Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO, Assistant Priest
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.
In 1910, the Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, wrote a short play called “Escape to God” about the last period of Leo Tolstoy’s life. You may have seen the movie “The Last Station” which essentially depicts the same period. Zweig’s play was a speculative work about how Leo Tolstoy might have completed a drama he had not finished by the time of his death – “And the Light shines in the Darkness”. Zweig’s play is a moving work about the final battle of contradiction and complexity in the life of a man whose hungry search for faith and meaning left him feeling, until the very last moments, inadequate to the pilgrimage for Truth.
The play is, if you like, a lament – a lament of inadequacy and dishonesty in the face of seeking to serve Truth. But you can read the play for yourselves. My aim this morning is to focus on one solitary sentence in that play. Writing of a time when the political and social tensions for reform in Russia had gone well beyond fever point to the brink of revolution, two young radicals, campaigning for change in the name of humanity and justice, visit Tolstoy. Here is a short extract which ends with the key phrase:
Tolstoy: You are the two men, aren’t you, whom the committee sent to me … Forgive me, I’ve forgotten your names.
First student: We ask you to regard our names as unimportant. We come to you only as two among hundreds of thousands.
Tolstoy: Do you have some questions for me?
First student: One question.
Tolstoy (to the second): And you?
Second student: The same one. We all have only one question for you, Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy, all of us, all the revolutionary youth of Russia – and there is no other one: Why are you not with us?
These anonymous students had come because they had deducted, from their interpretation of everything that Tolstoy had read and said over previous decades, that he ought to be with them in their armed struggle for justice. And so their question – “Why are you not with us?”- was no idle enquiry, but a profound request for solidarity based upon their logic – but not Tolstoy’s.
In the dialogue that follows Tolstoy and the students tussle over what is termed by each a ‘holy deed’, yet understood so differently by each side. The students are adamant they have understood what Tolstoy had written and meant; Tolstoy is dismayed that, in reality, they have so misunderstood what he had intended. Tolstoy was as much a mere mortal as the students who tussled with him. But the conversation written by Zweig echoed the sentiments from today’s reading from Isaiah:
So are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Tolstoy had spoken and written about ideas far beyond the ken of the students who came to visit him. Shared words – such as humanity, justice and love – would turn out to be words that divided and led to the students’ perplexity when Tolstoy could not give them the answer they wanted to their question: “Why are you not with us?”
Tolstoy spends the rest of Zweig’s play in a state of lament, essentially bewailing why others do not understand what he understands and therefore they cannot answer positively his unspoken question to them: “Why are you not with me?”
But what is lament?
In strict definition, to lament is to grieve, to mourn, to be sorrowful; its etymological origin is originally from the Latin to wail, to cry out aloud. These definitions are rather dry and make lament sound as something inevitably woebegone and bereft. I have also read the description that a lament is ‘the sound of trauma’.
Others have sought, however, to find a role for lament in a wider context of being and relating – in some form of union, an act of communion with another, a yearning for reconciliation. Walter Bruggemann, for example, writes of lament being:
A cry of need in a context of crisis.
While Michael Coogen says lament:
Appeals for divine help in distress.
Indeed, if we understand lament as more than just a temporal emotion; something we may only feel in this life, we can come closer to comprehending how God, in the form of his Son, could lament over Jerusalem that day. The singer Michael Card writes this about lament:
Jesus understood that lament was the only true response of faith to the brokenness and fallenness of the world. It provides the only trustworthy bridge to God across the deep seismic quaking of our lives.
Which brings us to our gospel reading this morning (from Luke 13). This section often carries the heading “Jesus laments over Jerusalem”. That heading is drawn from these particular words of Jesus in the reading:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
At first glance it seems odd to call these words a lament. Indeed our whole gospel reading this morning seems somewhat odd – it starts with some Pharisees, those religious leaders whose press is not normally good in the Bible and who are often the butt of criticism by Jesus, risking themselves to warn him of a plot by Herod. Then Jesus, he who most often extolled forgiveness and love abounding, expletively referred to Herod as ‘that fox’. The reading then ends with what we might imagine to be a peculiarly human emotion – lament. It raises the question: can God lament? Surely not, God can fix anything. What can there possibly be for God to wail about?
But back to our reading. Here we read of Jesus as he draws drew ever closer to his prophesied death, after having spent three years on a ministry of hope, service and love. He has had some ‘wins’ in our terms, but many misunderstandings; generally speaking his message of universal love and forgiveness seemed to confuse rather than convert en masse. Jesus’ reaction to this could easily have been: ‘well I’ve told them all they need to know, now it’s up to them’ – He could have mirrored the disappointment of Pontius Pilate when the latter’s understanding of justice was itself so easily brushed aside at Jesus’ trial. But instead of using such dismissive language, Jesus used lament to express the inevitable incompleteness of his words during his three years of ministry, of hope, service and love by themselves; intending, by their incompleteness, a suggestion of something much greater to come.
Jesus spoke of the prophets and those sent to Jerusalem who were stoned and killed by that holy city. And now the point had come where it was not a prophet who was being sent but the Son of God himself; and this divine being knew that death awaited him. Those prophets had been sent to bring back the wayward under sheltering wings, as the chicks come back under its mother, but they had failed. So too Jesus knew that the same failure awaited his earthly ministry … and so he lamented. But his lament was not woebegone for he understood something which, until his resurrection, his companions and other contemporaries did not, indeed could not – namely that there would be a surprising finale. And that finale would raise lament to a spiritual plane of much greater moment than simple wailing; it would become a form of waiting.
Jesus would turn the process of lament into a step on the road to communion with God. At its apogee, his crucifixion, he would repeat that process as he cried out in his final mortal breaths:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
A dark play on the question of: “Why are you not with us?” But as we are assured in the climax words from the middle of Psalm 22, the psalm from whose opening line those wrenching words of lament on the cross had come:
For he has not despised or disdained
The suffering of the afflicted one
He has not hidden his face from him
But has listened to his cry for help. [v24]
In other words, the answer to the question came loud and clear – “But I am with you.”
Until the climax of the crucifixion, the prevailing question of his contemporaries would be – “Jesus, are you with us in our struggle against oppression?” Such was the attitude of those who welcomed Jesus with Hosannas and palm leaves as he entered Jerusalem the week before – they were essentially shouting – “He is with us!”.
With his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus would turn that around. As one of the thieves on the cross acknowledged, and as did the centurion watching Jesus expire, they had all got the question wrong; they realised that the real question was the one that Jesus asked: Are you with me? A question that Jesus asks each and every one of us every day.
However, this turning of the question is not to be some solitary comfort to each of us in our communion with God through his son, Jesus; an individual life-line. Jesus identified with the forsaken and oppressed in the community of his day – in other words he said to them, even though they did not understand, “I am with you”. And so, Jesus asks us if we are with those whom he loves – namely humanity. Do we show that love in the way he did – lamenting with them sharing their grieving. To be with another in their grieving, requires an act of lamentation on our part; a sharing of the pain, not just an observation of it.
At any funeral, that moment of identification of the end of life’s journey, there will be grieving, there will be lament. But will our lament be of that transcendent form of the lament of Jesus or simply the wailing of mortality at its demise? Will it be a deep sharing of the pain of those most immediately affected by the death of a loved one? At a personal level, it was just such a deep lament that the Son of God showed at the death of Lazarus when he shared the pain of Mary and Martha. He, more than anyone would know of the certainty of eternal life after death; but at that moment of the grief of the sisters, he shared their pain. And at the wider level of humanity, there was also a sharing of the pain when Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem, which we heard in today’s reading, later turned into weeping (Luke 19:42) when he would say:
Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes.
And Jesus wept.
His lament turning to grief would be part of, not incidental to, the divine act of reconciliation to which Jesus would commit himself in the following days.
We will later in the service sing a favourite hymn of mine – Dear Lord and Father of mankind. In particular, we will sing these words:
Re-clothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence praise.
And in these words, we will find the question of the day has been changed from “Jesus, are you with us?” to “Jesus, am I with you?”
And so, we may feel with Tolstoy in the last words Stefan Zweig’s play attributed to him:
I just want to be alone with him, deeper, better ever than in life.