Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps
Old First Church
August 5, 2018
Texts: Psalm 38 and 39
Although the issues facing Minnesota may differ from New Jersey in the particulars, the basic issues are similar: How do we as a society address the soul sickness of people afraid of and opposed to a new vision of society? How can those of us who embrace a future different from the past include those who are afraid of what the future may hold for them?
The area known as the Boundary Waters because it straddles the United States and Canada has enormous nickel and copper reserves, and the mining companies have fired up the workers, who get no share of the profits, mind you, to argue that this pristine area should be open to mining. Claiming that this will bring work, the older white population of former miners and would be miners have been encouraged to clamor for opening up the area to mining. Just never mind that the water will become undrinkable, even to their own children.
It seems that many of them suffer from soul sickness but have not called upon the Lord not to rebuke them in anger. Some do call upon the Lord but have been turned against by the very communities they inhabit. When we ask the Lord not to rebuke us, we must realize that we cannot move beyond our longing for God’s embrace without the repentance that leads to true change.
The Psalmist here is sick in soul and despairs. This kind of despair is different from the despair we feel when we have lost something dear to us. It is not depression but the sense of estrangement from God. It shakes us to our core. We search for and yearn for the presence of God and feel little more than absence.
The two Psalms we heard this morning cry out to God to relieve this terrible soul sickness and give us relief and peace. Like most of the Psalms in Book 1, this psalm is ascribed to David. An individual lament, it uses expressions filled with pain interspersed with pleadings to the Lord. Unlike Job who maintained his righteousness, the Psalmist here acknowledges his sin.
The Psalmist combines both the spiritual and the physical. Are there not times when we feel physically ill because of something we have done? Apart from the fear of those who lay snares and traps, the Psalmist realizes the effect of sin: estrangement from God and others, whether they be family or community.
Soul sickness, this despair of estrangement, has other consequences as well. We become separated from the natural world around us as well. Here the Psalmist realizes the depth and nature of the sin. Much of our soul sickness derives from not realizing the nature or depth of our sin.
On my way north from Minneapolis to Duluth last Sunday afternoon, I was astounded by the traffic coming south. It was backed up and not just because of road con-struction and repair, which must be completed before the snow begins in mid to late October. Beginning about thirty miles north of Minneapolis, there was a campground every few miles, almost evenly divided between private and state parks. Almost all of them boasted a lake – Minnesota is known as the land of 10,000 lakes.
About ten miles north of Duluth, more than 150 miles from Minneapolis, the bicycle trails begin and continue for at least 50 miles north toward the Canadian border, where the boundary waters are located. As you head north, Lake Superior is to the right and lakes of many different sizes are to the left. The flat farming land is now hilly and rocky – think of trying to farm in Maine.
There are some large mining operations interspersed between the state parks that dot the landscape. The people who actually live in this part of the state share it with moose, bear, and wolves. Their local papers and radio stations reflect the soul sickness of people desperate for work in a new tech-nological age.
They resent the environmentalists from Minneapolis telling them what not to do. They are torn between their own love for the wild and the need to have some meaningful work beyond catering to tourists. Many of the old Nordic types who first settled there were trappers and hunters, but there’s little of that left.
Add to this the tension resulting from old racial and ethnic discord between the Native Americans and the de-scendants of settlers. The Chippewa Nation is in the northern part of the state and the Dakota are down south. Hoping to escape their situation without acknowledging their sin, soul sickness drives many descendants of the old white settlers to the casinos managed by the tribes they resent. Soul sickness is not just individual but societal as well.
But it is acknowledging our soul sickness that results in the destruction of our natural world and resentment of people not like “us,” whatever the “us” is that allows us to move beyond the blindness and deafness the Psalmist be-moans here. The two Psalms we read this morning area a pair. As Psalm 38 ends with a cry to God not to forsake us, Psalm 39 moves us beyond the silence we often have in the face of evil.
If indeed we muzzle our mouths, as the text puts it, evil will flourish. And, again, although the lament in Psalm 39 is phrased from an individual perspective, it carries over to the communities we inhabit. Certainly we lament the brevity of our lives but we can extend the influence our lives have be-yond our deaths. One may do it through a bequest, another through some direct action, and yet a third through acts of lovingkindness toward another person.
Those acts create memories in the ones who will mourn us and even though we may depart, as the Psalmist says, we are remembered creating legacies of love. In spite of how we endeavor to have our memory preserved, it is not the same, of course, as life. The laments in these Psalms, one of sorrowful repentance and the other of the acknowl-edgment of the length of our days, speak to our deepest fears for we all fear debilitating illness and death.
Scholars believe that prior to the Babylonian Captivity ancient Israelites did not believe in what Christians have come to call eternal life. Following death, the soul – for lack of a better word – entered some kind of dark netherworld, much like the Hades of the Greeks. One’s Spirit could be called up, as Saul had the witch of Endor call up Samuel but this was strictly prohibited. Most of the Psalms reflect this ancient belief although they were probably not to pen until centuries after they were composed.
In these two Psalms as in any of the others we have read and said together, sin and righteousness was to be punished and rewarded in this life. So, as we look at how we are punished, so to speak, for sin in this life, we recognize that sinful or evil actions have their consequences far beyond what we may immediately think.
Our sinful and evil actions against others and the natural world have real consequences. The pollution caused by companies such as Ronson, the maker of cigarette lighters, has had real consequences here in New Jersey. Groundwater has been made unsafe, and now just as the Psalmist says, the sinner must repent and make whole the consequences of the sin.
Now Ronson will have to pay for the cleanup – sort of like cleaning up the mess you made rather than leaving it for someone else. Why should the taxpayers of New Jersey pay for the environmental damage caused? Companies that damage our future should be doing the cleanup.
Cleaning up also applies to our individual lives. So often when we have sinned against another, we do not even try to make whole. Sometimes that’s because we are not even aware that we have sinned; sometimes because we just figure the effort is not worth it.
The early church recognized this and instituted a passing of the peace is part of worship. In many churches, passing the peace is a ritual before the Lord’s Supper, for as we say, how do we come to God if we have not reconciled ourselves with our brothers and sisters? In truth, we cannot.
As we read and listen to the two Psalms for this morning, we also need to remember that it is always easier to see the speck in the eyes of others than the logs in our own. These Psalms are intensely personal. Recognizing our own sin, the evil to which we become complicit, is difficult, to be sure. But beyond our fears and acknowledgment, is our trust in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Let us come to God in prayer: Eternal Creator who sees into our hearts and knows our fears, our concerns, our needs, embrace us with your presence so we are transformed into new creatures through your love. In the name of him who is the example of that love, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.