A hope sung through clenched teeth

a sermon on Lamentations 1:1-3, 3:19-26 and Luke 17:1-5

I

t is only once in our three-year cycle that the lectionary takes us into the Book of Lamentations, maybe because it is one of most painful books in the entire scriptural tradition. I mean, lamenting is alright, but most of the time church communities would rather hear something a bit more edifying. After all, we’re an Easter people, right? Shouldn’t we keep things a bit more upbeat in our gatherings?

And so even when we do dig into this book, the group that designed our cycle of readings rather quickly move us from the opening section of lament into the one portion of the book that sounds hopeful:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
God’s mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.

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It sounds hopeful, because it is. But it isn’t a blithe or naïve hope that the prophet sings here. It is a stubborn hope, uttered as his face is being pressed up against a wall by a Babylonian soldier. It is sung through clenched teeth, coming from a place in his soul that he probably wasn’t even fully aware of.

This is Jeremiah’s great lament for Jerusalem, a city that has been bulldozed by the Babylonian army. For five chapters, the prophet describes scenes of unimaginable horror.  Women are raped in the streets. The leaders who have not been killed are publically tortured; “Princes are hung by their hands” the prophet tells us. Young men are strapped to the grinding wheel in place of oxen, and worked to death. It has become so desperate that babies are being eaten as food.

As Walter Brueggemann observes,

It did not used to be so sad in Jerusalem. The city was full of people, great among the nations, a princess among the princes of the world. Did not used to be but now, lonely, like a widow, a vassal… humiliated, vulnerable, exposed, brutalized. It is a city imagined like an abused woman: ‘She weeps bitterly, tears on her cheeks, none to comfort…’ None to comfort, grief, loss, hurt, too deep to utter. (“Joined in Suffering… Reliant on God’s Power,” in Inscribing the Text)

“A city imagined like an abused woman.” For the better part of five chapters it goes on, this torturous lament, until it comes to its bleary eyed end:

Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored;
renew our days as of old—
unless you have utterly rejected us,
and are angry with us beyond measure.

Restore us… or, like a battered and abused woman trapped in an impossible situation, is there no way out? With that, the lament ends. No resolution is offered, beyond this expression of blank fear at the thought that there may be no future beyond the devastation.

Which makes it all the more astonishing that the prophet can find his words of stubborn hope.  There is this moment, right in the middle of the five chapters, where he finds this other voice.

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
God’s mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’

There are just a few verses to this counter-song; this strangely alternative version of things, culminating in this:

For the Lord will not
reject for ever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone. (3:31-33)

The Lord does not reject forever… God has allowed this grief, but will be steadfast… God does not willingly afflict anyone.

And then, just as suddenly as it started, the song of hope is over. The prophet returns to his horrifying description of the devastation, returns to his deep, deep lament. There is a profound wisdom in the structuring of this poem, an acknowledgment that for many people and many communities the pain and the struggle will not resolve easily or neatly. Sometimes God’s steadfastness, mercy, and faithfulness are experienced as coming to us like a window that opens, ever so briefly, in the midst of a long, long dark night. We need to be reminded that sometimes faith has to be expressed through clenched teeth.

But we don’t read such texts very often in church. That’s partly because for a long time, the church in the West sat in a position of privilege, mistaking the crown of thorns for the crown of jeweled power. Much as I love the tradition in which I stand, there are chapters in the story of the Anglican Church that are frankly embarrassing in this respect; what’s to lament, when king, nation and church are all of a piece? The Anabaptists have a very different story to tell, of course. There are chapters in that tradition that can find real resonance in these pages of Lamentations.

No, we won’t read such texts very often, and we won’t know what to make of them, until we come up against things – whether in our own lives or in the lives of those around us – that have a lot more in common with thorns than with jewels. This is the point, says Brueggemann, when we finally consider, “the cross and the crucifixion and the suffering love of Jesus and his call to enter the places of hurt with him.”

‘Increase our faith!’ the apostles say to Jesus, after he’s offered them some pretty tough words around what he calls “occasions for stumbling;” words about how repentance and forgiveness need to function in their little community. ‘Increase our faith’ too, so whether in tough times or good ones, in a long dark night or in the freshness of a new morning, we can sing of God’s steadfast faithfulness to us.

Increase our faith, O Lord, so we can both sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” but also speak other words, and not shy away from the power of lament.

Amen.

Jamie Howison

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