Monday, November 10, 2014

God sits with us in our excruciating expectation…a sermon on Psalm 70

A.Hanson, 2009. The Netherlands.
A sermon preached at House for All Sinners and Saints on Sunday, November 9, 2014. 
Grace, peace and mercy are yours from the Triune God.  Amen.

I love the psalms. I love that I can borrow their words when I am too tired or too broken to come up with words on my own. Like Psalm 70,
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me.
 O Lord, make haste to help me! 
Let those be put to shame and confusion
who seek my life.
Let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire to hurt me. 
Let those who say, ‘Aha, Aha!’ turn back because of their shame. Let all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you.
Let those who love your salvation
say evermore, ‘God is great!’ 
But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
 O Lord, do not delay!
Academically speaking, the form of this psalm is called something ridiculous like “a prayer of an individual for divine assistance” but I prefer to call it the kind of prayer that I usually end up praying.  Short bursts of pleading, begging, and asking God to show up because I feel alone, frightened, mad, or otherwise confused and in need of guidance. This is the gift of the psalms to us. They are not the flowery sayings of Jesus in the parables and they are not the rhetorical works of Paul in his many letters to various Christian communities. They are real prayers from real people who know what it is like to be stuck in the trenches of a terrible day.
Today’s psalm is from someone who is waiting impatiently for God to bring justice after feeling abused, persecuted, and alone. It could be the words of the queer kid who has been disowned by their parents.  It could be the words of the addict who is trying to stay sober.  It could be the words of the middle-aged child who is trying to navigate a bureaucracy of healthcare and benefits for their aging and ailing parents. It is a very real expression of lament and grief while waiting for God to show up and make this injustice right.
Somewhere Christianity started perpetuating the idea that we are supposed to be gentle and pious and patient in our prayers. The sort of Precious Moments or Hallmark brand of faith where we sit quietly and offer our prayers in a hushed and appropriately reverent tone of voice.  Then according to this model of faith, we wait for God to answer and we accept that answer and settle peacefully into whatever happens because it is God’s Plan with a capital “P” and it is wrong to argue with God.  Or something. Because if we don’t act the way we are supposed to, and wait patiently and act appropriately, we risk angering God or driving God away from us.
But I need a stronger God than that.  I need a God that doesn’t risk getting offended or wounded.  I need a God that can take my biggest questions and loudest laments.  And I suspect that you do too.  In my work as an ICU chaplain, I have lots of “What the hell are you thinking?!” kinds of questions for God.  Like “Why does someone dying of cancer anyway get hit by a car and die in the ICU instead of at home?” or “Why does someone’s family leave her alone to die?”  Where is the justice? We need a God that can take our laments and our pleading and our impatient waiting. And in the psalms we hear people just like us asking God these same tough questions and demanding that God make Godself known in a broken world. This is Gospel to our aching hearts.
The psalmist obliterates that Hallmark brand of religion by crying out in the midst of this excruciating waiting. “Hasten to me O, God!”  “O, Lord do not delay!”  We need to have a God who sits with us while we are waiting for the promise of everything being made new. This psalm is an earnest plea for help, and is rooted in in the psalmist’s trust in God’s listening and redemptive power. I think we get self-conscious sometimes about not wanting our prayers to seem too desperate, because that makes us vulnerable.  If we pray for something broad like “happiness” or “greater understanding” or “peace” we can find some way to make whatever happens fit into our experience. I do this too in the prayers that I pray with my patients. And I have been thinking about it a lot lately and wondering if I am protecting God and my idea of God what God does. What would happen if we all prayed with the same urgent cries of the person in today’s psalm?  Our prayers don’t need to be logical, beautiful or presentable, but simply the honest, messy and ugly cries of our deepest selves.
Woven into our experience as people of faith is that damn platitude, “Good things come to those who wait,” which is entirely non-biblical by the way, and implies that if we wait patiently enough, we will get what we want. But sometimes our prayers are not answered in the way we want or think they should be. Sometimes no matter how earnestly we pray for healing or happiness or wholeness for ourselves or others, our waiting doesn’t necessarily bring about what we want or think we deserve.
But I wonder if that is actually the reason we pray.  What if prayer is less about persuading God to answer our prayers, and instead changes us, makes us new? This is a huge paradigm shift, and it seems to say more about God than it does about us. A lot of the time I am not able to make sense of what God is doing on a “micro” level in the world around me.  I see a lot of the absolute worst that the world can offer, and I need to cling to something bigger. I need to cling to the hope that God is making all things new and that life WILL win out and death DOES NOT have the final word. I am slowly learning to trust that prayer is not about making my world make sense, but making me a part of God’s unfolding world.

The other time that this particular psalm appears in the appointed readings for the liturgical year is during Holy Week.  A time where even Jesus cries out in lament, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  God WANTS to hear our prayers. God PROMISES to sit with us in our anguish. How liberating it is to know that God can take our anger, our laments, the deepest cries of our broken hearts.  God participates in all of this. And just as the psalmist declares “God is great!” and “You are my help and my deliverer!” even while waiting for justice, we too know that God sits with us in our most excruciating times of expectation.

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