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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 6/28/2015

Last week’s lessons had lots of storm on the sea imagery. There was deliverance from the storm in the Psalm and then in the gospel lesson Jesus calmed the wind and the waves. In the psalm though, while the Lord did provide deliverance, he was also identified as the cause of the storm which raises a tricky theological question, one that I posed at the end of the sermon and then pretty much left unresolved mostly because I don’t think it can be resolved.

When I looked at this week’s lessons though, there it was again, back to haunt me, the same question, full of ambiguity in the passage from Lamentations: “For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief (there it is), he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (there’s the steadfast love, the hesed I also talked about last week). So in the same verse you have the steadfast love of the Lord seemingly contradicted by the Lord causing grief. Then it goes on to further complicate things by saying, “For he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” Does that put limits on God’s power? With that statement even more questions are raised, perhaps more than one wants to be bothered with with on a summer Sunday.

This is all from the book of Lamentations, a small book carefully tucked in between Jeremiah and Ezekiel, easy to miss unless you’re really looking for it, but then why would you? My guess is that you don’t know much about Lamentations but what I can tell you is that if you’re already depressed and want to make yourself feel even worse, Lamentations is a great read! It’s made up of five poems of lament and grief over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the year 587 BC.

There was a tradition, voiced in many psalms, about Jerusalem and the temple as the dwelling place of the Lord and with that came the feeling that it would always be protected, that it couldn’t be violated. But it happened; the city was destroyed, the best and the brightest were taken away into exile thus calling into question all the promises the Lord had made to Israel, also calling into question their status as the Lord’s people and Jerusalem as the Lord’s city. It was all up for grabs and Lamentations reflects the dismay caused by such overwhelming loss and all those questions.

However, dismay is not what you get in today’s reading. It starts with, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases (there’s that hesed again), his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” That’s why the sermon hymn today will be “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” but then a couple of verses before that you had, “He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is;” that’s bleak but then all of a sudden it’s “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; great is your faithfulness,” perhaps causing one to ask, “What is going on here?”

Except for today’s verses and a few other isolated verses, Lamentations is bleak as it plays havoc with the relationship the people thought they had with God. It is an expression of grief, grief that sometimes includes calls for their God, the Lord, to enact vengeance on the enemies who destroyed the city. Strangely enough though, while it probably doesn’t fit with our way of thinking, Lamentations also represents an expression of faith, faith in the midst of theological confusion.

Another way to think about Lamentations is to see it as an effort to make sense of things, to find a place to settle when all your usual points of reference don’t work anymore. It’s brutally honest; there’s no pretending that things are OK when they aren’t. There’s a sense of abandonment as things have gone as wrong as they can possibly go and God is seen as the cause; but even with that, the one who speaks, the one who writes, refuses to give up on the steadfast love, the hesed of the Lord, which, under the circumstances, is a remarkable expression of faith.

In the context of lament in Lamentations though, that clinging to steadfast love as a defining feature of God’s character can almost seem like an act of desperation, maybe a last ditch attempt to convince oneself that hope is not exhausted despite so much evidence to the contrary, maybe an attempt to convince God that this is not the way things are supposed to be. Is saying that the Lord doesn’t willingly afflict or grieve anyone just a grasping at straws, trying to let God off the hook and by doing so trying to put God back on the side of the afflicted? Whatever the motivation, these statements don’t solve much but instead they just raise more questions which might just reflect a state of desperation and confusion in which all the implications of a statement haven’t been fully thought out, speaking before you think. Desperation doesn’t leave much time for thoughtful reflection.

What I hope all this does is to give you a sense of the theological confusion being experienced by the narrator of Lamentations. It may be that none of us has experienced loss as complete as the loss reflected in Lamentations, but we’ve all had our moments of disorientation, when our own points of reference are gone or they just don’t work anymore; we have our own moments when theological confusion reigns.

When you’re in the midst of it, it can seem like no one else has ever experienced what you’re experiencing; but then there’s Lamentations. You’re not the only one; it’s happened before and with that, Lamentations perhaps provides exactly the model of faith you need. It’s kind of a tortured faith, certainly not the green pastures and still waters of Psalm 23. It’s faith in the midst of theological confusion, faith that includes an element of desperation, all of which can lead to despair, it often does, but in Lamentations, at least briefly, it leads to remembering and relying on what one has always believed about God and God’s steadfast love, recognition that without that steadfast love there is only despair.

This pairing of faith with desperation may seem awkward as our tendency is to think of faith as confident trust. We don’t think of faith as desperately hanging on, but the Bible includes characters for whom that is the case, like those in today’s gospel reading. We think of these as healing stories, the story of the hemorrhaging woman sandwiched between the raising of Jairus’ daughter. We think of them as healing stories, but they’re also faith stories: when Jesus heals the woman he says to her, “Your faith has made you well.” To Jairus he says, “Do not fear, only believe,” a summons to faith. In both cases though, faith is a product of desperation.

The woman had nothing left to lose. In fighting through the crowd to touch Jesus’ cloak she crossed all kinds of boundaries of propriety but what difference did it make? Having tried everything else, she was desperate; the risk was worth it.

Jairus was a leader of the synagogue, part of the establishment; but remember that Jesus wasn’t real popular with the Jewish establishment so in approaching Jesus, Jairus too was taking a risk. But like the woman, he too was desperate, with his daughter at the point of death, even dead. In desperation though both of these characters persisted and their desperation and persistence are seen as faith. In each case, Jesus met them in their need and honored their faith.

We admire those people who seem to have it figured out, people who somehow have overcome their questions and doubts and have a sense of quiet confidence in what they believe. But that kind of trust and certainty is not what you get in these lessons; instead, faith is more about hanging on in the midst of theological confusion which is really just another way of saying hanging on in the midst of life’s confusion.

It may feel like desperation. It may feel like grasping at straws against despair, but even so, it’s grasping at something rather than nothing. That something we grasp at is God, the Lord, Jesus, the God we name as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Sometimes all we can do is grasp, not hoping for much, maybe just hoping for a glimpse, maybe, like the woman, just hoping to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak.

It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough. And it is faith; it is faith that is life giving.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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