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Sun, May 17, 2020

A Time to Mourn

Duration:17 mins 29 secs

“A Time to Mourn”

Sermon on Lamentations 1:1-6, 5:16-22

            “How lonely sits the city, she that once was full of people!” The lonely city is Jerusalem after the Babylonian invasion. All the prominent people have been deported into exile – the royal family and the court, the religious leaders, the writers and prophets and politicians, leaving the rest of the people to fend for themselves in a city under siege. We don’t have any pictures of Jerusalem after the Babylonian conquest, but if we think of photographs we’ve seen of the bombed-out cities of Europe in World War II or in Syria today, we can get an idea of what the center of Jerusalem must have been like. Outside the Temple and palace areas, you wouldn’t have seen as much evidence of physical destruction, but I can imagine how deserted and desolate those areas must have looked – they might have had the same kind of eerie, ghostly feel as the streets of New York do today.

            The book of Lamentations is a series of poems about a city in its death throes, its citizens perishing of disease, starvation, and hopelessness; in fact, the Hebrew name of the book means “funeral dirge.”  As the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces, to cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the squares” (9:21). Jerusalem, once a proud and beautiful queen, is now a jilted and forsaken “city woman,” weeping “bitterly in the night.” She is all alone in her misery; six times in Chapter One alone, we are told she has no one to “comfort” or “help” her.

            The book of Lamentations is a catalog of pain. No aspect of the misery is left unexamined: the grief over lost loved ones, the fear, the hunger, the crushing sense of abandonment by God.  The poems are written in acrostic form, with each line beginning with a different letter of the Hebrew alphabet until all the letters are used up, and then it starts all over again. This structure is abandoned in the final chapter, as if the grief is so unbearable and out-of-control that no form can be imposed on it.  It’s notable, too, that in the final chapter, the voice shifts to the plural, “we,” so the poem becomes a national lament.

            A poem like Lamentations serves a public function, giving voice to the shared suffering of a whole population. The poem creates an occasion for collective, national sorrow and repentance.  It gives meaning to an experience of what might feel like utterly senseless suffering. You could say it organizes grief by giving it a structure.

            A funeral, when you think about it, accomplishes much the same thing for a family or small community. A funeral is a structured event of liturgy and music whose purpose is to acknowledge the mystery of death and the reality of loss, and to support the grieving. A Christian funeral gives tribute to a beloved person who is gone and puts the life of that beloved person in the context of an ongoing story, the story of God and God’s people. The long prayer that I customarily offer when I officiate at a funeral or memorial service has a particular and unchanging structure: thanksgiving for the life of the person, with attention given to the special qualities of that person, prayers for the comfort of those who are mourning, and an expression of hope for the future, based on our faith in the resurrection.  A Christian funeral is a particular expression of the life of the church, but funerals in general fulfill a deep and basic human need: to honor and remember those who are gone, to find reasons for hopefulness, and to do all this together.  

            That is why our current situation in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, with people dying in isolation and funerals limited to a maximum of ten people, is so painful. The CDC has recommended online streaming of “virtual” funerals so that families and friends may “gather” remotely, but it seems that such an event must offer limited comfort. The reality is that people are dying alone and their survivors are mourning alone. This is tragic. Mourners need some kind of public articulation of the depth of their loss, and an online funeral can only partially provide this. A human experience as deep as mourning needs to be given a formal structure, and we are missing that now. The chaotic nature of Zoom and similar online gatherings just can’t compare to the grandeur and solemnity of a traditional funeral or public memorial.

            We know this need for communal mourning instinctively, and the best public monuments and memorials recognize this need. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the second most visited memorial in Washington, DC, and it is a place of communal mourning. People come from all over the world to see it, and those who come expressly to see their loved one’s name leave all kinds of mementos -- flowers, letters, stuffed animals, tags and medals, pictures and flags -- at the base of the wall. People who are not even remotely connected to the Vietnam War, who had no relative or friend who died in that war, still find themselves in tears as they contemplate the wall. Visiting this memorial is an experience like no other.  The wall itself is like a poem or liturgy, and visitors stand in awed silence before the mute witness of the 58,320 names on that polished black granite. The wall helps us remember, in an especially poignant way, a tragic time in our national life.

            I recently read Katherine Anne Porter’s “Pale Horse, Pale Rider,” a short novel from 1939 that was recommended by my sister, who has taught this book at her university in Kentucky. It is about the 1918 flu pandemic, which killed almost 700,000 Americans and up to 50 million people around the world. My sister told me that her students had never heard of the 1918 pandemic and that “Pale Horse, Pale Rider” was the only work of American literary fiction to come out of that horrific experience, which must partially explain why so few people know about it. Apparently, after the disease had run its course people just wanted to forget about it and go back to their normal lives. We will probably feel the same way when this pandemic is over, but I hope we will not forget about it. I hope there will be people to help us remember and to give tribute to those who have suffered the most. We need some expression of public mourning, something to help us articulate together what and whom we have lost.

            It’s true that some of our media voices, in both print and broadcast journalism, are offering portraits and profiles of some of those who have died, mostly ordinary people who were not politically, professionally, or socially prominent – people like a beloved doorman at a New York City apartment building, or a grocery store worker in D.C. who helped the elderly people who came to shop early in the morning, or that bus driver who used Facebook to try, in vain, to tell people to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze, and, of course, individual doctors and nurses who caught the disease from the patients they were trying to help heal. But we can only eulogize a certain number of people. How will we remember, with appropriate sorrow and dignity, the 85,000 plus who have already died and the thousands more still to come?  

            The ancient Israelites understood the importance of national mourning, the need of people to share their grief. They had great poets to help them do it. When this pandemic is over, it would be appropriate and healing for us Americans to mark an occasion of national mourning, to call on our country’s poets, writers and speakers to articulate our national grief and give a structure to it.

“Through mourning,” writes Meghan O’Rourke, “we insist that erasure isn’t complete. We honor what was and give shape to the fact that…the person who is gone still exists in our minds…We know what is by marking the shape of what is lost.”[i]   

As Christians, we know that the person who is gone also still exists for God, who won’t be separated from us even by death itself, and we find our hope in the knowledge that the love of God is stronger than death. As human beings, we honor and remember our dead simply for who they were and what they meant to us. And in this time of rampant disease and “death [that] has come up to our windows,” we ask God to help us remember all that has been lost and to stand with the suffering ones, so that they do not have to sit in loneliness, with no one to comfort them.

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

May 17, 2020


[i] Meghan O’Rourke, “We usually grieve together. What if we can’t anymore?” The Washington Post, March 22, 2020, B1.

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