by Joshua Brockway
Lectionary – Proper 22: Lamentations 1:1-6; 3:19-26 or Psalm 137; Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; Psalm 37:1-10; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10
At first read, the lectionary texts for this week seem to be the least appropriate for a message with an evangelistic tone. Who wants to be welcomed into a religious community which sings of exile, strife, and violence? To be sure, these scriptures require thoughtful attention. At the same time, however, they speak to a wider understanding of the human experience in a fallen world than is often portrayed in our rose-tinted sermons. Scriptures such this week’s readings from Lamentations and Habbakuk press us as preachers and worship planners to confront the fullness of life.
In an age such as ours, when culture wars define the airwaves, it is not difficult to connect to the sense of alienation explicit in this week’s readings. Habakkuk’s words are more poetic than, though similar in tenor to, the words of the television pundits and politicians: “Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails” (Habakkuk 1:3b-4a). Kent Harold Richard notes in his commentary on Habakkuk in the HaperCollins Study Bible that this invocation of violence weaves throughout the book. In fact, in each of the cases it does not speak of war or killing but signifies “confusion and the disruption of order” (1397). This connotation of violence appears to echo the contemporary anxiety being exhibited in the media as a clash of cultures.
The Psalm for the week helps turn such malaise and lament from a social focus to a statement of faith. “Trust in the Lord, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security” (Psalm 37:4). By making such a statement of faith the psalmist makes sure that the people of God are not stuck in a spiral of desperate lament, but pushes them towards confident faith. Properly speaking, Psalm 37 is a hymn with significant eschatological overtones. It assumes the lament and complaint of the people and sets it within the narrative time of God’s sovereignty. By proclaiming faith with such conviction the psalmist reminds both the reader and the world that everything is subject to God. Even though the wicked seem to prosper at the expense of justice, the day will come when the ways of God will govern all creation. In a way, the psalmist echoes the words of Jeremiah’s letter in chapter 29:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. 7But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:5-7).
What is implicit in Jeremiah’s words is made explicit in the Psalm: Even in exile and tribulation the day will come when God will restore all creation.
The preacher’s temptation is to skip over the lament and strife of these texts and the present life. To follow this desire to speak of hope and goodness is to overlook the everyday experience of residence in an alien land. The evangelist’s temptation is similar. In proclaiming the Good News we are often reticent to even name the struggles of daily life; or if we do note the need for lament we offer bandages of pie-in-the-sky hope. These texts let neither the preacher nor evangelist off the hook. They present us with real life, real lament, and real hope. Thus these scriptures, often termed as texts of terror, invite us to speak authentically about the our lives and the call to live as God’s people no matter the context.
At an early age I was involved in a canoeing accident in the cold of April. Of course the frigid water soon sapped the warmth of my body, pushing me to near hypothermic conditions. My dad and uncle, who were also thrown into the cold lake, could tolerate the temperatures better than I and were quickly released from the hospital. They soon joined the rest of the family in the waiting room while I slowly warmed to normal temperatures and stabilized.
This time in the waiting room was clearly tense and often punctuated by tears. My dad asked forgiveness both from family and from God, while they all prayed for health to return. In many ways, my family engaged in the practice of lament. They were unable to effect any change neither in my condition nor in the events that led up to the accident. All that could be done was to pray together, narrating what was already known to God and leaving the outcome in God’s hands. To this day, my parents and grandparents recall the great support they received from the simple presence of their ministers. These spiritual leaders helped them to pray authentically.
This reveals the central hope implicit in the practice of lament and authentic prayer. The invitation into Christian community is really a request to be the embodied presence of God during times of strife and joy. As struggle becomes part of experienced life, our fellow Christians come to join us in real prayer, even praying even when we cannot verbalize our pain or our hope.
“We must admit that we have been placed in the middle of life and that, from our vantage point, suffering is an unsolvable mystery. We must affirm that the meaningful question is not ‘Is theism unintelligible because I am suffering?’ but ‘Is God a God of salvation – is God one who can help?” Thomas G. Long in “Preaching about Suffering”
“There is no proving [the promises of God] to the wicked, except insofar as we embody them in our lives. The only proof we can offer that God rules the world is the tangible existence of a community that is shaped by the character of God and God’s claim.” J. Clinton McCann, Jr. in “The Book of Psalms,” The New Interpreters Bible
“But where the capacity to initiate lament is absent, one is left only with praise and doxology. God then is omnipotent, always to be praised. The believer is nothing, and can uncritically praise or accept guilt where life with God does not function properly. The outcome is a ‘False Self’, bad faith which is based in fear and guilt and lived out as resentful or self-deceptive works of righteousness. The absence of lament makes a religion of coercive obedience the only possibility.” Walter Brueggemann in “The Costly Loss of Lament”
A Prayer from the Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (Found beside a dead child)
O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all the suffering they have inflicted; remember the fruits we have brought, thanks to this suffering – our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of this, and when they come to judgement, let all the fruits which we have born be their forgiveness. Amen
From 2000 Years of Prayer compiled by Michael Counsell (Morehouse Publishing, 1999), 469
“Through our fragmentary prayers,” by Thomas E. Troeger in New Hymns for the Life of the Church
“Babylon streams received our tears,” based on Psalm 137 by Calvin Seerveld in Psalter Hymnal
“When peace, like a river” (It is well with my soul), by Horatio G, Spafford in Gospel Hymns
This week’s Evangelectionary is provided by Joshua Brockway. Joshua is director for Spiritual Life and Discipleship for the Church of the Brethren. He has served as a pastor, campus minister, and seminary instructor. He is a graduate of Manchester College, Bethany Theological Seminary and Candler School of Theology and presently is working on his Doctor of Philosophy degree at Catholic University of America.