September 22, 2019
A lamentation is defined this way: the passionate expression of grief or sorrow. Specifically for what we are addressing, it is expressing our grief to God. In the bible, there are four books with major passages of lament; the Psalms, Job, Jeremiah and naturally the book of Lamentations. We are reading one of Jeremiah's lamentations today. And like most of the lamentations in the bible, he expresses grief on behalf of the nation of Israel/Judah also affectionately called Zion. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the Lord not in Zion?'” Jeremiah is crying out because he and the nation feel the loss of the presence of God. He is lamenting the causes for that; the sin of his country, their failure to live up to God's calling and their failure to care for those unable to care for themselves.
We could go around this room this morning and everyone here has some laments for our nation to share. I have the pulpit so I get to share a few of mine. Jeremiah was called as a prophet of God so he got to share his as God inspired him, and they are written here for us to read.
But we need to be careful with lamenting. It is the easiest thing in the world for it to become a kind of pity party, a woe is me, woe is us time. Oh, complaining can feel really good and it can actually be a real help as we struggle through hard times. But true lamentation goes beyond complaining. A true lament doesn't stop with complaining, it is rather a prayer to God sharing our pain. While some complaining is cathartic, the primary motivation of lament is to bring to the throne of God whatever is distressing us. For Jeremiah, it was the failures of the nation Israel. But for me to make specific nationalistic lamentations here today cannot be the lamentation from us all because my background is mine and mine alone. I hate to disclose this, but I don't have a direct line into the mindset of God. And so when I interpret scripture and preach a sermon, I seek to be as true to God's word as I can be. But... I want to share a few lines from a book that Marshall left me, Christian Doctrine by Shirley Guthrie. “No matter how seriously theologians try to put aside their personal wishes, feelings and opinions... their understanding of the truth is always distorted because they see or hear from the perspective of their particular race, sex, economic class, religious and national heritage.” It is true of studying the bible, it is even more true when we try to apply the bible to the social problems of our country. My take on abortion is formed by my Catholic upbringing, the fact that I am a male, my financial well-being, my family influences and so on. I try to be neutral in studying issues, but it is impossible for any of us.
An example of a key issue in our country right now is immigration. Your view has been influenced by many factors beyond the bible or the church. I was surprised how little I knew about the immigration policy in the history of the US. Did you know that the United States would not give asylum to Jews during most of World War II? I didn't and I was shocked. In a hundred years, will churches look back and be shocked that the country would not allow victims of violence and wars to find asylum here? That we turned away families in need at the borders? I don't know and I don't claim to know what the right policy is. As I've already admitted, I am influenced by many factors. And those factors in my life, my upbringing, my experiences, my Dad... say enforce the law, period. My reading of God's word says we are to treat the foreigner, the immigrant with mercy. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.” Zechariah 7:9-10 And in the New Testament, Jesus was all about loving our neighbor and the stranger. Hebrews says it this way, “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.” (Hebrews 13:1-3)
So I am conflicted. And I lament the inability of our country to resolve this issue. And I pray to our God for wisdom for those in leadership and for the resolution of issues that divide. And that is scriptural. We read from Paul's letter to Timothy, “First of all, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.”
There are so many issues in our country. As I first read through the passage from Jeremiah, my first thought was the issue of slavery. It has been on my mind since I discovered that August was the 400th anniversary of the first slaves to be brought to our country. “In late August 1619, the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer ship, landed at what was then known as Point Comfort in the Virginia colony. On board were more than 20 captives seized from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola and transported across the Atlantic. This dislocated, unwilling, violated group were the first enslaved Africans to set foot in English North America – ushering in the era of slavery in what would become the United States.”1 The lament of Jeremiah could be echoed by the slaves on whose backs much of our country was built. “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” And “"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. "For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” And I think we'd have universal agreement here that slavery is wrong. But there was not agreement for about 250 years in our land of the free.
The Jewish nation knew about slavery. One of the key points in their history was their 400 years as slaves of the Egyptians. Then there were the years when they were captives in Babylonia. Lamentations were written about that time of exile, expressing the grief and loneliness and pain that they felt. Expressing our pain to God can be a help as I've said. But I also pointed out that the lamentation serves as a kind of prayer. For the American slave community, they had their laments as well. And we have many of them handed down to us today in songs and hymns. Many express their deep suffering and sorrow. But they also include a message of hope. The hope they got from following the same God who walked with the Jews in Egypt, in Babylonia, in Germany. For we know from history and from experience, God doesn't often move in and just fix the things in this world that are out of whack. God leaves the responsibilities of doing the work of God in our hands, the people of God. And we often don't do a very good job.
One of those songs of slavery is one we will sing soon. It has a haunting tune which makes it memorable for us. But the words are sometimes confusing. “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Most of us don't know where Gilead is and why anyone would expect a balm from there. Gilead is mentioned only three times in the whole bible and most prominently in today's reading. Gilead was an area east of the Jordan River, today's Jordan. A balm we are familiar with, it is a type of medicine. In Jeremiah's day it would have been a mixture made of plants; we don't have any record of what plants or what this balm was specifically for. But Jeremiah's writing makes clear that the Jewish nation considered that this balm had healing powers. But in Jeremiah's lament, the question was, is there a balm that will heal the nation? And the African-American hymn takes up that question but answers with a promise. Not that there will be healing for the nation, but that there is a balm for the sin-sick soul. And that balm is Jesus Christ our Savior. The love of Jesus, the sacrifice he made, the power of the Holy Spirit are all in this hymn, which isn't a lament but a song of hope and praise. There is a balm, Jesus Christ the Son of God, who knows our issues. He lived the life of a refugee. He was one of the homeless. He made the trek from his homeland to a land of safety. He suffered at the hands of the religious and political rulers. He was not one of the movers and shakers of his time. And so we need to use caution in how we select our political and religious agendas. Our histories need to be taken into account. We need to be willing to examine long-held beliefs. And study the facts. Acknowledge that in all things—theology, politics, economics, human rights—we do have certain preconceived notions. And they might be spot on and if so, that is great. But they might be skewed by the information we receive, by our personal histories, even our very DNA.
I titled today's message “A Lamentation”. You might be tempted to call it a rant. I don't believe in telling you what to think... I believe in teaching that you need to think in terms of what you know and believe about Jesus the Lord. And I've looked at some big picture items to lament. But closer to home and much more personally I lament the fact that the bodies of our loved one deteriorate and fail and die. I lament when unkind words are shared in a community. I lament when selfishness trumps a giving heart. I lament that our congregation is shrinking. But in the New Testament era, we need not end with lament, for Jesus brings hope. Hope means we can celebrate the care shown when a member of our community is hurting. We can celebrate when words of encouragement help someone overcome trials and defeat an attitude of failure. I celebrate each person who gathers here on Sunday mornings, carrying on the long history of faithfulness and mission. There is a balm... it is not from Gilead but from within the body of Christ. We are that balm for each other and for our community and for our world. Celebrate that you are called to share this good news. And go forth to tell and show the love of Jesus. Amen.
Hymn: There is a Balm in Gilead: 394 PH
1Website “The Guardian” August 14, 2019