“Rigged?”

October 23, 2016

 

Lamentations 3:19-26

II Corinthians 1:1-7

 

A Presbyterian minister wrote that “Preachers may be tempted to ignore Lamentations. It’s a tough read, the subject matter is grim, and its theological assertions are challenging.”

I know—Presbyterians can be a little timid.

I’ve never thought preaching was for the faint of heart, however, so let’s get going.

At one of the stores downtown, you can buy a greeting card or a refrigerator magnet with the message: “The universe is conspiring in your favor.” I like that. Those words are an affirmation of the goodness of life, and when we hear them with the ears of faith, they might even become an affirmation of the providence of God. If you were to be the victim of a vast conspiracy, wouldn’t it be nice to have it be one that is for your benefit.

The card and magnet echo the words of Julian of Norwich, who in the 14th century had a vision of Jesus saying to her: “It is necessary that there should be sin, but all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.” The world and our lives are far from perfect, but even so, a divine assurance comes to us: all shall be well, and all shall be well.

Sometimes we need to hear words such as these.

These days are certainly one of those times.

And then there is the 13th century poet and Sufi mystic, Rumi, who seems as if he is speaking to us in these days when he urges: “Live life as if everything is rigged in your favor.”

As if everything is rigged—in your favor.

If you’ve been listening to the news you know that not everyone sees it that way.

“Rig” comes from a Norwegian word that means to “bind” or to “splice.” In my dictionary, after several usages involving ropes, the fifth definition of “rig” is: to arrange in a dishonest way for selfish advantage; manipulate fraudulently.” And then the dictionary offers this example: “to rig an election.” I’m not making this up!

Rigged!

Donald Trump spent the past week telling us that the election is rigged. His running mate reassuringly say that, well, it’s not the election, really. It’s the media that’s rigged. The President says, “Oh, quit your whining;” Elizabeth Warren says, “Get a pair of ‘big boy’ pants.” And the Washington Post reports that, in the real world, it’s simply impossible to rig a federal election—unless all of the apparatus of both the Republican and Democratic parties was conspiring against someone.

If any group of people had reason to think that the universe was conspiring against them, that nothing was rigged in their favor, it would be the people of Jerusalem who still remained in what was left of the city after its destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. The false prophets had told the people and the rulers that all would be well—and it wasn’t. The king was certain that because of his tremendous international negotiation skills the Egyptians would come and save the city—and they didn’t. The majority of the men, women, and children of Jerusalem were taken off into exile, their experience recorded in the psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our lyres—how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

As bad as it was for those in exile, life for those who remained behind in Jerusalem was even worse. The short book of Lamentations recounts the desperation and depravation and anguish of the people. We heard just a brief section of that lament this morning: “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall! My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.”

For the people left in ancient Jerusalem, for the people in contemporary Aleppo and Mosul, circumstances are so horrendous that, as Lamentations puts it, God has become like an enemy.

Certainly we have not experienced such devastation in our own lives. And yet, are there not times when life is consistently not going well, when illness is chronic and crushing, when the suffering of someone you love keeps you sleepless and in anguish, when financial ruin seems a real possibility, when nothing seems to go right, and, yes, when everything seems rigged against you?

We have learned that it is not always the good who prosper and the bad who suffer. We have seen good people hurt, we have seen death and destruction come to those who didn’t “deserve” it—whether close friends or unknown victims of random events. We have all seen the hungry children on T.V., the images of devastation caused by natural disasters, and the brutal killings that witness to human evil.

We walk through these doors bringing family problems, trouble at work, worry from school, concerns about illness and death, trepidation about the direction of our nation and our world. So if you feel some of that today, please know that you are not alone. If that does not describe you this morning, there is a good chance that your neighbor is worshipping with a weary heart, a burdened spirit.

“The universe is conspiring in your favor?” Give me a break.

Have there not been times when you have felt or said: “My soul…is bowed down within me?”

Many find such expressions of lament hard to take.

There used to be a statue called “Lamentation” on the campus of the Episcopal Divinity School out in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a human figure—maybe a man, maybe a woman—kneeling, with hands covering an uplifted face. Some unspoken agony—some loss, some suffering, some desperate situation—has brought this person to this position of prayer.

This is a powerful image of sorrow, of vulnerability, of suffering. This statue used to be in a prominent position, where it could easily be seen from a well-traveled street. But the residents of the neighborhood complained. The statue, it seems, was too offensive. The pain shown in this anguished bronze figure was too strong for the delicate sensibilities of Cambridge. So it was relocated to the side of the campus chapel, obscured by some evergreens.

The Book of Lamentations does not take us quickly from times of anguish and sorrow. Survival is process. Hope comes and goes.

In the face of all that would cause despair, the one lamenting pauses to reconsider and says: “But…

“But this I call to mind…”

In the midst of horror and desolation a memory arises: The steadfast love of God never ceases, God’s mercies never end; they are new every morning.

Remembering the mercy of God, we dare to hope even in the worst situations.

Now, one of the engineers in our congregation often reminds me, “Hope is not a strategy.” That is, our Trustees do something other than “hope” that the elevator will work—crossing their fingers as they put you inside and press the button.

Nor should hope be confused with the wishful thinking expressed when we say something like: “I hope it won’t rain this afternoon.” when we have no control over the weather whatsoever.

Instead, as one person put it, “Hope is the bird that sees the light and sings while dawn is still dark.”

Hope is the ability to continue, to move forward out of a sense that our lives, however brief or long, however filled with sadness or happiness, however wealthy or impoverished, our lives are lived in the presence of God who breathes the breath of life into each of us and all of us.

Hope trusts that God’s new day is dawning even as the world and our lives lie in darkness.

And my friend, Allen Happe, the late minister at First Congregational Church out in Cambridge, MA, reminded us that “On this spinning planet, the light is always dawning.”

Hope and horror.

We know both.

And indeed, both are at the center of our faith.

We look to the cross with horror. And just at that place of forsakenness, we discover that God is with us in our suffering and leading us to the hope of the resurrection.

So Paul is able to write of God as the very “Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, the One who comforts us in our affliction.” In mercy God does much more than help us to feel good again and get out with our lives as they always have been. God comforts us—that is, God gives us strength in adversity—so that we in turn might bring strength and consolation to others as God’s agents in this weary world.

The mercy of God is an empowering force that calls us forward into God’s new creation. This mercy forgives us for the wrong that we have done. This mercy forgives us for the good that we have failed to do up to this point. And even more, it then lifts us up and turns us toward the new day that is dawning, so that we might wait for the salvation of the Lord, the wholeness and well-being that God gives. This mercy tells us: It is necessary that there should be sin, but all shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

And the hope that we have because of God’s mercy leads to a particular kind of waiting. We wait, not sitting in a corner with hands folded. We wait by working for the very things that we await. We work for peace. We work for the day when the hungry are fed and the homeless are sheltered. We work for the welcome of the refugee and the outcast. We work for interracial understanding and cooperation.

In faith we can say that life, the universe, is rigged in our favor. God desires not only our good but also the good of all creation. And listen to that the other way. God desires the good of all creation—and God desires your good, even your own good.  There are signs of this often enough that we can dare to live in hope, we can choose to live in hope.

This was the hope of Israel even in the worst of times.

This was the hope of the prophets, including the old angry and lamenting Jeremiah.

In faith we say that this hope was vindicated at the dawn of Easter morning. And in faith we sense that we are called to this hope at the dawn of each new day.

And it is out of that hope that comes with the ever returning dawn that Allen Happe tells us: “For you who pray, for you who study, for you who work and serve others, for you who dare to risk, for you who dare to wait, keep it up. God is good. Life is truly wonderful. Love is enough.”

It’s rigged.

It’s all rigged in our favor.

Will everything go just the way you want it?

Of course not.

But…God’s mercy is new every morning.