Even Listening Attentively..., Proper 22 (C) - 2010

October 3, 2010

Even listening attentively to Paul’s second letter to Timothy, we are probably not going to want to go the distance with Paul when he invites Timothy to “join with me in suffering for the gospel ... relying on the power of God.”

It’s really easy to hear “Join with me in suffering” and then just zone out. “Suffering” is an unappealing sound bite, even for those of us who listen without Bible Attention Deficit Disorder. We do not want to suffer any more than we already do; indeed, have we not come to church precisely because we need to get away from suffering, or at least hand it over to Jesus, who can do something about it?

Perhaps this is why we do not ordinarily find the Book of Lamentations in Hebrew scripture very useful, either in church or at home. The book is a series of five lengthy poems of inexpressible sadness, raw pain, and deep sorrow. The poets put into words our ancestors’ experience of living through enormous public and personal suffering as their home city of Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 B.C. For our ancestors, that city was the focus of dreams and hopes, the sign of God’s presence, the promise of God’s fidelity to them; its hills, its Temple, its walls and gates all spoke to travelers and residents alike of what they treasured. And now the place was gone, and they wept. They wept for being invaded, for their national identity and security damaged; they wept for abandonment by their kings; they wept for old ones killed and unburied; they wept for children dead in the streets. They wept for all the questions shouted, sighed, and whispered to God that the heavens did not answer.

We can, each of us, relate to that; but we would much rather not.

Yet it is there, in the five long poems of lament, there for us in the Bible, the living word of God. And the lamentations are there because the loss, the weeping, the suffering, and the pain goes on.

As it says in the opening verses of Lamentations:

“How lonely sits the city that was once so full of people!
How like a widow she has become
she weeps bitterly in the night,
her cheeks wet with tears
and she has no one to comfort her.”

The ancient poet imagined the city as a lonely, abused woman, grieving. At best, we apply the scenes of Lamentations to Good Friday, Jesus on the Cross. We transpose the lament from Hebrew scriptures to the women who stayed with Jesus to the end, and grieved at the foot of the cross as they watched their friend and Lord dying.

But when Paul invited Timothy – and by extension, us – to join him “in suffering for the gospel,” Paul was not asking Timothy or us to be observers. Paul knows what we also know: that Jesus repeatedly told his followers to take up their cross and follow him, not to sit somewhere watching his cross and weeping for him. For the sake of the gospel, for witness to the good news, we have somehow to engage the suffering, enter the lament.

“Join me in suffering for the gospel ... relying upon the power of God.”

Like our ancestors who watched their beloved Jerusalem invaded, ravaged, desecrated, and devastated, we have been watching so much of our world and our planet suffer before our eyes. The power of God seems a bit ambiguous and even flimsy when we see the arctic ice mass retreating or that in Africa there is almost no snow left atop Kilimanjaro. The landscapes and languages of all our cities have been invaded by “others.” Un-finish-able wars are being waged with new weapons and even newer peacekeeping goals, yet men and women still suffer and die for a cause, a name, or a flag. These are losses as surely as Babylon invading Jerusalem was a loss, and pogroms and holocausts are loss. Yet the suffering has brought forth into the public arena not the poetic cadences of lamentation, but uncharted depths of anxiety and resentment, rage and fear.

“Join me in suffering for the gospel ... relying upon the power of God.”

We are the ones who share bread and wine at a common table of thanks-giving. We are the ones covenanted to honor God in worship, study and prayer. We are the ones who promise to repent of indifference, brutality and greed, and return to the God of engagement, compassion, and generosity. We hold in our hearts and in our minds’ eyes the raw and bleak edges of violence, and at the same time the glorious vision of God at work in the world about us. Where certain talk shows, tabloids, tweets, and blogs daily degrade the realities of poverty, injustice, and oppression by manipulating the media bites, we are the ones who notice and resist such manipulations. We resist because we are called to live, notice, pray, act, and share in a context where, in Christ, our lives are made one with those who suffer such realities and the consequences of such manipulation. In our time and place, this is what it means to be the ones called to “rely upon the power of God.”

The poets of Lamentations look fearlessly at the consequences of the loss of Jerusalem. They speak terrible things, such as “The Lord has broken my teeth on gravel and ground me into the dust. My life was bereft of peace, and I forgot what happiness was.” The voice of lamentation is fierce and strong – and it is followed almost in the same breath by “But this do I call to mind, and therefore have hope: the kindness of the Lord has not ended, his mercy is not spent.”

It is only by remembering the acts of God in the past and by engaging the living word of God in the present that we can also engage wholeheartedly in both fierce lamentation and in boundless hope.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Christopher Sikkema