2010-09-30 by Stephanie Sorge Wing
Here is my sermon draft for Sunday. I welcome feedback! The first reading will be Psalm 137, followed by Lamentations 1:1-6. I am adding a third reading at the end of the sermon, from Lamentations 3.
“Peace on Earth?” – Stephanie Sorge Wing, 10.3.10
Last week, hundreds were left homeless and at least 16 were killed in a mudslide in Mexico. A student described as "intelligent" and "incapable of hurting anyone" fired shots in the library at the University of Texas before he ended his own life. Four soldiers who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan committed suicide at Ft. Hood, also in Texas. And all of that was early in the week.
Recent floods in Pakistan left more than 1500 dead, and displaced hundreds of thousands of survivors, who continue to battle major food insecurity and widespread disease. Haiti continues to struggle in the wake of an earthquake that left between 250,000 and 300,000 dead, another 300,000 injured, and more than 1 million displaced back in January. Flooding caused loss of life and major damage here in Kentucky, as well as in Tennessee and other areas.
Our country is at war internally and externally. Fever-pitched rallies pit American against American. As we become more and more afraid of the "other," legislation has been passed that essentially sanctions and requires ethnic profiling in the hunt to root out illegal immigrants, and an entire religion and their people have been demonized and portrayed as criminal terrorists. Innocent people have been subjected to suspicion, threats, and violence. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left a toll far beyond the thousands of military and civilian deaths, not to mention the more than one million estimated Iraqi deaths, and hundreds of thousands, if not more, American troops who have returned wounded - many with lost limbs, significant brain damage, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and many other life-altering changes.
Economic experts maintain that the recession is over, but recovery will be quite slow. The unemployment rate shows little improvement. Foreclosures are on the rise, bankruptcies are on the rise, and the number of families living in shelters has drastically risen. Recent statistics from the Census Bureau show that 1 in 7 people in this country lives in poverty, and the news is even worse for children. One in five children in the United States is living in poverty. Globally, 925 million people are hungry, and 16,000 children die each day from hunger or malnutrition - that is one child every five seconds.
Are we depressed yet? Perhaps now we can start to put ourselves in the shoes of the Israelites in exile. Both our Psalm - which is seldom read in its entirety in worship - and the passages from Lamentations were written at the time of Babylonian exile - between 587 and 540 BC. For years before the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, the Babylonians had laid siege on the city. The people endured hunger and violence. Innocent citizens were killed, children were killed, women were raped and beaten, and finally, the entire city fell to the hands of the Babylonians. Most of the survivors were taken out of their homeland, and into exile in a foreign country. Even the Temple - the place of God's presence among the people, built in the prosperous days of King Solomon, was destroyed, pillaged, and defiled. Those who survived this ordeal could only lament.
This is the only Sunday in the three-year lectionary cycle in which we have readings from the book of Lamentations. Lamentations is actually a compilation of 5 poems, written in a rhythm and pattern that mirrors the mournful and tortured words of lament. If this book had a soundtrack, it would be set to Mozart's Requiem, Chopin's Nocturne in D Minor, Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor, or Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The Hebrew name for this book is "Ekhah!" - a word that means "how" - either as a question, or as an exclamation. Here it means both. How! Look at how hopeless and bleak everything is! How, God? How can this be?
Lamentations became liturgy for the Israelites. Every year they would gather to commemorate the destruction of the Temple, and these sorrowful poems would be read. Lamentations is a recognition that we are all bound together in common experience, and our experience often causes us to lament. Even though we are not among the earthquake victims, not among those facing hunger or extreme poverty, we lament with them. We lament with loss of life everywhere. We lament with broken relationships. We lament with those in our midst who are unemployed. We lament with those who have lost loved ones, or who are currently experiencing other trials in life.
Sometimes I think we come to church feeling like we need to put on our Sunday best, including our happy faces. We sing songs of praise and worship, and we give thanks to God, but we do not always feel joyful, and we do not always feel thankful. Sometimes all we can manage is a broken "Ekhah!" - How!? Psalm 137 voices some powerful and disturbing thirst for vengeance. This Psalm and others recognize the depth and diversity of human emotions, and it also reminds us that we are invited - even called - to bring it all to God.
Even in the act of lament, there is faith and hope in raising the lament to God, who listens and hears. Lament also binds together the community offering lament. There is a story of a girl who was late coming out of preschool one day. Her mother asked her why she was late, and the girl responded, "Susie dropped her doll, and the head broke off." "So you stayed to help Susie fix it?" "No," responded the girl, "I stayed to help Susie cry."
Today is World Communion Sunday, and churches around the world will be celebrating communion in many different ways and many different places. There is no other Sunday when our connection to the Global Church is made so evident. We celebrate Peacemaking Sunday, and collect the Peacemaking offering. Both World Communion and Peacemaking sound kind of happy, optimistic, "It's a small world after all," don't they? But of course if there were peace, if there were no wars, if there was justice everywhere, then we would have no need for Peacemaking. The Peacemaking work of the church recognizes the great need for peace and justice, and how lacking it is at home and abroad.
World Communion Sunday was first celebrated at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in 1933. The pastor, Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, worked with the Division of Stewardship to establish this celebration, not in a feel-good Kum-ba-yah atmosphere, but rather in the depths of the Great Depression, just as Nazism and Fascism were on the rise in Europe. World Communion Sunday was a statement, an act of protest and an act of hope, calling for all Christians to be united around the Table of the Lord. Even in the darkest days, there is hope. Even in the midst of trials and tribulations, God is still God. Dr. Kerr was also the author of the words to the hymn that we will sing after this sermon. When we sing that hymn, keep in mind his context, and our context, and even in the midst of lament, know that God is God of all our life.
Today is also the first invitation to consider your pledges for stewardship for next year. As we have heard, stewardship is not just giving; it is a way of life. Stewardship recognizes our charge as Christians. If we are called to care for the most vulnerable populations, if we are called to promote peace and justice and to live lives that point to the kingdom of God, we must take a hard look at how we are using the resources that God has entrusted to us. There are enough resources in the world to provide basic needs for all people - nutritious food, shelter, and clothing. God has provided enough resources to go around for everyone, and yet so many in our communities, in our country, and throughout the world are without basic food, shelter, and medical care. If we lament the status quo - as we should - then we must also hear in that a call to more faithful stewardship of what has been entrusted to us - individually and as the church.
Faithful stewardship also recognizes our connectedness as a body. Otherwise, the question of giving of time, talent, and treasure is "what can I afford to give," rather than "what gifts has God entrusted to me to be used in and through the body of Christ?" We are all members of the body, and each of us has gifts to share. Faithful stewardship requires taking a step of faith, knowing that God is our provider, the Lord of our lives. It makes perfect sense that World Communion Sunday began from a Stewardship Committee, doesn't it?
Coming to the table reminds us of God's providence for our needs and our lives. It reminds us of our reliance on God's grace alone, rather than on the "security" that we derive from holding on so tightly to what we have. We come to the table with joys, and with laments, and we come as a community. We are reminded of our unity in Christ as we gather together, and we should also be reminded of those who are absent from the table. Communion is Eucharist - it is thanksgiving. We should think of the communion table more like a big Thanksgiving meal - chairs of all kinds pulled up, make-shift tables set up through the house to make room for everyone, and more food than we would ever know what to do with! Nowhere else is God's self-giving generosity so apparent than around the Lord's Table. Shouldn't our giving back reflect our gratitude for God's generosity?
Come, and lament together. Come, and eat the bread and drink the wine that assures us of God’s continued presence with us. Come, and share in this banquet that recognizes our unity with all believers around the world. Come in protest of the way things are, and come in commitment to using the gifts that God has given you as part of the body of Christ, reaching out in God’s love to a broken and hurting world. Come, and make peace with your neighbor. Come, and pray for peace on earth. Come, and have a foretaste of the coming kingdom. Come.
Even in the midst of our lament, we also assurance of God’s steadfast love. Hear now that assurance, our final lectionary reading from the book of Lamentations:
3:21 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; great is your faithfulness. "The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him." The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.
This is God’s assurance.
L: This is the Word of the Lord.
C: Thanks be to God.
2010-09-29 by Stephanie Sorge Wing
The Hebrew name for the book of Lamentations is Ekhah - "How?" or "How!" It is the word that opens our passage today, which is the first of five alphabetic acrostic poems. In one word, it is both a complaint and a question. How desolate things are now! How could this be happening to us? The meter and rhythm of the words heighten this sorrowful liturgy, sung in the community to remember the destruction of the Temple, both in 587 BCE and 70 CE. To get a sense for this, you can listen to the Hebrew online - http://www.mechon-mamre.org/p/pt/pt3201.htm (click on the link to listen, or go to http://media.snunit.k12.il/kodeshm/mp3/t3201.mp3). Think Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XMbvcp480Y4&feature=related)
In commentary on the GoodPreacher site, Ryan LaMothe and Cynthia Geisen (http://www.goodpreacher.com/backissuesread.php?file=3209) share the observation from England in WWII, that infants placed in over-crowded wards with few caregivers stopped crying within two weeks. Cries and laments assume an ear to listen, and to respond. Even in the act of lament, there is faith and hope in raising the lament to God, who listens and hears. They refer to a "covenant of care" between the one offering the lament and the one who hears. Similarly, Rochelle Stackhouse points out the importance of crying with each other in lament.
There is a touching scene in the movie Lars and the Real Girl. Lars' "real girl" Bianca has fallen ill, and a few women from the church come to the house. As they sit in the living room knitting, one tells Lars, "We brought casseroles." He thanks them, and asks if there is something he should be doing. They respond, "No dear, you eat. We came over to sit. That's what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over, and sit."
Sometimes, and perhaps more frequently in our culture, we have to be taught how to grieve, to be given permission to lament. Perhaps we need this most in church, where we often feel we have to put on our "Sunday best," happy faces and all, no matter what is going on. It breaks my heart to talk to someone who is no longer attending church because it is too painful for them. One is going through a difficult time, and fears that if anyone asks about it, she will break down in tears. Another struggles with memories and emotions that seem only to come to the surface in church, and when they do, they spill over everything. How? How! How can we be a church that praises together and laments together, that gives thanks together, and even shares dark feelings together?
Psalm 137 is probably not often read in church. Especially not the last couple of verses. How much more graphic can the desire for vengeance get? But it is part of our canon, and an important part. It tells us that our prayers can and should be as messy as we are. The grief and anger - yes anger! - that we feel must also be offered to God. Especially that! If we do not offer our whole selves, warts and all, how can we wholly offer ourselves to God?
2010-09-28 by Stephen Schuette
These readings have it all: a lament followed by a pep talk (Habakkuk), a half-time speech from the coach (1 Timothy), and a radical statement of faith’s power followed by encouragement to keep on keeping on with it (Luke).
To take the idea of a half-time speech from the coach a little further… The game isn’t over and there’s still a lot of play left. And maybe you’re down (or “the wicked surround the righteous,” as Habakkuk puts it), but work the game plan as you’ve practiced it and as you envisioned it. Your endurance and persistence and patience and inner strength and “self-discipline” and “trust” will stand. And it will not just be a witness for a future promise. It will be a witness to who you are right now and the one in whom you put your trust.
But what of the impatience to which Habakkuk is a witness? I think of the cry in the civil rights movement that urged it forward: justice delayed is justice denied. Must we simply be patient when there’s something to be done? I don’t believe that the text is encouraging us to wait when there are things to be done. I don’t believe it’s urging a passive acceptance. Justice needs some urgency or else it will always be delayed.
Instead I think the texts are more focused on attitude than pacing and how to respond to the delays. “Don’t lose your confidence,” they seem to say. “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice.” Don’t lose your patience and your conviction about what God has promised. Don’t become frantic or disturbed by the delays that you experience. Rather, go deeper into the source of your strength and move from strength rather than letting anxiousness overcome you, frazzle you, distract you. If you are anxious about the timing think about it another way: it's only a matter of time.
Ever tried to remember a name and the more you tried the further the name goes from your memory? But in a quiet moment it comes. The Kingdom of God will not come because we want it. More often it's about getting out of the way and allowing it.
The contrast couldn’t be clearer: either centered faith or a distracted, unfocused anxiousness. Inwardly you know it. There’s something not right about the proud. You can’t fake this. It has to be genuine. All hands in and “let’s go” on three…1, 2, 3…
More on Stewardship and Communion
2010-09-28 by Stephanie Sorge Wing
There is a great mini-article on the origins of World Communion Sunday on wikipedia.com (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_Communion_Sunday). Interestingly, World Communion Sunday, which started at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh (preaching home of Craig Barnes, one of my favorite preachers!), came out of the work of the Stewardship Committee at the church! It was in the depths of the Great Depression, and a clear call to reclaim the unity of the body of Christ in the midst of all that was going on at home and abroad. The minister at the time, Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, also wrote a hymn, "God of Our Life," (Presbyterian Hymnal #275) which would be very appropriate for this Sunday.
Faithful stewardship MUST recognize our connectedness as a body. Otherwise, the question of giving of time, talent, and treasure is "what can I afford to give," rather than "what gifts has God entrusted to me to be used in and through the body of Christ?" Stewardship requires a 1 Corinthians 12 view of the church - each of us has something that is absolutely necessary for the healthy functioning of the body. The question of what God has entrusted to us and is calling us to give and use through the church also must be answered in context of the community and the times.
Abundance at the Table
Coming to the table reminds us of God's providence for our needs and our lives. It reminds us of our reliance on God's grace alone, rather than on the "security" that we derive from holding on so tightly to what we have. We are reminded of our unity in Christ as we gather together, and we should also be reminded of those who are absent from the table. Communion is Eucharist - it is thanksgiving. We should think of the communion table more like a big Thanksgiving meal - chairs of all kinds pulled up, make-shift tables set up through the house to make room for everyone, and more food than we would ever know what to do with! Imagine the Lord's Table as overflowing with God's abundant love. Think of the great hymn by Fred Kaan, "Let Us Talents and Tongues Employ" - "Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again. Pass the word around - loaves abound!" God gives us more than enough, abundantly more. Where else is God's self-giving generosity so apparent than around the Lord's Table? Shouldn't our giving back reflect our gratitude for God's generosity?
Question on Stewardship
2010-09-28 by Stephanie Sorge Wing
Question: Stephanie - I like the impetus for communal lament - how does such lament fit in for the beginning of stewardship season?
Response: Much of the lament in Scripture is communal lament - including our passages from lamentations and the Psalm for this Sunday. Communal lament recognizes our connectedness as a community of faith - when some are hurting, all are hurting. Communal lament recognizes sorrows or ills in the life of the community, even if those sorrows and ills are borne unequally. Right now in our communities, there is undeniable cause for lament. While some communities have weathered the recent recession relatively well, other communities have been decimated. I don't know of a single community that has been untouched by the recession, but even if such a community exists, even those members must join the lament. Recent census data reports that 1 in 7 people in this country live in poverty, and 1 in 5 children. I recently read a statistic that among homeless women, 1 in 5 is pregnant. All of that is reason for communal lament, no matter where we live.
In terms of stewardship, if we are called to care for the most vulnerable populations, if we are called to promote peace and justice and to live lives that point to the kingdom of God, we must take a hard look at how we are using the resources that God has entrusted to us. There are enough resources in the world to provide basic needs for all people - nutritious food, shelter, and clothing. Most of us in (American Mainline Protestants) have more than enough, and yet we often feel as if we are just short of what we need. We are accustomed to upgrading our lifestyles in accordance with our income. What if we were accustomed to upgrading our own lifestyles only in accordance with the welfare of our community? What if each of us lived as though we made 80% of our current salary, and then used the rest for giving and savings? Not all families are able to give 10% of their income. But some could give much more than 10%. Ironically, the data on giving in the US shows that the percentage of income that a household gives each year to religious or charitable organizations is inversely proportional to income levels. In other words, households with the lowest incomes give higher percentages of their income than their wealthier counterparts.
If God has provided enough resources to go around for everyone, and yet so many in our communities, in our country, and throughout the world are without basic food, shelter, and medical care, where is the disconnect? If we lament the needs that surround us, if we lament the ways that God's created world has been polluted and transformed from a life-giving planet to a toxic environment, if we lament the status quo - as we should - then we must also hear in that a call to more faithful stewardship of what has been entrusted to us - individually and as the church.
Thanks for the question! Those are some preliminary thoughts, and certainly not easy ones to think about, and even less "easy" to preach. I wonder what others think?
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