Alt Sermon for August 4th, 2019
To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm. 1 I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. 2 In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted. 3 I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah 4 You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. 5 I consider the days of old, and remember the years of long ago. 6 I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit: 7 “Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable? 8 Has his steadfast love ceased forever? Are his promises at an end for all time? 9 Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” Selah 10 And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed.” 11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord; I will remember your wonders of old. 12 I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds. 13 Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God? 14 You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples. 15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah 16 When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; the very deep trembled. 17 The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side. 18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook. 19 Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen. 20 You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psummer of Psalms II - 77
(Preached the day after a deadly mass shooting in the city of El Paso)
Psalm 77 begins with three attributions: The first is, as we've seen many times before, "to the leader." The last is "a psalm of Asaph." Asaph is the author of 12 psalms, second only to David. But the middle inscription, According to Jeduthun" is truly interesting. Jeduthun is a name, but we already have a name on this Psalm, Asaph. Juduthun can also mean, literally, "one who praises." According to one who praises. That's interesting because of all the Psalms that begin and end praising God, this isn't one of them.
Psalm 77 begins with a lament, a cry to God--not even asking for help, just asking to be heard. The Psalmist describes days and nights full of trouble, then ends the first section by saying "I think of God and I moan; I meditate and my spirit faints."
My spirit faints--that could be a relief, but no. In verse four, the Psalmist cannot even sleep (Verse 4a: You keep my eyelids from closing). Worse yet, while awake, he cannot even give voice or expression to his sorrow (Verse 4b: I am so troubled that I cannot speak). I can't count the number times yesterday when someone said, or wrote in social media, "I have no words." Which, by definition is not true, but the sentiment, I think, is that in times of unspeakable tragedy, we all have this feeling that no words we might possibly say could be adequate, could matter, could make a difference, could change what has already happened, or give adequate comfort going forward. No words.
Sometimes, that sentiment even extends to prayers--which are, essentially, words spoken to God. For every person who wrote yesterday that they were sending their "thoughts and prayers" to our community, there were just as many who, in anger and frustration wrote, "no more thoughts and prayers; we need actions and policies." This is understandable, but it's also ironic--because those are words, too. They are prayers for action; they are hopes that others--readers or listeners--might be somehow influenced to intervene in the situation and do something... in much the same way that we hope our prayers will influence God to intervene in the situation and do something.
The author of Psalm 77, like so many comments I read and heard yesterday, also began to lose hope in prayer. He asks a series of questions beginning in Verse 7, and some of them may seem familiar to us this morning:
- Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favorable?
- Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
- Are his promises at an end for all time?
- Has God forgotten to be gracious?
- Has he in anger shut up his compassion?”
Although we might rephrase them in modern terms:
- How could God let something like this happen to us?
- Does God even care about us anymore?
- Is God even real?
And then in verse 10, the lowest point in the psalm, the Psalmist seems to answer his own question, and not in a positive way:
- And I say, “It is my grief that the right hand of the Most High has changed."
The right hand of the Most High symbolizes God's favor. And to the Psalmist's great disappointment, that favor has changed, has been removed, perhaps forever.
The end. Game over. Roll the credits. Go home.
Or...maybe not. In the next verse, the Psalmist begins the long, hard climb back upward. He still cannot bring himself to praise God, but he forces himself to shift his focus:
- I will call to mind the deeds of the Lord;
- I will remember your wonders of old.
- I will meditate on all your work, and muse on your mighty deeds.
When we are faced with crisis and tragedy, we grieve, we despair, sometimes we rage in anger. Those are all necessary things, but they do not in the end, change our situation or even our sorrow. That requires a conscious choice, a shift of focus.
I like the way Fred Rogers (who is about the closest thing Presbyterians have to a Saint) encouraged this. He said, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping."
That's a shift of focus. For the author of Psalm 77 it's choosing to focus on all of the amazing good things that God had done for him in the past, which likely outnumber his present woes. For Fred Rogers, it's choosing to focus on all the people who are helping in response to the crisis. For so many of us yesterday and today, it has been remembering who we are as a community; remembering what values define El Paso, and what values do not.
Shifting our focus doesn't change the past, it doesn't bring people we've lost back to life...but it can begin to lift us from the shock and paralysis of despair, it can begin to move us beyond thoughts and prayers to what is needed, what is possible, and what is our role to play.
God has a role to play as well, and in the final section of Psalm 77, the Psalmist contemplates God's work in creation. I think part of this is still his shift of focus...but this time it's a shift from the small to the cosmic--from me and the crisis I face today, to the vast and unpredictable power of nature; the destructive forces of water, thunder, lightning, ocean and earthquake.
I love the last two verses of the psalm--it's a reference to Exodus, a terrifying moment when God's people were faced with the murderous wrath of a madman (Pharoah) behind them, and the treacherous wind and waves of the deep ocean in front of them.
Verse 19: "Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters, yet your footprints were unseen."
Try as we might in this unpredictable world, we cannot avoid all tragedy and all crisis all the time. We may escape one just to run headlong into another. And sooner or later, we go through a tragic day like yesterday was here in El Paso. But we never go through it alone. When we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, there are unseen footsteps all around us. Yes, that's God, but it's also something more.
Verse 20: "You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron."
This is where the psalm ends--not with God miraculously intervening to part the waters (although that's part of the story, too) but with two individuals who stood up to lead, to be God's hands and feet and voice in the world. Moses and Aaron. Each had a different role to play, and hundreds of others eventually joined them, with more and more roles.
Yesterday, we watched first responders, law enforcement personnel, medical staff all do the amazing things they were trained to do, with skill and compassion. We watched lines circling the Red Cross building to donate blood. People brought food and water to the reunification center. In the days to come, some will be called to roles of comfort and counseling. Some will be called to the work of political change and advocacy. Some will be called to the work of analysis and investigation.
I seriously hope that no one will be called to the work of hurtful and angry words, calling each other names, belittling those who disagree with you, spreading fear, or hardening political stances. Because first of all, I don't think that's who we are, as a community. Second, as people of faith (any faith, every faith) it's not what our sacred scriptures teach us. And third, those approaches just don't work. Anger and zeal--as gratifying as they may be when you hit "return" or click "send" rarely ever change anyone's mind or effect lasting change, becaause that comes not from the mind, but from the heart.
What can change someone's heart? Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Gentleness. Faithfulness. And self-restraint.
Those are not pasive things. They aren't "doing nothing." They are more than "thoughts and prayers" and a whole lot more than rallying cries, political slogans, and empty threats or promises. They are a way of life.
They are what the hurting people in our community, in our country, in our world desperately need right now.
They are the unseen footprints of God, and they are yours to give.