The Rashomon Effect (and does it matter?)

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On Maundy Thursday (April 18, 2019), we looked at one of the few members of the community to be named in each of the four Gospels: Joseph of Arimathea.  Who was this man, what did he do, and why did it matter?  The Gospel text was Mark 15:42-47.  We also listened to selected verses from Hebrews 9

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

One of the best things that has happened to me in the past year or so is the “slow reading” of Mark’s Gospel that this sermon series has allowed. I find that especially true during this season, where we’ve had the privilege of notrushing through the last 100 verses of the story in just a sermon or two.

As I read and re-read the passage at hand this evening, I recalled a couple of films with which you may be familiar: Courage Under Firewith Denzel Washington and Vantage Pointwith Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker. Each of these films employs a device called the Rashomon Effect – this is a way of storytelling wherein we see the same events through different lenses.  In Vantage Point, for instance, there is an attempted assassination of the President, but just when we think that we know everything, we see the same occurrence from a different, well, vantage point.  And each different perspective adds to our understanding of what really happened in the plot line.

Joseph of Arimathea stained glass window in The Church of St. John the Baptist, Glastonbury, England

In fact, there are some folk who would say that the presence of four Gospels is itself a demonstration of the Rashomon Effect, as each author is selective about what to include, and therefore what to exclude, in the narratives about Jesus.  One character that shows up in each of the four Gospels, however, is this man called Joseph from Arimathea.

As I read the text slowly this week, I began to jump to different conclusions as to who Joseph might have been, and why it’s important to remember his presence.  Although Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark all note that he was there – each of them only mentions him on the day of Jesus’ death, and he doesn’t show up anywhere else. Who was he, and what is his function in the story?

Each of the gospel writers implies that he was some sort of a disciple.  Yet he was not a public disciple in the way that Peter, James and John were.  He was a secret follower – he lived in fear of his relationship with Jesus making the rest of his life more difficult (or in fear of the rest of his life making life more difficult for the disciples).  Mark tells us that he was a prominent member of the council.  If you’ve been paying attention the past few weeks, you’ll recall that there were precious few people in that group who might have aligned themselves with the Lord.

Does the Gospel include this story because we are to believe that Joseph’s secret fascination with Jesus was an example of “too little, too late”? I can’t believe that Mark’s original readers would have been impressed with a man of power and privilege who sought to keep his affiliation with Jesus a secret.  These were people living in Rome who were experiencing persecution for having identified themselves as Christ-followers, and apparently Joseph of Arimathea was a leading member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. According to Mark himself, Joseph said nothing at Jesus’ trial (14:64 reads, “and they allcondemned him…”).  If that’s the case, then isn’t he worse than Peter, who simply denied knowing him?  Or maybe even worse than Judas, who simply told the authorities where Jesus might be found?

But there’s another way to look at this.  Joseph was, evidently, a wealthy man.  Maybe he was a member of the council who had a heart that matched his bank account. Sure, he had been a part of the body that ultimately executed Jesus, but he felt so badly about it that in order to assuage his guilt for his participation in this enterprise, he bankrolled the entire burial expense – thus ensuring that Jesus would not meet the fate of so many common criminals and have his body lay exposed to the elements. Joseph regretted his action with the Council, and as a way of making up for that, he sought to at least do right by Jesus after death.  Did Mark include him as a means of demonstrating that stewardship is important and it’s never too late to get on the right side of history?

Joseph of Arimathaea Seeks Pilate to Beg Permission to Remove the Body of Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

There are some who have argued that neither of these is the case, and in fact that Joseph is worthy of admiration because even after all of the original disciples run away, Joseph himself is the only person who actually actslike a disciple.  In chapter 6, Mark narrated the death of John the Baptist, and went out of his way to tell us that although John, too, was killed as an enemy of the state, John’sdisciples had the courage to go and get his body and give it a proper burial.  Maybe Joseph is included in this story to show Mark’s readers how a realdisciple acts.

In the past few chapters, Mark has shown us that the number of true friends that Jesus has appears to be in decline.  When he’s giving away lunch on the mountain top there are 5000+ willing followers; later at a Bible Study, only 72 show up.  There was a throng at Palm Sunday, but the number had dropped significantly by the time dinner on Thursday rolled around.  Later that same evening, they “all” fled, so that on Friday all we’ve got left is a group of women hanging around within earshot of the cross.  And yet Joseph emerges as the hero of this scene and actslike a true follower would act.

In fact, there are some critics of the New Testament who insist that Joseph is a little too perfectto be a real person.  The fact that he doesn’t show up in any other places of the Gospel, combined with the inability of any biblical scholar to point to a town called “Arimathea” on a map, added to the fact that the word “Arimathea” can be loosely translated as “ari” = “best” and “mathea” = “disciple-town” has led a few people to believe that Mark made up this character specifically to show his community what truedisciples do.

There’s one more angle, though: Frederick Buechner suggests that while Joseph of Arimathea might have been a nice and even generous man, his vision was limited and he is therefore remembered as the one person who apparently cared more for the dead Jesus than the living Christ.  Buechner writes, “It is important to give Joseph of his due for his mortuary solicitude, but at the same time it is hard not to see him as the first of many Christians who spend so much time stewing about the blood of the lamb that they lose sight of the fact that the lamb has long since gone on to greener pastures where he’s kicking up his heels in the sunshine and calling to others to come join the dance.”[1]

So there you have it.  What’s your take on this? Was Joseph of Arimathea a secret, and therefore a worthless follower of Jesus? One whose cowardice during Jesus’ trial could not be overcome by the donation of a prime cemetery plot after the inevitable outcome of that trial?  Or was he a wealthy benefactor who sought to cushion the blow to Jesus’ family and friends, and whose largesse was worthy of imitation in the centuries that followed?

Maybe you hold fast to the notion of Joseph as being bold, courageous, and a disciple’s disciple, doing that for Jesus which not a single other follower would do.  And, as I mentioned, it’s possible to maintain that he was an eminently sensible man who was just trying to put this whole affair to rest as quickly and as quietly as possible – as if he said, “Let’s just get this funeral over with so that life can get back to normal around here…”

St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and the Staff that Flowered, by the hand of a Monk of the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Rashomon Effect suggests that there are multiple layers of interpretation of Joseph’s character, and each interpretation carries with it a moral lesson of something to embrace or to avoid. Perhaps you know that the Christian Tradition has fallen in love with the character of Joseph of Arimathea. Some have said that he was there to hold the chalice used at the Last Supper to catch some of the blood of the Christ, and thereby giving rise to the legend of the Holy Grail; some say that in AD 63 he went on a missionary trip to England and became known as Joseph of Glastonbury.  I think all that proves is that the church has always been in love with celebrities and rich, beautiful people.

And yet no matter where you think Joseph’s heart was, and what you think his motivation was, there is one incontrovertible fact in these few verses. More than anyone else, Joseph of Arimathea is the one responsible for ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth was provided with a death certificate.  Now Jesus’s family didn’t need one of those for the insurance company or the Social Security folks, but we have come to rely on Joseph’s assurance that Jesus was, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “crucified, dead, and buried.”

It is noteworthy that a man described as a prominent member of the Sanhedrin took it upon himself to march into Pilate’s office and request that the Roman Military attest to Jesus’ death.  This is seemingly unimpeachable evidence: a member of the Jewish Council, the Roman Procurate, and an officer of the army of the occupation are all convinced that on this day we have come to call Good Friday, the life was drained from Jesus’ veins.

Cristo con José de Arimatea, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1525)

Jesus was dead.  He wasn’t pretending to be dead.  They weren’t afraid he was going to die.  It didn’t seem as if he might be dead.  He was dead.  Whether this was Joseph’s aim or not I cannot know; but these six verses in the Gospel of Mark are enough to convince me that whatever happened next was the thing that happened after the worst thing possible.

To put it another way: Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate, and the Centurion all appeared to think that Mark 15 was the end of the story. The only two friends that Jesus had left, apparently, Mary and Mary, must’ve thought so too.  They came to make sure that things were done right.

The fact – not the appearance, but the factof Jesus’ death would appear to preclude anything of interest or hope in Mark 16.

And yet, beloved, there is a Mark 16.  That is a story for another day, and I hope you’ll be here to hear it.  For tonight, I just want to remind you of this, my friends: You have all stood at the grave.  You have all watched as the one you loved entered into that dark place.  You have each gone home and wondered, “Well, what in the heck am I supposed to do now?”  You have each come into a situation where you thought that all was lost.  Like Joseph, you have done what you thought might have been impossible and rolled that giant stone in place in an attempt to seal yourself off from the death that you thought might consume you.

Like Joseph, like you, and like me, Jesus was present at funerals. And yet he went, not as a mourner, but as the corpse. Make no mistake: Joseph, along with Mary and Mary, are here to point to the exact spot where Jesus’ corpse was laid.  The daylight flees, and the few friends that Jesus has left melt into the darkness, convinced that sin and death have won the day.

I have often been close to knowing how that feels, and I know that you have too.  In our zeal to get to all things Easter, let us not rush through this Good Friday and the day that follows it.  Let us hold on to the sure and certain knowledge that as Jesus was, so shall we be.  And let us remember that when we get to Sunday as well, for as he became, so shall we also become.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of hope and life.  Amen.

[1]Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 79-80.

Yishar

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On Palm/Passion Sunday (April 14, 2019), we imagined a friendship that might have shaped the world… We tried to see the crowds at the crucifixion, and we sought to consider what is the crux of the matter.  Our Gospel text was Mark 15:21-41, and we heard it after considering the words of Isaiah 53.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please visit the link below:

As I was preparing for this message I was struck by something that seemed surprising at this point in our study of Mark.  You’ll remember that we have observed that Mark is typically the “sparest” of the Gospels.  It’s the shortest, and it has the least of just about anything.  There is no infancy narrative; there are not many extended teaching passages; and as we’ll see in the week to come, his treatment of the resurrection is the most abbreviated of all the Gospels.  Mark is writing a short and to the point account of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

The Crucifixion, Luca Signorelli (c. 1505)

This is demonstrated in his treatment of the central event of his entire Gospel – the death of Jesus on the cross.  His account of it is given to us in three words in verse 24: “they crucified him” (in the Greek, that’s only two words).  It’s short and to the point.  Just the facts.

And yet that stark reality is contrasted with the amount of detail that Mark lavishes on the scene surrounding this central event.  In particular, I noted the naming of characters – something that Mark was not always eager to do.  In these twenty verses, we hear the names of Simon, Alexander, Rufus, Elijah, Mary, Mary, James, Joseph, and Salome.  We are further directed to consider a host of un-named participants: two bandits, countless passers-by, chief priests, scribes, many other women,and a centurion.  I think that is Mark’s way of indicating that this event, and the Gospel, are to be known and interpreted in community where people’s names are known.  In my attempt to do that, I’m imagining a scene in Rome close to 2000 years ago.  There are forty or fifty individuals crowded into a catacomb under the city, listening to an aged black man tell a story.  Listen with me:

Early Christians Worship in the Catacombs of Saint Calixtus (19th c. woodcut)

Sisters and brothers, I am amazed at this unlikely community that the Master has formed here in Rome.  I know that you see each other all the time, but I am here to remind you that it is unusual to come across a gathering that includes Jews and Gentiles, slaves and free, male and female – people from every walk of life are represented in this small circle.  I am grateful for the ways that you have welcomed and loved my sons Alexander and Rufus in this place, and I am delighted even to see my second-born’s namesake, my old friend Rufus here – once a Centurion of Rome, now a man of leisure…

I do not know how you came to know the Master, but for me, it began in the context of community.  I wasn’t looking for a savior; I wasn’t looking for a new religion; in fact, all I was looking for was the shortest route to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Growing up in Cyrene – I believe that some of you may know this area as Libya – in Northern Africa, coming to Jerusalem was a dream.  I mean, we had a community of Jews in Cyrene, but all we talked about was one day making it to the City of God – all of the boys and men dreamed of being able to be in Jerusalem for the feast – and in that particular year, I had made it!

Pilgrimage to the Second Jerusalem Temple, Alex Levin (used by permission http://www.artlevin.com).

I was rushing through the outskirts of town trying to find the Temple.  I was eager to worship YHWH in a new way, where I could see and smell the sacrifice and stand shoulder to shoulder with my brothers in the faith.  I’d planned this trip for years.  The last thing I wanted was a distraction.

I saw a crowd – it looked like a parade of some sort.  The previous evening I’d stayed in Jericho, just outside of Jerusalem, and all the talk at the guest-house was of the events of the previous week when a teacher from Galilee rode into the city on a donkey, being proclaimed as Messiah.  I had heard of others who claimed to be the ones to throw off Rome, or to bring liberation, and I wasn’t interested in politics like that.  I hadn’t come to take part in a protest – I just wanted to see the splendor of the Temple.  I wanted to see the place where YHWH dwelled.

But then, as I looked for an appropriate direction to go, it seemed as though all of a sudden the crowd was upon me.  In a second, I sensed that somehow, all eyes were directed toward me – and I didn’t know why that was.  I looked, and there was a giant of a man – a Roman Centurion – in fact, that man right over there – Rufus – and he was pointing directly at me, yelling words in a language I did not understand.

I tried to take it all in, and as I looked around wildly I saw what I knew to be the heart of the procession: there were three prisoners, each struggling under the weight of a cross.  And even though I didn’t speak his language, I knew what that Roman Officer was saying.

We had, from time to time, crucifixions in Cyrene.  And I knew that it was not uncommon for the Romans to make the condemned man carry his own cross beam.  After all, why would a soldier get his hands dirty and his back sore merely to execute a common criminal?  That was what was happening here.

And while two of the convicts were making their way all right, the third man was clearly not able to continue.  He appeared to have been beaten savagely, and I was surprised he was able to even walk, let alone carry the timber that must have weighed a hundred pounds.

I felt sorry for the man; it was indeed a pathetic situation. But I grew up in Cyrene.  I had seen plenty of pathos before.  I didn’t want to get involved.  And yet, in all of my years, I have not figured out how to say “no” to an armed Centurion backed by his entire cohort.  And so I put aside my plans, girded my robe, and picked up the cross beam.

I was ashamed to be connected with that enterprise.  At first, I was embarrassed – what if people thought that I was a criminal?  In fact, I tried to get it over with quickly.  I walked as fast as I could – outpacing the condemned man.  The Centurion cracked a whip and told me to slow my pace and walk with the convicts. Then I was angry and frustrated, as I saw my chance for worship in the Temple – and for sharing in the sacrifice – slipping away.

And then we got to a place that is called Golgotha.  Some soldiers came and took the wood from me. After taunting me for a bit, these men pushed me aside and gave me to understand that I was now free to go – that my work was done.

For the first time, I turned and I looked right at the prisoner whose cross I’d carried.  I was unsettled to find that he was looking right at me.  And then, I could tell that he was trying to speak.  He licked his parched lips and he croaked out a single word. He said, “Yishar.”  I had never heard that word before, but I later learned that it is the Aramaic word that Galileans use to say “thank you.”

“Yishar.”  That is the only word that the Master ever spoke directly to me, and yet it has come to mean more to me than all the other words of his that I have come to know.

Well, my friends, I became a man transfixed.  I could not leave that hillside.  I was there to witness it all – the jeering of the crowd, the taunting of the bandits beside him…  And yet the thing that I found most appalling – and surprising, since I had in fact come to see those men – was the way that the holy men I had come to see and worship with in the Temple were so eager to leave the beauty of the Temple and the splendor of YHWH behind in order to come and heap scorn and derision on this man as he was dying in a dump. I didn’t understand how it was that they who already had so much power and prestige – they had clearly already “won”, from what I could tell – and yet they could not say enough vile things about this poor man.

Now remember this, my friends: I had never met this man whom I’ve come to consider to be my Master; and I didn’t know any of those priests and scribes from the Temple, and yet even a man as simple as I was wise enough to know that the God whom I’d traveled to worship would not take delight in the suffering or death of anyone.

Remember, I had come to Jerusalem encounter the Divine Presence. To stand on the Promised Land. And most importantly, to pray. And on that Friday so many years ago, I only heard two prayers.  And neither of them was in the Temple that had been the object of my journey.

The first prayer I heard came from the lips of the Man himself. It was a guttural cry of lament, loss, and brokenness.  He managed to cry out the first verse of the 22ndPsalm, and that led me to consider the rest of that song – the ways that God’s people experience such pain and alienation.

The second prayer that I heard that day was uttered by our friend Rufus, the Centurion.  When it was all done, I heard him whisper, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”  Rufus told me later that he didn’t think he was praying, and that it was in fact the first prayer of his entire life.

And yet it was a prayer.  And we are here this morning because brother Rufus was right.  The man who was killed that day, Jesus of Nazareth, was the Son of God.  It occurred to me that perhaps I had, in fact, been witness to a sacrifice after all.

And it would be a good story, my friends, if I were to stand here and tell you that Rufus and I went out that evening for some wine, and that we spent the next few days in the company of the friends of Jesus as we learned and prayed together.

But that didn’t happen.  I was a poor foreigner from Africa.  He was a Roman soldier with work to do in a place that didn’t like or respect Rome.  So I faded into the twilight at the end of the day.  I made it to the Temple after all, and was witness to the disturbance that was caused when the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in a manner that no man could have done…  And even when I was there, peering in on the altar itself – I was aware that the holiest thing I would ever see was the death of this Son of God.

I remained in Jerusalem.  I had only planned to stay for a couple of weeks, but I got sick and by the time I recovered it was time for the Feast of Pentecost, and I decided to celebrate that feast with the people in Jerusalem.  On the day of the feast I was making my way down the street when I heard a voice calling, crisp and clear, in my own language.  I turned, and I recognized the speaker to be one of the followers of the Galilean who had been killed.  That man seemed to be as surprised to be speaking in my language as I was to hear it!  And yet on that day I was able to hear, for the first time, the significance of the life that this man had lived – and I heard the news of his resurrection as well.

Later that day, as I listened to Peter preaching about the new life that Jesus offered, I turned and saw a shock of red hair and recognized Rufus as the Centurion who had been present at Golgotha.

It was thenthat Rufus and I did become friends.  Together, we went with the followers of Jesus back to their lodging and shared in a meal.  We became more than friends – we are brothers.  In fact, my second-born son bears his name.

And yet – and yet, I realize that the story of how God worked to bring the lives of a simple laborer from Cyrene and a Roman Centurion together in this place – well, that’s a story for another day.

Today, we are gathered to remember what is crucial.  We are here to consider the cruxof the matter, as our friends might say in Latin.  We have heard from the book written by our brother Mark in Greek kai staurousin auton.  In the language of Rome: et crucifigentes eum. And they crucified him.

That’s all our brother Mark tells us.

And yet it is the crucial thing.  It is the crux of our faith.

I cannot say that I am glad that it he was crucified.  I would have preferred it to be me, in fact.  I surely deserved it more than he. No, I am not happy that it happened, and yet I must say that I am glad to have been there. Sharing in his death has made the opportunity of speaking of his life and resurrection even more meaningful to me.

Sisters and brothers, you know that the world has much evil and many problems.  The fact that we are forced to worship here, in the catacombs, hiding among the dead while we proclaim life and light to all – that is one of the ways that you know that the world is a broken place.  And yet, let us leave those great problems of the world aside for now.  Let us meditate on those three words: they crucified him. And let us claim how that event has led us to experiences of new life, of improbable community, and of an understanding of the willingness of God – the one who I thought was hidden behind a curtain in the temple – let us hold fast to our appreciation for the fact that thatGod has demonstrated a willingness – no, an eagerness – to enter into the dark, hidden, painful and yes, even deadly places of our own lives.

Let us celebrate this Lord’s day the fact that the God of whom I had learned as a boy growing up in Cyrene is the One who was revealed in the person of Jesus to the Centurion; the One whom we had thought to dwell in a room in Jerusalem has risen to fill the world.  Let us embrace as the crux of the matter the truth that because he has known death, we can know life.  And as we think on all of those things then let us, beloved, find it in us to whisper back to him that which he said to me: yishar. Yishar.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

But If Not…

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 April 10, we read the final chapter of that book (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 sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

As we bring our Lenten series of meditations on the book of Lamentations to a close this evening, I’d like to make a few comments on the nature of the book as a whole before we dive into chapter five.

As we’ve discussed previously, Lamentations is a collection of five very tightly and carefully constructed poems, originally written in Hebrew.  Each of the first four poems is written as an acrostic – there is a stanza, or in the case of chapter 3, three stanzas, that begins with the first letter of the alphabet; then a thought beginning with the second letter, and so on.  Each of the poems has 22 verses, with the exception of chapter 3, which has 66 verses.  It is plain to see that each poem is a reaction to, in some way, the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.  Each poem offers a glimpse at the horrors that befell the city of God, and some interpretation as to how or why that event came about.

In fact, the Hebrew title for this book is Eichah– a word that means “How?”  Three of the four poems we’ve already considered begin with this word, which presents a summary of the book’s theme: how could this have happened?  How could God have allowed this to happen?

As we turn our attention to chapter 5, we should note that this is the only poem in Lamentations that is notan acrostic.  The tone is shifting as we come to the end of the work, and that would not have been surprising to the ancient readers of this poem.  The form of Lamentations was not uncommon in the ancient Near East.  There are several examples of “City Laments” that survive from around this time period, and many of these laments end with a prayer to the god of that particular city.  In fact, most of the “typical” city laments end on a victorious note, with a prayer to the god of that city and then an account of what that god did (or soon will do) to restore that city to its former glory.  So someone hearing a poem in this fashion might sense the change in tone and say, “OK, we saw this coming.  This is the big finish, right?”

Not only is the tone different because of the lack of an acrostic structure, it is by far the most communal of the poems we’ve seen thus far.  The Hebrew forms that relate to the first person plural – words like we, us, or our – occur 34 times in these few verses.  The poet is screaming: pay attention!  Something is happening here!

Our opening stanza is an appeal for God to once more notice what is going on in the city:

Lord, consider what has become of us; take notice of our disgrace. Look at it!

In fact, in some of your bibles this chapter is subtitled “The People’s Complaint”.  What follows is a summary of the difficulties that God’s people have had to endure.  Listen to the body of this poem in verses 2 – 18:

Our property has been turned over to strangers;
our houses belong to foreigners.
We have become orphans, having no father;
our mothers are like widows.
We drink our own water—but for a price;
we gather our own wood—but pay for it.
Our hunters have been at our necks;
we are worn out, but have no rest.
We held out a hand to Egypt
and to Assyria, to get sufficient food.
Our fathers have sinned and are gone,
but we are burdened with their iniquities.
Slaves rule over us;
there is no one to rescue us from their power.
We get our bread at the risk of our lives
because of the desert heat.
Our skin is as hot as an oven
because of the burning heat of famine.
Women have been raped in Zion,
young women in Judah’s cities.
Officials have been hung up by their hands;
elders have been shown no respect.
Young men have carried grinding stones;
boys have stumbled under loads of wood.
Elders have left the city gate;
young people stop their music.
Joy has left our heart;
our dancing has changed into lamentation.
The crown has fallen off our head.
We are doomed because we have sinned.
Because of all this our heart is sick;
because of these things our glance is dark.
Mount Zion, now deserted—
only jackals walk on it now!

This is, in fact, the people’s complaint.  It is a litany of awfulness.  In some respects, the bulk of this poem sounds like a lawyer’s closing argument. We are called to remember that no one has been spared from the horrors of this tragedy: the women, the girls, the boys, the men – everyone has suffered unspeakably.  From outright attack and violation to shame and humiliation, the whole range of degradation and defeat is laid out here.

In fact, not only have God’s people suffered, but the land itself is bearing the curse of God.  Water and firewood have become scarce commodities, and the sun has scorched not only the people but the earth itself.  All of this is summarized in verse 18, which depicts the supreme irony that the place that was once characterized as a land flowing with milk and honey and the space within that land that was regarded as the holiest and most life-giving, life-affirming, God-honoring place on earth was now a site of desolation populated only by scavengers and filled with death.  The complaint made before God is pathetically blunt: we have no joy, there is no real life; we can’t see well, and there is no hope to be found in us.

Now, in a typical city lament poem, this is where we would expect to hear the tone change yet again – this is where readers would anticipate hearing the statement of final victory in the face of disintegration and death – their god, and the god of that city, will show up and show up in a big way.  It’s not uncommon in poetry of this type to have statements that are triumphal and even arrogant: yes, this is where we are, but just you wait!  You’ll see!  This amazing thing will happen and we will be on top once more!

Here is how the book of Lamentations ends:

But you, Lord, will rule forever;
your throne lasts from one generation to the next.
Why do you forget us continually;
why do you abandon us for such a long time?
Return us, Lord, to yourself. Please let us return!
Give us new days, like those long ago—
unless you have completely rejected us,
or have become too angry with us.

Wow!  Did you hear that?  There is no “happily ever after” for God’s people who survived to write the book of Lamentations.  Instead of triumphalism, we hear a tentative plea that if it doesn’t presume the silence of God, it at least allows for the silence of God.  The writer acknowledges that it’s possible that God is finished with God’s people.

And yet… And yet… Remember the name of this book in Hebrew?  Eichah? “How?”

Here’s something that you might not know about Hebrew.  When writing Hebrew, the only letters that are used are consonants.  The vowel sounds appear as small symbols that are written beneath or within the consonants.

For instance, you might read words like this:

See the words reading “cap”, “cup”, “cop”, and “hat”, “hit”, “hot”, “hate”. Note that with the consonants enlarged the words appear more similar than usual.

So when you see a word, you have to look closely to see the vowel sounds below; a number of words will remind you of other words.

The consonants in the word Eichah look like this:  אֵיכָה

That is to say, here in this amazing book of poetry that describes how horribly broken things are, the people of God are looking for God and saying, Eichah? How could this be? Where were you when this happened to us, God?

If you were to turn all the way back to the beginning of the story – back in Genesis, we find that the roles are reversed.  Do you remember that there’s another poem – a poem about a Garden and a Tree and a Man and a Woman and a Snake?  And the humans make choices that break things horribly, and God wanders through the Garden calling out to humanity, “Where are you?”  Do you remember that part of Genesis?

The Hebrew word that God says in Genesis 3:9 is Ayekah, and the consonants in that word look like this:  אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

אֵיכָה

אַיֶּֽכָּה׃

Can you look at those words and see how similar they appear to be?

The first poem in the Hebrew Bible includes a God who is wandering through creation, calling in the midst of brokenness, Ayekah?  Where are you?  And here in the book of Lamentations, a people who by their own acknowledgement have chosen to do things that break God’s heart are now calling out almost the same word.

I’m suggesting that the parallelism here is intentional.  The poem, and the book, concludes, not on a note of triumphalism or with a declaration of certainty as to how the story ends, but rather with an appeal to God’s character. This is not, as some of the other ancient poems were, an assertion of the vindication that would come to people who deserved it.  Instead, it is a proclamation of who God is even in the midst of trial.  The authors of the book of Lamentations wanted to remind their readers that the God to whom this lament is addressed is a God who goes out looking for those who have experienced brokenness – and is willing to even look for those who have causedbrokenness.  “God, you sit on the throne.  You are God for ever and ever.  No matter what happens here, you are still God.”

Actual leaflet dropped by the Luftwaffe onto Allied troops near Dunkirk.

Listen: in the Spring of 1940 the British and French armies were on the run from Hitler’s troops.  They were being driven back relentlessly by the mechanized divisions as well as by air assault, and in May of 1940 the Luftwaffedropped leaflets on the troops indicating that they were totally surrounded, and there was no hope for escape.  The British Navy was unable to get into the shallow and rough harbor at Dunkirk, and the 400,000 soldiers under Allied command were low on food, water, and ammunition.  To make things worse, the Germans had been able to crack all the codes, so there was no possibility of a secret plan.

The British commander sent a three word telegraph to his superiors in London.  It read simply, “But if not…”  That telegraph was a direct allusion to the words of the three Hebrew children in Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace in the Book of Daniel.  The pagan king had ordered them to be burnt alive, and before they went in to the blaze, they said, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.”(Daniel 3:16-18)

“But if not…” that simple 3 word message indicated that “maybe we will be saved, maybe we won’t be saved, but in either case that doesn’t say anything about the rightness of Hitler’s cause.”  It was a testament to the truth that experience is not the only arbiter of truth.  And, if you’ve seen the recent movie about the experience of the soldiers at Dunkirk, you’ll recall that the simple message galvanized an unlikely fleet of 800 fishing vessels that were able to safely evacuate nearly 340,000 allied troops.

This is the cornerstone to the entire book of Lamentation, and to our own work as those who lament today: God is God.  We may, or we may not actually survive this disaster that has befallen us today. But even if we do not survive, that does not say anything about who God is.

Listen to that theme here in Job: “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him…” (Job 13:15)

Or again from II Timothy 3:15: “if we are faithless,God remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself.”

Lamentations 5 ends by raising the possibility that God is and will be silent. It points us, this Lenten season, to the agony of Jesus’ questions in the Garden.  It is a reminder that we are creatures of time and space who are seeking, always, to relate to a creator who is constrained by neither time nor space. How can we even share a vocabulary with a God such as this?

In the days following the fall of Jerusalem, God’s people cried out against hunger and death and violence and humiliation.  They threw those words to God and trusted in a God they could not always see or hear.

In the opening years of the 21stcentury God’s people cry out against famine and flood and racism and abuse and addiction and gun violence and broken families. We throw out words to a God who seems inexplicably and maddeningly silent sometimes.

And at the end of the day, our affirmation is the same as was theirs: we do not always know where God is, and we may not always know what God is doing, but we can and do know who God is.  That is the promise, beloved, and you can trust it.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

An Elegy For The World

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 April 3, we read Lamentations 4 (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 sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Walt Whitman was moved to compose one of the most famous poems in the English language: ‘O Captain! My Captain!”  That work is fairly short – 3 stanzas of 8 lines each, and the last line in each stanza reads, “fallen, cold and dead.”

Whitman’s poem is an elegy – a work that is written in order to express some corporate grief and lament; to celebrate the memory of one who had a deep impact, and to provide some assurance that even though the subject of the verse (in this case, Abraham Lincoln) is dead, the world will remember that one’s presence and will be better because of that presence.

As we turn our attention to Lamentations 4, I’d like to suggest that this work functions as an elegy in the midst of a book of poetry that was written to help a community deal with tragedy.  Like the previous three poems in Lamentations, chapter 4 is an acrostic. There are 22 verses, and each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet.  Our text for this evening, however, differs slightly from the other three in that it is not as full of emotion as the others. In fact, Lamentations 4 contains a number of phrases that suggest that there is a numbness or a remoteness that is used to describe the suffering that has occurred after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

As we continue to seek to be a community that learns from and about the practice of lament, let us consider that poem now.  It begins with a single word: in our current text it is translated as “Oh!”; it could also be read as “How?”

Oh, no!
Gold is tarnished; even the purest gold is changed.
Sacred jewels are scattered on every street corner.

The same word is used to begin the poems of Lamentations 1 and 2.  It conveys a sense of woe, and intimates that the world has changed drastically.  In fact, as the opening stanza reveals, the world is vastly different – values have changed to the extent that pure gold is worthless and sacred jewels are laying around on the streets.  The elegy deepens in the next three stanzas:

Zion’s precious children, once valued as pure gold—
oh no!—now they are worth no more than clay pots made by a potter.

Even jackals offer the breast; they nurse their young.
But the daughter of my people has become cruel, like desert ostriches.

The baby’s tongue sticks to the roof of its mouth, thirsty.
Children ask for bread, beg for it—but there is no bread.

Here is a lament for the children of Zion.  They were once considered to be treasures worth their weight in gold, but they now are dying faster than they can be buried.  Why do they suffer? Because famine has filled the land. Look at the next six stanzas as they offer a description:

Those who once ate gourmet food now tremble in the streets.
Those who wore the finest purple clothes now cling to piles of garbage.

Greater was the punishment of the daughter of my people than Sodom’s penalty, which was quickly overthrown without any hand-wringing.

Her nazirites were purer than snow; they were more dazzling than milk.
Their limbs were redder than coral; their bodies were sapphire.

But their appearance grew darker than soot; they weren’t recognized in the streets. Their skin shriveled on their bones; it became dry like wood.

Things were better for those stabbed by the sword than for those stabbed by famine—
those who bled away, pierced, lacking food from the field.

The hands of loving women boiled their own children
to become their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

The suffering of the hungry is so great, according to the narrator, that it would have been better for them to have died in the original attack.  In addition to the children’s deaths, the community laments the destruction of every echelon of society.  Even the wealthy, who are often spared the ravages of conflict and trauma, find that they have nothing to eat; there is even a suggestion that cannibalism is rampant.

Earlier this evening I mentioned that this poem could be considered an elegy. As we read the first 10 verses of Lamentations 4, I note the sad truth that the events described here could have happened anywhere.  We know, because we’ve been here for three weeks already, that this poem is in response to a particular tragedy – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem in 586 BCE. But I have seen the deaths of children and the trauma of famine far too often in my own lifetime.  As horrible as the events described are, one of the things that makes it even worse is that such atrocities have seemingly become everyday realities in the life of a particular community.  The general lament of the first ten stanzas of this poem becomes a little more specific in the next six. Listen:

The Lord let loose his fury; he poured out his fierce anger.
He started a fire in Zion; it licked up its foundations.

The earth’s rulers didn’t believe it—neither did any who inhabit the world— that either enemy or adversary could enter Jerusalem’s gates.

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities,
those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

People wandered blindly in the streets, polluted with blood.
No one would even touch their clothing.

“Go away! Unclean!” was shouted at them, “Go away! Away! Don’t touch!”
So they fled and wandered around. The nations said, “They can’t stay here anymore.”

It was the Lord’s presence that scattered them; he no longer notices them. They didn’t honor the priests’ presence; they didn’t favor the elders.

Do you see that the narrative now gains a particular context.  Although these things could have happened in a number of places, they actually occurred right here in Jerusalem.

In some ways, the opening verses of this poem remind me of a twelve-step meeting.  Everyone has gathered because of a general condition.  This building is full on Monday evenings because there are a number of people with substance abuse issues – that’s a common theme to their lives. Yet each meeting occasions the telling of a particular story: it’s as if each gathering begins with an acknowledgement that alcohol and drugs bring pain and grief in general, and then we are directed to look at a particular case in which that has been true.  In the same way, while the suffering of children and death from famine occur in many ways around the globe, this is the story behind these particular deaths, and this particular pain.  Even though the voice continues to be one of narration from a third-party perspective, it is a particular scenario that is described.

As we lean into the next four stanzas, listen for the change in the voice of the poet:

Our eyes continually failed, looking for some help, but for nothing. From our watchtower we watched for a nation that doesn’t save.

Our steps were tracked; we could no longer walk in our streets. Our end had drawn near; our days were done—our end had definitely come.

Our hunters were faster than airborne eagles.
They chased us up the mountains; they ambushed us in the wilderness.

The Lord’s chosen one, the very breath in our lungs, was caught in their traps— the one we used to talk about, saying, “Under his protection we will live among the nations.”

Did you hear that? Instead of being a dispassionate narrator using the third person voice (they, them, theirs), now we hear from those who have suffered:  oureyes failed, our days were done, they chased us; weused to talk…

When this happens, the reader’s participation in the poem moves from hearing a description of events that took place to a retelling of the horrors that happened to us.  Have you ever noticed that retelling a story of horror and grief is a way not only of reliving the trauma, but of sharing, interpreting or understanding it.  The poet is saying, “Look, not only did this terrible thing happen – but it happened here!  To us!”

Some of you know that a friend of mine died violently some time ago. When I first discovered what had happened, I didn’t have words for it.  I was horrified and wounded.  And yet as time went on, I found myself needing to find some way to speak that story to some other friends. I even took a couple of them to the place where it had happened – because I found that sharing the story in this way allowed me to have some measure of control over the pain and disorientation that had come into my life.  I know that some of you have been in that situation, too – you have needed to tell someone else about the difficulties you’ve lived through, or the terrible thing that has happened.  I believe that’s what’s going on in these verses of the poem – that the use of the first person adds a voice of intimacy to the narration and makes the pain share-able in the community.

Chapter 4 ends with two short stanzas in which the tone shifts one more time:

Rejoice and be happy, Daughter Edom, you who live in the land of Uz.
But this cup will pass over to you too. You will get drunk on it. You will be stripped naked.

Your punishment is over, Daughter Zion; God won’t expose you anymore.
But he will attend to your punishment, Daughter Edom; he will expose your sins.

The poet ends with a warning to those who live in neighboring communities: “Listen, friends, you can be happy that this hasn’t happened to you yet, but be aware that it is coming toward you.  And Jerusalem, or Zion – while you have been crushed, you can be thankful for the fact that your worst is already past.

As we contemplate this poem in the first part of the 21stcentury, what are to do with it?  I mean, it’s a horrible sequence of events, all right, but what are the imperatives for us? What is our take-away?

I’d suggest that this poem, perhaps even more than any of the previous three, opens up for us the language of lament in the face of atrocity.  As I mentioned, the general language and the detached voice that comes in the first half of the poem in particular allows us to find a voice that elegizes the horrible things that we encounter.

About fifteen years ago there was a horrific famine that struck the land of Malawi. I went with a team of other Christian leaders and we took stock of the effects of the damage and we sat with those who had been afflicted. One young pastor with whom I met was called Abusa Dennis.  He was in a remote region of the nation, and I asked him, “Dennis, look: is all of this making a difference?  I mean, we’re coming here and we’re trying, but is the suffering reduced at all?”  And right away, he took my hand and he said, “Abusa Dave, it is!  A year ago this time, I was conducting 8 or 9 funerals a week, and they were mostly for children.  It was horrible. But now, I’m only preaching 2 or 3 a week and it’s mostly for old people.”  I had to stop and weep at the thought of doing “only” three funerals a week, and I wondered how I might survive in a community wherein I was burying a child every single day.

These verses may offer you some vocabulary as you name and lament that which is broken in our world.  Look at these verses, and consider what you know about the realities of the Holocaust, or the plight of refugees around the world right now.  Read through them again, slowly, and allow your mind and your heart to summon up images of those who have been slaughtered in schools or places of worship around the world in recent months and years.

Although this lament is written in response to a particular set of tragedies that befell a specific community a long time ago, can you find that some of this language makes your lament a little deeper?  Can you see a connection?  That’s what elegies are for – to help bring people together in times of pain and loss and grief.

But consider this, beloved, and do not lose sight of it.  Remember how the book of Lamentations came to be, and in particular how chapter 4 reached our ears: this is a narrative written by someone who survived.  While many perished, the author did not.  That means something.

One of my favorite books and movies of all time is a striking memoir by Frank McCourt entitled Angela’s Ashes.  It is a vivid first-person narrative that begins this way: “When I look back on my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.  Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.. . the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters…”

Page after page finds young Frankie narrating the horrors of his childhood – the deaths of his siblings, the pain of his father’s alcoholism, the grip that depression had on his mother…  As I read that book, I had to keep reminding myself, “Look – he’s telling the story.  HE lived.  It’s horrible, but hegot through it.”  A memoir is like that, isn’t it?  You know that in order to have written the story, the author had to live.  It’s difficult to read, but as you are reading it you can remember that somehow the person passed through the trial.

One of the core lessons of Lamentations 4 is that somehow, the community survived.  In the context of being a community that did survive, they had to learn how to become a resource to others who were in pain.  Those who suffer greatly are, in some ways, able to be more deeply attentive to the needs of others in the wider world. While not advocating increased suffering, the authors of this work would no doubt hold fast to the truth that someone who has lived through a great tragedy, someone who has been shaped by a difficult story, now has the opportunity or maybe even the responsibility to stand with others who find themselves in the midst of great pain.

It was for this reason that a week ago Friday I went to the Islamic Center and found myself standing with dozens of Jews who were handing out roses to Muslim worshipers reeling from the pain of the shooting in New Zealand.  Because the Jews had felt the pain in the Tree of Life slaughter here in Pittsburgh, they found it important to stand with the Muslims in their time of pain. Some of you have known the difficulty of, say, miscarriage; when you find a friend experiencing that loss now, it’s important for you to say, “Yeah, I’ve been there…”

Beloved, the suffering you have experienced and witnessed has shaped your life. And yet, here you are.  You are a survivor.  You and I have survived different things, to be sure, but do not forget that you are changed because of the pain that you have seen, known, and carried.  This Lent, may we remember that pain, and be motivated by the memory of such suffering to share in the plight of those around us in our families, our community, and our world.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of lament and elegy, Amen.

Who Stands Alone?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 31, 2019), we were served another “Markan Sandwich”: this one having to do with the trials of Peter (in the courtyard) and Jesus (before the high priest).  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:53-72

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the player below:

The teacher was furious.  He had found a note in the hallway, and on it was scrawled, “I hate this school so much.  It’s filled with idiots!”  They had been talking about self-esteem and pride, and the teacher didn’t know what to do. He held the note above his head and said, “Is that what you think?  That this building is filled with idiots?  I would like to ask everyone who thinks that they’re an idiot to please stand up right now!”

There was a tense silence, and finally little Davie stood. “Really?  Davie?  You think you’re an idiot?”  The student replied, “Well, actually, no sir, I don’t.  I just hated to see you standing there all alone, sir.”

As we continue in our study of Mark, we see here in chapter 14 a study of two men who are, fundamentally, alone.  I’d like to invite you to consider what it means to be alone, and who is alone in this passage, and why.

Let me encourage you to think of this passage as another “Markan sandwich”.  You’ll recall that the author of the second Gospel often begins a story, then interrupts it with another, and finally concludes the first.  Most often, this is done because the two events will offer commentary on each other.

In the passage you’ve heard today, we see two very different men who are undergoing two very different types of trial.  Peter is out in the crowds, seeking to navigate the court of public opinion, while Jesus is the subject of a formal, albeit illegal or irregular, arraignment.  How do we hear God’s word of hope in these stories?  What do they say to their original hearers, and to us?

Persecution of the First Christians, by Giuseppe Mancinelli (1813-1875)

Let’s remember when this Gospel was written – probably about thirty years or so after the incidents it describes.  The first audience for this little pamphlet was a young Christian community in Rome, one that had in all likelihood been taught and nurtured by the Apostle Peter himself.  This group of believers was facing a significant threat – they were being persecuted, arrested, imprisoned, and even killed by the Empire.

Often when we hear of civil or religious authorities bursting into a room and bringing panic, fear, and even death, we think of someplace far away or long ago.  Not so the earliest readers of Mark’s Gospel – for them, this could have been the part of the story that seemed the most accessible.  This passage could have literally been snatched from the headlines because it was so close to their own experience.

So what is happening in this text?

Well, Jesus has been dragged from that little debacle in the Garden of Gethsemane into a full-blown arraignment before the leading council of the Jewish people, called the Sanhedrin.  If you’d like to check this out, you’ll discover many articles that describe the numerous ways that this trial was, itself, illegal. Jewish law forbad legal proceedings at night; there were many false witnesses; and Jesus was being coerced into testifying against himself.

Again, Mark’s first audience would know all about these instances wherein the “justice system” was used as an instrument of oppression and control, rather than a tool for liberation and vindication.  Clearly, Mark intends to present Jesus as a positive role model for his friends and community who are facing such injustice, and that is amplified when Jesus finally does speak.  When he is asked “Are you the Christ, the son of the Blessed One?”, he offers two little words in Greek: “Ego eimi”.  Translated, of course, that means, “I am.”  To most Westerners in the 21stcentury, “I am” is an innocent statement. “Who’s going to the Penguins game today? Who’s ready for ice cream?” “I am!”

Yet when you say “I am” in Hebrew, you say, “Yahweh”.  That changes things significantly.  And even though Jesus was speaking in Greek or Aramaic, the undertones were clear: here was Jesus, confirming to the Sanhedrin what he had forbidden the disciples to speak about earlier: he is the Messiah.  In fact, he doubles down on that by not only saying “I am” but by following that up with a “Son of Man” statement – again, a strong pronouncement in the ears of his Jewish audience.

Jesus, when pressed, speaks nothing but the truth, and he suffers for it. He is condemned by unjust people after an unfair sham of a trial and then treated shamefully.  He is cursed by others and led him away to a beating he did not deserve.

Peter’s Denial, by Rembrandt (1660)

Peter, on the other hand, is not compelled to be present by anything other than his own conscience.  He had tried to defend Jesus in the Garden, but after dropping his sword and leaving his friends, he skulked along in the shadows behind the procession to the high priest.

His trial comes, not at the hand of any official representative of either the Temple nor from the Imperial government, but from the folks who surround him in the palace courtyard.

And whereas Jesus refused to speak, Peter can’t shut up. And note the progression of his denials: First, he feigns ignorance: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  Then, he denies any connection with the community in which he and Jesus were intimately involved: “I’m not one of them!”. And finally, he disavows any personal relationship with Jesus: “I don’t know him!”  And rather than being found guilty by some outside party, as was Jesus, Peter brings down curses on himself.  The last glimpse we will have in the Gospel of Mark of this beloved disciple is of him weeping at the gate, stumbling into the darkness, regretting his own failures as a disciple and friend.  Now, having said that, I should also point out that it’s reasonable to expect that the first readers of Mark, the Christians in the city of Rome, would already be familiar with some other Peter stories; they would, in all probability, recognize that their own community had been shaped by his leadership.  Most of them would know about his imprisonment and perhaps even his death at the hands of the Roman Empire – so even though this is the last we read about Peter in Mark, the original audience would know that it’s not the end of his story.

So that’s a little bit about how the first readers of the Gospel might have heard this story in their context.  Jesus as one who is unjustly arrested, unjustly imprisoned, unjustly beaten, but who tells the truth and walks through it; Peter as one who fails miserably, who denies who he is and what he has been, yet as they know, who comes around and lives into his best self because of his community. What about us? What are the implications for this passage in our own day? What can we learn from this, and what can we do with it?

There are a lot of directions that we could go, and many possibilities for interpretation here.  This morning, though, I’d like to leave most of those ideas behind and focus on the question I asked at the beginning of the message: who is standing alone, and why?

Peter’s Denial, by Michael O’Brien (contemporary; used by permission; see more like this at http://studiobrien.com)

In this text, both Jesus and Peter are fundamentally alone at a crucial moment in their lives.  Peter is seeking anonymity as he hides in plain sight by the fire. Can you picture him drawing his cloak up over his head, hiding his face?  As he is recognized by others in the crowd in spite of his attempts to conceal his identity, he retreats into further isolation by removing himself from the fire circle and heading into the entryway or outer court.  Peter is clearly feeling unsafe and exposed in this environment.

In the same way, Jesus is surrounded by other people but more alone, perhaps, than he has been in his earthly lifetime.  As he is dragged into the trial, people come one after another and seek to “other” him.  He is diminished and assaulted verbally, physically, mentally, and spiritually by self-important people in the room who are doing everything they can to remind him that he is not like them and he is not welcome and not worthy; that he doesn’t belong and doesn’t know who he is.

I would like to suggest that both Peter and Jesus are in situations that are clearly removed from the Divine intent.  The conditions in which they find themselves are filled with evidence of fallenness, brokenness, and the far-off-ness of the Kingdom of God which they both proclaimed not all that long ago.

For some reason, as I read and re-read this scripture throughout the week, I was reminded of a brief passage from Genesis 2.  For the entire duration of the amazing creation poems that comprise most of chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis, we are only told of that which has been pronounced “good”.  Earth and sky, sun and moon, water and dry land – it’s all “good”.  But there near the end of the second chapter, we find that there is a “not good” that is introduced:  “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the human is alone.  I will make him a helper that is perfect for him.’” (Genesis 2:18)  If you were to scan the various translations of that verse, you’ll see that some versions indicate that God makes a ‘helper’ for the first human, while others call that second human a ‘helpmeet’, a ‘partner’, or a ‘companion’.  No matter how the word is translated, the implication is clear: according to the norms set forth at Creation, isolation, loneliness, or being “othered” is not good; this kind of alone-ness is not reflective of God’s best for God’s children.

So here is a word for this day, beloved:  If the character in the story that most grabbed you was Peter – if you know how it feels to want to make yourself smaller, to hide, to cringe in the shadows or walk toward the edges of your community in fear… if you understand how it is to cower in shame, or pain, or isolation… then let me please beg you to take a step out of those shadows and let some part of yourself, your story, and your pain be known.

If you have been hiding, then let me ask you to come out a little bit. There is no need to create a full-scale PR campaign, to rush the microphone during “Joys and Concerns”, or to open up your own website – but if you have felt that kind of loneliness and isolation, then let me encourage you to take a step toward another person.  Maybe it’s me; maybe it’s the person sitting next to you or the one watching your children now – but let me ask you to find someone with whom you can be true.  Share a part of your story with someone else, and together with that person, walk toward community and look for some sort of healing, hope, and restoration together.  It is not good for you to be alone, or isolated. Allow your community to help make things better.

And some of you looked at Jesus in his time of trial and abuse and you cringed on his behalf.  Why was he so alone in this his hour of need?  Did you want to scream to his friends, his brothers, his beloved followers, “Where are you now?”

If you noticed the look of isolation and maybe even abandonment in the eyes of your Lord this morning, if you were appalled at the ways in which Jesus was “othered”, then let me implore you to search for that in the faces that surround you this and every day.  Someone near you is feeling abandoned or vulnerable or exposed.  Someone close to you is hiding in fear, and cringing.

Perhaps a call from the Gospel for us today is to move to stand a little closer to that person.  I’m not suggesting that you do this in order to rescue, or fix, or change, or heal anything about that person’s life – because it may be that the reason they’re alone is because something else in our world is so broken that they have become “othered”.  Let me encourage you to become a companion, or what I might call a “non-anxious presence” in the room.

One word that has been used with some frequency in discussions like this is “ally”, and I use it guardedly today because I understand that it carries with it some baggage and connotations that may be less than helpful. That said, however, one of the best things about an ally is that neither party in such relationship is called to submit to or even become like the other.  When Germany was bombing the daylights out of Britain during World War II, for instance, the US did not, as an ally, scold the British for being British. We didn’t walk into London and teach them a better way to be English, or insist that they call lorries “trucks” or chips “French fries.”  We didn’t try to make them become like us – we went and we stood with them and helped them maintain their sense of self and sovereignty at a time when they were feeling very much at risk of being abandoned or even obliterated.

One writer at the University of Kansas has this to say about being an ally:

Sometimes, it’s just reaching out and caring; sometimes it means taking a stand against ethnic, sexist, or other oppressive jokes; sometimes it is thinking about a person and encouraging them to keep trying; it can mean… speaking out publicly against injustice; sometimes it means backing a person’s leadership; sometimes it entails organizing a demonstration against discrimination.

Whatever the circumstances, as community members, we probably have a greater capacity to be effective allies to each other than we realize. We have the ability to think about each other, empower each other, and act on each other’s behalf in our day-to-day lives or in emergency situations.

And like almost anything else, being an ally is a skill. Although being an ally often comes quite naturally, you can learn how to be an ally; and the more you do it the better you get at it.[1]

So here is the call of the Gospel today, beloved: If you feel isolated, or exposed, or insignificant because of who you are, or who you have been told that you are, then let me encourage you to seek an ally here – to reach out for one who can help you feel less vulnerable.  And if you know that someone else is in a space that might be unsafe for them because of their race, their religion, their sexuality, or any other part of their lives, then you can let that person know that they are not alone.

Our world and our culture tend to be divisive; we are increasingly polarized, fractured, and divided.  Jesus and Peter are great examples this morning of those who were driven, for whatever reason, to a place where they were scapegoated,  isolated, or abandoned.   I suspect that a significant reason for the writing of this passage in the Gospel of Mark is that Peter had said on more than one occasion, “I wish I’d have been able to do more; I wish I’d have spoken up for him more, or better.  I wish I could have been there for him.”  Similarly, Peter’s very presence in Rome was proof positive that somehow in the days following the darkest hour of his life, someone he loved and trusted moved closer to him and whispered, “It will get better, my friend. Hold on.  I am here.  We will get through this.”

That is the Good News of the Gospel, my friends.  That you can get through this.  And someone here can be with you while you do. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] University of Kansas Center for Community Health and Development (https://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/culture/cultural-competence/be-an-ally/main)

Which One Are You?

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On the Third Sunday of Lent (March 24, 2019), we found ourselves waiting in the Garden of Gethsemane with the disciples while Jesus was praying.  What were we waiting for? That depends on how you choose to interpret the verbs here.  Our Gospel text was Mark 14:27-52.

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the player below:

I would imagine that everyone in this room has enjoyed looking through old photos with a loved one and one of you is looking with incredulity at the older (and in my case, often grainy) images and saying, “Wow, this is really cool. Which one are you?”  Sometimes, we want to know what our parents or our friends looked like before we knew them.  Sometimes we want to learn more about that loved one – we are saying something like, “Tell me about this, Grampy: how did you fit into what was happening here?”

I find myself asking that same question – of myself – as I read through this chapter.  There are so many people who are mentioned here – Jesus, of course, and Peter, James, John, Judas – not to mention a host of un-named servants and friends and the crowd. Where do I fit in?  Which one am I?  Which one are you?

Well, it depends, I think, on what we think is happening here.  For most of my life, my interpretation of this passage has been based on the translation of Jesus’ prophecy that you heard earlier in verse 27.  The New International Version reports that Jesus declared “You will all fall away…”  A few verses later, Peter replies, “Even if all fall away, I will not…” The New Revised Standard Version words it slightly differently, but with the same effect: Jesus indicates, “You will all become deserters…” and Peter contests by saying, “Even though all become deserters, I will not…”  These translations – justifiable, I think – suggest that the people who have known Jesus the best are about to have the crap scared out of them and run away because they are so frightened.

And, to be honest, if that is the reading – if that is what is happening in this picture, then the disciples are once more the clueless dolts that we have imagined them to be through the years.  Jesus of Nazareth has a great plan, and it will require great bravery, but they can neither understand the plan nor muster the courage and so they fall short.  They run away leaving him to his own devices in his hour of need.

In this reading, Peter in particular is bold in his assertion of loyalty and strength, but terribly weak in practice.  He, along with James and John, is essentially helpless.  They are weak and flawed, especially compared to their friend Jesus, who suffers through what we have come to call “the agony in Gethsemane” all alone.

Judas is singled out as one who is actively and intentionally “falling away” or “deserting”.  So far as we can tell, Judas is the only disciple who is notsleeping, and he is actively undermining Jesus’ plan.

Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (self-portrait), Paul Gauguin, 1889.

Have you heard this story before?  Is this how you have read it, too?  Brave Jesus, needing his friends now more than ever, but one of them is an active traitor and the others are shameless cowards in his hour of need. If that’s the case, you are surely not alone.  That is a time-honored way of hearing this story.

But there’s a different reading.  Jesus uses – and then Peter echoes – a very interesting word.  The Greek word that Jesus uses to describe the behavior of his friends is skandalizo.  In that language, a skandalon is a stick that is baited and then put into a trap.  When a careless or unwary animal stumbles upon this treat, the stick moves, the trap springs shut, and the victim is caught.

Jesus uses this word himself in that very difficult teaching back in Mark 9, when he says, “whoever puts a stumbling block (skandalion) in front of one of these little ones… And then again three times later in the same chapter: If your hand (or foot, or eye) offends you (skandalizi), then get rid of it…”

Because of the use of the word skandalonin this passage, and its meaning in those other instances, some translators give a different picture for the prediction of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  For instance, the King James Version renders this conversation this way: “And Jesus saith unto them, ‘All ye shall be offended because of me this night…’, but Peter said unto him, ‘Although all shall be offended, yet will not I.’”  The Contemporary English Version reads, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘All of you will reject me…’, and Peter spoke up, ‘Even if all the others reject you, I never will!’”

And Eugene Peterson renders it thusly in The Message: “Jesus told them, ‘You’re all going to feel that your world is falling apart and that it’s my fault…’Peter blurted out, “Even if everyone else is ashamed of you when things fall to pieces, I won’t be.”

Now stay with me here, because this is crucial.  If Jesus is predicting that his followers will all lose heart and flee because they are cowards, then our traditional understanding is correct.  But what if he is saying, “Look, you may think that you know me, but you don’t really ‘get’ who I am or what I’m doing yet.  And because you don’t fully understand me, or the Kingdom I’ve proclaimed, then what is going to happen will scandalize you – you will think that I’m wrong.”

If that’s what Jesus is saying in Mark 14, then the behavior of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane is consistent – but in a way that could be perceived as being almost admirable.

Listen: Jesus goes off to pray and becomes, in reality, a sitting duck.  The disciples whom he invites to accompany him choose to catch up on their sleep because they are going to need it.  Someone has got to be ready to defend Jesus, and he has shown no inclination to defend himself.  Praying is all well and good, but if we’re going to be able to help him when the dookey hits the fan, we’re going to need our rest.  There will be important work to be done.  I think that this interpretation might be strengthened by the fact that Jesus recognizes that his friends are falling into old habits, and therefore calls his beloved comrade “Simon” – his old name, rather than “Peter”.

In this understanding of what is happening, then, even Judas gets a little more noble.  In bringing the powers of the Empire and Religion into a direct confrontation with Jesus, perhaps Judas is in his own mind merely calling Jesus’ bluff and telling him it’s time to fish or cut bait.  He’s effectively saying, “Look, you’ve told us that you are the Messiah – we believe that you are the one to deliver Israel. Now’s your chance, Jesus.  Act like a Messiah.  Stand up to Rome and to Religion – or we will all die trying.”

The Kiss of Judas, Giotto (1304-1306)

When Judas gets there, Jesus’ followers begin to act like, well, followers. They defend him.  Someone draws a sword.  Blood flows – the blood of those who have come to arrest Jesus.  And yet as his followers rush to his defense, Jesus forbids it.  Although Matthew and Luke are more explicit in their depiction of this part of the scene, a faithful reading of Mark indicates that Jesus is the one who stops the violence in the Garden.  His followers wantto defend him, they wanthim to stand up for himself, and they wantto stand up for him – and he prevents them from doing so.

Thenthey run away.  If Jesus is going to be saved, then it’s going to be up to people like Peter, James, and John, because (as the disciples must see it) Jesus himself is naïve and clueless.  Although his followers love Jesus, they must think that as noble as he is, simply does not understand how Empires work.

Jesus said that his followers would be scandalized by his behavior.  If we accept the translation of that word as put forward by Peterson and some of his colleagues, then this reading is all about a group of disciples who think that they know better than their master what could and should happen.  In this reading, if Jesus thinks that giving up to Pilate and Herod without a fight is a good idea, then Jesus is sadly mistaken and he’s going to need our help, according to the disciples, to get out of this jam.

So, back to my original question: which one are you?

I guess it depends on which reading, which translation of skandalizo, you prefer.

Today I’m asking myself – and therefore, you as well – are you one who has been scandalized and offended by the Lord?  You can say it, you know.  I think that he’s given us permission here.  Are you someone who has looked Jesus in the eye and said, “Well, that’s an interesting theory, Jesus, but I’m not sure that you really understand how the world works.  Listen, Lord: let me give you a little advice.  Here’s how I think we want to play this thing out…”

Are you someone who has a better plan than Jesus?

What does this passage have to teach me about trusting in God and having faith? What do I need to learn, this Lent, about seeking to listen to and live into this narration about life in the Kingdom of God? What might have happened differently if the disciples had stayed awake and prayed with Jesus?  We will never know.  All we can be sure of is that they came to understand themselves as those who had, in fact, been scandalized by the behavior of their Lord, and it was only in hindsight that they came to see their own behavior and theology as flawed.

So there is a curious little footnote to this story.  Mark ends his account of the struggle in the Garden with an odd description of a nameless kid who is almost caught in the round up but winds up escaping into the night whilst becoming known as the first “streaker” in the Gospels – a scared young man running naked as fast as he can into the darkness.

What is thatabout?  Why does Mark – the author of the shortest Gospel – the “just the facts, Ma’am” kind of writer – why does he go out of his way to tell us this story, when none of the other Gospels thought to include it?

The only reasonable explanation that I can see is that this frightened teen is actually Mark himself.  These two brief verses are Mark’s way of saying, “Yeah, I was there too.”

It makes sense. In Acts 12, we read that one of the central locations in Jerusalem for the early Christian movement was in the home of a woman named Mary, who was the mother of a son called John Mark.  It’s entirely possible that this home was the site of the Last Supper on that Maundy Thursday evening.  And if the Supper took place in his own home, it’s easy to imagine this kid hanging around the edges, listening to the men talking and planning and then following them out into the darkness.  When everything goes down, he is overcome with fear and flees into the darkness and back to the safety of his own home.

Friends, I want you to remember what we said about Mark’s Gospel way back in 2017.  The second Gospel was written, we said, to encourage the young church in Rome.  That community was being persecuted and victimized and attacked, and they wanted to know where was Jesus in the midst of all this.  Mark’s account, written to these people, is that Jesus can be trusted. That Jesus promises to be present in the midst of all the pain, all the injustice, all the persecution.  The second Gospel was written to help a specific community see that the Kingdom is real and powerful and worthwhile.

And in this little footnote, Mark, the teller of the story, is able to say, “Listen, friends: I’ve been there.  You need to know that I didn’t always ‘get’ him either.  I’ve been scandalized.  I’ve been offended.  I’ve been afraid and I’ve been ashamed.  But I’m telling you that Jesus is the real deal.  You can trust him.  As you live and move and seek to get through the days and nights in Nero’s Rome, don’t give up.  Never forget that the ways of the Empire are notthe ways of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed. Remember that the values of the Messiah are not always celebrated by the Emperor.

I would suggest that the author of the second Gospel uses this story, in part, to help his first hearers – and us – to focus on the admonition that Jesus offered his friends in verse 38: “Keep awake, and pray…”  Those are two of the most important aspects of being a disciple, I think. The commands in the Garden are virtually identical to the summation that Jesus gave in Mark 13 – the longest teaching passage in this Gospel: “What I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake”.

This, beloved, is the task and the purpose of Lent.  To set aside some extra time, to seek to apply some special discipline, to put ourselves in a place where we are able and willing to do just that – to watch and to pray.  To look for and point out signs of the Kingdom that is present among us even now. To hold onto the promise when it seems as though that Kingdom is incredibly far-off. The first 13 chapters of Mark give us a vision, a foretaste, a hope for the Kingdom.  Mark uses them to help us be attentive to a Messiah who cares about injustice, and who offers us viable strategies to come together and live into that kind of community.

And this passage is given to help us remember that nobody – even first disciples and Gospel writers – gets it right all the time.  We are called to live as a community of grace, humility, forgiveness, hope, and sacrifice.  Those are not values that always sell well in the Empire – but they are the ones that will shape us into the likeness of the Christ, whose name we bear.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

Lament Means Hearing, Telling, and Living With the Truth

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 20, we explored some of the history behind the compositions as well as the poem contained in Lamentations 2 (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”.  We are trying to learn that.

To hear this message as preached in worship, please use the link below:

As we re-enter the world of Lamentations, let me invite you to recall some of what we said last week about this beautiful little book.

The Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez, 1867

First, we need to recall that this “book” is actually a pamphlet of five complete poems that came out of the experience of those who survived the worst day ever in 6thcentury BC Judah.

In 586 BCE Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar completed his siege and conquest of Jerusalem, laying waste the town, destroying the temple, and taking captive the educated elite of the nation.

Not just a city, but a culture and a people lay in ruins.  People do not know how they will survive in the face of the loss, not just of property and life, but of meaning and purpose and, in a very real way, history itself.

You may recall that the “book” of Lamentations is actually a series of five carefully constructed poems.  Each of the chapters in our English Bibles contains one of the five poems of Lamentations. Like Lamentations 1, chapter 2 is an acrostic poem – that is to say, it follows a pattern based on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

The first letter of verse one is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet – aleph.  The first letter of verse two is the second letter: beth.  Likewise, the first letter of verse three is the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet: gimel.

If you were here last week you’ll recall that Lamentations 1 was divided into two parts.  It began with a description of Jerusalem as a woman – a “fallen” woman, if you will – someone who was vulnerable but whose underpinnings had been pulled out from beneath her.  She has been violated by, or at least abandoned by those who should have who promised to protect and comfort her. About halfway through the chapter, though, the voice of the poem changes from being adescriptionof suffering to being a personal narrationof suffering.  Chapter 1 ends with a plea for God to notice the condition of the city – not because anyone expected God to fix it, but rather so that God will not forget to punish anyone else who may have been guilty of the same things that Jerusalem did. It’s kind of like when you punish one child, and while that child does not deny the wrongdoing, the child is eager for you to mete out the same punishment to the other kids.

Let us now turn our attention to the poem in chapter 2.  Listen first to the Word as found in verses 1 – 10:

1 Oh, no!
In anger, my Lord put Daughter Zion under a cloud;
he threw Israel’s glory from heaven down to earth.
On that day of wrath, he didn’t consider his own footstool.

Showing no compassion, my Lord devoured each of Jacob’s meadows;
in his wrath he tore down the walled cities of Daughter Judah.
The kingdom and its officials, he forced to the ground, shamed.

In his burning rage, he cut off each of Israel’s horns;
right in front of the enemy, he withdrew his strong hand;
he burned against Jacob like a flaming fire that ate up everything nearby.

He bent his bow as an enemy would; his strong hand was poised like an adversary.
He killed every precious thing in sight;
he poured out his wrath like fire on Daughter Zion’s tent.

My Lord has become like an enemy. He devoured Israel;
he devoured all her palaces; he made ruins of her city walls.
In Daughter Judah he multiplied mourning along with more mourning!

He wrecked his own booth like a garden; he destroyed his place for festivals.
The Lord made Zion forget both festival and sabbath;
in his fierce rage, he scorned both monarch and priest.

My Lord rejected his altar, he abandoned his sanctuary;
he handed Zion’s palace walls over to enemies.
They shouted in the Lord’s own house as if it were a festival day.

The Lord planned to destroy Daughter Zion’s wall.
He stretched out a measuring line, didn’t stop himself from devouring.
He made barricades and walls wither—together they wasted away.

Zion’s gates sank into the ground; he broke and shattered her bars;
her king and her officials are now among the nations. There is no Instruction!
Even her prophets couldn’t find a vision from the Lord.

10 Daughter Zion’s elders sit on the ground and mourn.
They throw dust on their heads; they put on mourning clothes.
Jerusalem’s young women bow their heads all the way to the ground.

In some ways, the narration here sounds like the beginning of chapter 1. There is an observation provided by an omniscient narrator – someone is describing what has happened.  But note that the tone of this poem is much darker, and much more explicit than the previous work.  In chapter 1, there is the suggestion that although Jerusalem has suffered at the hands of her enemies, fundamental cause for the suffering of God’s people is actually the Lord – God’s very own self.

Here in chapter 2, there is no mere suggestion of that.  It is an outright statement of fact:  The Lord has thrown down, devoured, torn down, cut off, burned, killed… and most personally, perhaps, consider verse 7: the Lord has rejected his own altar; he has abandoned the sanctuary, he has handed over the walls of the palace to the adversary.  There is no defense made for God’s behavior here – in fact, there is only a description.  “This is what happened” (chapter 1); “God did this” (chapter 2). The hearers are not aware of any reason as to why Jerusalem would be receiving this kind of treatment from the Divine hand.

Another similarity to chapter 1 is that the voice changes in the middle of this poem, too.  Just like in the previous chapter, the poem shifts dramatically in the middle.  The pronouns shift, and we once again find ourselves hearing first-person testimony.  Listen:

11 My eyes are worn out from weeping; my stomach is churning.
My insides are poured on the ground because the daughter of my people is shattered, because children and babies are fainting in the city streets.

12 They say to their mothers, “Where are grain and wine?”
while fainting like the wounded in the city streets,
while their lives are draining away at their own mothers’ breasts.

13 What can I testify about you, Daughter Jerusalem? To what could I compare you?
With what could I equate you? How can I comfort you, young woman Daughter Zion? Your hurt is as vast as the sea. Who can heal you?

In chapter 1, the poet chose the voice of the first person so that we could hear the suffering from the experience of the one who has suffered. Here, however, the first person continues to speak of suffering as though it is happening to someone else. It’s still horrible – but this is not a complaint – it’s a statement about what is being observed.

As I read these verses, and I saw the incredulity in them, I was reminded of the radio news on May 6, 1937 when a WLS broadcaster named Herb Morrison was narrating the momentous arrival of the pride of the German Airfleet, the Hindenburg, to a mooring station in New Jersey.  Just as the blimp arrives, there is a deadly accident and the newsman is overcome.  I’d like to invite you to watch this short clip, but remember that there was no television news at that time – this is Morrison’s audio matched to a film that was taken on the same day.

Did you hear that?  He is a person, narrating what he sees – and he is overcome by it.  In a sense, it’s not happening to him – but consider that phrase that has become a part of our culture: “Oh, the humanity!” He says “I have to stop now – I cannot speak…” He cannot believe his own eyes, and yet he is compelled to describe it.

That is the tone, I believe, of the middle part of chapter 2.  Someone is walking the reader through an experience for which one does not, and should not, have words.  It is horrible.  It is the worst.

But still, there is no clue as to why this is happening.  That comes to us in the next few verses.  Listen:

14 Your prophets gave you worthless and empty visions.
They didn’t reveal your sin so as to prevent your captivity.
Instead, they showed you worthless and incorrect prophecies.

15 All who pass by on the road clap their hands about you;
they whistle, shaking their heads at Daughter Jerusalem:
“Could this be the city called Perfect Beauty, the Joy of All the Earth?”

16 All your enemies open wide their mouths against you;
they whistle, grinding their teeth. They say, “We have devoured!
This is definitely the day we’ve been waiting for. We’ve seen it come to pass.”

17 The Lord did what he had planned. He accomplished the word
that he had commanded long ago. He ripped down, showing no compassion.
He made the enemy rejoice over you; he raised up your adversaries’ horn.

Do you see? The reason for this punishment, according to the theology of Lamentations 2, is that the inhabitants of Jerusalem were paying attention to the wrong things.  They listened to the false prophets, and in so doing refused to address – they were unable to address –  their real brokenness.  God, in God’s wisdom, gave the people brokenness – God gave them what they asked for.

Here is something I have wondered in recent days: why is so much of America fascinated with, and incredibly resentful of, people like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlan?  I mean, these two celebrities only want what literally everyone else on the planet wants: they want life for their kids to go well.  They want the best for their kids.  Yeah, they bribed college admissions officers to let their kids in, but hey – they just want these young people to be happy, right?  Doesn’t everyone?

And you say, “Sure, Dave – we all want our kids to be happy.  But for crying out loud, they broke the rules. They sought an unfair advantage for their children.  They chose the wrong narrative for their families, Dave.  They listened to false prophets.”

Allegheny County, PA, School District Map

Maybe.  But let me push back on that a little bit. And be aware, friends – I’m talking to me, not just you. When people in the United States choose to buy their own homes, what is one of the key factors in that decision: the school district.  If you want your kids to do well, you scrimp and you save and you get yourself a place out in Robinson, or even better, Mt. Lebanon or Upper St. Clair.  Sure, homes cost a little more there, but that means that the tax base is deeper and that means that the income stream for the schools is more reliable and that means that in addition to better academics, your child will have access to enhanced opportunities like music, athletics, theater and other extra-curriculars. People who canget out to a great school district for their kids do.  But what about the rest of the folks?  The poor? The renters? By and large, the story in every state in the USA is the same: the folks in the city are stuck with failing public schools and in spite of the fact that they are paying property taxes in one way or another, their best options are often some sort of parochial or charter schools.

This is what I mean: right now, half of America is losing their minds because a few wealthy parents are apparently circumventing the rules of our existing social contract.  “Shame, shame, shame!” we cry.

Yet not many of these same people are outraged by a system that fails most of the parents and most of the students most of the time.

What I’m suggesting is that it is not just ancient Jews who have listened to false prophets.  We have had truth-tellers who have brought messages to us about racial reconciliation, or the environment, or the public good and politics – but we’ve disliked and therefore disregarded their messages.  We’ve chosen – dare I say it – we have chosen “fake news” – because it just helps us sleep better with the people that we’ve become.

Well sooner or later, the dam will burst and all hell will break loose. What do we do when that happens?

Lamentations 2 ends with the first real imperative of either poem.  An imperative is an “action” word – a command. Listen:

18 Cry out to my Lord from the heart, you wall of Daughter Zion;
make your tears run down like a flood all day and night.
Don’t relax at all; don’t rest your eyes a moment.

19 Get up and cry out at nighttime, at the start of the night shift; pour out your heart before my Lord like water.
Lift your hands up to him for the life of your children—
the ones who are fainting from hunger on every street corner.

When your world falls apart – cry out! Make your tears run!  Get up and cry out! Lift your hands up to him…

In other words – the author of this poem is instructing those of us who have listened to false prophets for too long to, well, engage in a period of lamentation.  To utter to God that which is broken.  And then the poem concludes with a strategy for that Lamentation:

20 Lord, look and see to whom you have done this!
Should women eat their own offspring, their own beautiful babies?
Should priest and prophet be killed in my Lord’s own sanctuary?

21 Young and old alike lie on the ground in the streets;
my young women and young men fall dead by the sword.
On the day of your anger, you killed; you slaughtered, showing no compassion.

22 You invited—as if to a festival!—terrors from every side.
On the day of the Lord’s anger, no one escaped, not one survived.
The children that I nurtured, that I raised myself, my enemy finished them off.

In modeling lament as a spiritual practice, the poet here implores God’s people to confront God with God’s own behavior, and to ask God to act in a way that is consisted with God’s nature.  Don’t pretend that this evil does not exist – rather, turn to God and name it and invite God to bring about a reality that is consistent with his purposes.

This is a hard word for us, because we would rather hear the false prophets – the cheerful news.  We love having the ability to change the channel!  But when the terror strikes, this Lenten season, my friends, let me encourage you to dwell with the things that are hard for a moment or two longer. And question the things that you hear – the prophecies that “everybody knows” to be true.

Look for the place in your life and in our world that seem to be out of whack with God’s intentions, and lay them before the Lord in a time of lament. Lift up that which some might hesitate to speak, and in so doing, make your lament a prayer.

We mentioned last week that there is not a lot of overt “good news” in the book of Lamentations.  This chapter ends with a woman holding her dead children, saying “God did this.” But I want to remind you that Lamentations did not spring up from nowhere – it was crafted by a community who had lived through the worst and survived.  They learned in the midst of that survival the strategy of lament – of coming before God and saying, “I know that we have not gotten this right!”

The fact that a community survived – that a community was left to give voice to a communal lament – is in itself good news.  That is the thing to which we may cling this evening.

In the name of the One who was, who is, and who is to come, Amen.