This morning’s Psalm brings us into the lament of the Psalmist’s world. An army encamps against them. War rises up. Evildoers assail them – devouring their flesh. They are cut off from their family – from their mother and father. Lies and false witness swirl around them. Their enemies encircle them, breathing violence and harm. And they cry out to God, “Do not forsake me. Don’t turn me away, you who have been my help!”
The Psalm brings us into the lament of the Psalmist’s world, and I think, also, into the lament of our own. On Thursday, we read this Psalm in prayer group, and someone said, “All I can think of is Ukraine.”
For just over two weeks now – we have watched with the rest of the world – in horror – as Russian troops have invaded Ukraine – witnessing almost in real time the unfolding atrocity and human suffering. Because of staunch resistance, the Russians have yet to capture any major city. Instead, the Russian troops have encircled those cities and now lay siege to them. The bombing is indiscriminate – apartment buildings, universities, homes. This past week, the invading forces bombed a maternity hospital in Mariupol – one of at least 26 hospitals that have been bombed. One journalist described the current status of the war this past week like this: “The war is eerily stalled. The Russians have encircled the cities, bombing that which they cannot control, over and over.”
And we witness the dislocation of millions of people fleeing for their lives. Last week, when I fact-checked what I was going to say in worship, it was accurate to say that hundreds of thousands of people were fleeing. One week later, more than 2 million Ukrainians have fled their homeland and are now refugees in neighboring nations.
I listened to a report this week from two New York Times journalists fleeing Kiev with the Ukrainian refugees. Like many other news organizations, the Times directed their journalists to evacuate the capital city. Valerie Hopkins and Sabrina Tavernise – drove out of Kiev in the early morning hours – joining the flow of vehicles and families heading west to Lviv. A journey that usually takes 7 hours took two nights and two days – as they negotiated barricades and checkpoints.
Along the way, as they sat in traffic, they would roll down the windows and talk to families in the neighboring cars – cars filled with people and belongings and pets – some cars with signs that said “CHILDREN” on the windows in the hope that that might offer some protection. Folks were eager to talk to get word out as to what they are experiencing. One family described enduring days of bombing – explosion after explosion – the children terrified – having to head down to the basement for shelter – again and again. They described waiting and waiting and waiting – until there was “just this moment” when it became clear they had to go – and “then it was Go, Go, Go” – with a sense of life-threatening urgency. One family said they just grew tired of sitting in their basement “like a coffin,” and knew it was time to leave. The families described how it felt – deep sorrow – “a heaviness” – “like the world pressing down.”
At some point on that first day, it became clear that they weren’t going to make it to Lviv by nightfall, and it was snowing – so the journalists called around to find somewhere to stay. The hotels were full, but they were directed to a kindergarten that was being opened up. They arrived, were greeted warmly, and were taken to the kindergarten classroom where they would spend the night –with tiny desks, and a brightly painted giraffe and palm tree on the wall. Families started to arrive – grandparents, parents, and kids – what would eventually be 50 people sharing the space. The kindergarten director served them all a chicken stew she had prepared, and they shared their stories.
The next day they made their way to Lviv – which they describe as a place where families say good-bye. The women, children, and elderly will go on to neighboring countries, mainly Poland; the men – having brought their families to safety – will return to resist.
In the Lviv train station, they came upon a 7-year-old boy sitting alone on a pile of suitcases, making something with Legos. He introduced himself – Tim – and explained that his mother had gone upstairs to get them tea. He chattered on. He’s 7. He speaks Ukrainian, Russian, and English – is very proud of that. In that moment he had no idea where he was, but he knew he was from Slovyansk. His father had stayed behind. And then Tim showed them his coat: “This is the coat my grandmother gave me for the journey. It’s like my grandmother. It’s very warm.”
Our world is full of the lament from Ukraine. These images of families fleeing for their lives stays with us. I was so grateful this week for a conversation with Martha Spears, when she reminded me that this latest human tragedy – is yet another wave of human displacement – perhaps getting more attention because those suffering this time are European. Just last August, we saw thousands fleeing Afghanistan as the United States withdrew its troops – our community particularly mobilized by our beloved Asma Eschen and years of relationship with the Afghan people. We can remember the surge three years ago of Syrian people fleeing their homeland.
We approach all this with some humility as we remember refugees who have shown up on our own southern border. Not too long ago, our nation saw thousands of Haitian people show up on our border, fleeing the violence of their homeland. The current Administration turned them away – quietly flying them back to the violence homeland. And we know of the continuing movement of people from the violence of Central America, and we know how the last Administration detained those refugees, separating children from their families. None of that matches the welcome we have seen other nations extend to refugees these past two weeks.
We have become familiar with these images of masses of people and families displaced from their homes. That particular lament has become a steady reality of our world. And if we are clear-eyed about it – it is only likely to increase – not diminish – as scientists tell us that, in so many ways, we have now done irreversible harm to the planet – and that one of the growing impacts of climate catastrophe is and will be the continuing displacement of people – millions of climate refugees.
The lament of our world – echoes – and then merges and blends with the lament that rises up out of scripture – this lament that resonates across the generations, across the centuries – the lament of peoples displaced from their home, seeking shelter and refuge. We don’t know when this morning’s Psalm was written – but we do know that the story of the Hebrew Scriptures is, from beginning to end, the story of the displacement and dislocation of peoples. Migrating peoples – strangers in a strange land – enslaved in Egypt – wandering in the wilderness – settling as a tiny nation in the midst of marauding empires. Armies that sweep through – dispersing some tribes forever– and taking others into captivity. This morning’s Psalm reads like an individual lament: “God is my light and my salvation – God is the stronghold of my life – though enemies encamp against me.” But over the years, it became the song of a people – a shared cry of lament from shared experiences of trauma.
Given the pain of the people that reverberates over the centuries, the fact of this lament may not itself be surprising. What is surprising in Psalm 27 – what deserves our notice – is how this Psalm holds this lament side by side with hope. It is not a cheap hope or a glib hope. The peril is real and near. The psalm is a cry for help. “Hear me God when I cry! Don’t turn away! Be gracious to me and answer me!”
And, the psalm is at the same time full to the brim with trust and hope. “God will shelter me in my time of trouble. I will dwell in the shelter of God’s house. God will hide me under their tent flap. God will put me high on a rock, where the jackals and their snapping jaws can’t reach me.” In the midst of lament – these cascading images of God as refuge and shelter– our light and our salvation, our house and home, our tent, our stronghold.
We get something of that too in our Gospel reading. Jesus is teaching, and healing, and proclaiming a new world – God’s new order. And the Pharisees show up to tell him he’s in peril – they bring word from a tyrant – King Herod – whose power Jesus is threatening. “Jesus, Herod wants to kill you. Watch out.” Now, we don’t know if they are being helpful (maybe like those progressive Birmingham preachers who told Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. it was too dangerous to come to town) – or maybe they are trying to intimidate and silence Jesus. Whatever their motives, the peril is real – not only the peril for Jesus – but the peril abroad in the world. And Jesus says, “You go and tell that fox – you go tell Herod – that I will be preaching and healing today, and the day after that – and then on the third day I must move on.” He can find me on the move, doing what I’m called to do.
And then Jesus laments. Not just for himself – but for Jerusalem – for the systems that need to come down – for the people who are being crushed – maybe even for the Pharisees. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem – how I have desired to gather your children like a mother hen gathers and shelters her brood under her wings!”
Now, the Greek word that expresses Jesus’s desire is the same one that expresses Herod’s. Herod desires to kill Jesus. Jesus desires to shelter Jerusalem and all the people like a mother hen shelters her brood. Jesus’ desire – God’s desire – is diametrically opposed to Herod’s – to the desire of empire.
Herod, the rabid fox, breathing death and violence –
Jesus, the mother hen sheltering her brood.
As Wil Gafney notes, Christ longs to mother us – to protect, to nourish, to nurture, to love. Christ, our mother. “O Jerusalem! How I have longed to shelter you like a mother hen shelters her brood under her wing!”
All this lament – all this unlikely hope – all that washes over us – but it begs the question so many of us have been asking this week – what can I do? I want to suggest three things – a reflection, a spiritual practice, and an action.
· First, take a moment to reflect – to absorb this lament – and to honor your own experience and theirs. What is all this lament stirring up in you? What are you feeling as you yearn for shelter for the Ukrainian people? What is your lament? What is shelter and refuge for you?
· Second – a spiritual practice: This week, memorize a psalm. Or as we used to say in elementary school, learn it by heart. We don’t have these psalms by accident. These psalms emerged out of one generation, and then had meaning for the next, and then the next. These psalms have sustained people over the centuries – honest, earthy expressions of the heights and the depths of life -- a deep wellspring of wisdom and hope. Maybe it’s this psalm: God is my light and my salvation. Surely I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
Or maybe Psalm 46: “God is my refuge and my strength, an ever present help in times of trouble. Therefore, I will not fear though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the sea.”
Or Psalm 23: God is my shepherd I shall not want; she makes me lie down in green pastures; she leads me beside still waters... yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Or maybe Psalm 121: I lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. My help comes from God.
When we memorize a psalm, we take it into ourselves, so that it is there, when we need to draw deeply from the well of God’s grace.
· And third, act. I think conceptually one of the things that has made the question, “What can I do?” so frustrating this week, is that the pain that feels so near and present is a world away. So do something local. You can give to help Ukrainian refugees. Or help someone – anyone – who is in need of shelter and refuge. Who IS within reach? What’s one thing you can do?
Just as our screens have been filled with lament, they’ve also been filled with images of people responding to heartbreaking lament with real help. Poland has received more than half of the 2 million refugees. One week into the refugee crisis, the border town of Przemysi – a town of 60,000 people – had welcomed 70, to 80,000 refugees – with soup and coats and places to stay as the refugees make their way on to homes throughout Poland and other nations.
The BBC reported on a group of German paramedics heading to the Polish border towns – in buses that they have equipped to be mobile hospitals to provide medical care to the refugees.
And maybe you saw the German father and daughter – the Karstens – who loaded up their car – drove hundreds of miles with food and supplies for the refugees – and then stood outside the train station with a sign that said, “We can provide shelter for 6 people.” They eventually bundled a family into their car – and took them home.
This morning’s psalm takes seriously the suffering of the world and gives it voice. And, at the same time, the psalm holds that lament with hope – hope in a God who is our shelter and our strength.
In the midst of peril and pain, unmoored from all I know,
Surely, I will dwell in the shelter of God’s house.
God will protect me under the flap of God’s tent.
God is our stronghold.
God is like a mother who shelters her brood under her wings.
God is like a kindergarten administrator, who prepares 50 cots, and cooks up a chicken stew.
God is like a father and daughter standing with a sign, “We can shelter six of you.” And like the family standing next to them with their sign.
God is like 7-year-old Tim’s grandmother and the coat she gave him – when she dressed him to go, and said here is this coat, “It will keep you warm.”
And so the Psalmist says –
Let your heart take courage. Have hope.
Though an army encamp against me,
surely I will see the goodness of God in the land of the living.
© 2022 Scott Clark
Our worship series this Lent draws from resources created by SanctifiedArt, a collective of artists in ministry, including scriptural commentary by Rev. Ashley DeTar Birt, Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, and Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity. All copyrighted material is licensed and used with permission, with our deep gratitude to the SanctifiedArts collective.
 See “Inside Russia’s Embattled Cities,” The Daily podcast, New York Times, March 10, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/10/podcasts/the-daily/ukraine-russia-war.html?action=click&module=audio-series-bar®ion=header&pgtype=Article  See id.  See “On the Road With Ukraine’s Refugees,” The Daily podcast, New York Times, March 7, 2022, at https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/07/podcasts/the-daily/ukraine-refugees-russia-war.html?  See https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/haitian-migrants-face-crucial-choices-expulsion-flights-ramp-up-2021-09-23/  See UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/ , Section 7.6.2; “Time Is Running Out to Avert a Harrowing Future, Climate Panel Warns,” https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/climate/climate-change-ipcc-un-report.html ; “Climate change: IPCC report warns of ‘irreversible’ impacts of global warming,” https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-60525591  See Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014); Gallagher Branch, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2008); Jerome Creach, Commentary on Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany/commentary-on-psalm-271-4-9-4  See Commentaries by Michael B. Curry and Leslie, J. Hoppe in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), pp.68-73.  See Jeremy L. Williams, Commentary on Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-luke-1331-35-5  See Wil Gafnery, “Christ Our Mother,” at https://www.wilgafney.com/2016/02/21/christ-our-mother/  See 60 Minutes reporting at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YD_Etmv3Qm0  See BBC reporting, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lrkNmAKEaZ4
Image by Todd Tripani, used with permission via Unsplash