Second Sunday after the Epiphany
As he stood on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery on March 25, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. had good reason to wonder how long the struggle for justice in which he had been engaged for a decade would drag on. He had good reason to be weary. He was physically weary, having just completed the 54-mile walk from Selma to Montgomery to demonstrate for voting rights. But it went deeper than being tired and footsore. The violence with which Governor George Wallace’s state troopers had met the first attempt at the march had dealt a psychic blow to King and the other leaders who felt such intense responsibility for the rank-and-file civil rights protesters.
On top of that, King had been taking serious heat for the last two weeks for his decision not to march two days after that first attempt. In an agreement with President Johnson that had not been relayed to the great mass of marchers, he had decided to make a symbolic trip to the Edmund Pettis Bridge, lead a short prayer service, and then return to Selma. This decision had really ramped up the criticism that many of the younger, more radical civil rights leaders had already begun to direct at him.
On top of all that, King was feeling the strain of being the public face of a highly controversial movement. He had become the central focus of the hopes of millions of African Americans throughout the South and also of the anger of millions of whites who wanted to maintain segregation and the myth of racial superiority it protected and nurtured. He was dealing with a presidential administration whose commitment to the cause of justice ebbed and flowed with the tides of political expediency. And despite the great accomplishment his movement had achieved in cooperation with the Johnson administration the previous year, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, King knew that genuine, lasting change would not occur until black people’s right to vote was protected by similar legislation.
Who could blame him if he felt the temptation sometimes to give up the fight, give in to cynicism, conclude that things would never change, so why bother? Who could accuse him of not having paid his dues? Death threats, a near-fatal stabbing, the bombing of his home, and serving as the unwilling repository of the desperate hopes and intractable hatred of practically an entire nation would be enough for anyone to want to call it quits. How long would he have to keep swimming against these strong currents before he reached anything resembling a resting place? How long until his people’s righteous struggle finally ended in victory? How long could he keep it up before his heart or nervous system or sense of hope gave out?
But, as we know, he did not give up. He continued the struggle through mounting resistance and turmoil, expanding the movement’s vision from the fight against segregation to a broader attack on the root causes of poverty and a controversial stance against the Vietnam War. The challenges to his authority from within the movement continued, as did the political friction and death threats from without, until James Earl Ray finally followed through on one of those threats by shooting King dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis in April 1968.
The struggle for justice has continued, and now, forty-nine years since King's death, and fifty-two years since the march from Selma to Montgomery, one could argue that the question remains the same: how long until the struggle finally ends in victory? We have made great strides in the intervening half-century in improved race relations, more respect for LGBTQ rights, greater equality between the sexes, and so on, but we have also seen our society take significant steps backward in these and other areas. As we ponder the deep ideological polarization in our country and the growing boldness of racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiments and actions, we find ourselves once again asking, How long, O Lord? How long?
Martin Luther King voiced that very question in his speech that day in Montgomery. He put into words the doubts he imagined his listeners felt when he asserted the eventual victory of good over evil, love over hate, justice over oppression. He said:
I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” Somebody’s asking, “How long will prejudice blind the visions of [people], darken their understanding, and drive bright-eyed wisdom from her sacred throne?” Somebody’s asking, “When will wounded justice, lying prostrate on the streets of Selma and Birmingham and communities all over the South, be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among [humanity]?” Somebody’s asking, “When will the radiant star of hope be plunged against the nocturnal bosom of this lonely night, plucked from weary souls with chains of fear and the manacles of death? How long will justice be crucified, and truth bear it?”
In spite of all his very plausible reasons for resignation or even despair, King still clung to hope. It was a hope rooted in faith. A defiant hope, which is the only legitimate kind of hope in a world like ours, where wrong so often seems triumphant, while truth and goodness have such an uphill battle. In one of the rhetorical crescendoes for which he was justly famous, King announced this hope of his in ringing tones, like a bell pealing out freedom and victory while smoke still hung over the battlefield:
I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because “truth crushed to earth will rise again.” How long? Not long, because “no lie can live forever.” How long? Not long, because “you shall reap what you sow.” … How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.
In U2's take on the fortieth psalm, simply entitled “40,” they include a refrain that echoes King’s words: “How long to sing this song?” How long must we sing our songs of hope without fulfillment? How long can we maintain our faith in the direction of the moral universe’s arc? How long before our singing the new song God has put in our mouths starts to sound like mockery instead of praise? The question of how long to sing the song seems to call into question the line that comes before it, “I will sing, sing a new song.” It sounds as if the singer has begun to find his own hopeful song of gratitude hollow and grating. How long must we continue to sing this song that feels more and more like a charade the longer our hopes go unfulfilled?
These words that Bono sings, “How long to sing this song?” do not appear in the psalm itself, but they capture its spirit quite well. That’s hard to tell from the verses the lectionary has chosen for us, but it becomes clearer when we read the remainder of the psalm. The first ten verses sound like unmitigated thanksgiving. God has delivered the psalmist from some terrible situation, and the psalmist in turn extols God in praise. Only at verse 11, the last verse in our reading for today, do we begin to get a whiff of something more discordant. “Do not, O Lord, withhold your mercy from me” introduces for the first time since the act of deliverance described in verses 1–3 the possibility that God’s mercy might be in doubt.
But things really take a turn when we move on to verse 12. The note of joy and the sense of salvation disappears and is replaced by something much darker: “For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me.” The psalmist follows this miserable lament by pleading, “Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me” (v. 13). This doesn’t sound much like the report the psalmist gives in verse 1: “I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.” The patient waiting seems to have come to an end.
Except that most of the commentaries I have read on this psalm suggest that “I waited patiently” is actually not a very good translation of the Hebrew of verse 1. In fact, the consensus seems to point in the opposite direction from patience. For example, Nancy deClaissé-Walford points out that the root of the verb is qavah, “which carries the idea of ‘hopeful anticipation’ or ‘anxious waiting,’” and therefore suggests that “the psalmist is ‘actively, anxiously waiting, with every fiber of the being.’”
The implication of this revised translation is that the psalmist, upon finding herself at the bottom of the “desolate pit,” hip-deep in the “miry bog,” did not accept that condition fatalistically, as the natural order of things, but looked with hopeful anticipation for deliverance. A further implication we might draw is that the psalmist did not sit idly in the mud, twiddling her thumbs, but rather worked diligently to escape the pit. She knew that deliverance comes only from God, but that we each have a role to play in cooperating with God to make that deliverance a reality.
This is the same attitude Martin Luther King expressed in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” in which he explained to the white clergy of that city why their counsel of patience in the face of injustice was unacceptable. The letter appears as a chapter in King’s book Why We Can’t Wait, and it expresses his conviction that when one urges patient endurance to those who are suffering, one has actually taken sides with those who are causing the suffering. He makes an eloquent defense of the civil rights leaders’ tactics of provoking a response from segregationists through nonviolent confrontation, and gives us a clue to why he never did give up his struggle for justice despite the obstacles and long odds. He called on God to pull his people out of the miry bog and set their feet on the rock, and then he led them to cooperate with God in that work of deliverance.
When we read the entire psalm, not just the eleven verses of our lectionary reading, we get a realistic picture of the two-steps-up-and-one-step-back nature of the struggle of discipleship. The first two verses tell the story of the psalmist’s deliverance from the desolate pit. The next eight verses show the psalmist thanking God for that deliverance and declaring God’s praises to anyone willing to listen. Verse 11 introduces that first unsettling hint of doubt, where the psalmist implores God not to withhold God’s mercy. The following verse shows how the cycle has repeated itself. The psalmist has once again fallen into the pit, where she feels overwhelmed by her own iniquities and says, “My heart fails me.” The balance of the psalm serves as an earnest, almost desperate prayer that God would once again pull her up and set her feet on the rock. It concludes in verse 17 with this plea: “You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.”
Martin Luther King had seen enough to know that the victories the movement had accomplished to that point would be met with resistance and followed by heightened challenges. He was already experiencing some of those challenges as he stood on the steps of the Capitol in Montgomery. He understood that more pits and bogs lay ahead, and sometimes there would simply be no way to go around them. So he would lead his people in singing the new song, and he would continue to ask “How long,” and he would wait in hopeful anticipation and seek to cooperate in God’s deliverance.
Psalm 40, and the accompanying question, “How long,” can indeed apply to the broad sweep of history and the great struggle for freedom, peace, and justice, but it also has deeply personal resonances. As many of you know, I suffer from depression. Most of the time my medication keeps me on a relatively even keel, and I’m able to function fairly normally. But occasionally—sometimes because of external circumstances, but more often without any discernible rhyme or reason—my brain chemistry gets out of whack and I find myself stuck in the miry bog of emotional barrenness, shame, and self-recrimination that makes it hard for me to get out of bed in the morning, and next to impossible to engage in relationships and handle responsibilities in a functional manner.
When I find myself beginning to slip down into the slimy pit—before I have reached the bottom—I remind myself that, no matter how bad it may seem while I am in the middle of one of these episodes, they have always ended before. I have always found God to be faithful; God has always pulled me up from the pit and set my feet on a rock, making my steps secure. It sometimes takes a while, and some of the episodes are more intense than others, but God has always come through.
Knowing, as I do, that I will almost undoubtedly be faced with more time in the bog in the future can be discouraging, certainly. But God’s record of faithful deliverance helps me keep going through the darkness. Even though I don’t know the answer to the question, “How long, I will continue to sing the new song God has put in my mouth—a song of praise to God.
Someday evil will be vanquished and right will prevail. Someday all pain and suffering will be redeemed, and God will wipe every tear from every eye. Someday physical disease and disability will be no more, mental illness will be permanently healed, isolation and loneliness will no longer be an issue, abuse will be a thing of the past, and even death will be swallowed up in victory. Until that time, let us all sing the new song, and keep on singing … with trusting anticipation, stubborn faith, and defiant hope.