October 7, 2007 19th Sunday after Pentecost (RCL Proper 22C) Lamentations 1: 1-6; Luke 17: 5-10
“The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
This remarkable canticle from the 3rd chapter of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, and in the dramatic contrasting context of the reading from chapter one: the vision of Jerusalem in ruins, smoking rubble, Dresden and Hiroshima, Ground Zero, ashes and bones, broken hearts, shattered dreams. The poor run off to scavenge in the hills, the wealthy, the educated elites, the royal household either murdered where they stood and their bodies torn apart by the dogs, or bound with chains and carried off into the refugee camps of Babylonian exile.
I wonder how long it took Jeremiah before he could write those words. In whatever slave labor camp or refugee tent or inner city Egyptian or Syrian ghetto, he had found to spend his last days. “The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases.” Certainly that would require a little processing first, a little digesting, reframing, contextualizing. A sense of distance. In the midst of the catastrophe it seems unlikely that the thought that in the long run things to other people will look not quite so hopeless, not likely the first thing to come to mind. Hey guys: someday we’ll look back on this and laugh . . . . Right. Life as we know it come to an end. What we held onto for all we were worth ripped from our grip. Leaving us nothing, again. Nothing to hold onto, but dust and ashes. Memories of better times tormenting us in our dreams, because we know they are gone, and that for us they will never return. That never gets better. Leaves us with an eternal gnawing, a sense of unnatural emptiness. "Sing us a song from the old country." How it used to be. Memories and regrets.
At its basic level the Biblical notion of idolatry is about “what we hold onto.” What we grip. And the tighter we hold on, the more the identification is certain. What we don’t want to lose, even if everything else slips away from us. Our gods. And sometimes that all doesn’t come clear to us until . . . well, until the bad things happen. Wonderful job, great family, lovely wife and fabulous kids, the house we’d saved for, neighbors and friends, good education. And a spot on the liver. The doctor says: come back for more tests, but it doesn’t look good.
So what we think about, Jeremiah. Holding on. Or maybe it’s just the sense of an empty house after the kids move out. The first Monday morning after the Friday evening retirement dinner. The gradual increase in the number of funerals you attend. Seeming like no matter how hard we hold on, things slip away. And when is that going to stop?
The little parable or story in Luke. Which is to open a door for us to think about where we feel a sense of entitlement. What we think we deserve. What we’ve earned. “Does the hardworking servant expect to be rewarded with an invitation to dine at the master’s table?” If he does, he’s in for a big disappointment. What do we think we deserve? What I have earned? What am I owed? My dad used to say about certain people, “he thinks the universe owes him a living.” It was not a compliment.
The city is dust. Its wealth and power, commerce and industry, art and science. Like mist disappearing in the first light of the morning. There it is. And then, gone. Jerusalem. And every city. Every kingdom. All the idols torn from our grip. In the end. Until our hands are as empty as they were in the hour when we were born.
The moral of the story could be, should be, to live without holding on. A parable of the empty hand. Let the dream come, and then let it go. Just be in the moment. But easier said than done. At least for me. Just a confession, anyway, from the non-Zen Buddhist part of me (which is a pretty big part of me, it turns out): from one who holds on tight to some things. Some people.
From one who doesn’t much want to let go. That there are this morning the realities of our tears, our brokenness.
When we let ourselves think about it, when we don’t turn away, the counting up of what we have lost. Every day, actually, this gift, if we were to let ourselves think of it. Every moment. Every breath. In us. Ours. And then, gone.
There is a limit to how long we can hold our breath.
And we would wonder this morning. Bring that wondering with us. What could possibly last? This bit of bread, sip of wine? A word spoken. The image of the man stretched out on the cross. Certainly holding nothing in his hands. Our eyes meeting one another as we come forward, as we return? This ancient song? Whether it’s about believing it, hoping it. Hoping against hope, against all the conquering armies, the wild storms, the quiet thief who comes in darkness and steals away before we know he’s even been there. We would wonder.
The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases. His mercies never come to an end. They are new every morning. Great is thy faithfulness.