Old First Church
Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
March 18, 2018
Texts: Psalms 13 and 14
It's the iconic scene for many if not most of us regarding trust. In the comic strip Peanuts, Lucy promises Charlie Brown that she will not pull the football away from him as he tries to kick it. And we see later on in the strip that poor Charlie Brown will end up falling into the dirt as he tries to kick a football that she has pulled away from him–again. And no matter how many times she has told him, he keeps trusting in her promise that she will hold the football for his kick.
The Psalmist in number thirteen this morning must feel much like poor Charlie Brown, kicking at a football that isn' t even there. "How long, O Lord?" is the lament. "Will you forget me forever?" This resonates with each one of us for there have been certainly some times in our lives that we have felt that God’s face has turned away from us.
"How long must I bear pain in my soul?" This familiar cry reflects the times in our lives when we have wanted to cry to God: "How long? How long? How long?" And, so often, all we have heard is the silence. And here I'm not talking about the still silence wherein we experience God. I'm talking about the silence that we experience when we feel we have been abandoned and despair beyond belief. Where is God then?
These Psalms of petition and lament we have been hearing over the last several weeks are paricularly appropriate for Lent, a time when we are supposed to look inward, to consider our relationship with God and with one another. We don't particularly like Psalms of lament and grief and, to be honest, we really don't like the Lenten season. We'd just rather hurry right along into Easter.
The Psalms of lament and grief, however, have an important function in our lives. They give us a form within which we can express our deepest doubts and fears while at the same time we do not become overwhelmed by those feelings and are unable to find our moorings. Faced with the dark abyss, these Psalms offer us a mechanism by which our grief can become bearable.
The Psalms of lament and grief also offer us a mechanism for hope. In each one of these Psalms, we hear our deepest fears reflected followed by an affirmation that God does hear us and does not abandon us. They reflect how we often feel when we are in deep distress.
In many ways our modern world wants to deny the reality of grief. Here I am speaking about not the individual loss we feel when someone we loved has died, but social grief. Since January there have been more than a dozen shootings in American schools; none has been as horrendous as the horrific massacre in Parkland and although in each instance people have been either harmed or killed, albeit on a smaller scale, their communities have suffered grief.
One killed here, two there, several more wounded , they slip by us in the news almost unnoticed because many are not reported beyond the communities where they occurred, but each one has brought a measure of grief and lament by those affected. Many of us thought after Sandy Hook something would change , but the cowards in Congress bought and paid for by the NRA just dithered about, hoping it would all go away. And caught up in the press of other events, it did pretty much that. It just went away, like the crowds on a summer boardwalk in winter.
But now, hopefully, much like the Psalmist's cry calling on God's steadfast love, something has changed. Or, at least we hope so. This time rather than grieving parents we are faced with angry students, kids who do not want to become the next victims of a cowering Congress that enables anyone to buy weapons designed only to kill people without background checks.
This past week the New York Times asked with a photo of a 12-year-old in a story entitled, "Too young to protest?" And this past week the op-ed page carried a piece by three high school students entitled" We're not going away." Let's hope they're right. After all, it was the young people who faced Bull Connor with his dogs and fire hoses that galvanized America into realizing that it was time for a Civil Rights Revolution. And it was the young men and women mostly of college age that forced the rest of the country to recognize the lie of Vietnam.
The advantage of youth is its strength and determination, its refusal to give up. It is different from an inability to compromise. We older adults have become tired, defeated by losing too many battles. Too long have we wondered whether my thing could beat back the power of what the NRA has become, an extremist organization for so-called gun rights, not yielding an inch. Just what we need–an assault rifle in every house. Gosh, do you think I could buy a tank as well?
Although our translation of Psalm 14 reads "Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’" Robert Alter translates the word fools as scoundrels because it is the godless who do abominable deeds, large and small, from nerve agents on Russian defectors to chlorine gas in Syria, from gutting funds for our own veterans disabled by medical experimentation to bringing back wolf hunting from airplanes. Fools are only stupid; scoundrels are corrupt and evil.
This Psalm also decries the way leaders, both religious and political, have gone astray. Just look at how the evangelicals, especially the white evangelicals, have embraced a man whose public face includes racism, xenophobia, and the abandonment of the poor. I don't believe that Jesus ever told the rich that theirs was the kingdom of heaven.
The evildoers devour the people as they devour bread–Alter’s translation here creates a terrifying image. It brings to mind those paintings of the Judgment by Hieronymus Bosch where the evildoers are led into a hell they themselves have created. I think what appeals to me in his paintings are his unsparing eye and his willingness to paint the faces of people who had positions of authority among those condemned to hell. Michelangelo did the same in his Sistine Chapel ceiling and it almost cost him his freedom.
The one sure thing you can say about usurpers of unjust power is that they have no sense of humor. And they especially have no sense of humor about themselves. The Chinese, for instance, shut down parts of the internet when a certain poet wrote a poem about frogs that the leadership saw as a comment on government officials.
Frogs? Yes, they croak at evil, something our duly elected leaders in the Congress are loath to do. In the natural world the absence of frogs is a danger sign that something has gone terribly wrong with the environment. In the world we have created, the one of political cowardice, the children and teenagers are our frogs. They are croaking and croaking like mad.
Their willingness to call out our political and–yes, religious leaders should give us pause–and hope. I haven't seen the so-called religious leaders who always claim God is on their side standing up and calling out the scoundrels who inhabit our state and federal legislatures to task. They just continue to be quiet in the face of the death star.
The Psalmist reminds us in both Psalms we heard this morning that the Lord is the refuge of the poor and the forgotten, those who are devoured by the power of the rich and their money. We are offered through these Psalms a vision of God's saving grace. That grace can give us the strength of youth so we can rise up like eagles, as the prophet Isaiah puts it, and defeat the evil we see around us.
But we are tired, we say. We have done so much, we say. Our generation created enormous change in American society through the Civil Rights Revolution and by forcing our leadership to recognize its lie in Vietnam. At one time our generation was in the forefront of change. Now we see the re-emergence of public racism. Oh, the old evil of racism has always been there. It's just not been given such credence before. Our generation cannot just give up.
Our strength is in the Lord, in our faith that, as Theodore Parker said back in the nineteenth century, the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice. It is a statement that Martin Luther King repeated often. The Psalms of lament and grief also offer us that hope. They don't offer us solutions but they do offer us hope, which we find realized in our own actions, in our own behavior.
This Lenten season offers us the same hope. After we have recognized our sin, the unwillingness to take on the powers and principalities of this world, and have repented, we then can approach our individual and societal lives with new vigor and help to bend that moral arc more closely to justice.
Let us pray: You, O God, you know our deepest fears and our weaknesses. We ask that your grace give us the strength to take on the evildoers, and to continue in our work for your kingdom of justice and peace as did the One we follow, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.