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"Okay, question," I say to Morrie. His bony fingers hold his glasses across his chest, which rises and falls with each labored breath.
"What's the question?" he says.
"Remember the book of Job?"
"From the Bible?"
"Right. Job is a good man, but God makes him suffer. To test his faith."
"Takes away everything he has, his house, his money, his family."
"Makes him sick."
"To test his faith."
"Right. To test his faith. So I'm wondering."
"What are you wondering?"
"What do you think about that?"
Morrie coughs violently, his hands quiver as he drops them to his side. "I think," he says, smiling, "God overdid it."(1)
If you have been following the news lately, it is easy to agree with Morrie. Sometimes it does indeed seem like God overdoes this suffering business.
The little book of Lamentations certainly deals with the subject of suffering. So much of it is so dark it is no wonder that there is not much preaching from it. Who comes to church to hear such gloom and doom?
Yet, like it or not, Lamentations asks us to understand what the convulsions of our time may mean. Scholars tell us that the book's title could very well mean a funeral song or tune which expresses deep grief or mourning. These are exile words. They were either written by God's people far away from home in Babylon or penned shortly after they returned to a broken and destitute land. Lamentations is a collection of five elegies bewailing the destruction of Jerusalem and it's Temple in 587 BC and the desperation which follows these events.
Lamentations' first chapter likens the community to a widow. Israel would understand that term. Without a husband the widow was left to fend for herself. She had no status in the community. She had no resources - she was alone in her weeping. And if, as the text suggests, she turned to lovers for help, she would certainly be further isolated from the community. Lamentations says this is a picture of where God's exiled people found themselves. They had lost their king, their land, their sanctuary - their whole way of life.
The laments proved cathartic though. They gave way to healing. Through the songs of anger and grief, God's people came out on the far side. Hear again how Lamentations talks of how faith in God coming back stronger than ever. "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 most assuredly speaks to our time. Place Beslan with its 300-plus dead - half of them little children - down beside our text. Place poor, already destitute Haiti down with its hundreds and hundreds dead and their country ripped apart by the hurricane. For that matter, place all the private pain and pathos that burdens us down beside these words: the lost job, the retirement gone, the cancer that took Mother this year, the worry about the divorced daughter. We don't like to think about things like that - Carlyle Marney, that great Baptist preacher with a voice that James Earl Jones would envy, used to say that we play hard to forget that we live in a haunted house. But those are the facts of life.
Sometimes the truth is tough, the questions raised are difficult and the answers are equally so. But then we see this table, and are reminded that we are not alone with our pains. And the fact that today is World Communion Sunday reminds us that the tears of our brothers and sisters around the globe are heard as well.
That first chapter in Lamentations is not the last word. After the rage and grief are finally spent, healing slowly emerges. The chaos stories are part and parcel of the terrain of our life, and yes, even our faith. But there are occasions when we can agree with poor, broken Morrie - it does look like God has overdone this suffering business.
Leslie Weatherhead was no stranger to suffering in his own life. He preached in London during the days when the bombs fell all over England during the Second World War. In one of his sermons he wrote, "I can only write down this simple testimony. Like all men, I love and prefer the sunny uplands of experience when health, happiness and success abound but I have learned more about God, life, and myself in the darkness of fear and failure than I have ever learned in the sunshine. There are such things as the treasure of darkness. The darkness, thank God, passes, but what one learns in the darkness, one possesses forever."(2)
When Robert Louis Stevenson was nearing the end of is life his wife came in one morning and said, "I suppose in spite of all your trouble you will tell me again that it is a beautiful day."
The great writer answered, "Yes, my dear. I refuse to let that row of medicine bottles be the circumference of my horizon."
When God overdoes it...or at least seems to us to. Then we remember the words of the sage of old, "this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness." Good words to remember as we come to the table.
1. Mitch Albom, Tuesdays with Morrie (New York: Doubleday, 1997, pp.150-151
2. Quoted by Roger Lovette on "The Immediate Word" for 10/3/04, an excellent internet resource for preaching (to which I occasionally contribute) and which provided much material for this sermon at http://csspub.com/tiw.lasso