During the season of Lent, 2019, the saints at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are listening to, and learning from, and maybe even seeking to practice along with the ancient book of Lamentations. Each Wednesday, we will consider one of the poems from this volume and seek to understand something of its meaning and purpose in both the original and current contexts. On March 27, we read through the longest poem contained in Lamentations – chapter 3 (included in the text of the message below). My primary guide for the textual work in this series is Dr. F. W. Dobbs-Allsopp’s insightful Interpretation Commentary on Lamentations. Incidentally, I find it refreshing that an authority on such a difficult and, frankly, gloomy book goes by the nickname of “Chip”. Anything that sounds remotely profound in my interpretation of these passages was probably lifted from Dobbs-Allsopp’s work. Incidentally, the topic for this entire series was suggested by the time that our session (our church’s ruling board) spent studying Daniel Hill’s remarkable book White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to Be White. Hill calls our culture to a practice he terms “hopeful lament”. This message is an attempt to practice some of that.
To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:
Near the end of the 15thcentury an unknown author wrote a play in either Dutch or English entitled Everyman. That play begins with God sending Death to visit a character named Everyman in order to tell him that it was time to make an account of his life before God. Everyman panics, and asks for more time, but Death refuses to add even a single day. However, Death does allow Everyman the opportunity to find a companion to accompany him to the grave.
Everyman rushes to find company, but Fellowship and Family refuse to travel. Goods says that she cannot come – nor will Beauty, Strength, Wits, or anyone else. Finally, Good Deeds says she’d like to come along, but is too weak for the journey because Everyman has not been attentive to her during his lifetime. Everyman eventually realizes through this pilgrimage that each of us is essentially alone at the hour of our death and we have nothing but our good deeds to accompany us to the grave.
Everyman is an example of what we have come to know as a “morality play” – a production that is designed to increase personal understanding of the faith and to promote faithful living and a just society.
I bring Everyman to mind this evening because in some ways, this is what we find in the poem of Lamentations 3. Just as with the previous two poems in this book, chapter 3 is an acrostic poem written in response to the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. However you will notice some key differences between this work and those that precede it.
Whereas chapters 1 and 2 consist of 22 verses, each of which starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, chapter 3 is the most complicated poem in the book. There are three verses for each of the letters in the Hebrew alphabet, and it doesn’t even mention the destruction of the city. Rather, there is a response to the event. Another significant difference is that this poem begins in the first person, rather than switching voices halfway through. Finally, the narrator is most decidedly a male voice who speaks in contrast to the feminine voice assigned to Jerusalem in chapters 1 and 2. Look with me at the first six stanzas of this poem:
1I am someone who saw the suffering caused by God’s angry rod.
2 He drove me away, forced me to walk in darkness, not light.
3 He turned his hand even against me, over and over again, all day long.
4 He wore out my flesh and my skin; he broke my bones.
5 He besieged me, surrounding me with bitterness and weariness.
6 He made me live in dark places like those who’ve been dead a long time.
7 He walled me in so I couldn’t escape; he made my chains heavy.
8 Even though I call out and cry for help, he silences my prayer.
9 He walled in my paths with stonework; he made my routes crooked.
10 He is a bear lurking for me, a lion in hiding.
11 He took me from my path and tore me apart; he made me desolate.
12 He drew back his bow, made me a shooting target for arrows.
13 He shot the arrows of his quiver into my inside parts.
14 I have become a joke to all my people, the object of their song of ridicule all day long.
15 He saturated me with grief, made me choke on bitterness.
16 He crushed my teeth into the gravel; he pressed me down into the ashes.
17 I’ve rejected peace; I’ve forgotten what is good.
18 I thought: My future is gone, as well as my hope from the Lord.
This lone male voice is, truly, an Everyman. Did you hear in this long reflection that once again, God is named as the source of the narrator’s pain? This is a continuation of themes developed in the first two poems – God is angry, God has done this. Here, the effect of God’s anger is personalized – because our narrator – Everyman – has been humbled. His weakness and frailty and even impotence is on display; he is vulnerable.
What is interesting is that verse 18 marks the ending of the accusations about God’s role in the story. The remainder of this poem, and, by and large, the rest of the book, will focus on the response to the situation that has developed.
Let’s turn our attention to what happens after the narrator finds himself exposed and vulnerable:
19 The memory of my suffering and homelessness is bitterness and poison.
20 I can’t help but remember and am depressed.
21 I call all this to mind—therefore, I will wait.
22 Certainly the faithful love of the Lord hasn’t ended; certainly God’s compassion isn’t through!
23 They are renewed every morning. Great is your faithfulness.
24 I think: The Lord is my portion! Therefore, I’ll wait for him.
25 The Lord is good to those who hope in him, to the person who seeks him.
26 It’s good to wait in silence for the Lord’s deliverance.
27 It’s good for a man to carry a yoke in his youth.
28 He should sit alone and be silent when God lays it on him.
29 He should put his mouth in the dirt—perhaps there is hope.
30 He should offer his cheek for a blow; he should be filled with shame.
The response to having been humbled, or brought low, or made aware is to seek to remind himself of what he has known to be true. He anchors himself in what God has revealed about God’s self, which is most simply and appropriately described as “faithful love”. In spite of his own experience; in spite of his own pain, he disciplines himself to remember that his current situation is neither reflective of the original intent nor a universal condition. So that personal recollection leads him to the next part of the poem:
31 My Lord definitely won’t reject forever.
32 Although he has caused grief, he will show compassion in measure with his covenant loyalty.
33 He definitely doesn’t enjoy affliction, making humans suffer.
34 Now crushing underfoot all the earth’s prisoners,
35 denying someone justice before the Most High,
36 subverting a person’s lawsuit—doesn’t my Lord see all this?
37 Who ever spoke and it happened if my Lord hadn’t commanded the same?
38 From the mouth of the Most High evil things don’t come, but rather good!
39 Why then does any living person complain; why should anyone complain about their sins?
The stanzas that make up verses 31-39 contain an extended section of teaching and theological reflection. In the margins of my bible I have written “who is the author trying to convince here?” Is he talking, as most preachers do, to himself? Is he lobbying a group of hearers who have suffered similarly? Or is he speaking to some disinterested bystanders or even to those who have attacked his home?
No matter his intended audience, he gets himself so worked up that the voice of the text shifts slightly. Notice how the next few stanzas adopt a first person plural:
40 We must search and examine our ways; we must return to the Lord.
41 We should lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven.
42 We are the ones who did wrong; we rebelled. But you, God, have not forgiven.
43 You wrapped yourself up in wrath and hunted us; you killed, showing no compassion.
44 You wrapped yourself up in a cloud; prayers can’t make it through!
45 You made us trash and garbage in front of all other people.
46 All our enemies have opened their mouths against us.
47 Terror and trap have come upon us, catastrophe and collapse!
48 Streams of water pour from my eyes because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.
Do you see what has happened here? His personal reflection on the situation and subsequent theological exploration have led him to a rallying cry for action! He begins with confession – what the community did. And that leads to a lament – a statement of truth and a recognition that the world is currently characterized by chaos and pain.
That is continued in the next two stanzas:
49 My eyes flow and don’t stop. There is no relief
50 until the Lord looks down from the heavens and notices.
51 My eyes hurt me because of what’s happened to my city’s daughters.
52 My enemies hunted me down like a bird, relentlessly, for no reason.
53 They caught me alive in a pit and threw stones at me;
54 water flowed over my head. I thought: I’m finished.
This, beloved, is what lamentation can and should look like. The speaker, regaining his sense of vulnerability and brokenness says simply, “There is no relief…I’m finished…”
The sense of active lament is intensified in the next few stanzas:
55 I call on your name, Lord, from the depths of the pit.
56 Hear my voice. Don’t close your ear to my need for relief, to my cry for help.
57 Come near to me on the day I call to you. Say to me, “Don’t be afraid.”
58 My Lord! Plead my desperate case; redeem my life.
59 Lord, look at my mistreatment; judge my cause.
60 Look at all of my enemies’ vengeance, all of their scheming against me.
61 Hear their jeering, Lord, all of their scheming against me,
62 the speech of those who rise up against me, their incessant gossiping about me.
63 Whether sitting or standing, look at how I am the object of their song of ridicule.
Notice the verbs: the posture of lament has stirred the spirit of the speaker to request that God move – now. Hear. Come. Speak. Save. Redeem. Look. Judge. The speaker who began this poem by blaming God for the pain that he himself is experiencing is now recognizing that God alone is the source of help and strength and, above all, justice and reconciliation.
The poem ends with what we might call “imprecatory” verses. This is a particular style of prayer in which the one leading the prayer invites, asks, or begs God to bring pain or misery into the life of another. It is a prayer for the destruction of an enemy. Listen:
64 Pay them back fully, Lord, according to what they have done.
65 Give them a tortured mind—put your curse on them!
66 Angrily hunt them down; wipe them out from under the Lord’s heaven.
To our ears, imprecatory verses are difficult to hear – I hope because we understand a little better the divine intent as expressed by Jesus as he ties the forgiveness we receive from God with our willingness to extend that forgiveness to those who have wronged us. It is clear that this prayer ends with a plea for punishment of those who have brought pain. We should note, though, that it remains a plea for Godto act, rather than a call for some within the community rise up and seek revenge.
The poem ends with the narrator giving God some free advice – but realizing that this is God’s sphere, and not his own. He places himself firmly under God’s authority and direction even as he honestly cries out from his own pain.
I began this message by referring to the medieval play Everyman. The final lines of that play are spoken by a “Doctor of Divinity” who is seeking to hammer home the message of that work: that there is nothing to which we can cling in this life that will save us, only the mercy and justice of God. It is therefore incumbent on every man (and every woman!) to live each day with an awareness of how our behavior is shaped by that mercy and justice.
I conclude this sermon in the same fashion: only instead of warning you about the fleeting nature of pride, possessions, or knowledge, I will remind you that each and every one of us has spent every moment of our lives in a culture that is assumes, in one way or another, that the perspectives, opinions, and experiences that come with “whiteness” are normal and right, and any deviations from those perspectives, opinions, or experiences are wrong or abnormal.
When we breathe air like that, beloved, we become fundamentally misshapen. We lose track of who, and whose, we are; we cannot see our neighbor or ourselves aright. When we breathe this air too long, we find ourselves seeing “us” and “them”; we see young men in hoodies as “thugs” or we place targets on the backs of law enforcement officers who are genuinely trying to promote justice and serve the common good. Everyone loses when we accept the notion that whiteness is normative.
I would suggest that the call of God for our congregation, this evening, is to enter into a time of lament. To recognize in ourselves and our neighbors the destruction that comes
- when we value one race above another;
- when we centralize one culture while marginalizing another;
- when we choose to use our power to extend our own advantage and somehow – knowingly or not – wind up eroding the humanity of those who do not look like us.
Let us enter into a time of prayer, wherein we lay before the Lord our own confession of brokenness and our lament for a world in which the color of a person’s skin seems too often to be more important than the content of that person’s heart and wherein too many of God’s children with brown skin are burying their children and living in fear. The world should not be this way, beloved. Let us hear their cry, and add our own to it. Let us decry and deny the subtle or not-so-subtle racism that wants us to believe that “there are good people on both sides” – as if there can be anything good about a values system that seeks to discredit, disinherit, or destroy the other.
I don’t want to end my message with, or include in my prayers, any words that are imprecatory. I’m not looking call down fire and brimstone on anyone. I’m looking for ways to encourage us to live into the Kingdom that we get so worked up about every time we come into this room. If it matters in this room, then it should matter out there. And if it isn’t showing up out there – then we need to consider how it is we are applying the things we learn while we’re here. Let us, beloved, stand for this thing that matters. Let us, beloved, stand with these sisters and brothers who struggle. Thanks be to God. Amen.