Lamentation & Communion
Lamentations 1:1-6, 3:19-26
by Nathan Rauh-Bieri
October 6, 2013
Last Sunday, Isaac preached about what Jeremiah does in the face of the impending destruction of Jerusalem: he buys a field at Anathoth. This mundane of act of sober hope is also an invitation for life to happen in the midst of and in fact despite of our powerlessness and lack of control. In the sermon, I heard the question: what might it mean to be overcome and yet go on in hope?
I find myself asking this question again today, since today’s passages from Lamentations pick up on the other side of the destruction Jeremiah foresaw. The book’s stark opening line makes it all too plain that Israel’s worst fears – the end of their world as they’ve known it – have become real: “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people.” With this, we are plunged with the author into the defining moment of loss in the history of Israel, the fall of Jerusalem and the exile of its people at the hands of the Babylonians. “Judah has gone into exile and hard servitude,” the author says, “she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting-place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress” (1.3). It seems that many of the things that help people know which way is up in the world, that bring them comfort, that give them a resting-place and security, are gone. Eerie, terse, pained, is the message: Jerusalem has fallen.
Lamentations is not a happy book. It is “disaster poetry.” Like other art, poetry tries to evoke things we find difficult to name: in this case, loss, suffering, even God-forsakenness. In the Jewish community, the scroll of Lamentations is traditionally read on the 9th of Av, the day to commemorate and mourn the tragic events of Jewish history, including the Holocaust. It is a text of grief, in which, as chapter 1 says, “Jerusalem remembers, in the days of her affliction and wandering, all the precious things that were hers in days of old” – a text in which the community’s “eyes [are] spent with weeping” (2.11). The power of tears, which are downplayed in our society, flow openly on Lamentations. The lamenters do not look away from the pain, but right towards it. There is no way to go around the grief, the loss, the hurt, the disappointment, but only through it, only by naming it in detail. This kind of cataclysm could easily be cause for despair, but instead of despair, we find a lament.
Some readers of this poem have noticed that though it starts out in the form of a death-song, but as it goes on, it changes into a lament, something only done by the living, by those who want to be living more fully. Especially at a moment when the future of the Hebrew language seemed on the brink in the face of the imperial language of Aramaic, to write a poem in one’s mother-tongue is, like buying a field was for Jeremiah, [a mundane way of going forward], of claiming that life is worth claiming. Even to utter these things is an act of resistance. Poetry – even disaster poetry – becomes an ordinary way of resisting: exile and annihilation, but also nothingness and despair.
In her commitment to take a clear look at pain and lament it, the author of Lamentations soon turns her gaze upon God, actively wrestles with and accuses God, even a God who is apparently responsible for this. “The Lord handed me over” (1.14), the author declares, “the Lord has become like an enemy; he has destroyed Israel.” The author goes on to liken the Lord to a bear, a lion, an archer – and using many other graphic images, describes the harm the Lord has done. Like the psalmists, this author has no problem directing blame toward God even while admitting Israel’s rebelliousness. The book is clear in two things: Jerusalem has fallen, and, even if Israel sin has brought this about, God is responsible.
This is a very serious accusation. Despite the anger, however, the writer never thinks of the self or the community outside of the Lord’s gaze, outside of the Lord’s earshot. Placed throughout the descriptions and accusations are addresses to God: “See, O Lord” (1.20) “O Lord, look!” (1.9), “Look, O Lord!” (1.11); or a form of an interrogation, “is it nothing to you?” (1.12). This, after all, is part of what it means to lament: to try to get a response from God, to assume God’s response-ability, to speak as if God will respond. If we have ears to overhear, the whole book of Lamentations is one tear-choked prayer uttered within earshot of a god who, however responsible, nonetheless sees and nonetheless hears. As one reader puts it, “The lament…more [bleak]…here than anywhere else in the Old Testament, is still prayer, desperate prayer, prayer abandoned to truth.”
Prayer abandoned to truth. While there are plenty of communities today who can relate to the devastation of Lamentations more truthfully than we can, still I wonder if there is still a word for us in the laments of these chapters: that to relate to God might not require us to deny experiencing anger towards, to deny our disappointments with God and life, but to voice them while nonetheless remaining in conversation, to not presume that we can take ourselves out of the relationship, even if for all the world it seems as if God has done exactly this. It seems that, if Lamentations is scripture, there is a rightful place for anger with God in the life of faith. For, as one of you once pointed out to me, apathy in a relationship, not caring about what happens, is far more dangerous than anger. And as another of you once told me, anger is energy for change: a call for things to be better, to be more of what they could be. To be in relationship is to stay in communication; even when, maybe especially when, there is disappointment and anger. That is the kind of prayer Lamentations models.
Lamentations shows us a kind of sober truthfulness, a way of being worshipful in ways we don’t expect worship to look. Here, Israel’s poet does not create a split between grief, truthfulness, disappointment on the one hand, and worship on the other. These things do not have to be set apart, reserved for separate times and different emotional spaces. Rather, to bring our deepest petitions to God is to acknowledge who God is and who we want God to be, for us, in the here and now.
Communion: Remembering & Naming, Resisting & Accepting, Staying in Relationship
In chapter three, which Tristan just read for us, the tone of the lamenter pivots, if only for a few verses, on one single ‘but’: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.” I see Lamentations issuing us several invitations into hope this world communion Sunday:
1. An invitation to come remembering and naming that God has forgiven our transgressions, to come remembering our hope that in Jesus’ body, God has made a way through sin and death and despair, and also to remember and name our connection to those who share this hope and yet who are experiencing cause for grief and lament in the face of disorientation, even devastation, in our world today.
2. An invitation to resist death and say ‘yes’ to life, to receive life – even life rife with difficulty. Lamentations testifies to the power of lamenting where there is not life, where life has been lost, and so to claim the desire for change. As one of you pointed out last week, the person who is struggling with depression and brushing their teeth and going outside in so doing is claiming their worth and making little acts of resistance against nothingness. As is the case everytime we come to the table, sometimes what is most important is not that we feel worthy or happy or faithful or anything in particular, but that we merely take and receive.
3. And I think it is an invitation into deepened, tenacious relationship with God and one another. Receiving God’s invitation to the table is a way of staying in communication, staying open to receiving from God and from one another in surprising ways. If there is joy and gladness in our relationship to God and others, it belongs. If there is pain and disappointment and anger in that, it belongs. To wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
May our worship, including the Lord’s table, be an act of sober, tenacious hope: that waits quietly for the salvation of the Lord, that allows our lives to say with Lamentations:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.”
 Kathleen O’Connor, Lamentations and the Tears of the World (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2002), 126.