Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

“How long?”

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (June 25, 2017)
Psalm 13 – “How long?”

[Pastor Bart ended up preaching a different sermon on Sunday morning, but this is the one he prepared.]

We’re deep into our sermon series on the psalms. I’ve said before that what I appreciate most about them is the range of experiences they give voice to. If you need some words to express jubilation, they’re there. If you’re in the midst of an existential crisis, you’re covered. If you want to cry out for justice, that’s in there too. John Calvin, one of the forebearers of the Presbyterian tradition, put it well when he described the psalms as “An Anatomy of All Parts of the Soul.” [1]

Today the Lectionary gives us one of those that’s categorized as a psalm of lament. There are 50 such psalms in that category—more than any other. The one we’re looking at is Psalm 13.

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
   How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
   agony filling my heart? Daily?
 How long will my enemy keep defeating me?
Look at me!
   Answer me, Lord my God!
 Restore sight to my eyes!
   Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
   My foes will rejoice over my downfall.
But I have trusted in your faithful love.
   My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
   because he has been good to me.

Let’s do a refrain again. When I say, “How long, O Lord? you say, “How long?” How long…

If I had picked the readings for this series, vs. preaching on the ones the editors of the Narrative Lectionary picked, I don’t know if I would have chosen Psalm 13, or any of the other psalms of lament, for that matter. I’d rather preach on one that’s comforting or celebratory—Psalm 148, for example:

Praise the Lord!…
Praise him, sun and moon;
   praise him, all you shining stars;
Praise the Lord from the earth…
wild animals and all cattle,
   small creatures and flying birds…
Praise the Lord!

That’s one of my favorites. But no, we have Psalm 13…

I think my reluctance taps into something that’s true for many of us: we tend to run away from unpleasant emotions. Remember that old song from the Carter Family singers: “Keep on the sunny side, always on the sunny side, keep on the sunny side of life…”? We’d prefer to keep things on the sunny side rather than face head-on the shadowy side of life—our jealousy, regrets, loneliness, anger, confusion, or what have you.

But not the psalms. These poems set to music, these prayers turned into songs, have it all, especially in the psalms of lament. They give voice to everything from grief to betrayal to physical sickness to oppression. For example, there’s a psalm ancient Judeans sang when they were exiled to and enslaved in Babylon, Psalm 137:

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.

It laments the torment of their captors who mocked them: “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” It concludes with a prayer to Godget thispleading for someone to take the Babylonian children and bash their heads against the rocks! It’s hard to find more rage-filled words than those!

Consider another one, Psalm 22, the one that Jesus quotes from the cross:

I am poured out like water,
   and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
   it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
   and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
   you lay me in the dust of death.

In the face of our culture in which many of us were raised not complain or “don’t rock the boat,” in which the pressure is on to us to, through our social media personas, look like we have it all together, words like these, prayers like these, are startling in their unvarnished-ness. They get real. They hide nothing from the Divine who, it is assumed, is listening and will act.

Not only are the psalms of lament raw and intimate  in their honesty, but it’s significant that they made it into the Psalter, the official prayerbook/hymnal of Jerusalem’s Temple, and later into the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. They’re meant to be read and heard. They’re meant to be prayed. Lament is an old practice from a culture a world away, but it’s supposed to become ours, too.

How long, O Lord? How long?

I knew a woman in Northern Ireland who was a mother of four children. Once, when she, her husband, and their kids were on vacation, her husband was playing on the floor with the youngest when he dropped dead of a heart attack. He wasn’t even 50 years old. There was no plan in place, even if one could plan for such a catastrophe. She was left to care for her children all alone, supporting the whole family on a server’s wages.

She went to the local priest, not even sure what to say. They sat there in the pews of the sanctuary in total silence for a while. Eventually the priest broke the silence, “You’re mad at the Lord, aren’t you?”

But still, she just sat there, shaking her head, wordless. So the priest said, “Come with me.” He took her right up into the chancel, up around the altar, and there they stood at the foot of the large crucifix.

“Go ahead. Yell at himcry, scream, swear, stomp your feet if you need to. God can hear you, my child. He’s the only one who can take it.”

How long, O Lord? How long?

That Irish priest was onto something. The ancient practice of lament isn’t our go-to. Americans especially aren’t known for grieving well. We talk about moving on and letting go. But as Carol Howard Merritt put it:

“Grief is not an obstacle course… People want to know when they will be back to normal. But the loss of a loved one is not a bump in the road that we go over and then the pavement is smooth again. Grief fundamentally changes who we are.”

Have you ever seen a funeral in a non-Western culture? In many of those, there’s open wailing, parades in the streets, and even bereavement leave for more than just a couple of days.

It’s also true that as a culture don’t grieve communal pain and trauma well, either. Our attention to the ripple effects of sadness and loss lasts about as long as the news cycle, and even horrific events quickly escape our collective memory. Not with the psalms of lament; they remember.

How long, O Lord? How long?

One of the things I’ve really come to appreciate about worship here since I got to St. Mark’s is how open and honest people can be when they offer prayers during the Prayers of the People. Whether it’s a very personal struggle somebody is going through or a petition for some war-torn or natural disaster-stricken situation on the other side of the globe, people lift those prayers up and they let them be heard! My hunch is that the same faith infusing those prayer infuses the psalms of lament. It’s a relationship of trust that’s not afraid to call God to the carpet for a world that’s in a mess. It’s a belief that this world belongs to God. Ultimately, it’s an utter confidence in the love of God– “But I have trusted in your faithful love.”

You see, that’s what’s so vital about lament: these are prayers that simply refuse to accept the status quo. These are prayers that, as Michael Jinkins put it, “hold earth to the standard of heaven.”

We lament that, no matter how hard we try, our family life is as dysfunctional as ever.

How long, O Lord? How long?

We lament that there are friends of ours who have to live with chronic pain.

How long, O Lord? How long?

We lament that kids go hungry right down the street in one of the richest countries in human history.

How long, O Lord? How long?

We lament that people of color can be gunned down with impunity.

How long, O Lord? How long?

We lament that our political decision-makers keep showing a callous indifference to the pain of those who are sick and vulnerable and scared of losing their health insurance.

How long, O Lord? How long?

Lament, within the earshot of our Creator and our community, can be the first step toward taking even just a little of the power away from our own suffering. It can be the the first step toward taking action for something that we know in our guts just isn’t right.

When it comes to the “why bother?” of this side of spirituality, I’m reminded of what the theologian Karl Barth is alleged to have said: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

[1] John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 1, Author’s Preface

Featured Image:, Creative Commons Zero (CCO) license.