Lamentations 3:22-33 and Mark 5:21-24
Look for new mercy from God in all situations
I seem to be stuck in a time trap. Last week I began by referring to a popular song from 1979, and this week with a novel from 1979. The author is Timothy Mo, from Hong Kong, and the novel, his first, is The Monkey King.
The story is set in Macau in the years following the second world war. There’s a young man whose only asset is a Portuguese name (obtained from a distant ancestor but carrying the feeling of privilege in that colony.) He marries into what he thinks is an “old money” Cantonese family, which has properties and businesses. He learns that the only property remaining to them is their ancient mansion. Everything else has been sold or mortgaged, and the businesses are failing. When he meets the eldest male in the family, he notices stacks of newspapers filling the room where the old man drinks tea, smokes and reads. Grandfather throws nothing away. When he finishes a newspaper, he places it on the top if the nearest stack. Though the room is large, there’s no space in it to move about. Anyone who enters is “pressed on every side.” If you choose to read the novel, you’ll find out about this young man’s adventures, how he eventually becomes the head of the family, and how he inherits the house and newspapers in it. (here’s a hint, though, he doesn’t clean things out).
The picture of a person pressed on every side describes Jesus, as we found him in Mark 5 this afternoon. He was going somewhere, but as he walked he was crowded on every side by people. The picture also describes the poetic verses that we read from Lamentations. These were words of hope sandwiched in between words of desperation. With those two bits of scripture in mind, we have sandwiches on the bulletin and the screen today. I hope it becomes obvious why.
I Lamentations as a sandwich book
“Lamentations” goes by the title “The Lamentations of Jeremiah” in many Bibles. That’s half right. It consists of five sad poems, “laments.” But they are not likely to have been written by the prophet Jeremiah. The tradition that he wrote them comes from the kind of Judaism that was common at around the time of Jesus. It’s said that, when Rabbis were discussing which materials belonged in their Bible and which didn’t, they were feeling sad because Jerusalem and the temple in it had recently been destroyed by the government of Rome. They wanted these poems in their bibles to use in worship. By declaring that they had been written by Jeremiah, they were “qualified” to be included.
The book has a very interesting structure. The first poem is about the sad condition of the city of Jerusalem, which has been destroyed, and the sad condition of the nation, which no longer existed. The second and fourth poems are about the people of that city and that nation, and how miserable they were. The middle poem is by an individual person, complaining about his own misery. And at the center of that middle poem we find the verses we read today, about hope. The people who assembled Lamentations, out of poems by different authors, arranged it in a way that helped them use their national history (of the first time their nation and temple were destroyed by an empire) to reflect on the second time that they were destroyed.
The structure also helps us to think about and consider our own lives. We are often pressed on every side. If, at the center of who we are, there’s a relationship to God, then we have hope of making it through. The poetry reminds us that God’s steadfast love never changes, and God’s mercies never come to an end. If we can trust in that, hold onto that “core” of our faith and life, then we’ll have a way through the hard parts.
II Don’t forget the filling in the sandwich
From the New Testament we only read the first part of the story of Jesus healing a little girl. Her father was the leader of a synagogue, (not the typical kind of person who would bother asking Jesus for favors because Jesus broke synagogue rules all the time. But out of love for his daughter, this man humbled himself and asked. In a “sandwich pattern” this is the first slice of bread. The story gets interrupted by what’s in the middle of the sandwich, a story of a woman needing healing. She gets the healing, and Jesus praises her for her faith. But that’s followed by the other slice of bread in the story. Jesus and the synagogue leader get to the place where the girl is and hear that she’s already dead.
The point is, the faith, demonstrated by the woman in the “story in the middle of the sandwich” is what turns this other “disaster” into victory. Jesus told the man and his wife not to be afraid. They were to continue believing. They did, and the girl lived.
When you look at a sandwich, like the ones on the screen, what you see mostly is bread. That’s as it should be. The tradition about sandwiches is that they were invented by a British nobleman, the Earl of Sandwich. He liked to play cards. He didn’t want to put them down while he ate, so he put some meat and other things between two slices of bread, enabling him to hold his cards in one hand and his food in the other.
When we look at Lamentations, we see the complaints, the sadness, the despair. It’s kind of like beginning to read Bible books that begin with long lists of names. Sometimes we give up and skip on to the interesting bits. Sometimes we give up entirely. That’s very understandable. Chapter 1 of Lamentations is about how a city was ruined. Chapter two continues with how a people have experienced sadness and despair. The writers say that the city’s leaders and people were to blame for their sad condition, but they also complain that God didn’t do the “saving part” to rescue them from themselves and the foreign destroyers. Chapter three gets more personal. I tell you, after so much of this stuff, I give up too.
So, skip on ahead to chapter 3, verses 22 to 33, which we read today. This is the filling of the sandwich, the really, good part. Steadfast love that never changes. Mercies that are renewed regularly, as often as daily. When life is like the tasteless part of a sandwich that just keeps our hands from getting messy, we need to focus on what is at the center. In the Jesus story from the New Testament, the center was faith. In Lamentations, it is hope and love.
III Us looking for the mercy to be renewed
Of course, a “sandwich” is not the only way to see a pattern in our lives. Sometimes we might see things as an ascending line: “Every day in every way we get a little better, hey!” Sometimes we may feel we’re on a downward slope, “If it’s not one thing, it’s two, or three.” Another way to look at life is as a spiral, “round and round and round it goes, and where it stops, nobody knows.” If it weren’t for the “sandwich” analogy that we’re using today (forced upon us by the Lamentations text), I’d generally think that life was like a wave form, “sometimes you’re up, sometimes you’re down”.
All kinds of things press us on many sides. Sometimes what’s on one side of our “sandwich” is different from what’s on the other side. Sometimes the same thing presses us from two directions. Consider for a minute the arrangements we might have with family. We are supposed to love everyone, and they are supposed to love us, unconditionally. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes family “honor” presses from one side and family “expectations” on the other. If we can keep love and hope at the center, and we may be better able to make it through these tough times.
Academic life can press us almost beyond our ability to endure. (I can personally testify to that because I dropped out of a doctoral program 11 years ago.) We may be pushing for the top degree because of a sense of “having to” get there, or because, having begun, it would be shameful to quit or to change to something else. Knowing the reasons why we study, knowing whether or not this is: 1) a calling from God; or 2) a pressure from the devil; or 3) personal ambition; or 4)for the sake of some other person’s honor may help us see the light at the middle.
Religion is often a breaking point for people. It obligates us to follow rules and tells us that complaining about the rules is “not proper conduct toward God.” In those cases, “God” becomes the oppressor. When your religion oppresses you, it’s time to re-envision God as the one who loves steadfastly, who renews mercies every morning, and to hope in God for the salvation of the world.
For today, though, consider life as like a sandwich. Maybe, if you’re from Taiwan, you would do better to consider life to be like a Bau-tze or a Chang-hwa Meatball. What you see with your eyes is not what’s at the center of things. In life, God’s love is at the center. Look for it, hope in it, and trust in it.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.