Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost/Lectionary 26C, October 2nd, 2016
Lamentations 1:1-6, Lamentations 3:19-26, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s first reading and psalm come from the book of Lamentations. A lament is a passionate expression of grief and sorrow. A lament is when mere tears are not enough. A lament is when every inch of your body and soul cry out within you. When no consolation is possible. There are times for songs of joy and hope, but there are also times for songs of sadness and despair. There is a time for grief. The book of Lamentations is a whole book filled with lament.
We don’t know how to lament, these days. We are uncomfortable with grief and sorrow. When someone suffers a loss, we don’t often cry with them. How often have I seen this: someone is overcome with grief, and we pat them on the shoulder, tell them we’re praying for them, and then explain why they shouldn’t cry. God wanted another angel in heaven. She’s in a better place. You’ll feel better soon. God’s got a plan—and don’t you trust God? Shouldn’t you be over it by now? We tell ourselves that these platitudes are to comfort the one who grieves; yet all too often what they really do is just shut them up. In big ways and small ways, our culture tells us that we can’t grieve too much. We can’t be too extravagant in our tears, and we can’t take too long. It makes people uncomfortable. As Christians, especially, there is a pressure to hide our grief and recover quickly, to put a good face on our sorrows. After all, don’t we have God? Isn’t God supposed to take care of us? Isn’t God supposed to supply us with all good things all the time? If our suffering is too great, if our sorrow is too deep, well. Maybe we’re not being faithful enough. Maybe we just don’t have the right attitude. And yet, here in the Bible is an entire book filled with grief and pain and anger and fear and sorrow and all the emotions that rage through us in the darkest times.
The book of Lamentations was written after the Babylonians destroyed the country of Judah, and its capital the city of Jerusalem, in 587BC. And by destroyed I don’t just mean they conquered it. They tore down the Temple to its very foundations. They took a large portion of the population away in chains to live as hostages to the good behavior of those left behind, and to be forced to serve the very empire that had destroyed their home. A large portion of Judah’s population, including the prophet Jeremiah, fled to Egypt, where they lived as refugees watching from afar as their enemy destroyed their homes. To add insult to injury, the Babylonians resettled people from other parts of their empire in Judah, to make doubly sure that even Judah’s culture would be destroyed.
Imagine that. Put yourself in their shoes. How would you feel? Imagine that America was conquered by a foreign power. Imagine that an occupying army patrolled the streets of Bismarck every day, and swept through Underwood regularly. Imagine that they destroyed the church, the city hall, the pharmacy, the grocery store. Imagine that they took your friends and family away at gunpoint, and took them somewhere else—you didn’t know where. Imagine that they were coming for you, and so you gathered your family and what you could carry on your back and slipped out of town at night, heading for Mexico, in the hopes that you would be safe there. Imagine arriving with nothing, terrified and alone, in a place you didn’t speak the language, a place where no one liked you and no one wanted you. Imagine waiting every day for news from home, hoping that the invaders would be destroyed and you could go back, but only hearing more stories of pain and suffering. How would you feel?
That’s what the book of Lamentations is all about. That despair. That pain. That sorrow. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! … she weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks … all her friends have dealt treacherously with her. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude.” They sang these songs, Jeremiah and the rest of the refugees in Egypt, and they cried, and they wept. There is no platitude that will fix this, no consolation that will make it all worth it, no sweet, pious words that will make things better. And you know what? It was okay to be honest about that. It was okay to be honest about the depth of their pain and their grief. It was okay to scream and yell and rage at God. God knew what was in their hearts. Putting a brave face on it and pretending to be okay would not fool God; all it would do is bottle all that emotion up where it could do nothing but fester. God is big enough to take all of us, even the ugly parts, even the grief and the pain and the anger and the fear and the sorrow.
And yes, the captives and the exiles and the refugees were partly to blame for their own misfortunes. As a nation, they had turned away from God, taking his love and protection for granted, seeking after other gods and allowing injustice free reign in their communities. If they hadn’t done that, if they had remained as faithful to God as he was to them, even all the might of Babylon would not have prevailed against them. By turning away from God, they had removed his protecting hand from them, and so the Babylonians had come. I imagine that must have made things ten times worse, to look back and wonder what they might have done differently, what might have been possible if they had been more faithful.
But even in the midst of that grief, God was with them. As they grieved the destruction of their homes, as they took responsibility for the things they had done leading up to the fall of their country, God was there. He wasn’t there with a magic bullet to take away their pain and make things better. He wasn’t there with greater rewards to make the destruction of their homeland and the deaths and kidnappings of so many of their loved ones unimportant. He wasn’t there to tell them to get over it. He was there in the midst of their pain to hold them as they cried. He was there in a million small ways, giving them strength to get through each day and courage to start building new lives. “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul thinks continually of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.”
I hope and pray that we never suffer what they suffered, but there are people today who suffer that and worse. Between imperialistic nations, terrorists, gang violence, and environmental disasters, there are more refugees in the world today than there have been since the end of World War II. But there is no Olympics of grief: no scale to weigh things out and go, well, this grief is worse than that one, so you can’t be too upset about that one. There is death in this community. There are broken relationships and broken homes in this community. There is abuse and rape and homelessness and suicide in this community. There is loss and grief and pain. And you know what? It’s okay to lament. It’s okay to not be okay. If grief overwhelms you and fear and pain and doubt and anger and sorrow drag at your footsteps and threaten to drown you, that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad Christian, and it doesn’t mean your faith isn’t strong enough, and it doesn’t mean that God isn’t there with you, helping you along and giving you strength.
Things may never be the same. There may be no happy shining thing that makes what you have suffered all worth it in the end. Sometimes things get better; sometimes, there is a dramatic recovery and change of fortune and everything becomes almost perfect. And we rejoice when that happens and celebrate it. But that doesn’t mean the pain wasn’t real, and it doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with you or your faith if that never happens.
Because God is with us. You, me, every person who suffers loss, every person who celebrates a joy. God is here. With us. God is always faithful; his steadfast love never ceases; his mercies never come to an end. Even in the darkest parts of our lives, when we can do nothing but lament and wail at our suffering, God is with us, and God will never let us fall. You are not alone. We are not alone, not any of us, for God is with us. Thanks be to God.