Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 10/06/2013

I warned you a couple of weeks ago that a reading from Lamentations was coming and today’s the day.  What I hadn’t noticed was that Psalm 137 was the psalm appointed for the day.  Psalm 137 is one of the classic “bad” psalms that the lectionary avoids.  It starts with lament but ends with another call for revenge like we had a couple of weeks ago, including the disturbing line “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”  A prayer for the death of little children does tend to get your attention.  Remember what I said though; we don’t pray this way but at our worst we do have our own thoughts of revenge.  But although the psalmist does make a prayer out of this we can’t confuse a prayer for “my will to be done” with one for “thy will to be done” and this is definitely a “my will be done” prayer; don’t confuse this with the will of God. 

Psalm 137, like Lamentations presents the pain of survivors following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and with that, the loss of their way of life.  Along with physical loss, which included the death of loved ones, probably including children, along with physical loss there was a loss of hope for the future, a loss of confidence in God.  The holy city of Jerusalem was the focus, the symbol of their dreams and hopes, the sign of God’s presence with them and all that was gone.  Both the psalm and Lamentations are brutally honest; there’s no pretending that everything is fine when it isn’t so it’s like when you ask someone how they’re doing and they say, “Do you really want to know?” and maybe you really don’t.  But, the authors of Lamentations and psalms like Psalm 137 assume that you do really want to know.  They assume that God really wants to know.

As Christians, we don’t do much with the book of Lamentations, except try to avoid it.  I’ve never preached on Lamentations before; I probably don’t have to go too far out on a limb to say most have you have probably never heard a sermon based on Lamentations.  Jews do more with it; they do have a time during the year when they remember the destruction of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple and for that the readings are from Lamentations, but with a long history of persecution, they’re more inclined to this kind of thing anyway. 

But not us!  We’re Christians!  We’re not a persecuted minority, we’re the winners, or at least that’s what we’re led to believe, so we don’t want to wallow in this kind of stuff!   I assume that you don’t come to church to be depressed.  There are TV preachers out there who have figured this out so they’ll give you what you want; they’ll give you happy church.  But if they ask you how you’re doing be careful because they probably don’t really want to know.         

Historically, at least in Western Europe and in North America, Christianity has been the winner; it has had a privileged status; Christians have been triumphant and culturally dominant.  It’s not that everything has always been sweetness and light, but no one has systematically exterminated eight million of us either; we don’t know what that feels like.  We do briefly consider loss on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday but you know that it’s fewer and fewer of us;  attendance at those services continues to decline as many prefer to skip those days with an eye on Easter Sunday.  People don’t come to church to be depressed.

Christians haven’t made much use of Lamentations, but it may be that we’re at a point as a church and as a country where we have a better understanding of the communal loss experienced by the people of Israel back in the day.  Loss is happening on a lot of fronts.  You know that the church isn’t what it once was.  We’re not a persecuted minority but those who attend church these days are a minority.  The church doesn’t have the cultural influence it used to have.  Even religious holidays, especially Christmas but Easter too to some extent, have been co-opted and commercialized so that for many people they are strictly secular occasions; there is no religious component to them at all.  In many places you can’t have manger scenes in public places, kids can’t sing religious songs in Christmas concerts.  With that, there is a sense of loss.

But it’s not just church.  This country doesn’t play the role it once did.  Our intentions are good, mostly anyway, but we don’t have the influence we once did as the world’s policeman, the country everyone looked to for guidance.  Our government that we’ve always liked to think is a model for the rest of the world barely functions these days, unable to reach consensus on anything.  The security and safety we used to feel within our borders hasn’t totally disappeared but it’s taken a hit.  We’re still shocked by terrorist attacks and mass shootings, things like that, but we’re not surprised anymore.  Despite all the security measures, we know another one will happen, it’s just a matter of where and when.  On top of all that, for some anyway, changes in society, especially how we understand sexuality and family, what’s acceptable and what isn’t presents another challenge to the order and stability of their world.    

All of these things create a sense of loss, they all create a feeling of anxiety. Like the people of Israel who saw Jerusalem devastated, we watch the old world we have trusted and counted on vanishing before us.  We begin to know better what the author of Lamentations was writing about: “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people!  How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations.  All her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her young girls grieve and her heart is bitter.”  More than we might want to admit, we can relate to this kind of loss.

Lamentations is honest, it reveals pain; it is a depressing read.  It starts with the verses read this morning, it ends in chapter 5 with a plea for God to act with no expectation that he will. “Restore us to yourself O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.”  That’s where it ends and the voice drifts away into silence with no confidence that anything is going to change.

What’s interesting about Lamentations though, is that right in the middle of it, there is an expression of inexplicable hope.  In chapter 3 you get, “My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is; so I say, “Gone is my glory and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”  That’s typical Lamentations despair; but two verses later the tone changes:  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope,” that followed by “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to and end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness,” and you want to say, “Where did that come from?” 

Steadfast love, mercy, faithfulness; in the Old Testament those are the words most often used to describe God and in the middle of five chapters of lament, there they are again.  The situation hadn’t changed; this expression of hope emerges without explanation except that even in despair, there is the glimmer of a memory of something else.  By chapter four, it’s gone; it’s back to lament, but for a moment the memory was there.

That’s a good reminder as we live during this time when so many things we thought we could depend on don’t seem so dependable anymore, when the order of our world is being challenged on many fronts.  It’s easy to feel like there’s no way out, that it’s never going to change.  We need to be reminded of those glimmers of something else.  This afternoon some people will walk in the CROP walk and many others have made financial contributions to help fight hunger locally and globally.  That’s a glimmer of something else. 

In a few minutes we will have a blessing of quilts as we honor the work of one small group of women here who help to provide hope for people who don’t even have a blanket to keep them warm.  Through the work of our quilters and thousands more at other churches, God’s steadfast love and mercy and faithfulness shine into the darkness of lament for people around the world.

A few minutes after that we’ll gather around the altar to celebrate Holy Communion.  No matter what else is going on in the world, the bread and wine represent Jesus’ presence, his real presence in the midst of it all, presence which is another reminder of God’s steadfast love and mercy and faithfulness.  The world is changing, sometimes in upsetting ways, but God continues to be at work and don’t forget that!  Even in lament we can’t lose the memory of what he has done and continues to do.

To an outsider our hope probably seems as inexplicable as the hope that comes out of nowhere in the middle of Lamentations.  Hope might fade, even seem to disappear, but then out of nothing but the grace and love of God, it emerges and at least for a moment, we glimpse God’s reality and faithfulness.  We remember the steadfast love that never ceases, the mercies that never come to an end.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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