By Rev. Doug Martindale
Jeremiah 31: 7-14
One hundred years before Jeremiah, the Assyrians conquered the Northern Kingdom and carried its' citizens into captivity and laid siege to Jerusalem. You may remember it this way:
The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.
Jeremiah says that Jerusalem will next be ravaged by the Babylonian army.
Archaeologists excavating on Mount Zion in Jerusalem found a layer of ash, full of artifacts, mixed with arrowheads, and even ear rings, indicating devastation and destruction. “Nobody abandons golden jewelry and nobody has arrowheads in their domestic refuse.” said an archaeologist. (1.) Their beloved city was destroyed, as was King Solomon's Temple. And the people were carried off as captives to Babylon. Judah and Jerusalem lost two generations of citizens.
Who have we lost?
Who has the ravages of history stolen from us?
Who have the consequences of our actions and that of our ancestors
expelled from our faith community, our neighbourhood, our land?
Let me suggest two places where we have experienced loss as a country or society and then imagine or envision what could cause us, like the exiles returning from Babylon, to turn weeping and mourning into joy and gladness.
One is the terrible tragedy of unmarked graves at residential schools and second, the increasingly destructive forces of nature attributed to climate change. We know that 1,308 unmarked graves at four residential schools have been identified. Many more are likely to be found. If there was ever a cause for weeping, it is this: children who never returned home and often there was no notification of parents or accountability by the schools. And some of them were United Church run schools. We too, need to be in mourning with our indigenous brothers and sisters.
Speaking in the House of Commons in 2014, then NDP Member of Parliament Romeo Saganash told a story about a small boy who was known as Johnnish. Johnnish was just five years old when he was sent to a residential school. “He never came back. Apparently, he died the first year he arrived at the residential school,” Saganash said. The boy was Saganash’s brother. His mother wasn’t told Johnnish had died until two years had passed. And for decades, she didn’t know where he had been put to rest.
“His mom, my mom, for 40 years never knew where Johnnish was buried. It was only by coincidence that one of my sisters happened to be in the area one day, and someone told her, ‘I know where your little brother is buried,'” Saganash said.
He said his sister filmed the site where their brother was buried. She brought the film back to their mother, and their mother finally — after four decades — saw where her baby had been put to rest.
“I saw my mother cry many times, but the day she saw that video—I had never seen her cry that way,” Saganash said: “That was closure. That is what we call closure.”
What is God's vision for homecoming in this situation?
Whom does God intend to bring home to you (us)?
What will our hope in God's promise mean for the faith and actions of our community?
I believe that homecoming in this situation will mean that there is closure and healing for all aboriginal communities, and for us. We need healing as well because we carry the legacy of what our church and our ancestors in faith did at residential schools.
I have hope because at a racial justice workshop I met leaders from Hollow Water First Nation. They shared their story of asking the federal and provincial governments to allow them to deal with inter-generational sexual abuse by keeping offenders in their community and holding them accountable. They did this through healing circles where everyone got to tell their story. Based on traditional practices this unique model of justice reunited families and healed both victims and offenders. I have no doubt that it was successful in its outcomes and, tellingly, not one person from that community claimed compensation for being in a residential school.
Climate change devastated British Columbia this past year. Consider that:
• the heat dome in the last week of June killed almost 600 people and 651,000 animals
• wildfires destroyed 686,000 hectares of forest
• almost the entire town of Lytton was destroyed and 2 people died • flooding forced more than 160,000 people from their homes in November and cost billions in losses to homes, livestock and infrastructure
• so we too know what devastation is and how it uproots lives and communities.
What would it take for us to make a difference when it comes to
the climate emergency and turn weeping into tears of joy?
Here is a very short list of things we could do, and I'm sure you could come up with your own list:
◦ change the building code so that all new building construction is zero net energy so that no fossil fuels are used
◦ my neighbour Albert is already designing and building zero net energy houses so we know it is possible
◦ planting billions of trees in Canada so that carbon dioxide is absorbed
◦ reforming our forestry practices so that clear cutting does not contribute to roads being washed out and communities flooded
And just how are we as individuals and as a society going to do this?
We can look to Jeremiah for inspiration. He knew that the only thing that could bring about a right relationship with Yahweh would be a change of heart. Perhaps that is key for us and the environment. What we really need is a change of heart so that we do not see natural resources as something to be exploited, rather, we see what God has created for all of us to enjoy-and we are stewards of this creation.
Speaking for Yahweh, Jeremiah says: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” He says that when this is done, rules will no longer be necessary in order for people to know how to behave. With changed hearts and the right desire present, people will know what is the moral thing to do in any situation.
Jeremiah promised the disheartened people that God would always be open to restoring them to their land if they would respond to God's love by being transformed in convictions and actions.
I wonder how Jeremiah was transformed from the prophet of gloom to the prophet of hope? Perhaps it was because of the intimate relationship that existed between him and the God whom he worshiped. His prayers are like conversations characterized by sincerity and frankness. And, his prayers were never monologues. After he spoke, he would listen for Yahweh's response and so the entire conversation would have far greater significance than formal prayer.
What would it take to transform us from the doom and gloom of news about residential schools and heat domes, and wildfires and floods to people who come weeping for joy? I believe it begins with changed hearts and that means being connected with a power greater than ourselves, Great Love, Yahweh, the Living God. Even more-it means being in dialogue, sharing our joys and our anguish and listening for guidance.
Then we can rejoice with our Indigenous brothers and sisters when truth and reconciliation have been achieved. We can weep for joy because creation is no longer groaning in reaction to our mistreatment and instead is restored, re-created and lovingly cared for by all of us. Amen.
1. Gibson, Shimon, CNN August 2019