“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end.” ~ Lamentations 3:22
I remember a crush I had one year in high school. I don’t think we were quite dating, per se. We never had a DTR, one of those conversations to “define the relationship.” But we were together all the time, until she decided she didn’t want to hang out any more, which I think was basically a breakup.
I remember the weekend when it dawned on me that that’s what happened. I probably stayed in my room all day. I probably wrote poems. I think I made a mixed tape. I definitely remember listening to U2’s “With or without you” from the Joshua Tree album. I had the song on repeat. I bet I made a mixed tape of “With or Without You” over and over again. I’m sure I was convinced that I was in love and that this love would never die—that I would be heartbroken yet steadfast in my love for the rest of my life.
I was fine by summer break.
How do we think about God’s love for us, how do we think about God’s love for the world, when all we know of love is our own loves—what we’ve experienced, what we’ve felt, what we’ve known. We imagine God as someone like us, a person who loves like we love—as fickle or as faithful as we are, that God’s love is similar to our loves. We can’t help but make comparisons between us and God because what else do we have but human experiences, human words. We’re human beings, not Gods.
But we also have to pay attention to a warning within our Scriptures—Isaiah offers this warning more clearly and concisely than anywhere else in the Bible, when the prophet tells us in chapter 55 that God’s ways are not our ways, that God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts.
A church council in the thirteenth century develops this caution into a rule of thumb: “Between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed without implying an even greater dissimilitude.” That’s from the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Between God and us the dissimilarity is always greater than any similarity. We have our assumptions about God, we project our human ways of doing things, our human feelings onto God—but we also have to remember that God is not like us, that the dissimilarities are greater than any similarity: God’s ways are not our ways, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. The book of Lamentations is a window into the struggle of trying to understand the similarities and dissimilarities God’s love—a love that baffles us.
The book is an acrostic poem. Each line begins with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet, all twenty-two letters: alef, bet, gimmel, dalet, all the way to tav. Lamentations, as a book, is five acrostic poems, one poem after another.
Our passage for today is from the middle of the first poem. One reason for the acrostic style is to help people memorize the poem. That’s how important these poems were for God’s people. They were meant to be memorized, to be stored in the heart and mind, repeated words to guide their relationship to God.
Ellen Davis, one of my professors from divinity school, calls Lamentations “the love poetry of disaster.” The poems were written after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 BCE, during the era of the Jew’s captivity in the Babylonian empire. The poems express the shock and anguish at the devastation of Jerusalem—their homes, their city, the temple at the heart of the city, everything taken from them. The lines of the poems remember the disasters of warfare, and testify to a people who’re able to pick up the pieces after such violence and make some kind of life together again. The poems are declarations of love and longing for what has been lost, what has been stolen—all expressed in conversation with a God who has seemed to abandon the people.
Jews through the ages, even today, recite the whole book of Lamentations every year during the holy days called Tisha b’Av, a time to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 587 BCE as well as the temple that they rebuilt which was later levelled in 70 CE. In the Jewish liturgy for their Tisha b’Av service, God joins the people in bearing witness to the disaster—God as there, in Jerusalem, heartbroken. “I am the one who has seen affliction,” God as the “I” in that verse, God as the voice at the beginning of chapter 3. The liturgy draws God into the experience of affliction, an invitation for God to feel what the people feel, to know the loss—for God to bear witness to the disaster.
The verses of the poem we heard today are a surprise, unexpected—a short passage that is dissimilar to the rest of the book. These lines interrupt the grief. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; God’s mercies never come to an end” (3:22), we heard at the beginning of the passage, and then this verse at the end: “The Lord will not reject forever; God will have compassion according to the abundance of God’s steadfast love” (3:31-32).
The poem believes in God’s love despite the people’s experience of God’s absence, a love in defiance of Babylon’s violence, a love that wouldn’t be silenced by Babylon.
I don’t know what you have experienced this past year, during this long pandemic—I don’t know what you’ve lost and what you’re trying to piece back together. I do know that, across our society, there have been losses of a sense of community. Or, I should say, the wideness of our communities has shrunk to a handful of people, if you’ve been lucky enough to have even that.
I’m sure we’ve let each other down, I’m sure we’ve failed to be there for the people we love, that we care about, that we’re in community with—I know I have.
Despite our best efforts, we love each other inconsistently. We’re always trying to get love right, that’s what life is about. And we depend on the grace and patience of the people around us to sustain the possibility of love; we rely on communities to hold us, to care for us, to be there even when fail and try to love again.
The church, our congregation, is an invitation to live by that love from God—to be steadfast and merciful to each other.
Always merciful, because we get love wrong over and over again.
And steadfast, because we always need people we can depend on, to be there for us, to offer us mercy again and again—and to recognize in that mercy the love of God.
That’s our faith—to believe in God’s love, and to offer that love in our mercy towards each other.
 Ellen F. Davis, Opening Israel’s Scriptures (Oxford University Press, 2019): “Its five poems constitute the most prolonged, intense expression of grief and shock over the destruction of Jerusalem in all of Scripture. This might be viewed as the love poetry of disaster” (291). “When a people has suffered the dehumanizing loss that war entails, when precious bodies are broken and discarded like clay pots, then the most rehumanizing thing a writer can do is to express love and longing for what is lost” (293).