Matthew Ian Fleming: Tears of Renewal
This sermon was adapted from the closing worship service of our recent gathering, Renew, on May 2-3, 2022. It is our prayer that you find morsels of renewal in these words.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Over two days we gathered asking for renewal, calling upon God to ignite in us a spirit of renewal for ourselves, for our communities, for our congregations, for our neighborhoods, for our world.
Going into these days, each leader and person of faith came in with hopes and longings of their own. For me, I was hoping that I might catch a glimpse at the Spirit at work in something bigger than me. I hoped also that I would catch a glimpse at the Spirit working also on me.
One of the refrains, one of the rhythms that came through the assembly over these two days was the tension between how much this work is about us – self-reflection, the work that the gospel is doing in us. But the flip side of that call that this work is ultimately not at all about us as leaders in the church. That’s the rub it seems.
I remember hearing Pastor Jenny Sung preach about our willingness to be healed, and the Spirit’s work in and through our lives: “There is something that has been grafted inside your being. There is a place inside that has never been wounded, that has never been hurt, where the Holy Spirit is raising you up with the same power that raised Jesus from the grave. It’s in you.”
I remember Tod Bolsinger encouraging us to remain wholehearted in our work, refusing the temptation toward cynicism and apathy by focusing on the one thing that we can make an impact on. He invited us into the vulnerable work of leadership, sharing the ways that this work has broken us.
I remember Nadia Bolz-Weber speaking about the tension between using our charisma for good and minding it in the room, tending to the ways we invite other voices to the table and choose moments not to speak or share an opinion.
But it wasn’t until Joe Davis took the microphone last night that it really started to work on me. He started talking about tears. From his poem “You Gotta Cry Sometimes,”
“When I gave permission for the waves to rise
waters gathered like a choir in the aqueduct of my eyes
singing psalms of lament with each changing tide
baptizing my breath with every bathing sigh
Tears of mercy and justice kissed, rolling down my chin to meet
rivers of righteousness slid round my cheek like a mighty stream
these waters have shown me crying is not a sign of being weak
but Love’s persistent flow within us during our time of grief”
Tears are so incredible necessary for our healing, for our wholeness, for our wellness. To be made whole, we need to let those tears out. As a white, cisgendered, hetero-presenting man, this is not an act that the society teaches me to do very well. There aren’t a lot of scripts of how to do the difficult work of grief and healing and wholeness and bearing our souls with one another. But perhaps that is exactly the work we are called into at this moment.
There is such a variety of tears. We shed tears of joy, the deep acknowledgement that something is right beyond description. A smile on our face and warmth in our hearts, the moisture from our eyes frees us to see what the first verses of the Bible call tov, good.
For many of us, we shed tears of celebration and wholeness upon seeing faces that we hadn’t seen in three years. People coming back to church, looking sheepishly but greeted with warm smiles and drippy eyeballs. Each tear drop a story, a connection, the time passing and the celebrations missed, the grief of loved ones no longer with us.
There are tears of momentary sadness, something immediately in front of us. An inability to gather near loved ones at a funeral or celebration of life. An impossible diagnosis. A child hurt for the first time by a world that can’t tend one another.
There are tears of generational anguish, communal trauma, and corporate lament. There are tears that well up in us from a chasm we can’t explain. Tears that surprise us with delight or shuddering and longing.
Somehow our bodies express this need through the ducts in the sides of our eyes. Somehow the water in our bodies finds its way out to drip all over the floor into the ground and into the planet. Somehow the same water that waters the earth is the same water that waters our transformation.
In my life I have often found transformation and resisted it wholeheartedly. There have been moments and interactions with my daughters, for example, where I wish I could have a total do-over, where I wish I could take back the words that spilled out of my mouth. A few weeks ago, the consequences of my ill-chosen words were tears. As the words slipped out, I knew right away that I wanted them back, but of course I couldn’t.
But perhaps the tears that changed me in that moment were the tears that I was willing to shed afterward. Tears of apology. Tears of vulnerability. Tears of love.
Joe Davis preached it in his poem. We have a God who weeps with us. This passage from Revelation is not about a God who whisks away the tears and avoids our pain. No, this is a God who physically leans in and wipes away the tear from our faces. This is a God who weeps with us, who mourns with us, who grieves with us, who dies with us so that those tears may be the water of new life.
I wonder, what tears might be welling up in you? What tears might be yearning in your communities and congregations? What tears have gone un-wailed, unacknowledged, unwiped? What tears are still leaking out?
We heard from Dr. Bolsinger about looking at pain points, which can seem like a neat Silicon Valley term for ideation and design thinking. But perhaps God is calling us to look at these tears, looking at the physical embodiment of the pain of transformation in our world. And perhaps it starts with each of us as leaders, allowing ourselves to be broken, to soften with tears that only God can wipe away.
Because those tears are gift. The tears are balm. The tears are healing and holy and of the creator of the universe. At the beginning of creation, God’s spirit breathed over the waters of chaos and uncertainty and called forth light and life and possibility. That water still drips and nourishes and soaks the earth with transformation.
Rev. Matthew Ian Fleming is a recovering evangelical who opens up his Bible bruises with curiosity, wonder, and a fair amount of irreverence. He is the founding director of Church Anew, an international platform equipping church leaders to ignite faithful imagination and sustain inspired innovation. With four colleagues, Matthew launched Alter Guild, a podcasting network with over 350,000 downloads that now features four shows including Cafeteria Christian with Nora McInerny and New Time Religion with Andy Root. Matthew is ordained in the ELCA and serves as teaching pastor to St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. At home, Matthew sings unrequested car-duets with his spouse, Hannah, jams on banjo with their two daughters, and religiously bakes sourdough bread.
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