Blue Christmas Lament – Caroline Dean (11/27/16)

Blue Christmas Lament

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

November 27, 2016

Reader #1:  Our reading today is from the book of Lamentations Chapter 3.

Reader #2:  During the period of Babylonian rule, King Nebuchadnezzar burned down the city of Jerusalem, including the sacred Temple, the house of God.  The king sent most of the population of the people of Israel into exile in Babylon, leaving only the poor to till the land and keep the vineyards.

Reader #1:  The poems of the book of Lamentations are written from the perspective of those who stayed behind grieving, in their city of ruins.

Reader #2:  A reading from Lamentations Chapter 3:

Reader #1: “I am the one who has known affliction under the rod of God’s wrath.  God has brought me into darkness without light.

Against me, God alone turns God’s hand, again and again all day long.

God has broken my teeth on gravel, God has ground me into the dust

My soul is bereft of peace, I forget what happiness is.  My strength and hope have perished.

To recall my distress and my homelessness is wormwood & poison.

Whenever I think of them, my soul is bowed down within me.

*Is it nothing to you, all of you who pass by?  Look & see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow*

Reader #2:  But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.

The kindness, the steadfast love, of God never runs out.

God’s mercies never come to an end.

They are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness oh God.

The Lord is my portion, I say with full heart; therefore I will hope in God.

The Lord is good to those who trust in him. The Lord is good to the one who seeks her.”

*(Lamentations 1:12)*

Let us pray:  God of sorrow and God of mercy breaking in each day.  We ask that you would guide us as we hold these tensions in our lives.  And through all of these things may we grow in faith & in love we pray – by the power of your Spirit and in the name of your Son – Amen.

This is the first day of Advent.  Which is also the first day in our new church year.  We begin our church calendar with the birth of Jesus, & we prepare for the birth of Jesus in the season of Advent.  So today we are celebrating a New Year in the life of our beloved church!  In our culture, when we think of a New Year, we think of resolutions, hope, new beginnings, & new chances.  In fact!  Lamentations Chapter three is a perfect sentiment for our New Year.  The poet writes, “God’s mercies are new every morning!”  Go out, capture that newness in your life!  Begin again!

But instead of celebrating the new church year with resolutions, at Christ Church we begin our new year with a ritual of lament.  We pause to honor, to remember those whom we will miss this sacred season.  The holidays bring to life the cherished memories that make us smile, right alongside the memories that break our hearts open in grief again this year.  And for those of us who are grieving a fresh loss, personally or a communally, the holidays can put pressure on those wounds in ways that feel torturous.

And so at the beginning of this church year, we take time to lament, to release some of those tensions.  Grief is complicated.  We pause to honor family members or friends who have passed on.  We also gather to honor our grief around the loss of a job or a dream, lost community, or the loss of home, a sense of safety.

We pause to honor the great love that undergirds our grief.  Dr. Martin Luther King writes, “Where there is great disappointment there is great love.”  If you read the five poems of the book of Lamentations – you see just under the surface of the grief – the poet’s great love & commitment to God, to the people of Israel, to their sacred way of life.

The author of the book of Lamentations certainly plumbs the depths of lament.  The poet grieves the loss of the sacred city of Jerusalem.  Perhaps more importantly, the poet laments the loss of the Temple – the central place of worship for the people of Israel – the holy space to meet with and worship God.  The poet’s sacred connections with the people of Israel and with God are now severed.

In Lamentations we find, verse after verse of grueling grief & painful embodied suffering.  Imagine the people of Israel, those who are left behind in their ruined city, gathered at the site of the destroyed Temple.  Imagine the poet’s tears, “We are the ones who have known affliction.  God has driven us into darkness without light, God has broken our teeth on gravel, ground us into the dust.  To recall our pain is like taking poison, our souls are bowed down within us.”  The message of Lamentations is that sometimes when life hits you hard with suffering, it is okay to almost lose hope, it’s okay to be angry at God, it okay to feel deeply and to do so for a long time.

And yet, when I read Lamentations Chapter three, I get a bit of literary whiplash.  How can the poet make such strong statements of loss & magnified suffering right alongside a powerful declaration of faith in God’s mercies, new every morning?

In this tension between lament & hope I wonder, what is the difference between clinging to real hope in the midst of deep despair & jumping a bit too quickly to shallow optimism?  How can we tell the difference between true hope & positive framing as a form of denial or emotional suppression?  Can what feels like a superficial platitude to one person truly provide some healing and hope for another?  How can we face suffering with faith in God who is bigger than our pain, while also honoring the depth of our suffering?

On our search for what I like to call “gritty hope,” we must begin with the depth of lament.  If you do a quick research online or in old divinity school textbooks, the book of Lamentations doesn’t get much airtime.  And if Lamentations gets any attention, theologians & scholars usually focus on this third chapter, particularly verses 21 to 26, “The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies are new every morning.  Great is your faithfulness oh God!”

Now we often read a verse on its own merit & don’t get me wrong there are some beautiful passages in the Bible that can stand alone.  This however, is not one of them.  And I should say that every biblical text is more poignant when you dig deeper into the storyline.  The context of this beautiful image of God’s mercies that dawn anew with each new day, is one of the greatest moments of loss in the history of the Jewish tradition.

The book of Lamentations has 154 verses and of those verses, 6 of them are hopeful.  And these verses are beautiful but, when we lose lament as the context for this statement of faith, we minimize the depth of pain that make these lyrics what they are:  a true miracle.

“I believe in the Sun, even when it’s not shining.  I believe in Love even when I don’t feel it.  I believe in God, even when God is silent.”  These are beautiful lyrics.  They stand alone in their power & yet when you know the context – this poem is testament of “gritty hope.”  These lyrics were inscribed on the wall of the basement of a Cathedral in France during World War II, a basement which sheltered Jewish families.

I don’t always know the difference between false optimism & true hope but in this case it is apparent that if you read either of these poems out of context – you miss the grit, the depth of courage.

So what are we missing when we skip over lament in the Bible?  Perhaps more importantly what do we miss when we skip over the times of lament in our own lives?  What if there is something beautiful on the underside of lament & when we numb or suppress our pain we are also missing out on something transformative?

Glennon Doyle Melton writes in her best-selling memoir, “Carry On Warrior”, “You have been offered ‘the gift of crisis’….the Greek root of the word crisis is ‘to sift,’ as in, to shake out the excess and leave only what is important.  That’s what crises do.  The shake things up until we are forced to hold on to only what matters most.  The rest falls away.”

After the fall of the Temple, the people of Israel are forced to recalibrate.  They have to sort through their practices, their identity, their way of life to create something new.  They adapt their way of life to their new reality in exile, to the reality worship without a physical Temple, apart from their sacred land.

When we allow space for seasons of lament in our lives, this pain can reorient us around what we love.  Loss can be like an earthquake, shaking the foundations that hold us up, such that the rest of our lives have to shift around the fault line of this pain.  And yet the beautiful part of this “sifting” and this “shifting” is that we have the opportunity to let go of the things that do not serve us and we can return to our true self.  In these times we can reorient our new self around God, who, it turns out has been here all along.  And when we find God in our suffering, we remember that God knows the depths of suffering & pain.  Even in Advent, we remember that Holy Saturday between Good Friday & Easter, when the disciples wept, when God was dead.  You see the new hope of Easter resurrection, doesn’t quite impact us, unless we have had the courage to feel the pain of the suffering “Holy Saturday.”

So the first beautiful gift of seasons of lament is that they can remind us what is important in our lives, drawing us closer to our true selves & to God.  The second gift of lamentations is that we can reconnect with each other.

When we allow ourselves to fully feel the pain of grief – often – one of the lies that compounds our grief, is the lie that whispers to us in dark places, “You are alone.”  The poet writes in Lamentations Chapter 1, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?  Look & see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.”

But one of the gifts of lament is that often, we cannot do it alone.  “We literally need each other to survive.”  When we allow our grief to shatter our illusions of how independent, how isolated we are, we wake up and we find each other.  We find the friends who will walk through the fires with us.  And friends forged in the fires are sacred friends.  When we reach out to connect during our grief, we can discover a perspective larger than our own.  If we are lucky we can even find others, who have suffered in similar arenas, who know some of the depth of our pain, and their words of hope are like balm for our wounds.

The author of the book of Ecclesiastes shares this wisdom, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  God’s mercies are new every morning & also there is nothing new under the sun.  There is nothing new about the evil in our world, about suffering, about the pain of loss – this is a part of the human experience & God has been here before.  You are not alone!  When you can hold your grief alongside the grief of others, alongside the expansive & ancient love of God, there is some respite, that you can help you make it through.

The third, and perhaps most poignant gift of lament is that our grief can galvanize us to create something beautiful, something meaningful forged in the depths of our pain.  The poet of the book of Lamentations embodies the suffering of Israel in the form of a poem.  In our English translations we cannot see the full beauty of these poems because they are written in acrostic format.  Each line begins with a corresponding letter of the Hebrew alphabet, moving us from “A to Z” so to speak.  This is a beautiful image because it’s as if the poet is setting limits, forming some sort of order in the midst of chaotic grief.  The poet freely expresses while also channeling grief.  Acrostics in the biblical tradition symbolize a sense of completion, a sense that a topic has been exhausted.  Now, there are certain types of grief that we carry with us always, & terms like the word “closure” will never feel quite right around certain losses.  But there are also a million ways that we make meaning & even beauty out of our pain.  We go on road trips, we paint, we organize, we mobilize to help others who are suffering, we sing, we pray, we write poetry.  Maybe if you avoid the pain of your season of grief, you also miss out on the opportunity to create something beautiful.

And so beloved, I ask of us – are we a place where it is safe to bring the full force of our lament?  Do we practice a kind of “gritty hope,” a hope that can fully see and allow space for suffering, while still proclaim that God’s mercies are new every morning?   Shallow remedies can minimize the depth of lament.  Will we be a place that honors complexity and mystery in grief?

Lastly, Can we hear lament from folks who are different from us?  The suffering of refugees, of poor folks, of people of color?  Can we hear the suffering of the transgender teen who is living in fear?  Can we hear the lament of our beloved friends & colleagues of other faiths & traditions?  Can we let these laments reorient us?  Can we “sift” and “shift” to create a place for the grieving ones in our midst?  Will we actively work to decrease the suffering of these dear ones?  So that no matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.

And so beloved let us go out with courage to speak our own lament & courage to listen to the laments others, particularly the grief of communities & individuals who are different from us.  May we seek the kind of hope that sees clearly, avoiding temptation to suppress truth or depth of feeling.  And may we practice the kind of lament that trusts that there is something bigger, that the depth of pain is important and also that it is not the only reality that guides us.  Above all may we have courage during the dark night of the soul, to proclaim with hope that “God’s mercies are new every morning!”  Amen.






Jan Richardson writes this beautiful poem entitled: “The Healing That Comes:”

I know how long
you have been waiting
for your story to take
a different turn,
how far
you have gone in search
of what will mend you
and make you whole.

I bear no remedy,
no cure,
no miracle
for the easing
of your pain.

But I know
the medicine
that lives in a story
that has been
broken open.
I know
the healing that comes
in ceasing
to hide ourselves away
with fingers clutched
around the fragments
we think are
ours alone.

See how they fit together,
these shards
we have been carrying:
how piece to piece
they make a way
we could not
find alone

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Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.