This is the edited version of my first field ed sermon at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
I would like to note that the entire second half of the sermon is a summation of Ellen Davis’ excellent chapters on the psalms in Getting Involved with God. I’m not even sure you’re allowed to do this in a sermon but since I’ve haven’t taken preaching I’m claiming ignorance.
Are you all hearing these sermons and thinking, that Paul is a positive guy? He’s been shipwrecked three times, had “spent a night and a day in open sear,” was whipped half a dozen times, pelted with stones, and put in prison more times than he can count.
Yet, here we find Paul writing a letter from prison encouraging his congregation to rejoice. In fact Paul uses the word “rejoice” nine times in this is a very short book of the Bible. He’s not bitter or angry about his current circumstances. He doesn’t seem to question God’s will or love for him. And in the midst of their internal scuffles and persecution, Paul tells the church at Philippi to focus on whatever is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.
There are a lot of phrases Christians use to sum up the attitude I think we all sense from Paul at this point. Who has heard some of things before:
Give it to the Lord. Lay it at the foot of the cross. God won’t give you more than you can handle. Forgive and forget. Too blessed to be stressed.
You’ve heard those, right? And I’m guessing you can name a dozen similar phrases that well-meaning people say in times of trouble and distress. Sometimes this is exactly what I need to hear. When I lose my keys or my daughter decides to give her doll a bath in the toilet I need someone to look me in the eye and say “lay it at the foot of the cross. Accept the things you cannot change.”
But I’m also aware that there’s a ceiling on phrases like this. Eventually some tragedy breaks through that ceiling and it’s not so helpful to hear anymore that God’s in control or that I just need to worry about the life to come. I think you all know what I mean.
On the evening of Sept 13 of last year 17-year old Landon Hochstetler was rollerblading with his friend near his rural Minnesota home when a drunk driver hit Landon, smashing his head against the windshield. Landon sustained multiple skull fractures and severe brain swelling and entered a coma for weeks. He was minimally responsive for months as his parents and sisters wondered if he would live. Eventually Landon did come out of his coma and now he works hard every day to relearn the most basic functions – swallowing, smiling and holding up his head. He cannot speak, eat or walk and there is no guarantee he ever will. An average teenage existence has been replaced by feeding tubes, wheel chairs and endless therapies. While there are moments of joyful praise as Landon slowly heals, I have no doubt there are as just many moments of anger, questioning and heartache.
For the Hochstetlers, and for each of us there will come a time, brought on by a tragedy like death or illness, that render those previously comforting catch phrases empty. But for most of us it’s not because we don’t believe in God’s love anymore. It’s not that we don’t ultimately trust that God cares for us. We haven’t given up on the faith, but something doesn’t feel right.
What’s amiss is that often implicit in those comforting catchphrases is the sense that we’re not supposed to feel anything at all. All that really earthy stuff – the hate, the anger, the fear, the despair that come with being human- all of that is somehow out of bounds for the Christian faith. Lay it at the foot of the cross. Focus on the world to come.
This kind of thinking, that inside each of us is a happy, harp-playing angel just waiting to get out – that kind of thinking has a name in Christianity. It’s called Gnosticism. And it’s a heresy. The Gnostics have been around just about as long as Christianity and they believed that matter was evil. The soul inside of us was what really mattered. God was too perfect and holy to be involved in the messiness that makes up our everyday existence. In fact, God needed to be protected from us.
Christians pretty quickly figured out that this isn’t the God we worship. One major clue was the fact that Jesus Christ, God made into a human, came specifically to enter into all the ugliness of human life, to be with us and for us. But, you may be thinking, doesn’t Paul say a lot of things that sounds like that Gnosticism? Paul does say we should try to get out of here and go to heaven. Just last week we read that God will transform out “lowly bodies” into “glorious bodies.” Paul even says he longs to be dead so that he can finally be with God.
The section of Philippians we read today tells us that Paul did something that transformed him into the kind of person who could say “to live is Christ and to die is gain.” We learn in Phil 4:6 is that Paul prayed. In the Scripture we heard, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God.”
Now, if you’re like me, then you may be thinking that this is not a particularly satisfying answer. Prayer seems like a thin response to all that Paul has been through. It feels like a thin response to the tragedies in our own lives. But I wonder if that’s because so often we have a warped view of what prayer is. Like our comforting catch phrases, sometimes all we need to do is “give it to Lord.” But when the stakes are higher those prayers are harder to say. When the enemy is diabetes, or a gang, or AIDS, or an abusive husband, or Osama bin Laden – that’s when we need help learning how to pray.
Fortunately, we’ve been quite a bit of guidance when it comes to learning how to pray. This prayer guide is the book of Psalms and if you’ve never read this set of prayers you might be surprised at what you find.
The surprise in the Psalms is that they make us throw out all those notions about religion, things like: there’s no room for despair in Christianity, never be angry at your neighbor, or don’t ever, ever get mad at God. That’s because the people who wrote the psalms knew that prayer is about building an intimate relationship with God. Can you imagine a healthy friendship or marriage where you never got to be angry, sad, jealous or unhappy? Where you never got to show the difficult sad parts of your life? The psalms open us up to God in ways that we think we should address God (adoration, joy, gratitude) but also in less expected ways – fear, rage and despair.
I want to warn you. My sense is that if we really looked closely at the psalms we will be nervous about actually praying what we see there. Our church services, our prayer manuals and our hymns have been so sanitized that most of us have never seen many of the psalms. There are psalms that accuse God of abandoning God’s people, falling asleep on the job and even of murder. The psalm writers try to bargain with God and to bribe God. They’re even harsher to their enemies. They wish terrible things to happen to them, and their little children.
Today we’re going to talk about two of the more shocking types of prayer in the psalms: wailing and cursing. The first type of prayer is called a lament. It’s interesting that there are more prayer of lament than any other type in the books of psalms because we’re exposed to so few laments. I was looking for lament songs in our hymnals this week. Do you know how many there are in Sing the Journey? Three out of 116 songs. Why are we so uncomfortable with this mode of praying? Let’s open our Bibles to Psalm 6 and see if we can figure it out.
1 LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger
or discipline me in your wrath.
2 Have mercy on me, LORD, for I am faint;
heal me, LORD, for my bones are in agony.
3 My soul is in deep anguish.
How long, LORD, how long?
4 Turn, LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
5 Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?
6 I am worn out from my groaning.
All night long I flood my bed with weeping
and drench my couch with tears.
7 My eyes grow weak with sorrow;
they fail because of all my foes.
8 Away from me, all you who do evil,
for the LORD has heard my weeping.
9 The LORD has heard my cry for mercy;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
10 All my enemies will be overwhelmed with shame and anguish;
they will turn back and suddenly be put to shame.
There’s a lot going on in this psalm: mocking, anger, sorrow, anguish, shame. Yet, Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis reminds us, the psalmist doesn’t end up in the same place she started. The psalm moves. The first thing we noticed is to whom the psalm is addressed. “The Lord” is called upon eight times in the psalm. The psalmist is convinced God has something to do with her suffering. The psalmist is calling God out! She’s saying, “You need to hold up your end of the bargain. Where the heck are you?” That’s a bold assumption and a bold thing to say. But it’s something the psalmist can proclaim because of the intimate relationship with God she’s cultivated through her honest prayer.
That relationship, the honesty and forthrightness of an open relationship, is what allows the psalm to make one final move – the psalmist offers up praise. More surprisingly she praises God without us ever knowing how the situation has changed. It’s clear that those “workers of iniquity” are still out there. What has changed is the psalmist experience of suffering. It might even be that honesty with God opens up a channel for praise.
It’s also important for us to know that there are a very small number of psalms – in fact only two – that end without praise. Instead, they close with silent despair. Psalms like Ps 88 ends with the words “you have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.” That these psalms were even included in the Bible points to something very important. We are given permission to recognize that unresolved despair will be a part of some of our lives. We don’t need to give an explanation for the chronic illness of a child or the mental illness of a loved one. Sometimes we can’t make it all right. We are allowed to simply grieve.
The other type of psalm that we sometimes skip over, or at least don’t know what to do with, is the cursing psalms. Here again our churches are guilty of a cover-up. How many of us have ever heard Psalm 109 read in church?
6 Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
7 When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him<
8 May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
9 May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven[a] from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.
Those are some difficult words to hear. In them we sense what CS Lewis called, “the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face like the heat from a furnace mouth.” We may wonder, “how did these prayers get into the Bible in the first place?”
But if we’re honest with ourselves, if we look into the darkness of our own hearts, then there’s a good possibility that there have been times when this is exactly how we feel about our enemies. Being healed of this anger and hatred, or transforming it into good works, doesn’t come from pushing it aside. Our intimate relationship with God requires giving over even this.
Here’s how Ellen Davis says these cursing psalms do their work in helping us learn how to pray. First, they give us words to express our anger. Do you all remember those cartoons where the character gets so mad that smoke literally comes out his ears and all you hear is a string of angry mutterings? I think that’s how a lot of us experience anger – it’s a feeling and we let it brew. The psalms, by contrast, give us something to say, they give us some context to get it out there and call it like it is. Second, the psalms tell us that we worship a God not only of mercy but also of justice. God is outraged by destruction, war, murder, poverty, abuse, and all those who perpetrate evil in our world. Cursing psalms remind us that evil is real. There are times where injustice and oppression should make us feel this level of anger. Finally, the cursing psalms return the action to God. These psalms remind us that it’s God, not us, who enacts vengeance. The psalm we just read ends with these words,
30 With my mouth I will greatly extol the LORD;
in the great throng of worshipers I will praise him.
31 For he stands at the right hand of the needy,
to save their lives from those who would condemn them.
When we pray these prayers we eventually discover that our role is to release our hatred without pretending that what happened was no big deal.
Now, there may be some of you who are thinking, “I’ve heard what you have to say, and still I can honestly say that I have never hated someone so much that I’ve wished their children would become wandering beggars.” That’s fair. But if you’re in this category these psalms still have something to say. We need to turn the psalm 180 degrees until it’s looking right back at us. Is there someone in your life, at your school, work or in your neighborhood, maybe even in church, who would want to say this about you? In what ways have I failed to live a life of justice, mercy and peace? To whom do we need to be reconciled?
We can be pretty sure that when Paul exhorts the Philippians to present their prayers and petitions to God in all things that this included cursing and wailing. After all, we know that Paul is a Jew, and a good Jew at that. The Jews couldn’t cover-up their prayers because the psalms were their prayer book. Paul knew that honest prayer before God was the foundation for an intimate relationship with God. And in case we somehow think that mature Christians don’t have need for psalms of lament or cursing, remember it was Jesus, God incarnate, who offered up to the Father a prayer of lament on the cross.
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
We can sense the intimacy of the relationship between the Father and the Son in this most horrific moment of separation and loss. We are given the tools of prayer for building this relationship. In both our everyday sufferings and in those once-in-a-lifetime tragedies we are graciously given access to the God who will work in us to transform us into a people who can truly say we think about whatever is right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy.
While these prayers were written a long time there is no reason we can’t access them today. The next time words escape you, when you feel overwhelmed with the need for vengeance or when sorrow overtakes you, use these psalms. Take them to your closet and shout them at God. You don’t protect God from you. God wants all of you.
May the Lord meet you in your mourning and your rejoicing, your anger and your happiness, knowing that God is working in each of us to make all things new.