A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, October 2, 2016
I realize that our Seasons of the Spirit resource chose Paul’s letter to Timothy as our focus scripture for today, but I found myself more intrigued with these writings from the ancient book of Lamentations. Lamentations is a text we seldom turn to. I don’t believe I have ever preached from it. It is a set of five poems or songs of lament, traditionally identified with the prophet Jeremiah. Since their focus is the Babylonian exile, which is also that of Jeremiah, and since Jeremiah is sometimes referred to as the “weeping prophet,” there is a certain logic to the connection. Indeed, as Judah is conquered, Jerusalem devastated, and the temple destroyed, there is real cause for weeping and wailing on the part of the poet, the prophet, and the people.
John Holbert describes the ancient scene this way: “After a lengthy siege, Nebuchadnezzar’s armies broke into Jerusalem, slaughtering the hungry inhabitants, raping the women, seizing the power brokers—priests, king and court, scribes, accountants—and herding them west toward Babylon. The great majority of the city dwellers were left to fend for themselves. The economy quickly collapsed, food sources disappeared, water sources were fouled, the daily rhythms of life ceased. People wandered the streets dazed, confused, desperate for a bit of bread, a cup of water. The city became unsafe, as any semblance of order was replaced by chaos” (John Holbert, “A Drama of Despair: Reflections on Lamentations 1:1-6,” Opening the Old Testament, September 29, 2013, patheos.com).
In Bible study on Tuesday, we tried to imagine a similar scene in our own time and place. The destruction of the World Trade Center, or maybe some of the recent mass shootings, as in Sandy Hook. But horrible as those events were, they don’t really match the wide spread destruction and total disruption of daily life that the conquest of Judah and the Exile would have been for those people. We tried to imagine the destruction of Washington, DC, or New York City, or even San Francisco, with all their monuments to history, finance, government, and culture. While we may picture such destruction in the way it is depicted in certain end-of-the-world movies, that it is not to feel it in our bones.
There is such a deep ache when the poet laments, “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!” That opening line grabs you with a profound sense of desolation. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, London, Dresden, New Orleans after Katrina, towns and villages after earthquakes in Italy, monsoons in the Philippines, floods in Iowa, genocide in Rwanda, Aleppo. You get the picture, feel some of the pain.
“How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies.” Hard times hurt in more ways than we can imagine unless we actually experience them. But, for the most part, we are a people of privilege who have been protected from such experiences.
I don’t mean to say that we have never known devastation and despair. We are a diverse lot; we do come from different situations. Some of us have “fled from terror by night, hiding from bullets by day.” Some have endured the loss of everything they knew and loved in hopes of finding a better life. Still, most of us have lived most of our lives in relative comfort and peace.
But Walter Bouzard reminds us that “there certainly are communities whose lack of means and political power have left them devastated and with a real sense of having been forsaken by God.” He says, “I think, for example, of the despair of undocumented aliens who, though not always suffering violence, nevertheless do ‘live now among the nations, and find no resting place…’” (Walter C. Bouzard, “Commentary on Lamentations 1:1-6, October 6, 2013, workingpreacher.org). Or think of other communities within our own borders who do not live in comfort and safety – many people of color, the working poor, the homeless, people who are ridiculed and ostracized for sexual, gender, physical, mental, emotional, or age difference from the dominating norm. Even in the midst of all our wealth and privilege, there are those who find cause to lift their voices in lament.
Bouzard continues his reflection, “…the lament of Jerusalem reminds us that such pain is actually experienced by believers — by brothers and sisters — on a daily basis. Beside the pockets of domestic despair,” he writes, “I think of the recent events in Syria…where far too many cities have literally been razed by artillery fire and where tens of thousands have died” (Bouzard, op. cit.) not to mention the millions who have been uprooted and forced to flee everything they hold dear and familiar.
Alright, I can hear you saying, “enough already. Stop with the doom and gloom. You’re starting to sound like Jeremiah. This is World Communion Sunday. We’ve come to celebrate the feast. It’s another beautiful day in paradise. No more weeping and wailing.” And you have a point. After all the title of this reflection is “Holding Hope in Hard Times.” It’s just that sometimes I’m not sure we get how hard it is for some folk in this old world and we need to have it called to our attention. I know I do, so maybe I’m preaching to myself. The point is not to drag us down, but if we are going to hold hope, we need to hold it for more than just ourselves. Selfish hope is not real hope. It is not the Hope of the World that Paul celebrates in his love letter to young Timothy. If it is real hope it has to be for you and me and all the world.
In order to know the significance of real hope, we need to know something about the experience of real pain. We need to know something about genuine hard times to see how important hope is to those who hold onto it for dear life. We need to sit with those who hurt and weep with those who weep. In the midst of the pain and tears, the threats and destruction, the writer of Lamentations proclaims, “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me. But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Holy One never ceases, God’s mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
If I can’t see the morning coming maybe you can see it for me and help me to find the new day. If I am sinking in despair, maybe you can hold out God’s mercies for me to grab onto. If we find our neighbor beaten and robbed by the side of the road, maybe we can offer a helping hand because we know something of God’s great faithfulness. If we hear hatred spread and find our sisters and brothers abused and oppressed as a result, maybe we can speak a word of justice or mark a ballot for righteousness, holding hope for them in the midst of their hard times.
Bouzard concludes his little commentary with these thoughts. “Who knows?” he asks. “By empathetically weeping with those who hurt far away and with those who suffer in our own contexts, we may come to love them. And if we come authentically to love them, our eyes might even be opened to see that the Lord to whom we cry out together is already there — where he ever is — among the broken and suffering in our world. Jesus is there, wounded, pierced, weeping, but speaking a quite promise of a reign of God that will yet come” (Bouzard, op. cit.).
This is the hard truth in hard times, the living love letter – God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has already been there. Christ knows the experience. Christ knows the way in and Christ knows the way out. The God who holds the future is the God who holds our hands. Therefore, we can hold hope in hard times, for ourselves, our neighbors far and near, and, indeed, for all creation. “God’s mercies never come to an end…great is God’s faithfulness. Blessed be! Amen.