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October 6, 2019 - The Rev. Carrie Combs


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Proper 22 Year C, 10/6/2019
Preached at Trinity Episcopal Church in Collinsville, CT by the Rev. Carrie Combs
Psalm 137

Anthropologist Ruth Finnegan, a scholar of oral literature,
has noted that there are three types of songs
that are universal among human cultures:
the lullaby, the wedding song,
and the lament, or dirge, for someone who has died.
These three types of songs
speak to some of the most basic
and unifying human experiences:
people coming together, people having children,
and people dying.
These songs surround turning points in human life.
Humans sing to express emotion, to ritualize,
to formalize, to reflect.
And as a result, these experiences of birth, marriage, death,
are lifted up, sacred because they are wrapped in song.

As much as I’d love to talk about weddings or lullabies,
today’s Old Testament readings served us up
a heaping portion of lament.
We read the start of the book of Lamentations,
and prayed through one of - if not the -
most difficult psalms in the entire psalter,
from its sad beginning to its violent end.

Bible scholar Walter Bruegerman frames the psalm this way:
“No moral justification can be offered
for this notorious concluding line.
All one can do is recall the background
of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion:
the Babylonians have laid waste to Jerusalem,
exiled much of its population, looted and massacred;
the powerless captives, ordered - perhaps mockingly -
to sing their Zion songs,
respond instead with a lament
that is not really a song
and ends with this bloodcurdling curse
pronounced on their captors...”

That deep, deep pain may have been difficult to say aloud today.
And unlike many other of our sacred writings,
in this psalm there is no turn towards hope at the end.
There is no shift from anger to hopefulness,
no assurance of God’s mercy and intervention,
no picture of a better future.
There is just anger, and sadness,
and the recalling of vivid details so present, so painful.

What does it say about us, as a community,
that this curse, this lament, is in our sacred literature?
That we have the option - once every 3 years -
to recite it as part of our worship?
Are writings like Psalm 137 the reason we go to church?

Maybe it should be.
Not because of the wish for violence at the end,
but because Psalm 137
shows a profound grief
that cries out to be looked at, to be shared.
A grief caused by staggering loss that becomes sacred.

There is a tendency, I think,
to want to move from grief directly into hope,
at least in church.
After all, we believe in a resurrecting God,
a God who takes dead things
 and transforms them into new life.
We believe, ultimately, in the Good News.

But we also believe in a God who weeps.

A friend of mine once heard a Good Friday sermon
that went almost straight to the Easter miracle.
He complained,
“Can’t we have one day
where we can sit with our grief, and mourn our loss?”
We Christians know the ending of the story
and we can be quick to go there.
But just because we know the big picture ending
of resurrection
doesn’t mean we can skip over
all the hard parts in between,
all the confusion and dis-location that happens.

Grief comes about, ultimately, because of change.
Something has changed.

In the case of our reading,
horrible change has come
in the form of the Babylonian army razing Jerusalem,
exiling her people.

But in our own lives, too, change can lead to grief.
A person we love dies.
A child moves away or becomes estranged.
A long and fulfilling career draws to an end,
and brings uncertainty.
That happens on a personal level.

On a broader level,
we see change that causes a great amount of grief:
War breaking out, terrorists striking,
increasingly polarized politics,
climate change, the failure of familiar institutions.
If you watch the news, it can feel like
the world is changing, falling into chaos,
moving in a terrifying direction,
and all the things we used to be able to rely on
are gone.

And while I’m hesitant to draw
too detailed of a parallel
between the exiled Judeans and the modern church,
I wholeheartedly believe
we as a church are grieving,
as they grieved.
Trinity Collinsville is grieving
and the church as a whole is grieving.
Numbers are smaller, finances are tighter.
Beloved leaders have died or retired.
Families we love have moved away.
Church buildings have been sold
and either repurposed or destroyed.
They may not have been burned to the ground
like the Temple in Jerusalem
but we, as a faith community, feel dis-located, bewildered.
One writer calls the time period that we
as the North American church are in right now
“the Great Unraveling”.
It is a time after Christendom,
a time when the prominence and social status
that the church has enjoyed
since the reign of Charlemagne
has been diminished.
Church is no longer the most important thing
in most people’s lives,
in the fabric of their families and towns.
We as a church feel as though we are in exile,
living among people who do not understand
what we do or why we do it.
We might feel like strangers in our own land.

Another Sunday I will certainly preach on resurrection hope,
on the joy that comes from faith,
on the challenges and opportunities that we face
as a community in this post-Christendom period,
or as our bishops prefer we call it, “the New Missional Age.”

But for now, for today, I want to linger here.
I want us to have permission
to voice our anxiety and our loss and our fear and our confusion.

Because when we ignore our grief,
it doesn’t just go away.
It lingers, it festers.
It can paralyze us,
afraid that to move forward or change anything
would cause even more disruption.
It can turn into anger, and into violence,
the kind of desires we see at the end of Psalm 137.
It can cause us to shut down, shut others out,
afraid that to look in the painful place
would be too overwhelming to bear.

Instead, tell it. Lament.
Share whatever it is in your heart.
You might find someone who feels the same way,
or at the very least,
someone who will sit with you in that place.
I am willing to sit with you in that place.
We can hear each other’s stories, memories, fears,
and anxieties about the future.
We can hear it, look at it, honor it.

What we can’t do is ignore it.

Because it’s not going anywhere
And I wholeheartedly believe that it is holy.

As referred to in Lee, Nancy. Lyrics of Lament: From Tragedy to Transformation. Minneapolis: Fortress Press (2010). 7.

Brueggerman, Walter. “Conversations Among Exiles” Christian Century, July 2-9, 1997. Accessed October 5, 2019. https://www.religion-online.org/article/conversations-among-exiles/

Roxburgh, Alan. Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World: the New Shape of Church in Our Time. New York: Morehouse Publishing (2015).

September 29, 2019 - The Rev. Carrie Combs


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September 22, 2019 - The Rev. Carrie Combs


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September 15, 2019 - The Rev. Carrie Combs


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September 8, 2019 - The Rev. Carrie Combs


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September 1, 2019 - The Rev. Carrie Combs


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August 25, 2019 - The Rev. Carrie Combs


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May 26, 2019 - The Rev. Linda Spiers


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