Post Author: Amy Summers-Minette
Amy Summers-Minette: I preached this sermon as a candidate seeking ordination before my presbytery. It was October 25, 2005, Katrina had hit only two months before, Pakistan had experienced a devastating earthquake, and as usual, the news was filled with other stories of hardship and heartache.
This text was one of the lectionary texts for that day (a Tuesday) and called out to me. More than once I was tempted to choose an “easier” text but resisted that temptation. Working through the text I was delighted to find the theme of solidarity in suffering. It was very well-received and—perhaps because of the challenging topic and the challenging time I had with it—is one of the sermons with which I am most pleased.
A sermon on Lamentations 1:1-12 and John 11:17-37:
Though it is in our lectionary, our Lamentations text – this prayer of pain and petition – is not something we hear every day. I doubt many of us could quote from Lamentations as easily as we could from Psalms, from Isaiah, or from any of the gospels or epistles. So when we do hear from this book, it may come as a shock to our system. When I’ve told people that one of the texts I would be preaching from this morning is Lamentations, I got very similar responses. There were a few “ohs” and “that’s interesting,” and even an occasional “oh my.” Not exactly the words of assurance a woman would want. But these words did not really surprise me for what we find in this book – undiluted expressions of despair – are rarely the passages we seek out for nice Bible studies or our bedtime readings.
We are fortunate, then, that though we may not seek certain passages out, they surely seek us out. The scriptures which testify to the Word made flesh are not just letters on a page. When engaged with the Spirit, they are a living witness. This living witness is a Word that does not sit quietly, waiting for us to stumble upon it. It relentlessly seeks us out, captures us in its warm grasp, will not let us go until we have thoroughly engaged it.
Though many of us may avoid a book which is consumed with such vulnerable grief, given the recent events in our country, in our world, perhaps it is not surprising that this particular Lamentations text is seeking us out. With its opening words “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people” the passage invokes disturbing images from our recent news reports: images of cities empty of people but full of water; images of homes, businesses, places of worship destroyed by rumbling ground; images of complete and total destruction; of ways of life and life itself lost.
These words recall such images because they were written in the midst of similar despair. Lamentations is a poetic response to perhaps the most traumatic series of events in Jewish history outside the Holocaust, the Babylonian exile. In 587 B.C.E. the people of Jerusalem were invaded by the Babylonian empire’s army. The siege lasted two years and saw the destruction of the city’s walls, buildings, and even the temple; saw a famine where men, women, children alike died from lack of nutrition; saw the deportation of Jerusalem’s king, the murder of the royal family, and the exile of many of its citizens. The lament we have before us, unlike the pain expressed in books like Ezekiel, does not come from those in exile. This lament is unique in the portrayals of the exile for it comes from those left behind. Those who look around and see the invaders in their homes, those who see their destroyed temple, those who see the mass graves. It is this people in this place who cry aloud as Daughter Zion: “Is there any sorrow like my sorrow?”
Through Daughter Zion’s words, I can hear the voices of the victims of the unrelenting hurricanes, of the earthquake in Pakistan, of the places – too many places – where war is a way of life. In the face of pain and suffering in a multitude of places on such massive levels, Lamentations cries out to us. It cries out, speaking of loneliness, speaking of desolation. It cries out to God and it cries out to this body, the body of Christ, demanding to be heard.
In her book Lamentations & the Tears of the World Kathleen O’Connor well describes the power of this particular Word:
The haunting voices of Lamentations insist upon wide-open alertness to the world’s small sorrows and massive atrocities. They demand that we become witnesses, even by simple acts of reading and praying the text. They invite us to become empathic witnesses who resist with all our might whatever harms life, violates human dignity, and defaces the earth. Lamentations summons us beyond ourselves. It calls Christians to become the communion of saints, the church united, the body of Christ broken together, the sacrament of healing for the world. (132, 138)
We are invited to be witnesses who resist with all our might whatever harms life, violates human dignity, and defaces the earth. It’s a beautiful call but it can certainly be overwhelming. The power of despair—of hopelessness—is that it surrounds people whole, bears down on them, suffocating them until they cannot even gasp for the breath of life. How do you even begin to resist that kind of power? Amid the small sorrows and massive atrocities of our time, how do we answer the call to be the sacrament of healing for the world?
In response to Hurricane Katrina, the people at Covenant Presbyterian Church sought many ways to fight the despair, to ease the sorrow. There were and still are raisings of funds, collecting of health kits and packages for kids, developing of plans to join mission teams, and of course, many, many prayers. Being in the midst and being a member of this family as it sought to be the body of Christ to this particular suffering people was awesome, and humbling, and very educational. Over and over we sought to make sense of what was happening, to figure out how we could best serve the people of the Gulf Coast. And many of us wanted to know then and now: what can we do, when can we go down there, how can we use our time and talents, how can we use the work of our hands? It wasn’t just Covenant where I saw with this sort of urgency. People all around this presbytery, this nation, around this world looked at what was going on and felt a call to help. And many of these people shared the same question with the members of Covenant: Where do we start? There is so much to do, so many needs to be meet, so many miles to go before we can put this suffering behind us.
I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but I know that this community has been blessed with and promised to follow an incomparable guide. When despair threatens to consume, we have someone to turn to, to look to. When we don’t know where to begin, we can turn to the example of our Lord. We have been given a unique witness to the One who came to serve, and so when Lamentations calls out to us, summons us beyond ourselves, it is again to scripture we may turn to understand how to respond to such summons.
In the Gospel according to John, we find Christ encountering his friends Mary and Martha, sisters who are consumed by despair following their brother’s death. Though it’s not the same agony as the people of Lamentations know, it is certainly deep and overpowering. In the beginning of this passage, in the face of this despair, Christ seems… aloof. He does not appear concerned by Lazarus’ illness and upon hearing the news of his death offers no emotion. Though he tells Martha he will raise her brother, Jesus does not challenge her assumption that resurrection may come only at the last day. And faced with a weeping Mary, a weeping crowd, he does not rush to assure that that all will be well, does not run immediately to the tomb and end the cause of their suffering.
But he does not stay stoic, this Savior of ours. After Mary, like her sister before her, tells Christ that her brother would not have died if he had been there, Jesus truly begins to engage these mourners. After Mary’s words, the narrator tells us that Jesus sees her weeping, sees the weeping of the people who have come to grieve with the sisters, and finds himself “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And in this disturbed and moved state, Jesus for the first time asks where Lazarus is. And so the people offer to guide Jesus to him. Yet still he does not go.
Instead, Jesus began to weep. When surrounded by a people lost in grief who are mourning a loss they cannot overcome, Jesus weeps with them. Though death is not the final word for him, he does not move to immediate action. He does not offer to solve the problem, to alter the conditions that cause their pain. Although later he will indeed raise Lazarus, now he joins them in their mourning pains, he shares in their sorrow.
As followers of Christ, we are asked to follow in his Way, to look to him as our guide, to share in the sorrow of those who suffer. For some of us who are “doers” this may not seem like enough. We may want to rush to the doing of things, rush to the tomb and raise Lazarus, rush to rebuild houses, to offer supplies, to give of the work of our hands. We may want to rush to do all this things and in doing so rush right past our call to spend time simply weeping with those who mourn.
But that is not what Christ does and this is not what people who suffer are crying out for. Lamentations, our text which comes from a community that has been inflicted with so much suffering, our text which summons us beyond ourselves, confirms our call to empathy.
Daughter Zion has been abandoned by all who once claimed to be her friend; she has been left shamed, unclean, exposed for all to see. In this condition she does not ask for aid, she does not ask for vengeance, she does not ask that her misery be ended. She asks to be noticed. She weeps because she cannot get anyone to see, cannot find comfort from anyone. She invites stares, wants to be seen standing there in all her nakedness, in all her suffering. She wants God to see her and notice her pain. She wants people to see her – not just glance at her, but take her in, take her pain in, see all that she is. “Is it nothing to you,” she asks to those who pass by. She has grown tired with “all you who pass by,” a phrase often used in Hebrew poetry to speak of witnesses of suffering who often mock the sufferer and do not intervene. She wants those who usually just mock to truly take in her pain, not to look and point, but to look and understand.
As the body of Christ we are called to be Christ’s physical presence on earth, we are called to look and understand. We are called to be with the city as she weeps. There are other things we may do, finding ways to ease people’s pain through actions, to awaken the sleeping Lazarus’ of our time. The efforts we must give, the miles we must travel, cannot be forgotten. But before we can start on those miles we have to go, before we move to action, we must weep. There have been times and there are going to continue to be times when that is all we can do. Be with people, weep with them, pray with them, pay attention to their pain, offer ourselves as companions in grief so that no more will the city that was once full of people sit and weep alone.
O’Connor, Kathleen. Lamentations and the Tears of the World. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001.
Amy Summers-Minette is the Associate Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Stauton, Virginia.
Image by: Aliyah Jamous
Used with permission