Hoping for God


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

November 25, 2018

Texts: Psalms 67 and 69

       They walked into the desert hoping to find a deeper experience of God. The women known as the “Desert Mothers” have not been as well known as their male counterparts but their writings about the experience of God convey a different approach to God’s presence. As did the Psalmist, their eyes failed them at times as they were hoping to find God.

        The two Psalms this morning are different in tone but are related in their theme in asking for God’s blessing on our attempts to live a righteous life. The first Psalm we heard seems to call for God’s blessing on Israel alone, but it is really a call for God’s blessing on the community and it is not, I think, a misreading of this Psalm to extend it to any community seeking to live righteously.

        The second Psalm we heard is a lament but different from many of the other laments we have heard throughout this past year. It is more of a spiritual lament, a cry to God for forgiveness and restitution to the Psalmist’s relationship with God.              Here the Psalmist acknowledges that God knows his folly and begs God not to put to shame or to punish others because of what he has done or not done. It is a lament that many of us experience. Not only do we want forgiveness for our own wrongs but we do not want others to suffer as a result of our own failings.

         We should be concerned that others will bear the brunt of our action, or inaction, as the case may be. If we consider overbuilding in areas that should never have any construction, no matter who the owner is or what he or she wants to do with the land, we will face the consequences  when we have a storm as storm as strong as Sandy was.

          The issue that faces us is our willingness to permit private property owners to do whatever they want to with their land. Yes, we have zoning laws and owners must obtain permits to build but our tradition of private property allows for building where there should be no building.

          This Psalm unlike some of the other laments that found their origins in David’s fear of Saul, and unlike Psalm 51 wherein David lamented his sin with Bathsheba, addresses a deeper search for God and the Psalmist’s fear that his own actions have driven him further from God.

          There are certainly times in our own lives when we have felt that our actions have driven us far from God. And there have been times certainly in my own life when I have felt that I could not hope for God’s mercy because I did something so egregious that there could be no forgiveness.

           Sometimes we have not recognized our own folly as the Psalmist puts it and feel that we are but innocent sufferers. We have times we wish some form of recompense, even retaliation, against those we feel have harmed us without cause.

           Psalm 69 moves us from the feeling of re-morse into one of retaliation, but that is sometimes how we do react when we have really made a mess of things. We displace our anger at our own actions onto something or someone else and end up wishing that other person would suffer the consequences of those actions.

         Although we may not sit in sackcloth as did the Psalmist, we at times feel that we have em-braced an emotional sackcloth. The point of wearing sackcloth, a coarsely woven fabric, usually made of goat hair, was to make the wearer feel uncomfort-able beyond the fact that others would see the wearer in contrition. It made a public statement of the wearer’s repentance.

        We generally don’t make our statements of contrition or repentance so public. Back in the day, of course, religious and civil authorities, who at times were combined, made guilt and contrition public. Who can forget the image of Hester Prynne as she is forced to wear the “A” around her neck due to her brief encounter with the very pastor who condemns her producing the child Pearl? Putting someone in the stocks constituted another form of public shaming.

        Today our sense of shame is often private, and even our monthly prayer of confession on the first Sunday of the month does little more than call to mind what our sins may have been during the past month. We do not even have the practice of private confession as do those in the Western and Eastern Catholic churches with some form of penance prescribed.

          The Psalmist here in the cry to God presents images that are uncomfortable to us: “Save me from the mire that I may not drown,” cries the Psalmist. There are certainly times in our lives that we feel we are drowning through actions of our own accord. I tend to think of such times as a combination of bad judgment and stupidity – at least for me.

          Following the Psalmist’s wish for retribution as he recounts how his enemies had forced the bitter-ness of wormwood and vinegar, the Psalmist returns to the theme of thanking God for rescuing him. And is it not the case that when we have found ourselves humbled by our own failings, that we thank God when we have been rescued from the worse consequences of our actions? I certainly have.

          There are, of course, persons who seem to have absolutely no shame. This past September the chair of the Mashpee Wampanoag received a letter from the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs that the tribe had been “decertified” and that the land held in trust was being taken from them. This is the first tribal land that has been removed since the presidency of Harry S. Truman.

          Why are the descendants of the very tribe that saved the Pilgrims in 1620 being decertified? Because as the so-called leader of the free world said in an argument to build a casino, “You don’t look like an Indian tome.”  It is to our national shame if we who claim to be land of the free and home of the brave do not speak up at this time. This is how we repay the charity shown our ancestors?

          Shame and remorse for our sins is both individual and societal. Quite frankly, I wonder if we deserve more than wormwood and vinegar if we sit by and not protest this disgusting act by – well, I must try to be polite – someone who has no shame, no shame at all.

          Fortunately, there are people who do realize a debt. House bill No. 5244, a bill to reaffirm the reser-vation of the Mashpee Wampanoag people, is in Congress. We should be fed wormwood and drink vinegar if we just sit by and do nothing.

         It was not that long ago that the Ramapough Indians here in New Jersey were also threatened by interests that want their land. There is still the pipe-line issue and we as Christians need to support the tribe against this incursion into their tribal lands or we should be ashamed of ourselves.

          The Psalmist makes clear that it is not just individual shame but a need for forgiveness for a nation as well. Last Friday I went to see Ellis Island. The last time I was there was well before Hurricane Sandy; in fact it was the summer of 2010 when I had promised my granddaughter Kellie a special trip for her hard work in school resulting in excellent grades. I really don’t boast or brag, do I?

         The new exhibits are extraordinary – I must have been there for at least four hours. Included beyond the actual artifacts were the letters that persons coming to America wrote home. “When I stepped onto the ship, I knew I would have a new land,” wrote one Irish woman in 1850. “And I never looked back” ”wrote a Russian Jew who had seen his village destroyed in a pogrom on Easter Sunday.                  And, “this land is a good land, with good soil for wheat,” wrote the Norwegian farmer in the Dakotas. Americans all, they became and built this land beyond even the wildest dreams of John Winthrop as he stepped onto the Massachusetts shore.

          And there are the stories of shame: the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Know Nothings lynching Catholics, and the internment of the Issei in World War II, to name a few. But the promise embodied by Lady Liberty and the words of Emma Lazarus are like the words of the Psalmist as he sang: “The lowly have seen and rejoiced, those who seek God; let their hearts be strong. For the Lord listens to the need . . . .”

         Those words are reflected not just in Psalm 69 but in Psalm 67 as well for it is not just that one nation rejoices in God, but that all nations shall rejoice in God, the Lord of justice and righteousness. This is the God we worship; this is the God whose commandments we strive to follow. This is the God who calls us to be the people who will bestow justice and mercy, the God who restores and heals.

           As we come to God in prayer, let us be grateful for all we have and all we can share with others, so that we may be instruments of justice and peace on earth. In the name of him who embodies the open arms of God, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.