Gen 15.1-12, 17-18, Luke 13.31-35
The sermon this week is in the series called 21st Century Anglicanism. So, just a reminder that for Anglicans, when we consider issues, whether what happened in New Zealand yesterday, or climate change or Brexit or education we look through three different lenses – scripture, reason and tradition. Other churches may have different emphases. For the RC church tradition is especially important eg the pope’s encyclicals; for some protestant churches it’s sola scriptura (only Scripture). We Anglicans, however, try to hold these three strands together. It’s worth looking out for these when you listen to sermons in an Anglican church.
Today my topic is lament. I’ve tried to use the three lenses, though with a very light touch. Tradition – lament has been part for our church history from the start because of our roots in Judaism. Lament was and continues to be a feature of Jewish faith and practice. Every year, for example, Jews lament the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC to the Babylonians. 70AD to the Romans). There is a whole book of Lamentations in the Old Testament. Traditionally Chritians have included lament in the liturgy on Good Friday.
At café church on Thursdays there is usually some conversation in response to the gospel passage. The other week we touched on a theme that regularly troubles us- why do some people have more than others, get what they need more than others even though they are clearly not good people? And, connected with that, what’s the point of being good? And then, in a flow that happens at café church, and with a connection that I have now lost we moved into a lament over our schools and the way that subjects like music, art and drama have been squeezed out of the curriculum. There was a noticeable shift in the tone of the conversation. The talk about the unfairness of life in general was a complaint, a sort of groove we can get into when feeling fed up. The tone of the lament was different. Suddenly we were all focussing on something precious that we felt had been lost. There was a new clarity in our tone. We’d noticed something together and together we articulated what the shrivelling of the arts in our school meant to us.
Lament – not something we hear very often. In today’s gospel we see Jesus lamenting over Jerusalem, longing to see Jerusalem move towards life, but knowing that it was heading the other way, and expressing his grief. As he travels towards Jerusalem we see him getting more and more in touch with his calling to suffer and die for his people. Nothing deflects him from this, not even Herod’s threats. Yet at the same time he can see that his own people, will ignore his message, turn away from him. it’s hard to imagine what that is like. You’re giving your all to something/someone and continuing to get no response. One way of dealing with this is to lament, as Jesus does here. He cries out in the same way as some of the prophets – Hosea 11.1-3 ‘When Israel was a child I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. but the more I called Israel the further they went from me.’ Isaiah 65.1-3 –to a nation that did not ask for me..that did not seek me.. that did not call on my name I said ‘here am I, here am I. Like the prophets Jesus speaks as though it is God himself addressing his people with yearning, and also despair.
Other laments in the Old Testament, typically in the Psalms, are corporate expressions, lamenting loss of homeland, health, livelihood, or dealing with the impact of conflict. – Ps 42 ‘all your waves and breakers have swept over me..I say to God, ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Prophets like Jeremiah lamented God’s call to him to be a prophet, (15.10 He laments to his mother, ‘alas, my mother, that you gave me birth, a man with whom the whole land contends!’) as well as lamenting the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians– a whole book – Lamentations.
Lament, unlike mourning and grief always has a sound. We may mourn and grieve without anyone knowing, holding it inside ourselves. Lamenting, though, pushes out our inner pain in sound, and is often very noisy. We may be lamenting a broken promise, the loss of someone dear to us, a deterioration in our health, a missed opportunity, the lack of something, as with Abram who longed for a son and some land to call his own…
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is about a missed opportunity. He is using a image of God found elsewhere in the OT – God rather like a bird protecting her young under her feathers. It is an image of gathering, as opposed to scattering, which is what an enemy does, and which is what will happen to Jerusalem in the future. Jesus wants to gather them, to draw them into a way of being with God that is the equivalent of living under the shelter of his wings. What is described in the OT as living in God’s covenant – the one made with Abram, Jacob, Moses…but they don’t ’notice the invitation, it passes them by, they ignore it, and he laments at that missed opportunity. They had not seized the favourable moment, had not noticed God’s coming to them in him.
Perhaps Abram stands out because he noticed the vision that came to him, and he believed what God communicated to him through it. Unlike Jesus’ contemporaries he did not miss the moment when God visited him. He received a blessing.
Jesus, while lamenting his people’s lack of awareness that in him the time had come, nevertheless sticks to his own sense of timing. He does live under God’s wings. He knows he has come from God and is returning to God (John 13). Secure in this identity nothing, deflects him from the path leading to Jerusalem and his death.
In making a promise to Abram – a covenant- it is God who takes a more costly path, causing himself to be the join, as it were, between the 2 halves of the animals. What actually happens is a mystery to Abram – he is asleep, in darkness, and afraid – often signs in scripture of God’s awesome presence. Likewise with Jesus, in sticking to his path towards Jerusalem and the cross he is enabling a new join to be made between God and his people.
Lamenting is an appropriate activity in Lent. It is very much about being real with God about regrets, missed opportunities, sadness at those things that are wrong whether with ourselves, or our society. To lament is to be fully human. As we lament we can get in touch with the cost of putting things right which is obliquely present in our two readings. It is God who joins the 2 halves of the sacrificial animal to seal the covenant and it is Jesus whose death enables the renewal of that covenant. As we follow Christ towards Good Friday we too are invited to share some of that cost. A lament puts us in touch with longings we may have to see things getting better, but first we want to be really honest with God about how painful something may be for us.
It’s ok to call out. It’s ok to shout our need. Many of us are like the prophet Elijah – terrorised by Queen Jezebel and disappointed by the lack of progress in what he sees as God’s cause he hides in a cave. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone about what’s going on for him. But God gently draws him out (the still, small voice) and then he laments, ‘they’ve been killing all your prophets and now only I am left (a bit of an exaggeration). God listens and then suggests a way forward. So, in Lent, let’s lament aloud to God. Get in touch with what’s bugging you most and tell him about it. then listen. Let’s get real.
It can help to write your lament as well as speak it. (Or sing, dance, paint it?!)