Sunday, September 16, 2012
Psalm 116.1-8; Mark 8.27-38
+ As I’ve shared with some of you, I have been lamenting—lamenting’s a nice word for what I’ve been doing—over the fact that I am revising my Will. It’s been an ordeal, let me tell you. Ten years ago when I first made out my will, life seemed so much simpler. Now, it’s so complicated. I have more to get rid of now when I die. It’s just awful!
One of the things I had to be forced to think about is the distribution of my collection of poetry manuscripts. Lord! You’d think it wouldn’t be so hard, but sorting through 25 years of manuscripts, putting them in some sort of order and getting them ready to donate to the Institute for Regional Studies has been even more difficulty than anyone would imagine. But, it has been interesting, and has been enlightening going through old manuscripts.
You may recall a few weeks ago when I shared you with my apprehension regarding Pastor Mark Strobel’s view that my first poetic influences were those Lutheran hymns I heard in Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church as a child. Of course—I hate to say it—he was right. But….what I discovered from my manuscripts was another influence from Maple Sheyenne Lutheran Church. Who’d ‘a thought!
One of the few sermons I remember hearing as a little boy was on poetry, of all things—and it influenced me greatly, although I didn’t know it at the time. I found document in which I shared how I had once heard a sermon preached when I was about five or six years old, on Psalm 56 (verse 8), the one about how every tear we cry is collected by God into a bottle. The actual verse is:
“You have noted my lamentation;
you have put my tears into your bottle.”
Now, of course, at that age I would never have known if he was preaching on a psalm or a Gospel or whatever, but what I do remember, even to this day, is the Pastor holding up a bottle of water that he said was filled with tears. It was a powerful image for me at that age. And it was, I think, the beginning of my love for poetry and, especially the Psalms. Over the years since, as I’ve come across verse 8 in Psalm 56, I remember for a moment how I felt that Sunday morning all those years ago when that Pastor held up that bottle.
Now, outside of that, I don’t remember any priest or pastor ever preaching on the psalms—or certainly never preaching an entire sermon on just the psalms. And I realize that, by not preaching on the psalms on occasion, preachers really are missing out on some beautiful images that can help all of us in our relationship with God—and certainly help us as followers of Jesus.
I’m sure it’s not a surprise to you that your priest, who’s also a poet, has been drawn to the psalms all of his life. In fact, the psalms are a very important part of my daily prayer life.
As you all know, I have pray the Daily Office—the services of Morning and Evening Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, every day, without fail—and have at least since I was ordained, but much earlier than that These services revolve around the daily reciting of Psalms. The Psalms, in the Daily Office, are used very much as prayer. And my whole prayer life is enriched by this practice.
Now we all know Psalms can be read, but Psalms are most effective when they are actually prayed—when we use them as prayer. After praying the psalms in such a way, one finds that they, in a way somewhat different than other scriptures, really do seep into one’s very spiritual core. To use language from the psalms themselves, they “seep into our bones like oil.” They speak to us in a way few other scriptures do.
And as a poet and priest, I love to preached on some of the poetic language we find in the scriptures and how sometimes it is good to have a poet in the pulpit (sometimes it’s bad to have a poet in the pulpit, especially when he or she gets a little too fancy in).
What so many people seem to forget about the psalms is that they are poems. Yes, originally they were written to be sung—and I am very happy that we sing our psalms here at St. Stephen’s But as we all know, the words to songs are poems. Poems were originally written to be sung. When we look at the psalms as poems—when we recognize the poetic language contained within them and within much of scripture— most of us find ourselves coming away from the psalms with a deeper understanding of them.
The language and the imagery of these poems has spoken to people for thousands of years, in much the same way the words to our favorite songs have. Look back over your own lives. How many times—at how many funerals—have we found ourselves comforted by the words of the traditional King James Version of the 23rd Psalm? Think of how many times you may have prayed these Psalms in church on Sunday over the course of your lifetime.
The reasons the Psalms are so important to us is because they are so universal. They cover the whole gamut of emotions and feelings. It’s the one part of the Bible we all know we can turn to and find just what we need when we need it. When we are angry or frustrated, it’s not hard to find a psalm that addresses that feeling. If we are joyful and happy, there are psalms for that as well. When we feel as though we’ve been betrayed and slighted, there are psalms there for us at that moment as well.
Today we the beginning section of Psalm 116. At first, as we read it, we might think that it has a kind of tone of self-centeredness. The psalm is not a collective—it is not “us” collectively, who are praying here—it very much singular.
“I” love the LORD who has heard “my” voice.
We’re not talking about common prayer here. We are talking about individual prayer. Another reason why the psalms are so vital is that they are very much the prayers of each of us as individuals. The psalms involve God and you. As we continue on in the psalm, we find the poet giving us a bit of background. Obviously he or she is emerging from a life-altering experience.
“The cords of death entangled me,”
“The anguish of the grave came upon me.”
This is not light and airy verse. These are the words of the Cross. These are words that could easily have been sung while someone hung on the cross of their death. Psalm 116 isn’t a poem of roses and clouds. This is heavy language and heavy imagery. And language we don’t often use for ourselves.
But we need to remember here, that it is a poet writing these words. Poetic language is sometimes not as literal as we might think it is. And that is why we need to be careful when it comes to a literal interpretation of scripture. Poetry should not be interpreted literally.
Oftentimes in our lives—when we have been so filled with despair, with depression, with fear—we might often feel as though death has, in fact, entangled us. Certainly in those moments when we are feeling desolate and down, life seems far away from us, while death seems too close for comfort—event though it really isn’t. And if we are looking at it from a spiritual point of view, spiritual death is always lurking closer to us than we might want to admit. It is easy to fall into the snares of despair. Often God does feel far from us and a spiritual darkness and death come over us. In those moments, we do truly come to “grief and sorrow.”
However, in the psalms—even the laments and the dirges—those psalms that deal with the depressions and despairs of this life—those moments when one cries out to God and complains to God—even in those psalms there is always a moment, when everything turns for the better.
This psalm started out on a dark note, but there comes the moment, when the poet turns from despair and illness and looks to God—to the Life and Light God grants. The poet at this point calls out to God, “Save my life.”
And here is the paradox we are dealing with as believers. The poet is vindicated in calling out to God in the midst of despair. The poet is innocent—of what we’re not certain, possibly innocent of whatever sins he or she feels punished for by depression or illness. And God, who is gracious and righteous and full of compassion, hears the prayer and grants it. God saves the poet.
So, in a matter of moments, we have gone from complete despair—from a place near death—to a place of absolute joy. The restless soul of the poet finds its rest in the peace and calm of God’s Presence. The eyes that were once filled with tears have been rescued from their crying, the feet that stumbled in their weakness are now steady and full of strength, because of God’s life-giving presence. And this section of the psalm ends on a note exactly opposite of how it began. Those images of being entangled by death in the beginning of this section are replace by this incredible image of walking with God among the living.
Here we have a prime reason of why the psalms are so powerful and important to us still. Most of us gathered here this morning can no doubt relate in many varying ways to this psalm. We know what this feeling is like—to be able to have our unhappiness turned to joy. Or if we don’t—and we haven’t experienced it—then we certainly long for it.
Here, in the words of this psalm, are what we long for in our relationship with God. See how powerful and wonderful these psalms are. See what a storehouse of spiritual help these psalms contain.
So, let us take to heart the words of the psalms we pray each week. Don’t just take them for granted. Let them become your prayer as well. Take the psalm that we pray each week with you as you leave here and return to that psalm again and again during the week. Read it over again.
And more importantly, pray it. Use it as your prayer as you take up your cross and follow Jesus where he goes. Like him pray it even from the crosses of your life. Even in those dark moments, let it be your voice that rises to God in joy and happiness in the face of the encroaching darkness. That is the true power of the psalms.
And before we know it, we will find ourselves being the poet of these psalms. We will find that these words are our words. We will find that these words are not just words on a page, but a voice that comes from deep within our hearts. Before we know it, we will hear something very strange. We will hear our own voice in these psalms, saying to us,
“I love the LORD, who has heard my voice,
and listened to supplication.”