On Sunday, October 7, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, the UCC will do two things. First, we will celebrate World Communion Sunday and, second, we will take up our Neighbors in Need special mission offering. Through a simple, symbolic feast of bread and wine, we will joyously join with our global family of faith at Christ's table.
Simultaneously, through Neighbors in Needs, we will acknowledge and respond to the injustice and suffering which is a reality for many in our wider human family.
It will be a Sunday of loving God and loving neighbor — all as an act of worship.
Celebrating communion, while addressing the suffering of the world, makes perfect sense. But doing so with Lamentations 1:1-6 as our text might not.
Lamentations is one of the most powerful books of the Bible. It is also one of the least read.
Lamentations is not a popular read, because it is about pain. The five chapters of poetry found in this book express Israel's deep and profound experience of exile at the hands of Babylon. It is a story about God's absence; a story we'd rather not hear.
Israel's sense of God's absence came in response to the destruction of Jerusalem. This destruction, which began with invasion and the installment of a puppet king in 597 B.C.E, was followed with a second, more-devastating invasion 10 years later.
Israel's king was captured. Leading citizens were deported. The Temple and other buildings were destroyed. In the wake of this second invasion, what remained of family and communal life collapsed.
In addition to the social and political collapse of Jerusalem, the Babylonian exile signaled the end of Israel's symbolic world; the story of its relationship with God. The opening six verses of Lamentations take us rapidly into the raw pain of this reality. "Daughter Zion" is found alone and in tears (vs. 1). The city, once a thriving center of urban activity, is now desolate. All her lovers and friends (read "idols") have now either become enemies or simply moved on. Jerusalem, abandoned and at the mercy of a foreign power, has no one to comfort her (vs. 2).
Reading Lamentations can leave us exhausted. Judah has not only gone into exile, but has done so with "suffering and hard servitude." She has been pursued and overtaken, and is living now "among the nations" with no place to rest (vs. 3). Zion mourns, for the great festivals are over and the gates are desolate. Groaning and grieving are her lot (vs. 4).
Along with the universe of sorrow portrayed here, the first chapter of Lamentations is uncompromising in its insistence that Zion's pain is divine punishment for her sin (vs. 5). This "theology of retribution," while not consistently affi rmed throughout the book, is front and center here. "Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions."
While Lamentations offers some important words of comfort (see 3:19-26), on this Sunday let us remain in what Old Testament scholar Kathleen O'Connor calls Lamentations' "tight braid of pain." Let us remain here for if we can honestly grapple with Israel's desolation, connect it with our own experiences of pain, shed tears with those who "weep bitterly in the night" (1:2), then our faith will not only be restored, but strengthened.
Though it is true that "the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases" (3:22), Lamentations reminds us that there are times in our lives when this truth is hard to see. At such times we are left to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord (3:26). While waiting, we are promised sustenance through sharing the bread of life, drinking the cup of salvation, and offering Christ's love and compassion to those "neighbors in need" whose lament, much like our own, we know so well.
The Rev. Thomas I. Warren, pastor of Pleasant Hill (Tenn.) Community UCC, is United Church News' bible study contributor.