Tears and Tantrums - Hurting in Holy Ways
“Tears and Tantrums – Hurting in Holy Ways”
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Sermon Preached by Thomas P. Markey
John Knox Presbyterian Church
December 3, 2017
I found myself – for a variety of reasons – spending a lot of time this week and weekend reflecting on the past year. Perhaps this sense of looking back has to do with the fact that we are now in the final month of 2017. Or perhaps it is because we have now entered into the season of Advent, marking the start of the new year in our church calendar.
But, I suspect that much of this sense of reflectiveness has been from having celebrated our youngest daughter’s first birthday this weekend.
Eden came into the world quite abruptly. I woke up in the middle of the night to Abbie tossing and turning, announcing that “it was time.”
This kind of thing happened when Ella was born and Abbie spent 16-17 hours in labor. So, in my infinite wisdom, I assumed that sort of thing would happen again. Even as Abbie literally cried out in pain, I took my time and offered really helpful advice to Abbie like, “You’ll be fine. We’ve got plenty of time.” Fast forward a bit – after a car ride that included me driving WAY too fast and a slew of choice words – we arrived at the hospital at 3:58AM and Eden was born at 4:08AM.
I should have known then that the abrupt, startling, and disorienting nature in which Eden entered into the world, would serve as a microcosm for the coming year.
I had this naïve and highly-flawed belief that two children – 14 months apart – would not be that difficult. We had done pretty well managing the first one, so this couldn’t be that hard.
Well, you know where this story is going. I was wrong. Very wrong.
Eden, in contrast to Ella, was able to find her lungs very early on. And, not only did she find her lungs, she knew how to use them. She knew how to use them when she hungry, when she was tired, and in just about any other circumstance in which she deemed appropriate. Couple that with older sister – a bourgeoning toddler – who very quickly mastered the art of throwing a tantrum and things were, well, loud in our house.
This chaos often meant little sleep – especially for Abbie and me – which often meant we were really fun to be around.
To put it succinctly, tears and tantrums – Both from small humans and adult humans alike, marked much of our time this past year.
We’re not entirely sure as to the context in which we find ourselves located in today’s reading. Scholars have debated for years as to what is the setting and background in which this psalm was written. Being that both Ephraim and Benjamin are mentioned early in the psalm, many have come to the conclusion that this psalm was produced in the northern kingdom, likely during the “final years before the conquest of Samaria by the Assyrians.” Yet, in all reality, we cannot be certain as when or why this psalm was written, but as one commentator notes, “Whatever the original historical setting, the psalm in its continued use belongs to the repertoire of the afflicted people of God on their way through the troubles of history.”
While the exact contextual location of this psalm is not entirely known, it is hard to read this psalm – as is true with so many of the psalms – and not feel as though it is speaking directly to us and to our current modern realities, both personally and communally. And so, as I spent time reflecting on this past year while simultaneously reading this psalm, I wasn’t just reduced to thinking of the “tears and tantrums” of our own household, but also the “tears and tantrums” that were experienced throughout the world.
Hurricane Irma. Hurricane Harvey. Las Vegas. Charlottesville. Sutherland Springs. Egypt. New York. Wildfires in California. Divisive and damaging political rhetoric. Sexual assault and sexual violence running rampant. Earthquakes in Mexico City and Italy. International strife. Threats of nuclear attacks. Relentless racism and dehumanizing discrimination.
Taking it a step further, I then began to think of those close to me – friends and family – loved ones for whom I know the approaching holiday season will feel, in many ways, far from “merry and bright.”
Job insecurity. Strained relationships. Lost relationships. A painful break-up. Loneliness. Depression. Anxiety. Death. Separation from family. A loved one battling addiction. Lack of basic resources. A house foreclosure. No access to healthcare. Economic instability. Food scarcity. Fear of deportation. Overwhelming debt. An unexpected diagnosis. An aging body. Chronic pain. Longing for a partner and companionship. A miscarriage. Betrayal. Loss of independence. Constant fear of discrimination. Professional uncertainty. A first holiday season without a loved one. Loss of tradition. Loss of self.
In the midst of this pain and these tragedies – and the deep sorrow and grief that accompanies – what else are we to do but cry out like the psalmist does?
Stir up your might, and come to save us! Restore us, O God!
What else are we to do but, as the psalmist writes, sit with our bread of tears, drinking them in full measure?
In my preparation for this sermon, one of the more profound and powerful images I came across were those occasions in scripture in which we witness and experience God crying. One such passage that I found to be of particular significance is found in the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
“For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!”
For many of us – myself included – this is not often the image of God we are given. Perhaps, to experience a God who is crying with us – even crying for us – might afford us the opportunity to enter into a deeper, more vulnerable, and more meaningful relationship with God, knowing that God cares so deeply about each of God’s beloved children that God would be moved to tears at thought of us experiencing pain.
Biblical scholar Juliana M. Claassens, author of the book Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament, notes that this image of God – “the image of a God who weeps” – “offers an interruption that allows new possibilities for hope to emerge.”
So, in light of this image – God as one who cries with us – perhaps that is exactly what the psalmist is inviting us to do, to sit with our tears, to let our lament lead the way, allowing our bread to be soaked in our sorrow. In the same way, sitting in the knowledge that God is crying with us, we are extended yet another invitation. As we allow ourselves to be guided by our grief, we do so – as the psalmist reminds us – in communion with God and one another. The dough of our tears being kneaded together.
Tears and tantrums need not be done alone. As we cry out, offering our lament to God and to the world, it isn’t simply “Restore me, O God,” but rather, it is “Restore us, O God.” Our bread of tears is not consumed alone, it is done together, baked in the warm embrace of God and one another as we cry together.
Thus, it is in this psalm that we encounter both a recipe and an invitation through which we might step into the season of Advent through the lens of lament. Rather than turn off our grief for the sake of “holiday cheer,” we are given permission to bring our bread of tears – sufficiently soaked – and sit at table engaging God with our lament as we grieve fully and faithfully.
So, as we wait expectantly for Jesus – Emmanuel – God with Us – let us not forget that this hope came in the form of baby, tears and tantrums included. May we find hope in and through tears, knowing that God is, in fact, crying with us as we make our journey to Bethlehem.
 J. Clinton McCann, Jr., The Book of Psalms in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, 999.
 James L. Mays, Psalms, 264.
 Jeremiah 8:21-9:1, NRSV.
 L. Juliana M. Claassens, Mourner, Mother, Midwife: Reimagining God’s Delivering Presence in the Old Testament, 25.