18 June 2017
Today we begin – in earnest – our first worship text and Word series for this summer season – on the Psalms.
Now, I say “in earnest” because, actually, we began last week, reading Psalm 100 … ah, but it got overshadowed by the Day in the Church Year – Holy Trinity Sunday. As well it should have. Because whenever we have a festival day, a special day, it always takes precedence over whatever else we’re doing here.
So we should have an introductory word, here, today, about the Psalms.
The Psalms are Ancient Israel’s poem and song book. You might even call them the first Hymnbook of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Depending on what English translation of the Psalms you read, you might encounter words such as these at the beginning of each Psalm.
According to the Gittith. A maskil. With stringed instruments. To the leader: Do Not Destroy. According to the Sheminith. According to Muth-labben. According to the Deer of the Dawn.
No one is certain as to what most of those terms mean, but we can guess. You see names at the bottom of hymns in our ELW hymnal … tune names like Jefferson and Aberystwyth. So these names … Sheminith, Deer of the Dawn … were likely, also, tunes to which each Psalm was sung, in Israel’s worship. Unfortunately, we don’t have a record of the music anymore.
Ah, but we do have the words. 150 Psalms, covering the range of human emotion and interaction with God.
And in that range there are seven basic literary forms into which the Psalms fit.
Psalms of Thanksgiving
Psalms of Confidence
Last week’s Psalm, 100, is what we call a Royal or Enthronement Psalm. Listen again to it as I read.
Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.
Give thanks to him, bless his name. For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations.
Royal or Enthronement Psalms … and there are several, in the 90-100 range of Psalms … these were written to be read as part of the New Year festival in the fall of the year … what we now call Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year … they were read as God was symbolically re-enthroned each year, probably, as the human king was the re-enactor … David, Solomon, or someone else.
Psalm 100 could also be called a Thanksgiving psalm, because that aspect is certainly there, too … but that line, enter his gates with thanksgiving, it most certainly is also a kind of stage direction, for the earthly ruler to come in, to enter the Temple, followed by the people, and take his place, representing God’s enthronement, God’s presence, among his people.
So we can see that these types – they aren’t always neat delineations – and there can be some blurring of the lines …
Except for the next type, which is before us, in our text today, Psalm 137.
Now here is a type with which we, likely, are not that familiar.
Certainly our hymnody, our song, in the church today, reflects this.
Psalm 100’s words are reflected in many hymns … the first which comes to mind is Rejoice, the Lord is King …
As we have it before us at #430 …
Rejoice, for Christ is King! Your Lord and king adore;
Rejoice, give thanks and sing, and triumph evermore;
Lift up your heart, lift up your voice;
Rejoice, again, I say, rejoice!
An uplifting, rejoicing, cheerful musical setting.
But Laments … Lament psalms are songs set in a minor key … we might think of them, read, with the back beat of the blues behind them …
Na NA na NA na … Na NA na NA na …
In our ELW hymnal, the section of Lament hymns is short … #s697-704, 8 hymns in total. That’s not very much. We will be singing one of these as our Hymn of the Day, one written by the Pacific NW’s own, PLU Campus Pastor and Holden Village pastor Susan Briehl, set to a Latvian folk tune.
But among what is popularly called Contemporary Christian Music … well, laments are virtually nonexistent. We will sing one … the One, the One, of which we know … as our closing song today, and it is a fine example of lament, reflecting the words of Job, written by one of the biggest names in CCM today, Matt Redman, as he reflected on the events of 9/11.
But other than Blessed Be Your Name … CCM simply doesn’t do Lament – or have much to sing or say about anything bad that happens in people’s lives. It’s no wonder that it gets the reputation of “happy clappy.”
BUT LAMENT IS REAL. It is a real, true, human emotion and condition.
Lament is real because … we suffer. We have loss in our lives. We feel pain. Bad things happen … to us … in the world. And it’s hard … damn hard … to be happy happy joy joy, praise Jesus all the time. Especially these days … I know I wake up every morning, go to the news web sites, wondering, in the words of Dorothy Parker, what fresh hell is this???
But we don’t want to go there, do we? Even my saying that, what I just said, it probably made some of you cringe … maybe a little, maybe more. Well, I come to church to be uplifted, I don’t want to hear about the bad stuff, I only want to hear about the good stuff. I just want to praise God and give thanks.
Well, there are churches for that out there, churches, and music, who, which, are steeped in the Theology of Glory, as Luther called it. Avoiding pain, and suffering, and loss, is, after all, the ever-optimistic American way.
It’s just that, if you want to be a Lutheran Christian, if you want to call yourselves Lutheran Christians, you need to Lament. A true, right, honorable, Christian faith, is not ever-optimistic, ever Every Day in Every Way we are getting Better and Better … NO!!! we acknowledge that sin makes us Make Ourselves Worse … and suffering, and the greed and lying and other human wretchedness that cause it … are all on the road which lead to Death … the final Lament.
Luther termed this “calling a spade a spade” the Theology of the Cross. In his Heidelberg Disputation of 1518 – one of Luther’s first writings – the young Luther took on full-force the Theology of Glory which, he saw, was destroying the church and destroying faith.
The theses or points of the Disputation make this clear:
Thesis 20: that person deserves to be called a theologian, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through the Cross.
Thesis 21: The theologian of glory calls evil, good, and good, evil. The theologian of the Cross calls the thing what it actually is.
The theology of glory, to Luther, was the original “Fake News.” It dismisses suffering and pain and the realities of human life as we live it, steeped in sin … just deny it, pretend it doesn’t exist.
Fingers in the ears, nah nah nah nah nah.
God cannot possibly want to have anything to do with anyone going through suffering and pain, so we shouldn’t either … just be happy happy joy joy optimistic all the time.
But that is a total lie. The Cross tells us the Truth of God … and that truth is, that God is exactly, precisely, spot-on in the midst of our suffering, through the Cross, through Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross. That’s why we call the day Good Friday, when we mark, observe, rehearse, re-hear, the events of the death of Jesus. And our complicity in it. And even, despite, in the midst of us doing to God the worst thing that has ever happened, we give thanks that God is Still With and For Us in Jesus … so much so that he endures suffering, and death, to be with and for us in and through ours.
And so, with that Truth of God for us in mind, let’s look at Psalm 137.
The words are, indeed, squirmy, and uncomfortable ones, for us. Indeed, so uncomfortable, that even the Lutheran church omitted this Psalm from the collection which was printed in the old Lutheran Book of Worship … the “green” hymnal.
Ah, but ELW brings it back to us, full and square on … the situation, clear and unmistakable.
The Israelites have been invaded and have been taken off into exile, by force, from their own land, to the land of their Babylonian captors. Jerusalem, the temple, their home and their faith, it lies in ruins.
And all there is left, right here, right now, for the Israelites, is loss. Mourning, and pain, and anger.
Singing about smashing Babylonian babies into the rocks.
Who, indeed, can blame them?
Who, indeed, can blame others, of every time and place, including our own, who, in their suffering, in their loss, having had what they had, even, perhaps, in its meagerness, taken away from them … wanting, willing, to lash out, in anger, to exact an equal amount of suffering on those who they perceive have done the same to them?
Setting aside the “rightness” of the actions desired behind these words for a moment … we can’t deny that this is real, and raw, human emotion. To deny it, is to deny our humanity. And, indeed, to deny the reality that Jesus has come among us, as the Suffering Servant, one who knows this deep, deep pain and suffering and loss, to take it on himself, and give us back, forgiveness and life and salvation.
Lament is a real part of human life. And so it shows up in the Bible … in the Psalms, we find it as individual lament, such as in Psalm 22 …
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
And corporate lament, as we hear it here in Psalm 137, or in Psalm 90 …
Turn, O Lord, how long? Have compassion on your servants!
Or, yes, even in Job’s words, which we’ll sing shortly …
The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, blessed be the Name of the Lord.
Lament reminds us that our God is a God who desires relationship with us … as we were reminded last week in the words and music of Holy Trinity Sunday, that relationship of Love inside God, inside the very heart of God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, that relationship of Love wills and works to spill out into all the world … most especially, into our hearts, each and every one.
So do not be afraid of Lament. Do not avoid it, and do not deny it. God is big enough to take it, take our frustration and anger, our doubt and pain, our suffering and loss … take it on … take it on all the way to the Cross … for in Jesus, God most intimately knows what it is like to be human, and wants and works and wills to be in and with and For Us always, in All Ways.
A Lament-less world is a Fake World. A world of lies, a plasticky phony world, a sham world. A church which does not speak and sing of Lament is a useless, sham church … and worship without lament in its songs … happy clappy praise Jesus all the time … is useless, sham worship.
No, we are Lutheran Christians and We Will Lament. We will live in the reality of this world and in the shadow of the Cross, and what it means for us … A God who knows and hears our Lament, and Pain, and Loss … and takes it into himself … and gives us back life … rich, full, and abundant … so we can live in reality and thus, bravely, fully, being present into the pain and loss of others, to bring them Life, too.
We will live, unashamedly, as People of the Cross.
The Cross which makes it all real. The Cross which makes us truly human.
Claimed by The Lord of The Cross, who saves us and makes us whole, for the life to come, and the life that is now.
Thanks. Be. To. God.