Sunday 3 October 2010
Ashgrove West Uniting Church
Year C, Pentecost 19
Call to worship
God, you call us to be your people in all things.
And you promise to be our God.
You are with us in bad times and in good.
We thank you that we are never alone.
Hymn Together in Song 215 “You servants of God,”
Prayer of Adoration and Confession
We thank you for calling us to be your people
That you are faithful to your promise to be our God
That your love never ceases,
Your mercies never come to an end
That they are renewed every morning
every moment of every day
that you never leave us, never forsake us, never give up on us,
that you have given everything, even your own son,
for your love of us.
that we are not worthy of being called your people
we have not loved you with our whole heart, soul, mind and strength
we have not loved our neighbours as ourselves
We are sorry for our accidental failings
and our deliberate offences
Help us to repent, to turn back to you
Help us as we try to truly be your people
In Jesus' name. Amen.
Declaration of Forgiveness
Hymn Together in Song 175 “Did you ever see a kookaburra laugh?”
Reader: This is the word of the Lord.
Response: Thanks be to God!
Have you ever just had a bad day? A bad week? Perhaps a bad year?
In fairly recent times, this congregation has been through sudden and tragic deaths of people we have loved. Even though we can have confidence that in God's love, all is well for them, we have experienced loss and grief.
Sometimes it's hard to reconcile faith in God with the pain, loss, anxieties, fears, and griefs that are a part of human life.
Pretty much everyone struggles with this at times. Some simply give up on faith – if God does not protect them from all the evils of the world, then God mustn't exist or mustn't care.
Our readings from Lamentations today take us to a time in the history of Israel, when people really were struggling with the loss of everything important to them.
When the Babylonians took over, the most important people in Judah and Jerusalem were taken into exile. The others were left behind under foreign rule. Lamentations is a book of poetry, which many scholars believe were written by someone or some group of people left behind in Jerusalem. (Some scholars point out that the book doesn't specifically say this is the disaster it refers to – and that it could be a response to any other major disaster in history. This non-specificity is beneficial to us, because it means the poems here can apply to the situations of loss and grief we find ourselves in as well.)
So the book of lamentations is about loss, grief, that sense of hopelessness that comes from not seeing any positive way out of the situation. It acknowledges that Jerusalem may well deserve her fate – she has had “lovers” when she knows she has a jealous God, who won't tolerate rivals. It sees God as responsible what has happened – both good and bad come from God. It's not a belief that God does not love them, but that God is ultimately free to give and to take.
This is a long way from the modern accusation – that God does not love us if something goes wrong. In modern understanding, the something going wrong can be at any extreme: I've heard both “if God loved me my child would not be dying” and “if God loved me I'd win the lotto” on the same day. To me, one of those seemed serious and the other quite frivolous – but both people were earnest in their belief that their plight disproved the idea that God loved them.
Let's go back to Jerusalem. The people left behind are left with no leadership, basically enslaved – but still are able to say that God's steadfast love never ceases, his mercies never come to an end.
This is the true art of lament, to pour out all that is wrong, the hurt, the pain, and to recognise that even in this pain and hurt, God is present, and God is still loving. This is faith in its strongest form – recognising both that terrible things happen, and that God is still in charge and still loves us.
Perhaps we don't lament enough in worship. We can focus on the joy of faith. We can focus on hope. We focus on what is good. It's easy to deny that bad things happen, that there are situations that seem hopeless.
It's easy to “blame the victim”, to tell people who are suffering that “if they had more faith” things would be better. That's easier than holding together the tension of a good God, and that bad things still happen.
The truth of our life in Christ is this. Bad things do happen. We are not immune to things going wrong. We are not safe from pain or disease. We are not protected from being victims of crime or being falsely accused. We are not safe from natural disasters, or from any other form of catastrophe.
In fact, we are far from guaranteed that anything will be easy. If we jump to the New Testament reading, Jesus made it clear to his listeners that discipleship wouldn't mean things would be easy. Dedication to God is hard work, and requires consistent effort. And there isn't always an apparent reward. If you read through the book of Acts, you see this clearly – that discipleship costs and there are few rewards in this life.
Far from the idea that having a tough times means that God doesn't love us, here having it tough is just what is expected of us – just like servants we are expected to do whatever God requires of us without getting anything in return.
But remember that slaves in Jesus' day weren't like hired workers. They worked hard, but they were treated as part of the family. They had to do their work, they were the last in the family, but they, unlike the hired workers, had a home with the family, they belonged. We are part of God's family. We are given the promise that God is with us, not only when things are good, but for eternity, for all of this life and for all of the next.
When we have cause for lament, we are in line with the rest of the people in the history of faith. As with others, we begin by naming the pain and the hurt, confessing if we have been part of the cause, and eventually reaching the point where we can affirm that God is present with us, no matter what.
Hymn Together in Song 689 “Lord, hear my praying,”
Prayers of the People
there is so much in your world
that is cause for lament
violence and abuse
In a few moments of silence, we reflect on our own laments,
those things where we have felt loss and pain and hopelessness
There is so much that hurts in this world
Help us to know that even in the pain
your love is never ending
your blessings are new every morning
and that you are always faithful.
In Jesus' name. Amen.
Hymn Together in Song 687 “God gives us a future”