Sunday, September 22, 2019

Sermon: "Pure Lament", Psalm 88/Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 (September 22, 2019)


Fair warning: today’s sermon is not going to be a feel-good message. Today, we’re talking about lament. There’s been a great deal of loss, both tangible and intangible, in our community over the past few months, so I think it’s worthwhile for us to think through the theology of grief together. However, if at any point something in this sermon becomes too overwhelming, I completely understand if anyone needs to step out. Listening to what your spirit needs in this moment is more important than sitting politely through a sermon that you’re not emotionally ready to hear. If you do need to leave, know that I understand, I love you, and I’m here to talk whenever you feel ready.

That being said, it’s important for us reflect on how we react to grief. Any time we experience a profound change in our lives—moving away from home, the decay of a relationship, a major disappointment, the death of a friend or family member—it can bring with it a sense of loss and grief. Whatever form our loss takes, we human beings have a tendency to deny ourselves space for lament in our grief. Instead, we immediately rush past it towards the more comfortable emotions of healing or hope. We can see this impulse reflected in many of the psalms—any expressions of anguish are quickly followed with reminders of God’s faithfulness and goodness. This instinct makes a lot of sense, because hopelessness is a terrible place to dwell for too long. It can cause irreparable harm to the mind, body, and spirit. Often, the only thing that gets us through times of difficulty is the belief that we’ll come out on the other side of it, one way or another.

But what happens when we try to rush past our pain, but aren’t able to find healing where we expect it? What happens when things are just so awful that any balm that might be in Gilead is out of reach? What happens when hope feels too inaccessible, too distant to be practical? What happens when God’s faithful promises feel insignificant in the shadow of an overwhelming grief? How does racing past lament help us then?

I’ve been known to say that the book of Psalms contains the entirety of human emotion and experience, but I’ve chosen Psalm 88 today for a specific reason: while there are many psalms of lament, this is the only one that doesn’t attempt to soften the expression of its anguish with language of hope or faith. It wallows in its despair, allowing both its author and its audience to experience it fully and viscerally, with nothing held back. It honors the pain and its validity by allowing it to exist without mitigating it in any way. “I am shut in so that I cannot escape,” laments the psalmist. “Oh Lord, why do you cast me off?” he implores. “My only friend is darkness,” he mourns. His sense of hopelessness is laid bare. One can imagine him crying out, “What do I do?” in rhetorical despair and hearing only the echo of his own voice in response. This psalm is nothing but pure lament.

This psalmist knows that it’s important to dignify his grief by allowing space for his lament, because the nature of grief is that it’s impossible to avoid feeling it. You can ignore it or pretend it’s not there, but that doesn’t make it disappear. The word “grief” comes from an old French word meaning “to burden or weigh down”. No burden, physical or emotional, can be erased by sheer force of will. No matter how obstinately you tell yourself that it doesn’t bother you, your body will still be bent by its weight. Facing this reality openly and honestly offers you the best chance to survive it. This is the role of lament.

There are many metaphors for grief that people use to help themselves understand how it works, but the one that’s stuck with me the most compares grief to a shipwreck.[1] When you’re in the middle of it, all you can do is try and keep from drowning. It’s useless to try and convince yourself that it’s not so bad, because it IS so bad. Ignoring the reality of the situation will only make you less capable of facing it. So all you can do is try and keep from being overwhelmed by the cruel and relentless waves. That’s what lament is: giving yourself permission to catch your breath where you can in the moment, instead of trying to master the waves all at once. To recognize that sometimes, there’s nothing you can do about where you are, and so all you can do is be honest about the situation and hold on for dear life. To be afraid, or sad, or panicked, or heartbroken, or whatever it is you feel.

In these times, when the grief is too overwhelming, it’s tempting for us to lean on a belief that God will save us from the storm, quickly calming the waves and lifting us up above the waters, far away from our agony. Friends, you and I both know that this isn’t how God works. Emotions—including the difficult, painful ones—are a part of the human condition. All the faith in the world can’t remove grief from our lived experience. If you’re skeptical, just look to Jesus in Gethsemane, begging for the cup of his suffering to pass by his lips. Fully human just as much as fully divine, even Jesus was subject to the intractable pain of grief.

Grief is real and inescapable and overwhelming. But just because God doesn’t deliver us from emotional pain doesn’t mean that God isn’t there. It certainly doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care. Far from it: every time we grieve, God is with us in our lament. God’s heart breaks alongside ours. Our pain is God’s pain. We’re not just talking a cognitive understanding of our experience; God reacts to our pure lament with pure empathy. God gets it.

In this passage from Jeremiah, we hear a lament that parallels the kind in Psalm 88. It’s not clear where the prophet’s lament ends and God’s lament begins…but perhaps that’s the point. The two are indistinguishable, because their laments are one. Their words echo the pure lament of the 88th psalm. They begin, “No healing, only grief; my heart is broken,” and end, “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 wounds of my people.” God may not remove the grief from our hearts, but when we take the time to lament, God is right there with us, like a piece of wreckage we cling to to keep us afloat at the height of a storm. God feels what we feel and reminds us that we’re not alone, not even in the deepest depths of hopelessness.

Of course, our own personal storms aren’t the only ones of consequence. There’s plenty of grief in our world every day. None of us are na├»ve enough to believe that our own individual suffering is the pinnacle of the world’s lament. In every age, there is global grief too great to for humanity to bear, and this era is no exception. There is widespread hunger. Injustice. Prejudice. Greed. Systematic sin of every shape, size, and shade. And this isn’t just an affliction unique to far-away lands; it’s a plague within our own country, creating destructive waves that reach across the globe. It’s not okay. We need to fix it. But first, we need to lament.

We lament because we need to feel the grief. If we don’t, then we can’t know in the depths our being how truly, profoundly wrong it is. We lament because we mustn’t become numb to evil. Numbness is denial of sin’s weight, and we can’t carry its burden if we refuse to see it for what it is. We lament because it reminds us that we’re not alone. The isolating power of collective grief is eroded when we know that others understand us, regardless of what happens next. We lament because God laments. It is a sacred act.

The point of lament is to dwell in the pain of grief. Lament doesn’t anticipate a response, doesn’t expect to be acknowledged. And yet, the Good News of Christ is that death, whether physical, emotional, or metaphorical, never has the final word. So what do we do with this tension? How do we allow the ambiguity of lament to co-exist with the certainty of the gospel?

I think the answer lies not in any statement, but in another question. Eventually, the waves of grief will calm enough for you to look a little further than the next moment. Your desperate, rhetorical cries of “What do I do??” begin to transform into an actual question: “What do I do?” How do I move forward? What’s the next step? There won’t be any magical answers…but with God’s help, you’ll be able to start looking beyond the present moment and finally start to see the possibilities of the future. The seeds of an emotional resurrection begin to take root in the soil of lament—thanks be to God.

As we encounter the sin and sadness in the world, let us remember that even though he knew Lazarus would live again, Jesus still wept.[2] We must allow ourselves to be present in the storm before we can find our way through it. As Jan Richardson says in her book, The Cure for Sorrow, “…I do not know/ any cure for sorrow/ but to let ourselves/ sorrow.”[3] And that, God assures us, is both holy and human. The Good News is that you can acknowledge the burden of your grief and allow it to exist without allowing it to destroy you, because you are not alone. So let us ask together, “What do we do, God?” What do we do? Amen.


[2] John 11:35.
[3] Richardson, Jan. A Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief, p. 122.

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