Sermon for June 20th, 2021
To the leader. A Psalm of David. 1 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? 2 How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? 3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death, 4 and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken. 5 But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. 6 I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
Psummer of Psalms - Psalm 13
Today is Father's day, so I can't help but start with my favorite Father's day joke. Apologies to everyone who has heard me tell this one too many times!
One day up in heaven, Saint Peter saw Jesus walking by and caught his attention. "Hey Jesus, could you watch the Pearly Gates while I go run an errand?”
“Sure,” replied Jesus. “What do I have to do?”
“Just talk to the people who arrive. Ask about their background, their family, and their lives. Then decide if they deserve to be let into Heaven.”
So Jesus waited at the gates while St. Peter went off on his errand. The first person to approach the gates was a kind looking, wrinkled old man. Jesus stopped him at the entrance to the gates, greeted him, and asked, “So...what was it you did for a living?”
The old man replied, “I was a carpenter.” Jesus remembered his own life on earth, and he leaned forward just a little.
“Did you have any family?” Jesus asked.
“Yes, I had a son, but I lost him.”
Jesus leaned forward some more. “You lost your son? Can you tell me more about him?”
“Well, he had holes in his hands and feet.”
Jesus leaned forward even more and whispered, “Father?”
The old man leaned forward and whispered, “Pinocchio?”
Psalm 13 is not exactly a Father's Day Psalm, although it does begin with a phrase most Fathers have spoken countless times: "How long O Lord?" Psalm 13 is generally categorized as a Psalm of Lament--these are psalms which express a profound sense of anguish, and cry out to the Lord for deliverance.
The author Anne Lamott says that all prayers fall into two categories: "Thank you, thank you, thank you" and "help me, help me, help me." Psalm 13 is definitely in the second category.
And Psalm 13 is in many ways a model for that kind of prayer. At just six verses long, this is the kind of short Psalm you can put on your refrigerator and keep for the next time you have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. For me, this is the beauty and relevance of the psalms--there's one for every occasion, even those occasions you'd rather not have. Taking a psalm like this one and making the words your own prayer is a reminder that you are not alone--that people have been reaching out to God in dire circumstances for thousands of years.
In this case, we are told in the introduction that this is a "Psalm of David." In ancient Israel, that could mean a lot of things--it could be that this Psalm was written by David, or it could mean that it was written "in the style of" David, or even (since prepositions in Hebrew are sometimes pretty vague) that it was written "for" David, as a gift or tribute to the famous king.
I suppose it doesn't really matter too much, but I do like to think, when I am praying the words of this Psalm, that they belong to someone like David--someone who experienced the greatest heights of fame and success...but also the lowest depths of despair.
In his life, David went from being an inconsequential shepherd boy from a no-name family, to being the slayer of the giant Goliath, the savior of his people and an overnight celebrity in the King's army. Then he fell out of favor, and became a hunted man hiding in a cave. Eventually he became King in his own right, first over Jerusalem, and then all of Israel. But his story didn't end there. His children rose up against him, ousted him from the palace, and once again he became despised and hunted, depending on the generosity of strangers to preserve his life.
David's story is fascinating, but the point here is that every life--no matter how great or how small--is full of both accomplishment AND adversity. And in every circumstance, faithful believers turn to prayer, placing themselves and their circumstances in the capable hands of their creator.
So. Our model prayer begins with a complaint--by naming and expressing those dire circumstances in four statements, each one beginning with the words, "how long?" In Hebrew, the phrase is עַד־אָ֣נָה (ad-anah). It's not quite as precise as the translation, though. "How long" in English refers exclusively to the measure of time--until when? But עַד־אָ֣נָה (ad-anah) can also mean "until where?" or "until how?" or even "for what reason?" It's an outburst that contains all the frustrated questions you could possibly ask of God all rolled into one. We don't really have an expression like that in modern English, except possibly the phrase "What the hell??" Remember, next time you're praying. It's an acceptable start when you don't know what else to say.
There's also a clever play on words here. The Hebrew phrase עַד־אָ֣נָה (ad-anah) sounds a lot like the Hebrew phrase "My Lord, which is אֲדֹנָי (adonai). In fact, if you were reading this Psalm in Hebrew, you would read first verse this way: "ad-anah adonai".
Looking on the other side of that phrase עַד־אָ֣נָה (ad-anah) we see the Psalmist's fears and complaints: Will you forget me forever? Why are you silent, or hiding from me? How long (or why) must I endure pain and sorrow? And finally, how long (or why) are my enemies going to have the upper hand?
So far into the psalm, can anyone relate? If not, don't worry. At some point in your life, you will.
If the first part of the Psalm lays everything on the table in an emotional and almost haphazard way, the second part begins to take shape and focus. The second part is the actual prayer:
Verse 3: Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death."
That may sound overly dramatic: If you don't answer me, I'll die! But the phrase "give light to my eyes" is a poetic way of saying, "give me hope, give me direction, give me guidance and purpose." Without those things, we are indeed prone to despair, and to bad judgment or dangerous decisions that lead us on a path to premature death.
But there's another force at work here--the Psalmist elaborates in verse 4: give me these things or else "my enemy will declare victory, and those who are persecuting me will celebrate my removal or my fall.
I really think we can relate to this, because we live in a culture today where so often real judgment so happens not in a court of law, but in the court of public opinion; where a reputation can be ruined in a 140 character tweet; where a lifetime of hard work, accomplishment or virtue can be erased by a few hasty and judgmental words, and a general willingness to jump on the bandwagon of condemnation.
To be sure, every one of us falls short of the mark at some point, and King David was no exception. But when this happens, when you wake up one morning and it seems that the entire world is against you, calling angrily for your removal, your resignation, or your cancelation--what can you do but cry out to God for direction, to light a path forward in the darkness? And that's what our Psalmist does in his heartfelt prayer.
So our model prayer moves from despair and bewilderment in the first section, to purpose and direction in the second section, and finally in the last section to hope and confidence that God is greater than our troubles, and gratitude for what the Lord has already done in our lives.
Verse 5: BUT... (I love that word. In Hebrew it's just one tiny letter וַ, v). It has the sense of turning everything around and upside down: Despite all my problems, despite all who come against me, despite everything I am afraid of...) I trusted (past tense, I've already done this, I've *always* done this) in your steadfast love. And the word for steadfast love is חֵסֵד (hesed) which also means righteousness or fairness--in other words I already trust that whatever happens, good or bad, it IS the right thing for me in this time and place. And because of this, "my heart shall rejoice in your salvation, your deliverance, your plan for me.
And here the prayer ends. Up to this point, Psalm 13 has been a conversation between I (the psalmist) and You (God). But in the final verse, verse six, the Psalmist turns to his audience, the people around him, and says to them:
"I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me." We have zero indication that all of his problems have been solved, or that his troubles are over. They probably aren't. But he is able to move forward now in the confidence that the future is in God's hands, not his own...and also in the remembrance that God has taken care of him in the past. This is so important that he feels the need to share that message with others.
So, to summarize this model prayer--and to help give shape to our own prayers in dire circumstances:
First, lay it all out. Cry out to God in whatever semi-articulate, angry, anxious way you can. Don't hold back, because God can take it.
Second, take a deep breath, and make your desires known to him. Ask for help, ask for hope, but also ask for wisdom and guidance in your situation. This means being humble and acknowledging that you have no idea how to manage your life on your own. It means being open to a new path, a new direction, and yes, even new hardships and challenges.
Third, let go--and I mean really let go (that's a hard one for many of us) and trust that the God who has carried you this far will carry you home, however that may look (and it may not look quite like the solution you would have devised on your own!). Let go, and let God.
Finally, in gratitude and thanksgiving for what you have asked, and whatever you will surely receive, give thanks. And share that gratitude (and that confidence) with others in your life who just may be experiencing the same thing.
Today is father's day, so I get to close with a few more Dad jokes, right?
Why do seagulls fly over the ocean? Because if they flew over the bay, we'd call them bagels.
What do you call a fish wearing a bowtie? Sofishticated.
What did the janitor say when he jumped out of the closet? Supplies!
What did the ocean say to the beach? Nothing, it just waved.
What do you call the little shower that comes on in the grocery store to water the produce?
Lettuce spray. No seriously, let us pray...