I preached this sermon the week I announced I would be reappointed from Deer Creek Charge to Presbury United Methodist Church. While I know the Spirit is present in the midst of the move, it is still a very difficult one. And Psalm 27 was a comfort to me this week.
Scripture: Psalm 27
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh— my adversaries and foes— they shall stumble and fall.
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
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.
Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, Lord, do I seek.
Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
If my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up.
Teach me your way, O Lord, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!
Let us pray:
God, our stronghold, shelter us this morning.
Bring us in close to you, that through the reading of this scripture
we may see your face. Amen.
I looked to Psalm 27 this week and felt its waves of assurance wash over me as the psalmist names God our stronghold. I felt the praise of power and beauty, and wanted to join with the psalmist in his pursuit of beauty. But this is not where the psalm ends. There is an abrupt change in the psalm, where we go from praise to lament. It has caused some scholars to wonder if these were two or more different psalms stuck together. In any case, the tension between these two sections is awkward. In college I worked at a writing center, helping students hone their papers, and one of my primary critiques to everyone was that they needed to work more on transitions. There is no transition in this psalm from praise to lament between verses six and seven. You’ll notice in Cheryl Ann Toliver’s rewrite, which I included in your bulletin (see here), she finds it more convenient to skip the praise all together then try to explain this tension.
And it is one this to have this unresolved abruptness exist in the psalm. It is another thing to see the direction of it: praise to lament rather than lament to praise. In reading it I wanted to point out to the psalmist that it is more compelling to “begin with a wavering, almost desperate faith, more longing than hope” and then concluding with “a strong statement of conviction,” more compelling to move from “doubt to certainty, dark to light.” As one commentator on this psalm wrote, after all isn't this how faith and life are supposed to work? A tidy, seamless journey from doubt to certainty. Yet, as we at this church know in our personal journeys as well as in our corporate journeys within this congregation, neither our lives nor our faith journeys are so tidy.1
We waver. Sometimes we go from the strong sure claims of salvation and fearlessness, to crying out for God to hear us and back again in a day, let alone how jumbled we find ourselves in our lifetimes. The psalmist goes from joy in verse six, saying that he will sing and make melody to the Lord, to painfully imploring God in verse seven: Hear O Lord, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
This tension in this psalm has always spoken to me, drawing me to want to preach it long before I knew anything about an appointment. It is a perfect psalm for Lent, for “the Lenten journey can be a foray into the soul, offering us a good time to look deeply within ourselves in order to understand the [sometimes dark, always mysterious] realities that beset us.”2 It is a journey where we ask ourselves how we can fear anything when God is the stronghold of our lives, when at the same time we ask why God is hidden from us. And it is a journey that is not linear, that wavers between our praise and our lament, between doubt and certainty.
At the very heart of the abrupt tension in this poem, though, at the very heart of this praise and lament is fear.
Throughout scripture, we are told not to be afraid. Abraham in our scripture this morning is told not to fear. We hear over and over again the angels at Christmas time telling us not to fear. Jesus tells us not to fear when he rises to life. I have always thought this was one of the most important messages of scripture, this constant whisper that we ought not to fear. Our psalm even asks rhetorically how, if God is holding us up, how we dare fear? But in this one little psalm, the abrupt change from joy to lament reminds us in Lenten fashion that even when we know intellectually that we are not to fear, our hearts don’t always get the message. We fear being abandoned by God. We are paralyzed by this fear, no matter how we try to let go of it. Just because we have intimately known God does not mean we don't find it easy in moments of crisis to feel abandonment.
Even Jesus himself cried out to God not to abandon him on the cross.
And so, in the spirit of Lenten self-reflection, I began to reflect on my own fear. I turned to the uncertainty I was feeling my first overnight at the hospital when I was a student chaplain. My first page was to labor and delivery, where a couple had just learned that twenty weeks into the pregnancy that they had lost the baby. Pregnancy is one of those moments in which there is often that kind of joy described by the psalmist, a confidence in God’s provision, a time in which we want to behold God’s beauty all around us. But such joy was abruptly brought to an end. What should have been a time of praise turned very quickly into a lament.
What first struck me when I walked into the room was that they were good looking people. The father had just come from work, still wearing a suit, though he had lost the jacket. He and the mother wanted to talk briefly, but after I prayed with them, they told me I could come back and check in later. When I did, the grandparents of the baby were there, so they gave me a brief update, and then thanked me in a “you can leave now” kind of way. I ended up being extremely busy that night, spending hours with another family who had lost someone, but that first family stuck with me. I pictured them spending the night together pleading with God, “Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation.”
I was the one who prayed that, who, in the same moment I knew God was cradling that family in God's hands through the care of the nurses, through the hugs of the grandparents, through the strength of the father as he held onto his wife--- in that same moment I could not see God, could not understand why such a thing could happen. I feared abandonment, feared that this family was lost in their lament, lost in those heartbreaking words of the psalmist struggling to see God’s face.
In the morning I did not want to go back, but I knew I had to, so I went up the room and could not help but be relieved when I saw it empty. But I went to the nurse's station and the nurse said, “Oh I'm glad you're here. They are in the recovery room.” Then she led me in to sit with the parents, who thanked me for coming and talked a little bit with me. I could not really understand what the mother was saying because she spoke so softly. The father said they were both doing much better that day. But then when I asked about the baby's name, which they had told me was Olivia, the father said. “It was going to be Olivia before we started having kids, before we even got married. It was always Olivia.”
The father did not rail against God, though he would not be in the wrong to do so. He never even asked why. He never seemed fearful. He certainly was not joyous, but he had a quietness around him that reminded me that the end of the psalm is not that fear, uncertainty, doubt. The end of this family's story was not the loss of a child. It was a father reminding himself of their love story, of how they were a family and would continue to be a family. It isn't an overwhelming perseverance in the face of tragedy. It was a name and an affirmation that his family was not over. As it had been, so it would continue.
Maybe I'm reading a lot into this father's words. But the quietness of that room, that room I so feared, was not the quietness of lament. It was the quietness of verse thirteen.
I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.
I may not see goodness in this moment, the psalmist says, but I believe it exists. I believe I shall see it in this life, not just when I get to heaven. I may not feel God's presence now, but I know it is there and that I will experience it again. I cannot boldly proclaim my confidence in this moment, as the psalmist could at the beginning of the psalm, but I proclaim that one day I will be confident again.
Our stories are not these linear tales from doubt to faith. Our stories are journeys from doubt to faith to doubt to a glimmer of hope back to doubt and hopefully again to faith. They are these circuitous paths in which we can lament and praise in the same breath, but paths where even in the depths of lament there is that direction from God, that reminder that we will see goodness again.
And finally the psalmist encourages us:
Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heard take courage; wait for the Lord.
Waiting is not the glamorous kind of courage we seek in the face of our fear. In fact, we see waiting as annoying not as heroic. But this is our task as Christians. To wait. Not passively, of course. We can't just sit back in our armchairs and wait for the rapture. But we do, in the midst of the dark and difficulties in our lives, survive our fear by waiting through the darkness to feel the light again. Waiting for the hope of things not seen.
Psalm 27 “is not a psalm about how God answers our prayers,” about how God brings us out of our sadness and darkness into joy again. Rather, “it [is itself] a prayer, even a plea, for patience, for trust, for the ability and the endurance to wait for the Lord, even when the Lord's arrival is a long, undetermined way off.”3 There are times in all of our lives, even sometimes just in one day, where we must courageously wait for the Lord. Where we must know, even when we don’t feel it, that goodness will return. Such waiting is a part of our Lenten journey as we come ever closer to the story of Jesus’ death.
So I encourage all of you this week to pray Psalm 27, even if you don’t feel the tension between doubt and faith, even if you are not fearful in this moment. Pray it for your friends or family who are journeying through dark places. Pray that you may have the ability and endurance to wait for the Lord in the midst of struggle. For God is there beside us in the midst of our struggle, being a light to us. May we open our eyes to see it.
Let us pray borrowing words of Cheryl Ann Toliver’s poem:
Now help us to wait for you, Lord God.
Help us to be strong and unafraid when we feel overwhelmed.
We ask this so we might endure the coming metamorphosis,
so we can become the people you call us to become. Amen.4
1See Richard C. Stern, Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 27, Second Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 57.
2Samuel K. Roberts, Theological Perspective on Psalm 27, Second Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 56.
3Richard C. Stern, Homiletical Perspective on Psalm 27, Second Sunday in Lent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year C, Volume 2 Lent through Eastertide, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) 59.
4 Cheryl Ann Toliver, “Psalm 27,” The Works of Cheryl Ann Toliver, 2003 reposted 19 February 2013, http://cherylanntoliverworks.blogspot.com/2013/02/psalm-27-worlds-gone-mad-our-god-given.html.