A sermon, based on Lamentations 1.1-6, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church. Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2019
Over 2600 years ago, the Babylonian Empire defeated the nation Judah and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.(1) Many were slaughtered. The rest, enslaved. Most, carried into exile. The prophet Jeremiah, as a horrified observer, wrote: How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations…weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks.
My mother, in the years immediately following my father’s death, as Alzheimer’s disease robbed her of her memory, spent her days sitting in her easy chair. On a side table, stacks of letters and poems, words on tattered pages written by my father during their fifty-three years of marriage. Reading, rereading, each time for the first time, her lips moved in silent speech. At other moments, she sounded the syllables aloud; each breath, an increasingly faint whisper of her past.
Next to the pile of papers, a small frame with their photograph; taken, during World War II, before my father was shipped overseas to the Philippines.
Oft she would look and smile. Then, came a time she would point and ask repeatedly, “Who are they?” Enveloped in a cloud of her unknowing, her amnesia was anesthesia for her lonely despair.
This image of my mother is my portrait of desolate Jerusalem: How lonely sits the city…like a widow.
Save for the Book of Job and those psalms known as songs of desolation,(2) no other word in scripture, in my reading and reflecting, cries with unrelieved pain like Lamentations. It’s hard to hear. Yet one inescapable reality of human living calls us, commands us to listen. Suffering. For some of us, all the time and sometimes, for all of us.
Life offers happiness. Yes. Yet, when happiness is the fruit of favorable circumstance, we know, given all that we don’t control, it won’t, it can’t last. Therefore, Lamentations mirrors our universal experience of suffering; whether through the threat of war or terror, natural calamity, accident or illness, or by our own hand whenever we, through unruly disposition, unlicensed affection, or unwise decision harm ourselves or others.
As suffering is inescapable, when it darkens our door, is there anything other than weeping that we can do? Yes! For Jeremiah, who lamented, “How lonely sits the city…like a widow,” also wrote:
The thought of my trouble…is…wormwood and gall.
My mind dwells on it continually;
my soul is weighed down within me.
When I remember this, I have hope…
for God’s mercies are never-ending
and are new every morning.
How great is your faithfulness, O God!(3)
A very similar tone resounds in the voice of that great sufferer Job, who declared, “I know my Redeemer lives…and after my skin has been destroyed, then in my flesh, I shall see God.”(4)
This mighty fruit of expectation, looking forward for something to come, arises from the seed of recollection, looking back on a historical relationship with God, who is unconditional, unconquerable love.
I stand before you as one who shares the faith of Jeremiah and Job. Therefore, in the face of suffering, I have hope.
Sometimes, when I can conceive of suffering’s end, my hope is great. Sometimes, when I perceive that suffering will continue, my hope is small. Nevertheless, I have hope.
For I no longer hope in God. My hope is God. For my very possession of spiritual eyes to look beyond what is to behold a vision of what might be is my necessary and sufficient evidence of God’s presence and power. Because that is true, whatever suffering befalls, hopeful visions always come. Therefore, I sing:
Great is Thy faithfulness,
Great is Thy faithfulness;
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided.
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto…us.(5)
(1) 586 B.C.E.
(2) For example, Psalm 22 and Psalm 88
(3) Lamentations 3.19-23; my emphases
(4) Job 19.25-26; my emphases
(5) Words (1923) by Thomas Obadiah Chisolm (1866-1960)
Illustration: Lamentation (1860), Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794-1872)