Special Thanks to Roger Nichols for his work on these passages and his willingness to share it. Without his help, this sermon would not have been possible. The passages for the sermon are Psalm 137, Lamentations 1:1-12, Lamentations 3:19-26, Luke 17:5-10.
A few weeks ago in worship we read these words of Jeremiah:
My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. “
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn,
and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
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!
Jeremiah was weeping for his people.
They would soon be swallowed by the Babylonian empire,
swept away by their marching hordes,
and he saw no hope for their reprieve.
And sure enough,
after keeping the city under siege for some time,
after many of the people had died from the ensuing famine and starvation,
the armies of Babylon broke through the city walls.
The princes and armies of Jerusalem fled before the onslaught,
and though they tried to put up a fight out in the open,
they were quickly defeated.
The Babylonians ransacked the sacred and holy places of the city,
The treasures of the King and even the
of God’s temple were either stolen or destroyed.
The royal palace, the temple, and the houses of the hundreds and thousands of people were all burned to the ground.
Many of the people were slaughtered.
Some of those who survived were taken captive and marched away from the city to live as strangers in a strange land, far away from home.
After the overwhelming defeat, the King of Judah, Zedekiah, was taken away in chains.
The king of Babylon even murdered the sons of Zedekiah before Zedekiah’s own eyes, and then, to make sure this was the last thing he ever saw,
The life of the nation and of the city, such as it was by that time,
had come to a terrifying end.
This is the time and place of today’s psalm,
You see, one of the survivors of this great defeat,
one of those who now lived as a stranger in a strange land,
one these nameless detainees wrote the words we read earlier:
By the rivers of Babylon –
there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
The grief and sadness of the psalmist is palpable in his words,
as is his anger.
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
For Jeremiah, however, known as the weeping prophet,
his emotions are all about sorrow.
And in Lamentations,
there is no turning away from the pain, no denying or avoiding it.
The entire book is composed of sad songs sung for a fallen city.
In the language of poetry, Jeremiah speaks of the city as though it had become a lonely widow,
whose husband and lovers have left her,
leaving her no comfort and no shelter.
There would be no one to help.
This great city had once given no thought to what the future would bring if she continued in the ways of injustice and idolatry,
and now, all she can do is weep bitter tears for what she has lost .
A once majestic city, powerful among the nations, has been reduced to nothing.
A city once filled with people coming to worship God in holy festival has been emptied of its rejoicing.
There are few left who can give any honor to this despised and defeated place.
And the few who are left in the land, the poor and the weak,
are now hungry.
They are, in Jeremiah’s words, a people groaning for bread.
The life the people had known is gone,
and there is no returning to “normal” again.
In the words of another,
“Life now came to them poured out and broken,
so broken it could not be fixed.”
Of course, the people of ancient Judah and Jerusalem were not the last to groan for bread,
nor are the last to know a life broken by loss.
People today still know the brokenness that comes from war and terror.
Iraqis, Afghanis, the Sudanese, and so many others,
all know the grief and pain and endings it can bring.
Others who do not know such deep and terrible violence personally still experience other kinds of brokenness.
There are people all around us with broken spirits, broken bodies, broken relationships, broken hearts,
as the lives they have known are fractured beyond repair.
Life, as they knew it, cannot be fixed.
What is there for anyone when life has become so broken that it cannot be fixed?
Some will be destroyed by such experiences.
Some continue to deny them.
Some will turn to live in fear or bitter despair or unrelenting anger at what has happened to them or to those they love.
[Some will hang their harps on the willow, silence their songs,
and desire only vengeance.]
But, these responses are not the only possibilities for us when we come face to face with the brokenness in this world or in our own lives.
Today, we share together in communion.
The wine will be poured out.
The bread will be broken.
Once the grapes are pressed, and the juices flow,
the wine cannot be put back in the grape.
Its former life and former existence is gone.
Once the bread is broken, it cannot be “fixed.”
Never again will we be able to put together a solid loaf from the fractured pieces that remain,
no matter how hard we might try or wish this could be so.
And yet, by faith, we in the Church dare to make this bold claim:
In these things that cannot be fixed,
in this wine so permanently poured out,
and in this bread so irrevocably broken,
there is grace.
In this very moment of fracture,
in what has been broken,
we meet Christ.
In what has been broken and poured out,
we meet the one whose head was crowned with thorns,
whose hands and feet were pierced with nails,
whose side felt the thrust of a soldier’s sword.
In this one whose very blood was poured out and whose body was broken open upon a cross,
we of faith have seen the redeeming love of God and come to know God’s saving grace.
Through what has been broken and poured out, through Christ upon the cross, the bread and wine upon the table, we are united to God. Here, at this table, there is a treasure of grace that can revive us and strengthen us.
There is never anything wonderful or romantic about being broken,
about being shattered, or brought to ruin.
Not for ancient Jerusalem, not for Jesus, not for us.
But our experience at this table,
where bread is broken and grace is still known,
can help us understand that in our own experiences of brokeness,
our own experiences of being fractured in life,
there is still grace to be found.
Even in our deepest experiences of pain and loss,
when glory is gone and happiness is seemingly forgotten,
God can still be found.
What has been broken in our life may not be fixed, but it may,
by the power of life and the grace in God, be transformed,
just as the broken bread and the wine at the table are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
The Book of Lamentations, to be sure, is a series of funeral dirges;
it is unrelenting in its expression of brokenness and pain,
of forgotten happiness,
and of a glory that is gone.
In the third chapter, we hear these words:
“The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down with me.”
But then, suddenly, comes this brief but very powerful word:
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
the steadfast love of the LORD never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end,
they are new every morning,
great is your faithfulness.”
It is as though the prophet and poet looks around him,
sees the damage and destruction the war has brought,
sees the brokenness,
and yet through his tears he also sees the grace of God waiting there for him. Love was still there,
fresh as the morning dew,
waiting to be found again.
If God’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness could be found among the ruins of Jerusalem,
then God’s steadfast love, mercy, and faithfulness will surely be there for us, in our brokenness,
in those times our lives cannot be “fixed,” nor return to normal.
In our moments of brokenness,
our own moments of being fractured, shattered, and brought to ruin,
there is still grace, transforming grace, there to meet us.
Love is there for us, waiting each morning, to be found and lived again.
When another prophet complained that God felt silent and aloof:
“How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?”
God tells him that “the just shall live by faith,”
It’s not what Habakkuk wanted to hear;
he says that it made his heart pound, his lips quiver, and his legs tremble.
But he nevertheless chose faith and decided to watch and wait:
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior. (Habakkuk 3:16-18)
Faith believes that despite all the bad stuff in the world or in my life -
bad dreams, bad luck, bad choices, bad health, bad dictators -
nothing can separate me from God’s love;
that God knows my every need and desire;
that I can and should live gladly because of the knowledge of his love;
that I can accept that I’m accepted;
that I can feel at home in the world;
and that God wills me nothing but good.
So, today, come to this table.
Here, just as life itself comes to us poured and out broken,
the bread will be broken, the cup poured out, for you.
Come in your brokenness,
come in your groaning,
come hungry for bread,
and find grace.