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World Communion Sunday, October 2, 2016 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
The Way the World Is/Should Be
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Lamentations 1:1–6, 3:19–26
The world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. The creation is infused with the Creator’s generosity.
I spent most of this past week in Kansas City, attending a meeting. At that meeting we were asked two questions: What are symbols of the world as it is that it shouldn’t be, and what are symbols of the world as it should be? So as we begin this sermon time, I want you to consider question number 1. In a brief moment of silence, please bring to mind images or symbols of our world here and now that illustrate for you the way the world is—something that tells you how our world shouldn’t be.
Did some of you picture the purple bows outside, each representing a situation of domestic violence? Or did you see the face of the stunned and bloodied little boy named Omran sitting in that ambulance in Aleppo? Was your image the teary face of the little girl who testified last week in front of Charlotte’s city council of her fear and grief? Did you immediately flash to a person who sits on the corners of our property with an empty cup, or to another mother behind another microphone asking why her son was shot? Maybe you had a more intimate reaction—you pictured a loved one sitting in a chemo ward or the sight of a bare finger that used to display a wedding ring or the never-worn maternity shirt hanging in the back of the closet or the confused look of a parent who no longer remembers who you are. Though I did not give you much time, my guess is that it was not difficult for many of us to quickly bring to mind a situation or person or image that demonstrates to us the way the world is but shouldn’t be.
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! . . . She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; . . . her pursuers have all overtaken her, in the midst of her distress.”
The lonely city of this poetry was Jerusalem, and its distress was its violent destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. Telling that horrific story is how the poetry of Lamentations begins. It begins with a searing portrait of the way the world was for the people of Israel—the way the world shouldn’t be. A world in which the Babylonians blockaded Jerusalem for eighteen months and cut it off from all food. A world in which Jerusalem’s leaders attempted to escape, only to be murdered. A world in which the Babylonians broke through the last defenses, pillaged, raped and burned, and razed the city to the ground. A world in which most who were not killed were carried away into slavery. The tears and rage of that experience in the world produced the book of Lamentations (adapted from William M Ramsay, Westminster Guide to the Books of the Bible, p. 208). As one of my seminary professors put it, “Lamentations opens upon a universe of sorrows” (Kathleen O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World).
Lamentations is a book of scriptural poetry full of the symbols and images of the ways the world is but shouldn’t be. Yet I would not be surprised if some of us have never read the small book of Lamentations. Some might not even realize it is a part of scripture. Our lectionary only assigns verses from Lamentations once every three years. No wonder many of us might not even know this raw, anguished, and grief-filled sacred text even exists! But beyond the mere fact it rarely shows up in worship, honestly, why would we even want to know that this scripture exists? Don’t we get more than enough of Lamentations-like life out in the world? In Kansas City I told my friends I was preaching on this text. One immediately responded, “Well, it is a world of weeping these days, and Lamentations is full of weeping.”
True, I thought, but sometimes I grow weary of all the weeping. I recognize that comes from a place of privilege, because I can choose to turn my head away or turn off the news of our world’s brokenness. But still, some days I don’t want to have to acknowledge all the weeping. Besides, today is World Communion Sunday, and we hoped today would be a time in which we purposefully experienced communion as the joy-full feast of the people of God, rather than experiencing it with the more familiar mood of solemn remembrance.
Thus, the desolate weeping and forlorn grieving of Lamentations landed with a heavy thud into our worship plans. But no matter how much I wanted to skip this poetry of raw grief, I couldn’t; we can’t. Consider just how quickly you were able to bring to mind an image or a symbol that illustrates for you that we still live in a world so full of the ways it should not be. It did not take long, did it? This reality of our weeping world is exactly why we must read aloud the unvarnished grief and anguish of the Lamentation poet. It is exactly why we must create enough space in here, in our worship, for these so-often-unspeakable feelings to be acknowledged and held tenderly. For when we are honest, many of us might admit that we often come to church not as who we are, but as who we hope others think we are. And that pretending, that denial of our brokenness, holds us back from being who God created us to be.
Theologian Douglas John Hall wrote that a denial of the weeping in our world mixed with covert despair and repressed hopelessness is an apt description of the spiritual condition of our North American culture. “Unlike the despair of the poor and afflicted around the globe who know too well their true condition,” Hall wrote, “the despair of the dominant culture of North America is a denied despair, not merely hidden by wealth and power but forcibly refused . . . a repressive posture that must lie to itself [so] consistently that it ends in destructive behavior more devastating than the negating realities it fears to acknowledge” (Douglas John Hall, “Whether, or in What Sense, Despair May Be Regarded as the Spiritual Condition of Humankind at the Outset of the Twenty-First Century,” quoted in O’Connor’s Lamentations and the Tears of the World). We see the destructive effects of those consistent lies all around us, don’t we. Violence upon violence upon violence.
So if Hall is right and that is our spiritual condition most days, then perhaps one reason Lamentations is part of our Holy Book is so that it can be our teacher. Daughter Zion, the voice you heard in chapter 1, refuses to deny anything. Absorbed in her pain, she speaks of the awfulness she is experiencing in a world that should not be, an awfulness from which she feels she cannot emerge (O’Connor, p. 18). She speaks of captivity and lost children, of being abandoned and defiled. She speaks of humiliation, exposure, and rejection. Her voice is about as far from Hall’s diagnosis of our spiritual condition as one can get. Daughter Zion hides nothing. But not only does she not hide, she actually demands to be seen—just as she is, in all of her distress. She wants to be seen—first by God, and then by us.
“God,” she cries out in a portion we did not read, “look and pay attention for I have become worthless.” Daughter Zion is not content to simply acknowledge the way the world is as it shouldn’t be. She insists that God acknowledge that too. Look at me, she says. Pay attention. Do not turn your face away from the suffering of your servant, your world. But even in the face of her demands, God does not respond, at least not in a way she can recognize. Throughout the book of Lamentations, the poet insists God’s voice is never heard.
But God’s apparent silence does not stop the poet, and it does not hinder the honest expression of painful grief over living life in a world that is not as it should be. It should not be that the holy city Jerusalem was violently decimated. It should not be that more than 100 children have died in Aleppo this past week. It should not be that Jerusalem’s people were taken into captivity and enslaved. It should not be that a mother and her two kids sleep near a bridge by the river each night. It should not be that Jerusalem’s leaders were killed. It should not be that 364 people were shot in Chicago during September. It should not be that war between those in power kept food and aid from those who needed it back then in Jerusalem. It should not be that war between those in power keeps food and aid from those who need it today in Syria and in South Sudan.
The poet of Lamentations keeps front and center the honest expression of painful grief over living life in a world that is not as it should be. I promise it did not take that poet any time at all to bring all that grief and trauma to mind, just as it did not take us very long, either. The poet was, we are, sitting in the middle of it every single day.
So where did the hope of chapter 3 come from? You heard that in the second portion I read, right? How did the poet move from demanding that God see all the distress and destruction to “But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope . . . the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases . . . God’s mercies are new every morning”? Was it just the gift of catharsis—getting it all out there, refusing to deny any of it, allowing the tears to flow for as long as necessary until they were all cried out? Or was it something else that made room for that movement, because it sure seems that the poet made an intentional decision for hope.
After the well-known Lutheran pastor Edmund Steimle’s wife died, he preached a sermon on Psalm 42, a psalm that sounds like the voice of daughter Zion: “My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’” In the sermon, though, Steimle chose to focus on the part of the psalm in which the psalmist suddenly remembers the source of his hope and interrupts his grief long enough to exclaim “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” The new-widower Steimle asked why it was that the psalmist found hope, even in the middle of such despair. The answer, he concluded, was memory. The psalmist must have remembered the old days, the days when life was better and God’s blessings were clearer and more obvious. Memory, Steimle preached, was the place where faith was protected and kept safe, like a tender plant in the snow warmed by the winter’s sun. If God had been good in the past, surely a loving and kind God would be loving and kind again (cited by Jon M. Walton, Moveable Feast paper, 2010). Surely.
Sometimes, when one is living in a weeping world, too full of images and experiences of the world as it should not be, remembering is all that we have of faith. Remembering is our intentional action to bring into our minds all the ways we have experienced God’s love, God’s presence, God’s goodness in our past so that we might absorb enough courage to lift our heads in anticipation of surely experiencing God’s love, God’s presence, God’s goodness in our future. “God’s mercies are new every morning,” the Lamentations poet proclaimed. “Great is God’s faithfulness.”
I believe that kind of remembering, what we could call remembering forward—a memory informed not only by personal experience but even more so by God’s story told in scripture—is actually the unexpressed foundation of the second question I mentioned to you in the beginning: What are the symbols or images of our world as it should be? The act of remembering forward—intentionally bringing to mind when we have experienced or known God’s presence and faithfulness in our past, in our collective past—is what fuels our ability to change our spiritual condition from one of denied despair to one of honest remembering. Our remembering forward is what opens our eyes so we can see what God is up to now and gives us the ability to imagine how God will be present and faithful in our future. This kind of remembering forward gives us what we need to be able to bring to mind the symbols and images and pictures of the world as it should be, as it will be one day.
This act of remembering forward that Steimle discovered, that our Lamentations poet practiced, recalling all the ways God has sustained us in our past, leads us straight to this table this morning. For here is the place where we as a people actively bring to mind how God created us, loved us, liberated us, called us, forgave us, and saved us in our past. It is where we actively bring to mind the fact that God loves us so much that God decided to become one of us in Jesus of Nazareth, so we would know that nothing, not even death, separates us from our God. God has been so good, we recall. Don’t you remember? Bring that to mind.
The table is the place where we are able to let that sustaining memory of all God’s past faithfulness feed us with courage and hope so that we can joyfully and eagerly anticipate God continuing that work of mercy and goodness in our future, in Daughter Zion’s future, in creation’s future. The table is the place where we are given our faith’s most powerful symbols and images of the world as it should be. A table where love and forgiveness are poured out completely, not even withholding one single drop. A table where bread is broken for all and Christ’s body is shared. A table where we are invited to come honest-to-goodness just as we are and not as who we hope others think we are. A table where we are linked with people of all times and all places. A table where everyone has a seat and no one is left wanting.
For here, at this table, is the joyful feast of the people of God. A feast we choose to celebrate even in, especially in, a world too full of weeping and too full of experiences of how the world should not be. Yet here, in this place, in this time, in this sanctuary, we receive a taste of what God promises that our world, the new Jerusalem, will become. The world as it should be. A world in which we all see that God’s mercies are new every morning and God’s faithfulness will endure for all generations. So may we remember forward and be grateful. Amen.