Psalm 35

I have a difficult and tender question which I offer for your reflection.

Can you remember a time when you were standing near someone who, in that moment, was cursing up a storm?

This experience of being so close to someone else’s outrage —so close you can feel the spit from their profanity— there’s no way this isn’t unsettling. It’s enough to put our defenses on high alert. Now you didn’t ask to stand beside someone unleashing all fury from heaven to earth, but here you are.

And of course, the context matters. It is one thing if you’re a small child and the person overcome by rage is the person in charge of your care. That’s really scary. It is one thing if the person who’s yelling is someone who behaves this way from time to time. You know something of what she is dealing with. More importantly, you know her, so her outbursts no longer cause panic.

A number of people at Church of Peace work in professions where getting cussed out is an occupational hazard. It happens to teachers, nurses, social workers, non-profit workers, counselors, law enforcement, anyone doing anything with customer care, and I know you could name more.

Now the people training you say, when someone cusses you out, do not take it personally. It is not about you. Do not let the venom of their anger get into your spirit. And you know these trainers are right. Only thing is, I’m not sure it is actually possible to be so near another person’s outrage and walk away unscathed. It still hurts. It’s like a smell that gets in your hair and your clothes.

Here’s what I’m wondering: could it be that we are repelled by someone else’s wrath, not because they have lost control and their behavior is scary, not because they are hurling obscenities, but is it possible that something in their outburst makes us ask ourselves: What if this were me? What if that rage flashed across the back of my eyes? What if I heard myself in my own voice shouting those words…

And I know. We would never act like this, especially not in public! But imagine if you did. Imagine what it would take to provoke all the cursing to rise up in you. Imagine what it would take to stand beside someone who’s enraged and hear the hurt inside their vitriol; then hear the truth inside their hurt; then see, here is something of God.

Here at Church of Peace, we are partway through our Year of Psalms. The banner of triangles in the back shows all the Psalms we have sung, and interrogated, and prayed since December. Today we’re beginning a new worship series on the dreadful Psalms. There’s a name for the cursing Psalms that I only learned recently; they’re called imprecatory Psalms. So be warned: Through the next few weeks, we will be hearing the vengeance of God. The scripture reading in church might evoke those feelings of standing beside someone who is cursing up a storm.

Usually, when we think of the Psalms, the imprecatory ones don’t rise to the top. Ask somebody to quote you snippet of a Psalm, you know they’ll say, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Or “I lift my eyes unto the hills; from where shall my help come?” or “Make a joyful noise unto the LORD!”

Nobody says “Let their way be dark and slippery with the angel of the LORD pursuing them!” That is not a commonly selected memory verse. Yet, these cursing Psalms are part of the collection.

Now there are two common approaches to dealing with these Psalms, and while I get why they’re appealing, neither approach is that helpful. The first one says, the right thing to do with these Psalms is to take them out. The book of Psalms is not a story you have to read from beginning to end; it is more like a hymnal. So why can’t we please just pick the good ones?

We want to feel comfort, and behold beauty, and be reminded of the deep, deep love of Jesus. Nobody comes to church to hear violent cursing! So if you turn to page six-hundred and forty-four of your hymnal, you’ll notice the editors of this Psalter made a decision about Psalm Thirty-Five. It is not in the hymnal; it is not safe for reading in church. That’s one approach.

The second one is also problematic. This approach involves Christians attempting to excuse the offensive Psalms by arguing that their authors simply did not know any better. “The composers of the Psalms did not have the opportunity to know Jesus, to hear him shame our zeal for revenge and teach compassion instead. See as Christians, we know better.”

And look. This argument disrespects the faith of our Jewish sisters and brothers. While Jesus advocated for mercy and compassion, he did not invent these ideas. There is wisdom and truth in the thunder of the old Hebrew poetry. There is God in these words. If only we can stand to hear them.

If only we can stand next to the person whose cursing is unleashed, even if this puts us in danger of having our own cursing unleashed. If that were to happen, what next…

Let there be no mistake, the singer of Psalm Thirty-Five is praying to God asking for revenge to strike his enemies. I believe there is power in prayer. Prayers asking for revenge are not innocuous. Every prayer goes into the universe. Every prayer you hear gets in you, like a smell that gets in your hair and in your clothes. No prayer leaves the world unchanged. And what can we do with these dreadful songs, except hear them, then hear them all the way.

Now what’s happening in Psalm Thirty-Five is the singer has been betrayed by someone he was close to. The enemies invoked in this song were not strangers. “As for me, when they were sick, I wore sackcloth. I fasted and prayed as though I grieved for a friend or a brother.” I prayed for them! I grieved for them! Then they turned on me. Then they mocked me and made up lies about me. They say, “Aha! our eyes have seen it!” And they are lying!

And I don’t know whether this has ever happened to you. I am sure there are people in this room who have been betrayed, who have had lies told about you.

These days in our nation, there’s increasing awareness that it is possible for individuals to be convicted of crimes they did not commit. Groups like The Center on Wrongful Convictions work to advocate on behalf of individuals who’ve experienced this. Certainly, there are practical matters of re-entry —explaining the false charge to prospective employers, finding housing from compassionate landlords.1For further reading see the books Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity by Alison Flowers, 2016 and Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, edited by Dave Eggers and Laurie Lola Vollen, 2005.  All of this is life-saving; but what about the harm that comes from somebody lying about who you are as a person, then everybody else believing that lie…

At the place of our deepest authenticity, all of us need to be believed. We need our pain to be acknowledged and understood. We need our truth to be acknowledged and understood, and we look to each other for help with this all the time. It’s like we’re always asking, “You can see me, right? You can prove I’m not invisible; this pain I’m feeling is real, right?”

So it’s no wonder these imprecatory Psalms are shimmering with cries for revenge. The Psalmist prays, “I want them to feel what they did to me! I want them to understand my pain in their bones!” Because who doesn’t want this. How can you live in this world as a human person and not need this?! It’s no wonder these songs cry out for empathy.

It is a wonder that the singer of these songs has not given up on summoning the LORD. The Psalmist has no more options. There are no advocacy groups working on a new trial, no chance to issue a press release repudiating the slanderous charges. There’s only God, and apparently, God is asleep. “You have seen them, O LORD! Do not be silent. O LORD, do not be far from me! Wake Up!” LORD in your mercy, hear our prayer.

When all he has left is the prayer that goes, O LORD, Wake Up! What does it matter that you are standing next to him hearing him curse up a storm, hearing him summon all the angels from heaven and earth, to please believe me! What does it matter that you are standing beside him listening to this? Only everything.

There’s nothing neutral about shouting curses into the universe. There’s nothing neutral about standing beside someone who’s doing this and hearing the hurt inside his rage, then hearing the truth inside his hurt.

This is dangerous work. There’s no way to try this and not have your own heart break in the same place as his. There’s no way to try this and not hear your own cursing come out of your mouth, your own prayer imploring the LORD our God to get here already and do something! There’s no way to pray this prayer then not hear what happens next. After the cursing, after the pleading, is the silence. And if you’re still here when the silence comes, what you’ll hear next is the breath of God, the rumble of grace.

It would be so easy to miss! So easy to turn on your heel and leave when the shouting begins! To do that, we would miss everything. So we’re going to stay with these prayers for a few weeks, and God willing, we’re going to stay with the people who pray them for all time. And just see if you don’t hear the mercy on the other side.

Somebody needs you to hear their hurt and believe them. Somebody needs you to stand there a whole minute longer and listen for the grace of God. Grace is what answers all the cursing of creation. We just need to hear it. Amen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. For further reading see the books Exoneree Diaries: The Fight for Innocence, Independence, and Identity by Alison Flowers, 2016 and Surviving Justice: America’s Wrongfully Convicted and Exonerated, edited by Dave Eggers and Laurie Lola Vollen, 2005.

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