Sermon: When There’s No Comfort

I had the great honor of preaching today at Glencliff Presbyterian Church.  The texts were Lamentations 1:11-22 and John 11:33-37.  Here’s what I said, more or less…

A few weeks ago, my husband Will, my baby, and I all got a cold at the same time. I sent Will on an emergency Kleenex run to Wal-Mart, and he brought back a three-pack of boxes, which turned out to be just barely enough to go ‘round. The three boxes were wrapped in plastic coating that read, charmingly, “Hard Times Call for a Soft Touch.”

And that got me thinking. I’ve noticed a strange thing about many people. The second you start crying, they press a Kleenex box into your hands. I’m sure they have the best intentions. They want to spare you the embarrassment of having actual tears drop and potentially running your mascara while also offering you the pretense that you’re not actually crying.

Now, me, I’m not a Kleenex girl. The only reason Kleenexes enter the picture when I’m crying is if my nose gets involved, because nothing is less cute than crying that causes leakage from all facial orifices at the same time. And well-intentioned as it is, when a spectator hands me a Kleenex box, I just want to shove it right back to them.

Here’s my theory. Most of the time, when somebody’s crying, they’re past the point when Kleenexes are really helpful. No, we press Kleenexes into the hands of our weeping neighbors because tears make us uncomfortable.

Our discomfort with tears helps explain why the book of Lamentations doesn’t show up much in church. Sometimes we read it a little bit on Good Friday. But many people primarily encounter Lamentations in the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” which sums up the most hopeful verses of the book. That hymn is one of my favorites, but there’s yet more to Lamentations that we need to explore. In the first chapter of Lamentations, the poet repeats some variation of the phrase “there is no comforter” several times. There are situations in life when comfort is unthinkable in the short-term. Sometimes being inconsolable is the appropriate response to tragedy. These are the moments when we need to lament.

I can’t choose just one example. 58 people die of gunshot wounds at a Las Vegas music festival and around 500 more are wounded. Two teenagers lose their mother in a church shooting in our own backyard. Rallies in Charlottesville celebrate white supremacy. And in our individual lives, deadly disease, pregnancy loss, divorce, bereavement, or other personal tragedy strike each one of us at some point. In those moments, a comforter is far from us.

But sometimes we simply don’t know how to lament, and that’s not really our fault. Our predecessors haven’t done a great job teaching us how. For instance, in classical Athens, the great statesman Solon outlawed the practice of lament in the city. That classical suspicion of lament carried over into Christian culture. Basil of Caesarea, one of the great fathers of the Church, called lament “an indecency practiced among the ungodly.” Our own John Calvin warned against “men being carried away into excesses in their mourning, as frequently happens.” And get this—John Chrysostom, another church father, called lament “this disease of women.” Not a vote of confidence.

Even though many of our forbearers were skeptical of the concept, Lamentations still made its way into our canon. Lamentations is a book of the bible that consists of 5 chapters, each one of which is a poem. These poems are responses to Jerusalem’s sacking by the Babylonian empire in the 6th century BCE. When the Babylonians came to Jerusalem, they not only took over the city, but they also destroyed the temple of God. That was the temple that Solomon had built during better times in the Israelite monarchy. And to make things even worse, the Babylonians took many people from Judah into exile. There had never been such a great national catastrophe before.

That’s why the first line of Lamentations is just a single word: “How?” Lamentations wrestles with the question of how God could let the destruction happen, and of how people are supposed to piece their lives back together. Large sections of the first two chapters of Lamentations, including the part we just read, are put in the mouth of a woman named Zion. She is the personification of the city of Jerusalem. Zion represents both the physical city of Jerusalem that had recently been destroyed and its people, who had been forced into exile. She’s portrayed as a bereaved mother, whose children have died from starvation or violence, and as a survivor of sexual assault, who experienced the Babylonian invasion as a violation of her own body.

Zion is determined to make God understand exactly how catastrophe has shattered her. From Zion’s perspective, God is at fault for the death of her children and the pain she is experiencing. And that’s why Lamentations fascinates me. Even though Zion directly accuses God of attacking her and killing her children, the book still belongs in the sacred canon of Scripture. And furthermore, we can understand Zion’s complaints against God as a prayer. Even though it hurts to put language to the terrible situation she’s going experiencing, Zion bravely stays in relationship with God.

My interpretation of Zion’s role is different from many scholars’ I’ve studied. Many commentators conclude that Lamentations condemns Zion for her sinful behavior. I disagree, or at least think that the situation is more complicated. While Zion is on the hot seat at times, mostly, the poet approaches Zion with compassion. She’s shown as a sympathetic figure, much like you or me, who may well have done nothing to cause her suffering. Lamentations struggles to understand why Zion is in pain. And the book affords Zion the chance to speak for herself.

When Zion speaks, she says that she has rebelled. I want to suggest that the rebellion to which Zion admits is a rebellion against the idea of a God who uses war crimes, children’s innocent suffering, assault, and starvation as fair punishment. No matter what sin Zion could have committed, a just and loving God would not use those atrocities in judgment against her.

The notions of God rejected by Zion are ones that I deeply believe constitute a barrier to healthy relationship with God. They wound people and distort the character of God’s heart. Like Zion, we need to rebel against ideas of God that are like that. Sometimes, people say things like, “God took your baby because he needed another angel,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” People who say those things usually mean well, but when we’re honest, why would a God who is all-powerful need a mother’s baby? Isn’t a mother’s need to hold her child in her arms far greater? And how could God possibly expect anyone to “handle” a tragedy like the death of a child? Those kinds of statements idolize a false god who is less than the perfectly loving and mighty parent that we know God to be. Rebellion against those kinds of ideas about God is not just okay—it’s theologically imperative.

Zion rebels against broken theologies so she can move towards healthy relationship with the true God of the universe, who can give her what she really needs. Now, in my experience of relationships, I’ve found it can be challenging to ask for what we really need. My husband Will and I have been married for two-and-a-half years, and as much as we are besottedly in love with each other, our relationship has had its challenging moments. When I was pregnant with our daughter, we learned the true meaning of “hanger”: that is, hunger plus anger. I kept finding myself bating Will into pointless arguments. On one of the many occasions I regret, I remember criticizing Will’s kitchen-cleaning ability, and ending my tirade with the exclamation, “AND I’m hungry!” Will responded, “Well, why didn’t you say that first? How am I supposed to know what you really need?” Truth be told, all I needed was Chinese vegetable fried rice. But often in relationships, it’s often hard to articulate what we need to the ones we love the most.

Lamentations is spiritually powerful because in it, Zion shows us what kind of God we need in tragedy. Her lament is an unusual kind of prayer. For most of the lament, she doesn’t ask God for anything you’d expect—deliverance for herself or her children, the restoration of Jerusalem, or even food to eat. Instead, she asks God repeatedly to see her. In the short passage of Lamentations that we read, Zion asks for God to see her multiple times. In verse 11, two different Hebrew verbs command God to take notice. Zion says to God, “Look and see!” And then again in verse 20, she says, “See, Lord, how distressed I am!”

Zion’s plea for God to see her is something I think we can all relate to. When we’re suffering, it’s easy to feel invisible. The rest of the world keeps motoring along, just business as usual, and no one seems to notice that tragedy has us stopped in our tracks. When people ask us how we are, most of the time, we say, “Fine,” when inwardly, we wish more than anything that someone would dig just a little deeper and discover the truth that things are not okay. And when we’re a few degrees removed from tragedy, it’s so much easier to close ourselves off to the pain others are feeling than to truly see them and put ourselves in their shoes.

Unknown In 2016, the week after another mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, one of the most moving responses I saw was Anderson Cooper’s homage to victims on his CNN show. In the video, Cooper slowly read the names and ages of each of the 49 fatally shot victims while their faces played across the screen. That video made me feel personally connected to the shooting for the first time. By watching it, I saw the people who died, and that seeing transformed my abstract knowledge of their deaths into a personal reality. Seeing is powerful.

And though we want and need people to see us as we really are, we need God to see us even more. I’d contend that in moments of tragedy, what we need most is a God who sees us. For those of us who believe in God, it’s not so much that we need to see evidence of God’s existence; it’s that we need for God to acknowledge the realities of our existence. I’ll say that again: we need to see evidence of God’s existence less than we need for God to acknowledge the realities of our existence.

There’s only one time in the Hebrew Bible that a person has the privilege of assigning a name to God. And that’s in Genesis, when Hagar, the shamed and banished concubine of Abraham, encounters God in the wilderness.  God saves the lives of Hagar and her young son Ishmael by pointing them to water. And in response, Hagar gives God a new name: El-Ro’i, “God who sees me.” When Hagar was invisible to Abraham and Sarah, so much so that they exiled her into the wilderness to die alongside her precious child, God still saw Hagar. God still cared to find out what Hagar really needed.

In Lamentations, Zion demands that God take a long look at her, because we so desperately need a God who sees us. We need a God who sees us as we truly are. We need a God who strips away the masks we put on when we say “I’m fine” but really our hearts are breaking. We need a God who recognizes just how devastating our reality is and who refuses to look away.

I don’t at all wish to suggest that the New Testament neatly ties up the loose ends of the questions that Zion raises in Lamentations. But I do believe that in Jesus Christ, we encounter a God who really sees us. In our passage from John for today, the siblings Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are dear friends of Jesus. And while Jesus is away traveling, Lazarus dies. When Jesus finally makes it to the scene, Lazarus has already been dead three days. Like Zion in Lamentations, Mary and Martha want Jesus to see the tragedy that has struck them. They say, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus does see. And when he sees, he weeps. Jesus’ weeping doesn’t solve the two sisters’ unanswered question of why Jesus delayed in coming to Lazarus’ side. It doesn’t erase Mary and Martha’s painful memory of their brother’s death. But Jesus’ weeping does show us what Immanuel, “God with us,” truly means. God sees our reality, no matter how terrible, and will not look away.

The book of Lamentations is structured like a conversation. Different characters speak at different points. And so today, I want to continue that conversation. If I could speak to Woman Zion today, I would say, “Sister, you don’t have to be comforted today. You don’t have to be okay today. You can be mad at God today. And all that is alright. You are so brave for naming aloud the truths of your life. Thank you for giving us permission to do the same thing. Thank you for insisting that God see you.”

And for all of us here today, I want us to remember that God is everything to us. We believe in a God…

who spoke the universe into being.

whose mighty hand and outstretched arm delivered God’s people from slavery.

who raised Jesus from the dead and whose power lives in us.

But I don’t think that’s all we need to hear about God today. We believe in a God made known…

in the grieving of mothers who have lost their children.

in the songs of protest of people who will no longer be silenced.

in the tears Jesus wept outside the tomb of his friend.

and above all else, in Jesus’ broken body on a cross.

Friends, I wait in certain expectation of the day when the new creation will come upon us to comfort us, when every tear will wiped from our eyes. The story ends with the tombs of our broken lives as empty as the tomb of the risen Christ. But right now we’re on a journey through the Valley. And until that day of new creation comes, when the captives are released, the blind have their sight, and the oppressed go free, God sees us. God is lamenting with us.