Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Primal Scream

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Psalm 130 and Lamentations 3:1-24:

One day a man was out climbing a mountain when he came to an opening in the trees and an incredible view which let him see for miles. As he walked to the edge to get a better look, he slipped on some pine needles and fell over the side of a sheer three hundred foot cliff. Somehow, as he was falling he was able to grab and hold onto a small tree that was growing out of the side of the mountain. Hanging on for dear life he immediately he started calling out for help, hoping someone else was out hiking that day. “Help,” he cried, “I’ve fallen down the cliff, can anyone hear me, O God, please help me is anyone up there?” Just then he heard a booming voice from heaven which called out, “Have faith my son and let go of the tree.” The man hung there for a minute thinking about what he had just heard, and then yelled “What?” Again he heard the booming voice “Have faith my son and let go of the tree.” The man paused and then yelled up “is there anyone else up there?”

Today we complete our Lenten series on prayer. We have looked at the power of prayer and what prayer does, we have looked at the names and metaphors we use when we pray [Wendell gave his own testimony about prayer and the prayer group] and last week we looked at song as prayer, but today we tackle the one area that most of are not good at and the one that many of us want to avoid and that is lamentation. We are certainly good at complaining and making a big deal out of little things, but that is not what lamentations are about.

We do not make a lament about having broken a fingernail or because our favorite sports team lost, those might be reasons to be upset, but they are not truly lamentable. Lamentations are about those things which touch us deep down in our souls, which bring us to the depths of despair, which put us on our knees, literally or figuratively, which have us not only questioning but even cursing our existence and sometimes even God. As a culture we are not good at lamentation, or mourning and I would argue that we are getting even worse. Did you know that the number of funerals or memorial services is decreasing every year?

I was told by a funeral director that in the Northwest less than half of all deaths are accompanied by a funeral service. The time in which we are supposed to stop and recognize our loss and take at least a moment to grieve is disappearing. But we do this nationally as well. We move quickly beyond each tragedy because there is always something else news in the news cycle to move onto. This happens even with events like September 11. While there was certainly some grief expressed, especially in the early days, we wanted to move quickly beyond that, beyond any questioning, to chanting USA, USA, and then being told to go out and shop.

But it’s not just society that does this, the church does it as well. The lectionary is a group of recommended readings for each Sunday, created by both the Roman Catholic Church and the mainline protestant denominations, and they follow a three year cycle. But, if we were to follow the lectionary, we would only read anything from Lamentations on two occasions. One would be on Holy Saturday, and then once in the third year of the cycle. Since most protestant churches do not have Holy Saturday services that means that you might hear from the Book of Lamentations once every three years, and that’s only if the person preaching decided to cover it that Sunday. In fact I suspect that few of you have ever heard something from the Book of Lamentations.

In addition, the prophet Jeremiah, who is commonly attributed as the author of Lamentations is only covered twelve times in the lectionary, all in the third year. The Book of Psalms is the longest book in the Bible, but Jeremiah is second. If Jeremiah also wrote Lamentations, then he is responsible for the largest amount of writing in the Bible we have by one person, and yet he is almost routinely ignored by the church. Just like with lamentations I suspect few of us have ever heard a sermon on Jeremiah.

Jeremiah is known as the weeping, crying or suffering prophet, and his writings certainly reflect that. They are hard to read, and thus not preached on very often, not only because they are sometimes hard to understand, but more because they are sometimes brutal in their message, as we heard from this mornings passage. “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” is how Lamentations begins, “How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations…. She weeps bitterly in the night with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has not one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.”

The she that is being referred to here is Jerusalem and her mourning comes after the Babylonians in 587 BCE, under the leadership of king Nebuchadnezzar, had destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and taken the leaders into exile. This was one of the most important and the most traumatic things to happen in Judaism, indeed the form of Judaism that we know, and that Jesus knew, probably would not exist without this event. As clear as 9/11 is in our psyche as a nation and as a people, and as traumatic as that event was, 9/11 does not really compare to the destruction of the temple.

Imagine if instead of losing the World Trade Centers on 9/11, that instead all of New York City, as the economic center of the country was destroyed, and all of Washington, DC, as the political center of the country was destroyed, and Hollywood, as the cultural center of the country, was destroyed, and then all of the churches and centers of churches were destroyed and you begin to understand what the destruction of Jerusalem, and most importantly the destruction of the Temple, which was the center and the heart of Judaism at the time, meant to the people and to the religion, and why so much of the Hebrew Scriptures deal with these events. The destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem left the people wondering what had happened, why it had happened, and what the future held?

Now while Lamentations is usually said to have been written about the time of the destruction of the temple and the exile, there is actually nothing which dates it to this period. Instead, it is a lament that can be used and applied to other times as well. It could just as easily apply to the Holocaust as it could to the time of Jeremiah, and it can also apply to the times in which we have needed to offer lament in our lives. But before we get into that, let me give you just a little more information about the book itself.

One of the things that I find incredible and which adds to the beauty of the Book of Lamentations is its construction. This is something we miss in its translation to English, but in Hebrew the first four chapters, which are four separate poems, are written in what is known as an acrostic. That means that the first word of the first line of each stanza represents one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and each stanza is written in alphabetical order. So, for example, if it was written in English the first letter of the word that began stanza one would start with an A, and the first letter of the first word of the second stanza would start with b, and so on.

The third chapter, which we heard this morning, is a special type of acrostic poem. There are three verses per stanza, and each verse begins with the same letter, so again, if in English, the first word of each line of the first verse would begin with the letter A, then the first word of each line of the second verse would begin with the letter b, and so on.

Finally, since the poems follow the Hebrew alphabet, which has only twenty-two characters, the alphabet determines the length of the poem. The first three poems are sixty-six lines in length, 22 verses of three lines each, chapter four is 44 lines in length, and chapter five, which is not acrostic, still adheres to the length and is 22 verses long. This is an incredibly difficult way to write a poem, and if you don’t think so, I challenge you to try and write a poem like this. To me, it also adds to the majesty and wonder of these poems.

Not only are they expressing the deep sorrow, pain, and questioning of the people, but they are doing so in an incredibly complex and difficult way. This is not them simply sitting down and writing out all of their feelings and saying whatever comes to their mind, not that there is anything wrong with that, but this took a lot of thought, effort and work, and it is one of the reasons that I think it has come down to us today.

But, they also come down to us because lamentation is important, and lamentations are found throughout scripture. Of the 150 Psalms, 61 one of them are laments, either individual or communal, and an additional 6 more have portions of laments in them. One of the most famous of these is Psalm 130 which was read this morning, which if you were here last Sunday is also one of the songs of ascent.

Known as the De Profundus, Psalm 130 has been the setting for countless hymns and songs, including one we will sing in a few moments written by Martin Luther. It is a cry to God made from the depths of utter despair, “Out of the deep, have I called unto thee O Lord, Lord hear my voice.” Of course there is also the cry of despair uttered by Job, but certainly the one I hold onto, is Jesus’ cry of despair from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” which comes from psalm 22. Even Jesus’ has a lament.

At their most basic level, laments are prayers of grief to God over some event, and with deep passion they appeal to God for deliverance. Again, while we might be upset about some little thing, like burning our dinner or missing that perfect deer we were hunting, I would argue that these are not things that we properly lament over. Instead it is the great tragedies of our lives that cause us to pause and lament, and we’ve all had such moments in our lives. Maybe it’s the diagnosis of a severe illness, either in ourselves or a loved one, the death of a spouse or the death of a child, a natural or manmade disaster which has whipped out everything we have. These are the things which knock us to our knees, which cause us to take pause, and which cause us to appeal to God.

But, at their most basic level laments are also complaints and protests laid at God’s feet. They are a way for us to express anger and frustration, along with grief and sorrow, and a way to search and to seek for answers. It is not just that we cry out from the depths of our despair, but that we expect God to hear us and to do something about it. In lament we are demanding something of God. This is why I think many people shy away from lamentations, because they don’t think they are allowed to do such a thing. They have been told that God has a reason for everything that happens, so to complain wouldn’t do any good, instead we should look for the positive, try to learn some lesson, figure out what God is trying to teach us, and give thanks to God. This is a position with which I definitely disagree with my whole being.

The problem with not voicing our pain and anger to God is not only that it is not realistic, or that it does not match our scriptural witness, but I believe in fact that it is dangerous to our faith life. How many people have you known who said they have left the church or lost their faith because they were mad at God? They were mad, but didn’t know what to do with it, because we have been told that these are feelings that are not appropriate to express and sometimes not even appropriate to have, and so rather than telling God that they are mad, rather than trying to deal with what they are feeling, they have simply walked away.

Do we really think that God isn’t big enough to deal with all of our emotions? That God couldn’t deal with us being angry and yelling at God? Now, I’m not talking about yelling and being angry let an impetuous child, and saying “I want, I want and you didn’t give.” I’m talking about a true express of our emotions, of crying out during the dark night of our soul, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I have certainly been in that place, and I imagine most of you have as well.

The first funeral I did, just three months into my first appointment, was for a 18 month old boy who had died of a rare genetic disease. At the time of Ethan’s death, Samantha was only twenty-months, so this was something that hit very close to home. As you might have already discovered I’m not always the best with names, and even when I know them they often slip out of my mind at the wrong time, like when I’m trying to talk with you, but Ethan Chitkara, and his parents Anil and Jane’s names, are seared into my memory.

I know that some of you have lost children and you know the pain much more than I can ever possibly imagine, but I can remember preparing for that service, of practicing my sermon over and over again with tears pouring down my face, crying out to God, “how could you have let this happen?” and at the same time begging for the strength to be able to get through it and to be able to provide the family the littlest bit of comfort at such a time. It is times like this that we say “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” Lord hear my voice! Lord hear my voice! Lord hear my voice!

These are not emotions we want to feel, and they are certainly ones we are usually told that we shouldn’t feel or that we should just ignore. Again, even within the church we have tried to ignore them, but they are there nonetheless. The blues, and to some degree portions of country music, were born out of trying to express these feelings and give voice to them not only for the musicians but also for the audiences and for the communities in which these forms of music grew up. I have often thought that covering the five chapters of lamentations over the five weeks of lent, and having a blues band in worship to give voice musically to lamentation would be a wonderful way of recapturing this portion of our lives and of our relationship with God.

Lamentations are necessary and important. They are certainly not things that we should be focusing or doing all the time, but when we are in that place, when we need to express our pain, our sorrow, our anger and our frustrations, and when we need to ask for answers then lamentations provide us the means and the way to do that. In the 23rd Psalm we are told that God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death. It is not a place where we stay or live, although most of us have probably known people who have been stuck in the valley, but lamentations are a way to help us move through that pain, to move through that grief, to something else, to a sense of hope and a renewed relationship with God.

“The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is my wormwood and my gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me,” Lamentations says. But then it continues, “but this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’”

Out of the deep we cry to the Lord. If you are afraid to express a lament, or if you have been told that you can’t be angry with God, that you cannot express your pain or your agony, your sorrow or your tear, your questions or even your accusations, let me tell you that that is incorrect. Lamenting is part of our faith, it is part of what it means to be human, it is part of what it means to be in relationship with God, but here is the most important part, the only way that your prayers can be answered is if you pray them, and so you need to tell God exactly what it is that you are feeling.

Being angry and yelling at God, or crying out a wordless primal scream from the depths of our souls is just as much a part of prayer and just as important as saying prayers of thanksgiving. While we might not like to lament, and while we certainly do not wish to be in a place where we need to lament, lamentation, crying out to God, is necessary sometimes, even Jesus’ cried out from the depths of his despair on the cross.

But what Jesus knew, what we know, is that God is always there, that God walks with us through that depth of despair, that God comforts us through our pain and our sorrow, and that God can handle our pain and our anger, for the only way we can get past it is to express it. So when we are experiencing that dark night of the soul, I encourage you, no I implore you, make your lamentation known. Express it to God and it will be answered. “‘The Lord is my portion’ says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.’” May it be so my sisters and brothers. Amen.

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