Sermon delivered at Irvington Friends Meeting
Reading: Lamentations 3:22-33
I love poetry, there is something about it that speaks to my heart. One thing I love about the prophets is that their writing is full of poetry. Lamentations is a small collection of poems. The prophets speak of destruction, devastation and feelings of abandonment. The prophets also speak of hope when there seems to be no reason to hope. For me the prophetic writings are writings of those who truly believe. No matter how bad things are, there is a believe that God’s goodness is better. The prophets see destruction and they expect restoration.
Lamentations was written mourning the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the first Temple. The kingdom of Judah was destroyed, the people were moved out of their homes. Judah no longer existed as a nation. All of God’s promises to David’s line seemed to end. God’s promises to preserve and keep the people of Israel seemed to have failed. Evil won, and nobody would live to see Israel restored nor the temple rebuilt. When people thought of God’s promises, it looked as if God had abandoned the people and the promises were worthless.
These times have been very important. God’s people had to search their relationship with God, and carefully ask themselves what God said. God’s people had to ask why there was a change, and whether or not they lived up to their side of the covenant. When David’s kingdom was strong, nobody asked if they followed Torah, or created a just society. God’s apparent blessing seemed a tacit endorsement of behavior which was not only against justice, but against Torah. Over and over again, the prophetic writings observe that Israel neglected the social justice commands. Perhaps Israel fell because Israel was too much like the other nations.
Today, I feel drawn to the poetry of the prophets who wrote about the fall of Jerusalem. My mind is filled with doom and gloom. Hope seems far away. The Wednesday before last, a young man went into a bible study and murdered nine people at Emmanual African Methodist Episcopal church. Since that time, I’m aware of 4 churches that have burned. While I see people arguing about pieces of cloth, people are dying and churches are burning.
When I look even further back, I see over 200 school-girls from Nigeria, many of whom are members of the Church of the Brethren, kidnapped, raped, and when they returned home most were pregnant. I see all of the talk about ISIS, and the gruesome images of beheading. Since I’ve come to Indiana, I’ve learned of local violence, such as a car crashing into a church, a murdered pastor in Southport Indiana, and an Indiana resident driving to Ohio to set fire to a Mosque. The ugliness of hate is not as distant as I would like it to be — and sometimes ugly things happen that are not news.
The world has become a violent place, a place where many people are afraid. I’ve said before that much of the fear I’ve seen is misplaced — no terrorist is likely to notice our church, but still, it is something that has infected our community. I identify with the writings of the prophets because like them, because this feels more like captivity than the promised land. Like them, I look, I doubt, and I wonder what it is that we are doing wrong.
This is one reason that I like the prophets: when Jerusalem burns, the prophets express faith in God’s mercy, justice, and faithfulness. Even the scripture passage we call Lamentations includes the words that we sing is the hymn “Great is thy faithfulness”. Lamentations tells us that God’s mercies are new every morning, even mornings where Jerusalem is desolate, or in more recent cases where Sunday morning comes, and either familiar faces are gone, or the building itself is rubble and ashes. How is it that Jeremiah sees God’s mercy in the wake of destruction? How do we see goodness when everything is bad?
One thing that I notice when I read the prophets is that nobody sees the badness when everything is good for the people in charge. The Babylonian era prophets mourn the fall of the kingdom and the cities, but they also observe that the kingdoms themselves were not Godly, nor just. They suggest that the reasons that the kingdom fell includes God’s wrath, mostly at their failure to live up to their responsibilities to care for orphans, widows and aliens.
What I realize when I read the prophets is that the reason nobody sees how unfair things have become is because the people in change have made their world unfair in their favor. A paradise for the king might not be so wonderful for the king’s servants. When Judah is conquered, and the elite are carried off to Babylon, suddenly those who were the oppressors that did evil in the sight of the Lord became among the oppressed. Sometimes it takes something devastating to make us see that there is systemic evil. Sometimes the broken systems have to be torn out so that there can be restoration.
Part of what makes the prophets so amazing is the promise of restoration. There is the suggestion that not only does God have a plan to preserve and restore God’s people, but there is a suggestion that when God restores them, things will be different this time — they will somehow do things better than they did last time.
Paul tells us that it is a faithful saying that if we are faithless, God remains faithful, because he cannot disown himself. This is why we believe in restoration, because we believe that God remains faithful, even as we fall away. We believe that God is a just God, even while we fail to live a just life, and often do not even realize the areas where we fall short. Sometimes I think the reason that the restoration happens is that when the unfairness finally touches our lives, we finally realize that it exists — we finally repent.
We have a lot to repent for too. We live in a society that puts profit ahead of people. We place more value, as a society, on acquiring wealth than we do on enriching the whole nation, and this is just what is on the surface. If we want to talk about fairness, we judge the people around us not only by their skills and education, but also by their names and their place of origin. We assume that we know the person’s story and value without much more information than a name and a zip code. This prejudice means that some people are always at a disadvantage — the wrong name, wrong address, and a resume is not considered for employment.
More than that, we live in a society that scapegoats. Whatever ills we see in our communities, we seek somebody to blame and punish. It is not important whether the person is guilty or not, what is important is protecting the system. Often the people who are blamed are the very same people who are exploited by the system. Our society is unjust as it first exploits, then blames the victims in order to protect the system of exploitation.
What I see is that I live in a society that is very much like the society that is condemned by the prophets. I see that we are far from being a Christian nation, nor a Godly nation. We are unjust, and the prophets warn that the unjust are under divine judgment. We are like ancient Israel, condemned and unrepentant, until conquered, yet I have so much hope in the prophets. Even when we fail, God’s mercies are new every morning.
I really don’t know what to do, nor how to change the world. Right now the only thing I know to do is pray — and keep praying until prayer changes me. There are so many things to pray for — today, I pray that God forgive my failure to love perfectly, that God will teach me to love, and I pray that those who have lost so much due to violence will somehow find peace. I also pray that those who were torn down will soon find a way to rebuild. I pray that God will show me God’s mercy when I am blind to all but the suffering.