Sermon for the Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
July 1, 2018 10:30 AM, Proper 8B
:ממעמקים קראתיך יהוה
:אדני שמעה בקולי תהיינה אזניך קשבות לקול תחנוני
:אם עונות תשמר יה אדני מי יעמד
:כי עמך הסליחה למען תורא
Out of the depths I have called to you, O LORD.
O my Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be focused on the sound of my supplication.
O my Lord, if you should mark iniquities,
who could stand?
For there is pardon with you
that you might be feared. (Psalm 130:1-4)
You had to stand in the house of sorrow to pray this prayer, and the house of sorrow lay first on the banks of the Tigris River in the beautiful city of Nebuchadnezzar. Yet the song makes as much sense today in other houses of sorrow by the shores of the Mediterranean in Tunis or by the Rio Grande in Texas. The depths of despair and anguish have no nationality only inhabitants; still, the first house of sorrow to hear this song stood in Babylon, where the older refugees remembered their homes in Bethlehem and Lachish, Hebron and Jericho. Others couldn’t remember—the younger ones, brought here to this unhappy place of detention or born within its walls of shame. If the children wondered what they were doing here, their Babylonian captors would tell them that they deserved this exile because their parents had defied the Son of Marduk. Their parents told them that their God had deserted them in the heat of battle. There were prophets that seemed to gloat over the ghetto, blaming the refugees for their plight because they or their parents had offended the LORD of Hosts and this resettlement camp amounted to punishment for their sins.
We hear the voice of that next generation of refugees and exiles in this psalm that the singer prays “out of the depths,” out of the depths of despair living as a hated minority in a city of sumptuous luxury, out of the depths of confusion about a God that would punish Israel with such wretched misery, out of the depths of the guilt and shame all refugees feel because they are refugees, wondering what they could have done to deserve their wretched isolation and hopelessness. Whoever had brought the young writer to this city, whatever sins his parents might have committed against the God of Israel or the lord of Babylon, the singer of this lament in the house of sorrow must work out how to live.
Our singer of laments clearly hasn’t read his handbook of religious etiquette lately. His prayer sounds so direct, naïve, even; but I’m struck by how the psalmist directs the Almighty to “pay attention” to the sound of his plea (אדני שמעה בקולי תהיינה אזניך קשבות לקול תחנוני:). An older priest might address the King of Creation with a little more decorcum than this, but the singer’s need is urgent and he needs for God to listen to him.
Just asking the old God of Israel to listen to anything or to do anything, though, sounded radical to some who heard this singer of laments. The prophet Ezekiel had informed the exiles in Babylon that their God was on an indefinite leave of absence, last seen riding out of Jerusalem’s temple on a chariot pulled by winged sphinxes. “Pray all you like,” they would tell the singer, “your prayers just bounce off the mud-brick walls of captivity.” Maybe he should pray to the real gods, the gods that defeated Israel’s God on Mt. Zion: Marduk and Ea, Enlil and Ishtar. The weakling God of Jacob couldn’t even defend the royal throne or the house of God’s abode. But our singer dared to call upon the LORD, for Babylon’s gods, for all their fearsome powers of war, had no compassion. They couldn’t even love each other, let alone the refuse of humanity gathered in the open-air jail on the River.
Does any God care for refugees? Do Syrians stranded on the Island of Lesbos still have the God they worshipped in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus to watch over them? Do the children our government so cruelly orphaned in these last weeks still have the God they knew in Guatemala or El Salvador to rescue them? Perhaps our singer would counsel them to sing anyway, to call on the God some believe has deserted them, to sing from the depths of their pain, from the depths of imprisonment, from the depths of hopelessness.
The abolitionist publisher and author, Frederick Douglass, recalled his years as a young slave, separated from his mother at an early age in order to serve his master’s brother Hugh Auld in Baltimore.
I was not more than thirteen years old, when in my loneliness and destitution I longed for some one to whom I could go, as to a father and protector. …
I consulted a good colored man named Charles Lawson, and in tones of holy affection he told me to pray, and to “cast all my care upon God.” This I sought to do; and though for weeks I was a poor, broken-hearted mourner, traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light, and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially, did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible. 
Finding a Bible to read, however, proved difficult since Master Hugh disapproved of slaves learning to read let alone possessing books, so Fredrick Douglass salvaged discarded pages and scraps of pages from street gutters, laboriously washed and dried them and learned to read them.
All the while, “Uncle Lawson” continued to give the young man encouragement and counsel:
When I would say to him, “How can these things be? And what can I do?” his simple reply was, “Trust in the Lord.” When I would tell him, “I am a slave, and a slave for life, how can I do anything?” he would quietly answer, “The Lord can make you free, my dear; all things are possible with Him; only have faith in God. ‘Ask, and it shall be given you.; If you want liberty, ask the Lord for it in faith, and He will give it to you.
I don’t know why Frederick Douglass trusted the counsel of “Uncle Lawson.” Everything in Douglass’s world told him that he would be a slave forever and that all of his efforts at self-education and spirituality would change nothing. If there’s an answer to the question, Douglass may have given it when he remarked that Uncle Lawson “was my spiritual father, and I loved him intensely.” Without that love, how could he have believed?
That love is what I hear in today’s psalm, though the song doesn’t contain the word. I hear the refugee, the exile asking for God’s presence in his “loneliness and destitution,” finding the power in that longing to believe that the God of Jacob had not deserted him for his failings or deserted Jacob for his sins but was the master of סליחה, the master of forgiveness and mercy. Nothing in his captivity guaranteed the truth of that belief or even suggested it, but it welled up within him like the conviction of the night watchers that the eyelids of dawn were about to open. The singer, even in his desolation, knew that God did not want him to be a refugee or a slave any more than God wanted any of the children of Israel to continue their subjection and suffering.
And in this time when all the powers of this world despise refugee children and its courts scorn them and their parents for their race and religion, I find encouragement in the anonymous prayer of that ancient exile who was sure that the Lord was full of compassion and mercy for despised people and their little ones, abounding in pardon and redemption for the most unlikely among them:
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
for with the LORD there is faithfulness;
and with him is plenteous salvation. (Psalm 130:7)
 Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Hartford, Conn.: Park Publishing Company, 1882), 110-111.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 112-113.
 Ibid., 112.