A Sermon by The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson
Walter Brueggemann described the Book of Lamentations as poetry which ‘brings to speech the deep emotive reality of loss, suffering and abandonment’. It’s a short book consisting of five poems almost certainly written as a reflection following the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonian armies in 587 B.C.E. To understand something of these poems, from which the text for tonight’s anthem is drawn, we need to delve into the Old Testament and the history it tells. Let me try and give you a few pegs on which to hang the background to this poetry which, I suspect, few of us here tonight have read in their entirety.
Genesis chapter 12 (which we heard this morning) opens with God calling Abram to leave his people and home country and embark on a journey to unknown parts. God promises to be with Abram wherever he goes and that he and his wife Sarai will become the ancestors of a great people. The story wends its way through Genesis telling the sagas associated with Abraham (as Abram came to be called), Isaac and Jacob. The 2nd book of the Bible, Exodus, opens with this supposedly great people, the descendants of the patriarch Abraham, living in slavery in Egypt. Moses, who survived the slaughter of other innocent children by a jealous king, has a strange experience when he sees a bush in the desert that, while burning fiercely, does not burn away. A voice coming from the bush reveals itself as God, the same God worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob many generations earlier. God, from now on known as Yahweh or Jehovah, sends Moses to rescue the slaves from Egypt. After a fierce encounter with Pharaoh which included ten plagues, Moses eventually leads his people through the Red Sea and out into the desert – there to wander for forty years.
It is during this forty year period of wandering, known as the Exodus, that the rag taggle bunch of escaped slaves comes to know God in a new way. One of the things that shapes them into a nation is the Ten Commandments – ethical guidelines for living which are still among the bedrock of our belief and practice. The story goes on until a great warrior king named David establishes his capital at the newly captured hill city of Jerusalem. For four hundred years the kings of Judah, descendants of David, rule from Jerusalem. The king, the temple built by another king – Solomon, the city itself and, above all, the land is seen as proof that God, the same God who called Abraham and who was revealed at the burning bush, is the God who has called these people of Jerusalem to be special.
Generations of people grow up on the story that they are different, special, better, than all the other peoples and nations around them. Where these other nations worship false gods and idols made by human hands, they are God’s people, worshippers of the one true God. Complicated and beautiful rituals grow up in the temple worship offered to God – including choirs and priests who sing and chant psalms. Ever so slowly it seems that the focus shifted away from God and the ethical rules for living found in the Ten Commandments, and came to be focused more on the priests and choir in the temple and the rituals they performed on a daily basis – on behalf of the people. It almost seemed that as long as they had the temple of the Lord it did not really matter how the people and kings behaved. And some behaved very badly indeed.
And then – devastation. As a new century dawned a mighty army came sweeping down through the fertile crescent and into Jerusalem. In 587 BCE the holy city, and its temple, were destroyed, the king killed and many people taken off into captivity in Babylon. This incident came to be called the Exile. All that was left behind was a land of devastation and a motley bunch of leaderless people who, somehow, had escaped being captured or killed. Everything that had defined who they were – their very character of special otherness against the rest of the world – was gone: king, temple, city, country. With it came the awful realisation that perhaps they had got it all wrong – that the god they worshipped was not, in fact, the one great Creator and Saving God they had been taught. Either that or they had done something so terrible that God had turned his back on those formally called God’s Chosen People.
So we can imagine the Hebrew poets, those who survived the catastrophe, sitting in exile in Babylon searching for words to describe their grief – not only over the loss of the city, but over all that the city stood for in their faith and culture. While there were some in Babylon there seemed to be others who, left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem, a city utterly sacked and destroyed, without infrastructure, food or hope, also wrote about their experience and their thinking.
It is to these two groups of people that the collection of poems known as Lamentations is attributed. On the one hand the poetry takes the shape of a dirge – the song of and for the dead. All is destroyed. There is no hope. On the other hand, there is also a strong element of lament – the attempt to express the grief of those left behind as they mourn their incredible loss, and ask the inevitable questions – why, who is to blame, what next?
If you read Lamentations you get the picture of a city totally and utterly devastated. The poets describe unbelievable scenes of destruction and include hints of people so hungry and so despairing that mothers are prepared to eat their own children. Through it all run haunting questions: What have we done? Where is God? What happens next?
In many ways Lamentations captures the emotion that I imagine must be around any city ravaged by war or disease, or destroyed by earthquake. For many there is no one left to lament – to sing the songs which express the deepest of human sorrow.
The early Christians found in Lamentations words to express their feeling after Jesus was executed on the cross. And Lamentations has come down in history as one part of the Bible that is read or sung on Good Friday. We do the same here as we approach the cross set up so starkly in front of us.
Jump now to 1942 and the depths of the 2nd World War. Britain was engulfed in the fight of its life. Its cities and industrial towns (including Coventry which the Cathedral Choir visited recently) were being bombed and hundreds of thousands of casualties – both dead and injured – were the norm. Two remarkable people kept the worship of God going in the Cathedral in the ancient City of York. Eric Milner White had served right through the First World War as a chaplain. It was he who, while chaplain at King’s College, introduced the now famous annual live broadcast of the Christmas ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’. During the night of 29 April 1942 German planes bombed the city causing terrible death and destruction. Now Dean of York Minster, Milner White suggested to the Cathedral organist, Edward Bairstow, that a series of texts from the Book of Lamentations be set to music for the choir to sing. Like so many before, the Dean of the Cathedral would, perhaps, find meaning, in this collection of dirge and lament.
The Book of Lamentations has little of hope in it. It ends with a plea to God to be restored, to be renewed – ‘unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure.’ (Lam 5:32)
No doubt because this would be seen as far too negative an ending in those bitter days of the 2nd World War, Bairstow and Milner White’s musical setting of Lamentations seeks to bring a resolution to the endless questions and offers a measure of hope.
But you decide as we listen now to the Cathedral Choir singing Sir Edward Bairstow’s setting of words drawn from the Book of Lamentations, the music composed about August 1942.
Online readers might like to listen to this recording from Sheffield Cathedral Choir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7MBRWFA7PNI