Monday, November 28, 2005

what lies beneath

I've posted two sermons today - the one I preached Nov 13, the morning of my ordination day, and the one I preached yesterday.

By the way, I don't know if John or I mention this enough - or at all - but the feedback you give us is so helpful and so appreciated. I'm very thankful that I'm in such an intelligent and outspoken congregation!

Who Needs Sleep?

Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-39

Here’s the scene:

Our hero is about to embark on some dangerous – and sneaky – endeavor. Hero may be interrupted by any number of forces – maybe ninjas dressed all in black, or perhaps huge voracious three-headed dogs ala Harry Potter. Hero, not wanting to be interrupted by any of these, appoints a sidekick to stand guard. Along with offering frothy quips, it’s Sidekick’s job to make sure Hero isn’t caught by surprise when on this dangerous endeavor. Hero goes off on the mission and leaves Sidekick behind as a watch guard – with a plan to alert Hero in case any ninjas pass by.

So Sidekick sits, and Sidekick waits… and Sidekick finds himself yawning… And suddenly, Sidekick is awakened by an annoyed Hero. Apparently, Sidekick had fallen asleep and did not keep watch like he was supposed to. And someone snuck by him. Hero managed to escape a tricky situation and is now looking very displeased.

“I’m sorry,” Sidekick whines. “I swear I didn’t see them slip by.”

“Sidekick, sidekick,” Hero mutters while shaking her head.

Hero doesn’t have much sympathy for her sidekick – but I do. Every time I see or read a scene like that, I feel great empathy for the one left behind. The person seems to have a simple job – just keep alert to anyone that might come by – but that job isn’t as simple as it sounds. It’s physically exhausting to stay alert for a long time. The longer you sit there, scanning your surroundings with attentive eyes and ears, the more energy you use, the more tired you become, the easier it’s going to be to be caught sleeping on the job.

And the longer you sit there, waiting in the dark, your mind starting to play tricks on you, the greater the danger that even if you do stay awake, you won’t recognize what you were looking for as it passes right by. The person you’re on lookout for could walk right by, perhaps go as far as to wave “Hi,” and he or she wouldn’t even register on your tired mind.

It’s because of this tired state, one I’ve felt while waiting for professors to call on me for example, that I have such sympathy for sidekicks all over. It is also this tired state that makes me appreciate the challenge that comes in waiting. And it is this tired state that gives me some small, very small, semblance of an understanding of what it might have been like to wait for the Messiah.

A perennially oppressed people, the Israelites waited years, hundreds and hundreds of years, for someone who would rise up and deliver them from their oppression.

The Israelites waited… and they waited… and they waited. And during this time, they spoke boldly and proudly about the power of God. The prophet Isaiah spoke of a God who would “tear open the heavens and come down.” Mountains would quake – quake like a pot of water boiling atop a raging fire. Whole nations would tremble at the sight of this great God coming down from the heavens. God’s coming would be truly awe-inspiring – and definitely noticeable.

A silent night, however holy, would not usher in the coming of God. God would come to deliver the people with huge displays of power that would been seen and heard from the ends of the earth. And whatever Messiah the Lord sent would be come with such an explosive exhibition.

Throughout the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Roman occupancies, the people of Israel waited for this marvelous power of God, waited for deliverance. Finally, one night, a night marked only by a bright star and a singing telegram for some shepherds in a field, the Messiah came. God came. While Mary may have moaned and wailed as though the heavens were being torn apart, mountains did not quake and all the nations did not immediately tremble. And a people who had waited for so long did not all see the answer to their prayers when it came.

Yes, there were signs like the star and people like Herod and the wise men who recognized a powerful someone had arrived – but these signs were not exactly like what the people were expecting – this Messiah was not exactly like the people were expecting. And so even though Jesus walked among them, performing signs and miracles, many people did not see him. He walked right by, waving “Hi,” without them even noticing. The years of waiting had numbed them, so that though they looked they did not perceive, though they listened they did not understand.

The Israelites are not the only waiting people whose expectations were not met. The earliest followers of Jesus, those who did look and perceive, listen and understand, were waiting too, waiting for Christ to come again. They waited for him to come down in the clouds he had been taken up in. Soon, they believed, would he come. After all, Jesus was recorded as saying that “this generation will not pass until all these things – until the Son of Man comes again and sends out the angels to gather the elect – this generation will not pass until these things have taken place.” And so, the people waited, living in the moment because they believed at any moment, Christ would come again.

Whether or not Jesus was speaking of a generation like we would think of it, the people of Jesus’ generation did expect him to come again before they passed. When he didn’t, the following generations had to deal with that disappointment. Perhaps they began to look more closely at Jesus’ saying that no one – not the angels in heaven nor even the Son – knows when the day and hour will come. Only the Father knows. In the face of this unknown, as each generation passed, the people waited, some with more urgency and alertness than others. They waited… and they waited… and they waited until “they” became “we.”

It’s 2,000 years later and we are still waiting. In this season of Advent, we recognize especially our inheritance of the charge to be alert, to keep awake, to stand guard waiting for the Lord. During these four weeks we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ. Though we celebrate especially the coming of Christ years ago as a child, this is not the only coming we await, not the only advent we celebrate.

Like our ancestors of faith, we keep alert for the coming of Christ into this world again; we await the time when the sun will be darkened, the moon no longer gives light, the stars fall from the sky, and the Son of Man comes in the clouds with great power and glory.

Like the ancient Israelites and the first followers of Jesus before us, we are now the watch guards, awaiting the arrival of Christ our Master, watch guards who will – of course – recognize the Son of Man as he’s coming in those clouds…

While I think you and I are truly beloved people, graced people made in the image of God, I harbor no illusions about our ability to stay awake. It’s hard work to keep constantly awake, to keep continually alert for the coming of Christ. While the Son of Man may indeed come in the clouds, while the sun indeed darken and the moon no longer shine, we should take to heart the reaction of those who waited for the Messiah before us. We, too, may fall asleep, may find ourselves numbed to the signs, blind and deaf to the heralding of Christ’s coming.

Or perhaps we will be like the others – like the hemorrhaging woman, like the beggars in the street, like the fishermen who answered a call – those who saw Christ and knew, or at the very least had an idea. They may not have been expecting the Messiah to be a poor carpenter, but when he passed by them, when they heard stories about him, they knew there was something about this man, something that called them to faith.

Whether we will be like those who did not understand or be like those who saw in a humble man the Son of God, depends on whether or not we can keep awake, keep alert to the signs. A challenge, to be sure. But one we can, with God’s help, rise up to meet.

Our ability to stay alert for Christ over in this season of Advent, in the months and years beyond this season, may be found within the third kind of advent we celebrate this season. As we celebrate Christ’s coming as a child, Christ’s coming again, we also celebrate the ways in which Christ is manifested here and now. We celebrate the light of Christ in each and everyone of us. And it is this light, this coming of Christ here and now, that will help keep us awake.

If you want to be prepared for the hour and the day when Christ comes again – then look now for Christ around you. In every person you meet, look for the light of Christ. Sometimes seeing Christ will be easy – the kindly matron who serves at the soup kitchen, the sweet man who takes care of all the stray animals that come his way, the adorable child who offers hugs and expressions of love with such abandon. Christ just radiates from people like this.

Seeing Christ in some people is going to be much harder, take much more effort. There is no denying that it is hard to see Christ in people who appear to know only how to hurt, to see the light of God in those who inflict pain as easily as others express love. And yet as all people are made in the image of God, all people have the light of Christ within them. Truly, some people’s lights will be so covered with darkness that you and I may never see it. But that doesn’t mean we do not keep trying, do not keep looking for that light. If we stay alert, we might be surprised with a glimpse of light shining from even the darkest person.

As you prepare for a joy-filled Christmas Day, as you put up the decorations, plan what you’re going to eat at the big feast, get ready for friends and family from far and wide to come home for the holidays, keep awake for the coming of Christ. Keep alert to the presence of Christ among you here and now. For if we keep awake, keep alert, then when the master does finally come home, we will not be caught asleep. Instead, whether in the evening, at midnight, at the cockcrow, at dawn, when Christ arrives we will be prepared, we will rise up and greet him with delight, saying “Hello, dear friend, prince of peace, king of kings, sweet savior – welcome home.” What a joyous day that will be. Amen.

Oh, Inverted World

Judges 4

When I was a kid I loved reading the Bible. I’d start at Genesis and read all the way through. Okay, that’s not quite true. I’d start at Genesis with the intent of reading all the way through, but I always seemed to get stuck at about the same part – the middle of Exodus. Once that book turned from an exciting story of daring escape, of plagues and miracles, to talk about laws and the very detailed ways to worship God, I stopped reading. I suppose I have enough OCD tendencies that skipping ahead just wasn’t an option. So when I picked up the Bible again, I’d start at Genesis. Once, I got through the whole of Exodus but I didn’t make it much further. If I thought the second half of Exodus was as boring as it could get, Leviticus proved me wrong. Needless to say, in these childhood marathon readings of the Bible, I got to know Genesis and Moses real well and that was about it.

Had I known that just past Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Joshua, there would be a book like Judges waiting for me, I might have kept on reading just to get to the good part. Judges is a fascinating book about the twelve people who were designated as judges, rulers over and saviors of Israel – and this history of Israel’s pre-monarchial society is quite a juicy read.

While there are a few judges whose brief entries read like the cliffs notes to the cliffs notes version of their lives, other judges’ stories are told with such passion and engagement that I don’t need to be a kid with a wild imagination and a yearning for adventure to appreciate them. The history of Israel’s early period is filled with fascinating people who perform feats that seem impossible for mere mortals, people who defend their nation against indescribable odds.

You could say these stories are the big action summer blockbusters of their time. Instead of seeing Spiderman swinging from skyscraper to skyscraper, we have Samson tearing down buildings with his God-given brute strength. Rather than Will Smith saving the world from yet another alien invasion with yet another unrealistic save-the-day solution, there’s Gideon sending the enemy into panic and subsequently defeating them by surrounding them at night with his mere 300 men and creating such a cacophony of blowing trumpets, breaking jars, shouting war cries.

Unfortunately not unlike your stereotypical action movie, the book of Judges has some troubling roles for women. We, of course, have Delilah, who seduces Samson and cuts off the source of his power, literally. Delilah may come only second to Jezebel in giving women a bad rap. Along with Delilah, there are several women in Judges who give more serious concern to readers. The stories of Jepthath’s daughter and the Levite’s concubine are some of the most disturbing narratives in the entire Bible. Stories about the violent fates of women at the hands of men who were supposed to protect them. Stories that make it a true and honest challenge to see within them a just and loving God.

Though Judges bears these two disturbing stories, it also contains two of the most powerful women in the whole of our sacred texts. Perhaps it wouldn’t surprise most of you to know that I come from a large family full of strong women – many of whom are here this morning. I have a great appreciation for powerful females. In our text, we meet two of my favorite strong femmes, Deborah and Jael.

Our story begins by setting the stage for Deborah’s introduction. Israel does evil in the sight of the Lord, something it seems to do rather frequently in this particular book, and finds itself being oppressed by King Jabin and his military commander Sisera for 20 years. Israel cries out to God for relief – enter Deborah. Deborah is a prophetess and has become a judge over Israel. After all this campaigning we’ve seen for the governor’s race among others, I find Deborah’s claim to leadership rather refreshing. She didn’t seek anybody out, pass out bumper stickers or flyers, spend millions on negative ads or political advisors. Her wisdom and charisma, her fiery nature, were more than enough to draw people to her. She just sat under a tree and let the people come.

As this wise leader, she preaches God’s prophetic word to the people, here in particular Barak. And Deborah isn’t just a guru who stays under the relative calm of her tree’s shade, passing out proclamations. She accompanies the military commander Barak on his mission and inspires the charge for battle. For a woman of unassuming origins, sitting under that adeptly named tree, she proves a captivating character.

Our other fascinating female at first seems rather unassuming as well. Jael enters the scene innocently enough, coming out to meet Sisera, the man whose leader was her husband’s friend, offering him assurances and the comfort of her tent. I’ve lived most of my life in the South, a place – as I’m sure many of you know – that prides itself on hospitality. Now at first it seems Jael would fit right in, be a perfect example of our Southern hospitality. She gives this man on the run who has just seen his entire army destroyed (well, had he stayed for the battle would have just seen his entire army destroyed) a place of refuge. She covers him with a rug and gives him milk when he just asked for water.

Of course, what Jael does next, you know driving a tent peg into Sisera’s temple until it reaches the ground, might disqualify her from winning any Sweet Southern Miss contest. Though she starts out so seemingly sweet, she, uh, hammers home just how fierce she can be. It is Jael the homemaker, not Barak the military commander, who ends up wining the day and the glory; though Barak defeats Sisera’s army, Jael defeats Sisera himself.

These women are strong and brave, so brave in fact that they have been at the center of some heated discussions. Women need to be sheltered, you say? How could women be considered in need of shelter and protection when you have the example of Jael, a resourceful woman who took instruments she would have on hand, and simply and apparently calmly takes on a man who until a few hours before had been commander of 900 iron chariots? It’s hard to see women as weak and helpless with Jael around.

And in conversations over the centuries, people have turned to Deborah as an example of why women can and should be leaders in the church – a woman once was a leader of the whole people Israel after all. On the other side of that debate, people such as our own favorite theologian John Calvin have said that Deborah was a special case, that not all women should be regarded on her level and she was just unusually gifted.

Some have gone further than limiting the potential found in Deborah’s amazing story, by trying to discredit either Deborah or Jael’s achievements. More than one commentator, classic and contemporary, has suggested that though Deborah was a prophetess and offering wisdom and governance to Israel, she wasn’t a complete judge because she needed Barak for the all important military prowess. Now, true, the other judges in this book were men who fought battles, and so Deborah doesn’t quite fit the mold. But if we remember the story, then we know that Barak refused to go into battle without Deborah, and that it was she who commanded the day of attack and even gave the big rally the troops speech.

As for Jael, well some have been quick to point out that she broke rules of hospitality. In the ancient world, hospitality was not just about offering someone a nice meal or a place to crash – it was about survival. With no motels or rest stops along well-paved highways, the people of the Middle East had to rely on the kindness of strangers when they were crossing long distances or fleeing from an enemy. When you invited someone into your home, you were promising them protection against harm by nature or by humans. Jael, well, she doesn’t let either nature or Sisera’s persecutors get him, but he certainly doesn’t stay safe in her care.

However, I would think that one cannot really accuse Jael of breaking the rules of hospitality if one considers Sisera’s own acts. You wanna talk breaking the rules – how about a commander abandoning his troops when things get a little hairy. And while Jael offered it, given the rules of their time, Sisera should never have accepted her hospitality – only the hospitality of her husband. By accepting her offer to hide him, Sisera proved himself a doubly unworthy man and perhaps even left Jael to suspect he might want more from her than shelter and a drink of water.

Lest we think it’s just a gender thing, I really should point out that while there are those who would lessen Deborah and Jael’s contributions, there are also those who would diminish Barak’s role. Poor Barak, sandwiched between these two unique women, he tends to get lost in their glory. Deborah is the brains and Jael the brawn and Barak, he’s the filler. He’s what gets us from Deborah’s wise leadership to the grand and gory finale; a plot device, really, and nothing more meaningful or important.

Except that’s not it either. Amid all the commentaries I’ve read and in conversations I’ve had recent and past, most people don’t know how to handle this trio of actors. And I don’t blame them. The world of judges is inverted in this story. The pattern of every other judge isn’t followed here. Instead of one strong man freeing Israel from oppression, we have several strong people, including two women. So folk keep trying to play around with the story, to find a way to make one of these people more important than the other. You would think we Christians would find it a little easier to understand and accept that through three persons Israel was delivered. Instead, many of us keep trying to force one or another into the role of true hero.

But that’s not going to work. Think square peg, a square tent peg if you like, in a round hole. Without Barak, Deborah wouldn’t have had any army to charge; without Barak, Jael wouldn’t have had any one to chase Sisera off in her direction. Without Deborah, Barak wouldn’t have heard the command of God to start the whole thing off and without Jael, Deborah and Barak wouldn’t have seen an end to Sisera’s tyranny. Each needs the other and each is important to the others.

When we try and force one or another of these characters into being the star of the story, we miss out on the beauty of this collaborative effort. We miss out on interplay of each person’s different gifts as they weave together to create this story of freedom.

And what’s more, by trying to show one of this human characters as the true actor of salvation, we forget the source of that salvation. We forget that though Deborah was a wise leader, Barak a good military commander, Jael a brave, resourceful woman, God is the one who spoke first to Deborah, God is the one who sent Sisera’s army into a panic that caused him to flee. God is the source of all their gifts and their call to action. God is at work in these people’s actions and it is God who is savior, who is the true judge, true leader of the people. God is, or at least should be, the focus of our attention just as God is the focus of this narrative.

The story does not end with a summation of Deborah’s works or Jael’s bravery, or a list of Barak’s military conquests. It ends with: And so on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelite. It ends with a statement ascribing to God the glory for what came to pass. And following the narrative is a beautiful song that beings and ends the retelling of this story with ultimate praise to God.

God’s part in this story as with our own story, is as source of the gifts which bring about good things, as inspiration to seek out freedom from our oppression. And just like our forbearers of faith, our part is to be inspired by God and to seek out what God would have for us, whether we be Deborahs, Baraks, or Jaels.

So glory be to the God who works within us all, who weaves our gifts together, and moves us toward freedom from all that binds us.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Lights, Camera, Action!

Here are a few images from this weekend.

This is me right before the service starts. I'm wearing the robe my Nana and Grandpa got for me as a graduation present. My sister Dawn is on the other end of the camera making faces.

These are cupcakes Emily and Rachel Eller made for me (if you can't read it, they spell out: Congratulations Amy). Sweet treats from sweet girls!

This is me (my back's to the camera) cooking in my kitchen with my sister Beth and my aunt Jackie. See that pumpkin pie Beth is cutting - Jackie gave what was left to my sister Neli when she left. The outrage! My pumpkin pie, how I mourn your loss.

What kind of thinker am I - are you.

My friend Teri found this quiz on the BBC website. These are my results (seems about right).

Interpersonal thinkers:
Like to think about other people, and try to understand them
Recognise differences between individuals and appreciate that different people have different perspectives
Make an effort to cultivate effective relationships with family, friends and colleagues

Other Interpersonal thinkers include:
Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, William Shakespeare

Careers which suit Interpersonal thinkers include:
Politician, Psychologist, Nurse, Counsellor, Teacher

Monday, November 14, 2005

Hey, Amy, now that you’re ordained, what are you going to do?

Well, I’m not going to Disney World (Space Mountain scares me). It is interesting, though. I woke up this morning expecting to feel, I’m not sure what. Different? More mature? Extra holy? Well, I can’t say I feel any of those things. What I do feel is a sense of completion. While I have not reached the “destination” of my journey, I have finished one stage (gotten to the World’s Biggest Ball of String stop on my long road trip, if you will). Part of me feels incredibly excited and another part a little sad. Sad, you say? But Amy, you were grinning ear to ear yesterday. I think any time we reach the end of something, as exciting as the new beginning on the other side is, being a little sad is not unusual.

But don’t worry, I’m still my general cheerful self. And how can I not be? Yesterday there was a wonderful service and celebration honoring God’s call in my life. I think everyone should be so blessed. When we celebrate an ordination, the community is celebrating and affirming a call to the ministry. Well, since we are all called to the ministry in some form, whether we be doctors or teachers or homemakers, perhaps we should all join together to affirm all our calls to ministry. Oh, wait! I forgot – that’s part of what we do every Sunday. Every Sunday when we gather as a body to worship, we talk about being the body of Christ, the people of God. Recognizing our part in this community is recognizing and honoring all our calls to ministry. We just don’t always have cake afterward!

Thank you all for being part of the celebration. Thank you for being so open and caring. Thank you for being such good family.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

an unexpected joy

My non-minister friends have always been fascinated by different aspects of my job. "What's it like to write a sermon" (answer: stressful, but in a fun way) or "do you actually like going to church that much" (answer: most days, yep I do). One question that I'm often ask is one I asked of myself at the beginning - "how do you handle being with people who are sick or suffering or something? Isn't it really depressing?"

When I first heard my call I was nervous about being with people in the hospital. How will I know what to say? What if my prayers sound stupid? What can I really do? A college professor who was also a minister told my theology class that he had similar concerns when he first started and sometimes he still did. Sometimes he'd leave a room and think "what in the world was that prayer?" And when that happened, he would later hear from the person he was visiting or his/her family that "that" prayer meant so much. Even if he thought he was bumbling, the Spirit worked through him.

So, even with these concerns of mine, I decided I could be a minister and I'd just have to "get over" my nervousness in a hospital room. When I went to seminary, I was taught all this psychological stuff about visiting with folk, given different prayer ideas and techniques. While I suppose these pieces of education were supposed to help calm my nerves as well as prepare me, I didn't feel anymore calm. I spent a semester visiting people in a hospital, employing the various techniques I learned, and still, didn't feel fully comfortable.

It wasn't until I was an intern at St. Andrews that I finally began to relax. I visited this sweet older woman whom I hadn't met before (I had just started and she had been in the hospital and unable to come to church) and through my visits with her I learned something that has since made all the difference - visiting people in the hospital can be a joy!

I think because I had never had much experience visiting people when they were sick (my family tends to be a healthy lot), I just didn't know what to expect and the unknown always makes me uncomfortable. Through my visits with this particular woman, I discovered how conversations both light and deep, heartfelt prayers, and small acts of care could mean so much to both of us. I became so comfortable in a hospital setting, became comfortable with tubes and IVs and all such matters. And I became comfortable with my role as a friend, as a pastor, as a sister in Christ.

So when my friends ask me if visiting people who are sick is depressing, I just smile and say no, it's often quite the opposite. Even when people aren't doing so well, physically or emotionally, it doesn't bring me down. I get sad, yes, cry even, but there's always this sense that in our time together, God was there in that moment. That feeling lifts me up, carries me through even the hardest of days. And the good days - well, there's a heck of a lot of laughter and storytelling and even a couple offers to scout out a cute doctor for me! It is an honor and a privilege; a joy, that while unexpected, is so real.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

upon further reflection

Sometimes when you preach a sermon it haunts you... you can't get something you said out of your mind or you keep wondering if there was more to be said that you missed or if you got it "all wrong." And sometimes your life takes a new twist that puts everything you said in a different light.

I've been thinking a lot about my last sermon in the past week and a half. Thinking about my claim that we need to weep with people, be a companion for them as they suffer so they aren't alone. My own words (or perhaps, as this is what we hope for when we preach, the words of the Spirit through me) have been running through my mind, challenging me in a way I wasn't prepared for.

When I said that we are called to be with people I took something for granted - that we can be with people. I didn't stop and think about circumstances when we just can't, when distance and other factors keep us seperated from those we would wish to comfort.

One of my dearest friends suffered a tragic loss this past week. And more than anything I just want to be there with her, for her, at the very least talk to her on the phone, just to hear her voice so I can feel as if I am with her in some way. But this friend of mine lives across the ocean and I only have her e-mail, not her phone number. I feel so disconnected and I hate it. I can offer prayer and I do but it doesn't feel like enough.

And so I find myself struggling with how to be a friend, how to be the physical presence of God's love when I cannot be present. I realize that I am not so much a "do-er" but a "be-er." And when I can neither do nor be, I am challenged. I do think that in pray lies, not the answer, but an opportunity to be a friend, a sister in Christ. So I keep praying, praying for my friend and her family and praying for myself, that in that act I will find peace with my limitations.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

some light reading

Several of you have asked about the sermon I preached at presbytery last week. Well, here it is! I'll still make paper copies available next Sunday on the table in the narthex.

“Miles to Go”
129th Meeting of the Shenandoah Presbytery
October 25, 2005

Lamentations 1:1-12
John 11:17-37

Though it is in our lectionary, our Lamentations text - this prayer of pain and petition - is not something we hear every day. I doubt many of us here could quote from Lamentations as easily as we could from Psalms, from Isaiah, or from any of the gospels or epistles. So when we do hear from this book, it may come as a shock to our system. When I’ve told people that one of the texts I would be preaching from this morning is Lamentations, I got very similar responses. There were a few “oh”s and “that’s interesting,” and even an occasional “oh my.” Not exactly the words of assurance a woman would want. But these words did not really surprise me for what we find in this book – undiluted expressions of despair – are rarely the passages we seek out for nice Bible studies or our bedtime readings.

We are fortunate, then, that though we may not seek certain passages out, they may surely seek us out. The scriptures which testify to the Word made flesh are not just letters on a page. When engaged with the Spirit, they are a living witness. This living witness is a Word that does not sit quietly, waiting for us to stumble upon it. It relentlessly seeks us out, captures us in its warm grasp, will not let us go until we have thoroughly engaged it.

Though many of us may avoid a book which is consumed with such vulnerable grief, given the recent events in our country, in our world, perhaps it is not surprising that this particular Lamentations text is seeking us out. With its opening words “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people” the passage invokes disturbing images from our recent news reports: images of cities empty of people but full of water; images of homes, businesses, places of worship destroyed by rumbling ground; images of complete and total destruction; of ways of life and life itself lost.

These words recall such images because they were written in the midst of similar despair. Lamentations is a poetic response to perhaps the most traumatic series of events in Jewish history outside the Holocaust, the Babylonian exile. In 587 b.c.e. the people of Jerusalem were invaded by the Babylonian empire’s army. The siege lasted two years and saw the destruction of the city’s walls, buildings, and even the temple, saw a famine where men, women, children alike died from lack of nutrition, saw the deportation of Jerusalem’s king, the murder of the royal family, and the exile of many of its citizens. The lament we have before us, unlike the pain expressed in books like Ezekiel, does not come from those in exile. This lament is unique in the portrayals of the exile for it comes from those left behind. Those who look around and see the invaders in their homes, those who see their destroyed temple, those who see the mass graves. It is this people in this place who cry aloud as Daughter Zion “is there any sorrow like my sorrow?”

Through Daughter Zion’s words, I can hear the voices of the victims of the unrelenting hurricanes, of the earthquake in Pakistan, of the places – too many places – where war is a way of life. In the face of pain and suffering in a multitude of places on such massive levels, Lamentations cries out to us. It cries out, speaking of loneliness, speaking of desolation. It cries out to God and it cries out to this body, the body of Christ, demanding to be heard.

In her book Lamentations & the Tears of the World Kathleen O’Connor well describes the power of this particular Word. “The haunting voices of Lamentations,” she says, “insist upon wide-open alertness to the world’s small sorrows and massive atrocities. They demand that we become witnesses, even by simple acts of reading and praying the text. They invite us to become empathic witnesses who resist with all our might whatever harms life, violates human dignity, and defaces the earth. Lamentations summons us beyond ourselves. It calls Christians to become the communion of saints, the church united, the body of Christ broken together, the sacrament of healing for the world.”[1]

Well, that’s wonderful. We are invited to be witnesses who resist with all our might whatever harms life, violates human dignity, and defaces the earth. Beautiful call but it can certainly be overwhelming. The power of despair, of hopelessness is that it surrounds people whole, bears down on them, suffocating them until they cannot even gasp for the breath of life. How do you even begin to resist that kind of power? Amid the small sorrows and massive atrocities of our time, how do we answer the call to be the sacrament of healing for the world?

In response to Hurricane Katrina, the people at Covenant Presbyterian Church sought many ways to fight the despair, to ease the sorrow. There were and still are raisings of funds, collecting of heath kits and packages for kids, developing of plans to join mission teams, and of course, many, many prayers. Being in the midst and being a member of this family as it sought to be the body of Christ to this particular suffering people was awesome, and humbling, and very educational. Over and over we sought to make sense of what was happening, to figure out how we could best serve the people of the Gulf Coast. And many of us wanted to know then and now: what can we do, when can we go down there, how can we use our time and talents, how can we use the work of our hands. It wasn’t just Covenant where I saw with this sort of urgency. People all around this presbytery, this nation, around this world looked at what was going on and felt a call to help. And many of these people shared the same question with the members of Covenant: where do we start? There is so much to do, so many needs to be meet, so many miles to go before we can put this suffering behind us.

I cannot speak for the rest of the world, but I know that this community has been blessed with and promised to follow an incomparable guide. When despair threatens to consume, we have someone to turn to, to look to. When we don’t know where to begin, we can turn to the example of our Lord. We have been given a unique witness to the One who came to serve, and so when Lamentations calls out to us, summons us beyond ourselves, it is again to scripture we may turn to understand how to respond to such summons.

In the Gospel according to John, we find Christ encountering his friends Mary and Martha, sisters who are consumed by despair following their brother’s death. Though it’s not the same agony as the people of Lamentations know, it is certainly deep and overpowering. In the beginning of this passage, in the face of this despair, Christ seems… aloof. He does not appear concerned by Lazarus’ illness and upon hearing the news of his death offers no emotion. Though he tells Martha he will raise her brother, Jesus does not challenge her assumption that resurrection may come only at the last day. And faced with a weeping Mary, a weeping crowd, he does not rush to assure that that all will be well, does not run immediately to the tomb and end the cause of their suffering.

But he does not stay stoic, this Savior of ours. After Mary, like her sister before her, tells Christ that her brother would not have died if he had been there, Jesus truly begins to engage these mourners. After Mary’s words, the narrator tells us that Jesus sees her weeping, sees the weeping of the people who have come to grieve with the sisters, and finds himself “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And in this disturbed and moved state, Jesus for the first time asks where Lazarus is. And so the people offer to guide Jesus to him. Yet still he does not go.

Instead, Jesus began to weep. When surrounded by a people lost in grief who are mourning a loss they cannot overcome, Jesus weeps with them. Though death is not the final word for him, he does not move to immediate action. He does not offer to solve the problem, to alter the conditions that cause their pain. Although later he will indeed raise Lazarus, now he joins them in their mourning pains, he shares in their sorrow.

As followers of Christ, we are asked to follow in his Way, to look to him as our guide, to share in the sorrow of those who suffer. For some of us who are “doers” this may not seem like enough. We may want to rush to the doing of things, rush to the tomb and raise Lazarus, rush to rebuild houses, to offer supplies, to give of the work of our hands. We may want to rush to do all this things and in doing so rush right past our call to spend time simply weeping with those who mourn.

But that is not what Christ does and this is not what people who suffer are crying out for. Lamentations, our text which comes from a community that has been inflicted with so much suffering, our text which summons us beyond ourselves, confirms our call to empathy.

Daughter Zion has been abandoned by all who once claimed to be her friend; she has been left shamed, unclean, exposed for all to see. In this condition she does not ask for aid, she does not ask for vengeance, she does not ask that her misery be ended. She asks to be noticed. She weeps because she cannot get anyone to see, cannot find comfort from anyone. She invites stares, wants to be seen standing there in all her nakedness, in all her suffering. She wants God to see her and notice her pain. She wants people to see her – not just glance at her, but take her in, take her pain in, see all that she is. “Is it nothing to you,” she asks to those who pass by. She has grown tired with “all you pass by,” a phrase often used in Hebrew poetry to speak of witnesses of suffering who often mock the sufferer and do not intervene. She wants those who usually just mock to truly take in her pain, to not look and point, but look and understand.

As the body of Christ we are called to be Christ’s physical presence on earth, we are called to look and understand. We are called to be with the city as she weeps. There other things we may do, finding ways to ease people’s pain through actions, to awaken the sleeping Lazarus’ of our time. The efforts we must give, the miles we must travel, cannot be forgotten. But before we can start on those miles we have to go, before we move to action, we must weep. There have been times and there are going to continue to be times when that is all we can do. Be with people, weep with them, pray with them, pay attention to their pain, offer ourselves as companions in grief so that no more will the city that was once full of people sit and weep alone.

[1] O’Connor, Kathleen. Lamentations and the Tears of the World. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001. 132, 138.