Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

A New/Old Psalm of Lament

 

If you don’t mind, I’m going to take some liberties with Psalm 13.

How long Holy One? Will you forget us forever?
How long will you let them kill us?
How long will you let them deny us justice?
How long O Lord?
How long will you hide your face from us? From what they do to us?
How long?
How long must we bear this pain in our souls?
How long must we have sorrow in our broken hearts? How long?
How long shall those who have made themselves our enemies be exalted, over us?
How long?
Look at us! Answer us! We are crying out to you. How long?
Show us something. Because right now they are putting us down like dogs in the street.
Then they walk out of court saying, “I have prevailed.”
They rejoice and we are shaken, more than shaken; we are shook.
How long?

If you were following along in the psalm you may be looking for the shift to trusting in God’s faithful love and rejoicing in her salvation.

I’ve got to tell the truth in church today. Today, for me, it is too soon to move to rejoicing. I have so much more to lament. Four verses is not enough space to lament Amadou Diallo, Alberta Spruill, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Miriam Carey, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Rekia Boyd, Kimani Gray, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Jordan Edwards, and those I’ve had to add since starting to write this sermon—Charlene Lyles and Ava Le’Ray Barrin, and now Bianca Roberson—and the many whose names I don’t know to lament. How long, O Lord? How many more?

Praise is important and perhaps we’ll get there but sometimes the church just needs to lament, to cry out our grief and rage, anguish and anger. But some folk think Christians shouldn’t lament, that our every word should be praise. And so some folk try. They go through the motions. Haven’t you seen folk who mouth the words of praise because they believe that’s what they must do no matter how they feel, and their praise doesn’t quite reach their eyes? Their eyes tell the story of their soul’s sorrow. But the church isn’t comfortable with lament.

Look what happens all too often on Good Friday. Some preachers can’t just sit at the foot of the cross or contemplate waking up the next day in a world in which Jesus is still dead so they fast forward to Easter Sunday morning and preach the resurrection while his body is yet warm. Sometimes you just have to sit at the tomb with the sights, sounds and, smells of death, and lament.

This world, this broken heartbreaking world, this crucified and crucifying world, calls for lament when it doesn’t call for screams of rage or fits of cursing. Maybe it’s just me but sometimes I need to scream and sometimes I do curse. (Cursing is biblical. The bible has some strong curses. And indeed there are some forces and practices that need to be damned, but that is another sermon.)

I just came by to give you permission if you needed it to pour out your heart to God, to tell her everything you think, fear and feel, because she knows it anyway. Lament unburdens our hearts from a load that too much for us to bear alone. Scripture teaches the power of lament over and over again, in the psalms, in the prophets, in Job and Lamentations.

Jeremiah knew the power of lament and he knew he couldn’t do it on his own. He called for the wailing women to come and raise a song of lament that the people might weep; he called for the women to pass the song down through the generations because one day they would need it again. Today we are singing that same song:

Jeremiah 9:21 “Death has come up into our windows, it has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets and the young women and young men from the public squares.”

Even dirty David laments. He laments for Saul and Jonathan. And he laments for his murdered son Absalom. In between David’s laments, Bathsheba lamented for the husband David murdered and Tamar lamented for her ravishment at the hands of her brother, and her father’s silence, broken only to lament for the son who raped her, but not his own daughter. We need to lament for our daughters as well as our sons. In spite of the fact that the Black Lives Matter Movement was started by three women, including queer women, women color, the movement and the media seem only to focus on murdered sons and fathers. So we said #SayHerName! Don’t let them murder our memories too. We need to lament. People know this in their bones. That’s why people gather and light candles and leave flowers and even stuffed animals. They have had to create their own liturgies for lament because the Church in too many cases isn’t meeting their need.

The poets of Israel composed an entire book of laments that that has become scripture for us; that means it is our example. It is to that book of Lamentations that we turn on Good Friday for the Stations of the Cross (Lam 1:12):

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow…

Is there any sorrow like our sorrow? Has any people in the history of the world been done like our people? How long Holy One? When they asked us to sing one of the songs of Zion, they meant a happy song, but sometimes the songs of Zion are songs of lament.

But where are our laments? We have praise songs and protest songs, but what are our songs of lament? I have to confess I took me a minute to think of the songs of lament in our tradition, but then Facebook came through.

The lament refrain of the scriptures may be, “How long O Lord,” but we have learned to sing “Precious Lord, take my hand.” When we’re marching in protest, “Walk With Me, Lord.” When the world has broken our hearts one too many times, “I Must Tell Jesus.” When one more child is gunned down in the street, “Come Ye Disconsolate.” When they keep getting away with our murders, “I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray.”

Songs of lament are holy songs. Songs of lament are healing songs. Songs of lament are heart-changing songs, ours and theirs. Hammer the heavens with your lament and you will discover that we are not alone in our cry.

There is one who shares our pain and one who bears our grief. Our Blessed Mother shares our pain because it is her pain. She watched the sons and daughters of her people snatched up by Roman soldiers and temple police, and one day they came for her boy. Mary’s baby, ripped from her breast by men who knew they could do anything to him they wanted because of the uniform they had on, and they did. They beat her boy bloody, torturing him within an inch of his life. They put her boy on trial but there was no hope of justice because the whole damn system was corrupt. They put her boy on death row and they killed in him in what the poet Crystal Valentine called “the blackest way possible—with his hands up, with his mother watching,” in public on a state sponsored lynching tree.

Yes, there is one who shares our pain, and there is also one who bears our grief. Our Blessed Mother shares our pain but it is Jesus who bears our grief. Jesus bears our griefs and those of our slaughtered sisters and sons. He bears our grief in his own body. We do not sorrow alone. We cry out “How long” because we know God is listening. We cry out to God about God like Job and Elijah, knowing that God hears, not from afar, but in the midst of our storm for God is with us. God is with us. Jesus is the proof that God is with us for it is he that is God-With-Us. Our gospel teaches us that what we do to one another we do to Jesus, even if it’s just offering a cup of water or a word of welcome. That also means that what they do to us, they do to Jesus. When they kill us they kill him.

It is because we know that God is with us and we do not bear our pain alone we can hear and affirm the psalmist’s words and say with her:

I will trust in your faithful love.
I like that it says “I will” because some days I’m not there, but I will get there.
My heart will rejoice—
one day my lament will be stilled and my heart shall rejoice in your salvation
I will sing to the God Who Hears My Cry
for God has been good to me
even in the midst of my tears.

Let the saints of God, on, above and even under the earth cry out. God hears, is here, and weeps with us. Amen.

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