Proper 22C: Hope, Mercy, and Lamentation

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Lectionary / Old Testament

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I
see.

All I have needed Thy hand hath
provided;

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord,
unto me!

These words have roared in church sanctuaries countless times by countless faithful hymn-singers. Although the hymn isn’t sung often in the Episcopal Church, I remember it fondly from my childhood days as a Methodist.

It’s one of those hymns that just ‘takes me back’ to the good old days.

At first glance, it’s a song of triumph – where we are called to look around and see the mercies that God has given us morning by morning, day by day. It’s as if the song bids us to take stock of what we have in life, and identify our blessings as the natural benefits of having a God who is as faithful as we have.

It seems like such a happy song.

And yet, the words come from the scriptures – from a text that was written in a less than happy time.

I sang this hymn probably hundreds of times before I realized what had inspired it’s composition. And then one Lent I was reading the Book of Lamentations, and the words just jumped off the page: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22, 23

These words come from Lamentations… Doesn’t that simple realization just change the tenor of the whole hymn?

The People of God had been given the Promised Land; and they had filled it with their lives, and their families, and their homes. They established the City of Jerusalem as their capital, and built God Almighty a great Temple there. It was the City of David, the City of Solomon, the Holy City of Zion.

And then, during a dark period, the army of the Babylonians surrounded the city. They cut off all provisions for the people of the city. And then after a painfully long wait the army breached the walls. They tore down the protective city walls. They tore down the king’s palace. They destroyed and desecrated the Temple of God.

And, they killed men, women, children, and the elderly in the streets and in the Temple precincts.

And the few survivors were hauled off – they were taken away from their homeland and forced to be slaves in Babylon. They had been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and once again they were slaves in a foreign land. They had tried to build a great tower in Babel centuries and centuries before – and now they were right back where they had started.

And those survivors – who had lost spouses, and children, and parents, and siblings, and friends, and neighbors in the horrific slaughter – who had lost their homes, their jobs, and an entire way of life – those survivors would have awoken each day with the memory of how life use to be, and the realization that it would never be that way again.

Lamentations lays some of these thoughts out: He has filled me with bitterness, he has sated me with wormwood. He has made my teeth grind on gravel, and made me cower in ashes; my soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is… the thought of my affliction and homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continuously thinks of it and is bowed down before me. 3:15-20

Let some of those metaphors sink in. Imagine grinding teeth on gravel. Imagine cowering in ashes. Imagine looking for peace everywhere within you, and finding none.

And then, hear the next words: 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.
Lamentations 3:21-23

God doesn’t just shower us with blessings when things are going well. We’re not just blessed when we’re surrounded by every luxury, and are in want of nothing.

God showers us with mercies even on the darkest day, when there is no peace. When we sit in the ashes, and grind our teeth – even then God is faithful.

And if you don’t believe me, ask the small band of slaves who had lost every comfort and love they had ever known.

The words “America is a blessed nation,” or, “I’m just so blessed,” trips off the tongue so easily that we can begin to feel
that we are only blessed when we are comfortable and things are going according ‘to plan.’ And, when we go down that path, the only conclusion is that the only time for thankfulness and gratitude are times of plenty.

And, that just isn’t the case.

The Book of Lamentations challenges us to reexamine what ‘blessed’ means, what having a ‘faithful God’ means. It challenges our notion of ‘hope,’ and what to hope for. Notice in this passage that what causes these people hope
is the mercies that God showers on them day by day – not the hope that everything will simply go back to the way they once were.

We have much to learn from Lamentations. It’s a shame that we hear from it so infrequently in our lectionary.