Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.’ See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
We have returned to the book of Jeremiah and his talk of remnants. The last time we spent Sunday with the prophet Jeremiah, it was in July and he was busy rebuking leaders who were misusing their power for their own gain. He said “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, says the Lord.” Prophets often teach and speak in cycles of judgement and restoration. While there was a promise of restoration towards the end of that July reading, it was basically a prophecy of judgement. God would judge exploitative and unjust rulers harshly. Today’s reading, however, is not about the terrible shepherds. It is about the restoration of the people they harmed.
When I see the word remnant, I usually think of fabric, those oddly shaped bits and pieces leftover after you finish a pattern. You know the ones I’m talking about. You hold them up and you can see the curve cut out that became a shoulder in a blouse or the sharp angle of a lapel. If the remnant is big enough, you can do something else with them... braid them into a rug or stitch them into a quilt. If you are Dolly Parton’s mom, you make them into a jacket for your little daughter, a coat of many colors. Remnants, when handled with care, skill, and attention, can be joined together into something beautiful and functional.
I don’t know that Jeremiah was a quilter, but he was from a culture where fabric was too expensive and too hard to produce to just throw extra bits or slightly worn pieces away. I imagine that he wouldn’t be surprised to see bits and pieces of fabric patched and given new life, even if this particular kind of blanket wasn’t exactly what he would have used. Of course, I imagine him saying, you don’t discard pieces that can be used. Of course, that which is worn out and torn can be mended. The fabric is too precious to be tossed when it could simply be restored. God is more often called a shepherd than a quilter, but the work of restoration is similar. Find what has been left behind, tend to it, reclaim it for renewed purpose, be it keeping a loved one warm or gathering a new herd of sheep comprised of those that were once scattered by the bad shepherds.
The scholar Jeremiah Unterman defines remnant, as used in our reading today, as usually meaning “the portion left over after a part has been removed.” Usually, this word is used to refer not to fabric but to the last pieces of vegetation or animals or people left after a disaster. According to Unterman, in Jeremiah, and other prophets, “remnant” usually refers to the small groups of people who have survived a terrible crisis or escaped from exile. In the prophets, God will see this remnant, torn and beaten though it may be, and restore it... restore them.
Elaine James, in her commentary on this text, notes that God’s actions are bringing and gathering. The people who had been carried far away and who’s community had been torn apart... God will bring them back from the land of the north and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth. As Dr. James says, the people who have been displaced will be gathering back in. And, notice how intentional the gathering in is. It is not just the abled-bodied survivors who will be protected. It is those with mobility issues, perhaps from illness or wounds from war or from age. It is the ones who can no longer see. It is the ones who are pregnant... even the ones who are active labor will be gathered up and tended to, not left to fend for themselves. As Dr. James puts it, every person mentioned here is someone who has a “bodily condition that requires social supports.” When quick travel is necessary, these are the exact people who are often left behind.
But, God will not leave them behind. God will join them together into a “great company.” Much of the time, when you see a big group of people gathered in scripture, it is an army. Not here. This is a group of people who are often left behind. Dr. James also notes that not only would the folks named here be excluded from the military due to their bodily conditions, they would also be excluded from the groups of people who were allowed to serve in many kinds of religious and priestly service, again because their bodies would be considered problematic or out of the ordinary. But, mobility issues and blindness and pregnancy are every day occurrences in lots of bodies. And, God will treat each of these bodies as worthy of care and consideration. They are worth gathering up and brought back to their home.
Dr. James also points out that God picks routes that would be easier for someone who has vision issues, or mobility issues, or small children to take care to navigate. God will lead them by brooks (a Psalmist might call it still water) that of a good drink and cooler air. The paths will be straight and they will not stumble. James notes that this is an image of God as tender advocate. God, who gathers up people with disabilities and responsibilities for little ones and calls them great, will also provide them with the support they need to travel and gather and return. Jeremiah uses a parental metaphor for God here, a tender father who provides accommodations so that the people can travel safely together. These people who were once displaced and separated are now rooted and connected, akin to a family being guided by a generous parent. God’s restoration will look like a group of traumatized, physically and mentally, refugees guided to safety with great compassion. This isn’t a God who is distant and disconnected. This is a God who is as close a parent’s or partner’s embrace.
As we continue to live through this pandemic that has left some people weakened in new ways by this novel virus, in mourning for lost love and lost opportunities, disconnected from the people and places that bring them joy, I hope that we can look to this scripture for a vision of restoration that reminds us that God’s work is tending to those who are left on the margin and forgotten by leadership concerned with their own comfort. If we are to judge the righteousness of any attempts to rebuild in the midst of and after our present crisis, we can see who God gathers up with particular care here in Jeremiah. If we leave out those whom God gathered up, we will run at cross purposes to our God. May we never be quick to leave behind God’s great company. May all our responses to this moment be rooted in the love that God showed the scattered.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Elaine James: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-jeremiah-317-9-5
Jeremiah Unterman, "remnant," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.