A Time to Weep: I’m Broken
Welcome to the first Sunday of Lent, the season of the church year during which we set aside some time for confession, for mourning the sin of our lives and the broken state of our world, for placing ourselves in a posture of repentance as we wait for what we believe with all our hearts: that death is not the end, and that sin will not win out, and that the state of things as we see them is not the way they will always be. Audacious claims, for sure!
To give us time and space to grieve the sadness we feel, our Lenten theme this year is A Time to Weep. We borrowed this theme from the writer of Ecclesiastes who reminds us that there is a time for everything under heaven—even grieving, mourning, lamenting the brokenness of our world, of our lives.
Sometimes you just have to cry, you know what I mean?
And so, Lent is our season of sadness, repentance, grief. It lasts 40 days, but we can grieve now because we know Easter is coming. And so we do the hard work of Lent, to ready our hearts and take stock of our lives and prepare ourselves for the gift and promise of resurrection.
To help us focus we’re thinking about the story of Jesus’ passion—each week an event in his life moving toward his death that reminds us we are not alone in our grief and pain…that the God of the Universe shares the deepest laments of our hearts. You’ll see seven Stations of the Cross placed around our sanctuary in the windows, and each week you’ll have a prayer card to help you remember, focus, and pray. Because the truth of the matter is: all of us have something to grieve during Lent. All of us.
In terms of our biblical study in the context of the sermons these weeks, we’re about to really mix things up. Those of you who have been here the last seven weeks have taken a tour through the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Jesus’ sayings as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. To study that portion of scripture we have carefully considered the contextual setting of the words, trying to understand what was behind Jesus’ sayings and trying to think about how they might apply to your life and mine.
Today we begin a different kind of scripture study altogether. We’re moving through the Psalms for the next few weeks, the song book of the Hebrew people, trying to get a glimpse of how exactly they understood their relationship to God, and what that might mean for you and me. To do that we’re using something called “form criticism,” which is kind of a fancy way of saying that we’re looking carefully at the style and format of the passage we’re studying to try to understand how it was used in its original setting.
We know that the book of Psalms was used in public worship in the temple, not unlike our hymnal. And as we read the Psalms, the temptation is to try to assign individual Psalms to historical events in the life of the Hebrew people.
And, who would blame us? We’re suckers for a story behind a favorite song. Take, for example, the story of the hymn, It Is Well With My Soul.
The hymn was written by Horatio Spafford after three horrible life events: the death of his only son in 1871; the great Chicago Fire which ruined him financially; and the deaths of his four daughters in the sinking of a ship on which they were traveling across the Atlantic. His wife Anna, also on the same ship, survived and sent him a telegram reading, “Saved alone.” Shortly afterwards, as Spafford traveled to meet his grieving wife, he was inspired to write these words as his ship passed near where his daughters had died:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
But the truth is, it would be difficult if not impossible for us, thousands of years after a psalm was originally written and placed in the temple songbook, to know for sure for what reason the specific psalm was written. We just don’t know. So, we’ll take a look at form—the style and substance of the psalms we study in the weeks ahead.
The Psalms we are reading in worship for the weeks of Lent are Psalms of Lament. Just like in our hymnals, within the book of Psalms there are different styles—or forms—of psalmnody, and psalms of lament are Psalms that voice grief, despair, hurt, crisis…a time in the peoples’ corporate life in which they felt they had nowhere to turn, that they were at their wits’ end.
In a psalm of lament, first, the people usually call out God’s name—just to get God to pay attention. Then, they detail their complaint to God. They describe the problem; they explore their own responsibility for the situation; they name the culprits in the specific dilemma. Then, they affirm again that even in the face of all of this crisis, they still trust in God, and they pray that God will intervene to save or deliver them from the situation at hand.
Whenever I hear about this form of psalmnody I always think of when my children were young. Part of growing up in a family, as all of you know, is conflicts among siblings. As a parent I soon learned that one of my jobs was to hear, over and over, psalms of lament. Recitations of wrongs done, pleas for intervention, desperate appeals for someone with more authority to step in and right the situation that has gone so, so wrong. This is exactly what Psalms of Lament are, and today we are reading Psalm 12. We heard it in several different forms already in worship this morning, but if you’d like to reference it you can find it in your pew Bibles on page 429.
In Psalm 12 the people are lamenting the deceit which has characterized the interaction that people seem to have been having with each other in society at large. People speak, the psalm says, but they don’t really mean what they say. They twist words in order to get what they want…they “speak with a double heart”. And the people who are suffering the most are people who can’t afford in the least to lose anything. It’s not fair. It’s unjust. It’s corrupt. It’s reason to lament, for sure.
And because we’re sticking to form criticism we have to assign something of a generic nature to this text…that is, we acknowledge that it is not addressing a specific historical incident that we might be able to trace. But we do know that the eighth century prophets often spoke of wealthy people who oppressed the poor by taking their land using false witness, or by speaking falsehood, as the Psalm says. They would sell the poor inferior goods and perpetuate a system that would force the poor deeper and deeper into debt until they had no choice but to sell the assets they had—whatever they may be, including land passed down from their families, even to children they could sell into indentured servitude.
And, it was all agreed by a trial at the gates of the city, where important elders would hear the cases of people in conflict. A more wealthy, educated person would challenge a poor neighbor before the “court”, charge that he owed a huge debt, and argue that his land, or whatever resources he might have, should be assigned in payment. Along with bribing the authorities in power, this technique proved highly effective, and the poor were left destitute because of the “double speak” of the wealthy.
We can guess that this problem of the wealthy misrepresenting situations had become rampant; the whole system was broken, and the poor were at their wits’ end. No one could help them except God, and so they cried out, desperate.
We know the feeling. Our world is broken, too. Wars in the Middle East, uncertainty in our government here at home, unjust policies in which the poor suffer most of all…we could join the people of Israel in crying out this Psalm of lament—“Yahweh, save!”
And it’s not just our corporate lives. Individually we feel injustice and pain, too. The brokenness of our lives hits us in the face over and over again; we know the failures we struggle with, and we know that we’ve been unable to make many things right in so many places in our lives. Broken.
Where are you today? Are you in a place like the writer of Psalm 12, where you are at your wits end about the influence of the unjust? Perhaps you are lamenting, like the writer of Psalm 12, unable to see any hope or possibility whatsoever, wondering whether you will be able to make your way out of this after all. Psalms of Lament…they voice the anguish we feel. They put words to the pain of human living. They give us a format in which we can cry out to God.
But if all we do is voice Psalms of Lament, then the pain we feel will threaten to overcome us. No, our cries of pain will never stand without a plea, an assurance, a desperate hope…for God’s intervention. It’s what we long for, and what we need. We cannot live without it.
Even during Lent, this season of grief, we must live believing that ultimately God prevails…that our songs of lament waft up into heaven and affect the God of the Universe, with whom we live in relationship and who should act and act swiftly on our behalf.
I could be wrong, but I think we are all familiar with what we know as the civil rights song, “We Shall Overcome.” It began as a folk work song, became a hymn, and then was used politically for the first time on the picket lines of the tobacco workers’ strike in South Carolina in 1945. In the early 1960s, it became an inspirational force in the civil rights struggle.
The music probably comes from a 1794 hymn called “Prayer of the Sicilian Mariners,” and the words “I’ll overcome some day” first appeared in a hymn book called New Songs of the Gospel, published in 1900. The tune of that hymn was different than the song we know.
In 1945, the words and tune first were put together in a song called “I’ll Overcome Some Day,” with added words and a new musical arrangement by Kenneth Morris, a Chicago gospel singer. Another version by Roberta Martin quickly followed, and that one we would recognize.
It was a woman named Zilphia Horton, who first heard the song in October, 1945, probably on a picket line of the CIO Food and Tobacco Workers’ strike in Charleston, S.C., one cold winter’s day. However she heard it, she was the one who turned it into a union organizing song and taught it to Pete Seeger, the folksinger.
“We Shall Overcome” eventually became the song of the Freedom Movement. People sang its powerful, almost hypnotic lyrics–often repeating verses after a song leader–with their arms linked, as they swayed back and forth. One of the most moving times I have sung We Shall Overcome, in fact, was here, with all of you, as we marked the 30 years since the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador.
We Shall Overcome is an answer to the grieving we feel, the lament with which we cry. Our world is broken, yes. Our lives are broken, too. But we are people of faith, who believe that God has not abandoned us, that the injustice and brokenness and pain that we see all around us is a reality that waits—waits for divine intervention that we believe with all our hearts is on its way.
It’s a time to weep; there’s a lot that’s broken. But God has not left us yet; we shall overcome.