Sermon notes for Oakleigh Anglican Church, Sunday 21st February 2016
(Other readings for Lent 2: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3:17-4:1)
Lament is a prominent theme in Lent.
I guess really lament is a common theme in life, it came up in a conversation with my mum during the week. We were discussing a book by Joan Chittester, called The Gift of the Years. It’s a beautiful book made up of wise thoughts about growing old gracefully. More than that really, it’s actually about re-discovering your life purpose of life in ‘old age.’ Mum had just read the chapter on ‘adjustment.’ Now there’s a great word for growing old! There’s a big adjustment to make to fully embrace that life-stage, as of course there is with every life-stage. And in the adjustment, there is much that has to be let go of. But there are things are worthy of our deep, deep grief, and letting go of them requires a very suitable lament, or mourning. The loss of my Dad being the prime example for my Mum.
For me in the middle of life, some of the major adjustments of the last few years have been the loss of time to myself upon having children; the end of many years of education upon graduating with my PhD; and the frustration and burden of postgraduate unemployment.
In my discussion with Mum, we pondered the fact that grief and adjustment take so much longer than either of us expect! Lament, to me, shows up in these times as the on-going work of naming a grief, feeling it, and letting it go. And we do this again and again with the major wounds in our life. It can take years to get over a a divorce, a retrenchment, a debilitating illness, or the loss of youthful vitality! After the first acute pangs of grief are over, the pain and the ‘adjustment’ lingers on. So anniversaries and special occasions bring a greater awareness of these losses, and there is a rightful place for lament at those times. Lament as a process of naming a grief, feeling it fully, and letting it go.
That is how I understand Lament to function in Lent. It is a season, a special occasion by which we may deal with the lingering affects of our brokenness. The long ingrained remnants of pain and hurt from our sin, and from sins done to us.
Lament has a special place in this season of Lent, to name these hurts in our lives, feel them fully, and then let them go. And I think that is why the wise ones who put together the lectionary readings, placed this gospel story here to be read and reflected upon today.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jesus laments.
Jesus had been travelling tirelessly through village and town, teaching about the Kingdom of God, slowly making his way towards Jerusalem. Somewhere along the way, some Pharisees turned up to where he was teaching and warned him that he should make himself scarce, because Herod was trying to kill him. Whether these Pharisees were friend or foe is not mentioned in the text, but the Pharisees do not usually appear in the gospel stories as ‘pro-Jesus.’ There is no other evidence offered by Luke in his gospel that it was Herod who was rooting Jesus out. And Jesus response focuses on the religious threat at hand rather than a political threat to his person.
He says, if I may rephrase, ‘today, tomorrow, and the next day, I will go on preaching and walking steadfastly towards Jerusalem, because that is where my mission ends. I am a prophet on the way to the Holy City, coming in the name of the Lord.’
Jerusalem, City of David and centre of the nation Israel, the nation born of covenant with Yahweh. The city in which the temple of Yahweh stands as symbol of a privileged relationship between Yahweh and the people whom he called through the ancient Abraham.
The city that kills the prophets Yahweh sends to it. The city that does not or will not recognise those wise ones with their cries, ‘Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
How Jesus longs to gather up the beloved Jerusalem in his arms, like a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wing. How Jesus longs to love his brothers and sisters of the covenant, but they do not recognise him.
The lament over Jerusalem is pointed at these Pharisees that have come to ‘warn’ Jesus. It seems to me that Jesus has perceived a deceit in their visit. Smiles covering over a hardness of their heart, using a convenient ruse to try and get rid of him from their town. Get him to move on with preaching tour, with his message of the immanent Kingdom of God and the call to repentance.
Perhaps this is how it always is when religion—be that the people of Jerusalem or the people of the Church—gets old and stale. In my community, the most common declaration of religious affiliation would be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ I think what Jesus is confronting here is the opposite. He is describing a Jerusalem that is ‘religious but not spiritual.’ To reject the prophets of God is to reject a conversation with God. And to reject a conversation with God is to take the spirit out of the Jewish religion – for worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem is entirely about being in an ongoing and alive relationship with God!
Jesus lament over Jerusalem models for us a very particular type of Lenten discipline. This Lenten lament is a call ‘repent’ religion.
Repentance in Lent is not just about giving things up, it is really about purgation or purification. Sorting out the things that lead to life from the things that lead to death. In particular, we locate the things that do not lead to life and clear them out, in order to make space for the new life in Christ that is the fruit of Easter Day. So Lenten spiritual disciplines include a whole range of practices that lend themselves to self-examination and humility, and our religion needs the discipline of repentance just like every other aspect of our life and faith. Lament is the specific practice of naming a sin, and mourning the harm it has done.
To lament our religion, is to recognise and mourn, the ways that our religion is leading to death rather than life. It’s not to throw it out entirely. It is simply to allow the prophets of God to speak truthfully about our religious state of affairs. Note carefully the loving nature of this return to relationship. Jesus longs to draw his loved ones close, to cuddle them under his wing. Lament does not result in harsh judgment or violent condemnation. Lamenting our religion should result in a softening, just like when our mother took us in her arms we relaxed into her body. In the marvellous warmth of her love anger or hurt we felt slipped away. We got up ready to rejoin the game or able to be kinder to our sibling, or more willing to do our chores.
Lament clears the way for a return of love.
Lamenting the brokenness of our religion is of course, primarily a corporate affair. So this Lenten practice might require us to have some conversations with one another in the church. Not just winging, but really specifically identifying the signs of life as opposed to the signs of death and supporting each other to choose life. What do we keep on doing just because we’ve always done it? Can we return something that is a burden back to being about God, about drawing close to God and expressing our relationship with God?
So in our prayers, we remember the conflicts of the Holy Land. We remember the conflicts between religion. We feel the pain. We pray for those still suffering. And we trust them again to God’s care.
We name the terrible sins of the church made public by the royal commission. We publicly state our prayers of deep regret and apology. We trust in God’s forgiveness and redemption of the church.
We acknowledge the difficult public debates of asylum seekers and same-sex marriage in which the church is intimately involved. Sometimes standing up for what is most loving, sometimes seeking the protection of self-righteousness. We acknowledge the complexity of these issues and we trust again that God’s grace will be sufficient to equip us for this ministry of debate.
We feel the full force of our empty pews. We lament that there are people who used to sit beside us but who no longer do. We feel the sadness of our children and grandchildren choosing a different spiritual path. And we note the deep disappointment that the church that we love struggles to fulfil all our expectations.
First and foremost, however, this Lenten lament must begin with ourselves. We must examine ourselves for the place of faith and religion in our own lives. Do we use our religious status to shield us from the divine, or to bring us into greater contact with God and our truest selves. Exposure to the perfection of God is often uncomfortable. And yet, when we entrust ourselves to it, we experience the warmth of embrace that Jesus describes, like a hen gathering up her chicks. Saying yes to spirit without the trappings of religious rules is like throwing ourselves into our mothers arms, to relax fully into her warmth and feel ourselves awash with love. We let go of hurt and grief here in this embrace. We clear away a little more of our old wounds and bad habits.
Through a Lenten lament of our religion, we clear a way for new life in the spirit, and make space for resurrection.