Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; Luke 17:5-10
There are times in our lives when lament is the only response possible.
There are seasons in communities and nations when corporate lament erupts. The words from Lamentations and Psalm 137 resonate as I write this week in the wake of more death, violence and suffering. Bitter weeping, groaning priests, young girls grieving – these images are all too relevant in Tulsa and Charlotte and Syria and Yemen and… and… and. How lonely sits the city that once was full of people. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals. Jerusalem has been destroyed and the people are exiled.
The author of the introduction to Lamentations in my study Bible writes, “Lamentations is first and foremost an eloquent expression of grief that helped survivors come to terms with the historical calamity they had gone through.” Perhaps this is the Sunday, then, to preach from it. The prophets were right. Sin has painful consequences. Exploitation, injustice, cruelty, self-centeredness and unmitigated greed won’t go unchecked forever. The answer to Langston Hughes’ question about what happens to a dream deferred is being answered. Hughes knew his question was a rhetorical one; how could we have been so naïve as to think it wasn’t?
We find it hard to read Jeremiah and Lamentations and Hosea and Amos and Micah or any part of the biblical record that proclaims God’s punishment for our blatant disregard for God’s commandments. We stop at Micah 6:8 and never go on to read verses 9-16. We have “do justice, and love kindness and walk humbly” on the back of our mission trip T-shirts, but we don’t acknowledge the context of that poetic admonition. Here is a taste of what we ignore: “Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights? Your wealthy are full of violence; your inhabitants speak lies, with tongues of deceit in their mounts. Therefore, I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins.” We don’t cross-stitch that and hang it on the walls of our offices or homes.
We gloss over God’s relentless cries for justice for the widow, the orphan, the foreigner. We forget the unbreakable connection between worship and justice. We are deaf to the cry of the Lord voiced by the prophet Amos, the one that says God hates our religious feasts, our offerings, our songs of praise when they are uncoupled from justice for the weak, the oppressed and the vulnerable.
God’s dream deferred explodes and we are surprised, baffled, outraged by the chaos, the desolation, the anger, because we put what was required on the back of our church T-shirts, patted ourselves on the back for good words done, while ignoring the unbalanced scales that benefit many of us at the expense of others.
The time to lament is upon us. Priests should groan. Bitter weeping is appropriate. Too many fatherless, motherless, brotherless young girls are grieving. We need to read the verses from Lamentations with contrite hearts and an honesty that not only cries, “How long, O Lord?” – but also confesses, “For too long, O Lord, we ignored your pleas on behalf of the oppressed.”
We have to begin where the lectionary takes us this week: with lament, groans of despair for what we’ve done and left undone and what has come to pass as a result. We have to remember the words of the prophets, recognize how we laughed at them, realize they were right and weep.
We start this Sunday sitting by the rivers of Babylon, our harps silenced, our tongues clinging to the roofs of our mouths, our spirits broken. We start there, but we don’t remain there forever.
The text from Luke compels us to get up from under the weeping willow and start moving mulberry trees. We need to stand up and ask the Lord to increase our faith. We must declare, “I believe! Help my unbelief.” As we look around the desolate cities and groan, we must look back and remember – not the good old days that were good for very few, but remember who we are and whose we are. We need to remember what Jesus told and taught. We need to remember the law and the prophets, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. We need to remember the source of our power and the nature of our place.
These sayings in Luke 17 remind us that we are given the power to effect change. We are not helpless. We are not destined to keep doing what we’ve always done. We are not caught up in a current that is too strong for us to swim against. We can balance the scales. We have the gift of faith, which in turn gives us the power to uproot trees, even the ones we’ve sat and wept under for a very long time.
We are called to claim the faith that gives us the power to undam the justice that God wants to roll down like water. We not only are called to claim that faith and use that power, we are obligated to do so. That is our proper place, to serve, to follow, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God, the One who holds us accountable but also has mercy.
The larger context of the judgment of the prophets is the assurance of God’s desire to forgive. Lamentations ends with a hope of restoration, but not a confidence that restoration is certain. The last verse reads, “Restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old – unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.” Micah ends like this, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency.” The last words of the Risen Christ in Luke are these, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promises; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Beginning in Jerusalem, that once desolate and destructed city, repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed. What the Father has promised will be fulfilled. Love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. God’s justice and mercy have come together on the cross and reconciliation has prevailed through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s dream might be deferred but it will not be thwarted. May we have faith, even faith the size of a mustard seed, to participate in making God’s dreams our own.
- “We have done only what we ought to have done.” What is it that we ought to be doing, right now, where we are?
- This text from Luke uses the term “apostles” rather than “disciples.” Do you think this matters? What’s the difference between the two terms?
- What is it that you lament in your life or in our world? How do we move from lament to hope? Can both exist simultaneously?
- When is the admonition to “just have faith” unhelpful or even hurtful?
- Look up psalms of lament, both individual and corporate, and use them in your devotions this week. What themes do you notice? How does reading these shape your prayer?
- Look in the topic index of “Glory to God” under “Grief” and also “Lament and Longing for Healing.” Choose a hymn or two and use them as prayers this week.
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