September 18, 2016
There was a choice of psalms today. One was Psalm 113 - a very pretty psalm, full of joy and promise and thanks and praise for God. And then there was Psalm 79, the one we read a little bit ago. You might have noticed that it was not so pretty and joyful. It was full of anger and pain and violence and questioning. Our tradition at St. Aidan’s is that the preacher gets to pick if there is a choice of readings. No question! I told Eileen “definitely Psalm 113 - the other one is dreadful!”
And then I started delving into our reading from Jeremiah. Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” He was teaching and preaching during a time when the Israelites were in exile. Their enemies were destroying them. They were far from the security of Jerusalem and the majesty of the temple and they were constantly tempted to give up on God and each other.
And so our reading is heavy. Painfully oozing with the suffering of the people of God. The suffering of the prophet Jeremiah. And the suffering of God. This reading is a lament, through and through.
Hear pieces from a modern translation: “I drown in grief…. I’m heartsick…. I weep, seized by grief…. Why can’t something be done…? I wish my head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so I could weep day and night….”
This week I gathered with some friends that hadn’t been together for a while. As we caught up, there was a lot of joy to share — summer vacations, kid stories, exciting things happening at work, good spiritual growth, but what struck me more was the hardship, the sadness. Someone in the process of adoption and waiting heartsick to be approved to gather their matched child. Someone dealing with a particularly ugly divorce and the ensuing child tug-of-war. Someone dealing with job loss and the existential questions of vocation and worth. Someone coping with a child’s anxiety over too many transitions. Someone feeling roles reversed as they are faced with care of a suddenly ailing parent, and another coping with the huge hole left by the loss of a parent. All of us looked so put together, and yet right there, simmering at a low boil just under the surface, was so much heartache.
And that doesn’t even begin to touch all the reasons for grief and suffering in the larger world. Endless wars and refugee crises. Horrifying acts of extremist terrorism and gun violence. Natural disasters and global warming. Racial and political divisiveness. Poverty and over-incarceration, addiction and mental illness. Every day the world groans and the people cry. It is all so big and so impossible.
And so, as hard as they are to read, as hard as they are to hear, sometimes the lament readings like Jeremiah and the angry, questioning psalms like Psalm 79 are exactly where we are and the only thing that makes sense. We need to know that we can shout out at God with our anger and disappointment and questions. We need to know that God hears our cries and our despair. And maybe most important of all we need to recognize that God’s despair and anger joins our own.
I don’t think lament is usually our first instinct, though.
This summer my daughter Sophia was reading one of those popular dystopian series. One of the ones where the whole world as we know it has fallen apart and we see some small group (usually of young people) trying to reach for a better world. I’d been hearing a lot about this series, called Divergent, and so I read the books too. The construct is that society has so destroyed itself that it has decided that the only way to safely go forward is to group everyone into five factions that they live, eat, and work with and pledge their allegiance to. But I think these 5 factions might also represent ways that we deal with the pain and grief in our lives and in our world.
There is Erudite, the group that believes that knowledge is everything. Anytime there is a problem, they work to understand it using facts and figures and brainpower. If faced with pain we hear in our reading from Jeremiah, Erudite would investigate the causes, debate the theology, and not rest until they found a satisfactory answer.
Then there is Amity, the group that believes in happiness and peace above all. Anytime there is a problem, they sing songs and smile. Amity would have avoided Jeremiah and picked the happy psalm to read this morning.
There is Candor, who believe in truth above all. Whenever something goes wrong, are sure to loudly assign blame to all responsible parties. Candor wouldn’t hesitate to let Jeremiah, God and the people know exactly where they all went wrong.
And there is Abnegation, the passive group that selflessly denies themselves to serve others. They wouldn’t want to “burden” someone else with their sorrow and pain. Abnegation would suggest the people of God make themselves so busy that they had no time to feel.
And finally there is Dauntless, always brave in the face of any danger. If the people of God were Dauntless, they would either assert themselves too strong to suffer, or would walk headlong into their suffering to get as quickly as possible to the other side.
I’m sure we’ve found ourselves inside all of those factions at some time or another. And there is a time and place for all of those approaches. But in the hardest of times, sometimes we just need to lament. Sometimes we just need to cry or scream or pound things. Sometimes we just need to grieve. And Jeremiah is a model of how to do that.
In Jeremiah, the people despair their impending doom and question God’s presence. Jeremiah sees the wounded people and feels powerless. God grieves the unfaithfulness of the people, and that it has all come to this. Everyone laments, everyone cries, everyone is heartbroken.
They are full of questions, just as we are in the midst of suffering. Why did this happen? How could You, God, let this happen? What kind of future can we possibly have now? Their questions are raw and honest. This is what we humans do when we struggle with loss and heartache. And there seem to be no answers, no easy fixes. All that can be done is to weep over the wrongness of the world. But as Elie Wiesel explained in Night, his book about the Holocaust, “every question possesses a power that is lost in the answer.” Our anguished questions show that we care enough to take what feels unfair and unjust to God. That we long for a time when the wrongs are righted, every tear wiped away. Our lament - our unsilenced grief - our wrestling with God - our demand for answers even when we know there aren’t answers to be had - those are acts of faith in this broken, in-between, world. We don’t need to edit our anguish before God. Lament is a spiritual practice just as surely as contemplative prayer or labyrinth walking .
Jeremiah is hard to read because there is so much angst and no closure, no neat happy ending. But it is also promising, not just in it’s welcome of our honest grief before God, but in the inclusion of God’s voice in the chorus of grief.
It’s very hard to tell in this reading which heartbroken questions and cries of anguish come from the people and which come from the prophet Jeremiah and which come from God. God identifies so closely with the people, loves them so much, that their wounds, their brokenness, are God’s wounds, God’s brokenness. The longing of the prophet and the people for healing and peace are also the longing of God. God is present in their suffering, even as they feel themselves God-forsaken.
When you find yourself, as we all will in this imperfect world, heartsick, drowning in grief, wishing your head were a well of water and my eyes fountains of tears so you could weep day and night, try joining your voice with those of Jeremiah and the Israelites and bring your lament to God. Not only can God take it, but you might hear God’s own lament echoing through the universe. Amen.