One year ago I started what would be a 9 month call to be the interim rector at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, TN. This was my first service with them, one year ago, and oddly enough it was the only time in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary that a significant portion of Lamentations was assigned for a Sunday service. The text here is somewhat abbreviated. You can listen to my sermon here.
- First reading and Psalm
- Second reading
Babylonian siege –
In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar and his army finally took Jerusalem and burned down the Temple. But that was only after a 2-year siege that led to famine within the city. The horrors of living through that siege are difficult to comprehend. Our brief readings from Lamentations only hints at the deep tragedy that befell those who lived in God’s holy city.
Lam. 1:1 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!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
Poetic and flowing but at times caustic and accusatory, the Book of Lamentations is a collection of five poems that recount and reflect the devastation and destruction of Jerusalem. The events were indeed so horrific that in chapter 2 the poet calls out to God and demanded he look at the destruction:
Lam 2:20 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?
Probably not what you normally expect to hear on a Sunday morning! In fact, this is the only Sunday that any of Lamentations occurs in our three-year lectionary cycle (and an alternative reading is offered!). The portions of chapter 3 that we just sang appear on Holy Saturday, but that is usually all of Lamentations that most Christians know.
Is it providential that this should be my first Sunday with you? I wonder because this is what I wrote my doctorate on and continued to study for a full 12 years, publishing articles and a book. I promise this will not be a lecture nor a scholarly discourse, but it does seem curious, doesn’t it?, that out of all three years in the lectionary, these should be our readings for today, my first Sunday. And it is curious that as St. B’s is in this time of transition, a time for many of grieving the departure of Fr. Jerry, that we should have these Scriptures about suffering and grief. Discerning God’s will and guidance can feel challenging at times. At other times it seems so obvious.
So here we have five poems of lament that record the grief over the destruction of Jerusalem. Thousands of truly innocent lives destroyed in the most awful ways. Children of course, but men and women too who were not leaders, priests or royalty, and had nothing to do with the cause of this suffering. The poets of Lamentations cry out to God asking him to explain and account for the tragedies they endured. “Look, O LORD, and consider! To whom have you done this?”
Such tragedies continue to happen… I wrote the forward to my book on Lamentations on the first anniversary of 9/11. Today, this day, Aleppo is a city under siege. In Sudan, Syria, and in our own cities – Suffering is all around us and so many who suffer are innocent.
I mentioned my prior research because I want you to know that this is not a new subject for me. For years I studied what we call “theodicy,” questioning where God’s justice is in this world of suffering and pain. And then:
Mack – New Year’s Eve 2012.
The loss of our son was tragic, completely unexpected, and yet it was in no way unique. If you haven’t already felt the loss of a loved one, if you haven’t already suffered yourself in some completely unjust way, at some point you will, and you may feel completely abandoned and cry out to God with Lamentations:
Lam. 5:20 Why have you forgotten us completely?
Why have you forsaken us these many days?
We all know about such unmerited loss and suffering. And we know it even though we are faithful people.
So when we read the Gospel today and hear Jesus say ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea”, and it would obey you’ we can’t but wonder, “If I had more faith, would my child still be alive? If we had more faith, would our city be at peace? If I had more faith…!”
This morning I will only briefly touch upon the causes of suffering in our lives, but to answer why suffering happens in this world we have to go farther back, beyond 586 BCE, to the creation of the world.
I. Why is there suffering in the world?
Why would God create a world in which there is so much suffering and hardship? It seems cruel. Of course, God did not. God looked at all that he had created and “he saw that it was very good.” One of those good things he did was grant us free will. The freedom to love him, which meant also the freedom to disobey him. And so…
- The world is broken
Gen. 3:6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Think about the rest of Gen. 3 – God curses the serpent and the woman and the man. That whole “I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing” and “yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” was a curse. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. Yes, woman and man were created for each other and to be in a relationship together, but in harmony, love, mutual desire. Or when God tells man, “cursed is the ground because of you … 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you” and never forget, “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a curse. This world was supposed to yield its fruit.
We live in a broken world. That is why we suffer, that is why some pregnancies never result in healthy births, children die of blood infections, and evil people manipulate the world to their own gain and the destruction of others.
But why do we suffer?
You heard the Gospel, if we but have faith! And we have all heard some preachers say that, if we are Christians, following Christ and loving God, we will never suffer. Rather we will flourish with health and wealth!
But we do, all of us, we suffer and those around us suffer as well the faithful and the atheist alike (and so too do many prosper, faithful and atheist alike).
Eccl. 9:1 Everything that confronts them 2 is vanity, since the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to those who sacrifice and those who do not sacrifice.
II. Why do we suffer?
Scripture teaches us that there are three reasons why we might suffer hardship and loss. It could be that it is sent from God as punishment or the world attacking us for our faith. And it could be…well, we suffer simply because we live in a broken world. Looking quickly at each of these, beginning with punishment.
Sin: Certainly the Bible does teach us that there are consequences for our sins.
Deut 28:15 But if you will not obey the LORD your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…
This is the covenant that God made with his people Israel. This is what Jeremiah warns King Zedekiah as Nebuchadnezzar approaches: Judah has sinned and so the Babylonians attack as the hand of God’s judgment. The poets of Lamentation acknowledge this, but still ask God, how could it be?
1:5 Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions;
So while the poet insists that the active hand of Jerusalem’s destruction is the Lord’s, he also states that this was not how God intended to treat his people. In chapter 3, just beyond the portion we sang together, the poet says,
Lam. 3: 31 For the Lord will not
32 Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
33 for he does not willingly afflict
or grieve anyone.
There we have what would seem to be a clear-cut argument: we sin and we suffer as God punishes us. But it is not God’s plan for us to suffer, he does not willingly afflict us, but we sometimes bring it upon ourselves.
Persecution: But is “suffering God’s plan for us” as I have read in several theologies? Well, yes and no.
1:29 “For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well.”
5:3 “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance…”
It is vital to note that this sort of suffering comes from our commitment to Christ. What Paul and Jesus are talking about is when we are persecuted because of our faith. For most of us in the West that rarely happens. Our Syrian and Sudanese brothers and sisters, however, live with this every day. It is possible, and I want to encourage you if this is your situation, that in spite of all our comforts and securities in the US that you have felt persecuted and have suffered for your faith. Perhaps you have lost a job or had a boyfriend or girlfriend dump you because you would not compromise your faith. I commend you for that and do not want to minimize the impact that can have on our lives.
In the first century though, Paul is writing from JAIL to others who might be jailed or killed for believing in Christ. And today thousands continue to risk and give their lives rather than compromise their faith. THEY ARE SUFFERING FOR AND WITH CHRIST.
Unmerited suffering: But when your child dies or your mother is diagnosed with cancer, we should not say that this “suffering is God’s will for us.” This is suffering that comes because we live in a broken world.
This sort of unmerited suffering, where there can be no direct line drawn from a particular sin leading to a specific punishment, is due to the global impact of sin on the world. This is the sort of suffering that I think poses the greatest challenge to our faith because it feels so inexplicable and it is so pervasive and we feel so helpless.
So it could be that we have sinned. It could be that we are being persecuted because of our faith. Or it could just be…
Consider Job. Not the introduction with God allowing Satan to test Job, remember, Job knows NOTHING about that. Think about God’s response to Job: I am God, you are not. Job never knew why.
We want answers. It is in our nature. But so often we do not know the whys or the purpose. When it is clear it can help us to understand how to move forward, reflection, confession, is important and necessary. But we need to be careful that we do not allow ourselves to get trapped in a vicious cycle, to go down a dark corridor trying to find what we did “to deserve this.” Don’t fall into that pious trap. Some things we simply won’t know.
III. What is our response?
We may try and find some pattern or purpose in our suffering as a means of alleviating our pain, but that is not the normal order. I am not suggesting that God may not or could not intervene or guide history even with regard to suffering; clearly I believe he did most emphatically with the sending of his Son to suffer and die for us. But day in and day out the world turns, people get sick, they suffer, they die, we mourn and it happens to all the same.
We do a great injustice to God’s grace and mercy when we try to explain Mack’s death or your sister’s cancer as part of some grand manipulative plan. As we make our way outside of the Garden’s Gates, the presence of God is found not in the infliction of our suffering, but in the grace and peace to bear it.
The biblical view of the world is that it is broken and full of suffering and pain. Vanity, all is vanity! But that is not the totality of the biblical world-view. Because when God expelled humanity from the Garden he did not abandon us. He stepped in, time and again, God stepped in.
So we find in Scripture words of encouragement and hope as well as models for bearing up under the weight of this world, even while we wait expectantly for the world to come.
I know Father Travis and David Madiera have been taking you all through a study of the Psalms. A few weeks ago Fr. Travis encouraged us to recognize that the psalms grow out of real life events and he also encouraged us to “pray the psalms.” I would add only that we should also make our own psalms.
Most who study the psalms are surprised to find that more than a third of the psalms are what we call psalms of lament. Like the Book of Lamentations, these psalms are astonishingly forthright and even (seemingly) offensive. These psalms not only offer us models for when we are struggling and in pain they give us permission to talk back to God in our grief and pain.
When the doctors of the ER decided that Mack needed to be sent to a hospital with greater facilities, they flew him in the Life Lion helicopter to Penn State Hershey Medical Center, a two-hour drive away. Elizabeth and I arrived sometime after midnight. The chaplain met us and took us to a “quiet room.” I had done my “clinical pastoral education” and I knew what that meant. We waited for the doctor to come and officially tell us that Mack had not made it, he had died on the helicopter. At that moment and over the next few hours, unbidden to my mind came the opening words of Psalm 22. I actually never said it aloud, though I wanted to scream them, because I didn’t want the minister to think I was “overly dramatic” or some such silly notion. How can we be over dramatic about our child’s death? But consider the words.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
3 Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.
Again, I want to point out that one of the most powerful things the psalms provide for us is the permission to be honest with God, to speak openly of our grief and pain. It is surprising how often I have heard and read of Christians advising other Christians that we are to “suffer in silence” all that God sends upon us. Certainly the psalmist did not!
When you look at the psalms of lament you find that they all have the same elements: an Address or Cry to God; the Lament/Complaint; Confession of trust; Invocation to God – do this!; Vow or Praise of God.
This is not just a literary device; it is a healthy model for own journey through grief. Cry to God, Lament, Confess our faith, call God to action, and praise God.
So our response to hardship and grief does not need to be pious silence, but outrage and anger are acceptable! God is big enough; he can handle our frustration and bitterness. Most importantly of all, God wants us to be honest with him, he wants all of us including our pain, and he wants to be present with us in our suffering.
Returning again to the Book of Lamentations. If Christians know Lamentations at all, as I suggested earlier, it is chapter 3 with its wonderfully affirming and uplifting central verses:
Lam. 3:21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
But before you get to THAT you go through chapters 1 and 2!
Lam. 2:22 You invited my enemies from all around
as if for a day of festival;
and on the day of the anger of the LORD
no one escaped or survived;
those whom I bore and reared
my enemy has destroyed.
There are some commentators who have suggested that the harsh language of Lamentations, calling God so directly to account for the tragedy that has befallen them, is evidence of a growing atheism, a disbelief in God. No! Far from it! They affirm God’s presence even in the midst of their suffering. I cannot think of a more faithful statement that this.
This is the faith that Jesus calls us to, to walk with him and allow him to walk with us through this broken and hurting world. The disciples wanted signs and wonders; Jesus counters, if that is what we needed then we could toss this tree into the sea. The faith we need, the faith Jesus calls us to is to serve God, to give our lives for his Kingdom even as he gave his life for us. We serve God even in our grief, even as God saves us from our sorrows.
The Lutheran pastor the Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman makes this point beautifully. “The journey of grief [is] never easy. But it [is] faithful. That is, it [is] full of faith. It [is] full of trust in the one who has known grief and death himself.”
In a moment we will affirm our faith: that God created a perfect world to be in perfect union with us, that in spite of our sin that brought pain and death into this world, his perfect Son came to die for us and in so doing has brought an end to death, and that we too shall be raised to eternal life in Him. This is the Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Christ.