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Sermon given at Evensong on the First Sunday after Trinity 2018

Seeing through tears.

The Reverend Elaine Farmer Honorary Associate Priest, St Paul’s Anglican Church, Manuka, Canberra, Australia

Sunday, 3rd June 2018 at 3:00 PM

O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out in your presence …
You have put me in the depths of the Pit …
Your wrath lies heavy upon me …
You have caused my companions to shun me …
Lord, why do you cast me off?[1]

Verses from Psalm 88, which we have heard sung so beautifully this afternoon. Psalm 88, the black heart of the Psalter. Dark. Dismal. A bleak psalm which seemingly strikes no note of hope or joy. Such notes as ring elsewhere in the Psalter are absent here, replaced by bitter, brutal honesty. Psalm 88, is the cry of someone in extremis, whether in pain, or sick, or dying, or faced with insurmountable hardship.

For those who see Christian faith as all about joy Psalm 88 has to be an embarrassment. It simply doesn’t fit much conventional religious God-talk. Not only is it a cry of pain, it is heavy with anger and outrage. This psalmist is not someone going through the motions of faith; this is a man—almost certainly a man—of faith who does not understand why God doesn’t ease his suffering, or even seem to hear his anguished cries, or even seem to care. The God of his whole life, of his faith and tradition, the god of his people Israel, is silent. And more than elusive. Absent. Perhaps, it almost seems to him, no God at all.

 

This is the lament of all who feel abandoned and alone, who see their lives through tears, can sense no end to their suffering. This is the lament of those who have entered this place, century after century—this place of grandeur and glory—who have wet its ancient stones with their tears. This is the lament of any in our world who know the pain of destruction in their lives. Who have known war or terrorism or rape or sexual abuse. Domestic violence. Rejection because of disability, or colour, or sexual orientation. Or the disintegration of a marriage. Or the loss of a job and little hope of another. Or who know, as  Winston Churchill knew, the black hopelessness of depression, and who feel as alone as Churchill seems, solitary on his plinth in the midst of the busy world outside this place. Psalm 88, the lament of real lives in a real world that does not always trade in kindness and fairness and in which trying to hold on to faith and trust in a loving god too often seems like trying to hold mercury in one’s hands, and watching it slip between the fingers.

The psalmist begins by making an urgent intimate appeal to God. O Lord, God of my salvation, I cry out in your presence! He doesn’t bother with reasons, or speculate why God is silent. All that interests him is how it feels to suffer, not just in his wreck of a life, but from God’s inexplicable absence. Then intimate appeal turns to anger. O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me? There are no niceties here. No subtlety. The psalmist doesn’t cajole or wheedle or try to persuade or play smart political games. God is expected to answer! That is, if you like, God’s job! It’s part of the divine job description—to answer prayer.

And anger turns to blame which he flings at God. “You have put me in the depths … your wrath lies heavy upon me …  you have made me a thing of horror …you have caused friend and neighbour to shun me; my companions are in darkness. It’s all your fault, God, and I’m helpless before you!” And yet … and yet, the psalmist implies, anger and outrage over misfortune and a sense of rejection by a silent God are no reason to reject God in turn. Rather, the psalmist stays steadfastly loyal to Israel’s trust in God’s love for humankind. He may well rage, rage into the blackness of his life but he refuses to be overcome by it. Even if he does feel he’s whistling in the wind, he steadfastly adheres to the faith of his people who would, long centuries later, sing to their God, “Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.[2]

How could the psalmist be so loyal, so steadfast? Because Israel’s tradition told him that God’s best work was done in the dark. Their great creation myth told him that God had fashioned the world and all its beauties from a formless void and darkness,[3] and that God had caused humankind to be formed in the darkness of the womb,[4] and God had said, “It is very good”![5]

The psalmist knew that, when his people were starving in the desert, their God had fed them, sending quails and manna from heaven during the darkness of the night.[6] And he knew God’s covenant promise to his ancestors. “You shall be my people, and I will be your God.[7] He believed that—and that, though he could not see or comprehend, God was in the darkness with him. Though he felt helpless and hopeless, though he heard no answers, he knew life did not begin with him, with an “I”, but with “Thou”,[8] the god of [the] covenant promise, the God of his salvation. So he continued trusting in that faithful God—and prayed.

Can we be so loyal, so steadfast? We know that sometimes life just sucks! In the worst moments, when we desperately want answers and reasons for misfortune, can we be as faithful as the Psalmist? Do we really turn to the God who

… loved us into life [the poet says] and longs to gather
And meet with his beloved face to face
How often has he called, a careful mother,
And wept for our refusals of his grace,
Wept for a world that, weary with its weeping,
Benumbed and stumbling, turns the other way …[9]

Perhaps we do not hear God calling because we only listen when we want answers. We want God when we want, in the way that we want. The truth at the heart of Psalm 88 is that God is simply not at our beck and call. But that is not an excuse to stop praying and hoping and waiting on God for answers.

Jesus didn’t stop. Jesus didn’t turn away. Nothing stopped his faithful praying. Even when he knew the choices he was making in calling people to be faithful to their God meant he was walking into darkness. Even when he knew his life would end in blood and tears. Even when in the garden at Gethsemane he prayed to be spared—and was not—he believed God walked with him. He believed God was with him before Pilate, and when soldiers jammed a cruel crown of thorns upon his head, and when nails were driven into his hands and feet, and when he was hauled up on the cross, and when a spear was thrust into his side, he believed God was with him. None of that—the waiting, the horror and the silence—could turn him away from God, BUT nor did it stop that last agonised cry of rage and incomprehension, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[10]

And there was silence. And he died and was placed in the darkness of the tomb. None of us knows the mystery of what happened in that darkness. Resurrection. The birth of new life, hope and possibility. Only God and Jesus know that. All we know is that life does not live in the tomb. That’s the point of Resurrection hope. To live in that hope we have to leave the dark tombs of our lives. Oh, at times there may still be darkness, and a sense of death-dealing forsakenness. We cannot change that. But what we can do is thank God for the mystery of the resurrection, and walk through our dark times, one step at a time, seeing our lives through tears, and believing our God walks and weeps with us.

A friend once said to me, “When all seems dark and you cannot pray, take an icon of Jesus, light a candle before it, and simply say, ‘now you pray for me’. And do that every day until you can pray again.” Perhaps, as you wait for that day, cry into the darkness,“I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation”, and think of the words of the great Anglican priest and poet, George Herbert:

… as I raved and grew more fierce and wild
At every word,
Methought I heard one calling, Child!
And I replied, My Lord.[11]

[1] Psalm 88: 1-2; 6-7a; 8; 13

[2] Habakkuk 3:17-18. Habakkuk possibly comes from the mid-late 7th C BC

[3] Genesis 1:1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.

[4] Psalm 139:13 For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mothers womb.

[5] Genesis 1:31

[6] Exodus 13 In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.

[7] Jeremiah 30:22

[8] Walter Brueggemann,  The Psalms and the Life of Faith, (ed. Patrick D. Miller), Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1995, p.34.

[9] From the poem “Jesus sees” by Malcolm Guite

[10] Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34

[11] George Herbert, ‘The Collar’

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