The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
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.
“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”
The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Stories We Tell Ourselves
My guess is that in each of our families there are certain stories that get told over and over again. The exact details aren’t as important as the spirit of the story:
- stories of sacrifice during the Depression
- stories of courage in times of war
Stories like these tell us about where our people come from and the legacy they have left us. We pass them down in doing so, they shape us. In truth, as theologian Emmanuel Katongole writes, “we become the people we are because of the stories we tell ourselves.”
Just like families, communities have stories too - stories embodied and institutionalized in ways of life without our even realizing it.
When I first moved to Atlanta after college I noticed something strange about the streets in the neighborhood where I was teaching. They changed names. You’d be driving along Monroe Dr. and the moment you crossed Ponce De Leon you were suddenly on Boulevard. You’d be on Courtland, cross Ponce, and suddenly you’re on Juniper. Atlanta traffic is bad enough - nobody needs the confusion of streets changing randomly changing names.
But of course, there’s a story there. And the streets changing names as you cross Ponce was not random at all. Eventually I learned this dated back to days of segregation and the fact that the white people in this area did not want to have the same address as the black people. Ponce was the racial dividing line, therefore, the street names were changed so that a family living on Monroe would not have the same address as a family living on Boulevard even though they were literally just steps away from each other. That is a story not often told. But, once it is, it opens our eyes to concrete ways we have come to live “because of the stories we tell ourselves.”
The book of Lamentations, that we have heard from today, puts the story of the Babylonian invasion into a poetic form. The temple and all of Jerusalem have been destroyed in the midst of war and now God’s people are living as exiles - strangers in a strange land - left to wonder if their God is even still there.
One story they are telling themselves is that they must have done something to deserve their suffering. Another story is that perhaps God has abandoned them. But the poet we hear today is writing a new story for God’s people, based in hope. And the truth is, this is not a new story that the poet is telling. Instead it is a re-telling of how the God of Israel, over and over in times of suffering, shows up in life-giving ways for people who are on the brink of losing faith.
The Seder Story
In the Jewish tradition it is customary for families to gather on the first night of Passover for a special dinner called a seder. During this meal the story of the Exodus of Jews from slavery in Egypt is recited and enacted in a set order. Part of this order includes having the youngest child ask four questions. Listen to these questions and their responses and think about how the retelling of this story is shaping the lives and practices of those who retell it:
Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either
leavened bread or matza, but on this night we eat only matza?
We eat only matzah because our ancestors could not wait for their breads to rise when they were fleeing slavery in Egypt, and so they were flat when they came out of the oven.
Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?
We eat only Maror, a bitter herb, to remind us of the
bitterness of slavery that our ancestors endured while in Egypt.
Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip [our food] even once,
but on this night we dip them twice?
The first dip, green vegetables in salt water, symbolizes the replacing of our tears with gratitude, and the second dip, Maror in Charoses, symbolizes the sweetening of our burden of bitterness and suffering.
Why is it that on all other nights we dine either
sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline?
We recline at the Seder table because in ancient times, a person who reclined at a meal was a free person, while slaves and servants stood.
The story is told again and again, and the people are reminded of the courage God
gave them to flee, the bitterness their people endured, tears that turned to gratitude
and the freedom that is now theirs. Having the youngest ask the questions helps
ensure that the stories live on and later generations do not forget God’s provision
and protection even in the very, very worst of times.
Likewise, in the midst of ruins, the poet in Lamentations decides to tell the
people a new story - or rather, to retell the believers their own story. Yes, we are
suffering. Yes, there is pain and tragedy all around us right now - BUT. That “But” in
verse 21 is the turning point. “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The
steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. God’s mercies never come to an end;” and then
a prayer, “great is your faithfulness.”
The poet proclaims belief in a God who shows up in the midst of disaster, who has been and will continue to be faithful to God’s people. Then the poet says, “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord.” In other words, the poet resolves to sit and wait for God to show up. “Hope” then, writes theologian Martha Moore-Keish, “is not escape from the troubles of the world, but insistence that God’s mercy will have the last word.”
The Sacramental Story
There are many stories in Scripture we Christians tell and retell ourselves that shape who we become and how we live in this world. But the two primary ways we reenact these stories of hope are in the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Each of these draws together our past, present, and future as followers of Christ. And participating in these, we believe the Holy Spirit is present, shaping and reshaping us as disciples of a God of mercy and grace.
Today in our communion liturgy, much like the Jewish tradition, we take a walk through our past. We call together the stories of God’s creation, incarnation in Jesus Christ, Jesus’ life, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection as well as his promise to come again.
We tell ourselves the story of who we really are and we reenact that first time at the table when Jesus sat his disciples down in the midst of persecution, knowing he would soon die, yet steadfast in his mercy to all who sat at that table - even the one he knew would betray him. It was no coincidence that that meal looked and felt a lot like the Passover seder meal. For them and for us it connected the story of God’s presence in the Exodus with what was about to happen in Jesus’ crucifixion - all these things a part of the story that shapes and calls us now.
World Communion Sunday
On this World Communion story we are very much aware of division in this world. Nation has been pitted against nation because we have allowed the wrong stories to define us. Believing stories that tell us there is not enough power to around, not enough land to go around, not enough money to go around we forget that we worship a God of abundance. We forget that we share a common story in our Christian story and if we were to allow that to shape the way we treat one another how different our world would be.
“But” this we call to mind, and therefore we have hope.
When we come to this table, with our brothers and sisters in Christ from all around the world on this particular Sunday, the Holy Spirit meets us here and lifts us into the presence of Christ. We retell and reenact the story of who we really are - embodying this story, we are able to go out into the world in a posture of love, and that posture helps us resist the stories that divide us. We are reminded of where our help - and our hope comes from.
When we are offered the bread and cup, Christ’s body and blood, we are reminded of God’s story of abundance. The God who provided manna in the desert and multiplied loaves and fish to feed thousands. The God who said, “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” The same one who has promised to come again and make all things new. We long and wait for the hope of the great banquet at the end of time, because only at that table will all of our tears be dried.
The Christian story is a story of broken people in a broken world loved by a God who showed up in Jesus Christ to be for us what we could not be for ourselves. When we are invited to Christ’s table we come as characters in God’s great story of redemption, invited here to be fed and nourished so that we might go out into a world filled with false stories to tell our story of a God whose love is steadfast and whose mercies never come to an end. Thanks be to God. Amen.