Thursday, February 25, 2016

Sermon: A Psalm of Trust

Grace Presbyterian Church
February 21, 2016, Lent 2C
Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

A Psalm of Trust

So apparently two lymph nodes turned up positive (what an ironic use of that word), which means I'll be going into a four-month course of chemotherapy--the real stuff this time, not the oral business like before. Get a port in some time soon and start two weeks from today, that's the current schedule. I am angry as hell right now, and anybody who tries to judge me for that or preach at me over it will be off my friend list as fast as the Internet will allow without even a goodbye.

That was me, on Facebook, on February 18, 2013, three years ago this past Thursday. After allowing myself to get my hopes up after cancer surgery that previous December, that was the day I found out that no, I wasn’t quite through with cancer treatment and would be going through chemo as described. This was, of course, in the midst of my second year at Union Presbyterian Seminary, meaning that I really would not get through any part of that second year of seminary without cancer treatment getting in the way somehow. At times, in more weary moments, yes; I did wonder if that was a sign. A STOP sign, to be specific.
I certainly don’t hold that moment up as a sign that I am somehow a person of great faith. At that moment, even in the middle of seminary, I don’t know that I would vouch for much faith at all. I’d been through a fall’s worth of radiation treatment and oral chemotherapy, followed by the aforementioned surgery. Recovery from that had been difficult at times but largely seemed to be successful; I was back in classes without too much discomfort, and while certain activities were beyond me, I really wasn’t too limited in what I could or couldn’t do. I wasn’t necessarily at full strength, but I was not feeling sick or weak either. And then that word – no, no, you’re not well yet, how could you be so silly as to think that cancer was through with you? And yeah, I was angry. I wouldn’t dare pretend otherwise.
In time, I could look back at that moment and see a person desperately in need of lament, something along the lines of what the psalmist expresses in today’s reading. At its beginning this psalm sounds a bit like last week’s reading, full of confidence and reassurance in God’s goodness and providence. Phrases like “whom shall I fear?” or “of whom shall I be afraid?” sound almost cocky. You don’t scare me. You got nothing on me.
But then the tone shifts, just a little. Suddenly there’s an enemy camped against the psalmist! Evildoers assailing him! And yet the psalmist doesn’t quite slip over the edge to despair. Still proclaiming confidence, the psalmist turns to one of the more beautiful passages in the whole book. Frankly, it’s worth hearing again:

One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock. Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the Lord.

Again, one could almost be persuaded that this is a psalm of confidence again, like last week’s Psalm 91. And them comes verse 7. Finally the psalmist can hold the lament back no longer, and the tinge of fear that has been lurking in the background so far comes lurching into the forefront: Hear me, Lord! Answer me! Don’t hide your face from me! Don’t turn away! Don’t forsake me! Don’t forsake me… .
There is no one, not one person on this planet, who is not at some point in her or his life in need of a lament, who is not somehow moved to cry out with the psalmist, not in confidence or cockiness, but in something just a bit different: trust.
Trust is what happens when our confidence is shaken, but we cry to the Lord anyway. No longer is this the psalmist from Psalm 91 instructing others in the reliability of God above. Now we have a figure who is shaken, who cries out in a moment of fear or even terror in this case, desperate to be reassured.
There is no one, not one person on this planet, who is not at some point in her or his life in need of a lament. As the gospel reading for today reminds us, that even includes Jesus.
At a moment when some apparently sympathetic Pharisees (that happened sometimes, in Luke’s gospel) sought to warn Jesus of Herod’s plan to kill him. Jesus expressed his opinion of Herod in no uncertain terms (to call someone a “fox” in this context is quite a statement about that person’s lack of moral character), and then perhaps by surprise Jesus turns his thoughts to Jerusalem, and laments their unwillingness to be gathered in to God’s care. The very protection that the psalmist sings about and cries out for, Jesus sees the people of Jerusalem rejecting.
It’s one of Luke’s more beautiful passages, one that music lovers might recognize as set by Felix Mendelssohn. It is unreservedly emotional. It speaks of great and tender care, wanting to gather in the children of Israel in the way a mother hen might gather in her brood. One might imagine these words being spoken with the beginnings of tears in Jesus’s eyes. And yet, Jesus was not at all deterred from moving forward to his Good Friday fate, in which all those children of God would be gathered in, anyway.
If Jesus was driven to sorrow in this way, you’ll never be exempt from lament. And yet, going back to the psalm, even in the psalmist’s heightened state of anxiety the poem returns to its original state – not unchanged, not necessarily confident, but trusting.
There are several psalms in the book that are given over solely to lament, and some of them get quite angry. One might compare this with Psalm 137. That psalm begins with one of the more beautiful songs of lament in all of scripture –

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

Beautiful, and maybe a little bit familiar to a lot of people of faith. Less familiar, though, and a lot less beautiful, is the end of that particular psalm:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
   the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
   Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

Rather less lovely, that.
The psalmist of Psalm 27 doesn’t go there, thankfully, no matter how much his fears and anxieties might urge her or him to do so. Rather, what follows is supplication to God – asking God for protection, for shelter, for comfort. Confident? Not necessarily. Trusting? Yes, oh yes.
We all have our confidence shaken at some point. It’s what happens in a fallen world. The psalmists teach us to cry out. The psalmists show us how to lament, to cry out even in our fear or anxiety or even anger. Jesus also shows us lament. But both the psalmist and Jesus also show us how to go forward even in a time of lament, to press ahead despite the fear or anxiety.
They show us how to trust.
For trust, in times of sorrow or fear, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (PH ’90): “The God of Abraham Praise” (488); “God Is My Strong Salvation” (179); “The Glory of These Forty Days” (87); “Lord, Make Us More Holy” (536)

Detail from Edward Burke-Jones, "The Lament"

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