A Sermon for Lent 2.
Some words from our first reading this morning. “O Lord God, what will you give me?” When God appears to Abram in a vision, Abram immediately confronts him with this cry of desolation. “O Lord God, what will you give me?” Jesus too, teaching and preaching in Galilee cries for Jerusalem. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Both Abram and Jesus, our forefather in faith and our Lord and Saviour, know pain and loss. Both cry out in lament, Abram for himself and Jesus for Jerusalem. And so, for a few minutes this morning I want to think about lament, and what it might mean for us.
Lament is not a very British way of conducting ourselves. But it is a very Biblical one. Here we see Abram and Jesus lamenting. Elsewhere we might find the prophets, or Moses. An entire book of the Bible is named for and given over to Lamentations. But above all it is in the Psalms that we find lament. ‘How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever’ begins Psalm 13. ‘O God, why do you cast us off for ever? Why does your anger smoke against the sheep of your pasture’ says Psalm 74, and of course famously Psalm 22 begins ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ There is nothing held back in the prayers of the Psalms. They continue to form the backbone of prayer here, in the Christian tradition and in the Jewish tradition. The greatest prayers of the Bible contain these heartfelt and all encompassing laments.
So lament is biblical, and lament is also honest. In lament we come before God as we really are. There is no pretense, no holding back, no false deference before God. In lament we tell it straight, warts and all. There is no Sunday best in the presence of God, God sees us as we truly are. And that gives us a freedom to be who we truly are, mixed up and confused and hurting and frightened and hopeful and bored and happy and sad. All of it. God sees to our hearts, we can’t hide it anyway. We don’t hold back from telling God we think it’s his fault. I’ve known people to swear at God. Lament might not be pretty, but it is honest. In lament we can pour out what is inside us, God is big enough to take whatever we care to throw at him. In lament we can be honest before God.
Lament is biblical and it is honest. It is also engaged. Lament is not something offered from the sidelines. It is offered from the middle of whatever is going on. Abram’s lament for the lack of a future, is not offered for someone else’s family. It is the cry of an old man, married to an old woman, who can see no way that his family will continue. Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem is not offered from afar. It is his cry on the road to Jerusalem for the last time. When he says he longs to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, he evokes the image of a fire. In a fire, a hen may gather chicks under her wings so that they can survive. Jesus, the mother hen, is to give his life. He laments that Jerusalem will not come under his wings to survive the fire that is to come.
Lament is engaged, it is not distant. It can be a protest, a recognition that all is not right with the world. The American pastor Bill Hybels speaks of a‘holy discontent’, something that you just can’t stand. But holy discontent doesn’t just get angry or depressed. Holy discontent turns that frustration into motivation for action. And here is something of a health warning. Lament is not simply anger or hatred. It may begin in the honesty of owning anger and hatred. It may move us away from our pretense that there is no one we regard as an enemy. But lament does not feed this anger and hatred, it brings that anger and hatred into the presence of God. And it hears again Jesus’ call to love our enemies and pray for those who despitefullyuse us. Let me urge you to be honest about those who treat you badly, let out your feelings as part of your lament. And pray for them, by name, daily. This is deep and hard spiritual work.
So to lament is biblical. It is being honest before God and it is engaged, with God, with life and with the world. And finally lament is hopeful. Lament is hopeful not with a false optimism that things will somehow feel better in the morning or relieved for having got something off our chest. Lament does not offer an easy hope, but it is a hope born out of openness to the work of God. Lament before God has within it, even if it is as small as a mustard seed, trust that God will hear our cry. Bringing our lament before God can itself be an opening for God in the midst of suffering or pain. Abram’s cry to God results in God making a covenant with him. But not before Abram has been through a deep and terrifying darkness. It is in the darkness that God speaks to Abram. Lament is hopeful, it is open to the work of God, but it is not magic.
How then does this biblical, honest, engaged and hopeful practice of lament work out in our lives. I want to finish with a story and a challenge. The story is not mine, it comes from a spiritual writer called David Runcorn. He tells the story of a woman, new to church, who, when it was time for the intercessions, stood up and just began to pray. But she didn’t pray like you’re supposed to pray in church. She spent five minutes berating God for allowing a famine that was happening at the time to occur. She shook her fist and told God off, and then sat down, leaving (one presumes) the person on the rota to lead the intercessions feeling rather upstaged. David Runcorn’s comment is that ‘clearly, no one had told her how you are meant to pray in church!’ He goes on, ‘I hope no one ever does.’That’s the story, now for the challenge. My challenge is this, take some time and think about what you might be lamenting for. Remember lament is honest, so if there’s nothing that’s alright. But my suspicion is that there are things for many of us to lament. They might be in our own lives. They might be in the world around us. They might be in the church. Whatever and wherever it might be, find a safe space and let God know what you think and feel. Be honest with God. And may the God who lamented over his people, and the God who through terrifying darkness brought the hope of a promise to Abram, hear our lament and be present to us. Amen.
Given at Derby Cathedral and the Chapel of St Mary on the Bridge, Derby 24.2.13