Lament and What the Lectionary Leaves Out

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Readings for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Year B)

2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Psalm 89:20-37

Ephesians 2:11-22

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

This sermon was preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael CA on July 19, 2015. 

I have been to several Episcopal parishes in this diocese (and beyond) and St. Paul’s San Rafael has one unique characteristic that I have not seen anywhere else. All the other Episcopal parishes I’ve been to are content having the Book of Common Prayer and the Hymnal on their pew shelves, but what makes this parish so unique is the fact that you accompany these two books with another, with the Holy Bible! And even more unique than that is the fact that you actually use them during the service! St. Paul’s San Rafael is living proof that Episcopalians do indeed know their Scriptures. So congratulations and thank you! Because of this church’s unique characteristic, I feel invited to tap into my evangelical roots and have Bible Study with you this morning. So that’s what we’ll do.

I invite you to open up your Bibles to this morning’s Psalm, which is Psalm 89. (For those who don’t know, one easy way to find the book of Psalms is to open up your Bible right in the middle and you’re likely to open up to the Psalms). The reading this morning includes verses 20 – 37 of Psalm 89, which recount the LORD’s wonderful promises to King David and his descendants. The LORD says (in verse 20), “I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed him…No enemy shall deceive him…My faithfulness shall be with him…I will establish his line for ever and his throne as the days of heaven.” And in verse 30, God says, “Even if his children forsake my law…if they break my statutes, I will punish them, But I will not take my love from him…I will not break my covenant…His line shall endure forever and his throne as the sun before me.” According to this selection from the lectionary, this sounds like a very joyful Psalm, full of hope and thanksgiving for God’s promises. However, Psalm 89 is actually one of the darkest Psalms in the entire Psalter. Because you all have Bibles you can see this. The very next verse (v. 38) reads, “But now you have spurned and rejected him; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced your covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust.” Verse 44: “You have removed the scepter from his hand, and hurled his throne to the ground. You have cut short the days of his youth; you have covered him with shame. How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” Verse 49: “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples, with which your enemies taunt, O LORD, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.” The last verse (v. 52) is a doxology which functions as a conclusion to Book Three of the Psalter and should not be read as part of Psalm 89. So the apparently joyful Psalm of the lectionary actually ends in utter confusion as the one whom God promised to always love and protect ends up defeated, ashamed and in the dust as the butt of his enemies’ jokes. And the throne upon which God promised there would always be a king is hurled to the ground.

The psalmist sets up a stark and almost unbearable contrast between God’s promises and the poet’s present reality. There is “no attempt to cover up the historical experience of disillusionment and despair,”[1] no attempt to sugarcoat the tragic reality of God’s apparent infidelity. No resolution is offered. Instead, the dilemma is thrown at God, with the hope that God might remember his promises and do something to help the situation.[2] The psalmists often employ this strategy of prayer in order to get God’s attention. And when they do, it is often in the context of lament. According to Biblical scholar Scott Ellington, “The single largest category of Psalms is not psalms of praise or worship or adoration, but rather psalms of lament. Approximately one third of the Psalter consists [of] laments of the individual and the community.”[3] Psalm 89 is considered a royal psalm of communal lament. And unfortunately, we would not know this by reading the lectionary’s version of the psalm, which takes away its teeth and its edge, and in fact, obscures the psalmist’s whole purpose. Apparently, the designers of the lectionary did not think that we could handle the rest of the psalm so they left it out, but you all have Bibles. And I’m glad because this gives us a rare opportunity to spend time with a psalm of lament, which invites us to bring our own questions, confusions and laments to God in prayer.

Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann explains that our failure to bring our laments to God in prayer leads to “both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility.”[4] By not confronting God with our frustration, we lose our voice and our capacity for what Bruegemann calls “genuine covenant interaction.[5] We also lose “the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith”[6] and our prayers become “a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense.”[7] If we fail to be honest with our frustration and refuse to bring our complaints and laments to God in prayer, we fall into “civility …docility…grim obedience and eventually despair.”[8] Throughout Scripture and throughout the history of Western spirituality, those who lament to God tend to draw closer to God as a result. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.”[9]

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Through “genuine covenant interaction” and honest lament, we grow closer to God because we experience God as One with whom we can be fully ourselves, warts and all. We grow closer to God because we experience God as One who can hear and receive our confusion and anger and, at times, our profound disappointment with God. We grow closer to God through lament because we begin to experience God as One who responds to our need to blame by offering to take the blame, even though God knows that our finite minds cannot understand God’s ways in the midst of suffering and tragedy. By practicing lament both individually and communally, we grow closer to God and, as the Gospel this morning makes clear, it is closeness to God that brings healing.

If you turn to the Gospel, which begins at Mark 6:30, you will see that the lectionary once again omits a huge chunk of the biblical text. This morning we read Mark 6:30 – 34 and then 6:53 – 56, leaving out verses 35 – 52, which describe Jesus feeding the five thousand and then walking on water. Throughout this chapter, when Jesus is confronted with hunger, he responds with nourishment. When he is confronted with his disciple’s fear and terror, he responds with comfort and encouragement. And when he is confronted with illness and disease, he responds with healing. The practice of lament as embodied in Psalm 89 is about confronting God with our own hunger, fear, terror, illness and anger and then allowing God to respond by drawing us closer to him and being healed just as those who touched the fringe of his cloak were healed.

Finally, let us turn to the book of Ephesians. The lectionary zooms through Ephesians in July and August, giving some highlights but again leaving out some important verses. Today’s reading ends at verse 22, at the end of chapter 2, and next Sunday’s reading pick up again at Chapter 3 verse 14, skipping over the first 13 verses of the third chapter. The lectionary leaves these out, but since you all have Bibles let’s take a look. In these verses, we learn that Paul is likely writing his letter in a jail cell, probably in Rome. In verse 1 of chapter 3, he writes, “I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus” and then in verses 11 and 12, he writes, “In Christ Jesus our Lord we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.” He then says how this boldness and confidence helps him in the midst of his suffering, because he can boldly and confidently bring his suffering to God in prayer and, as a result, draw closer to God and experience healing and even “glory” (v. 13).

So in our brief Bible Study, we have seen how the lectionary softens and weakens the biblical text by omitting parts of Scripture that deal with darkness, betrayal (feeling betrayed by God), terror and suffering (even suffering in a prison cell). By leaving these parts out, the lectionary might tempt us to think that God does not want to deal with our own darkness, our own suffering and our fear and disappointment. But thank God that you have Bibles and you can see for yourself how the darkness is part of the canon of Scripture. Just as God received the difficult prayers and confrontations of the authors of Scripture so too does God invite us to not sugarcoat our prayer lives but to confront God boldly and confidently with our needs, our hungers and our fears, knowing that such “genuine covenant interaction” draws us closer to him so that we might just touch the hem of his garment and be renewed. Amen.

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[1] Bernhard W. Anderson, Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak For Us Today (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 208.

[2] “The psalm contains no resolution of the dilemma, save appeal to the faithfulness of God.” James L. Mays, Psalms: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville KY: John Knox Press, 1994), 288.

[3] Scott A. Ellington, Risking Truth: Reshaping the World Through Prayers of Lament (Eugene OR: Pickwick Publications, 2008), 61.

[4] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms & the Life of Faith (Augsburg Fortress: Minneapolis MN, 1995), 111.

[5] Ibid, 102.

[6] Ibid, 103.

[7] Ibid, 100.

[8] Ibid, 102.

[9] New York Times, Oct 15, 1986

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