Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

If you find yourself frowning or feel your brow furrowing in response to that reading, you’re probably not alone. Maybe you’re trying to remember the last time you came to church and heard a scripture reading that left you feeling this bummed out? We came here to worship and give thanks and offer our praise to God! Bring on the trumpets and the processionals– bring on the glory, laud, and honor! Give me some hallelujahs, some hosannas, and some amens! A lament like this one from Jeremiah, who is known as “the weeping prophet”, doesn’t seem like it would make for the best worship text, which might be why this feels like a bit of a downer for this morning’s service. You didn’t come here today to amp up the hopelessness. I know. Just hang with me.

In the Bible, there are 150 psalms and 50 of those are laments– prayers of anguish, of desperation, which makes sense when you think about it. One-third of these ancient prayers are ones where someone is turning to God, crying out when they are feeling desperate, broken-hearted, or lost. I know we’re called to pray to God in joy and thanksgiving, not just when things are hard– but I’ll admit that those are the days where I’m quicker to turn to God, to ask for God’s comfort, healing, and peace.

One of those laments, Psalm 22, might sound familiar — beginning, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” We hear some of those words echoed in both Matthew’s and Mark’s gospels, during Jesus’ crucifixion. In utter agony and despair, from the cross, Jesus cries, “My God, my god – why have you forsaken me?” Typically these lament psalms follow a structure of crying out, naming these emotions of pain and sorrow, then remembering how God has shown up with saving power in the past, and ending on an affirmation of faith that this, too, shall pass because the psalmist knows God will show up again. There’s plenty of expressed despair, but the hope is built in. Psalm 22 follows this pattern – naming the sorrow, then recalling God’s faithfulness in the past – “Yet you are holy,

   enthroned on the praises of Israel. 

In you our ancestors trusted;

   they trusted, and you delivered them. 

To you they cried, and were saved;

   in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.” 

The psalmist goes on to elaborate in great detail the pain of this experience, but then circles back to land again on this faithful foundation of trust in God. Because God has come through for us in really hard times before, we know that God will be with us in this too. That makes for a pretty feel-good lament, doesn’t it? We get to wail and moan, honestly expressing ourselves, but ultimately re-claiming hope in God’s faithfulness to bring us through

Other lament psalms, like Psalm 88, do not end on a high note. “

“Your wrath has swept over me;

   your dread assaults destroy me. 

17 They surround me like a flood all day long;

   from all sides they close in on me. 

18 You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;

   my companions are in darkness.” 

This psalmist is sounding a lot like the Weeping Prophet, Jeremiah in our text for today. There’s no remembrance of God’s presence nor hope of God’s saving power in the end. It is pure lament. Anguish. Despair. 

Now, because Jeremiah is a prophet– someone whom God has called to serve as a voice, to speak God’s truth —  there’s some confusion around whether this is God or Jeremiah talking… who is expressing the pain? Whose joy is gone? Who is grieving at the despair of the people of Zion? It’s hard to say and highly debated, but the lack of clarity reminds us of something very important: that God’s sadness is so intertwined with our sadness, we cannot tell whose is whose — when we suffer, God is suffering alongside us. 

The people of God are crying out and not hearing an answer. That doesn’t mean God isn’t listening– but from this point of view, it feels like no one is listening. The prophet is asking lots of questions and not getting any answers. That is rough. They’ve been waiting through summer and harvest and still- nothing. Is there nothing to help heal our wounds? Is there no one to make any of this better? 

We just sang a hymn that answers the prophet’s question, affirming in faith, “there is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole.” — but we don’t get that type of resolution in Jeremiah’s words. These are still unanswered questions. It’s tempting to rush to the affirmation that the hymn provides– to stand up and say, “wait! We know that there is hope!” As followers of Christ, we know that despair and death are not the end of the story — that hope comes in the morning. And it is incredibly tempting to offer that in response to the words of the prophet — and in response to those in our own lives who are hurting like this. Think of a time when you’ve talked with a friend who’s having a really difficult time–whose pain is overwhelming. What do you do? What do you say when your friend or co-worker or sibling tells you that their joy is gone, their heart is sick? How do you respond when you can’t even relate to the kind of hurt they’re sharing with you?

Am I the only one who wants to wrap them up in a hug and say, “it’ll be okay! Things will get better!” It’s such a kind response — it’s what I want to be true, so badly! And deep down, I believe in the power of hope over fear and that on some level, eventually, things will be okay. I believe that God has shown up for God’s people before and that God is faithful to us still. I want to find what’s good or positive about the situation — find the silver linings and point those out. And sometimes that’s what someone who’s hurting needs. But if you’ve ever been the person crying out, the one grieving, the one whose joy is gone — you know that silver linings and positive attitudes, while very well-intended, are not what turns the ship around. 

Looking at this text today reminds us of how powerful and counter-cultural it is to lean into lament– to cry out and name our pain, to not apologize or tidy up after our pity-party. 

We place such an emphasis on positivity in order to reach our goals and achieve our dreams — Scotties, I’m looking at you — that taking a step back, being honest, and leaning into our sadness doesn’t always feel like the comfortable course of action. We don’t have to be strong and successful and positive all the time – there is a lot of pressure to do that. Sometimes all we can do is stop, head in our hands, and cry. Of course, the hope is that the hard season does pass and that no one stays in this place forever. But this Jeremiah passage reminds us of our call to do this very important and very hard work — to sit and wait alongside those who are hurting, those who are crying out and not hearing a response. 

Brene Brown is a researcher and storyteller who’s written books and given TED talks about the power of vulnerability and empathy, among other things. She’d be the first to acknowledge how much courage it takes to be empathetic — to show up and be with someone who is down in the pit, to say “You’re not alone. I see you.” and to resist the temptation of “silver-lining it”.  It is hard work, but it is so important. As members of this community, it is work that we are called to do with one another. To love one another in powerful ways — to listen without doing that thing where we’re trying to think of something to say in response, so we’re not actually hearing anything… to hear the cries of our neighbors who are in need and to show up — maybe we can’t fix it all, but we hear you and we’re here with you… to be bold and honest with our own pain– to cry out and name it, and if we know what might help, to ask for it. To me, that sounds an awful lot like what it means to be the church. 

Earlier this week, I came across a quote from Brene Brown where she writes, “I went to church thinking it would be like an epidural, that it would take the pain away… but church isn’t like an epidural. It’s like a midwife…  I thought faith would say, ‘I’ll take away the pain and discomfort,’ but what it ended up saying was, ‘I’ll sit with you in it’.” 

We have a beautiful and unique opportunity to be that for each other — it’s what we’re celebrating here today! We’re remembering our relationship and giving thanks for those who walked this path before us, pounding the ½ mile of sidewalk between Decatur Presbyterian and Agnes Scott. Our community here is such a gift — may we see one another and know that we are welcome and safe to be ourselves, to share authentically our great joys and our deep pain. May we continue to widen our circles and embrace the support and love that others are extending to us. May we continue to create space for ourselves and others to come and be, to grieve, to mourn, to lean into lament — and to love each other well by sitting alongside. 

Rev. Whitney Booth Lockard

Julia Thompson Smith Chaplain and Director of Religious & Spiritual Life
Agnes Scott College