Tuesday, June 28, 2011
A sermon by Mary Koon
Riverside Presbyterian Church
June 26, 2011
Prayer of illumination:
Awaken us, this morning, O God, to the truth found in your Word, that our lives may be transformed and conformed to the image of your son, Jesus the Christ. And may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.
Our scripture this morning comes from the book of Psalms, a book of the Bible that is significant in both the Christian andthe Jewish tradition of worship. We will read the 13th Psalm, an honest cry to God in the midst of the suffering. I invite you to listen with ears of empathy, of recognition, and to pay attention to the emotion these words evoke.
1How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
2How 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?
3Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death,
4and my enemy will say, “I have prevailed”; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.
5But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.
So ends the reading and may God’s Spirit illuminate our understanding. AMEN
How long? It is the cry of a Palestinianin occupied territory, navigating streets where gun fire and violence are too frequent realities. How long? It is the cry of the homeowner in Joplin, Missouri, picking through the rubble of his home that was destroyed in a tornado. How long? It is the cry of a parent whose child is hurt, or sick or heartbroken. How long? It is the cry of the widow who mourns her partner and best friend.
How long? It is my cry. It is yours.
The truth is that the human condition includes suffering as well as joy. Built into the very fabric of life is illness, loss and death. It is sobering to recognize that in the best- case scenario, our marriages, our friendships, indeed all our relationships will end, finally, in death; hopefully at a very old age without debilitating illness.
But this is why I love reading the psalms. The poetry, though the language is ancient and some of the images unfamiliar, speaks to a place deep within me. Though it may be important to know their historical context, it isn’t as important to me as how the words make me feel. Perhaps this is why psalms are included in the lectionary selections each week and are frequently the call to worship.
Patrick Miller, a scholar from Princeton, says that it is the form of the psalms that allows us to identify and relate to the speaker. The words in the psalms are directed at God and are from humans. God almost never addresses humans in the text. The structure of the psalms helps us structure our own prayers.
Psalm 13 is what is considered anIndividual Lament: This type psalm is the most frequent one in the psalms. In it,the author addresses his or her personal distress – sickness, abandonment, imprisonment – to God, and asks God to intervene and deliver.
Psalm 13 begins with a complaint that describes for God the problem in which God is sometime implicated:
My God, how long? Are you going to forget me forever?
How long will you hide your presence from me?
Must I bear pain in my soul and my heart 24/7?
How long will my enemy (be that enemy disease, grief, unemployment, etc) oppress me?
Then the author begs for God to help:
Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Help me to see you. Help me!
Why does the author feel that God should help? Because if not,
I will die, my enemy will have won, and celebrate my downfall.
But then something amazing happens. The one crying out to God seems to tap into a memory of God’s goodness. The author is stirred, a resolution is found and a promise is made:
But I remember that I trusted in your ever-present love in the past,
My heart is filled with joy because I am confident that I am saved.
I will praise you because of the blessings you have shown me before now.
Even though God’s voice isn’t heard explicitly, we get the feeling that somehow God is interacting with the writer, that deep within the soul-- mystically – the author leans into God, whose mysterious love embraces us all. When that happens, cries of pain are transformed into cries of hope that God’s love will see him or her through their darkest moment.
Christianity is an odd sort of faith, isn’t it? Faith in the risen Christ doesn’t provide a free pass that somehow eliminates or helps us avoid failure, disease, heartbreak or disappointment. Rather, faith in Christ assures us that not only does God suffer with us, but that by loving one another through suffering, we are all transformed. Loving one another through pain and suffering can transform the world.Through Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we know that in the fullness of time, good will prevail, life will trump death and love and wholeness will be all.
And if we are to be part of the transformation of our world, both individually and corporately, if we are to be the hands of Christ on earth and bear one another’s burdens, we must all practice compassion andbe witnesses to one another’s suffering.
Frederick Beuchner writes that “compassion is sometimes the fatal capacity to feel what it is like to live inside somebody else’s skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” So, in other words, compassion is suffering with someone --we feel one another’s suffering so clearly that we are moved to do something to ease their pain. Jesus was the master of compassion. He eased pain and brought light wherever he went.
Honestly, some pains are easier to ease than others. It seems evident that offering water to the throat that cries out in thirst, or food to the belly that grumbles with hunger is compassionate. Bandaging a wound, smiling at a stranger or a frazzled store clerk is compassionate. Lifting a prayer for a person mute with grief, sending money to World Vision, or volunteering at BEDS are all acts of compassion.
But what of the needs of those hurting that aren’t as easy to identify? How can we help our children, our spouses, our friends, our fellow church members or even strangers? What should we do when we see that someone is grieving, confused or broken hearted, depressed, discouraged, or frightened, lonely, lost or just having a bad day? What should we say, how might we act?
Consider Job, an Old Testament hero who lost his family, his wealth and his health all because el Satan and God made a little wager. The Satan bet God that if God’s faithful servant, Job, was brought to his knees, Job would curse God. As Job sits on a pile of ashes, after losing it all, three friends show up. The most compassionate things these guys do is sit quietly by Job for days. When they begin to speak, their support flies out the window, as they cannot bear Job’s anger toward God, his questioning, his pain. In attempting to help Job discover the source of his losses, they accuse, they badger, they argue – in a word, they make matters worse. Sometimes the best way to help is to refrain from giving advice, to refrain from trying to fix the problem, or change the person and just let the suffering one yell at God, stomp, cry, shake, howl – and just be present and bear witness to the suffering.
The twelve step group, Alcoholics Anonymous, does this beautifully. These meetings bring people together who suffer in similar ways, who publically acknowledging their dependence on a higher power to heal from the alcoholism that has robbed them of abundant life and relationship. They lean on this power, and on one another. In meetings, advice or help is not given unless requested. No one is allowed to interrupt another’s story or try to fix their problems. Prayers are said together and strength is found in community. These people witness each other’s struggles, though they may not fully know or understand the details of their situation.
I hate to admit how often I’ve attempted to comfort a friend, my spouse or children by stating, “ I know just how you feel.” And I’m working on this. Because even if we’ve been through a similar circumstance, the truth is we can never really know exactly how someone feels, but we can be present with them in a supportive way.
There is a marvelous scene in that quirky“indie” movie called Lars and the Real Girl. The church and community rally around the protagonist, Lars, though they don’t understand why he believes that a plastic doll is a real person. They do it because they love him. The scene I refer to takes place in the living room where Lars is keeping vigil as his friend (who isn’t real) dies. The church ladies have come bearing Jello molds, ham and casseroles. They lead Lars into the living room, where they are quietly knitting, and give him a plate of food. “Should I do something?” He asks, “No, dear, we just came over to sit.” The ladies say, “That’s what we do when tragedy strikes – we come and sit.” There are times when action is needed, and times when the grace of silence is demanded.
How long, O God, will you forget me? It is the song of the soul in a world of pain. There will always be hearts calling out to God, imploring God to heal and restore, forgive and make new. As people of faith, we are called to help those who suffer remember that they are not forgotten-- by God or anyone else. Surely compassion takes discernment – is this the time for food? A phone call? A joke? A letter writing campaign? Or is it the time for showing up and sitting still, recognizing that as we journey with one another through the dark times, we open our lives to God’s transformative power to restore the world to wholeness.
Thanks be to God. AMEN