I want to just say something briefly about this gospel reading before moving on to focus on the Lamentations text. I think it is important to realize that when it comes to his parables, Jesus isn’t shy about working both sides of the street. It was about six weeks ago that we had a gospel reading (Luke 12:32-40) in which Jesus tells a parable about the faithful servants who keep the lamps burning all night while their master is at a wedding feast. When that master comes home he is so delighted with the faithfulness of the servants that “he fastens his belt, has them sit down to eat, and serves them.” But here, speaking to those same disciples, Jesus says that after doing his work a slave should not expect such treatment: “Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?” he asks rhetorically, and then adds, “So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Oh.
- To listen to the sermon, click play:
Well, that should just stand as a reminder that parables are meant to do their own particular work. In the case of this one, N.T. Wright says it stands as a reminder—a “shocking lesson” he calls it—“that all we do, even the hard work we do for God, never for a moment puts God in our debt.”
[A]ll genuine service to God is done from gratitude, not to earn anything at all. Saying ‘We’re not worth anything at all’ doesn’t mean that we lack a proper sense of self-worth and self-love. It just means that we must constantly remind ourselves of the great truth: we can never put God in our debt.
And why is that? Because none of this life of faith is based on merit or earned righteousness, but on raw grace. And Jesus just isn’t afraid of using sometimes disturbing and shocking words to make that point.
I’ll leave it there for now, as I do really want to speak to the Lamentations text, and on the power of lament in general. I want you to hear something that the African-American biblical scholar Alphonetta Wines has to say about the power and the importance of lament: “The lessons of lament,” she comments,
have much to teach the world about finding healing and restoration in times of crisis or after tremendous loss. Lament is part of the healing process. Failure to lament makes it difficult to move forward when we encounter life at its worst. Lament releases the energy that is bound up in grief and regret. Ever cognizant that life will never be the same, lament makes room for life to begin again.
Well this is deep lament we’re talking about tonight. We’ve spent the past several weeks considering texts from the prophet Jeremiah, and will do so for two more weeks. Tonight we’ve got a piece from the Book of Lamentations; a book attributed to that same prophet. Lamentations is only five chapters long, but is almost unrelentingly hellish in what it describes. Jerusalem has fallen to the Babylonian Empire, the temple lies in ruins, blood runs in the streets. The book begins,
How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
It all unfolds from there, as Jeremiah describes scenes of starvation, violence, and desperate horror:
Infants and babes faint
in the streets of the city.
They cry to their mothers,
‘Where is bread and wine?’
as they faint like the wounded
in the streets of the city,
as their life is poured out
on their mothers’ bosom. (2:11b-12)
More awful still, “women eat their offspring, the children they have borne.” (2:20)
Women are raped in Zion,
virgins in the towns of Judah.
Princes are hung up by their hands;
no respect is shown to the elders.
Young men are compelled to grind,
and boys stagger under loads of wood.
The old men have left the city gate,
the young men their music.
The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning. (5:10-15)
And then the final verses of the book:
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. (5:21-22)
Restore us… unless. Unless we’ve been so unfaithful to the covenant, and have so betrayed our calling to be your people that we are beyond forgiveness and restoration. That’s the deepest fear voiced in this book. Maybe we are too far gone.
What we heard read tonight comes from chapter three, almost exactly midway through the book, where the prophet does something utterly unexpected. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall,” he laments, “My soul continually thinks of it, and is bowed down within me. “But this—this—I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
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.
And for just this handful of verses, Jeremiah sings a different vision born of a deeper, more stubborn and insistent hope… And then as abruptly as that section had begun, it is over, and he’s back to describing that hell on earth. In the psalm tradition it is not uncommon for laments to begin with tears and sorrow, and then to resolve with a declaration of hope. That’s a kind of expected order, but that isn’t what the prophet is doing here. No, here he plants hope in the middle, which to me says that his hope is neither overly self-assured nor blindly naïve. It is deep, maybe even desperate, but still so deep.
That affirmation—“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases”—stands at the centre of Lamentations, but also at the centre of the faith expressed in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, and so at the very centre of the faith in which we seek to walk. But it ain’t always easy to affirm. As the Lutheran Biblical scholar Fred Gaiser comments,
Left to myself, the centre will never hold. Even together, we must admit there will be times when it appears that all is lost. But then, this voice: ‘The Lord is good to those who wait…’ Hold on to this for me, dear preacher. Believe it with me. Let me hear it anew.
Well, this preacher holds on to it. This preacher believes it. To repeat that great line from Alphonetta Wines, “Ever cognizant that life will never be the same, lament makes room for life to begin again…” and the centre holds. I’ve known some serious grief and sorrow in my own life over these past few months, but the centre holds. When times are tough, and there seems little hope that God’s mercies are new every morning, the centre holds. But we hold it together, not in some sorrowful, doubt and despair-filled space of splendid isolation. No the centre holds, because again and again we find it and hear it and see it and know it in and through each other. And the centre holds. For truly, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.”