How Long, O Lord?

Sermon for Sunday, July 2, 2017 || Proper 8A || Psalm 13

I don’t often preach on the psalm, but today I am. I know the story of the binding of Isaac is terribly difficult, and it is the text I should preach on. I did three years ago when these lessons turned up in the last cycle, and I invite you to listen to that sermon on my website. I’ll link to it from this one. As I said, I don’t often preach on the psalm but today I am because today’s psalm is the perfect example of a type of Biblical literature that is so very important to our lives. Psalm 13 is a psalm of lament.

In recent months, many people in the church and out of it have expressed to me sadness or frustration or anger or despair over the current state of our world. And I’ve felt all of the above, as well. These expressions are ones of lament. They and I have lamented the violence done at home and abroad, so much all at once  – from atrocities in Syria to terror attacks in England to the shooting at the congressional baseball practice, to the murder of the young Muslim woman in Virginia. What can we do in the face of such violence but lament?

My conversation partners and I have lamented the contempt our political leaders have for each other. We have lamented the callous disregard of so many for the poorest among us. We have lamented the loss of civility in our society as anonymous interaction via social media unleashes the worst aspects of human toxicity combined with the heat of mob mentality. What can we do in the face of this combined death of dignity but lament?

A lament is a passionate outburst of grief and sadness. Of course, such a fervent expression of sorrow is entirely appropriate when confronting violence and the death of dignity. The psalms of lament like today’s Psalm 13 deal with so many similarly awful things: abandonment, defeat, exile, to name a few. The trouble with lamentation is that it is so easy to get stuck there. How many of us have felt waves of lethargy wash over us the more violence is poured out on the world? How many of us have felt the desire to retreat from the important work of God’s mission of healing and reconciliation because no progress ever seems to get made? We lament because, in our impotence, lamentation is the only thing left us.

Or is it?

The psalms of lament teach a different lesson, and today’s psalm is a sparkling example. The first thing to remember is that psalms are not simply poetry written in a vacuum; psalms are prayers to God. In today’s psalm the writer, which tradition tells us is David, cries out to God during an intense period of abandonment and defeat.

“How long, O Lord?
will you forget me for ever?
how long will you hide your face from me?”

This is David’s prayer, and the paradox of it rings true in our own experience. David prays to the God whom he accuses of forgetting him. “Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God,” he cries. His anguish is palpable. His prayer is authentic. And his lament is universal. How long, O Lord, how long? Two-thirds of the way through the psalm, David finds himself stuck in lamentation, as so often happens to us. Then two very subtle things happen in verses five and six.

First, David remembers his past dealings with God. It’s as if the simple fact that he is praying reminds him of the reality of God that is bigger than David himself. And yet, such remembering is not enough to lift David fully out of his lament, not yet. And so in verse six, David offers to God his desire to sing to the Lord, to praise God’s name. But he doesn’t actually do it. “I will sing to the Lord… I will praise the Name.” David speaks here of the future when he will be able to do these things again.

Thus David preserves the authenticity of his lament, which he can’t simply “get over.” And at the same time, David discovers just enough hope in his memory of God’s promises to proclaim that someday he will be able to sing God’s praises again. Not today. Probably not tomorrow. But someday. And with that tiny hope nestled in his chest, he is able to go on. After all, tiny hope is still hope.

I lived this reality that the lament psalms invite us into a little over ten years ago when I joined several of my seminary classmates on a mission trip to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. On the third or fourth night of the trip, we returned to our temporary quarters bone-weary in body and soul. We had spent the day mucking toxic sludge from a house on a street with no name. It was back-breaking work. All you could focus on was the next shovelful and the next. And by the end of the day you might have excavated one corner of one room in one house on one street in one town affected by that one terrible storm. And so we returned to our quarters, forced down some dinner, and then just sat at a table staring at each other. We had no words for the enormity of the disaster into which we had come…to help.

And so in her infinite wisdom (and I mean that literally), our professor and guide, Dr. Kate Sonderegger, pulled out her Book of Common Prayer. She had been there with us all day, bending her back over her own shovel doggedly, and now Kate sensed what we needed. She opened the book to a psalm, not ours from today, but one like it, a psalm of lament. Psalm 69 begins: “Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.” They were the perfect words for us who had been overwhelmed by mud for days. We prayed those words together and the 34 verses that followed. By the end of it, we still felt sorrow. We still felt the claws of calamity grip at us. We still lamented. And we felt that tiny flicker of hope that allowed us to return to our work the next day. After all, tiny hope is still hope.

There is much to lament in our world today, so much so that we often get stuck in the mire of our own lamentation. But what David prays and what we felt in New Orleans – that’s real and powerful. Hope does not deny the reality of lamentation, nor paint the world in rose-colored glasses. But hope, however tiny, holds at bay the paralysis that lamentation causes. This is the witness of the psalms of lament: even in the midst of abandonment, defeat, exile, violence, and the death of dignity, I will sing to the Lord. Not today. Probably not tomorrow. But someday. For God is patient, and God’s promises never expire.

The banner image is one I took on the trip to New Orleans in January 2006. It depicts two of my classmates walking along the road looking for the house we were supposed to muck, which was hard to find because all the roads signs had been blown off.

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