September 22, 2019
My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?’
(‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?’)
‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.’
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
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 slain of my poor people!
I can still hear Pastor Beth’s refrain; “Get ready to experience life exponentially.” Pastor Beth, My field-ed supervisor in South Brunswick New Jersey, taught me that, when you are part of a community, you experience life exponentially; you experience the excitement of new love over and over again through others, you struggle with the effects of the mental health of the People you care for hundreds of times, the effects of addiction and relapse, they hit you over and over again. You have children born into your life, mourn miscarriages with couples, celebrate marriages and divorces, you lose your parents and spouses, grandparents and children, through the lives of your people. There is a richness to this kind of exponential living, a kind of peace that can grow in our lives, when we know we are not alone, even at the worst moments of our lives, a richness to celebrations when we are surrounded by people who know us so well.
Part of living exponentially in community is learning how to lament well. Lament has a rich tradition in the Hebrew Bible and the stories of Jesus, but unfortunately it’s something that we don’t often see in American Christianity. Laments have two forms in scripture. The one we are probably most familiar with, if we have encountered it at all, calls to mind God’s faithfulness in the past, lays out the present struggle, and looks to God bringing wholeness in the future. We see these in the psalms and the words of the prophets. But in our reading from this morning, we hear from Jeremiah, who is known as the prophet of tears. Jeremiah’s lament is reminiscent of the 88th psalm. There is no recalling of the mighty acts of God in the past. There is no resolution. There is just raw brokenness. I am alone God, I don’t see any hope. Where are you?
Recently I read Kate Bowler’s beautiful memoir Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved. After spending a decade studying the Prosperity Gospel, she wrote a book titled Blessed. The prosperity Gospel is a uniquely American idea that if you work hard, and are a good person, God will reward you with health and wealth. God wants you to be happy and rich, the prosperity Gospel preachers say, with their impressive, immaculate hair. If something bad has happened to you, along the way you must have done something to draw God’s wrath. If you’re positive in your actions and speech, and your thoughts they teach, you can name your prosperity and claim it, and God will give it to you.
After writing her book, she got a job in Religious Studies Academia, which she refers to lovingly as the “land of a thousand crushed dreams.” She was married to her high school sweetheart, and finally gotten pregnant after years of infertility. She had a son named Zach, who she describes as “a perfect one-year-old boy/dinosaur, depending on his mood.” And then she got a phone call. You have stage IV cancer, and you need to come to the doctor’s office right away.
She called her husband, told him the news, and he rushed to find her. Seeing her husband, she made sure to say everything in that moment she knew to be true “I have loved you forever. I am so sorry. Please take care of our son.”
After meeting with her doctors, she wrote an incredible op-ed for the New York Times about her experience, and received thousands of e-mails. People said unhelpful things like “But I’m sure you’ve gained so much perspective because of your suffering. I’m sure you would never want to go back.” To which she shyly replied, “No, before becoming sick was much better, thanks.” People have tried to pry into her life to find some reason why she’s sick; not eating the right thing or eating too much of something, something she did wrong in her life, some flaw in her that explains her illness. None of these questions fit her story. She’s happy to report that she has, to date, committed exactly zero homicides. She’s a wonderful mother and wife. When people unhelpfully say, “everything happens for a reason,” her husband has become an expert at making the situation super awkward by saying, “I’d love to hear it. I’d love to hear the reason my wife is dying.” Now her life, through a clinical trial of immune therapy, consists of treatments, and then scans every few months to see if it’s still working. She gets life a few more months at a time, knowing at some point she will die. But there is something else in her life.
In her TED talk and her book, she writes and speaks about experiencing love, love that is hard to explain. When she was sure that she was going to die, she didn’t feel angry. She shares that she felt loved. She says “It was one of the most surreal things I have experienced. In a time in which I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing me notes and socks and flowers and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. But when they sat beside me, my hand in their hands, my own suffering began to feel like it had revealed to me the suffering of others. I was entering a world of people just like me, people stumbling around in the debris of dreams they thought they were entitled to and plans they didn’t realize they had made. It was a feeling of being more connected, somehow, with other people, experiencing the same situation.”
Our passage from Jeremiah shows us the gift of love of living exponentially in community. This passage mixes the experiences of Jeremiah, the prophet, and God. It’s not clear who is speaking when, their voices intertwined with one another, and with the people. In the mix of it all, there is love and connection and presence, experiencing the tragedy of invasion and exile together. There is a love present in not trying to make it all better, not trying to explain it away. God and Jeremiah aren’t saying, “You got what you deserved.” They’re crying for and with the people, not as dispassionate observers, but together with them.
Beloved, our world is full of cries for this kind of connection. Our own little church in the woods is full of them. Head outside of this place and the cries grow louder. We have a generation of young people growing up with persistent anxiety about gun violence and climate change, and a deep sense of being alone. There are ways forward, but to have the kind of energy and creativity and grit it’s going to take to tackle these wicked problems, there are two things we are going to need; lament, and love. Laments that put into words and art, song and movement the experience of needing a geyser to fully express the flowing of our tears. And a love that will not allow us to turn away from one another, a solidarity of Love that is as deep as God’s passion for us.
That’s what’s so hard about living life together. There is a binding of us, one to another, that is scary. It’s the kind of bond that won’t let us turn one from another, from our neighbors, but that is a source of love that can transform our world, especially in the moments where there is nothing we can do but love.
That’s what Kate Bowler is doing. She’s learning to live and “love without counting the cost, without reasons and assurances that nothing will be lost.” She has found that she believes, even now, “that in the darkness, even there, there will be beauty, and there will be love. And every now and then, it will feel like more than enough.”
Beloved, when it is hard, when the depression or the diagnosis, the family or relationship struggle, the anxiety or the loss, becomes all consuming, please, don’t go it alone. We are a family of faith that can be with you in silence, praying with the Holy Spirit with sighs too deep for words, and a presence of love that doesn’t cure everything, but that can remind us that we are not alone. May we be the bearers of that beauty and love for one another, and those God brings into our lives outside these doors. In the Name of the God of Beauty, Love, and Light in the Darkness, Amen.
Kate Bowler. All quotes from the Transcript of her TEDmed talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/kate_bowler_everything_happens_for_a_reason_and_other_lies_i_ve_loved?language=en