Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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The Art of Faithful Lament

(This sermon was preached at Memorial United Methodist Church on July 10, 2016. The text was Psalm 130. Below is the preaching manuscript).

“I can’t believe the news today. Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away…” These words have been going over and over in my head this past week. They are the opening lyrics to the U2 song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”. It is hard to comprehend the tremendous pain that has been reported over these past few weeks. Which is why I am so grateful that our psalm for this week is a psalm of lament.

When we think of psalms we often turn to the happy ones. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” “Oh Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” “Shout for joy to the Rock of our Salvation!”

But where do we turn in weeks like these? What about when we cannot make a joyful noise? What psalm do we sing when two young black men die at the hands of the very people who are supposed to protect them? What psalm do we read when one man’s hate kills 5 police officers who are modeling what it means to serve and protect? Where is the psalm to sing when every day this month there is an act of terrorism somewhere around the world?

The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile brought the wounds of racial injustice back into our national conversation. For those of us who have white skin, they served as yet another a reminder that still today the color of your skin changes the ways in which you are perceived and treated. The deaths of five police officers brought the tensions between police and their communities violently into focus.

Neither of these issues are new. But together this week they highlighted the continued brokenness of our society and our repeated failure as a nation to do anything to stop it. As my Facebook feed demonstrated this week, it is in times like these that we turn to the practice of lament. Out of the depths of our despair, of pain, and fear, we cry out to God.

The feeling of sadness and grief is not new to these times. The book of psalms contains more songs of lament than any other type. When our voices are weak from crying and we have no words to express our emotion, the psalms are God’s gift to us. They provide the words we need, and they show us a pathway through our grief reminding us that in the deepest pit and the darkest depths, we are not alone.

Psalm 130 is one of the best examples of this sort of psalm. The poet begins in the depths crying out to God. Begging for a listening ear. Something has happened. The psalm does not give us a description of the problem, but many people assume the problem has come the psalmist’s own sinfulness. As we all know, actions have consequences. Our sins and mistakes get us into trouble that is way out of our depth. However, there are also forces in our world, violence, fear, hatred, and evil which act beyond anyone’s ability to comprehend or control. No matter the cause, the helplessness which results gives rise to a similar plea to God.

Honesty is the key to lament. In verse 3, the psalmist reminds God that God’s very nature is to forgive the people’s iniquities. God has promised not to give up on us even though we turn away. Even when we find newer and worse ways to harm each other and turn away from God, God is faithful to us. When we look at our world and in our lives, God allows a tremendous amount of suffering to occur. We know that God has the ability to cure any sickness, to end any war. God can intervene in a dramatic fashion, come into our world and restore peace, end suffering, and make things the way they are supposed to be.

Scripture even tells us that this is what God will do at some point. We know that Christ will return and when He does, there will be no more crying and no more dying, but why not now? Why does God wait? What is the use in letting men and women, boys and girls die for no reason?. It doesn’t make any sense. I wish that I could give you a reason, but I can’t. Scripture doesn’t give us a reason for suffering. Scripture instead instructs us to wait, to hope, and to cry out to God.

An important part of lament is to cry out to God, to let God know that the things that are happening to us, to our world, are not right. The psalms and the prophets model for us the ways in which we are called to remind God that this is not all right. Our hearts are supposed to break for the pain of the world. Sadness and anger are appropriate responses to suffering. The important thing though is that we do not allow our emotions to turn us inward or to manifest themselves as hatred to others. Instead, we should direct our sadness and anger to God.

When we lament, we remind God that we expect better, that our world is supposed to be a better than it currently is. We also remind ourselves. We remind ourselves that the suffering we are experiencing is not what God intended. The racism, injustice, and brokenness of our world is not part of God’s plan. And we remind ourselves that God is present in our world, that God is working to make things right. That God is working to bring peace, justice, and wholeness to all of God’s creation. And as we live in the tension we are called to wait.

Holy waiting is not the same thing as waiting in traffic, or waiting for football season to get here. The Hebrew word for waiting here is an active waiting. It is a waiting that involves loving your neighbors who look and act different than you. It is a waiting that involves helping the poor, visiting those in prison, speaking for those without a voice. Holy waiting involves refusing to follow leaders who seek to divide us with fear, who push us into violence, and ignore the needs of the poor and the marginalized. Holy waiting means that we resist the temptation to fall into despair and instead ask God to give us the grace to live into hope, because holy waiting involves living our lives in the darkness waiting for the dawn to come.

The darkness around us is real. The issues we face as a society and as a world are big and complex, but we are called to be a people of hope; to live as a people who shine light into the darkness. Just like we know that the sun comes up every morning, we can be confident that God’s light will come into every dark corner and that God will overcome all the evil powers in this world.

And while we are called to have this hope for ourselves, Psalm 130 does not let us stop there. Verse 7 turns the psalm of personal lament outward into the world. “Israel, hope in the Lord!” Our community is struggling, our nation is bitterly divided, and our world is deathly afraid. We the church, the people of God, are called to be a different kind of community. We are called to be a place where all people can experience God’s love and hospitality. We are called to be a prophetic voice that stands with all people who are oppressed, marginalized, and mistreated in our society. We are called to be a witness that love is greater than hate, and hope is more powerful than fear. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, We know that to you all lives matter. You have created us and know us and love us all. However, we confess to you that so often all lives do not matter the same to us. We confess that we often care more about people who look like us, who act like us than those who are different. We confess that we contribute to the unjust systems around us both by what we do and by what we fail to do. We confess that when confronted with the violence in our world we choose to hide our faces and ignore the suffering because we can. Forgive us, we pray. Give us the grace we need to build bridges in our community. Give us the courage we need to enter into the suffering of those around us and listen to their story. And, give us the confidence to actively wait for your coming Kingdom. God of peace, be with the families of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille as well as those of Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and Bret Thompson. Where there is conflict bring your peace, where there is fear, bring your comfort, and where there is hatred bring forth your love. Unite us together as a people saved by your grace and overflowing with your love. Amen.

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