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The Torment Within

Sermon - 10/04/09
April Oristano
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Lamentations 1:15, 16, 20-22

Lamentations is practically a secret in most mainline churches – seriously I had to table of contents it 2 weeks ago that’s how long it had been since I had read any Lamentations.  Tucked in snugly between Jeremiah & Ezekiel.  I’ve never preached on Lamentations either, never had it come up on the Lectionary and not referenced in many books I’ve read.   

But what isn’t a secret is The story of Lamentation, it is another interpretation of the events of the Hebrew people after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE– we can read about these events through the voices of Jeremiah, Isaiah, the Psalms, 2 Kings, and more.  But the style of this book is unique because it is not a history, it is not a parable, it is not a warning from a prophet.  It is pure grief, intense mourning, anguish, and desperation that is so intimate – as though we too are standing on the streets of what once was home, and watching with our own eyes, hearing with our own ears the suffering on the streets and the torment inside the speaker.   It is a poem. It is beautiful.  A poetic response to a national tragedy.

And that makes it unique.  A history can be kept clinical, sterile of emotion.  A warning from a prophet can be ignored.  A parable can be interpreted, enjoyed at different levels.  What do we do with a person’s expression of Grief and mourning?  What can we do but listen?
 

The Lord has rejected
   all my warriors in the midst of me;
he proclaimed a time against me
   to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a wine press
   the virgin daughter Judah.

16For these things I weep;
   my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
   one to revive my courage;
my children are desolate,
   for the enemy has prevailed.

 

20See, O Lord, how distressed I am;
   my stomach churns,
my heart is wrung within me,
   because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
   in the house it is like death.

21They heard how I was groaning,
   with no one to comfort me.
All my enemies heard of my trouble;
   they are glad that you have done it.
Bring on the day you have announced,
   and let them be as I am.

22Let all their evildoing come before you;
   and deal with them
as you have dealt with me
   because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many
   and my heart is faint.

 

The words paint a specific picture of a city in ruins, but the emotional expression works its way into all our lives here. 

Check it out - It starts as a narrative, a retelling of the story of the city of Jerusalem – Read 1-2.  But in the midst of this narrative she speaks for herself – maybe she can’t be quiet anymore, maybe she’s tired of others expressing how she feels, maybe for the first time ever she is ready to speak for herself, ready to name her pain, no matter the reason, the literary beauty of it, she interrupts the narrator and takes ownership of her grief.  Read 12.   

Oh God!  How we are tormented inside ourselves when suffering hits.  We don’t understand what is happening to us, why it’s happening, what meaning it has for our lives.  What am I supposed to learn from this?  Is this my fault?Is this God’s fault?  Will someone own up to this please?

That is the universal experience of suffering – is it not? Questioning ourselves and God.  Shaming ourselves and God and anyone who gets in the way, right?

After that we can’t say much more about the universal, only the particular.  The particular pain of the thousands of families left this week without a home, a city, a place to sleep, some losing family members and children in Indonesia, Samoa, Vietnam.  The particular pain of a young man who came into my office last week and said “how do I know I won’t just fail at this like I do everything else in my life?”  He said, “my whole life is one failure after another – how can I possibly change?”  The particular pain of a cancer diagnosis, or liver disease.  What about the particular pain and anguish in recovering from alcoholism and drug abuse?  The pain in picking up the pieces after a drunk driving accident leaves 2 families with one less member each?

Not an exhaustive list of suffering but all unique. All of those experiences are real, are specific, have any number of causes, even without God around.  But there’s the question – where is God in these stories?  Right beside them, listening, loving, hugging, hoping, praying, networking, resourcing. 

Let’s come back to that -

One real place of grief in my life (and there have been others) in happened when my dad died.  I went into this insular, isolated place of loss. That was the week that Hurricane Katrina hit coasts of Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and others. I was so engrossed that I didn’t even know how serious Katrina was for a week.  And one day I saw Kelly on the couch and he was crying. 

And suddenly I had new eyes.  I thought – what’s going on with him?  And I hoped for a moment - Maybe we can help each other.  He was reacting to what he saw on the TV.  So I watched a little bit. I could see that those folks on the TV were literally screaming for help but I also understood the screaming on the inside. Suddenly I saw grief everywhere.  I watched my mom and didn’t have much of a clue how to help except to let her be.  Later that week I saw a woman crying in her car, alone. 

And I started thinking about how so many people die everyday and the amount of people grieving must be growing exponentially.  A natural disaster hits and a whole city full of people are nothing but grief, not to mention nearby cities, and relatives all over the planet.  It just spreads out to everyone but somehow in our grief we think we are alone. 

God is gone.  Friends are gone.  Our life as we knew is gone.

And then we torment ourselves like sister Jerusalem. 

Suffering alone, thinking that we are shunned, banished, punished, not worthy, less than, a burden to others, full of sin.  You get to fill in the negative message you tell yourself when you are in the messy place of suffering - cause we are all doing it.

Our life as we knew it is gone, that part is true.  And what our friends do to try and help us is not always helpful, but it shows they are not gone.  And God is NOT gone.  When you are feeling alone in your grief, isolated and apart, God is your only true witness to the whole of your experience.  God is listening, praying, hoping, loving, networking for you. 

A Christian community has an opportunity to put healing into the hands of its own people by sharing the torment within. To invite the individual experience into the communal and erase the notion that we are suffering alone.

We can’t ignore grief, we can’t bury loss, hope that suffering will disappear…we have to name it, talk about it, walk through it so we can mend.  Give ourselves an opportunity to move through death into resurrection.  And that is our story, isn’t it?

Take a lesson from mother earth– when the earth is suffering we know it, don’t we?  It suffers, it hurts, and then somehow it works with the pain, through the drought, through the fire, and then one day a seed makes its way through again, trees start to bud.  New growth out of an old life.   Volcanoes erupt and destroy and then centuries later a beautiful part of the scenery, a reminder of what has been, and what we have learned. 

Consider Jerusalem – Lamentations is a response to a tragedy that happened almost 2600 years ago – there has been new life for Jerusalem since this event.  Many other events of suffering and many more resurrections.   The temple was destroyed, yes, but so many hundreds of thousands visit that rubble and wailing wall to remember, to pray, to feel connected to that story and the people who experienced it.

Frederick Schmidt Jr. says toward the conclusion of his book entitled When Suffering Persists “That resurrection power is, ours because we are a part of the Christian community.  The childless adopt the orphan the broken manifest God’s mercy; those who grieve teach others to trust; those who are persecuted preach the full measure of justice.  The lessons learned, the compassion expressed, and the justice achieved are realized not because the losses were not real, but because those who experienced them remained alive to the presence of God. “ 

If we authentically invite ourselves to grieve together, to lament to one another - This means our community will be messy, always in transition, but we will be living our faith that God is always present with us, even in our suffering.  We will be living our faith through the story of Jesus - a man who lived as fully as possible, who made choices, who was influenced by others, who experienced physical and emotional grief in his life through experiences of torture, betrayal, he was lied to by his closest friends, his best friend was killed for disagreeing with a political leader.  And he was a friend and listening post to lepers and leaders, to blind men and barren women and confused and questioning masses.   

If we are candid about Jesus’ suffering, his humanity, then the door is open to allow our own stories to enter the dialogue.  Then by our very sharing, our acknowledgment that we share the universal experience of grief, as we express it.  We too can be a living poetic response to a universal and planetary experience.

We already do this for strangers.  In the midst of physical suffering we offer meals.  In economic depression we offer rental assistance and scholarships for our children and youth.  On FaceBook and MySpace and over email we offer Prayers for our friends. When we gather as a community on Sunday we are focused on the goodness of God and we have such little time together – some of you are saying even now “finish up, April” – but even this morning some here are suffering deeply and feeling alone. 

The ability to tell our stories and to name our losses in prayer is fundamental to weaving them into the fabric of our lives. The ability to listen to one another and acknowledge their grief as real is more important than you think.  Let us pray:

God we come to you wondering how we can better manifest your abiding presence in our world.  As you sit with us and listen to us in our grief and our joy may we build our community around that simple act – of being present with one another, listening to one another, and hoping and praying with one another through death into resurrection, over and over again.  Remind us that we have a constant friend in you, and that other friends are waiting to hear our stories and help us mend. 

Amen.

 


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