Grace Presbyterian Church
October 2, 2016, Pentecost 19C
Lamentations 1:1-6, 3:19-26
Out of Our Brokenness, Out of Our Hope
The first funeral I ever attended, or at least the first I remember, was in the church in which I grew up, when I was about fifteen years old. It was for a boy in our congregation, about a year older than me, who had been killed in a particularly horrific car crash. I can’t say that I knew him that well or that we were the best of friends, but I knew him well enough and we got along fine, all of which only magnified the shock for me.
I would say that it was a terribly emotional experience, but for the most part it wasn’t. One of my great weaknesses is my fear of my own emotions, and that was something that instilled itself in me from a very early age. So as best as I can figure, I somehow walled off that part of myself for that funeral, and busily preoccupied myself with examining an experience that (again, as best as I can remember) I had never seen before, and how it was different from what usually happened in that sanctuary on Sunday morning.
All the flowers. So, so many flowers. The casket placed at the front of the sanctuary, directly below the centrally-placed pulpit, open. The procession into the sanctuary, much more formal than one ever saw at that Southern Baptist church. The overflow of people, even more than on an Easter Sunday.
The service order was slightly different. The sermon was much more subdued than usual from our pastor, who despite being pastor of a relatively large downtown church in a small town, aspired mostly to be an old-fashioned hellfire-and-brimstone country preacher. And then the procession at the close of the service, again very different from the usual Sunday morning, was where I was finally undone.
My emotional guard was finally wrecked at the sight of the boy’s parents.
I knew them well enough to see, even at my callow age, how their utter grief was undoing them even at that moment. He was their only child, you see, and he had come relatively late in life. I had never seen the father look so beaten, so crushed, so … old. And the mother – normally a very proper Southern lady – was inconsolable, weeping without reservation and unable to make it down the aisle of the church to its back door without help from the preacher and other gentlemen of the church.
I suspect most of us have been in the place of that father and mother, weeping and mourning without consolation. But I also suspect many of us have been in the place where I was in that funeral, keeping emotions carefully locked away until they could no longer be suppressed in the face of the inconsolable sorrow of others. I doubt most of us have ever been in the place of the two speakers we hear in the two readings from Lamentations today.
To grasp the state of the Jerusalem of Lamentations we might need to go to Aleppo, the city in Syria that has been utterly devastated time and time again in the seemingly endless Syrian war, in which parties ranging from the Syrian regime to Daesh (what some call Islamic State) to Russia and others have sought to take it over or drive out others, leaving a city that is virtually no longer a city, but a blasted and ravaged ruin. We might need to hear and see the plight of those trapped in this blasted and ruined city, with no place to go to escape the ruin and no country in the world willing to accept them as refugees. We might need to see a truly hopeless situation to understand what the Daughter of Zion is singing in that first chapter of Lamentations. Even in the third chapter, where a tiny bubble of hope comes through, the hopelessness is still palpable.
Most of us have never experienced anything quite like this, like the ruined despair of Daughter of Zion, Jerusalem personified, altogether ready to blame God for their suffering no matter how many times Jeremiah (the presumed author of Lamentations) had warned them against their idolatry and sinfulness. I certainly cannot claim to know all of you well enough to know that for sure, but it doesn’t seem likely.
We still know ourselves to be broken, though, if we’re honest. We know, if we’re really being truthful with ourselves, what it is to be like my friend’s parents, no reserves left to cope or bear up under the grief. Most of us have been there, and if we’re honest we don’t kid ourselves that we’re ever truly very far from being in that place again. A death or grave illness for a loved one, a career reversal or loss, any number of other events that might lay us low and reveal to us our insufficiency and helplessness and (if we’re paying attention at all) our utter and complete reliance on the grace of God even to function.
We are actually marking two special occasions in the life of the church universal and this particular church, events that might not seem to have much in common. It is World Communion Sunday, in which we mark how the church, for all its diversity and even fractiousness, is still united around the table of the Lord; we are also marking in this congregation the beginning of our campaign to support the ministries and mission of this congregation, seeking to commit to the stewardship of our resources (yes, including financial resources, but also our physical resources and our time) in order to continue seeking out how to do Christ’s work in this particular corner of God’s world. To be honest, for a while there I was rather disturbed at feeling the need to connect those two events, particularly in the midst of a series of sermons from the weeping prophet Jeremiah. How in the world do all those elements make sense together?
Well, duh, preacher.
It is this very thing – our knowledge of our brokenness and utter reliance on God’s grace – that lies at the heart of both of these things.
We are driven to this table – we need this table – because we need God’s grace. We don’t come to the Lord’s Supper to congratulate ourselves on being such good Christians. Or if we do, we’re doing it wrong. The table is about our need for God’s grace, most strongly shown in the life of Christ, the healing and teaching and living and dying and living again that is our reason for being the church. Coming to the table is not about our lording it over others, reassuring ourselves that we’ve somehow “earned” God’s grace (pro tip, folks: that’s not “grace.”). The very act of the Lord’s Supper is all about the fact that we share with all the church the utter brokenness and need for grace that is the Table’s message and gift to us, the thing we share with sisters and brothers in the faith whether in Cuba or Colombia or Curacao or Cameroon or Cambodia. We way mark this particular Sunday as World Communion Sunday, but anytime we come to this table we share the inexplicable grace of God with the church in all the world.
But our stewardship is also rooted in this knowledge of our need for grace. It’s a bit like coming to the table; if we’re giving of our time or our money or of anything because we are convinced we’ve got our act together and we can be so benevolent as to give the church a hand, we’re doing it wrong. It is out our brokenness, the unshakable knowledge of our utter helplessness before God and need for God, that we give of ourselves or our treasure. We don’t give because we are convinced we’re going to save the world, or even fix our town; we give because we know the only One who can, and we simply want to be ready to be used for God’s purposes.
We don’t have to know the experience of conquered and ruined Jerusalem, the lamenting Daughter of Zion, to know our own brokenness, our own need for grace. We don’t have to be amidst the devastation of modern warfare to know how close we are to despair and utter grief without the sustaining of our Lord, and even sometimes with it. We may not be comfortable with it and certainly not comfortable admitting it, but we know it. But it is in that knowledge that grace can move in us and move through us, healing us and using us to heal. Whether at the table or in the offering plate, may we be ever coveting the grace of God to move within us, and then to move through us, for the healing of a broken world.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#317 In Christ There Is No East Or West
#203 Jesu, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love
#508 Come to the Table
#526 Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ
The devastation of Aleppo. You don't have to experience this, though,
to know what it is to be broken.