We skipped ahead nine chapters in Luke between last week and this week. Last week’s Gospel was near the very beginning of Jesus public ministry, when he went out into the desert to be tempted. This week, we’re very close to the end. He’s on his way to Jerusalem and he knows what’s going to happen there. So a lot has happened from one to the next, but one thing they do have in common is the way they show us something about the humanity of Jesus.
Today’s Gospel begins with what sounds like a concerned warning from the Pharisees: Look out, Herod is after you. Go hide somewhere.
But really, this isn’t kindness. It’s a kind of a trap. If Jesus turns away from the work that he’s doing—his preaching, and his teaching, and his healing, and hides to protect himself—he’ll be proving that he’s not a true prophet. And he knows that he has to continue. He has to do what he’s doing. He has to go on to Jerusalem, and he’ll meet his destiny there.
But those words Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wingsI! He’s full of concern for the city. He’ll actually weep for Jerusalem later in the Gospel. When he finally arrives, he’ll look down on the city and weep. And you can hear the heartbreak in this brief lament: Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It’s just a snippet of lament here, but lament really is a form of prayer.
Sometimes people will tell me they’re going through terrible, terrible things and they’ll tell me, I almost feel angry with God, but I know that would be wrong. They admit that they’re feeling hurt, and disappointed, and confused—and even angry—but they’re sure that if they express those feelings, that would be wrong, that would be somehow showing that they didn’t trust in God. And so they push the feelings down, and they try to ignore them.
But the Bible is full of people who cry out their hearts to God, who cry out their pain, who cry out all of those feelings. God can take it, for one thing. And also, God already knows. In the Bible, a good deal of the book of Job is lament, this form of prayer. Two-thirds of the Psalms are Psalms of lament. Jeremiah, the prophet who tried to tell Israel what was coming—the conquest by the Babylonians—and they didn’t want to hear it. He was known as the weeping prophet because his lament was so much a part of who he was.
And then Jesus himself. Not just this Jerusalem, Jerusalem passage, but through the Gospel we see little examples right up to when he’s dying on the cross and he says, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? That’s Psalm 22.
So lament is a form of prayer. It’s a way to bring all these feelings to God, to pour out sadness, and confusion, and pain to God. But authentic lament doesn’t stop with the expression of pain. It goes on to express trust in God, trust in God’s presence, in God’s care, trust that God is there with us.
I think that sometimes we’re too quick to try to fix things. I’m guilty of that sometimes in my preaching. I’ll say, well, God told us we’re supposed to love each other, so get out there and do it. Love each other, and fix the world. Even the slogan of the Diocese of Pennsylvania: Know Jesus, change the world. It’s a good thought, but the truth is that we don’t change the world by ourselves.
Sometimes we actually need to step back from trying to fix things, because of course we’re not the ones who can fix the world. We cooperate with God in that. And sometimes we need to just step back and sit with the pain, with the grief—with all those feelings that we’re feeling. Sometimes we need to feel the world’s pain and bring that to God before we start fixing.
I think that lament is the right kind of prayer for where we find ourselves now. We find ourselves in Lent. And so to lament our own brokenness is very appropriate to the season.
But it seems that there is so much more going on in the world that’s terrible, that can’t be fixed. What do we do with that? I mean, last week, the images that have stayed in my mind from Ukraine of bombing, of people fleeing, that image of the family that was killed when the bridge was bombed, that image of the pregnant woman being carried on a stretcher out of the bombed maternity hospital.
I read a story—maybe you saw it—about 19 babies who have been born to surrogates in Ukraine since the war started, and their biological parents are somewhere else. And they can’t get to the babies, and the babies can’t get to them. So they’re down in a basement like lying on mattresses while this war rages on. Nineteen babies with no parents. It’s terrible.
But even without Ukraine, there were already lamentable things happening. Hunger and homelessness, which are right here near us; chronically ill friends; cancer; diseases. My own body’s relentless slide into old age. Can’t stop it. Racism and the impact it has on our brothers and sisters, on all of us.
Things that we see, but we can’t fix. What do we do with that?
Well, we bring it to God. We can bring it to God in the form of the prayer of lament.
And lament does a couple of things. First of all, it acknowledges that things are not right in the world. It makes us ever more aware that the world is broken and in need of healing.
And lament softens our heart. It increases our capacity for compassion. When we join our grief, our pain, to the suffering of other people in the world, it enlarges our hearts and it makes it possible for us to face these things without turning away. Because otherwise how much could we take?
In joining our suffering to other people, we also join our suffering to the suffering of Jesus Christ. And that cry—My God, my God, why have you forsaken me—which expresses the very humanness of Jesus, his pain and his suffering—that actually is a promise to us. His humanity is a promise that he is with us in our suffering.
A prayer of lament always continues after the expression of grief and pain to pray for the solution or the resolution that we want. We pray for peace, we pray for healing, both physical and mental. We pray for the end of injustice in our society. We pray not only that the hungry will be fed—as you all provide meals to people here—but also that the social situation that leads to hunger will be resolved.
We pray for all of those things. And one thing about prayer is when we pray for what we want, it actually clarifies our desires to us. We begin to understand more clearly what it is that we want. And we may find ways that we can act to resolve—or at least help—those situations that seem beyond our health.
Lament builds our trust in God, our trust that God will hear us, our trust in God’s promise to reconcile the world.
And it brings us back, finally, to gratitude—and it might seem paradoxical to be grateful in the midst of terrible things. But we have been given many good things starting with the gift of life itself, including our desire for peace, our desire for healing. So it brings us back to gratitude.
When I was reading a little about lament in preparation for preaching here this morning, I came across a little anecdote about someone who was looking to adopt a baby and went overseas to try to find one, and visited an orphanage and was struck by the silence.
Some of us were talking before church about my son and his family. They’re expecting a baby in two weeks. They have a three-year-old and a five-year-old. Their house is not silent. And in two or three weeks, it’ll be even less silent. Because babies and children cry to express their needs.
But this orphanage was silent. The nursery was silent. Why? Because the babies had learned that no one was there. No one would come if they cried, no one would do anything about it. They got the minimum care they needed to stay alive and that’s all, and so they didn’t cry. They had no trust in their caregivers.
Well, we trust in God. And so we cry. We cry out all of the pain we feel, the despair—it’s anger, disappointment, hurt—we bring all of that to God in lament.
So it’s recommended to us that we leave just a little silence after the sermon, before the Creed, to sort of give closure to the sermon. And I’m going to sit a little longer than a moment this morning. Don’t think I can’t find my place in the book. I’m going to give us just a little silence to surface some of our own lament and bring these cries of ours as part of what we offer to God this morning.
Preached at the Church of St. James the Greater, Bristol, PA.