Luke 13: 31-35
Singer songwriter Carole King, in her autobiography, acknowledges the energy she felt with her first husband, Gerry Goffin, as they performed, and later with her friend of many years, James Taylor. The words she once wrote in one of her most famous songs are soothing. But instead of being from friend to friend, what if these words came instead from God, just for you or just for some other broken person. How would you receive it if God said to you: “When you’re down and troubled and you need some loving care, and nothing, nothing is going right. Close your eyes and think of me, and soon I will be there, to brighten up even your darkest hours. You just call out my name, and you know—wherever I am, I’ll come running.” That could be about God, couldn’t it? Except, perhaps, during laments, when people hope that the comforting God becomes a rescuing God; but instead, God hears you, but just hears you, in your agony. To paraphrase professor Walter Brueggemann, laments are cries to God when your world had come unglued; when a tragedy or unexpected calamity has hit you like a tidal wave; when a life of normal orientation is thrown into disorientation. The Rev. Arthur John Gossip’s world was turned upside down when his wife died on a Saturday and he had to preach on Sunday. Certainly his congregation would have excused him for such a loss. But instead, he preached perhaps the most compelling, guttural, lamenting sermon of his life. Here is how he began that sermon: “Here is a man who, musing upon the bewilderments of life, has burst into God’s presence, hot, angry, stunned by His ordering of things, with a loud babble of clamorous protest. “It is unfair!” he cries, “unfair!” A preacher began to lament, and drop his disordered life on the throne of God’s unfair world. He was grieving. Later in his sermon he declared: “I do not understand this life of ours. But still less can I comprehend how people in trouble and loss and bereavement can fling away peevishly from the Christian faith. In God’s name, fling to what? Have we not lost enough without losing that too? …You people in the sunshine may believe the faith, but we in the shadow must believe it. We have nothing else!” He preached that sermon in Scotland in 1927. Just five years later in the United States, a black gospel song writer named Thomas A. Dorsey got a message that caused him to lament. “While leading music in St. Louis, he was handed a telegram bearing the words: ‘Your wife just died.’ He rushed to a phone to call home, but all he could hear over the line was ‘Nettie is dead! Nettie is dead!’ ‘I began to feel that God had done me an unjustice,’ Thomas later said. ‘I didn’t want to serve him any more or write any more gospel songs.’ But a week later, he changed his mind, and poured his weeping into writing, creating the beloved hymn “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light. Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.” [Then Sings My Soul, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003, pp.288-289] A final example I got from my chaplain daughter, the Rev. Jenny Sumner Carswell. Here was the story she shared:
I met with a patient and his wife in the ICU. The patient was just
diagnosed with cancer that was rapidly progressing and the doctors
told him he was not going to survive. The patient knew his wife was
having trouble processing it all and asked that I bring her to a quiet
room and listen to her pain. I brought her into a small consultation
– just the two of us – and acknowledged how hard this must be for her.
And then the floodgates opened: her sadness, her anger, her
frustration, her powerlessness, her confusion and her helplessness
flew from her mouth at a volume so loud that I could feel her breath
on my face. She wept and screamed to God, to her husband, to me; I
stayed quiet and calm. She shouted questions, why, why, why, but I
knew she didn’t want answers. Answers seemed cheap…because sometimes
life leaves us only with questions. In that moment, I knew I could
not calm her down. I knew I should not calm her down. This was her
way to claim control in a situation where she had no control. I
listened to her lament the way I believe God listens in our deepest
pain: with open ears ready to receive the raw feelings involved in the
depth of human suffering. I normalized her feelings through soft
words and head nods. Once she said what she needed to, she stood up,
left the room, and asked that I not follow. Sometimes our laments are
so deep that we need to find moments of escape to process on our own
and I allowed her the space to do that.
Have you ever lamented about something—a situation or a circumstance—and you have cried out to God? Or perhaps you have cried out to others? It can be a wrenching time of disorientation. In the Bible the prophet Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet.” The book that bears his name, and the book of Lamentations, is each filled with sorrow: Jeremiah’s sorrow over the unfaithfulness of Israel. In her own book Lamentations and the Tears of the World, Professor Kathleen O’Connor writes “Lamentations is about the collapse of a physical, emotional, and spiritual universe of an entire people, not about individual sorrows except in a metaphorical and symbolic manner.” [ Orbis Books, p. xiv]. Can you imagine weeping over an entire people: a nation, or a world? Through the mouthpiece of the prophets, even God laments; God laments over the state of the world, the sorrows that can overwhelm our lives, and the choices that we make. Alas, the gift of free will transferred much of God’s power into human beings; we choose the actions, and we reap the consequences. On occasion, human weakness, or human sinfulness or carelessness or negligence can also lead to tragedy. God is only too familiar with tragedy. Even as God came in Christ, he lamented.
In spite of times when Jesus experienced joy or gratitude from others for his healings, Jesus also wept. Such is the shortest verse of the Bible from John 11:35. But he also lamented, and he did so in our text for today. Let’s picture what was facing our Lord. He had been performing miracles, telling parables, being pummeled with questions by Pharisees, and Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas, was trying to kill him. Jesus was a threat. He was not afraid of Herod; he called him metaphorically, “a fox.” Then he outlined his plans to finish his life on earth. In Luke’s account he was on the outskirts of Jerusalem when that happened and had not yet entered the city. If you ever visit the Holy Land, you may be directed, as we were, to come down the Mount of Olives toward the city. There is a place there where tradition says that Jesus lamented over Jerusalem. In his humanness, he had great sorrow over people who foolishly had chosen ways that did not honor God. And in his Godliness he mourned the choices that people were making. Can you picture our Lord? I believe he would not have said the words fast or flippantly, but with deliberate weight on them: “O Jerusalem; Jerusalem; killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together like a hen gathers her brood under her wings.” Such a powerful feminine image comes out in Jesus’ lament; if he could have, he would have protected them as if they were helpless; but they were not; they had made the choices of maturity. So Jesus lamented.
I wonder what Jesus laments about America; or about the city where you live. I wonder what specifically Jesus laments about the earth? Is it the fighting for power; the loss of natural resources; the territorial skirmishes; the arguments from religious groups as each believes they know God’s will? There is much to lament. And with laments, we have learned that sometimes people cry on the shoulder of another; sometimes they scream in a chaplain’s face, standing so close she can feel their breath. But here is one thing to note: laments are moments in time. Laments that last months or years call into question the redemptive power of God, forgetting that God can pull light from darkness and turn our mourning into dancing.
Jesus’ lament today, I am most sure, includes a lament for the “perishing” or those who are lost. Jesus always came for life, abundant life, and for salvation. It has been offered to others over the generations, and it is offered to you today. Jesus wants you to have eternal life, not eternal death; Jesus wants you to invite others into the lifeboat of the church. But Jesus also wants to tuck you unfailingly under his protective wings. Through the storm, through the night; through the hospital, after the telegram, or in your aloneness, your Lord will be there when you call on His name. The Jesus of Galilee became Christ the King, the one who will inhabit the hearts of those who love him and invite him in. So no matter what darkness or despair might threaten to undo you, don’t leave God out. Cry out to God, question God, even get angry with God. The Scriptures are filled with prophets who do not discount or deny God in the midst of their anguish. It is good to learn. And to close, hear these words of human witness from Psalm 27: “Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me. Thou hast said ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to thee, “Thy face do I seek.” [vs.7-9]
God is with us; we are not alone.
Jeffrey A. SumnerFebruary 24, 2013