Category Archives: Lament

All shall be well

Reading
Ezekiel 37.1–14

 

Katherine Amos asks a powerful Lenten question. ‘What can your spiritual dry bones teach you?’ What are the dry bones in the life of your spirit? Would you like for them to live again? Faced with the foreboding spectre of a valley of dead bones, I wonder if one of the prophet’s first responses to Spirit’s question, ‘Can these bones live?’ is, instinctively, ‘I certainly hope not!’ Who would these bones become? Friend or foe? — Jane Anne Ferguson, in Connections: Year A, Volume 2

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Our Old Testament Reading today brings us before a scene of utter desolation. 

Ezekiel takes us to a valley of dry bones. (You remember the song, Dem bones, dem bones them dry bones? It comes from this scene in the Bible.)

We are possibly at the scene of an old battle. Those who fell stayed where they were. No one buried their bodies. Perhaps there was no one left to take care of them; they were all dead, or fled. 

The victors left the bodies there as a warning to others. 

By the time Ezekiel sees them in a vision, they are just bleached bones. There’s no life in them. There’s no life possible. 

The bones are disconnected, separated, fallen apart. Disjointed. 

‘Can these bones live?’ God asks Ezekiel. Ezekiel isn’t sure how to answer, so he says, ‘O Lord GOD, you know’.

Clever move, Ezekiel; toss the ball back into God’s court. 

Ezekiel has bought himself some time, but there’s a definite trickle of sweat coming down his cheeks. He’s waiting for God’s next move. 

Ezekiel doesn’t have to wait long; God says, ‘Prophesy to these bones…’ (‽) 

Ok, Ezekiel is a prophet, but prophesy to bleached, dry bones? That’s kinda useless, don’t you think? 

But Ezekiel is a prophet, he’s been told to prophesy, so he does. He says,

Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the LORD.

God will bring life, the very life-giving spirit of God, to these bones. These defeated, abandoned, even godforsaken bones will once again be covered with flesh. 

We are not yet at the point of these dry bones. But we’re doing it tough. Queensland has closed its border. Some things will not survive this testing time. Yet new things will emerge. 

We’re trying to do ‘social distancing’. A terrible name. Why not call it ‘physical distancing’, and keep in contact with one another? We need to intentionally draw near to others during this pandemic, just as in Ezekiel’s vision where bones are knit together with sinews and flesh. We have the means to do this as no other age has had. 

The bones are knit together and clothed because life is God’s will for them. And life is God’s will for us too, today. 

I want to end this brief reflection with two things. Firstly, part of a beautiful poem called Pandemic. It is from Lynn Ungar, and was only published on 11 March this year: 

Know that we are connected in ways
that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has become clear.)

Has it become clear to you yet? I hope it is becoming clearer to you. Our lives are in one another’s hands. We are connected. To live as though we are not connected is madness. 

Secondly, a reminder of the fourteenth-century mystic, Julian of Norwich. She was the first woman to have written a book in English; her book is The Revelations of Divine Love. Famously, it contains these words: 

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and absolutely everything shall be well.

These words sound optimistic to us, even Pollyanna-ish. But we should be aware of this: Julian didn’t live in an easy time. She lived in a time of various plagues. In her home city of Norwich, when she was a little girl, 7000 out of 12000 people died of the Black Death. Twenty years later, a further 25% of the reduced population died in another pandemic. 

Yet her hope in God remained: 

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and absolutely everything shall be well.

God desires life for us. God wants to clothe our dry, bleached bones with living flesh. 

Can we too learn the truth of this? Only as we trust in the God of all grace, who pitched his tent among us in Jesus Christ and who calls us to become — in the fullest way possible — children of God. 

Streamed from West End Uniting Church 29 March 2020

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Filed under Grief and loss, Lament, RCL, reflection, sermon

From the depths

Reading
Psalm 130

1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
2 Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!
For with the LORD there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.

 

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath―
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

― Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

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Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord …

The psalm writer is in deep water. He has nowhere to stand, no firm footing. 

He’s out of his depth. He’s overwhelmed by the waters, in danger of drowning. 

Ancient Israel feared the sea; in creating the earth, God had to bring the primeval depths under control. [Genesis 1.1-3] 

The waters overwhelmed the earth in the great flood of Noah, and Jonah was cast into the sea’s depths. The sea was the home of giant monsters like Leviathan. 

The Sea of Galilee was sea enough for them. 

Today, we may think we have found pretty safe ways of navigating the seas, but we have our own fears. The Coronavirus pandemic has us bunkering down, anxious lest we come too close to someone carrying the virus or if we touch a surface on which the virus lurks. 

In the depths, the psalmist finds a place to stand. It is in ‘waiting for the Lord’. That isn’t doing nothing, it’s watching, peering, searching: 

my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning …

The psalm writer expects God to shine light onto his life, to act for him. 

Beyond all the necessary warning about physical distancing and washing our hands, we need hope. Hope in God, who we see in the face of Jesus:

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities

It’s time to hope, to simplify, to learn how to wait. 

as Lynn Ungar’s poem above puts it, 

Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.

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Psalm 130 is a Lament Psalm. Laments typically begin with a complaint; then they remember what God has done, and finish with renewed hope in God. 

U2 sings ‘40’, based on another lament psalm, Psalm 40:

https://youtu.be/3z_LBNF_-xI

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No foreign land

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 6.23.07 pm

A weeping angel, but not from Dr Who: part of a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, showing that even the angels weep at the death of Jesus.

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Thirty-odd years ago, Karen and I were living over in Granville St. An elderly Greek couple lived across the road, and we were aware that the husband was very ill. 

In the early hours of the morning, while it was still dark, a great wailing began in their house. It woke us up. We looked at each other; we knew his end had come. When it was light, we went across the road to offer our condolences and were welcomed inside. The house was packed full of people. We didn’t know any of them, and none of the conversation was in English. Everyone but us seemed to know what to do. We had a drink and nibbled on something, sat there for what seemed a long time (but really wasn’t) feeling useless and uncomfortable, and then said our goodbyes.

We tend to be uncomfortable with grief, and unschooled in lament. Today’s Old Testament passages are grief-filled laments. You may feel uncomfortable. I invite you to stay the course. Don’t bail, as we did.

———————- Continue reading

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Look and see

Readings
1 Timothy 6.6–19
Luke 16.19–31

 

…the poor person has a name: Lazarus; the rich and powerful person, by contrast, does not. In the world today the situation is reversed: the poor are anonymous and seem destined for an even greater anonymity. They are born and die without being noticed. They are disposable pieces in a history that eludes their grasp and excludes them. — Gustavo Gutierrez and Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Muller, On the Side of the Poor: A Theology of Liberation

Blessed are you who are in need;
the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who now go hungry;
you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now;
you will laugh.…

But alas for you who are rich;
you have had your time of happiness.
Alas for you who are well fed now;
you will go hungry.
Alas for you who laugh now;
you will mourn and weep.                    Luke 6.20b–21, 25–26

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Let’s start with a story.

A young couple were killed in a car accident on the day before their wedding. They arrived at the Pearly Gates. St Peter felt sorry for them, and asked if there was anything he could do to make being in heaven even more pleasant for them. So they looked at each other and asked if it would still be possible to be married in heaven. St Peter looked a little thoughtful and said, ‘It’s never been done before. But leave it with me.’

About a hundred years went by. One day, they ran into St Peter and asked about the wedding. ‘Everything is being arranged,’ he assured them.

Another hundred years passed, and they saw St Peter in the distance. They reminded him about the wedding and said, ‘We know that in heaven, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day, and time is of no consequence…but we’ve been waiting over two hundred years.’ St Peter replied, ‘I am truly sorry. All the arrangements were made the day after you arrived but there’s just this one problem.’

‘What’s that?’ they asked.

St Peter said, ‘Have you ever tried to find a minister up here?’

When we hear a story about St Peter at the Pearly Gates, we know to wait for the punch line. We don’t imagine that we are hearing anything about what ‘heaven’ is really like. We know it’s not a theological treatise that claims to describe the future life. 

Similarly, when we come to the Parable of the Rich man and Lazarus, we don’t read anything about what life beyond death may be like. We’re reading a story that was told in different forms, possibly originating in Egypt. When people heard it, they knew it for the story it was. 

But what is the story about? 

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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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