-op bank and now suspended Methodist minister.  We cannot hide from our responsibilities to uphold the values that help create trust and respect and when we fail we let more than ourselves down.  The greater the responsibility the greater the risks, and the greater the risks the greater the danger of falling from grace.

In a sense it has been ‘Kick the Church Week’ in the media.  In addition to possibly the greatest scandal in my lifetime to rock the Methodist Church, the former Archbishop of Canterbury is quoted as saying that the Church is one generation away from extinction.  This was seen by the press as another nail in the coffin, but it would be wrong to write us off too soon.  The press once did that with Mark Twain publishing his obituary whilst he was still alive which gave rise to his famous quote ‘reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.’ 

We of all people should know that dismissing death as the end is a little premature to say the least, after all some did the same with Jesus.  The Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ.  And the Church that is written off is likely to be the Church to confound its critics.

Archbishop Carey is right however, the Church is one generation away from extinction; at times I have used the term ‘oblivion’ rather than extinction.  But it has never been any different; every generation has to be won over by those within it who see not just the scattering of the people but the gathering too, not just exile but return, not just despair but hope, not just death but life.

And Jeremiah is the one in his generation who sees that exile is not the end.

He declares that God will gather the people again, a remnant yes but enough to restore the fortunes of Israel and Judah.  New shepherds will rise and not let the people down.

There will be no more fear, no more dismay and no one will go missing.

In recent weeks there have been several documentaries on the Cold War charting the Cuban missile crisis, the nuclear stand-off, Reagan and Thatcher threatening the Soviet Union and the proxy wars fought by the super powers that threatened to escalate.  The documentaries have served to remind me that I grew up through the worst days of the Cold War, and when I thought about the possibility of total annihilation in four minutes I was occasionally gripped with fear.

The fears are different today.  But they are no less real.  Many wonder how long the money will keep coming in, many question their security, the welfare provision should they grow old or ill, and many are anxious about the complex and unwieldy bureaucracy that fails to serve the people but instead adds to their burden.

Yet Jeremiah tells his readers in exile that there will be no more fear.  Our own anxieties will be eased by new-found confidence.

There will be no more dismay.  There will be new ways of looking on the world and our place within it.

And no one will go missing.

We may not have our families and friends in refugee camps.  But we are often estranged from those with whom we should seek reconciliation.  For too long we carry the burdens of unforgiven wrongs, the bitterness of sentences we now regret, the reluctance to take the first step.

There are people missing in our lives, and we are often missing in the lives of others.

The good news is that is that it doesn’t always have to be that way.

Jeremiah ends with the belief that the Lord will raise up a special shepherd, or a righteous branch as he puts it, to usher in a new kingdom of justice and righteousness.

On this last Sunday before Advent we begin to turn toward celebrating the coming of Jesus into our world, to rededicating ourselves to the Good Shepherd who looks out for the one sheep that has gone astray and to seeing how our world can be radically different for those who fulfil his teaching.

I will close with a little story.

A man was alone looking after his two young sons one day.  They were restless and he tried a number of things to get them focussed.  Eventually he hit on an idea.  He took out a magazine, flicked through until he spotted a map of the world.  He went to the kitchen and with a pair of scissors cut the map up into small pieces.  He then presented them to his two sons and told them to put the world together again by solving the jigsaw.  He returned to the kitchen to prepare some food.  But to his surprise the boys called him back within minutes.  They had solved the puzzle.  Amazed at their skill he asked them how they managed to do it.  The eldest said ‘It looked impossible but then we saw that on the other side was a picture of a man.  Once we put him together, we turned it over and the world was back together again.’

The other boy added ‘It’s easy Dad, get the man right and the world is right.’