Who. What. When. Where. Why. These are the so-called Five Ws, the first tools shared with any news reporter. They make a framework, a way into the story. And the Five Ws, which sounds almost like a Fifties singing group, must always be joined by the H: How.
When any one of us laments, when we mourn as a community, when one of us wrestles individually with bearing that which is unbearable, these are the questions that arise naturally out of our unspeakable grief.
Who. Who are these people whose lives have been cut short, as we learned about the nine members of a Bible study class at Emanuel AME Zion Church in South Carolina. Did God make this happen? What. What is making my husband have these unbearable headaches, asked the friend whose spouse would die of GBM, a deadly brain tumor. Is God causing the tumor? When. When did the Holocaust begin, exactly? When did God abandon the people in Europe? Where. Is my home safe? Where is home for me? And: Why? How?
The other questions are the backup singers. Why and how are the lead singers, the really big questions that cause us to wrestle with the existential questions about God and about you and me, about our individual selves and about society and about community. These are the questions of lament and, ultimately, questions about God.
Our first reading is the beginning of a response to a communal lament. Back up a moment to Isaiah chapter sixty-four, which concludes: Will you restrain yourselves at such things, O Lord? Will you keep silent, and afflict us sorely? In other words, Well, God? What have you got to say?
Today’s we hear both a call for God to speak and a call for God to act, to make things right, to repair the breach and restore the streets. These words are a starkly painful look into the way this faithful remnant might have felt in a distressing moment.
In Chapter sixty-five, we stand alongside the handful of people who have chosen to leave Babylon, their home in exile for seventy years, and return to Jerusalem. The ones who returned were the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones sent into exile. They had been brought up on word pictures of Jerusalem the shining city on a hill, the covenant promises of a God who was ever faithful. And they return to dust, to rubble, to Ground Zero in New York, to Dresden or to Berlin after the war, and they look around and think, This is it? So … what, then? What do you and I do when the Bible shows us lament?
Lament runs through all the readings for today, Isaiah and also the portion from Psalm 22, sometimes known as “the angry psalm,” the one that famously begins with the words Jesus would pray on the cross: My God, my God, why have You abandoned me? The portion that we hear today, though, is near the ending of the psalm, which speaks of the promise and prophecy of God that endures amid all the questions. It says: Help. But you, O Lord, be not far away; O my help, hasten to my aid.
Each of us, as a person and in community, is on occasion stunned into silence, and all the words we know are reduced to the questions, to the Five Ws and the H, to the impossible question: God? And dwelling in lament does one thing above all else.
Courtney Pace, of Memphis Theological Seminary, tells us that lament is like the blues, “a tenacious articulation of reality insisting [on], even demanding, resolution.” And that lament, like the blues, awakens “us to our shared experiences of humanity…. Though we are lonely, we are not alone.” Lament reminds each of us that life is not a solo act. That the God of the Trinity, the God of relationship, gives us answers to those eternal questions that always resolve in community. And when these eternal questions resolve in community, they resolve not just in a bunch of individuals with a shared experience, but in the liberating community of belief, of faith, of hope, of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Christ being there for others.
Grounded in the grief and shock of the Jewish community returning from exile. Remembering that the psalm that begins, Why have you abandoned me ends with Posterity shall serve him. On this foundation, we turn to the New Testament and the Gospels. And we hear Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, say: Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.
This liberating passage points to the Kingdom of God: a place where all chains are loosed and division is erased. Divisions of gender, of standing in society, of dominance and oppression, are no more. Some weeping, some grief, is of necessity private. But lament, the mourning for what has been lost and the sense of abandonment – lament is community.
And lament is always – like the blues – community that insists on hope, on the faithful remnant making a home, of a future. Lament’s foundation is the heart’s determination that there will be a future, and that the future is to be found in the community of faith.
Notice what happens with the young man at the heart of today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke: Demons have made him their dwelling place. The demons, in truth, appear to be in community, making much worse the man’s situation: They are “Legion,” they are many, and there is only one of him.
Pay attention to Jesus’ actions and words. When the demon community dwelling in this man cries out – Stay away from our host body! – the demons name Jesus: Son of the Most High God. And Jesus … asks his name. You know my name. You have the advantage of me. What is your name? And the demons answer! Legion.
Jesus and the demons introduce themselves to each other. That’s the first step in getting to the formation of community. When our family became members here, we let people know that our daughter goes by Sammy. It’s not her baptismal name – but it’s the name she now uses.
What else do we do in community, once there has been lament? What else do we do when one among us is suffering from whatever demons might afflict her, or him?
After V-E Day, members of the Berlin Philharmonic began the arduous work of people all across Europe: looking for food, to survive the day, and looking for loved ones, tracking down rumors of rumors of sightings, exiles forming community. One by one, they found each other. Some orchestra members no longer had their instruments. Others had their own instruments and perhaps a spare. Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had led the orchestra under the Reich, left Germany for Switzerland in February 1945. Germany’s surrender was signed on the eighth of May. Less than three weeks later, on May 26, conductor Leo Borchard led the orchestra in a concert at Titania Palast movie theater, the Philharmonic Concert Hall having been bombed.
The concert featured music forbidden under the Third Reich, music by composers of Jewish descent, such as Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. And the people of Berlin came, sat in the audience, drawn by word of mouth. I know this story because my parents, traveling to visit friends in Cologne, were able to be introduced to a violinist, Hans Bastiaan, who was in the orchestra during the war and who played in that concert. Why did they seek each other out? Why did they gather? Why did they rehearse and put on a concert? And why did people attend?
Because there is lament. And lament, like the blues, like all music, is a shared experience. Lament, like music, insists on the liberating God who promises, the God of hope.