Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Luke 16:1-13

Ian and Trevor had a surprising friendship: Ian, a plumber and an alcoholic, finally living sober; Trevor, a pastor self-described as one slowly recovering joy. In Northfield, South Africa, they became best friends. “Really, I don’t know how,” says Trevor.

One night, around 10 pm, Trevor’s phone rang. Ian’s partner was on the line, crying. “You have to come, Ian’s been shot. He refused to give up his car keys.” Trevor and Debby went, kneeling next to Ian in the street; kneeling in Ian’s blood. “How does this happen?” Trevor wondered. “Things were just coming round for him.”

The pastor’s thoughts soon turned to his congregation. They had already buried ten people that year, violently killed. Ian would be the eleventh. “These were the early days of the new South Africa,” says Trevor. “The heady times were behind us; fragility lay just below the surface. Violence, economic inequality, HIV-AIDS were daily realities. I can feel the people looking at me from the pews. I can feel their anger. I can feel their questions. So Trevor, what have you to say to us?”

“The language of metaphysics, explanation, sympathy simply does not speak to the extremities of human experience.” Trevor continues. “With the Psalms and the prophets as my teachers, I learned the language I need. I learned the language of lament.” (Hudson)

Lament opens up territory we would rather avoid. Hear theologian Denise Ackermann: “[Lament resembles grief, and yet carries more purpose than grief]…it signals that relationships and circumstances have gone terribly awry. More than railing against suffering…more than confessions of guilt…lament is a coil of suffering and hope, awareness and memory, anger and relief; a desire for vengeance, forgiveness, and healing that beats upon the heart of God. Lament is our way of bearing the unbearable…it is, in essence, supremely human.” (Ackermann)

No prophet in all of Scripture embodies lament more fully than Jeremiah. God calls Jeremiah to prophetic ministry in the waning days of the kingdom of Judah; gives Jeremiah to see the impending destruction and devastation. Jerusalem will fall to Babylon; the conquerors will destroy the temple, and will carry God’s people into exile.

Jeremiah’s prophetic poetry pulsates with the very energies of God: God’s own voice, God’s own grief, God’s own pain so infuses the prophet’s lament they speak as with one voice.

“My joy is gone; grief is upon me, my heart is sick. For the hurt of my people, I am hurt, I mourn; dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?…O, that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people. O, that I had in the desert a traveler’s lodging place, that I might leave my people and go away from them, for they proceed from evil to evil…they do not know me.” (Jeremiah)

God speaks; not out of rage. God speaks out of love; out of creating, calling, covenanting love; offered to a people, chosen and precious; only to be set aside by them through inattention and negligence, disobedience and idolatry.

God speaks as one forgotten; like parents who, having provided for a child in every way they know how, watch that same child squander love, choose distance and disconnection, fall into ruin.

Courageously, Jeremiah lays the blame squarely at the feet of God’s people; spares them no responsibility for their displacement and suffering.

Prayer and truthfulness belong together. (Shakespeare) When prayed authentically and not anemically, lament “beams the light of awareness exactly where it needs to shine.” (Doughty) Lament surfaces and names, unsettles and offends, creates distress—and it needs to.

We claim to love the gospel of peace and to long for God’s peaceable kingdom. And yet thirty million soldiers bear arms for the nations of the earth.

In our gospel this morning, Jesus suggests we can be clever and shrewd at making money, and at the deepest level profoundly mistaken about the priorities of God.

Lament is subversive, risky speech. On Monday, Dr. Janis Orlowski of Washington Hospital Center, while briefing media on the condition of the wounded at the Navy Yard, burst into lament and penitential reflection.

“I can’t tell you,” she said, “the number of times I’ve walked into the [ER] and seen principally a dead young man on the cart…We are violent. We are aggressive. And we kill our own. That’s what I see…This senseless trauma is something evil in our society and gun legislation is not the sole answer…To rely on government is, in some ways, a cop out. Put my trauma center out of business! I would like not to be an expert on gunshot wounds.”

She continued: “If the chief medical officer of the largest trauma and burn unit of Washington, DC doesn’t say something about this societal ill, who will? I probably should [have spoken like this more often]. I chide myself for not doing more.” (Washington Post)

Lament lacks completeness without newness. The roots and strength of Jeremiah’s lament lie in his confidence that God acts, and that God’s powerful alternative future will prevail. Deeply truthful lament frees hope. And hope is the very transformational energy of God.

World War II changed everything in America. Millions of men went overseas to fight for freedom. Women went too, joining the WACS, WAVES, and other women’s auxiliaries. People of color went as well.

At home, America stopped making cars and consumer goods. Refitted factories churned out machines of war. African Americans headed north to the factories and the promise of a better life. Women left housework and became riveters and office workers. Our country opened and stretched in the name of freedom.

Then the war ended and everything snapped back. Soldiers of color, who had fought shoulder to shoulder with their white counterparts for the freedom of others, returned to find America closed; segregated and separate; unequal and unfree.

A lament began to rise in response to this new suffering; fueled by the holy intensity of generations of suffering; (Bruggemann) rising despite the harshness of Jim Crow and the violence of the Klan; rising despite the degradations of segregation and cruel poverty. A lament began to rise; reminding God that the human condition is not as it should be, and that God as the partner in the covenant must act. (Ackermann)

God does act. Hearing the people’s cry, God sends Martin; who becomes the preacher, prophet, and poet of the people’s lament. A movement of God’s holiness intrudes into American life.

The people’s powerful lament called forth leaders. King himself acknowledged, “The people moved the leaders; it was not the leaders who moved the people.” People from churches, synagogues, union halls, student centers, barber shops, and beauty parlors organized and risked for the future of God’s promise. (Saul)

Now, these courageous ones are dying. Researchers at the New York Times discovered that their obituaries bear one common phrase: “First African American.” First African American to deliver milk in Gary, Indiana; first African American to carry mail in Saginaw, Michigan; first African American bank teller in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. (New York Times Magazine) They lived as witnesses to the intrusion of God’s purpose, born of holy lament to heal a broken humanity.

Cries of lament rise the world over and beat upon the heart of God; beseeching God as a partner in the covenant to act; confident that God will act to bring God’s future.

Lament calls us to hopeful action. In the closing chapters of Jeremiah, with devastation and destruction pressing in upon God’s people, Jeremiah buys a vineyard in his ancestral home; invests in the future of God’s people; and in the future harvest.

God gives Jeremiah a new word to speak: “For I know the plans I have for you; plans to prosper you, not to harm you; plans to give you a hope and a future. And when you seek me with all your heart, you will surely find me. And you will be my people, and I will be your God.”

These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell.

Resources

Trevor Hudson, presentation, Companions in Ministry Lilly Foundation Community, Nashville: April 20, 2006

Denise M. Ackermann, After the Locusts, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, Michigan: 2003

Robert McCartney, “Laws alone won’t end gun violence, DC doctor says,” Washington Post, September 19, 2013

Walter Bruggemann, Like Fire in the Bones, Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 2011

Walter Bruggemann, Reverberations of Faith, Westminster John Know Press, Louisville: 2012

Lyndon Shakespeare, Washington National Cathedral gun violence program proposal, unpublished

Isabel Wilkerson, “A First Time for Everything”; The New York Times Magazine, December 25, 2011

Steve Doughty, To Walk in Integrity, Upper Room Books, Nashville: 2004

Scott Saul, “Sweet Martin’s Badass Song,” The Nation, May 19, 2008

Additional Resources: