from ‘lament’, to…‘but this I call to mind’
October 2, 2022
Scriptures: Lamentations 1:1-6, 3:19-26, Luke 17:5-10
To be able to gain a sense of what was behind our first reading today from the book of Lamentations, we need to understand the time and circumstances from which it emerged. Jerusalem, the center of the Hebrew faith and location of the First Temple constructed by King Solomom in 1000 BC, was attacked by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar ll of Babylon in 586 BC. Following a 30 month siege by the Babylonians the city fell and was utterly destroyed including the Temple which was ransacked and burned to the ground. After this, many of the prominent Hebrews in the city were taken off into exiled captivity in Babylon.
Truly it was a time of deepest darkness for a people who had long lived with the belief that they were a people chosen by God as God’s own. For their lives and livelihoods to have been so completely turned upside down, and the Temple destroyed was beyond imaginable, beyond grief and sadness and into a place of utter desperation and a feeling of total abandonment. It was these circumstances that gave birth to writings of lament, some of which were gathered into the book from which our first reading was drawn.
Life for the Hebrews was broken, their whole structure of government and social relationships. All of that upon which they had trusted and depended, literally for centuries, was no longer able to offer comfort or give them either societal structure or any sense of hope. They were a hopeless people, crying out and wondering why God would have ever allowed this to happen to them. The familiar was no longer theirs, as they lived, breathed, and cried out in a strange land that was not their own.
And while I do not think that, at least for most of us, we could ever approach a level of desperation as deep as this ‘as a people’, I do think that there are those among us, and certainly across the world who have reason to cry out in deep lament still. But for most of us here, given the incredible level of resources most of us have access to, and our most fortuitous location as a large land pretty much unto itself in terms of potential danger from our neighbors, desperation as deep and piercing as this is probably not a part of our conscious thought.
Which I suppose is a blessing, however we should not fool ourselves into thinking that none of our neighbors are suffering deeply. We here have our problems to be sure, but most of us still have a life to live, regardless of how jumbled our national identity may get turned around and turned over. ‘National Lament’ seems pretty far removed from our experience…at least for now.
However, on a personal level, I know of many who do find themselves in situations or circumstances that seem desperate, and fully capable of causing a cry out of ‘Why God, why me’, or ‘why now’? In fact, I think it is our loss of a sense of real caring and engaged community over the past several decades that has left many feeling so alone, so unheard, so needing to overcome problems far beyond their ability…so many without hope, searching for at least one person willing to listen and respond to their lament.
But, even in the midst of the Hebrew’s utter loss and feeling of abandonment and desperation, the author of today’s reading did not give up, did not stop searching for God. In the latter quarter of our reading starting with verse 21 we hear the writer say, ‘But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning…the LORD is my portion…therefore I will hope in him’.
In spite of the profound depths of their grief, and even in the midst of their utter sadness in exile, there was still present a spark of hope, a reason to lift one’s head in prayer, searching out and pleading for God’s comfort and presence.
And that brings us to our Gospel reading. A reading which at first seems quite far removed from the first reading from Lamentations. However, I think it is possible to see that these verses from the gospel of Luke are in fact the perfect follow-on and response to the despair we found recorded in our first reading. Continuing perhaps, to provide a pathway forward out of despair through the faithful living out of our call as followers of our Lord and Christ.
Over the past several weeks, as we worked our way through the gospel of Luke, we have seen Jesus asking much of his disciples. He has told them they must rely on him and not on their families, to ‘pick up and carry’ their own cross. He spoke of the ninety nine sheep and the absolute call to seek out and find the one that was lost, and of the impossibility of loving God as well as wealth. In short, Jesus had asked his followers to rethink life overall, to let go of previous sources of security and assurances and instead to give it all up to follow after him. It is no wonder that after all of this the disciples came to Jesus and asked him to help them, asking him to increase their own faith.
And then shockingly, the response of Jesus in our reading seems fully out of character for Jesus. ‘If you had even the smallest amount of faith, then you could do great things’, he seems to be saying…‘if only you had faith as big as the smallest of all seeds…’. These faithful disciples, having walked alongside of Jesus for several years now, having witnessed the most amazing good works and miracles, ask simply to have their fledgling faith strengthened in order to be able to walk even further along the pathway of his most difficult call. So, Jesus’ reply to this request seems so strange…but was it? Was he really saying to those faithful followers, ‘You ask me for more faith? Really?’ I don’t think so. And that is where our gospel reading picks up that same note of hope we heard echoed in the latter verses of our first reading.
In preparing for today, and wondering why this reading from Luke seemed so out of character for Jesus, I came across a 2013 commentary on Text Week.com by David Sellery which looked at the word ‘if’ in our gospel passage. Where Jesus says in response to his disciples, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed…’. Sellery points out that an alternate translation of the word ‘if’ or ‘ei’ in the Greek is ‘since’. Now that is a significant point, and not wanting to just take his word for it, I looked in the bible concordance at that verse and word and found out indeed that what we have translated in our reading as ‘if’, can in fact be translated as ‘forasmuch’, meaning ‘in view of the fact’…which supports Sellery’s claim.
So our reading, rather than being an unexpected ‘beat-down’ of the disciples by Jesus, can instead be read as, ‘Since you have faith as big as a mustard seed…you can do all these amazing things!’ Even the little seed of growing faith the disciples already had, was sufficient according to Jesus, for them to do wondrous things.So, the starting point of the response by Jesus to the disciple’s request for more faith, should instead be heard as ‘in view of the fact that you do have faith, even though now it is small…you too can still do amazing things!’
Now, in our first reading we spoke of deep despair that was tempered slightly by the faint hope and faith expressed towards the end that called on the goodness and grace of God even in those darkest of times. And we saw that the book of Lamentations was one of deep cries by the whole of the Hebrew community, having felt abandoned by God as they were carted off into exile in Babylon. Cries of ‘how and why did this happen’ by a people so deeply distraught.
And we noted that for many of us, such existential angst or despair may never be our experienced reality, as we have so much upon which we currently rely. But we also noted that there are those among us, perhaps right here in this room, who indeed are deeply, deeply troubled. Individuals for whom the cry, ‘why God’, is not all that foriegn.
And it is in that space, in that place of Jesus saying that ‘since we have faith’, that our calling to offer comfort and aid, and to extend life-giving hope and solace to these who are struggling amongst us, is a calling for which we have not only been prepared, but one to which we are most surely called, and have no right to refuse.
The cry of despair, and the hope of a gracious God who still listens and hears, is brought forward into this moment in our own lives, and therefore into our own responsibility as followers of the one who told us, ‘since you have faith…go and give of my love in my name. Offer aid and comfort to those despairing greatly. For though everything does seem upside down and lacking in any sort of clarity of purpose or reason from time to time, still, I the Lord do hear, and I the Lord do send you out in my name to be the light of love and grace…for you are truly capable of moving mountains…even with your mustard seed faith!’
By faith, and by grace we can move or help others to move from ‘lament’ over to ‘but this I call to mind’…for it truly is not ‘if’ we had faith, but ‘since’ we do have faith…
…since we do have faith, let us never shy away from using it in our Lord’s name as we are led forth by the Holy Spirit of love, in service of our brothers and sisters in need.