October 2, 2016

Proper 22, Year C

Lamentations 1:1-6; 3:19-26

 A Lament

 

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!”

The people who raise their voices in today’s readings from Lamentations are engaged in a painful spiritual task. They live in a city that they remember as full of people. Now, the city is empty, with its people carried into exile in Babylon. The people who share their lament also live in a nation that’s lost its sense of greatness—a greatness that they measure, however, in terms of one group of people having more power than others.

Today, passages from Lamentations take up our first reading—which is usually from the prophets in this part of the church year—as well as the usual place of our Psalm. And unlike many Psalms and sections from the prophets, passages from the book of Lamentations have no clear and confident movement from grief and self-accusation to healing and hope. The short book of Lamentations asks God for restoration and renewal, but the very last verse speculates that God has “utterly rejected us,” and is “angry with us beyond measure.”

The Lamentations do include expressions of hope, but their real specialty is expressing the painful contrast between past greatness and present decline. It’s that sense of contrast that leads them to the dangerous speculation that God has rejected them completely, and that God harbors toward them immeasurable anger.

Here’s how their circumstances appear: A well-populated city is now home to abandoned buildings and empty lots. A former “princess among the provinces” now has to pay rent and bow down before regions that have grown more powerful and more prosperous. Former allies have turned into competitors and enemies. The public festivals and community events that once were cause for celebration and worship are now just occasions for mourning the way things used to be. As for the young, their “lot is bitter,” they can’t make lives for themselves in their homeland. Their fortunes will fall far short of their parents’, and their homes will be far, far away.

It’s a hard thing, living with a perception of former greatness. It’s also a dangerous thing, believing that we used to be great and are no longer. It leads people to measure their greatness only in terms of population, power, and prosperity—especially relative to others. But worst of all, it leads to belief in a God who abandons and punishes, rather than a God who is with us, a God who is good, a God who teaches us to how to measure true greatness, a God we can glorify in many worldly circumstances.

The portion of Lamentations that we used in place of our usual Psalm this morning makes one thing clear: Our hope is not in our former greatness; our hope is in God’s constant goodness.

This passage reminds us of God’s steadfast love and endless mercies:

 

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 lament affirms that God “is good to those that wait . . . to the soul that seeks.” The lament advises us, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.”

Love. Mercy. Goodness. Quiet. This is where our hope and trust belong.

The people whose voices we hear throughout the Hebrew Bible had a lot of experience in contrasting their former glory with present defeats and disgraces. They also learned how to hope and trust in God, how to adjust their measures of true greatness, and how to offer glory to God as God’s people.

A Psalmist sings to God from the ruins of his beloved city, “You will arise and have compassion on Zion, for it is time to have mercy upon her . . . For your servants love her very rubble, and are moved to pity even for her dust” (Psalm 102:13-14). So, out of a city reduced to rubble and dust by its enemies, the Psalmist praises God’s compassion and mercy.

When giving advice on wisdom, the author of Ecclesiastes preaches, “Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit . . . Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this” (Ecclesiastes 7:8-10).

In other words, it’s easy to be proud in the early days of a nation, a business, a church, when these undertakings are a success. But when our ideas of “success” must change, we gain a patience and wisdom that are far more precious. And if we face challenges by asking ourselves why the former days were so much better, then we may sound wise and experienced, but real wisdom, it says, doesn’t retreat from the present or the future. According to the author of Ecclesiastes, if we ask why the former days seemed so much better, then we’re just fooling ourselves.

The Lamentations themselves waver between expressing pain over lost greatness and expressing trust in God’s goodness. But over the long haul, God’s people learn again and again what it really means to be great and glorious.

The Lament begins: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!”

But the song of God’s people continues when we learn to trade our old measures of greatness for signs of God’s goodness, for compassion and mercy. When we learn to measure our greatness not in relation to our past or at the expense of our neighbors, but in ways that give real glory to the God of all people.

 

And the song of God’s people has a refrain: Our hope is not in statements of former greatness; our hope is in God’s constant goodness.