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Psalms of Liberation -- Psalms 137 and 126 (Juneteenth & the 3rd Sunday After Pentecost)

Updated: Jun 19, 2023

On June 19th, 1865 – two months after the Civil War ended – Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, and United States Major General Gordon Granger read and posted the following order:

The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive [the President] of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired laborer.[1]

Now, the Emancipation Proclamation had been issued more than two years before that day – but we know that the Civil War raged on well after that, and that the confederate states continued to fight to maintain the institution of slavery and continued to enslave human beings. On June 19th, 1865 – the day we now observe as Juneteenth – as that day dawned in Texas, emancipation had not yet become a reality.

The Civil War had been over for two months. But the former confederate states did not readily repent and relent their enslaving ways – and so word had to travel with the authority and power to enforce it.

And so, on June 19th, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived and read and posted General Order No. 3, with the might to back it up. Juneteenth – now a United States holiday – marks that moment – long-celebrated in the African-American community – when the word of liberation reached Texas, the Westernmost Confederate state – the moment it became real: “The people of Texas are informed that all those who have been enslaved are now free.”

Imagine – imagine what that moment must have been like for those who had been enslaved. Some of those hearing those words had been born in Africa.[2] They had been brutally kidnapped, chained, enslaved, and taken from their families and their homeland. They had somehow survived the horrors of the Middle Passage – so many enslaved people crammed into ships crossing the Atlantic – so many dying along the way. And when they arrived on the shores of the US, they had been sold on an auction block.

Others hearing those words on Juneteenth had lived their whole lives in slavery. Their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents had been taken from Africa – and their family members down through the generations enslaved, sold, separated from each other, transported across the Southern states until they had arrived in Texas.

All of those hearing those words that day knew the horrors of slavery. Brutal forced labor, rape, every kind of violence. As Nikole Hannah-Jones describes it, “Enslaved people were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.”[3] They knew all that in their bodies and their lives.

And now, they heard these words:

All those who have been enslaved are now free.”

When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. 2 Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “Their God has done great things for them.” 3 Our God has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

Imagine what that Juneteenth moment must have been like for those who had been enslaved. Psalm 126 sings liberation like that.

Psalm 126 likely arose as a song of a people recently returned from captivity in Babylon.[4] They too had been taken violently from their homeland, part of the plunder of war – carted off to Babylon – into exile far from home, as all they knew was laid waste. Psalm 137 laments the cruelty of their captivity:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered [our home]. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How can we sing the songs of our God while in a foreign land?

Robert Alter calls Psalm 137 the “the impossible Psalm” – the lament is so painful that it renders the very psalm itself impossible to sing – “In the pain of this moment, how can we sing the songs of home?” as they hang their harps in the trees.

Then, in Psalm 126, when they are allowed to go home, when they are – at last, free – those songs burst forth, “When God restored our fortunes, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” In the verses that follow, the Psalm compares it to streams in the desert – for them the wadis of the desert – what we, in California, might know as arroyos – those dry, parched places that, when the rains come, become streams of flowing water.

This summer we will be immersing ourselves in the breadth and depth of the Psalms – what some have called “the songbook (or the prayerbook) of Scripture.” We’ll experience the Psalms as they sing – with blunt, poetic honesty – the whole of human experience – the lament, the liberation, the joy, the suffering, the anger, the quiet desperation, the fear, the learning, the thirsting, the regret, the forgiveness, the peril, the rescue, the comfort of community, the betrayal of friends – all of life – laid bare – waiting to be sung – waiting to be sung by a people longing for a God who longs for them. This summer, we’ll join the multitudes around the world, down through the generations, and across traditions – who have turned to the Psalms – prayed them, sung them – through the whole of life – as a way of seeking and talking to a living God – “sometimes,” as one writer says, “in language we never would have imagined would come from our lips to God’s ear.”[5]

We’ll have time over the course of the summer to consider those things as we read and pray the Psalms. For now, let’s notice this about Psalms 137 and Psalm 126. They hold together both lament and liberation – both sorrow and joy – God, experienced in both. In the pain of Psalm 137 – “By the rivers of Babylon,” tormented by their captors – there is a song of God’s liberation poised there in the strings of the harps waiting for them in the poplars along the rivers. And, in the songs of joy that spring forth in Psalm 126 – “When God restored the fortunes of Zion” – even then, the pain of captivity is still fresh and raw – the memory and trauma never too far off.

Notice that these psalms hold together both memory and hope. Psalm 126 begins with a memory of that time – that time when God restored the fortunes of Zion – when after the pain of captivity and exile, God brought us back home.

But then, that memory becomes a present plea. “When God restored the fortunes of Zion...” Remember... God do that now. Do that again. Now. “Restore our fortunes, O God.” They find themselves back home, now facing the next trouble. They have returned to a homeland that had been burned to the ground – they have to rebuild... everything – and life is hard. And so they remember the God who rescued them, and they sing that liberation into their present distress.

Notice this Psalm is a living text. The people remember their encounter with God – in lament and liberation. They sing that memory into the present moment, and the hope pulses off the page. We see the long season of planting and harvest: Those who go out to sow with tears – out in the lament of hard labor – return with the harvest of God’s liberation. They go out weeping, and return with songs of joy. They are transformed, they are freed, as they join in the continuing experience of God’s liberating love. The Psalm comes to life in them. The Psalm transforms them and the world. Lament flowing into liberation. Parched desert earth, gushing forth with living water. Weeping transformed to songs of joy.

As we move through the Psalms this summer, maybe we can ask of these psalms we read, for each of them:

1. What is the lament?

2. What is the liberation?

3. What does this Psalm require of us?

What does the Psalm require of us for it to come to life in us?

What does the Psalm require of us if we are to be transformed?

As we read these Psalms, on Juneteenth, maybe we can ask those questions of that day. We hear the lament rising up out of the horrors of slavery. We hear the words of liberation: “All those who have been enslaved are now free.” And we ask, What must that have meant to those who had been enslaved?

But then, let’s also ask this: What must that have meant for those who had participated in the enslaving? For those who had been complicit? For the white folks of Texas, hearing those words, what did that day require of them?

It required them to stop. Stop. Stop brutally enslaving other human beings. Stop the violence. Stop the degradation. Stop making money on the stolen labor and lives of others. Tear down the institution – from floor to rafter – stop your enslaving ways. Period.

But we know – that though the institution of slavery was declared dead that day – resistance was fierce – and the power-over of American racism mutated into systems that persist to this day. We have studied that here in our anti-racism learning and work.

From the work of Michelle Alexander and others, we know:

· how white resistance to Reconstruction was enacted into laws known as Jim Crow;

· how that resistance persisted through the legislative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement;

· and how a New Jim Crow persists to this day in judicial systems that result in the disproportionate mass incarceration of Black Americans.[6]

From the work of Isabel Wilkerson and others, we know how racialized systems of housing and school segregation persist – part of what Wilkerson calls an intricate caste system that continues to harm Black Americans and benefit white Americans.[7] The Golden Gate Village Residents Council continues to school us in how those systems of housing and school segregation persist here in Marin County. We continue to learn how our benefitting from those systems that harm others is complicity.

Just as the liberation of Juneteenth reverberates on down the years into the present day, so too does the lament. The work of liberation is by no means complete. And so – particularly in a community here that is predominantly not Black – as we remember and celebrate Juneteenth -- for it is a joyous day indeed – it’s also on us to ask: What does Juneteenth require of us? What do these psalms of liberation and lament require of us?

To paraphrase something Professor Yolanda Norton when she preached here: They require that we stop. Stop participating in systems that oppress. And then, that we join the work to actively dismantle them.

That’s the broad answer, but I also want to be specific – because we often ask that question: But what can we do? It’s actually not hard to find work that is ours to do. It’s right there in front of us. We can start with communities and organizations we know who have had the grace to invite us into this good work.

We can celebrate Juneteenth and remember and tell the history. Tomorrow. The residents of Golden Gate Village (and the Friends of GGV, the Ministerial Alliance, and the Marin City Community) have invited us to celebrate and recommit to the work of Juneteenth in the Marin City celebrations –there’s a Prayer Breakfast (that may be sold out) – you can join in 10:30am opening ceremonies and march.

We can join the work. For the past few years, those same communities have invited us to be active in continuing issues of racial justice here in Marin County, particularly by speaking up with the Board of Supervisors – most recently – (1) against the racism embedded in the Drake Avenue development project, and, (2) for a citizen’s commission to hold accountable the Marin County Sheriff’s Office. (Barbara Rothkrug went and spoke on that at the Board of Supervisors meeting this past week.)

We can support organizations that do the work – particularly those led by people of color. Just a few weeks ago, Yolanda Norton was here, and she shared the work of the Global Arts and Theology Experience (GATE) – as they continue the good work of the Beyoncé Mass and work to launch the Black Girl Magic Academy – as GATE continues its work to lift up Black women and girls making a difference in the world. We can support their Juneteenth initiative by giving on the GATE website.

And as we act, we can continue our learning and join our voices in telling this part of American history and telling it true. When I post the text of this sermon, it will have footnotes to the works I’ve referenced here. Give them a read. For Juneteenth and as we head toward the 4th of July, I particularly recommend reading some from The 1619 Project.

And we can connect that learning and work, as an integral part of our spiritual life. As we begin our Psalm series, I’m reading Psalms for Black Lives: Reflections for the Work of Liberation. And did you know that our friend Rev. Floyd Thompkins has a new book coming out? Nobody Told Me That the Road Would Be Easy: Devotions for People Working for Justice and Peace – set to be released on June 26.[8] Either of those books would be a good summer companion for exploring and engaging the work of racial justice.

On June 19th, 1865, folks who had been enslaved stood in a crowd and listened to a United States general proclaim these words: “All those who have been enslaved are now free.” That moment birthed a new reality; it made the promises of our Constitution a little bit more true. And all these years later, Juneteenth invites us to remember, and to celebrate, and to commit again to the work of liberation that came to life in that moment – to let these Psalms come to life in us as we sing – to hope for and live for a world that might look like this, every day:

When God restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. 2 Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “Their God has done great things for them.” 3 Our God has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

May it be so – like that – in you and in me, and in the lives we live.

© 2023 Scott Clark

[1] See ; “What Is Juneteenth?” from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, at [2] The work of The 1619 Project, led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, chronicles, details, and critiques the American institution of slavery and its continuing impacts to this day in the entrenched systems of American racism. The inaugural work of The 1619 Project was a full issue of The New York Times Magazine, which you can find and read here: The work has continued with multiple voices lifted up in print and podcast, and is also reflected in the book that bears the Project’s name: Nikole Hannah-Jones, ed., The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story (New York, NY: One World, 2021). [3] Nikole Hannah-Jones, The 1619 Project, The New York Times Magazine (August 18, 2019), [4] For background on Psalms 126 and 137 and on the psalms generally, see Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger, Psalms (New York, NY; Cambridge University Press, 2014); Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007); Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Lanham, MD; Roman Littlefield Publishers, 2001); W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., Commentary on Working Preacher, at [5] Davis, p.17. [6] See Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press: New York, 2011). [7] See Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York, NY: Random House, 2020). [8] See

Photo credit: Library of Congress, public domain.


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