Category Archives: Lament

A God who laments

I had already written this sermon on Lament before the horror of Christchurch on Friday. We heard the statement from the President of the Uniting Church and prayed together; but I left the sermon unchanged apart from one small paragraph.

Reading
Luke 13.31–35

Lament is a complex language of complaint, protest, and appeal directed to God. At times, lament may be subdued in tone as a poet wrestles with trouble; at other times, lament may be as loud and vigorous as any praise song.… laments share one commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain. — Glenn Pemberton, Hurting with God, p.30

…the merciful humility of God [is] the most powerful force imaginable. — Jane Williams, The Merciful Humility of God.

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Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. He’s already told the disciples why, though they will not listen:

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands. But they did not understand this saying… (Luke 9.44–45a)

Jesus is going to the last great confrontation with the powers that be, a confrontation that ends with his death. 

In his mind’s eye Jesus sees Jerusalem, and he laments over the city: 

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!

We can say that a lament is a faithful expression of grief. In lament, we ask for God’s help. We know things should be different, we want God’s justice. We may even accuse God, like the Psalm 77 (verses 8–10): 

Has [God’s] steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?

And I say, ‘It is my grief
that the right hand of the Most High
  has changed.’

Here, Jesus is continuing this tradition of lament. He is pouring his heart out to God. Why does Jerusalem, the home of God’s great Temple, turn its back on God’s prophets? 

Jesus wants to embrace the people of Jerusalem as a mother hen embraces her chicks under her wings. In this queer imagery, Jesus shows what is in his heart: it is the salvation of Jerusalem. Jesus loves the people as a mother loves her children. 

And Jesus will do whatever is needed to protect her children. 

Jesus laments for Jerusalem. Jesus grieves, all the more so because Jesus knows just what Jerusalem needs: to welcome God into their midst. 

Anyone who laments is aware of their powerlessness. We have grieved over the boys and girls who suffered abuse at the hands of ministers and priests, and not only in the Catholic Church. We have grieved the choice of the special conference of the United Methodist Church in the USA to turn its back on its queer members. We have grieved because we care for the people involved; because we want a safe church; because we want an inclusive church; because we are powerless to bring it about ourselves. 

Most recently, we have grieved over the horror of Muslim believers killed while at prayer in Christchurch. We have asked ‘How long, O God?’

Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? But surely God is almighty, not powerless? Couldn’t almighty God just fix things like *that*? And if God can fix everything but doesn’t, what good is God? 

What do you think about that?

I ask this question about God because the New Testament says things like this about the risen Jesus:

…the full content of divine nature lives in Christ, in his humanity… (Colossians 2.9 GNB)

Christ ‘is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…’ (Hebrews 1.3)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.… And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1.1, 14)

In Jesus, in his humanity, we are met by ‘the full content of divine nature’. Do you want to know what God is like? Look at Jesus. ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. Why, then, do you say, “Show us the Father”?’ (John 14.9)

So, that question again: Jesus laments—but what about God? Does God lament? 

There are plenty of people with a pagan idea of the Christian God: that is, the central thing about God is that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-seeing. Oh, apart from that, and reassuringly, God does love us.

Yet perhaps the most profound statement about God in the scriptures is found in 1 John 4.16: ‘God is love’. 

That’s the first thing and the last thing we should ever say about God. Can God do anything? No! God cannot act against God’s nature. God is love—God cannot be unloving. 

So the way forward for Jesus is the way of love. Not to gather an army together. Not to plot and scheme. The Way of Jesus is the Way of Self-giving Love. 

So Jesus laments, and in Jesus God laments too. Is God almighty? Yes, if we are talking about the love of God. God is almighty in love, but love waits, loves serves, love gives and gives again to the beloved. And we, dear friends, are God’s beloved. 

A lot of people who say to me they can’t believe in God mean that pagan God, the all-powerful being who can slay, and punish, and put people in hell for eternity. Some parts of the Bible talk that way, but we see God in and through Jesus Christ. 

And anyway, I don’t believe in that pagan God either. 

The clear image of God our faith gives us is Jesus Christ. In him ‘the full content of divine nature lives…in his humanity’. 

We see God in the humanity of Jesus Christ. A God who loves to the end, who laments when God’s beloved turn away. A justice-bringing God, but only by the narrow way, the Way of self-giving love, the Way of the cross. 

One more thing to add, and it’s the end of Jesus’ lament. Jesus cries out,

I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’

‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’ Do you recognise that? We sing it every week: 

Blessed is the One who comes
  in the name of the Lord.
Hosanna in the highest.

We welcome Jesus as he comes to us in the Holy Meal of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion. 

Jesus (and we) are quoting Psalm 118.26:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

This psalm was a thanksgiving for a returning hero. But Jesus turns it upside down. When he comes to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, people are shouting these words; but Jesus is coming on a donkey, not a war horse. He is coming to the cross, which is the only throne he gets. He comes in peace. 

When we sing these words in church, we welcome Jesus into our hearts, we prepare to receive him in bread and wine. Not as a hero, but as the very love of God made flesh. We commit ourselves to follow his Way of self-giving love. 

And yes, we often grieve for the world that turns its back on the ways of peace, the ways of love, the Way of Christ. And we lament, keeping our hope in God, whose ‘almightiness’ is the Way of Jesus. Amen. 

 

West End Uniting Church, 17 March 2019

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Readings
1 Corinthians 12.12–31a
Luke 4.14–21

We held a long-planned service last week, and so held our Day of Mourning service today rather than last Sunday. In this service, we remember the truth of our history and honour the culture of Australia’s First Peoples, their families and the next generations.

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. — Martin Luther King, Letter from Birmingham Jail

In choosing this passage from Isaiah to read in his hometown synagogue, [Jesus] announces the year of the jubilee, that all-bets-are-off year described in detail in Leviticus 25. Debts forgiven, slaves freed, bad real-estate transactions redeemed—economic, agrarian, and even domestic life in the year of jubilee will be quite unlike life as most people live it, which is why scholars have had their doubts about whether the jubilee was ever actually observed in ancient Israel. — Feasting on the Gospels—Luke, Vol.1

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I’d like to make two brief comments today. The first is to quote St Paul:

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

We often talk about being church members, but I’m not sure we always get what St Paul meant. We’re not members of the church like being members of a book club or a knitting circle. 

We’re members of the church like being members of a body—the body of Christ. We don’t often use the word ‘member’ like that these days, but Paul is using the word ‘member’ to mean organs, or parts, of a body.

The closest we get these days is watching a grisly forensic pathology show on tv where someone ‘dismembers’ their victim. 

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

We do know that. I know what it’s like to have back problems, and when your back really hurts that’s all you can think about. Or if you have a really bad toothache, or you have a spot on your skin that’s looking like it’s changing. You tend to focus on that.

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

That’s an indication of how close we are to be in the church. You may not feel close to every single person to that degree, but it’s beyond sad when a member isn’t that close to anyone in the church. 

A lot of members of Christ’s body have suffered in our lifetimes. We can name asylum seekers, LGBTIQ people, or the First Peoples of this country. 

When they suffer, we all suffer. And the church does suffer, even if individuals within the church don’t care at all. The church suffers because it becomes known as a place where people don’t care. A house of hypocrisy.

The Uniting Aboriginal and Islander Christian Congress has done a great job of reminding us of what has been done to First Peoples; it has sought to exercise its own life and make its own decisions within the Uniting Church; it has invited us to go further in covenanting with them; it has challenged us to recognise continuing Indigenous sovereignty; and it has extended a gracious hand of forgiveness and fellowship to us as Second Peoples. Yet, 

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it…

Indigenous people have suffered since Europeans came to this land, and they continue to suffer.

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The Year of the Lord’s Favour

Reading

Isaiah 61.1–4, 8–11

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbour, does not yet understand them as he ought. — Augustine, On Christian Theology

The entire Biblical Scripture is solely concerned that man understand that God is kind and gracious to him and that He has publicly exhibited and demonstrated this His kindness to the whole human race through Christ his Son. However, it comes to us and is received by faith alone, and is manifested and demonstrated by love for our neighbour. — First Helvetic Confession, 1536

You have heard that it was said … but I say to you … — Jesus, The Sermon on the Mount

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse brought down its final report on Friday, after 4.5 years. The life of the churches has changed for good in the light of the Commission.

One survivor of child abuse said on Friday:

Care and compassion has already lifted tenfold. We need to make sure we keep people alive and in a good place, by making sure they’ve got the counselling care they need.

It has taken a royal commission to bring this care and compassion to this man, and no doubt to many others.

In our reading from Isaiah today, we heard these words:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me
to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;…

I think we can see who are the oppressed, brokenhearted ones are in this situation. It is the children who have become adults with burdens that were never lifted from their backs.

Jesus once placed a child in the midst of his disciples. The story is in Matthew 18:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me…”

The disciples hanker after greatness; Jesus shows them what greatness is in God’s eyes.

To be great is to take the place of a child, to embrace humility, to serve others. There is no other way; this is the way of the cross.

Time and time again, we have seen that the way church leaders took is another way altogether. It has been to protect their church’s good name, to keep their mouths closed, to disbelieve what they were told. Or they can’t remember anything about it.

The end result has been to deny care and compassion to the children in their care.

Perhaps I should read the next verse in Matthew18:

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.

It’s a grim warning.

The consequences for the churches are also grim. Many non-churchgoing Aussies have lost any faith they had in the church as a community in which the love of God is to be found. Our moral authority is at record lows.

What should be our response?

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The God who serves (Year B, 17 October 2015)

Readings
Job 38.1–11 (Psalm 104.1–9, 24, 35c)
Hebrews 5.1–10
Mark 10.35–45

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you… Job 42.5

Two weeks ago, we encountered Job whose whole world collapsed on one day. Not only did he lose his 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, and his servants; he also lost his seven sons and three daughters. And then he lost his health.

We saw that suffering is not a problem that can be solved, but that it may become an invitation to trust in God more and more. We also saw that there is no real answer to the question ‘Why me?’

Then last week, we saw that suffering can lead to lament; and that the question ‘Why me?’ is itself a lament. We also saw that lament is very common in the scriptures. 58 out of 150 psalms are laments. That’s over a third.

And we saw that lament in the Bible has a simple shape:

  1. We cry out to God in our distress;
  2. We remember God’s goodness and mercy;
  3. We hope in God once more; or at least, we hope to hope in God again.

Today, Job has done lamenting. He finally gets an audience with God.

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How long, O Lord? (11 October 2015, Year B)

Readings
Job 23.1–9, 16–17
Psalm 22
Mark 10.17–31

Then Jesus lamented: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”’ Mark 10.23

Last week, we spoke about suffering. We said that there is no real answer to the question ‘Why?’. There is something more to say though—not an answer to why bad things happen, but why we feel it so much when they do.

We feel the pain of suffering so much because we have a great hope that the world can be well. Our hope is ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done’. And when we look at the suffering in our world, we can see that God’s will is not being done ‘on earth as in heaven’. And those who hope for God to act can find that it brings confusion, sadness, grief, even anger.

Those who lack this hope may just shrug their shoulders and sigh in resignation. ‘What can we do about it?’ they ask.

Or they just try to have a good time, ignoring the pain that others endure.

Or they may even decide to turn a profit from the troubles of the world: after all, there’s plenty of money to be had by an unscrupulous operator.

Lament is the biblical approach to the pain of suffering. But it is an an unpopular message today.

Take Uniting in Worship 2; many of you know that I was one of its editors. It was published ten years ago this month, but really it should have been published a year earlier. One reason for the delay was that we were including prayers of lament as resources and making it possible to use lament in our services of worship.

Those who opposed us were adamant that a service of worship should begin with prayers or songs of adoration. To begin with lament was starting with ‘us’ and our needs; it should always start with God, they argued.

Since that time, our decision has been accepted, but partly, and sadly, because of a humanitarian disaster. The Boxing Day Tsunami flooded communities around the Indian Ocean, and Uniting Church congregations were crying out for the National Working Group on Worship to provide worship resources. So we put the resources that were going to be published onto our website and gave people free permission to use them. No one at any ‘official’ level of our Church has since argued that we shouldn’t use lament in our services.

Just as well, because that’s exactly what the Book of Psalms does.

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