A Time to Lament

Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 21, 2020
Psalm 69:8-20

As we gather in this cultural moment, this moment that is charged with so much emotion, we need to take a step back and scan all that is going on. First, we have the pandemic. Somewhere around one hundred and twenty thousand Americans have perished at the hands of this virus. Let that sink in. One hundred and twenty thousand souls, people, children of God. That is staggering. Many more than that, including people I know, have been infected, disrupting their lives and their families.

Compounding the real human cost, comes the economic cost of this. Record levels of unemployment have decimated communities. Many companies, non-profits, churches, and even entire industries will not recover. 

Add to this, we have the ongoing national conversation on race and justice. This is a charged cultural moment. We cannot look at what all is going on, and take each element one at a time. As one of you put it, it’s more like a cocktail, all mixed and served together. 

And so what do we do? What do Christians do in this charged moment? Where do we find answers? Where do we find hope? 

We turn to the holy scriptures. Odd, isn’t it? We are dealing with twenty first century problems by reading a text that is more than two thousand years old.

Today I want to focus on Psalm 69. Now, there are a few types of psalms. There are psalms of joy. There are psalms of comfort. There are psalms of hope. But Psalm 69 is a psalm of lament. We read a portion of that psalm today. This psalm is a cry to God for help, it’s a cry to God in time of trouble. I prayed Psalm 69 a lot during Hurricane Harvey because it starts like this: “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.” In what we read from today, Psalm 69 goes on to say: “Hide not your face from your servant; be swift and answer, for I am in distress.” “For I am in distress.” A classic lament. I find it revealing that in the bible, there is a book called “Lamentations” but no book called “Exultations.” Let’s not kid ourselves – pain, grief, horror, sorrow are the human condition. As a priest and pastor, I talk to people more when they’re lamenting than when they’re rejoicing. Indeed, how can we rejoice when the case numbers continue to climb? How can we rejoice when people are losing their jobs, their homes, their lives? How can we rejoice when the world has gone mad? “Hide not your face from your servant; be swift and answer, for I am in distress.”

What I hope to do today, is to help us, as Christians, to reclaim the psalms of lament. Not as a way to make us feel better, but as a way to help us deal with the pain of it all.

So, the first step is this. Acknowledge when you are in distress. Tell God about it. Talk to your family about it. Share it with friends that you trust. Offer your distress in prayer. Rather than asking God for something in prayer, just tell God what you are feeling. Don’t try to hide it, because God already knows how you feel anyway. And if you are in such a dark place that you don’t have the words to describe what you’re feeling, go ahead and read straight from Psalm 69. “For I am in distress.” Don’t be ashamed of depression, or anxiety, or the darkness that you feel – whether that darkness comes from within or comes from without. Those are real feelings. You are feeling those things because you are human, and God created humans with our vast spectrum of emotion.

Now, also be mindful of what you do with those dark feelings. Be careful of your coping mechanisms. When we try to hide our distress, our emotions come out sideways. Alcohol. Drugs. Pills. We get hooked on the news. We start blaming other people for our problems. We start thinking that we have the right answers and everybody else must be wrong. Be careful. That is the distress you feel taking control of your life. Like a virus that infects a body, the virus of sin and anger and distrust will corrupt your soul heart and soul.

And believe me, the people who make the alcohol, the drugs, the pills are more than happy to keep selling to you because they’ve got a paying customer. The fear that is out there, in the ether, they will keep selling that to us, too. Because they know they have us hooked. They will take distress, which is a natural, normal emotion, and twist it into hatred and sin. But you know what? You’re just going to dig a deeper hole for yourself. Acknowledge your darkness, acknowledge your distress, admit your pain, don’t try to cover it up. Don’t cope with it. Instead, offer it God in prayer. “Hide not your face from your servant; be swift and answer, for I am in distress.”

On top of all that – reach out to your support network. When you are feeling the weight of the world on your shoulders and on your heart, don’t be ashamed to talk to a counselor or a therapist. If you need help finding one, or if you need financial assistance to see one, ask. And don’t be ashamed to call one of your clergy. Ask for help. We are here to help you through this because we have been through these feelings too and because we’re human, we keep going through them. 

I know this may seem more like a mental health talk than a sermon, but maybe there isn’t that much difference after all. And I bet there is at least one of you, listening right now, that is internalizing all this distress and desperately needs to talk to someone about it. Consider this your priest telling you to do so.

And finally, finally, you don’t have to be happy all the time. We have to get past that. The very fact that psalms of lament even exist means that God is okay with us crying out to God. God is giving us the words, through these psalms, to voice our depression, our anger, our sadness, our isolation. You do not have to be happy all the time. From the cross, Jesus didn’t pray Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” No! Of course not! You wouldn’t say that when nails have been pounded through your hands. Jesus prayed from Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Now is not the time to pray Psalm 98, “Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.” Oh no. Now is the time for lament, “Hide not your face from your servant; be swift and answer, for I am in distress.”

As we have been living through this time, I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. I do not know what the future holds. I do not know how we will ever get out of the mess we are in, or any of the messes we always seem to put ourselves in. I do not know what medicines, treatments, or hope is out there. I do not know what economic recovery looks like. I do not know when our society will ever truly grapple with some of our deepest problems. But in the meantime, while we hang upon the cross, I will continue praying to God my most honest prayer. “Hide not your face from your servant; be swift and answer, for I am in distress.”

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