A Homily on Lamentations

Our ancestors sinned; they are no more,
    and we bear their iniquities. – Lamentations 5:7

Children crying in the street, water shortages, bombed-out buildings, and mass graves. The displacement occurs at a scale beyond our comprehension.

I am talking about Judah. In 586 BCE, Judah was invaded by Babylon. It took nearly 70 years for its displaced citizens to return to the wreckage of their homeland, and many families never returned. In 2022 CE, Ukraine was invaded by Putin’s army. Millions have fled, and millions more are left behind.

The phrase “history repeats itself” is perhaps never more apt than when we think of the violence that occurs against God’s children. It is unrelenting. It was here before Putin’s army marched into Ukraine and it will be here after they leave. Lord, have mercy. Make them leave.

The book of Lamentations bears witness across millennia to the profound devastation humans perpetuate against their own kind.

We are bound together as we ask, like Lamentations does, “how?” How could this keep happening? How could a loving God not intervene? How could our religious narratives be true in the face of such horror?

            I am tempted to simply sit with these questions, because I have been taught that to do otherwise would bring up uncomfortable ideas about God’s anger or suggest that suffering people deserve what they get. I wouldn’t usually dare to touch the idea of sin.

            But Lamentations isn’t compelled by the kinds of arguments that resist God’s wrath or refuse complicity – in fact, Lamentations spends almost as much time talking about sin as it does grief. It argues that suffering is a result of collective, generational sin.

Sin is a tough thing to reckon with, but what makes Lamentations’ assessment particularly instructive is that it specifically judges the sin of its own people. We have a parallel teaching in 1 Corinthians: “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?God will judge those outside.” In other words, it’s not our job to judge the suffering of others.

But, it is our job to understand our own complicity in the collective, generational sin that contributes to suffering around the world.

            Our denomination sent indigenous people to abusive residential schools, violently destabilized countless communities through coercive missionary work, fails to confront the anti-Semitism in our scripture and liturgy, and continues to hold onto the immense wealth stolen off the backs of enslaved Africans and pillaged from the lands that it colonized. And in the shadow of a possible nuclear threat, let’s not forget that this “Christian nation” is the only country yet to have used the atomic bomb. None of us here are personally responsible for these sins, but most of us are caught up in its deadly web.

Lamentations shows us that lament involves self-accountability. It requires us to bear witness to pain without ignoring our agency, complicity, and vulnerability. This work doesn’t negate prophetic calls for justice outside of our immediate culture. But we should remember that we still have to deal with ourselves. Otherwise, we end up missing the grace of God.

The world cannot afford for us to see ourselves as innocent spectators of its violence and grief. It cannot stand for us to blame everyone but ourselves.

It is time to look to the hidden places where sin festers and call our own tradition and society to account, in ultimate service to God’s Beloved Community.

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