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Psalm 130

The alternate psalm text for this Sunday is Psalm 130, often titled De Profundis, after its opening line in Latin. Out of the depths . . . At least as far back as the Middle Ages, Psalm 130 was grouped liturgically with Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102 and 143 and known as The Penitential Psalms. Psalm 130 is also one of fifteen “Gradual Psalms” (from the Latin Vulgate, canticum graduum), these are psalms 119-133, believed to have been sung by pilgrims on their way to the temple in Jerusalem. I say all this to point out that this particular psalm, like Psalm 23, resonates deeply with us. Why? I think it’s because we all know or have known the depths out of which the psalmist cries. And while we can’t say exactly what the psalmist’s depths are, we can speculate. By the time the book of Psalms was put together in its final form, the Jewish people had only just returned home from exile in Babylon. So Psalm 130 may have been written at some time before that, even during the exilic period, when the people of Israel likely felt some measure of abandonment by the God who had led their ancestors out of Egypt. Dislocated from the Promised Land and relocated into a pagan land, the people in general and this psalmist in particular may well have despaired over exactly where and to whom they belonged. O Lord, hear my voice . . . O Lord, be attentive . . . Out of the depths, we cry to the Lord.

Last week, I walked into the room of an elderly woman. She was working on her teeth. Her new dental bridge was cutting into her gums tongue and causing her pain. She complained about her dentist and her crumbling teeth. Then we tried to get her one hearing aid to fit. Has to twist in the ear canal just so, but it kept falling out. She complained about her audiologist and her hearing. And she cried. And so did I. What else could I do? Or say? What can you say to your 80-year old mother about the futility of her complaining or the inevitability of her deteriorating capacity to eat and to hear? What do you say to a loved one whose real complaint is that she is living a kind of exile, trapped by Parkinson’s disease in her own body? What do you say to person who wants desperately to be heard, to be paid attention to, to be understood as caught up in the depths of human despair and distress? Out of the depths, I cry to you, O Lord, wails the psalmist.

If the first insight from Psalm 130 is that we all know or have known “the depths,” then the second and equally crucial insight is that we have permission to wail, to cry out from those depths that we know so painfully well. The psalmist readily acknowledges that if the Lord chose to keep a tally of our faults in order to bring us up on charges, we’d never stand a chance. But in point of fact, God—by nature—is merciful. God in fact does want to hear our voice. God in fact does want to be attentive to us. No matter how we got in over our head, by our own arrogant willfulness or by the natural consequences of the human condition, the Lord will listen. “For with the Lord there is steadfast love.” And there is the third insight from Psalm 130: no depth is so deep that we cannot be assured of God’s love for us. Or as Barbara Brown Taylor so elegantly puts it: we cannot fall further than God can catch us.

Well, that should do it then. A nice psalm, nicely unpacked. No. Wait a minute. Truth is, my mother in the nursing home are so overwhelmed by their own depths that she hardly has voice enough even to cry out to God. Truth is, sometimes our foibles and frailties leave us spiritually mute. Then what? Then we remember what kind of song this Psalm 130 is. A Song of Ascent. The Songs of Ascents were pilgrimage songs, most likely learned by heart, chanted in unison or responsively by groups of Jewish travelers on their way to Jerusalem. They were songs sung together on the way. But surely, along the way, among those groups of pilgrims, some fell victim to bandits . . . or some fell by the wayside, lost . . . or some became incapacitated or injured. Surely the rest kept singing.

Seems to me the psalms are primarily intended to speak, not so much to us, as for us. So perhaps the way to understand Psalm 130 is as a song we all need to be singing together, on our way in and through the depths we all encounter. And when some among us—like my mother hunched in her wheelchair—are unable to sing, we sing on her behalf. We cry out to God for them. We wait for the Lord with them. We proclaim the steadfast love of the Lord in unison. Because we are all on this pilgrimage of faith together. We are a chorus, and as we make our way, we bind up our wounded, pick up our fallen, seek out our wayward, and cry out to the Lord “who will redeem Israel.” Who will redeem us. Out of my mother’s depths I cry to you, O Lord. . . Lord hear my voice.