Today may we consider how sometimes the best prayer to God is a groan, a lamentation, or the voice of grief. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Maybe you have had this experience. You attend a visitation at a funeral home, and the place is crowded. People are gathered in small groups, engaged in animated conversation. It looks and feels like any other successful social event, except of course there's a casket at one end of the room.
Or have you ever been with a group of friends, and somebody says that a particular couple, well known to all of you, is getting a divorce? There's an awkward silence. Facial expressions turn serious. Then somebody brings up a different subject, and the conversation rolls along.
What's missing in these two scenes is public lamentation. In one case, somebody has died. In the other, a marriage has collapsed. There's acknowledgment of what has happened, but no public lamentation. People may feel bad, but heartfelt emotions remain inside.
In today's Gospel, some Pharisees tell Jesus that he is in danger from Herod. Are these Pharisees friendly toward Jesus? Should their warning be taken at face value, or are they trying to silence Jesus by making him afraid? It's hard to tell.
But Jesus does not fear Herod or focus on him for long. Instead, his concern is for Jerusalem, and he vents his grief over that holy city with its history of killing the prophets sent by God. There in front of visitors and disciples, he bursts forth into public lamentation: "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" Perhaps these words spill forth from his lips, from his heart, at some place where the city's skyline can be seen.
Today we often hear the question: What would Jesus do? The initials WWJD appear in many places as a reminder that Jesus is our great example. If he is, then consider: In this morning's Gospel, we hear about something Jesus does. He laments. Perhaps we must do this sometimes.
How does Jesus expresses his grief over Jerusalem as a prophet-persecuting city? He leaves us with an unforgettable image, an image tender and gentle and surprising. Listen again to what he says: "How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"
Surprisingly, Jesus pictures himself as a mother hen, eager for her little chicks to find shelter beneath her soft, comforting wings. This does not describe the warrior-king many people are waiting for. Yet this is how Jesus presents himself, there in a moment of deep lamentation.
The picture may be striking and unprecedented, but in voicing his lamentation, Jesus builds on the tradition of his people. Consider the Psalms, which have rightly been called the hymnbook of the Hebrew Bible. In so many of them, we find a communal or personal lament. Something is wrong -- whether illness, unidentified misfortune, or national disaster -- and there comes an outcry, a turning of pain into speech. To pray the psalms is not only to rejoice in the Lord's goodness, but also to groan along with a world broken and distressed.
Indeed, when he voices his lamentation over Jerusalem, the favored city, Jesus builds upon the foundational event of his people: their Exodus from Egypt. Back before the dividing of Red Sea waters, back before the ten plagues or even the call of Moses, we hear what sets the whole thing rolling: the Israelites groan under their slavery and cry out. From their slavery this cry for help rises up to God.
They cry out. They do not remain silent. They cry out with a mighty, heartfelt lamentation, and God hears their groaning, their outcry, the lamentation erupting like hot lava from their hearts.
So when Jesus laments over Jerusalem, he builds upon many of the psalms, brokenhearted hymns that reach out for hope in the midst of pain. He builds on the story of how his people became a people, through lamenting their slavery and crying to God for release. Now he looks out over Jerusalem, where slavery is not so much external bondage, but a freezing of the heart that cannot welcome liberation from the Lord when it looks them in the face.
In contrast to this tradition, public lament is an experience unfamiliar to us. Rarely is it heard at a funeral or when we learn that a marriage has split apart. There's grief, but we keep that terribly private, we swallow so much of it, and let it eat away at our insides.
Public lament is an unfamiliar experience even in most churches. There as well, all too often, sadness stays private; we keep up appearances. We take away the cross and substitute a happy face. We hold back how we feel and call it Christian joy.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus says mourners shall laugh; he never says they must not mourn. In Romans, Paul tells us to rejoice with the rejoicing, but also to weep with those who weep. Christianity is not the practice of the stiff upper lip. It allows us to lament, even demands it.
Are there not places in this world, this country, this city, where Jesus still weeps and cries out? Countless Jerusalems cause him to lament, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"
And if Jesus laments in these places, should we abstain from doing so?
Where we attempt to solve social problems by building still more prisons. Where we try to maintain control over the planet through increasing our arsenals. Where entertainment and advertising do violence to basic human dignity. Where differences of ethnicity or sexual identity turn into walls of separation and bitterness. Where you and I become small and mean and shriveled, unloving and unloved.
In all these places, and others like them, Jesus still stands and laments, calling out to us unashamed, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!"
Lamentations such as these are valid prayer. Faith demands them. Lamentations such as these are heard by God. They ignited the Exodus from Egypt. Lamentations such as these are the audacious start of something new.
Jesus invites us to break free from the poisonous silence, from the culture of denial that surrounds us. He calls us away from mere grumbling and toward brokenhearted lamentation. He invites us to mourn that we may be blessed; to grieve, rather than deny the burden inside us.
For when we lament a broken relationship, it opens the way to healing. When we lament an injustice, it opens the way to transformation. When we lament a loss, it opens the way to resurrection. When we lament our shortcomings, it opens the way to unexpected change.
Such lamentations are not death rattles. They are the birth cries of a new world.