Toorak Uniting Church

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Lament and the exercise of faith

Lamentations 3: 17 – 26     Luke 17: 5 – 10
Rev. Ian Brown
3 October 2004

Just as elections must, life often seems to have more losers than winners. The shocking events that we continue to see and hear about almost daily leave us bewildered, searching for answers or too afraid to look. People everywhere look for reasons and solutions.
Oh, and by the way this is a guaranteed politics free sermon, with no apologies to my ecumenical colleagues Pell & Jensen!

The readings today lead us into the territory of our troubled humanity and what role our faith might play. How can we respond to the tragedy and suffering we see around us? We have had a culture in the church and in society that says the exercise of faith is to believe that right will prevail and we can use force to make sure that happens.
But this approach seems to reap only more trouble, more bloodshed, more hatred. So what shape should we put to our faith, what action might we usefully start with?

What words, what songs, what texts speak to our deepest needs at times like these? The 23rd Psalm and Amazing Grace figure large in public services, but I would propose that these texts from lamentations are far more fitting and have much more to offer.

I think we are just beginning to rediscover what was already a known reality in Biblical times. Thankfully, the Bible is full of the honest and straightforward recognition of pain and suffering. In Psalms, Prophets like Jeremiah and today’s reading from Lamentations we find a whole vocabulary replete with healthy and full blooded crying out in anguish for help - even crying out against God.

But by and large we've been kidded in to believing that the stiff upper lip is the best way to be and that if we keep up the front of being unfeeling long enough then the rest of us will be sure to follow. But the reality of the way we work as human beings is very different.
It is no accident that at the very centre of our faith is the story of suffering, death and resurrection.
There can be no healing of our pains until suffering and death have been faced with all the reality and difficulty that demands.

I don't really need to remind you that there can be a lot of pain and suffering in our lives, without international calamities, - loss of loved ones, of health, family unity and so on. The surprising thing I want to suggest today is that the book of Lamentations has for us, a healing way of dealing with our pain, suffering and loss before God.
I say surprising because Lamentations is a forgotten book, read only once in the three year lectionary cycle. Surprising because it is full of depressing dirge like woes and misery - what we want is something to cheer us when were down! Bring on the happy music, the trumpets and lift us up! But this is not the way of Hebrew & Christian faith or in fact of healthy humanity.

These Laments were written in the context of the 587 BC fall of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon. It was a time of unimaginable devastation and loss, it was the worst thing that could have happened to God’s people.
And strangely these are the words of faith to deal with the terrible calamity. The structure of the book follows a specific pattern - like an acrostic A - Z but in Hebrew; Aleph to Taw, the first line of each verse beginning with a consecutive letter, and in the 5 chapters, the pattern is repeated 5 times.
What Lamentations does is to direct the feelings of pain and suffering and guilt towards God. In fact, in the pattern of lamentation the cause of pain and grief is raised in alphabetic detail and goes over it in each of the chapters. Grief is labeled, detailed and made objective, the grieving are allowed to spend time there and are not hurried off to be cheerful, so that we will all feel better.

But because the process of lament is so structured, beginning at the first line with A and proceeding through the alphabet, those who lament know that there is a sure end to the process - it may be repeated, tears are allowed to flow, they are also bid to cease, there is an end, and as we hear in chapter 3 there is also a note of hope - in the steadfast love of the Lord that never ceases, despite the very worst that the world can do. In a way, this exercise of lamentation is a way of putting faith into action. With an almost ritual sequence it puts our faith in a God who cares to the test in the toughest situations of life.
Crying out to God, naming pain to God, remembering the pain of the past and the glimmer of promise in the future.

So what might we want to lament to God? If we follow the pattern of scripture we will name the pains of our world and our personal pain.

"God, what a bloody mess there is in the Middle East.
Bombs and walls, rockets and gunships, why O God, why?
God, what a bloody mess in Burma, in Iraq, in Sudan, in Russia, why, O God, why give us the means to cause so much destruction to each other?
God, what sickness does our society have where adults abuse children and traffic in their misery, why O God, why?
God, what a mess we make at times in our own lives, in relationships, even with those we love; why O God, why?
Wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope!
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning, great is your faithfulness.

Above and beyond all else the Biblical pattern of dealing with suffering, as here in Lamentations, gives our human experience dignity and meaning, pain is not explained away or ignored. Pain is faced before God who stands with us in our pain.
Only out of the darkness can come the first light of day.
Only where there are graves is the reality of resurrection possible.

How much faith does it take to believe that, to put it into action, to make a real difference?

"the apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ the Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this tree, be uprooted and it would."
– not much faith is the answer!
A small seed planted, a tiny beginning is enough.

May we be people prepared to lament before God and be prepared to stand alongside others in their times of need, to put our little faith into action for ourselves and for others. Even the small seed of faith exercised can do so much, by the steadfast grace of God. Amen

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2004

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