A sermon from Lamentations 3:19-26 and Luke 17:5-6 on 10.6.13
It has been quite a week, has it not? The last time the government shut down was back in 1995. And since then, politicians have managed to keep their squabbles from directly affecting the livelihood of us regular American citizens—at least in this very particular way—by working towards a compromise just in time to avoid another government shut down. That is, until this week.
Millions of federal government and government-funded workers have been out of the job for a good part of this last week, all of them forced to temporarily vacate their office as well as their income until a few politicians can get their acts together and find a way to resolve their squabbles with one another. None of them have convinced me that they know how their differences are affecting the lives of the very people who they claim to represent.
No matter what your political views, this government shut down amounts to a bunch of madness, and as these politicians continue to be paid their ginormous salaries as they argue without actually getting anywhere, millions of hard working Americans are looking at their checking account, wondering how their upcoming bills will be paid.
So we wait. Some of us holding our breath in silence. Others of us are shouting injustice from the rooftops of our towns. We wait for some action, for some small seed of compromise to fall from the high and mighty table of our legislature so that those of us below can be fed again.
We wait, not passively, but in a determined way—we know what justice needs to be done and we want—we need—the hand-wringing and the talking past each other to stop so that what is right to do can get done.
How long, O Lord, must we wait for justice to flow like streams over this land?, the prophet Amos pleaded.
Lamentations is a small book in the Hebrew scriptures. I admit that when I first looked up this passage to see if it offered a Word for us this morning, I had to look it up in the table of contents to see which page to turn to.
Lamentations is 5 chapters long and it is a collection of Laments, poems from an unknown Hebrew prophet, bewailing the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. This is when the people of Israel were kicked out of the Holy Land and into Babylon because they we conquered by a much bigger army. The fertile land that they had been promised was taken from them and they were now exiles, forced to live in a land that did not provide for their needs. They yearned to return to a place where their lives could once again be sustained and afforded, forced out of their livelihood by a power too big to care about them. And here we have a lament that echoes through to us just as loud today as it did twenty-six hundred years ago.
The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall.
The exile and deportation into Babylon is a catastrophe for this author and his fellow Jewish people, and he seems overburdened and overwhelmed by despair. This affliction is a heavier weight than he can bear, and he cries out to the Lord for help and some kind of explanation. Some relief.
The book of Lamentations is a challenge to our 21st century Christian sensibilities. These words like “affliction” and “homelessness” and “exile”—well, they’re kind of depressing, are they not? After all, we have this idea that the Christians who best succeed at being Christians are they one who carry smiles on their faces all the time.
The popular message is that you come to church to receive instant relief from all that weighs us down and we can exchange the frowns we walked in with for smiles to walk out that door with. And isn’t that what church is for?
But the life of faith and the promises of our God come to us in more ambiguous times in our lives, too. And shouldn’t our life together as “church” reflect the rhythm of the rest of our lives. Should church not be the place we come to be ourselves—to express our sorrows and well as our joys, to sing our laments as well as our praises, to be “realer” than we can be out there in the world.
So the writer brings his entire self to God…
My soul continuously thinks of my affliction and is bowed down within me… but the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases and God’s mercies never come to an end… and it is this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.
Lament wrapped up in hopeful and determined waiting, and an expectation that someday joy will be restored to him. This writer is led to give praise to God even in the midst of his unknowing and his doubt, his grief. He is waiting for some type of justice to unfold in his land and for his people.
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.
Yes, these words and this ancient faith we share urges us to not necessarily to be happy for happiness-sake, but real for realness-sake, and to praise our God even in the midst of unrest and ambiguity—to be determined as we wait for the promises and the justice and the mercy of the Lord to appear and restore our land and our souls.
I don’t know much about gardening and I know much less about farming, but I have this unrealized—what’s the word—desire, really, to plant and tend and harvest my own food. I read blogs about home gardening and there are books that I have on my shelf, but have not read yet, about spirituality and gardening. It all sounds very romantic to me.
There’s something about living off of the land that brings people closer to God—that teaches people tiny lessons about how God is still creating and sustaining us from the very earth God has entrusted to us.
In our reading from Luke we have these familiar words from Jesus about how faith is like a mustard seed.
Farmers stake their livelihoods on this crazy idea that they can plant tiny seeds into the ground one season and in the next season something entirely different springs forth from these seeds. Farming is an occupation based on faith—faith that the ground beneath the farmer’s feet does big and miraculous things with the tiny and ordinary seeds they’ve planted.
In the first passage we read from Luke, the disciples ask Jesus to increase their faith. Jesus has given them some fairly harsh demands in verses 1-4 just before this, and the disciples are wondering how anyone could ever meet the requirements Jesus just put upon them.
“Increase our faith!”, the disciples demand of Jesus. As if faith was handed out in bushels or by the pound. As if faith weighed something if you put it on a scale.The disciples demand an increased faith from Jesus thinking that faith is a possession that can be numbered.
Jesus replies by saying if they had faith the size of the smallest seed on the planet, they could tell one of the biggest trees on the planet to uproot itself and be planted in the sea and it would grow there.
What the disciples need, Jesus is saying, is not a bigger quantity of faith but a new way of seeing faith—not as a possession that increases in numbers and size but as something small that sprouts inside of them and grows with proper nourishment and care. Faith, Jesus, says, takes time. But even if we have a mustard seed amount of it, great things can come from it.
A farmer tends the land, waiting diligently for his seeds to grow. He doesn’t sit back, passively letting time slip by, as his crop begins to grow, but he actively cares for his seeds. He feeds the soil beneath his feet, letting the ground itself nourish his planted crop, until it grows fully into something that feeds us.
Just as the harvest is a gift from the earth, faith is a gift from God that needs cultivating, practice, patience, and a big amount of determined waiting.
This passage in Lamentations urges us to cultivate our faith in uncertain times. Not by sitting on it and hoping one day things will change, or by setting our watches for a better day when God’s presence is made plain among us, but by trusting that God is present among us now, able to bring about justice and restoration to our Land.
Lament would not make sense if we thought God was off-duty or indifferent. We lament because we are certain that God is here and working and eager to listen to us when we cry out.
Sometimes the best way to live out our faith is to practice this determined waiting—waiting upon our God to do something new among us and through us and in us. But we do not wait passively for God to show up and do all of these things. We ask, even demand, just as this prophet does, for God to show up among us so that the Kingdom of God—the restorative realm of God’s goodness and righteousness—would happen here on earth just as it does in heaven, and that in it, justice and mercy would come to the Land.
Let us pray that Christians everywhere will continue to plant tiny mustard seeds of the Kingdom of God all across this world. That we would practice determined waiting, waiting eagerly and on tip-toes for the mercy and goodness of the Lord to become a reality among us. And in the meantime, may we be small signs of this coming Kingdom to all we meet.
May one day these tiny mustard seeds we plant grow into a large harvest that nourishes the Land with God’s never-ceasing mercy and steadfast love.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful. Amen.