Over half of the liturgical songs of the Israelites were Psalms of Lament. Penned in a time of exile and persecution, poets tried to give voice to the pain of the people. Today we lament the injustice of our time and yet, like the Psalms of Lament, we end in praise anyway for “God is good, all the time.”
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’;
my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
But I trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Unmoored in the World
When the thank-you is gone, when gratitude just wears out — God feels far away, and the goodness of God like a fading memory. The Thirteenth Psalm finally names it, in verse 4. In Hebrew it’s called amut (emowt), which means I am moved or I am slipping. In the words of Elvis Presley: “I’m all shook up.” Those forces that oppose me, and even the people who prove themselves as my enemy, the saboteurs, they are prevailing. And where is my God?
The church offers one of the few places where we may lament, where we may express our disappointments to God in the presence of loving community. Sure, people try to lament online, but it usually turns ugly. Internet trolls find them and take over. We attends laments in schools and public spaces, but they are often hijacked by other agendas and politicians running for reelection. To lament authentically, to experience a community that can grieve together and shed a sympathetic tear, that’s why church exists — one of the reasons anyway. And that’s why we observe Lent. If you need an example of how to lament, we read it today. The Psalms are mostly laments, expressions of oppressed and distressed people.
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?
Grounded in God
On this second Sunday of Lent and final Sunday of African-American History Month, I want to share a call and response which is spoken amidst lament: God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. If you don’t keep it simple, you won’t remember it when you need it most. “God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good.” Even and especially in the midst of pain—even and especially when the world is not good, we will rejoice with the Psalmist in God’s trustworthy love and salvation. And yes, I have been reading and watching the news, and, to all that is evil, alongside Presbyterian writer Anne Lammott, I say Hallelujah Anyway.
The Tradition of Renouncing Evil
During this Lenten series called “Roll Down, Justice!” we are drawing on the work of Dr. Marcia McFee, who writes the following concerning the Christian tradition of renouncing evil.
By the 4th century, the church had instituted a powerful symbol of transformation for baptismal candidates. They turned away from evil and toward good. Before going into the water, they would face…West (the direction of the setting sun, the dying of the light) and renounce evil. Then they would turn away…to face the East (the direction of the rising sun)…leaving the forces of evil behind and facing the Light of God in their lives. The language of renouncing evil has come to us through the [traditions] of baptism [and still] invites us to renounce evil in all its forms (the [evils] that rise up within us and the systemic [evils, like racism, homophobia, sexism, violence—which are] inherent in our societies). We have the freedom to [renounce evil, because] it is God in whom we put our trust.
Why? Because God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good! But we are not God. We are human, and we lose the feeling of thank you. We forget to face the light of the rising sun (son).
Rev. Billy Graham (1918-2018)
I didn’t use to believe in evil. I still have trouble getting my head around why anyone could call another child of God evil, since that is ultimately a decision we would best leave to God.
After a life of global fame, Rev. Billy Graham came to that same conclusion: to leave the heavy judging to God. Now, Rev. Graham didn’t begin there. As a young man, he was sure of his judgments, which could easily be justified in God’s Word, but as he grew — not just in years but in faith — he decided to get out of God’s way and let God judge the righteousness of God’s own people.
Mel White calls Billy Graham “the last real evangelical.” The word evangelical refers to the Greek word for Good News: the one who tells the world that God is good, all the time. This is not to be confused with fundamentalism that strays quickly into harsh judgements and violence. In Graham’s later years, his evangelical theology matured like wine, and God put a new message in his heart. That’s when Graham said these words:
Being born again is not enough. We are also called to do justice, love mercy and live humbly. Those who are born again…must also feed the hungry, care for the sick, house the homeless and confront the powers that lead to death for our planet and for all those who live upon it. …when we don’t welcome and care for the outcast we sin and the Bible promises that we will be judged for that sin.
Did you know that Billy Graham said those things? Probably not. This new message, says White, was silenced by Graham’s handlers. After all, they had $100 million budget on the line and the future of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. They wanted Graham to focus on saving souls rather than the service of social justice. White argues that:
…it was [too] dangerous to confront the politicians who sat on the stage at Billy’s crusades for ignoring the world’s needs… [F]undamentalist pastors in Billy’s camp would accuse the evangelist of getting off track with his sudden interest in ‘the social gospel.’
Just like preachers, churches are forever at that same crossroads. Do we do the right thing or preserve the okay thing? The okay thing will do. Do we renounce the practices we know are evil, or do we dare to love as freely as God loves, offering life-saving help to whosoever? To paraphrase the rapper Ludacris, do we really want to tip-toe through this life only to arrive safely at death? Do we stay mired in a funk, cowed by well-rehearsed and selfish anger, or do we choose the narrow path, following Jesus who calls us forward to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God?
Is goodness really stronger than evil?
Almost two weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday afternoon, news broke of yet another mass shooting, this time in Parkland, Florida. To be embarrassingly honest, my first response was a feeling of irritation because the lively service we had planned for Ash Wednesday would now have to be altered to accommodate the news of the day. I didn’t think so much about the innocent lives lost. I had become numb to one more school shooting, one more round of BS blaming not the availability guns and weapons of war but “bad guys” with guns, one more sad and cynical speech from leaders who seem hell-bent on preserving the culture of violence instead of the lives of children.
I remember where I was when I heard of the Columbine shooting. I was on my way to the church office of North Decatur Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, April 20, 1999. I had not slipped into cynicism then. I remember sharing the news with the church’s administrative assistant, Jan Knowles, in the church office, and she began crying. She called her husband and told him to turn on CNN. We stopped everything. We prayed. We watched the pictures of teachers and students running for their lives, and we wondered how this could happen. What went wrong? But nineteen years later, nothing much has really changed, and, this time, on Ash Wednesday, I didn’t stop to pray or watch or lament or call home. I just made the minimum adjustments, and went on with the motions of praising God. I confess that I was letting evil win. Something is horribly wrong. How long, O Lord? How long?
I wouldn’t even realize these things had not the student survivors of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting — in less than 2 weeks— they have begun a process to save lives this country. Led by Emma Gonzalez, a young woman with a shaved head, they have called BS to greed and greed’s elaborate excuses. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High represent our hope.
They have found enemies online, calling them fake students, paid crisis actors, and like Billy Graham’s ministry, the truth of their message has caused the forces of greed and, frankly, evil to raise objections. When the forces of greed and violence object to what we’re doing, we know that we’re on the right track! Like Jesus, we may not be accepted by everybody, but the goodness of love will win. That’s the message of Lent. Don’t believe me? Tune in this Easter! We turn from the dying of the light and face God’s love in the rising of the sun (son).
Being someone who values words and etymology and the significance of naming, I wondered how much the Holy Spirit was at work this week, and so I looked up Marjory Stoneman. Why would a school would be named for her? I found the following words spoken during her 108 years of living, advice she left for today and all who listen to her children calling for change.
Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public. Speak simply and not too long at a time, without over-emotion, always from sound preparation and knowledge. Be a nuisance where it counts, but don’t be a bore at any time… Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action….Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics — but never give up.
And though my soul had been teetering on the lip of the volcano called bitterness, my soul knows, believes, has faith, because God is good, all the time. All the time, God is good. It is the ultimate act of trust to obey the God who works through us to transform injustice. It is possible to cry “how long” and also claim our agency to do something in that waiting—to “resist evil” and in that resisting, expose evil to the light. Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream!
Somebody’s hurting my my brother, and it’s gone on far too long,
It’s gone on far too long, gone on far too long.
Somebody’s hurting my brother, and it’s gone on far too long,
And we won’t be silent anymore.
Somebody’s hurting my sister…
Somebody’s hurting our children…
 Kristin Clayon Knezevic had just sung “Thank You” from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, demonstrating lament.
 אֶמּֽוֹט׃ Scripture4All <http://scripture4all.org/OnlineInterlinear/OTpdf/psa13.pdf> (February 20, 2018)
 “Shaken” is the NRSV’s rendering of אֶמּֽוֹט.
 Psalm 13 (opening verses) in the Common English Bible (CEB) translation, which we are using in our Lenten Bible Study groups.
 A review of Lammott’s latest book, Hallelujah Anyway, accessed online at <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/anne-lamott-gives-us-hope-with-hallelujah-anyway-rediscovering_us_58e27481e4b0ca889ba1a84c> (February 25, 2018)
 Isaiah 55:8-9: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
 Author of Stranger at the Gate, former ghost-writer for Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham, Mel White is one of my heroes of faith. Confused? Read about him here <https://www.lgbtran.org/Profile.aspx?ID=10> (February 17, 2018)
 Mel White, Remembering Billy Graham, February 2018, accessed online at <https://www.melwhite.org/remembering-billy-graham/> (February 24, 2018)
 Jonathan Merritt, Defining ‘Evangelical’ The Atlantic, December 7, 2015, accessed online at <https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/12/evangelical-christian/418236/>
 Ludacris, “Rest of My Life” accessed online at <https://genius.com/Ludacris-rest-of-my-life-lyrics> (February 23, 2018)
 Wayne LaPierre is a child of God, but what he and Dana Loesch said to CPAC 2018 was as close to evil as I ever want to hear. <wayne lapierre cpac 2018> (February 24, 2018)
 Snopes says they are truly her words: <https://www.snopes.com/marjory-stoneman-douglas-quote-on-activism/>
 Amos 5:24, our Lenten theme is based on this prophecy. Roll Down, Justice!
 The new theme of Revs. William Barber & Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign, accessed online at <https://soundcloud.com/kairos-center/somebodys-hurting-my-brother>