3rd Sunday in Lent, March 27; Minister in Residence Tom Clifton
Sermon series on the Lament Psalms of the Psalter
Text: Psalm 22
The one prayer that unites us all is the one prayed by Jesus on the cross. The words are so familiar and so often felt. All of us here today have prayed this way: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But please note: when Jesus prayed this psalm, he most certainly had in mind and heart the entire psalm, not only the first verse.
Yes, the prayer begins with that question of questions: why have I been left abandoned in my time of need and hurt and pain and humiliation and loss? It is essential that we understand this kind of praying as normal and necessary. The psalmist prayed these words. Jesus prayed these words. And you and I pray them.
It is so important that we pray our losses and hurts. So important that we bring this part of our lives to God. So important that we are in touch with the broken pieces of our lives.
In my pastoral work I have had people come to my study numerous times struggling with their hurts and loses and voicing the concern that goes like this: why is everyone doing so well and my life seems to have fallen apart? My first task, of course, is to help that person understand in no uncertain terms that every person, without exception, is right there too with her. Elizabeth Taylor’s death brought lots of commentary this past week but one statement from Dick Cavett is worth remembering. Yes, she was a great actress. Yes, she was beautiful. Yes, she really did enjoy her fame and celebrity. But, added Cavett, don’t envy her life—all the addictions, all the suffering, all the pain. Don’t wish you had her life, Cavett cautioned. You would have to crazy to envy such.
All to say, we share a common humanity. We share a common prayer. We all get broken. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” Faith in a loving God does not protect us. It did not protect the psalmist. It did not protect Jesus. As has been said before: “God had one son without sin but never one without suffering.” People who suffer and get broken are not freaks, exceptions, or alone, or different in some basic way. “I am a worm and not human” cried the psalmist. Have you been there? You are in good company.
Not only in good company. We are in good voice. There is no hope where pain is not acknowledged. When pain is ignored or shoved down where we trust it will go away. It will not go away. But when we give voice to our hurt, there is created space for hope. The Psalms of Lament give us words when we can’t find words. We read our lives into them and know: this is how I feel. We are given voice through them. Now we have a place to take our sorrow and share it.
Do you know what becomes of us when we lament? We become human. We learn to have compassion for the brokenness, the hunger and the poverty inside us. And only then are we equipped to connect to a hurting world around us. Someone once said that we cannot give ourselves if we do not have all of ourselves. It is the people who know themselves in this kind of way who can be people of compassion for a hurting world, for others also broken. Only if we acknowledge our own pain, only if we refuse to discredit our own pain, can we begin to live in true community with others and hear theirs. We can pray for others because we know we need to be delivered from the powers of death ourselves.
But the, all of a sudden, without reason or warning, the 22nd Psalm changes. It is abrupt. Right in the middle of the petitions for help “…come quickly…Deliver my soul…Save me from the mouth of the lion! (vs.20-22) it comes. Suddenly we hear: “…you have rescued me, I will tell of your name…in the midst of the congregation I will praise you” (vs.21-22).
What changed? The psalmist changed. He remembers: “On you I was cast from my birth.” He remembers who took him from the womb and placed him on his mother’s breast. He proclaims: “God willed me to be!” I am personally known to God. I am not a worm, or despised, or scorned. I am a human, created in the image of God.
This past week the “NY Times” ran an obituary and then the day after a lead editorial on the death of William J. Stuntz. I had never heard of him. Stuntz, fifty-two at the time of his death, was a professor at Harvard Law School, and died of colon cancer. He wrote brilliantly, it appears, on the criminal justice system in the U.S. but also about politics more broadly as well. A Supreme Court Justice noted that everyone read him and listened to him and took seriously what he had to say.
His obit focused on one special part of his life, his open Christian faith, and how a back injury and his cancer had led him to understand that it was “futile to dream of being painless.”
But not only was his obit in the “Times.” The next day the editorial page featured him in a lead editorial, mentioning again his Christian faith, that it set him apart, and his church membership at Boston’s Park Street Church. Stuntz is quoted as saying near his death: “The concept that God longs for the likes of me is so unbelievably sweet.”
To be longed for by God. That’s sweet. That’s foundational memory that carries someone through rough times, the worst of times. You don’t pick that up in a rush. The psalmist got that from a life-time of corporate worship with the people of God. He was part of a congregation of the faithful. He did not have an answer to pain from his head. He could not give any answers. There are no answers.
There is only experience. The experience of being loved and longed for by God rises out of our story. It is the story of slaves being freed and waters parting. The story of being in a den of lions and living to tell about it. The story of a Friday when the earth turned black and a cross stood lonely on a distant hill and of a Sunday morning when death was defeated forever. The story of lepers being cleansed. The story of the blind seeing again. The story of two men singing in prison at the midnight hour and an earthquake breaking the prison bars.
That’s why we are here. We bring our sorrows here, our broken hearts here. There is another story. We are longed for by God. We have been taken from our mother’s womb. We have been willed into life. And so we cannot stay bitter. And praise won’t be silenced long. In the midst of death there is life. We know it because it’s our story, our experience.
And so the psalmist calls forth praise at the end of Psalm 22. He calls all the nations of the earth to praise. And the dead to praise. And the unborn to praise. All creation is to praise this God who longs for us and who brings deliverance—we don’t know how or when but we KNOW.