Death and despair were lurking in today’s readings. Did you hear it? Did you feel it? The first reading was from the book of Lamentations. The name says it all. Not a book we read from often or probably want to read from often. And most times when we do read from Lamentations, it is these verses that we choose. As one commentator said, these are the “happy” verses in Lamentations. And even the happy verses are not very happy. Although the verses hold the promise of hope and redemption, this will come only after a time of great suffering and pain and the readers are counselled to bear this pain and suffering in silence, to take the knocks from those who are tormenting you, to wait patiently. Lamentations was written at the time when Jerusalem had been conquered and destroyed by the Babylonians. There was not a lot of hope around. Everywhere people looked there was only destruction. Most of the leaders had been exiled in Babylon. The proper response was lament. Grief. Sackcloth and ashes in the ancient tradition. Think of pictures of London after the blitz, or Dresden after the aerial bombing and firestorm or Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was exploded, or more recently the Syrian city of Homs after the destruction of the civil war. Desolation and destruction all around. That was Jerusalem when the writer of Lamentations began the lament and after millennia we can still feel the death and despair that is transmitted through the words.
Our Psalm too, today has death and despair lurking about. Although it is categorized as a Psalm that was to be used at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, it too is steeped in the experience of the destruction and suffering of the Babylonian exile. It is thought that this Psalm was probably used at the rededication of the temple when the exiles returned from Babylon and rebuilt Jerusalem. However, the joy of that day was tinged and muted with the pain of what had gone before it. There is lament in this Psalm. The writer reflects on the experience of going down to the Pit, to Sheol, the place of the dead in Hebrew thinking. There was no hope in the Pit. Only cries from the depth of despair. Why O God? What use is this? How could there be any sense in being carried off from the City of God, from our home, from what we knew and loved to be slaves to the ungodly? It is the cry of those who have been forced to leave their homeland. The “Trail of Tears” of so many peoples who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to travel to another place. To make their home in a strange land and among strangers who are not hospitable. It can seem that all is lost when you arrive in the Pit.
Perhaps death and despair are more muted in the reading from Second Corinthians. We have skipped ahead in this reading from where we were last week. Some believe that this portion of Second Corinthians was actually another letter altogether. The background is Paul trying to raise some funds for the church in Jerusalem that had fallen on to very hard times. We don’t really know why but it seems that the community that was the starting point of the Jesus movement, from which everything else had been launched, was not doing well. It was complicated by the single major tension in the early church, the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians. There were a lot of fights about this that we get a glimpse of in Paul’s letters and also in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles but perhaps we don’t often realize just how serious this was. It was possible that the church would split apart because of this issue. And here is Paul, pleading with Christians in one of the most gentile of cities, Corinth, to fulfill their pledge to send money to Christians in the most Jewish of cities, Jerusalem. Clearly there was a problem in Jerusalem. But the divisions within the church and within the Roman world meant that those who were able to help were not very keen to open their wallets to send some denarii their way. Why would we help those people? Can’t they do something for themselves? Haven’t they brought all this on themselves? Justice is catching up with them and those smug leaders who always thought of us as second class will be taken down a peg. Now they will know what it is like to be on the other side. To suffer a bit.
The gospel takes us fully into the world of death and despair. Two stories of suffering intertwined as Jesus comes off the lake again and is plunged into the crowds seeking his compassionate presence and his miraculous healing. A man, Jairus, who is a leader in the synagogue comes in desperation to this healer. His little daughter is at home at the point of death. He is desperate. There are no more options. Perhaps he does not know what to think about this travelling healer but he is his only hope. And Jesus agrees to go with him to his home. But then out of the crowd someone else rushes to touch Jesus in the hope of healing. A nameless woman. A woman who has been plagued by bleeding for twelve years. She had tried everything. Every doctor. Every pop cure. Every passing healer. Nothing had stopped the bleeding. In the world she lived this meant that she was shunned. Kept out of normal social and family life. This was a curse and people would have thought she was to blame. It was her fault. She had brought it on herself, somehow. So she devised another plan. She would touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak and she would be healed. She believed that like she had believed in so many other plans before. She had to. She had no alternative. This time it worked. She was healed. She knew it. And Jesus knew it too. He knew in the midst of the huge crowd that someone had touched him in faith. His disciples laughed. As so often happened, they did not understand. The woman didn’t laugh though. She was afraid. Afraid that maybe her rash act and the healing that came from it would not last. She had been disappointed before, so many times. She was astonished. Not only was she healed, she was returned to her community. She was called daughter. A part of the family.
The joy of the woman though is contrasted with the despair of Jairus. While Jesus had taken the time to heal and to converse with this nameless woman in the crowd, his daughter had died. No doubt his first reaction would have been that Jesus wasted time that could have meant life for his daughter. Resources were limited. Surely his daughter’s life was worth more than this woman in the crowd. The little hope that he had turned to despair. There was to be no happy ending, even with this miracle worker. We do everything we can to give life to our children but still tragedy strikes. We cannot protect them from all that is out there to harm them.
That’s not the end of the story though. Not the end of this story. Jesus goes to Jairus’ home. He displaces the mourners. He goes into the room with the parents and the little girl. Twelve years old. The same length of time the woman had suffered with the haemorrhage. He takes her by the hands and says, “Get up”. She does. And all are amazed. Of course. Mourning turns to dancing, as the Psalm says. Death and despair are all around. But there is another possibility.
It’s a beautiful story. It is also a hard story. For anyone who has lost a child, it is a hard story. Death and despair are not always overcome in this miraculous way. Like Jairus, any parent will do whatever is necessary to save their child but sometimes children die. We are thrown into the Pit, and we return to cry with the Psalmist, “Why, O Lord?”. What is the sense in this? We can only be there. It seems that there will never be dancing.
There is no easy path. Death and despair are real in our world. Perhaps today you have heard the biblical stories but also the resonances of the world in which we live. I have. There are lamentations in ruined cities and communities and individual lives. There are people in exile, displaced from home, seeking refuge. There are deep and deepening divisions among us, in the church, in our country and in the wider world. There is pain and suffering and limited resources and hard decisions that have to be made. We should be celebrating on this Canada Day but we cannot help but sense the anxiety and fear that we are facing, even in this wonderful country.
We can’t stay there, in the Pit. As we read the wide arc of scripture, we learn that we are never left in the Pit. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; 23 they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” “For God’s anger is but for a moment; God’s favour is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” In a world of death and despair, we carry a message of hope. Never simple or cheap. Not a miracle tonic or a red maple leaf. Always needing to wrestle with the hard realities of our lives. But hope. We know that the God of life is with us. Even in the Pit. Even in those places that seem to be absolutely without hope or grace. In the places of destruction. On the borders. In the places of deep conflict and division. In the places of sickness and death. That is where we will find God. Crying with us. Holding us. Giving us signs of new life. Dancing with us in the face of death and despair. And calling us take each other’s hands and to dance the dance of life.
Thanks be to God.