A Sermon by Robert E. Dunham
University Presbyterian Church
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time January 17, 2010
Jerusalem had been called "Abandoned" and its land has been called"Desolation." But Isaiah said the Lord was giving them new names. Newnames: Hephzibah and Beulah. “My delight is in her” and “married”…terms of endearment and promise. But “Desolation” and “Abandoned”still seemed more appropriate somehow in those days. And this week, theold names are the ones that echo back and forth in my mind. Abandoned. Desolation. We have seen desolation first-hand this week, have wenot? And we have heard the cries.
An email message came Wednesday from Rodney Babe, long-timePresbyterian mission co-worker and one of our friends and partners inHaiti across the years, and it carried tough news about his wife,Sharyn:
Thesituation in Port-au-Prince is very dire. Our 4th story apartment wasone of the casualties. Sharyn had returned from teaching yesterday andwas in the apartment for about an hour when the quake struck. Detailsare still difficult to write, but a wall and the ceiling (bothconcrete) collapsed simultaneously. As they collapsed, [Sharyn] wasthrown from her computer station and high backed office chair. Theconcrete slabs hit the chair which caused them to slide to the siderather than crushing her. She began to crawl toward an open space. About that time, another wall fell partially crushing her. Again therewas some room to wiggle and she managed to continue to crawl towardopen spaces as the building collapsed totally.
Eventuallythe four stories became a single story of rubble. She continued tocrawl and eventually made it to the street. All told, perhaps threeminutes. Neighbors carried/ dragged her away from other buildings andwalls. Eventually she went to a hospital that was overflowing and wasgiven a couple aspirin - all they had for medicine. The hospital wasclosed shortly afterwards due to damage.
Shefinally got to the U.S. embassy. She was on a backboard by this timeand was examined by a missionary doctor and the embassy doctor, neitherof whom had had x-rays. They both fear she has a broken back. Theembassy arranged for helicopter evacuation to a U.S. military hospitalin Guantanamo, Cuba. This seemed prudent because she was in intensepain and had significant swelling…. She also had increasing problemsbreathing. She had some cuts and many bruises developing and wasunable to move her right leg… She was medically evacuated about 2 p.m.today. I was not permitted to accompany her as only seriously injuredpeople were put on the medivac helicopter.
We’vesince learned that Sharyn Babe is now in a hospital in Ft. Lauderdaleand, as bad as her injuries are, in one sense she is surely one of thefortunate ones. Tens of thousands are dead and bodies are being piledup on the streets; hundreds of thousands are injured. Millions are leftwithout shelter. We’ve all seen the photos and the television coverage,and with the Haitians we have wept, as witnesses to utter desolationthis week.
PoorHaiti. The poorest country in the western hemisphere struggles with itsbasic infrastructure even in the best of times, and now the big one hasstruck in a land with minimal building codes, and everywhere one turnsthere is only death and destruction. Hurricane Katrina was anunmitigated disaster, and recovery will take years to complete; thisquake may make that effort to rebuild look simple by comparison. Whilewe know of no deaths among our partners in Haiti, all of their homes,including Wings of Hope and St. Joseph’s Homes, were badly damaged orcompletely destroyed.
WhyHaiti? That is a question that has been asked thousands of times thisweek, and it is a hard one to answer. Well, no, the answer on one levelseems quite simple: the country is situated along a volatile faultline, and those lines are prone to shifting without notice. But if the“of all places, why Haiti?’ question also gives voice to a deep worryabout Haiti’s capacity to handle such a catastrophe, then we need tolook beyond fault lines for an answer.
As Tracy Kidder noted in Wednesday’s New York Times, earthquakesare acts of nature, but extreme vulnerability to them often points tohuman causes. Haiti, he noted, has been particularly vulnerable tonatural disasters, in part because of its history of oppression. PatRobertson outrageously blames the Haitians themselves for suchvulnerability, but Haiti’s history would suggest that we need to lookelsewhere, perhaps even in the mirror. Haiti as a republic was createdby former slaves, you may remember, West Africans who had beenkidnapped and brought to the Americas. In 1804 they overthrew theirFrench masters and sought to set a course of their own, but for morethan 200 years now, they have been tormented by a combination offoreign oppression (not only by the French, but also by America) and byindigenous corruption that our country aided and abetted.The instability and weakness of governance created by such forces is atragic human construct which, when combined with the instability of theearth beneath them, is a disaster waiting to happen. It happenedTuesday.
Figuring out the church’s response is, on the one hand, simple, but atanother level is complex and demanding. There are the obvious thingsto be done – the immediate financial support of our partners on theground in Haiti, which is more useful right now than sending materialsbecause of the severe distribution hurdles in Haiti at present. Intime, the Outreach Committee and the Session will be talking about amore substantial contribution to the rebuilding effort. In time, wemay well turn our attention also to some long-needed public policychanges.
And, of course, we can pray, though it is hard to know what to pray.What should we say? The needs seem so far beyond comprehension. Prayfor healing? Pray for relief from the fear of ongoing aftershocks?Pray for a miraculous restoration of shelter and fresh water and basichuman services? Pray that God would not forget God’s children in Haiti?
Both of our Scripture passages today offer models of prayer that mightbe helpful in this time, I think, though both may strike us as a bitodd. Lamentations can teach us how to reclaim the ancient language oflament – the language of grief and profound sadness. Lamentations evenaffords us a model for how to begin:
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.
Now,no one would ever put Port-au-Prince on a list of cities considered“great among the nations,” unlike the capital in Jerusalem to whichthese lines refer, but the “how like a widow she has become” seems morethan apt. We’ve seen the photos of people wailing before the deadpiled in the streets. “How like a widow she has become.” It is thelanguage of lament. As the Scriptures go, Lamentations is not a book weturn to very often, but there are times, such as now, when we can drawstrength from its words. The book itself is poetry, actually fivemournful poems that offer an eloquent expression of profound grief andloss from one who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the exileof its people under King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians. Its wordsprovided a vehicle through which the people came to terms with thehistorical calamity they were experiencing. The honest language oflament can be helpful to the Haitians and to all of us who care deeplyabout them. It is perhaps our most appropriate prayer just now – thelament.
It’shard to get a clear sense of the poetry from the English, but in itsoriginal Hebrew form Lamentations was set up as an acrostic, with eachstrophe beginning with successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Inthe case of Lamentations, the form actually provides the poet with aviable means of coming to terms with pain and grief. Instead of beingallowed to spill over without limit, the pathos is channeled into aliterary structure that brings a measure of order to social andemotional turmoil.
The language of lament is a deeply expressive means to confrontsignificant change in the world we once knew. It gives us a form bywhich we can name our grief and our pain. There are circumstances inour personal and public lives that deserve and demand that kind ofexpression. But there is another way it can be helpful, for laments areoften voiced within a larger context of faith in God’s love and mercy.In the third chapter of Lamentations, even in the midst of deep lament,we find the following, surprising words:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
God’s mercies never come to an end;
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness. (3:22-23)
There is no attemptmade to reconcile the two extremes of grief and confidence. There isno attempt to explain. There is only the recognition that both aretrue.The world is a perilous place. Awful things happen. Dear ones diesenselessly. And in the face of such awful realities, we grieve.
Theworld is a perilous place. So, in anguish we sing a song of lament forthose who lost so much in a heartbeat and who face such an uncertainfuture. Yet we are also confident that God loves them and will befaithful to them… that God has not abandoned the people of Haiti. AsChristians, we believe that God is not passionless and disconnected inthe face of the earth’s tragedies. God is more like the parents andspouses we’ve seen this week in photographs and TV news coverage – bentover their loved ones, weeping tears of profound sorrow. In tragediesof mind-boggling proportions, and also in the more personal tragediesof our lives, not a single person gets lost or forgotten in the heartof God. If our future is tied up in God's future, then we and those welove are forever in good hands. And so we can pray also our prayers ofhope. We don’t have to choose. We pray them both… lyrics of lamentand hymns of hope. Why should we have to choose? After all, both arehonest… and both are true. Both are true.
Lamentation is more than appropriate. But our passage from the prophetIsaiah helps us form also another kind of prayer. I hear it in theopening verses we read a short while ago:
For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch. (Is. 62:1)
Do you hear it?
I. Will. Not. Keep. Silent.
Itwill not be possible to make me shut up. I will talk and not stoptalking, proclaim and not stop proclaiming… I will shake the skies withmy voice. I will not pause. I will not rest, for the sake of the … cityGod loved and left, and I will keep this up…
Now,scholars debate and disagree about who is speaking in this passage.Some say that it is God’s voice speaking through the prophet, “vowingGod's unceasing speaking and acting on behalf of God's beloved city.”But others, self included, are convinced that here Isaiah is notspeaking in God's voice, but his own. It is Isaiah who vows to act asintercessor for Jerusalem. “Like the sentinels …Isaiah [describes], theprophet promises to stand on the city walls and break the silence dayand night in order to make God remember. The prophet vows to keeptalking and preaching and proclaiming until God does what God haspromised to do: restore Jerusalem, and make this holy mountain a crownof glory… to God.”
Remember the context here. The Hebrew people had been in exile for along time – sixty or seventy years. They had heard God’s promises ofreturn and restoration while in exile and, remembering the Jerusalemthey had left, they had visions of its return to strength and glory.
However,the reality people returned to was far from glorious. The land seemedto them like a desert….[The damage done by Nebuchadnezzar was stillevident in the ruins.] Times were difficult, and people were hungry….When prophets finally convinced them to rebuild the temple, it wasclear that its glory could not match the glory of former days. Wherewere the glittering jewels? Where was the abundant feast? The landstill felt like a desert. The city seemed forsaken, bereft of God'ssustaining presence [much as Port-au-Prince must feel today].
Theprophet knows [the promises God made during the exile]. God said toZion, yes, I left you, but now I return to you (54:7), and my love willnever leave you (54:10). So now the prophet vows to hold God to God'spromises. The prophet will pick up right where God seems to have leftoff and make sure that God gets no rest until Jerusalem is built up,filled with her children, surrounded by fruitful fields, and shiningwith the continuous light of God's presence.
The prophetpromises newness, transformation, and new names signaling joyful unionfor Jerusalem and all the land around her. The prophet can only makethese promises because God has made them.
SoIsaiah reminds God yet again….and again…and again. And maybe that isour task, too, in these days…to remind God and one another and ourbeloved partners in Haiti of God’s promises… to cry out constantly andin one voice for God’s children there… to say, “I will not keepsilent.” I. Will. Not. Keep. Silent.
Not silent with our laments. Not silent with our pleading before God.Not silent. And if enough of us cry out, then maybe even we, too, willhear. And hearing, maybe we will claim the promises and the call ofGod, and be moved beyond simple and generous compassion to work at lastfor justice for the beleaguered people of Haiti. For surely we knowthat is the only way we will ever help them get beyond desolation –desolation they suffered greatly this Tuesday past, but desolation thathas been part of life in that island nation for generations.
They are our kin…our brothers and sisters. We will grieve with themand lift up our laments. They are our kin. We. Will. Not. Keep. Silent.
 Tracy Kidder, “Country Without a Net,” New York Times, January 13, 2010.
 Much of the description of Lamentations is drawn from Werner E. Lemke, introduction to Lamentations, The Harper Collins Study Bible, 1993, The Society for Biblical Literature, New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1993, 1208-1210.
I am grateful for this insight to Neta Pringle and her helpful paper onthis text presented to the January 2001 meeting of the Moveable Feastin Princeton, New Jersey.