The Sheep Need Boundaries (Jeremiah 23:1-8)

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the Lord.

Therefore, this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to these shepherds: “Instead of caring for my flock and leading them to safety, you have deserted them and driven them to destruction. Now I will pour out judgment on you for the evil you have done to them. But I will gather together the remnant of my flock from the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their own sheepfold, and they will be fruitful and increase in number. Then I will appoint responsible shepherds who will care for them, and they will never be afraid again. Not a single one will be lost or missing. I, the Lord, have spoken!

“For the time is coming,”
    says the Lord,
“when I will raise up a righteous descendant
    from King David’s line.
He will be a King who rules with wisdom.
    He will do what is just and right throughout the land.
And this will be his name:
    ‘The Lord Is Our Righteousness.’
In that day Judah will be saved,
    and Israel will live in safety.

“In that day,” says the Lord, “when people are taking an oath, they will no longer say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who rescued the people of Israel from the land of Egypt.’ Instead, they will say, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the people of Israel back to their own land from the land of the north and from all the countries to which he had exiled them.’ Then they will live in their own land.” (New Living Translation)

All of the Old Testament prophets have something to say on the subject of caring for the flock, that is, on the religious leaders of the people and their sacred responsibility to spiritually meet the needs of others.

God cares for each and every sheep (person) and will do whatever it takes to ensure the flock has everything they need for life and godliness.

So, the Lord’s ire is raised whenever shepherd-leaders don’t do their proper job and fail to live into their vocation of responsibly caring for the flock by watching over it and providing for them.

One of the modern forms this takes is expecting worshipers to serve the institution, rather than the institution existing to serve the worshiper. The telltale signs of institutional centrality in the Church (instead of Christo-centric religion) is continually pursuing the priorities of attendance, money, and the church building.

To put it more crassly, some churches seem to only care about buildings, budgets, and butts in the pew. This makes the people the burden-bearers of supporting the system, rather than the system of leaders supporting the people.

“You get what you tolerate.”

Henry Cloud

Admittedly, I just painted a picture with a broad stroke; furthermore, there is nothing inherently wrong with institutional religion (after all, I’m part of the established religion scene). It’s just that shepherds need to be continually vigilant about focusing their pastoral goals and efforts in ways which spiritually care for the common good of all the flock.

A major reason why there is so much fear and anxiety amongst believers is twofold:

  1. Spiritual leaders have too much power and responsibility over too many things, and so, less time and effort is put into pastoral care and compassionately ministering to the flock of God
  2. Churches give spiritual leaders too much power and responsibility, having unreasonable expectations for pastors
  3. Believers aplenty have given up on church

You might conclude (wrongly) that institutional forms of religion, such as churches, just need to be avoided. However, none of us can completely avoid systemic sin because it resides everywhere. Instead, we need to clarify what we will tolerate and not tolerate.

Abusive situations occur when there are no fences to keep everyone safe, secure, and well-fed. It’s important to have boundaries in place for the life and health of everyone.

What are “boundaries?”

Boundaries define who we are. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to take and not take responsibility for gives me freedom.

No is a complete sentence.”

Anne Lamott

Why is it important to set boundaries?

  • Boundaries help us keep the good in and the bad out. Setting boundaries involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them, and the one who must live with their consequences.
  • Boundaries help protect us from “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which one person manipulates another into doubting their thoughts, feelings, judgments, perceptions, and/or memories. Gaslighting convinces someone to accept the gaslighter’s version of reality at the expense of their own.
  • Boundaries hold people accountable for their words and actions. Without boundaries, we can easily feel used and mistreated.

What are some ways to set healthy boundaries?

  1. Clarify your values. Is this about preserving personal space? Do you want to make sure your emotions are not dismissed or invalidated? Are you trying to take back control of your time, energy, or resources?
  2. Decide where the fence will go. Where is your boundary line? What behaviors can you tolerate?  At what point does someone cross the line with you?
  3. Identify specific, problematic behaviors. What specific behaviors constitute unwanted trespassing on your life?
  4. Identify how a boundary violation is handled. Will you remove yourself from the situation, or step away from an unfinished argument?
  5. Follow through on the consequences. This is essential. If you’ve stated clearly what your boundaries are and they are crossed, make sure to do what you said you will do.

God makes and keeps boundaries and puts up reasonable fences in order that God’s people will be safe and cared for. The Lord also enforces those boundaries and has clear consequences when they are crossed.

The sooner we respect those divine fences, the better off we will be.

Almighty and everlasting God, breathe your Holy Spirit into our hearts and inspire us with love for goodness and truth. May we respect and honor you, and have no fear to hinder us from doing your will. Help us to be compassionate leaders and followers, knowing your compassion, being mindful of your love, and serving you faithfully, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Expressing Grief (Lamentations 3:55-66)

An engraving of the prophet Jeremiah lamenting, 1937

I called on your name, Lord,
    from the depths of the pit.
You heard my plea: “Do not close your ears
    to my cry for relief.”
You came near when I called you,
    and you said, “Do not fear.”

You, Lord, took up my case;
    you redeemed my life.
Lord, you have seen the wrong done to me.
    Uphold my cause!
You have seen the depth of their vengeance,
    all their plots against me.

Lord, you have heard their insults,
    all their plots against me—
what my enemies whisper and mutter
    against me all day long.
Look at them! Sitting or standing,
    they mock me in their songs.

Pay them back what they deserve, Lord,
    for what their hands have done.
Put a veil over their hearts,
    and may your curse be on them!
Pursue them in anger and destroy them
    from under the heavens of the Lord. (New International Version)

Over the years of ministry, I’ve encountered a host of confessing Christians who did not know the book of Lamentations even existed in the Bible. Even more people, I have discovered, are unfamiliar with the word “lament.”

This anecdotal evidence is quite telling: It tells me that a large chunk of people in society don’t know what to do with themselves whenever they experience or encounter trauma, abuse, unwanted circumstances, death, or overwhelming situations.

It’s no wonder that so many of us are anxious, depressed, and emotionally struggling. To be overwhelmed means that we don’t have enough internal resources to match what’s going on with us externally. Being overwhelmed means being devastated or overpowered by several circumstances at once; and experiencing several emotions at once, including the feeling of estrangement from God and/or others.

The book of Lamentations is the prophet Jeremiah’s public expression of grief over the destruction of his home city of Jerusalem. King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army invaded the land, broke down the city walls, razed the temple, killed many people, and took most of the rest into captivity. The experience, along with the atrocities committed, were overwhelming.

On top of all that, Jeremiah had proclaimed a message of judgment, prophesying what would happen – and it did. And after the Babylonians took over, the remaining people put much of their misplaced anger and grief on Jeremiah, making his situation even worse.

Lamentations of Jeremiah, by Marc Chagall, 1956

What would you do if you were Jeremiah?

In whatever way you might respond, I believe Jeremiah did precisely what was most needed: He called on the name of the Lord, he expressed his lament, and it was all more than a private affair – because we are able to still read his lamentation all these many centuries later.

To lament is to express our feelings and story of grief to another. Without doing so, we are spiritually and emotionally stuck. And if we remain stuck for too long, our grief comes out sideways, either hurting others or ourselves.

The general populace of the people didn’t deal with their grief, and didn’t lament their loss. Instead, they mocked Jeremiah, plotted against him, and insulted him. That’s what happens when we don’t grieve and lament.

Jeremiah, however, left the people in God’s hands, and didn’t take matters into his own hands. He did what he was supposed to do instead of lashing out on others: Crafted this book of Lamentations, which we have access to, and can read.

So, why don’t we?

There’s lots of reasons we don’t examine the book of Lamentations (and explore our own lament). The primary reason is fear:

  • Fear of our own emotions – getting lost in them and afraid we’ll never get out of them – so we construct elaborate thoughts and words of positivity, believing that it will shoo the difficult feelings away. But the truth is, it won’t. It only makes it worse. We can choose to courageously tell our story, to whomever we want, in as much or as little detail as we want.
  • Fear of getting hurt. We’ve already experienced a level of hurt we never thought was possible. It’s only human to want to keep as far away from hurt as we can. So, we keep tight-lipped, tell others that we’re fine (when we’re not), all in the belief that if we can shut others out, we can keep any more hurt from touching us. The problem is that when we do that, we also keep the love out that could and would come to us.
  • Fear of connection. Examining myself and exploring relationships with others sounds too risky. It’s fraught with emotion. Besides, we might reason, I don’t want to put my burdens onto someone else. So, we don’t face our grief. The feelings get buried and, over time, become gangrene of the soul, poisoning us. Like a nasty boil, our grief needs to be lanced, and plenty of peroxide put on the wound. And the right medicine is doing what Jeremiah did: lament our loss.
  • Fear of losing control. I might cry in front of others. I may get really angry and yell. I could go absolutely ape and do weird stuff around people. If I open up, it will be a Pandora’s box of releasing myself. In reality, this is a fear of vulnerability, of letting others see the true self. And since we may not like our true self to begin with, this makes things quite complicated. However, there is not another way. Yet, if we go down the narrow path of lament, we will find many comforters who are able to empathize with us in our suffering.

“Sometimes you have to get your behind in the past before you can put your past behind you.”

Mit Tdrahrhe

The place to begin is in offering our feelings of grief, and our emotional words of lament, to the God who is always ready and available to hear it. And, from there, we reach out to a trusted friend, relative, or faith leader and tell them our story. Eventually, we discover enough healing that we can then comfort others with the comfort we ourselves have received. (2 Corinthians 1:3-11)

You can do this.

Almighty God, Father of mercies and giver of comfort: Deal graciously, we pray, with all who mourn; that, casting all their care on you, they may know the consolation of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Dealing with Denial (Jeremiah 32:1-9, 36-41)

The Lord spoke to me in the tenth year that Zedekiah was king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year that Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylonia. At that time, the Babylonian army had surrounded Jerusalem, and I was in the prison at the courtyard of the palace guards. Zedekiah had ordered me to be held there because I told everyone that the Lord had said:

I am the Lord, and I am about to let the king of Babylonia conquer Jerusalem. King Zedekiah will be captured and taken to King Nebuchadnezzar, who will speak with him face to face. Then Zedekiah will be led away to Babylonia, where he will stay until I am finished with him. So, if you people of Judah fight against the Babylonians, you will lose. I, the Lord, have spoken.

Later, when I was in prison, the Lord said:

Jeremiah, your cousin Hanamel, the son of your uncle Shallum, will visit you. He must sell his field near the town of Anathoth, and because you are his nearest relative, you have the right and the responsibility to buy it and keep it in the family.

Hanamel came, just as the Lord had promised. And he said, “Please buy my field near Anathoth in the territory of the Benjamin tribe. You have the right to buy it, and if you do, it will stay in our family.”

The Lord had told me to buy it from Hanamel, and so I did. The price was 17 pieces of silver, and I weighed out the full amount on a scale….

Jeremiah, what you said is true. The people of Jerusalem are suffering from hunger and disease, and so the king of Babylonia will be able to capture Jerusalem.

I am angry with the people of Jerusalem, and I will scatter them in foreign countries. But someday I will bring them back here and let them live in safety. They will be my people, and I will be their God. I will make their thoughts and desires pure. Then they will realize that, for their own good and the good of their children, they must worship only me. They will even be afraid to turn away from me. I will make an agreement with them that will never end, and I won’t ever stop doing good things for them. With all my heart I promise that they will be planted in this land once again. (Contemporary English Version)

Denial is a powerful mental force.

Disaster was about to befall Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Few were prepared for what was ahead. But they should have been ready. That’s because the prophet Jeremiah repeatedly told the king and the people about their need to live in justice and righteousness.

The dominant belief within the city was that judgment would never come to them. The people looked at their covenant with the Lord, and the presence of the temple, as some sort of rabbit’s foot or insurance policy that would keep invading armies at bay.

But they were in denial about what was actually occurring. The people lived as they wanted, giving Yahweh some temple time and a bit of worship, but then turned around and also worshiped other gods. Furthermore, they exploited the poor, took advantage of the needy, and engaged in unscrupulous business practices. So, the prophet Jeremiah was given a message by God to the people:

I brought you here to my land,
    where food is abundant,
but you made my land filthy
    with your sins.
The priests who teach my laws
    don’t care to know me.
Your leaders rebel against me;
your prophets
    give messages from Baal
    and worship false gods….

You, my people, have sinned
    in two ways—
you have rejected me, the source
    of life-giving water,
and you’ve tried to collect water
in cracked and leaking pits
    dug in the ground. (Jeremiah 2:7-8, 14, CEV)

The message was repeatedly ignored, along with warnings of judgment, if the people did not change their errant ways. The city’s denial was palpable, holding the false belief that the Babylonians could never take them, and that God was on their side.

Pay attention, people of Judah! Change your ways and start living right, then I will let you keep on living in your own country. Don’t fool yourselves! My temple is here in Jerusalem, but that doesn’t mean I will protect you. I will keep you safe only if you change your ways and are fair and honest with each other. Stop taking advantage of foreigners, orphans, and widows. Don’t kill innocent people. And stop worshiping other gods. Then I will let you enjoy a long life in this land I gave your ancestors. (Jeremiah 7:3-7, CEV)

The antidote to denial is acceptance – not necessarily accepting that a situation is okay, fine, or right – but that the situation is actually there; it’s true, and I’ve got to face it as it is, and not as I want it to be.

The Babylonians were at the city gate. Yet, even then, Jeremiah was getting the stiff arm from King Zedekiah and was in prison for preaching sedition. Nobody wanted to face the music – that a funeral dirge was about to play. But they needed to own up to what was happening and why they were in such a position.

It’s a sad scene. It’s hard to watch, whenever others refuse to listen, knowing what will happen if they keep to their denial. There were some things Jeremiah did and didn’t do when he was in this awkward and precarious position.

Jeremiah did not:

  • Give up and/or shut up. He didn’t give in to the temptation of being frustrated, throwing up his hands, and walking away; and he didn’t adopt their denial and stop talking.
  • Manipulate by resorting to shaming the people, or using Machiavellian tactics to force or leverage repentance out of them.
  • Say, “I told you so!” In fact, he did just the opposite; he grieved and lamented the unchanged hearts and the destruction which did happen.

Jeremiah did:

  • Connect with both God and the people. He was able to differentiate himself from the situation, while at the same time, remaining connected as a voice to the people.
  • Accept his role as prophet. He took responsibility for himself and his own particular calling – and nothing more than that. He focused on what needed to be said and done in the moment, and left the rest to God.
  • Kept living his life. He went and bought a relative’s field, keeping the land in the family, knowing he was still going to have a life after such devastation.

The Lord, as the Good Shepherd, isn’t going to herd cats – so we must follow as the sheep who trust in the Lord’s voice and actions, to say and do what we most need to hear and obey.

Just and right God, you invite us to give ourselves in service to others, equipped with justice and righteousness. Be with me as I choose each day to reflect your divine presence in our world. Give me the courage and generosity to respond to your love, and to your call. May all your people speak your message with bravery, humility, and skill. Open the minds and hearts of those in denial — that they may accept you and your words. Amen.

Forsaken (Jeremiah 2:4-13)

Hear the word of the Lord, you descendants of Jacob,
    all you clans of Israel.

This is what the Lord says:

“What fault did your ancestors find in me,
    that they strayed so far from me?
They followed worthless idols
    and became worthless themselves.
They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord,
    who brought us up out of Egypt
and led us through the barren wilderness,
    through a land of deserts and ravines,
a land of drought and utter darkness,
    a land where no one travels and no one lives?’
I brought you into a fertile land
    to eat its fruit and rich produce.
But you came and defiled my land
    and made my inheritance detestable.
The priests did not ask,
    ‘Where is the Lord?’
Those who deal with the law did not know me;
    the leaders rebelled against me.
The prophets prophesied by Baal,
    following worthless idols.

“Therefore I bring charges against you again,”
declares the Lord.
    “And I will bring charges against your children’s children.
Cross over to the coasts of Cyprus and look,
    send to Kedar and observe closely;
    see if there has ever been anything like this:
Has a nation ever changed its gods?
    (Yet they are not gods at all.)
But my people have exchanged their glorious God
    for worthless idols.
Be appalled at this, you heavens,
    and shudder with great horror,”
declares the Lord.
“My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
    the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
    broken cisterns that cannot hold water. (New International Version)

We are all wounded lovers. Keeping a steadfast commitment to someone who’s fickle, and sometimes spurns our love, is a universal feeling of deep hurt. And that is precisely how God felt about the ancient Israelites.

The feel of today’s Old Testament lesson is like being in a divorce court – God lamenting the distance which evolved between divinity and humanity. It happened because Israel went after other lovers, and practiced infidelity in their relationship with the Lord.

Since a person tends to take on the character of the god they follow, Israel had become a mess of a people. Because the gods they turned to were nothing but worthless idols. The Israelites became empty and vacuous, drained of all the robust spiritual character within their nation.

The object of love determines the quality of love.

To lose God is to lose our way of being in the world.

And the reason we lose God is that we stop telling our stories of grace, love, and forgiveness. New life, over time, becomes old hat. We end up forgetting where we came from, and so, discover that we don’t really know where we’re going.

We suffer from a severe case of spiritual amnesia.

God is who God is; I Am who I Am – and not as we may think God might be. The Lord is tied to justice and righteousness; and so, is concerned for both the individual and the community. Private life and public life each need to be characterized by integrity, service, and meeting one another’s needs.

Public institutions, corporate businesses, and even faith communities all collapse without the guiding compass of civic duty, social justice, and community service. Leaders everywhere have forgotten that power and authority is divinely given, not personally earned.

Whenever a people loses sight of their foundational stories and ethical points of reference, systemic evil arises to keep certain folks in power. And the rest of the people are coerced into serving those in authority. It’s a situation ripe for the judgment of God.

The Lord will take people to task for failing to remember who they are, where they came from, and thus, what they’re supposed to be doing.

Tragically, the Israelites swapped their God for other gods who are utterly unreliable and, frankly, not real. They lost touch with reality itself, not being able to distinguish between truth and error, and unable to discern what the good life actually is.

We must take God on God’s own terms. We are people created in the image of God, not people who create a god in the image they want. We can no more do that than a cake can claim self-existence apart from the baker.

Heaven and earth are witnesses to the folly of human forgetfulness – a lack of memory which forsakes commitment to the Divine. It’s the sort of madness that can result from a lack of sleep or water.

In such a condition, we need living water. We cannot conjure it up. There’s no way to be our own source of life, any more than a child can birth itself without any parents. Life must be given. Life is a gift.

The gift has been given. The real issue is whether we will receive it, open it, and use it.

There are many questions which cry out for us to answer:

  • Will the ego get in the way of living well?
  • Will a false sense of self delude us into believing we are the architects of our own reality?
  • Will we colonize others for what they can do for us, rather than seeking to uphold the common good of all persons?
  • What is our relationship to power and authority?
  • What are we doing with the influence we have?
  • What fault have you found with God?
  • When are we going to renew our vows to God?
  • Who are you?
  • What are you doing?
  • Where are you going?
  • Why are you here?
  • How, then, shall we live?

Sovereign God of all, I will try this day to live a simple, sincere and serene life, repelling every thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith.

I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right. And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to you, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.