Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | February 21, 2016

2016.02.21 “Roll Down, Justice: A Lenten Biblical Reflection Session 2: How Long?

Central United Methodist Church
Roll Down, Justice: A Lenten Biblical Reflection
Session 2: How Long?
Pastor David L. Haley
Psalm 137: 1 – 6
February 21st, 2016

 MightyFlowingStream copy

Note: This sermon series is adapted from the study, “Roll Down, Justice: A Lenten Biblical Reflection,” developed by the General Commission on Religion and Race of the United Methodist Church, written by Faye Wilson and featuring the music and reflections of life-long Methodist and musician Mark A. Miller. While I drew upon the suggestions of the study guide for each session, my reflections are my own. Before reading my reflection, please watch the video of Mark Miller’s reflection and music. – Pastor Haley

Session 2: How Long?

We wait for your coming
We wait for new life
We wait in our despairing
We wait through the strife
But how long?
How long?                                                                                           – By Mark A. Miller


Psalm 137: 1 – 6 (The New Revised Standard Version)

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion. On the willows there
we hung up our harps. For there our captors
asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?


After a week of Mark Miller’s musical lament running through my head, today I want to speak BEFORE we hear his reflection, for two reasons: (1) His music speaks powerfully, beyond the power of words to express, especially mine; and (2) because it gets to me, such that I’m not sure I WOULD be able to speak after hearing it.

Is there something you fear, so much that it has an incapacitating effect upon your life? Is there something that angers you, but as yet you have not found what you can do about it? Is there something that makes you sad, which you cannot escape? Are there times – can you think of a time – when you felt like an outsider?

If any of these are true, perhaps one thing you could do would be to write a lament: spoken, written, or musical. A lament is a passionate expression of fear, anger, sorrow, or alienation, expressed in music, poetry, or song. A lament is what we write or say or sing when we cannot find an answer to whatever it is that distresses us.

Do you know that many of the oldest and most lasting poems in human history are laments? Laments are present in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. They are found in the Hindu Vedas, and in ancient Near Eastern religious texts, including the Bible. Sometimes they are collective, the expression of a people over their grief at the fall of cities and countries, like Jerusalem. Sometimes they are personal, such as King David’s lament over the death of his son, Absalom. I’ve heard laments like that, haven’t you, the cries of a father or mother over their lost child.

Psalm 137, the Scripture underling Mark Miller’s reflection today, is a collective lament. It was the lament of the Jewish people in exile, strangers in a strange land, following the destruction of Judah and the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC, when the Jewish people were taken captive to Babylon. Though likely written after the experience, this lament is so evocative it has become one of the most famous Psalms, surfacing time and again in literature and music, because it resonates so powerfully in people’s experience:

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion. On the willows there
we hung up our harps. For there our captors
asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

Can you hear it? Can you feel it? We can, because at one time or another all of us have had the experience of feeling like an exile living in a strange land, living a life different than the life we once knew. It can happen at the times of transition in life, such as going away to college or the military, or later in life at retirement. It can happen through the loss of a job, or the loss of a relationship (such as a divorce). It can happen when disease makes good health a memory, or when we lose someone we love and have to live for awhile – maybe a long while – in the gray land of grief.

Some of us have had this experience of alienation literally, moving from the land of our birth here to America, sometimes feeling homesick, often feeling like an exile or stranger here. I’m sure some of you could share heart-breaking stories of times in your life when you felt the despair of waiting, when you felt abandoned, when you struggled to make a living, to make a life in what felt like a “foreign” land.

Others of us, both native and foreign born, have had the experience of looking out upon life and upon what we see in the news, seen the way people talk about and treat each other, seen the blatant injustices that still exist in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and we have felt like a stranger in a strange land. Some of us particularly feel that way during this election year.

Today, when we hear Mark Miller’s lament, we find that while it has a specific reference, it also has a universality to it, like all great art.

The specific reference of Mark’s lament was the death of Eric Garner on July 17, 2014, who died as the result of a chokehold administered by an NYPD officer, for selling illegal cigarettes on the street. And thus Mark Miller repeats – as many others protesting his death have repeated in protest since – Eric Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” While that video was upsetting to all who saw it, imagine what it must have been like for African-Americans, who could easily see themselves or their fathers or sons in such a situation, a simple offense turned into an execution.

Sadly, these incidents have happened too often, and the death of Eric Garner was not the first nor the last of a series of highly publicized deaths. After Eric Garner came Michael Brown in Ferguson (8/9/2014), Laquan McDonald in Chicago (10/20/2014), Tamir Rice in Cleveland (11/22/2014), Walter Scott in North Charleston (4/4/2015), Freddie Gray in Baltimore, (4/19/2015), and the murder of nine people in Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston (6/17/2015), followed less than a month later by the mysterious death of Sandra Bland (7/13/2015) in a Texas jail, following her arrest for a broken tail-light? And those are the ones made public because there were videos; what about those that never saw the light of day?

All of this has to be taken into the context of the history and treatment of African-Americans in this country, of segregation and lynching, and before that the long dark chain of slavery. No wonder Mark – who is biracial (Caucasian and African-American) sings, “How long, O Lord?” No wonder those of us who skin is any color other than white worry about yourselves and your children, and what situations they may find themselves in, somewhere down the road in their lives.

Beyond this specificity, there is a universality to Mark Miller’s lament as well, that appeals not only to those who are people of color, but to all of us. It is the lament that arises up out of our heart when we witness a homicide (and suicide) rate by gun death in our country, unlike that of any other civilized country, and especially here in Chicago (Chi-raq). It is the outrage that cries out at the periodic mass murders in our country (another just last night in Kalamazoo, MI). Like President Obama, I cannot believe that after we witnessed the massacre of school children in Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newton, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012 – four years ago – nothing substantial has transpired to try to prevent anything like this from ever happening again. The blood of those innocent children arises from the ground; the lament of those parents for those lost children still rings in our ears.

Further, the universality in Mark Miller’s lament speaks for us, because, as we go through life, we grow and change. With wisdom and maturity we realize it’s not just about us, about our people, our race, religion, or country; it’s about justice and compassion for all people, regardless of race, or religion, or country of origin. As Dr. King stated so eloquently in his letter from a Birmingham jail: Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Letter from Birmingham, Alabama jail, April 16, 1963.) And so Mark Miller’s lament “How long, O Lord?”- both speaks to and comes from our own hearts:

Finally, I would like to point out, that there are two directions a lament can go. Spoken and unheeded, laments of injustice can turn to vengeance and violence.

We did not read all of Psalm 137, because that is where it goes, spoken and wished, if not acted upon, too horrible to read in church. Verses 7 through 9:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!” O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Injustice, unaddressed, only leads to cycles of violence. Again, as Dr. King said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” (Strength to Love, 1963.)

The other direction in which a lament can lead is not to vengeance and violence, but to seek solutions to the problems we lament, about which we pray. As we sing and pray – sometimes with tears – may our tears water the seeds we plant through the work we do, that they may in time blossom into the peace and justice that we seek. Until that time we sing and we pray, “How long?”

Mark Miller: How Long? (here)


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