What Do We Have to Give to a Broken World? October 6, 2013 Lamentations 1:1-6; 3:19-24 Psalm 137:1-4 Habakkuk 1:1-4 I On Friday, I received an email of lament. This is how it began: “I am seeking justice from a horrific custody battle over my 6-year old daughter that has been going on since 2008.” As I read the rest of that little girl’s story, I immediately named it an injustice. I can proclaim what is unjust about it until the cows come home. But my voice will fall on deaf ears. It brought to mind a conversation I had a few years ago with an 11-year old boy in a similar circumstance, and how I felt when he said, “Why should I tell you anything? You can’t protect me.” And he was right. We couldn’t. And we didn’t. Making justice is not always easy. Making justice feels nearly impossible at times. And the most frustrating reality is that what we do to make justice is far more daunting and dangerous than what we say about it. Yes, we must speak justice. We must think justice and believe in justice. But God has called us to make justice. And as justice-makers, we ought to be asking ourselves: what do we have to give to a broken world? The author of Lamentations might have asked himself that very question. Traditionally thought to be Jeremiah, he writes these Lamentations of grief not as Preacher Jeremiah or as the Prophet Jeremiah. He writes as a survivor. It is as if Jeremiah says, “Let the emotions flow from me, O God. Let me record these vivid and horrible images of war and destruction. Let me write as part of a people immersed in suffering.” Jeremiah might have said, “The hearts of my people are broken together in communal mourning. Is there no balm in Gilead?” Jeremiah might have said: “I find no rod and staff in the midst of this shadow. I walk through a vale of tears with my people, as a fellow victim.” How difficult it must have been for Jeremiah to believe that God did not just permit the destruction or allow the devastation, but God made it happen! Jeremiah confesses just that in verse 5, “The Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions.” Jeremiah’s people had rebelled against their sacred covenant with God. There you have it! The scripture text that falls on this day is one that preachers want to run away from. I admit that freely and honestly. We don’t really want to think about our own covenant with God and the ways we break that covenant. It’s downright uncomfortable! But could it be that God would have us sit with these lamentations and find within these verses how to address, with God’s anointing, the unspeakable oppression that goes on in our own world? So much for easier theologies of prosperity, sermons of praise, elations of joy. Today is not the day for that if we want to hear about the trauma of sixth century Judah and the trauma so prevalent today. Jeremiah’s world had what we might diagnose as post traumatic stress after Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army stripped them of all that held meaning for them – their holy city, the promised land, the temple. All of it – GONE! Jeremiah is weeping over a Jerusalem broken down. And the people of Judah experienced this terrible time not so much as individuals, but as a communal event, a little bit like new York City suffered on September 11 and the days following. So what happened exactly?
The Babylonian army laid siege to Jerusalem for 18 full months, and the people suffered, not only the losses of the war. They also suffered because they believed they had been utterly rejected by God. Through these lamentations, Jeremiah is trying to speak the pain of his homeland. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks. The roads to Zion mourn! All her gates are desolate.” Now, understand this: for over 40 years, Jeremiah had prophesied of this coming judgment from God and was scorned by the people for preaching such bad stuff. When that judgment came through what we might call “a real whooping.” Jeremiah could have simply said, “I told you so!” The Prophet Habakkuk told them so, too, even before the time of Jeremiah’s prophecy. “O Lord, How long shall I Cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ and you will not save.” Habakkuk looked at the violence and injustice around him. He wondered where God was. “How long shall I cry for help, Lord, and you will not listen?” Destruction and violence, strife and contention. The law is powerless and justice never prevails. Habakkuk sees sin everywhere, from personal relationships to courts of law, and this distresses him so much that he is crying out to God, asking God to go ahead and send forth the judgment. II We can look around us and see the same kinds of injustice. We talk about injustice every week. How can our world so oppress the poor and disenfranchised? How can our world forget victims of violence? How can our courts fail to listen to the cries of abused children? How can we have the modern day slavery of human trafficking here in our own state? How can we continually shut our ears to the cries of those who suffer depression and other mental illnesses? And what about the oppression of a government that puts 800,000 government employees out of work, allows over a million more to work without pay, and cuts assistance programs that poor people depend on? Have you read the statistics in today’s worship bulletin?
Arkansas is among the states with the highest rate of depression.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
The number one killer of African-American women ages 15 to 34 is homicide at the hands of a current or former intimate partner.
One in 4 women in any given congregation this morning has suffered domestic violence.
60 to 70% of men who abuse their wives also abuse their children.
Of all boys aged 11-20 who are arrested for murder, 63% have killed the man who was abusing their mother.
What do we have to give to a broken world? We mourned on September 11th. We mourned with Newtown, Virginia Tech, Waco, Aurora, Lancaster County, Columbine, the Washington Navy Yard. The list could go on and on, and that’s just in this country. Shall we just sit down and weep by the waters of Babylon, as the Psalmist writes, hang up our harps in the willows and refuse to sing? Did you hear the proclamation of the hymn writer? “Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God. Then let our songs abound and every tear be dry.” There is a way to sing in the midst of sorrow, but the only way to get through traumatic events is to mourn them within community, surrounded by a community of faith. It is in that kind of honest mourning before God that we find the strength and courage to move forward together.
III In 1979, I had an unforgettable experience in Uganda, East Africa. My husband and I worshiped at St. Andrew's Anglican Church just months after the tyrant dictator Idi Amin was deposed. For eight long years, Idi Amin’s army slaughtered more than 500,000 Ugandans and before the siege ended more than 1 million Ugandans had lost their lives. Ministering in that country so filled with grief and loss, the Rev. Augustine Kamira quoted poignant words from each chapter of Lamentations in that morning worship service: “Her gates are desolate. Her priests groan. Her young girls grieve.” (1:4) The elders are gone from the city gate; the young men have stopped their music. Joy is gone from our hearts; our dancing has turned to mourning.” (5:14) How accurately those words in Lamentations described the grief of Uganda's people. We had seen first hand how Idi Amin had devastated their land. The country was filled with thousands of widows and orphans. The villages had no water, with water wells destroyed by war. Roads and buildings were lying in ruins. Schools had been destroyed. Nearly every church was burned. Now Idi Amin was gone, but the people lived with the devastation, and a terrible occupation by the violent Tanzanian Army. So in the worship service that day, the people literally cried out in anguish, weeping uncontrollably. They prayed with an urgency I had never seen before, looking for some glimpse of hope. “Our dancing truly has turned to mourning,” one of the worshippers cried out loud. “Grief has taken the place of our dances.” And then it began . . . One by one, the people began to share their pain and loss with one another from the front of the church to the back. I lost four of my children. My entire village was slaughtered. We have no food or water. Amin’s Army has killed all the beautiful animals of our country. It seemed that the shadow of death had permeated their very existence, and I watched as they grieved, not so much individually, but as one community that had lost everything of value in their country. Suddenly I heard one voice above all the others ... singing. One by one, others joined their voices with hers, and music filled the room with an unbridled sense of hope that proclaimed the existence of a God who could transform lamentation into celebration. And all who heard the music also heard the Good News announcing that beyond the night of their present despair, they would see the breaking of day. That God’s faithfulness is true and God’s mercies never end. Their music emerged directly out of their broken hearts, rising above the pain to the heart of God. And then they began to dance, all over the building, they began to dance in praise to a God of hope “Dance then wherever you may be,” they sang. “I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be and I’ll lead you on in the dance, said he.” Imagine with me for just a few moments the sight of the people singing their hearts out and dancing in every aisle in that sanctuary . . . Their song proclaimed a God of grace who comes to us when we feel as if we might mourn forever, a God who helps us heal the wounds we thought could never heal, a God who restores to us life's inexpressible joy just when we thought we could never make music again.
IV Jeremiah stood in the middle of a smoldering heap of rubble. He had seen the whole thing unfold. And as he surveys all that is around him, he is reduced to tears: “My eyes flow day and night with never-ending streams of tears because of the destruction of my people.” Then in the third chapter, Jeremiah speaks of the most tragic part of the whole ordeal. He speaks of the absence of God, or at least the silence of God. “Though I call and cry out for help, he shuts out my prayer.” (3:8) God’s voice, in fact, is completely silent throughout Lamentations. Even Job in his time of grief finally receives a reply from God. But God is silent in Lamentations. Yet, rising up from the depth of despondency, we hear these amazing words from Jeremiah: “In spite of everything I have just said, in spite of the horror I see before me.” “This I call to mind and therefore I have hope,” Jeremiah proclaims. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never end, they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness! The Lord is my portion, says my soul, therefore I will trust in him.” How in the world does he say that? How in the world does he truly believe that? What force can possibly bring such faith out of such deep lament? The Answer is Community, Memory and Hope. The people of Israel told and retold the stories of God’s mighty acts in their history. They lived in community between memory and hope – the memory of all that God had done, and the hope that God would do it again. They celebrated feasts and festivals recalling those mighty acts, much like we will do today as we remember the Lord’s Supper. They gathered in community and they remembered. And in their remembering, in their stories, they found a hope that was stronger than the death that reigned all around them. V A children’s ballet based on a poem by Owen Dodson portrays such a journey of community, memory and hope. The children dance, moving toward the land of promise. At times they seem lost. As they dance through days of fear, they tell stories that remind them of who they are, of their power to survive, and of the reason they are traveling together. Finally, they glimpse the “land of promise,” but realize that a huge chasm separates them from the land. The more they look at the danger of crossing the abyss, the more fearful they become. So what do they do? They gather together as a community and re-tell their story. The story gives them courage. Suddenly, one of them leaps into the air. As the child leaps, she reaches forward with all her might toward the land of promise and she reaches back, in an act of solidarity, to grasp the hand of a brother. He follows her example, holding on to her hand and reaching back to clasp the hand of a sister to take with him across the chasm. The stage explodes with a human chain leaping over the chasm.
But tragedy interrupts the celebration. As the last person prepares for the leap, she puts down her baby in order to get a firm grip on the child. The momentum of the human chain reaches her before she’s ready. Someone grasps her hand, and before she can pick up her child, she is taken across. Her child is left alone, crying, on the other side. The little child wanders in great fear toward the edge of the chasm. The community calls to her. They call her by name. At the edge of the deep gorge, they again tell her their story and encourage her to leap. Courage and confidence well up inside the little girl. Empowered by her people, she leaps into the air, across the chasm, and into the arms of the waiting community. Community enables us to sing and dance. No matter how deeply we mourn, how deep a chasm we must cross, we have the courage to take dangerous leaps of faith when we join hands and walk together as one people, when we are the people of God empowering one another. What do we have to give to a broken world? We have a God who turns our mourning into dancing and we have the strength of community. On occasion, God calls one individual to do great things. But God always calls the community of faith to do great things! New Millennium, God has called us to do great things in this broken world! We are a community of God’s People. The spirit of the Lord is upon us. And we are anointed as justice-makers to bring good news to the oppressed. To speak it, to sing it, to dance it in the name of the precious Lord who takes our hand and leads us on the journey, even when we feel tired, weak and worn out! Together we will bind up the brokenhearted and give them the Balm in Gilead. We will comfort all who mourn . . . We will give them the oil of gladness instead of mourning. a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” That’s what we have to give to a broken world. Let’s do it together. Amen.