August 13, 2006
Psalm 130: “From the Depths”
The Psalms are powerful poetry. We love to read them in worship, sing them in hymns. Benedictines recite all 150 psalms every week.
But they don’t get preached on much. And after working on this sermon, I have a sense of why that is. In dealing with a psalm, the preacher has the sense that anything she says to try to explain it will never do justice to the beauty of the words, the power of the psalm itself. My inclination is to just read the psalm and sit down. And there are times for that. And I encourage you to use the psalms on your own for prayer and meditation. To read them slowly, prayerfully, and often.
But this morning, something needs to be said about this psalm. Psalm 130. Often called De Profundis–the Latin translation of the opening phrase: Out of the depths. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.” The poet is locating himself specifically yet vaguely in the depths. The Hebrew term is a poetic one, generally connected with deep, dangerous waters. It is used perhaps more vividly in Psalm 69:
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me.
Perhaps you have never been stranded in a large body of water, near to drowning. But I bet you have been in the depths.
In the depths of a relationship that you do not know how to negotiate.
In the depths of sorrow and loss–when you do not know how you will be able to live without the one who has left your life.
In the depths of depression, unable to control or even understand your anger, frustration, irritability, apathy, sadness.
As Mennonites, as people committed to peace, I imagine most of us have recently, maybe even right now, felt the depths of hopelessness in this world that seems bent on violence. This world where civil war is breaking out in Iraq; where bodies are piling up in Israel and Lebanon. Where in our own country, even people in Christian churches cannot seem to treat each other with loving-kindness.
I feel, too often, that I am in the depths. And my legs and arms grow weary of treading water.
Yes, we know the depths. Better than we would like. We know them because we have lived them. We know them because we have read about them. We know of those deep, dark times of history. Like the Holocaust.
Some of you may have had the opportunity to visit the Holocaust museum in Washington D.C. To see the photos, read the stories, of those who were sinking in the miry depths. People targeted for being Jewish or Gypsy or homosexual or handicapped. People arrested for writing or speaking or preaching against the Nazi party. Herded like animals onto train cars and shipped to places like Dachau, which was the first official concentration camp.
I cannot imagine the depths of fear–terror–that people must have experienced. Watching friends, loved ones, taken from the camp area to the crematoria area. Smelling, seeing, feeling, the sooty smoke that drifted up through the chimneys. Or being taken themselves to the shooting range, only to be spared at the last minute–this time.
Does it get deeper or darker?
The entrance gates of Dachau contain the infamous motto: Work makes you free. It is not true, of course.
The depths, I think, are those places where our own efforts are futile. Where the best we can hope for is that our flailing arms and legs may at least keep us from sinking further down.
But the flailing will also exhaust us.
And so out of these depths we cry. We cry out because that is all we can do. And we cry to Yahweh because if anyone, anyone, will hear us from the depths, it will have to be our God.
We cry and we wait. We wait as watchmen for the morning. Waiting for something we cannot control. But we wait in hope.
Because as much as crying out and waiting are acts of desperation, they are also acts of hope.
Hope that someone is listening. Hope that the one who might hear might also be able to act on our behalf. This was the hope of the Hebrew people as they were enslaved in Egypt. This has been the hope of Christian martyrs throughout the centuries. This was the hope of those imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps.
If you visit the site of the Dachau camp today, you will see the gate with the infamous, false motto. And you will see the barracks, where prisoners slept crowded together on hard bunks. And you will see the courtyard where people were shot often and for no reason. And you will see the buildings where medical experiments were conducted on human beings, crippling and often killing them. You will see the crematorium.
If you visit Dachau today, you will also see a memorial chapel. And if you enter the chapel, you can read these words:
Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
O Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
to my cry for mercy. . . .
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,
and in his word I put my hope. . . .
O Israel, put your hope in the LORD,
for with the LORD is unfailing love
and with him is full redemption.
It is striking to me that Psalm 130 is displayed at Dachau. I understand the relation of the beginning–of crying out from the depths. But what of the hope? How did the prisoners hope? Why did they hope?
And how dare we talk about hope when we know that millions of people were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. And how dare we talk about hope when the martyrs were killed for their faith. And even the freed Hebrews were only free to wander aimlessly in the desert for forty years. None of those who left Egypt with Moses got to live in the promised land.
How dare we talk about hope. How dare we talk about hope to the Lebanese mother whose home was destroyed and her children killed by Israeli bombs. How dare we talk about hope to the Israeli father whose son was killed in a terrorist attack.
Maybe the psalmist can get away with talking about hope. It makes for good poetry, anyway. But it seems like lousy theology. Certainly dishonest.
Yes, I think a theology of hope is dishonest if we mean it in the sense of hoping for something. If we’re hoping for a perfect relationship, hoping for and end to feeling sad about a loss, hoping for a feeling of happiness.
This is the hope that is peddled by the prosperity gospel preachers. Hope that God will deposit $100,000 in your bank account; hope that your children will be well-mannered and obedient; hope that you will feel bubbly and happy all the time; hope that the tumor will be benign.
Now, listen. I believe that God can provide for physical needs; God can mend family relationships; God can lift our spirits; God can heal diseases. God has done all of these things numerous times; God will do these things in the future. God can free the slaves. God can bring peace. God can liberate the camps.
But if our hope is in these things, these things we want to somehow manipulate God into doing for us, we may be sorely disappointed. Because sometimes the bank account is empty, the children are rebellious, the depression sets in, the tumor is malignant. Sometimes the slavery drags on for years and years. Prayers for peace are met with reports of more bombings, more death. Sometimes the smoke keeps rising from the crematorium.
And where does that leave our hope? Where does that leave us when we have hoped for God to sweep in like Superman and save the day?
O Israel, writes the psalmist, put your hope in the LORD.
I think we have to get our preposition right. We hope in Yahweh. We do not hope for specific actions. And we do not base our hope on specific actions that God has done in the past or that we think God might do in the future. Because when it comes to the activity of God, humans have never had much luck predicting outcomes.
No, we do not hope for God to do certain things. We simply hope in God. We base our hope in who God is–not on what God does. We hope because “with the LORD is unfailing love.”
The Hebrew term is “hesed.” Loving kindness; steadfast love; grace; mercy; faithfulness; goodness; devotion.” It is used 240 times in the Hebrew scriptures–the Old Testament. This hesed is at the heart of the Hebrew understanding of God. It is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching about God: the father who embraces the prodigal son; the mother hen who longs to gather her chicks under her wings; the God who loves the world so much . . . so much that he enters the depths with us.
It is because of this hesed, the unfathomably faithful love of God, that we can hope in the Lord. We have no guarantees about what will happen. But we can know in whom we hope.
It is Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew scriptures. The God that Eli Wiesel and other Jewish prisoners of the Nazis continued to worship all through their imprisonment. They witnessed to their hope by singing psalms as they were marched to the gas chamber.
We know in whom we hope. It is Jesus Christ, the Risen One. The God of the Christians of Dachau. The God the Orthodox Christians worshiped with exuberance on Easter Sunday, 1945, one week after the liberation of the camp.
In a chapel/barrack borrowed from the Catholic priests, with vestments sewn from towels and adorned with first-aid crosses, a hodge-podge group of Orthodox Christians celebrated the resurrection. Having no books, they recited the prayers, sermons, and scriptures from memory.
Despite the terror of their past. Despite the uncertainty of their future. They recited the Easter liturgy: “Christ has risen from the dead. By death, He conquered death, and to those in the graves, he granted life.”
The freed Christians of Dachau boldly proclaimed their hope in a God who loves passionately and steadfastly; their hope in a God somehow stronger than death itself. Amen.
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