The first reading is taken from the opening verses of the book of Lamentations. In Hebrew the name of this book is 'Ekah (How), for its first word: "How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!" The book is an extended lament, comprised of five poems, over the destroyed Jerusalem; the city was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and its inhabitants taken into exile as prisoners in Babylon. The city is personified here as a woman-widowed, abandoned, shamed. Some lines recall the earlier exile in Egypt, where Israel was subjected to hard labor. God seems not to be listening, but we know that he has delivered his people from bondage before. In the Christian tradition, readings from this book appear during Holy Week. In the Jewish tradition, the book is read on the Ninth of Av, the day of public mourning for the destruction of the first and second temples (once in 586 BCE and again, after its rebuilding, in 70 CE by the Romans.)
Our psalm this week is also a famous lament over the destroyed Jerusalem: "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion." It contains a call to never forget Jerusalem, even in the face of cruel and derisive captors. The last verse is a difficult one for modern readers and is often omitted; it shows us, however, how deeply and strongly the singer feels the dishonor inflicted by an arrogant and powerful empire on a smaller one.
The second reading is taken from the opening of Paul's second letter to Timothy, his "beloved child." This letter has a more personal tone than the first and is less concerned with church matters and more concerned with keeping the faith and spreading the gospel. Paul feels the approach of his own death and writes to pass along to his spiritual heir the wisdom he has acquired in his life's missions and his ministry. He emphasizes his suffering for the gospel and gives us a moving depiction of his imprisonment in Rome, abandoned by his friends but strengthened by his Lord-not only to endure, but to celebrate the life of faith and love he knows in Jesus Christ.
The reading from Luke's gospel comes from a passage in which Luke collects a number of Jesus' shorter sayings. The verses in our lesson follow his warning about being an impediment to those new to the faith (the outsiders Jesus has been bringing to him). Causing these "little ones" to "stumble" is a grave offense for a follower; the world is hard enough and will test their faith beyond endurance, so other believers must support and not challenge them. Jesus also calls in this section for repeated forgiveness; indeed, there is no limit to how far forgiveness must go. It is not surprising, then, that the disciples realize that they need more faith than they think they have! Jesus is quick to respond: it's not bigger faith you need, but an awareness of how big your God is. It is God who powers your faith, God who works through your small actions to accomplish his great things, God whose presence and action should never be forgotten. And don't think that hard work from us satisfies God: God expects our genuine service, done with gratitude. We do not earn anything through our service. Our value does not lie in service, but our expected obedience does.
The Good News is that God is with us, always. When the challenges we meet in life appear bigger than we can handle, we are to remember that God is handling them. We are just the obedient workers. God will give us more than we can ever deserve. This is the faith Paul expresses when he writes, "I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him."