my hope is God

Washington Diocese of the Episcopal Church

a sermon, based on Lamentations 1.1-6 and Lamentations 3.19-26, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 2, 2016

the-flight-of-the-prisoners-the-fall-of-jerusalem-586-bce-james-tissot

Over 2500 years ago, the Babylonian Empire destroyed Jerusalem, slaughtering many, enslaving the rest, carrying most into exile. A horrified observer wrote:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!

How like a widow she has become,

she that was great among the nations…

She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks.

My mother, in the years immediately following my father’s death, as Alzheimer’s disease insidiously robbed her of all memory, spent her days sitting in her easy chair, a quilt draped across her lap, flowing over her knees to her feet, onto the floor. On a side table, stacks of letters, written by my father during their fifty-three years of marriage; words on tattered pages she read and reread, each time for the first time, her lips moving in silent speech, at other moments, sounding the syllables aloud, each breath, an increasingly faint whisper of her past. Next to the letters, a small frame with my father’s picture, smiling his half smile, gazing at her. She would look back and smile. Then a time came when she asked repeatedly, “Who is this?” Enveloped in the cloud of her unknowing, her amnesia was anesthesia for her lonely despair.

This image of my mother, etched in my mind, is my portrait of desolate Jerusalem: How lonely, like a widow, is the city.

Save for the Book of Job and those psalms known as songs of desolation,[1] no other word in scripture shouts, screams of unrelieved pain like Lamentations. Though it’s hard to hear, one inescapable reality of human living calls, commands us to listen: Suffering. For some of us, all the time and sometimes, for all of us.

Yes, happiness can be found in this life. Yet, when it is the fruit of favorable circumstance, we know, given the fickle nature of everything we don’t control, it won’t, can’t last. Therefore, Lamentations mirrors our universal experience of suffering, whether on global, national, local, or individual stages of life’s drama, whether through endless war, terror’s threat, natural calamity, personal tribulations of accident and illness, or by our own will whenever we, under the reign of unruly temperament or unlicensed affection abuse ourselves, souls, and bodies, or those of others.

Engulfed by this tsunami wave of suffering, is there anything beyond weeping that we can do? The one who wrote, “How lonely, like a widow, is the city”, later answers emphatically, Yes!

The thought of my affliction…is wormwood and gall!

My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.

But this I call to mind, therefore I have hope:

God’s steadfast love never ceases, God’s mercies never end;

they are new every morning; great is God’s faithfulness.

It’s unbelievable that one who has endured horrors unspeakable, whose lament is ever-fresh, can utter this stirring a word of trust! But perhaps not! For what value is a word of assurance spoken by one who hasn’t suffered? Virtue resounds in the claim of confidence only from one who knows sorrow. As an anguished Job declared, “I know my Redeemer lives…and after my skin has been destroyed, then in my flesh, I shall see God,”[2] so Lamentations proclaims, “My soul is bowed in affliction, yet I have hope, for God’s love and mercy never end.”

Now, we could believe the sincerity of the speaker. Nothing more. Nothing else. After all, anyone who suffers desires release, at least relief. Yet this is a word of anticipation, looking forward for something to come and expectation, looking backward on a historical relationship with a God of unconditional, unconquerable love.

Still, to speak of God and suffering in the same breath raises theodicy’s nagging question: How can the evil of suffering whether of human or natural cause exist in a creation of an omnipotent benevolent God? Years ago, at a time of turmoil, then the worst of my life, a spiritual dark night of my soul, my experience of God’s absence, God’s abandonment of me, I often cried: If God is all-powerful, then God, allowing evil, can’t be good; and if God is good, desiring the welfare of all, then God, unwilling or unable to restrain evil, can’t be God.[3]

I’ve come a mighty long way since then. This is where I stand today. Whene’er I or you suffer, I have hope. Sometimes, measured in the depth of my desire for you and me to be free of pain, my hope is great. Sometimes, when I see only a flicker of a possibility beyond the sorrow, small. Yet whichever, I can – I am able and willing – to hope. For I no longer place my hope in God. My hope is God. The existence of my capacity through spiritual eyes to look beyond what is to behold a vision of what might be is evidence of God’s presence and power. Because that is true, whate’er suffering befalls, anticipatory, hopeful visions always come. Therefore I can sing:

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.[4]

 

Photograph (by Walt Calahan): me preaching at The Washington National Cathedral, Friday, January 27, 2006

Illustration: The Flight of the Prisoners (The fall of Jerusalem, 586 BCE) (1896-1902), James Tissot (1836-1902), The Jewish Museum, New York City

Footnotes:

[1] For example, Psalm 22 and Psalm 88

[2] Job 19.25-26, my emphases

[3] A paraphrase of the word of the character, Nickles, in Archibald MacLeish’s J.B.: A Play in Verse (1958)

[4] Words (1923) by Thomas Obadiah Chisolm (1866-1960)

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5 thoughts on “my hope is God

  1. This sermon rocked me Paul! In a very good way! The sentences that most resonated with me are “For I no longer place my hope in God. My hope is God. The existence of my capacity through spiritual eyes to look beyond what is to behold a vision of what might be is evidence of God’s presence and power.” I had almost an argument with a good friend recently who asked me a question, but didn’t like my answer.

    As a recent widow, while I am devastated that I’m alone in body, I’m not alone in spirit. I couldn’t quite phrase it until reading your sermon. My hope IS God… The question my friend asked was why I still had such strong faith when God took Tim from me. I told her that I didn’t believe God “took” Tim from me. I actually believe that God blessed me and Tim, by allowing him to die peacefully rather than in agony a couple of months later. Tim had been a person who had been healthy for for 98% of his life. He would not have done well if the last 2% of his life was painful. He died with great memories of life, love, friends and family, including you and Pontheolla. My answer really stunned her, and I think aggravated her a little too! But just because I don’t swear at God or give up my faith doesn’t mean that I don’t cry or get sad. Because I do…. often….

    However, my hope is definitely in “what might be”, what God has in store for me for the rest of my life. I’m working on Plan B but I am most hopeful of what is to come. I’m not sick, so unless I die in some sort of accident soon, I have to LIVE. I’m going to live the life Tim would want me to have. Just like you saw with your Mom, I see my Mom suffer every day. I don’t want to suffer now when I’m perfectly healthy. I want to be happy, I want to be open to seeing and doing new things…. There may be suffering in my future if I become a dementia sufferer but I don’t have it yet. So onward I go, with God as my hope.

    I needed this clarity today, so I sincerely thank you. It would have been great to hear this in person, but then again I may have cried. It was awakening for me.

    Much love and peace to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love and peace to you. And thank you, as always, for reading and reflecting on my sermon texts. I am honored.

      What you write here is a testament to your hope, your anticipation of what may come. Wonderful!

      As for your friend’s sense of things – that God “took” Tim and, thus, wondering how it is your faith in God remains strong – as I don’t k is your friend, I cannot AND dare not assume the existential, life’s context that informs her/his viewpoint. I will say that I am familiar with that element of theology that ascribes all things – good and bad – to God’s will.

      Now, as for your response, given that I DO know you, what a poignant and powerful witness to hope and faith and love. Bless you. Love you

      Liked by 1 person

    • One or two additional thoughts, words of encouragement…

      I will assume folk mean well, for if I didn’t it’d be difficult for me to understand, much less accept someone approaching you with a question laden with an implicit, unstated judgment about what that person thinks you should be and do differently. So, again, I will assume good will, therefore believing that the person raising such a question doesn’t grasp how the inquiry is heard by you.

      And no matter what someone asks you or tells you, you are the only one who can and will live your life. And even though the ground on which you stand has been shaken greatly, terribly, your feet on on it and not up in the air or off in untethered space. Trust God. Trust yourself. You’re doin’ grand!

      Love

      Like

      • Your words of encouragement mean everything!!! Thank you!! I’m just going at my own pace and doing what feels right to me! As you say, im the only one who can live this life!

        Liked by 1 person

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