July 1, 2012
For centuries, we have assumed that the psalms were all written by men. And yet, these universal writings could oftentimes just as easily express the heart cries and thanksgiving of ancient women. We do not know the gender of the psalmist in today’s text. Psalm 130 is a “pilgrim psalm,” whose author is unknown. So let’s not make the usual assumptions today. I’m going to refer to the psalmist as “he” through the first two pages of my sermon, “she” through the second two pages, and then use inclusive words in the conclusion. I think this will be instructive in ways that surprise us!
In his article, “The Psalms in Ministry” Barry Bence asserts that the psalms “provoke our dialogue with God as they help us invoke [God’s] presence” (wordandworld/luthersem.edu). We lean on these writings in times of turmoil and grief, gratitude and praise, questioning and transition. The psalms come to us as ancient yet timeless prayers, intimate yet honest reflections of the human soul interacting with the divine presence. In text after text, the psalmist lays bare raw grief, pointed questioning, vengeful thoughts, unfettered joy, dogged hope, and a host of other emotions. It’s all there for us to witness.
Psalm 130 begins with a cry of distress and lament, a deep guttural plea. “Out of the depths I cry to you, O God.” The author lays bare his yearning, spiritual hunger, and relentless pursuit of the Holy One. There is no other place to either begin or continue the spiritual life but from this posture of the soul. Heart hunger is the one thing needed, after which all else will come.
Jesus underscores this lesson when he teaches his disciples in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom [or Reign] of God, and all else will be added to you.” The psalmist understands this truth and begins his prayer with a cry of unfulfilled hunger and yearning, ushering from his depths.
This pilgrim poet prays to be heard. I have thought a lot about the “ministry of presence” since our daughter Sarah died seven months ago. The ancient saint, Job, faced cumulative losses of a magnitude I can only imagine—home, children, livelihood, health, reputation. Three friends came to comfort him. For seven days and seven nights, they sat with him and didn’t say a word. They ministered to him solely through their presence (Job 2:11-13).
So many times in life, what we need is simply the gift of presence. Our heart cries yearn to be heard. We don’t need someone to fix us or attempt to explain the inexplicable. The psalmist needs God to hear. She is crying for mercy, grace, and redemption from the torments of life, whether induced by external or internal circumstances, or both.
“If you, O God, mark our guilt, who can stand?” she rhetorically asks. This is a communal question, a human condition question, a big picture question in the midst of individual, very personal suffering. The psalmist’s private distress does not blind her to the looming distress that infects her social context.
This week I had the opportunity to hear noted Canadian environmentalist, David Suzuki, on Democracy Now. In this interview, he talks a great deal about the need for a profound paradigm shift among the nations of the world. He pleads for human beings to recognize that we are animals, part of–not separate from or superior to–the natural world. Just like other biological creatures, we require air, food, and water to survive.
Suzuki comments that when he says such things to audiences in the United States, people come up to him afterward and say, “Don’t call my children animals! Don’t call me an animal!” He believes that those who truly live in their oneness with the earth are the indigenous peoples of the world. They need to re-teach the rest of us what we have forgotten (see this remarkable interview at www.democracynow.org/2012/6/25/david_suzuki_on_rio_20_green).
This discussion between Amy Goodman and David Suzuki drew me back to traditional patriarchal, anthropocentric (or human-centered) interpretations of the Creation Stories in Genesis 1 and 2. Such exegesis reinforces man’s domination over woman, and humanity’s domination over nature, each at the peril of the entire planet. “If you, O God, mark our guilt, who can stand?” the psalmist cries out. We know the answer full well.
The psalmist does, too. She answers her own question: “But with you is forgiveness, and for this we revere you.” We worship a holy, loving God who isn’t keeping tally of our wrongdoings, and yet calls us to transformation. Forgiveness opens us to new life; lack of forgiveness strangles the spirit. We need only look as far as a child, learning and growing, trying and failing, to see the impact of mercy compared to that of condemnation.
The psalmist trusts in God, affirming her stance even amid an anguished cry and unfulfilled yearning of the heart. “My soul waits for you, O God, more than sentinels wait for the morning.” Watching and waiting are critical elements of the spiritual journey. On occasion, epiphany moments come, and change is rapid. Most of the time, however, we know the spiritual journey as a long, patient slog. I continue to think of the comment made by Bob Cothran’s son, as Bob moved his beloved wife, Rosalyn, to the Care Center at Kendal. “The world is beautiful, life is hard, and love is real.”
To watch and wait for God is to embrace the awareness that spirituality is not about the quick fix, easy explanation, or magic prayer. In ancient times, the sentinel–or watchman, guarded the city from enemy invaders and rogue criminals. Alert, awake, ready to spring into action, the sentinel knew that this job was a life and death matter for both the self and the community.
“Like those who wait for the morning, let your people wait for you,” the psalmist continues. The remaining strophes move fully from the voice of the individual to a focus on the community of faith. The psalmist locates personal watching and waiting within the context of the greater watching and waiting of the people of God. This is not just a “me” journey with God, but an “us” journey, together. It’s not just the psalmist who feels lost; the community has lost its way as well. Both need divine intervention.
In concluding, the writer affirms God’s unchanging capacity for love and re-creation, along with the conviction that God will, indeed, respond in faithfulness and mercy.
Let me slowly speak key words of this psalm. May they awaken spaces within your own heart as we prepare to share the Lord’s Supper together. I invite you to close your eyes and experience these words…