Proclaiming the lament

Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Lamentations 3:19-26 and Luke 17:5-10

I want to focus on the reading from the book of Lamentations, but I do need to make just a few comments on the reading from the Gospel according to Luke. After suggesting that the faith of his disciples was so diminished that it wasn’t even equal to the size of a mustard seed, Jesus adds a teaching that seems to suggest that they really shouldn’t be looking for so much as a word of thanks for anything they do manage to do in the name of Christ.

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“Who among you,” he says, “would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table?’” In other words, what landowner in the world would see that as a prudent way to run the farm? They’d be inclined to say something more like, “Get me my supper, thank you very much… you can have yours later.” “So it is with you also,” Jesus adds, “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!’”

He sounds a bit hard-hearted here, doesn’t he? Yet I think this is a bit of a trick question, the true answer to which will only be revealed a little later in the Gospel narrative. What was that question again? “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’?” Honestly, who among you would do that? None of them would dream of doing it, but Jesus himself would… Jesus actually does. A few chapters further into the gospel he will ask them, “[W]ho is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27) He serves them bread and wine in the upper room, and in John’s telling he even drops to his knees, washes their feet, and forever changes their status from servants to friends.

I’ll just leave that there to percolate with you, and move on to this passage from Lamentations. If you’ve never read the book in its entirety, I’d encourage you to do that sometime in the coming week, though I’d want to warn you that it doesn’t make for particularly comfortable reading. Written by the prophet Jeremiah as an extended lament over what he’s seen happen to the city of Jerusalem at the hands of its Babylonian conquerors, it is unrelenting in its portrayal of a nightmare. It opens with the words, “How lonely sits the city/that once was full of people!” and for five chapters Jeremiah offers image after hellish image of just how bad it has become.

Look, O Lord, and consider!
To whom have you done this?
Should women eat their offspring,
the children they have borne?
Should priest and prophet be killed
in the sanctuary of the Lord?
The young and the old are lying
on the ground in the streets;
my young women and my young men
have fallen by the sword;
on the day of your anger you have killed them,
slaughtering without mercy. (2:20-21)

In Jeremiah’s view, the disaster that has beset Jerusalem is the outcome of the nation’s abandonment of covenant faithfulness; God has allowed the enemy Babylonians this horrific free rein. Chapters one through four are carefully constructed acrostic poems, yet the fifth and final chapter is not, which leads the theologian/philosopher Walter Bouzard to wonder if this now reflects “a grief so unbearable and chaotic that it cannot be controlled either by form or liturgy.” That last chapter includes some of the most troubling images:

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. (5:11-15)

And it all ends with this:

Why, Lord, have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
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. (5:20-22)

Restore us… renew us… unless—and this is his deepest fear—unless you have utterly rejected us, unless you are angry with us beyond measure. And that’s it. The poetic lament cycle just ends there. For people who read and pray the psalms, you’ll know that normally what happens with a lament is that it begins with an expression of agony or a cry for help—“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”—but resolves with an expression of trust or faithful thanksgiving, as if simply by crying out in need or pain God is already present and at work. Here in his Lamentations, Jeremiah does something quite different. Unable to end his poem with anything but that fearful “unless”—not while the horror is yet happening in Jerusalem’s streets—his work is not without hope. Jeremiah’s affirmation of something other than the horror is embedded right at the book’s core. Right in the middle of the third of these five chapters, even as tears run down his face, it is almost as if he can’t stop himself from singing this other song, if only for a very few verses. Picture him, head down and heart broken.

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me. (3:19-20)

“But this I call to mind,” he says, and his head begins to lift. “[A]nd therefore I have hope.” Now his eyes have become fixed not on the fires burning in the streets, nor on the rubble of what was the temple, nor on the hollow eyes of the women who have become so desperate as to do anything to survive. No, his eyes are fixed on a horizon he’d not seen in so very long. And he begins to sing,

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. (3:22-23)

God’s mercies are new every morning? Great is God’s faithfulness? Where are you looking, Jeremiah? What are you seeing, that no one else can see?

‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in him.’
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord. (3:24 -26)

It goes on for a half dozen verses more, ending with a bold assertion that the Lord  “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” But watch, as Jeremiah’s head again lowers, his shoulders slump, and he returns to that deeper, harder work of lament that continues through the second half of the book.

Why are we reading from this book? And what’s with my insistence that you know the nightmarish background to these verses, of which you might otherwise have remained oblivious? We read from this book because while most of us will never see our city streets in flames, nor have hostile soldiers pulling us from our houses to do with us what they will, that is a current reality for many in our world. Right now in Syria, right now in communities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Right now.

Some in those places may have words to pray their own laments, but many won’t. And few will find the will or words to affirm anything close to the steadfastness of God’s love and mercy. So here, thousands of miles away, we give voice to that love on their behalf.

Some in this place tonight sit under the weight of sadness or loneliness or depression or hopelessness, and it is for them, too, that we must proclaim these words. If you are one of those who struggle and can’t risk hoping, let us hope and believe for you. Remember, too, that Jeremiah could only sustain his astonishing hope for a time, before he again buckled under the weight of all he saw, all he feared. If you find yourself buckling tonight, know that one of the greatest prophets of our tradition knew that there were no easy answers or quick fix solutions.

But he did, right in the midst of it all, discover that he had a mustard seed of faith left in his soul, and that when he raised his head he could sing—if only for a time—an alternative song. In that tiny mustard seed sized faith, and maybe even with his jaw set and teeth gritted, he could dare to proclaim that God’s mercies “are new every morning.” Pray that morning will come for all who know only the deep and fearful loneliness of a long night.

2 Responses to Proclaiming the lament

  1. Jo Rees says:

    Thank you for opening this passage for us – for your humnaity and reality. It gives me messages to shae with my church here in UK.

  2. Byron O'Donnell says:

    terrific scope to this sermon Jamie. Nourishing food for thought.

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