Psalm 31:16 & Acts 7:55-60
First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
May 14, 2017 — Fifth Sunday of Easter
Our psalmist is in a sorry state this morning. He hears whispers of terror all around. A net, he tells us, has been set for him. Our singer cries easily, at the slightest provocation. He feels so alone. Like the way a plastic bag floats on the wind, listless, meaningless as death itself – something to be stepped around or ignored. People, he says, avoid him. But he hears what they say, the gossip.
Words have wings, you know, and they fly from our mouth to ears unseen. He knows they avoid him, avoid his eyes. They step around his wheelchair of emotional captivity, steer clear of the dirty blankets of despair which make up his bed.
And perhaps, we would too. We would step around this sorrowful character, should we see or hear him on the street.
Like most people (and unlike our psalmist) we manage our emotions, mostly. Like most people, we suppress whispers of delusion, mostly. Like most people, our nightmares happen at night and not in the light of day. Like most people, we are mostly healthy, mostly assured of our place in life, in our neighborhoods, among our friends, and colleagues. Mostly.
Mostly, the whisper of terror never rises much higher than the realm of our subconscious mind. We mask it, successfully enough, behind smiles of optimism and belonging. Today’s psalm is for that part of our lives that seems out of control, that refuses to be obedient, that is not staying healthy, not staying wise or successful. If that voice should ever get the upper hand. . . .
Our singer seems to have mostly failed to manage the darker side of the human condition. He or she sings out of that place. She sings amid an experience of deep brokenness. And she sings of a deeper trust. This person, our singer of broken hallelujahs, has limped, or wheeled his way into the middle of our worship service this morning.
Psalm 31 is a visitor to our church. But she is a visitor who preaches. She doesn’t sit quietly at the back of the church. She won’t come late or leave early, as so often I have seen in this very church. She has come to church today; and she cried from this pulpit a moment ago; she sang with you in the congregation, and she continues to sing — she testifies, she searches her soul, and cries for our God and for her God, and perhaps, with us, she finds God, a sure defense, a trustworthy, rocky crag, a strong fortress.
Mostly, we would step around this tragic figure – or suggest she see a therapist or encourage her to stay on her meds – and that might not be a bad idea, but today, before we euthanize her with cheap psychology, we will sing with her — she will not receive our meds, but she, through her song, will be medicine for us, because she has joined us in our worship today as God’s word sung to us . . .
In you O Lord, in you have I taken refuge.
Yes, there are a few bright moments, where the clouds of despond break with the bright light of hope: “God,” she says, “is my rock, my crag, my sure foundation, my refuge.” But we might be more taken by the jig-saw-puzzle–with-a-couple-of-pieces-gone feeling of today’s song.
If you look at the psalm, it doesn’t follow a logical pattern – the first part of the psalm speaks of God as the psalmist’s rocky crag, her sure foundation. A refuge, a sanctuary, a place of deep security.
But by verse 4, we hear the worried, almost paranoid outburst from the back pew of doubt: “They’ve set a net for me, to trap me; I hear whispers of terror all around.”
Verse 9-13, the psalmist shifts from persecution, perhaps to emotional exhaustion and physical illness:
“My years pass in sighs; my eyes melt with tears. My bones melt and I am sick to my stomach. I am like the dead, my body discarded, left in a landfill while the rest of the world rages with progress.”
At the same time, you hear among these laments, deep expressions of trust: “I commit my spirit to you. My spirit, my life is in your hands O God.”
What do you with a text like this? Complain, among other things. Scholars complain when texts don’t proceed in a coherent manner. Often, they want the theory of the psalm rather than the psalm itself. They grouse about the incoherent jumbling of genres, lament and praise; a chaotic fruit salad of confidence and despair.
One reader admits to “gerrymandering” the text in order to help it make sense – the term comes from the political realm, where politicians redraw the boundaries of the district to exclude neighborhoods that would likely oppose their candidacy.
So, in order to make this text into a friendly district of theological coherence, she gerrymandered the text, drawing a weird loop around verses that made coherent sense together on their own, while at the same time excluding those that did not, essentially segregating the lament to one side of the psalmic neighborhood – where life was crap – and keeping the happy healthy congregation in a theologically privileged neighborhood, where life was mostly pretty good. All so it would make sense.
Finally, I came across another reader who just gave up and said, essentially, “You know, this is the way broken people talk; this is the way hurting people pray; this is the way grieving people sing – their hallelujahs broken in the middle.”[i]
That’s where I landed with the illogic of this psalm: it’s a broken hallelujah!
But a broken hallelujah, even if it’s broken, it is a hallelujah still. In Luke’s gospel, Christ himself takes this song as his own as he is dying, part sigh and part proclamation (Luke 24:36). The brokenness of Jesus’ death on the cross does not cancel out faithful proclamation. So, also, Stephen, as he is dying, a religious mob preparing to lynch him, takes this very text, verse 59 of today’s reading from Acts, onto his lips: “I commit my spirit into your hands, my life into your care” (Acts 7:59). There is, however, a difference between the way Christ prays this psalm and the way the psalmist prays. For one, Christ prays this psalm as he is dying, just as Stephen does. His suffering is great, but it is not life-long. The psalmist pours out his years in sighs.[ii]
And I suppose there is also another difference: the psalmist isn’t an innocent martyr. Our singer is a sinner and he is sinned against. Think King David – he sinned, murdered Uriah the husband of Bathsheba. He sinned. Visibly. But he is also sinned against – and today’s psalm gives speech to that experience.
Ellen Charry suggests that as we read this psalm, we read it through the lens of someone who goes to prison in his younger years. Maybe he is an African-American. Maybe he committed a crime – a real crime with a real victim. He sinned.
While in prison, he lives in an environment that victimizes again. He was sinned against. Prisons purport to be rehabilitate but at least as often they are just plain retributive, dealing out pain in the name of justice. Wounded people are wounded all over again – this time in the name of justice.
For his work, he is perhaps paid $30 a month, wages that would be considered slavery outside of prison walls. Medical care is scant or non-existent. AIDS HIV rampant. Loneliness is killing.
Our prisoner doesn’t expect birthday cards from the victims of his crime. But he doesn’t hear from his family either, or his father, or perhaps even his friends. No one speaks of him or even to him. He is forgotten. It’s as if he died while in prison. Or that he lives in a city of populated with the groans and miseries of dead people.[iii]
Amid those groans, he learns to sing a different song, a song in which he flies to a place of security and confidence . . .
In you O Lord, in you have I taken refuge
In the city of the dead, a manmade necropolis, our prisoner finds security, a rocky crag of God’s trustworthiness. And that song gives him strength, no matter his circumstances.
But then, lo and behold, he is released. But is he ever released, released from the prison his neighbors make for him as a so-called “free” man?
Released to a halfway house, he goes out for a run. It’s a cold, drizzly day. He looks odd in a t-shirt and shorts. A police officer waves him over. He complies, as obedient as a child.
The police officer asks, “What are you doing out here dressed like that?”
“What do you mean dressed like that? This is what I wear to jog.”
The officer looks him up and down, skeptical. “Where’s your identification.”
“I don’t have any on me,” he says, “I’m going for a jog.”
“Really? Where are you from?”
“I’m staying at the halfway house, up there. I just got out of prison.
“How long were you in prison?”
“A long time,” he says.
“How long?” he asks. “Ten years?”
“More than ten years,” he answers.
“More than fifteen years.”
“More than twenty years.”
“How many years?”
“Nearly forty years, officer.”
“Well, now,” he says to him, “you must be a real piece of. . . . I don’t want to see you here again. You get back to that halfway house and you don’t come out again until you have identification.”
“Yes, sir,” he says.
A man who has paid his dues to society, he lives on both sides of the street – as sinner but also as one who is sinned against.
Maybe he knows this prayer better than those of us who mostly manage to keep our lives under control. Who mostly manage to fit into a gerrymandered world, where our neighbors are mostly like us, mostly successful, mostly happy, mostly honest, mostly well-regarded. Mostly coherent. Except perhaps for those parts of our life that are not . . . feelings of anxiety that we cannot tame; imagined whispers of scorn; the well of self-loathing that sometimes grows in us.
And we find we can sing with our visitor who is more like a fellow pilgrim than a stranger.
So, what shall we do with this psalm which has so rudely intruded into our gerrymandered world?
Perhaps its word reminds us that God in Christ comes to make the captive free, the lame walk, the lost found – and when you’re that kind of person, we like to celebrate: “I was lost but now I’m found!” I don’t want to get in the way of that. But if you’ve been lost, if you’ve experienced disability, if you’ve been a captive, you never quite forget the experience. That’s God’s language, too.
And that God slips into our vocabulary — the language of the captive, of the disabled, of the unstable. We speak the language of God’s faithfulness, of God’s dependability. But we do not speak so as to exclude those who struggle, and gasp, and sob for their hallelujahs.
Our psalm today softens us to those in our midst who maybe cannot speak coherently – whose actual lives don’t conform to the theoretical life: go to college, get a job, get married, and enjoy a postcard perfect retirement. Today, we get 31 milligrams of psalmic empathy.
But perhaps one of the side effects of that psalmic medicine: that side effect allows us to name those parts of our lives that are not mostly okay. Where we know that we feel shame. We feel bullied. We feel overwhelmed. Or we fear being outed – or we have been outed but every outing terrifies us, makes us sick to our stomach.
That place in you belongs to God as much as your praise belongs. That hurt belongs to God. Before it was your hurt, it was God’s hurt.
Before we grieved, God grieved for us. Before we loved God, God first loves us. God remains faithful, dependable. A rocky crag. Our fortress in the shifting sands of circumstance.
Finally, the psalmist sings and testifies in our congregation – she knows us as her neighbors. Her song prods us to reflect on how we will behave – her neighbors and her congregation — when we see her, disheveled, when we her hear, saying, God bless you through the fog of a debilitating addiction, and all the shame and self-loathing she must feel. Will we respond like the neighbors responded to the psalmist? Will we avert our eyes? Or will we dare to care? [iv]
Our brown bag ministry suggests that we do dare to care – Hope Springs, which Derek talked about a moment ago, suggests that we dare to care.
As I said, the visitor to our church today, Psalm 31, she brings medicine. She gives us the medicine of empathy.
The powers of the world are committed to gerrymandering our society: Dump the sick population into the pools of even sicker populations. Keep the healthy with the healthy. And let the groaning weep in the prisons of their own making . . . or our making.
While we sing our happy hallelujahs . . .
But today, she insists, she sings. Today he sweats in a fever of fear and faith. Today she testifies with unusual confidence and startling honesty about the goodness of God.
Today she proclaims her trust in God, in this congregation, in neighbors who dare to care. Let us sing with her – and let us sing with Christ. . . .
In you O Lord, in you have I taken refuge
[i] McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms” in New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 4, 799.
[ii] Charry, Sighs and Songs of Israel, 157.
[iii] Ibid., 158.
[iv] Ibid., 164.