By Rev. Ashley Harness
Scripture: Lamentations 3:19-26
19 The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
is wormwood and gall!
20 My soul continually thinks of it
and is bowed down within me.
21 But this I call to mind,
and therefore I have hope:
22 The steadfast love of the Holy One never ceases,
her mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 ‘You are my portion,’ says my soul,
‘therefore I will hope in you.’
25 The Holy is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks her.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Divine.
Where does it hurt?
This is the question that Montgomery Bus Boycott legend and Civil Rights Activist Ruby Sales found whispered to her soul from God to open her, one ordinary day getting her hair done at the height of the movement.
She says: “A defining moment for me happened when I was getting my locks washed, and my locker’s daughter came in one morning, and she had been hustling all night. And she had sores on her body, and she was just in a state, drugs. So something said to me, “Ask her, ‘Where does it hurt?’” And I said, “Shelly, where does it hurt?” And just that simple question unleashed territory in her that she had never shared with her mother. And she talked about having been incested. She talked about all of the things that had happened to her as a child, and she literally shared the source of her pain. And I realized, in that moment, listening to her and talking with her, that I needed a larger way to do this work, rather than a Marxist, materialist analysis of the human condition.”
Ms. Sales tells this story and so much more in a recent interview with Krista Tippet on her radio show, On Being. I highly recommend you listen to the whole thing when you can. She calls each of to look at where it hurts in our lives, not just for our own healing but as a part of our collective hope for racial justice.
After the terrorist attacks in Paris almost a year ago, there was a poem that went viral across the internet that asked us the same question. It was a modern psalmist’s lament written by a Somali-Brittish woman in her 20s named Warsan Shire.
what they did yesterday afternoon, by warsan shire
they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?
As I think about Lamentations, it seems to me this whole book of the Hebrew Bible was written in response to that same question – where does it hurt? This book was written after the Babylonians destroyed the Jewish Temple, the center of ritual and community life, along with most of Jerusalem in 587 BC.
Like Ruby Sales and Warsan Shire ask where it hurts of their worlds, I imagine the Holy whispered to the Jewish author of the book of Lamentations, where does it hurt? In the first 18 verses of this chapter, the author responds. He describes his people’s starvation – “flesh and skin waste away”; despair – “sitting in the darkness like the dead of long ago”; enslavement in “heavy chains”; humiliation as they are laughed it; fear as they “cower in ashes”; and deep pain so all encompassing they have “forgotten what happiness is.”
This is the thing. Whether through the book of Lamentations, the poetry of Warsan Shire, or the stories of Ruby Sales, God is always asking us – where does it hurt? And in doing so, She invite us to tell our own truths, to lift from the quiet places in in our bodies that which needs an aching voice.
So I invite you now into some time of silence. Breathe in, and out. Breathe all the way down to your toes and up to the crown of your head. And listen for the Holy one asking you, where does it hurt? Where does it hurt in my body? Why is my soul bowed down within me, as the writer of Lamentations describes their soul? Where does it hurt in our community’s collective body? Where does it hurt in what we call the body of Christ, the body of our churches, of our city and state and country and all of creation?
After the litany of lament, the inventory of pain, our scripture from Lamentations takes a turn. The author says, “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.”
It feels a little abrupt to me. I’m both exhausted by the litany and just getting warmed up in feeling all my feelings. And then, a twist of tone leads to a sea change of hope. What happened in that space between? The psalmists are always doing this. They skip from despair to hope in a line of poetry and I so want to stop them and say but WAIT, how did you get there??? What am I supposed to do to follow you on that path?
This time, there is a clue. The clue is a call to memory. This I call to mind…
One scholar I read reminds us that memory “can haunt or heal.” And for the Israelites, the Jewish people, it does both. But scriptures are designed to be a tool for memory, a tool to remember the ways God acts in the world and in our lives, luring us towards healing and liberation and possibility. We tell the stories of the scriptures over and over to remember, re-member, hold in our very bones, the wisdom of Emmanuel, which means God with us.
Every time we celebrate communion, we practice this act of remembering in our very bodies that God is with us. I don’t know about you, but my mind can be a place I shouldn’t go alone, especially late at night. I love my brain, but it works better when its living in active relationship with the rest of me and I’m not just going through life like a giant, disembodied brain.
This is the wisdom of communion, of embodied memory: On the night before he was arrested and taken to be killed by crucifixion, by state-sanctioned execution, Jesus was at dinner with his friends. And after he had given thanks, he took the bread, this ordinary piece of food people ate every day, and he broke it. And he said when you eat this bread, remember me. I imagine he said to remember that we are all broken like this bread, we are all torn apart by our private and collective litanies of lament. And still, God dwells in our very beings, in and amidst our brokenness. Each time you eat this bread you eat every day, you have a chance to remember God is with you.
And then Jesus took the cup of wine, the cup that was usually reserved for the holy one to come. But instead of waiting, he said this is the cup of my promise and of God’s promise to you. I am with you. I imagine Jesus as a poet too, extending the metaphor of the wine to say that each of our lives will be poured out in time, like this wine. But like Jesus, we too have choice to pour out our lives for justice and love. Each time you drink wine, he said, remember in your very body that I am always with you, giving you courage to keep living in love and towards justice.
Communion is the great ritual of remembrance that can help us connect the places that hurt to the places that hope in our very bodies and in our collective church body. This Sunday, we honor World Communion Sunday, a tradition that started in 1940 in the midst of World War II. Now, let us not forget that during World War II, Christianity was used both as a justification for genocide and a source of resistance to that regime. We break bread together today in a world in which Christianity is still used as both a tool of oppression and a source of resistance. For me, World Communion Sunday is about holding both those realities together, holding the atlas of the Christian world in my lap, running my fingers over it and letting it speak its hurt. And then taking communion in my queer, female pastor body as an act of defiant remembrance of the Jesus I know as a radical mystic. Because only when I do that can I also find the hope in that atlas.
Hope can sound Pollyanna to us. But what our scriptures mean is more like how Mary Oliver describes hope, as a “fighter and a screamer.” God’s hope is like that. God’s hope is faithful, as close to us as the bread and wine we imbibe and as tenacious as a barnacle on a ship. God’s hope is steadfast, never ceasing, fresh each morning, there in the corner of our souls waiting quietly for us to unfurl into her healing.
May we live as if it is so. Amen.