Pentecost 20, Year C
Donna G. Joy

Lamentations 1:1-6; Canticle: Lamentations 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

Our first reading this morning is taken from the Book of Lamentations, which is a book that consists of laments over the fall of Jerusalem. Lament being: ‘a passionate expression of grief’; ‘a song or poem of mourning/sorrow’. So this book gives voice to the intense grief and sadness that is felt as a result of incredible loss. It gives voice to the deep sense of loss that is felt with the devastating destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonian armies, sending the Jews into exile. The have lost their city and their land, and are in the process of losing their nation and their faith.

Today’s text describes in vivid detail the devastation of the exile by speaking the language of death. This morning’s reading includes part of the first poem in the Book of Lamentation, which begins with an agonizing expression – agonizing cry – of grief: “How!!!???” How terrible is this tragedy of God’s city and temple in ruins? And how has such a dreadful thing happened? This sentiment speaks to the very pain of the human condition. Jerusalem was loved by God and had many children; but now she is a widow. She was a princess; but now she is a slave. She had many lovers – nations with whom she could form alliances; now she is alone and her friends have betrayed her. Her roads used to be filled with pilgrims, her priests singing and the young girls dancing; now the roads are deserted, the priests groan and the young girls weep. The princes which were her pride, are now like starving stags being hunted down. Here we have an image of a place that is thriving with energy, life, people, dancing; which is now empty of energy and depressing void of life... All she has is her memories, which fill this moment with a sense of shame, and helplessness and loss. Indeed, this is a profound expression of sadness, disappointment, loneliness, and grief.

So, in this expression of deep lament, the author is wondering if this truly is the end of the Jewish people – the end of the Jewish nation. Elsewhere throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we are able to discover that despite great attempts to turn this situation around the devastation persists, and all the leading citizens of Jerusalem remain in exile.

Now, I wonder if something interesting and perhaps pastoral happens when we put this reading together with our next reading also from Lamentations, but this time a couple of chapters later. Putting the words of the first reading together with this message a couple of chapters later, might (it seems to me) allow us to hear a continued expression of the sadness, disappointment, grief that we all know throughout the course of our lifetime. In the first part of this second reading, the author (initially) can only think of his sense of affliction, and his homelessness; he is aware that his very soul is bowed down to a place of utter brokenness. But then, there is an interesting – a rather surprising and sudden shift in the tone of this lament where the author begins to indicate a sense of hope; an affirmation of the steadfast love of God which never ceases – a God whose mercies never come to an end; mercies which appear new – renewed – with the dawning of each new day.

So here we have a serious cry of lament over the most difficult and devastating of times, AND then... a sudden reminder of God’s presence in the midst of it all. What I really appreciate about these two readings from Lamentations is that they name the turmoil, lament over it, even wallow in it for a while... and then – in time – they remember that as tough as this may be, the God of hope.

Broken relationships, physical pain, job related disappointments, sense of failure... Within the context of our own lives, we absolutely know the reality of human suffering... certainly some more than others... yet we all know it... I think the church has all-too-often painted such a rosy picture that we run the risk of not allowing ourselves to lament, to address, confront and express our grief. This new trend of identifying a funeral, or memorial service, as a ‘celebration of life’ is in some ways a fine idea because certainly when someone we love dies we need to celebrate those areas that represent the giftedness of their life. And yet, increasingly it seems to me that we need to be careful NOT to completely focus on celebration and joy, when we are also overcome with sadness and grief and loss that needs to be named. Sometimes we need to lament, even wallow in it for a while, and then when the time is right to discover the gift of God’s presence in the midst of it.

Sometimes our truest prayers are those of praise and thanksgiving. (Something great has occurred and we enter into worship in a spirit of gratitude.) Sometimes they are cries of lament. (Something is, some things are, falling down around us, and we need to cry out in a loud voice.) Sometimes lament is our home. There are those days when we need a place to cry in the presence of God and others. Lament must have a prominent place in biblical worship. The Psalms of lament are a highly under utilized section of Scripture, and during the last Season of Lent Lissa led us through a study of the Psalms which offered a profound reminder that this is so. It is Psalm 22 that Jesus quotes from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, so far away from the words of groaning?” But the lament of Psalm 22 turns back to praise at the end: “I will tell of thy name to my people, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee.” It is becoming increasingly clear to me that praise opens the door of lament, and lament opens the door to praise. So, to read these two sections from the Book of Lamentations this morning brings honesty and integrity to worship, because it names the struggles of life, and offers a reminder of God’s presence in the midst of it.

There are things I believe we should do together in worship, whether we feel like doing them or not. Of course, we must gather together. We must offer praise. We must confess our sins. We must pray. We must listen for the voice of God.

And what we must not do is say, “Life is great. Life could not be better. There are no worries at all,” when that will be at times the farthest thing from the truth. And, I fear that sometimes this is what we do. How often does our liturgy allow us room to lament? How often in our day to day connections with people do we offer that perfunctory response, “Great! Things are great!” when asked, “How are you?” When in actual fact something radically different may be true. When life is painful we must be honest enough to admit it before God and each other. When life is tearing us apart, when our heart is breaking, when we are being crushed under the load we are trying to carry, when grief, depression, loneliness, and failure haunt our every waking moment – all this brokenness must be brought to God in worship and expressed in lament.

I have at times been aware of a kind of mind set which says, “God, help us remove from our minds everything about our lives and focus just on you.” While this does, in a sense, point us to the real reason for worship – a focus on God and not ourselves – that prayer can seriously run the risk of separating worship from real life. But something I came across in my reading this week offers a correction to that particular prayer:

“Asking people who have gathered for a service to set aside all of their concerns, anxieties, preoccupations, and cares in order to worship is as completely unnecessary as it is unrealistic. The worship of God does not require a case of temporary amnesia regarding the rest of life. Actually, God desires for all of life to be brought into worship as an offering.”  (Welton Gaddy, ‘The Gift of Worship’)

And by ‘all of life’ I mean: even our pain.

I am convinced that we need to restore lament to a prominent place in worship. I would hope that such a restoration would make people feel more willing to come to worship during the dark seasons of their lives. Throughout the course of my lifetime, I have known way too many people who have stopped coming to worship in the midst of dark and painful times. I’ve heard people say that the joy of the celebration is just too much of a contrast to the sadness in their heart.

Jesus said worship is to be done “in spirit and in truth,” that is, in the Spirit of God and involving the whole truth about our lives. Prayer is bringing our real selves before God, not our pretend selves. God doesn’t want our lives to remain stuck in expressions of grief or lament, but when a lament is all we have to sing, God wants to hear that honest cry.

And so we weep. We weep for fractured relationships and shattered lives; we weep for crack cocaine and other street drugs which are now made even more dangerous with the arrival of carfentanil (which is now available on Winnipeg Streets); we weep over poverty and injustice and children who don’t get a fair chance. We weep for hatred and fear, cruelty and terrorism. True worship includes lamentation.

Paul told Timothy, “I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. Recalling your tears, I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.” The hope of honest lamentation is healing and joy. When we share our lament with others, our presence together can bring healing and joy. We can know that we are not alone. And as Christians, our hope is found in the crucified and risen Jesus, whose very existence makes new life and new possibilities rise up from death, and despair, and sadness and grief.

And finally, let us never forget, that the very act of lamenting in worship is, in itself, a statement of faith. As with the Israelite people in exile, we may complain bitterly to a God who feels absent or hidden; but not to a God who is extinct. And this is what Jesus is talking about in our Gospel this morning, as he says that faith – even the size of the tiniest of mustard seeds – can accomplish remarkable, extraordinary things. Faith may not, likely will not, necessarily make life unfold as we may wish, but faith can give us unexpected courage and strength in the midst of the challenges and the struggles. Here Jesus makes the point that faith is the greatest force in the world. This means that even that which looks completely impossible becomes possible, if it is approached with, rooted in, faith. Today we are reminded that we approach nothing alone; that with us – in our midst, always - there is God whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine...