Hope in Lamentation

Lessons of the Day: Lamentations 1:1-6; Lamentations 3:19-26 (as the Psalm response); 2 Timothy 1:1-14; and Luke 17:5-10

We do not ordinarily find the Book of Lamentations, the scripture of our first reading today, very useful, either in church or at home. I mean, how many of us have actually read Lamentations in our free time. 

The book of Lamentations is a series of five lengthy poems of sadness, raw pain, and deep sorrow. The poets who constructed the work have put into words the experience of Judah living through enormous public and personal suffering. It’s the middle of the 6th century BC, and the Judahites are living in captivity in Babylon. The city of Jerusalem, the holy city, and its constituent Temple was destroyed in 587 BC. For the ancient Jews, the city of Jerusalem was the focus of all of their hopes and dreams; it was the sign of God’s presence and the promise of God’s fidelity. Its hills, its walls, and its gates, and above all its Temple, spoke to travelers and residents alike of what they treasured. And now, the place was gone, and they sat by the rivers of Babylon and they wept. They wept for being invaded. They wept over the loss of national identity and security. They wept for because they felt abandoned by their kings. And they wept for their old who were killed and unburied, and for children who were dead in the streets. They wept for all the questions shouted, sighed, and whispered to God that the heavens did not answer.

Maybe we can relate, after all! Maybe we lament or have lamented over a tremendous loss. Maybe we have seen despair, and lost hope. Maybe you have lost a job, or an income, or a retirement pension at no fault of your own, and maybe you lamented. Maybe tragedy struck your home in fire or fierce wind or flood, and maybe you lamented. Maybe a dear loved one – a spouse of many years, a dear friend, a mother or a father, a child – died, and you lamented. Maybe our loss feels so great, or our pain so heavy, or despair so deep, that we cannot find God or we blame God – and we cry out in lament, “Why?”

Maybe our lament was over the bigger community. Maybe, as we witness the destruction caused by natural disasters, we lament! Did you lament, as I did, when you saw the destruction of the Bahamas or Puerto Rico or New Orleans? Do you lament when you see fires destroy homes in California, or when floods rip through Texas, or earthquakes destroy Nepal? Maybe you’ve witnessed the desperation of the poor, the homelessness, and the hungry. Have you seen economic despair, and wondered what can be done. Maybe you have seen or experienced the injustices of racism and misogyny and prejudice. And maybe those have caused you to cry out in lament! When you see violence and abuse, so you lament with your community? Have you lamented, together with young people around the globe, the destruction of the environment, and the global climate crisis. Maybe the loss feels so great, or the pain so heavy, or despair so deep, and it all just seems beyond your control that you cannot find God or you blame God – and you cry out in lament!

Now, let me say something about all that lamentation: It is holy and good! It is a natural expression of our humanness and our loss. It is a spiritual expression of our need and desire for God. 

Back to the book of Lamentations. It’s a very interesting book, of which we only ever read these few verses as a Sunday lesson. As I said, its five chapters of sorrow, pain, and loss – twenty-two verses each, except for the Chapter 3 which has sixty-six verses. Beautifully written, with clear language and powerful imagery, the poems of lament are destined for communal prayer. There is, however, an interesting feature of the book. You see, sixty-five verses in, beginning in 3:21 the poet leaves his usual lament and begins a clear expression and exposition of unmitigated HOPE. Lasting until verse 39, the poet expresses God’s fidelity and compassion, a portion of which reads:

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;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
“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.

Lamentations 3:21-26

Did you hear that? In the midst of all the loss and pain and suffering…. In the midst of captivity and the destruction of Jerusalem… In the midst of the loss of the Temple, God’s dwelling place on earth, there is hope. The basis of that hope, of course, is the memory of God’s justice and mercy. “The Lord is my portion,” the author proclaims confidently, “therefore I will hope in him.” The author is confident of the Lord’s goodness. The sufferer and the oppressed can hope for deliverance and bear up under the yoke. Punishment is transitory; what lasts is God’s fidelity and mercy.

Hope! Even in their lament, there was hope! Even in our lament, there is hope! Do you see hope – even if just a glimmer?

The 12th century was a time of despair and deep sadness, of pain and suffering. It was a time, I imagine, of great lament. This was the era of religious crusades, where Christians and Muslims were killing each other in the name of God. This was a time when the poor were disabused, and often expelled from cities and villages for the mere fact of being homeless and hungry. This was an age when workers were manipulated and exploited by the wealthy. This was a century when the powers of the Church were corrupt and unyielding and disconnected from  the lives of the flock. The Church and the world were in chaos. There was pain and suffering, a hopelessness that cried out in lamentation.

Then, into that lamentable world stepped Francis, the son of a wealthy textile merchant in Assisi. Through his own natural charisma and because of his father’s wealth, Francis own natural charisma made the young man a leader of the youth of his town. As a boy Francis dreamed of earning glory in battle. He got his chance at an early age, enlisteding along with the other young men of Assisi to fight in a feud against a neighboring city-state. Assisi lost, and Francis was imprisoned. Defeat in battle and serious illness in prison caused Francis to turn away from his visions of vainglory on the battlefield.

Instead, Francis began to walk a path toward God. The course of Francis’ life was profoundly changed by at least two formative experiences. On a pilgrimage to Rome, Francis saw a beggar outside of a Church. Moved by the Holy Spirit, Francis traded places with the beggar, exchanging clothes and spending the day begging for alms. That experience of being poor shook Francis to the core. Later Francis would confront his own fears of leprosy by hugging a leper. Like trading places with the beggar, hugging a leper left a deep mark on Francis. Shaped by his experiences with the beggar and the leper, Francis would grow a strong identification with the poor, eventually cutting himself off from the opulent lifestyle of his father and seeking out a radically simple life. By the time of his death, the love of God had compelled Francis to accomplish much toward rebuilding hope.

Have we lamented? Have we seen a loss of hope? Friends, even in our lament – which, again, is a good and holy thing – we are invited to find hope. We are invited to remember the goodness of God – the character of the divine in mercy and compassion and fidelity to the covenant, the love expressed in the one who sent his only begotten, the love expressed in Jesus who went willingly to the cross to show us the way, and the love expressed in resurrection thereby defeating death. 

Have we lamented? Have we seen a loss of hope? We are invited to find hope. And maybe, like Francis, we are also invited to be hope. Have you lamented over the loss of a loved one? Pray with me. Pray with your Church. We will weep together, and be comforted. Have you lamented over unemployment or economic distress? Have fellowship with me. Have fellowship with your Church. We will search together, and be filled. After all, this is a vital part of the Church’s ministry: to be for one another a comfort in sorrow and a help in time of need. It is to be for one another a measure of hope, even when all seems lost. 

Have we lamented over our community. Have you lamented over the homelessness and hunger that you see around you? This is an invitation to be the hope – to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. There are a lot of opportunities to do it. We have several ministries right here at Saint Stephen’s that do this work. On the third Tuesday of every month, a group goes to Talbot House to serve dinner to those in need. We take weekly collections of food for homeless students in the area. Please check the list for needed items. And we collect every year, starting right about now, we collect food and blankets for a Christmas gift to a group of farmworkers in Mulberry. 

Have you lamented over injustice? Have you lamented over racism and prejudice and misogyny? This is an invitation to be the hope – to be a sign of peace, friendship, and welcoming to those on the margins and to those oppressed. There are a great many opportunities. We are just beginning an inter-religious group dedicated peaceful dialogue and fellowship. When we are ready, heed the invitation to come, standing with others who might worship differently than us. We will again have a presence at Polk Pride. Join our table and demonstrate a welcoming love to your LGBTQ neighbors. 

Have you lamented over inequality and injustice in the local community. You might consider accepting an invitation to join the Polk Ecumenical Action Council for Empowerment. Join PEACE and its twenty constituent churches and fight for systemic change that will empower those who now have no or little power. Have you lamented over war and violence? Be the hope! Stand for peace, and be the peace that our world needs. 

Have you lamented? Here are some ways to be hope in the world.GK Chesterson once noted, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Let us be the ones who, though we find it difficult, try. And in that, we will witness to the hope that we know by faith.

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