Lemme tell ya, brothers and sisters, I was at the beach too long!
It’s a lot harder than I expected it to be to get back into the rhythm of writing! Not that I don’t have anything to say (when did you ever find me short of words?) but I’ve been at a safe distance from the fire for a while, and stepping back into the heat’s a little scary!
Last time I put pixel to background (can’t say pen to paper any more, can I?), I was talking about the way that God prepares us for worship through praise, and how even the Old Testament reading functions as a part of our praise.
This week, I want to talk just a little about the often-overlooked importance of the Old Testament lessons, and the way that the Psalm that follows fits in as our response.
I’m going to be honest here. Until recent years, I almost never (not more than once a year, I’d bet) preached on the Old Testament lesson. That’s probably a good thing, since until recently I didn’t really know how to let God open it up for me, but that’s not why. I didn’t preach on it because it was either 1) too confusing or 2) too messy. After all, we have story after story in the Hebrew Scriptures about people making a total mess of things, and God (apparently) responding in terrible wrath. No need to go there. Just preach the Gospel, Jeff!
But in recent years I’ve come to treasure the stories of people who have earnestly sought for God and failed as often as they succeeded in finding Him. There are actually very few stories of real people in the New Testament that are as messy as my life. Oh, I know, everyone likes to talk about how Peter’s mouth was quicker than his brain, and how he abandoned Jesus, and what a great image he is for some Christians. That’s true. And Paul killed Christians before his conversion. That’s true too.
But neither of them killed someone for as venal a reason as wanting the fellow’s wife. (David) None of them stormed off into the desert after a great victory, complaining that it was just too hard, and asking God to put an end to it all. (Elijah) None of them was as precocious and absolutely insufferable as Joseph, or went through the years of trial it took to bring him to readiness to save his people and the Egyptians. These lengthy stories of the working out of relationship and intimacy with God over time just aren’t there in the New Testament. Heck, Mark’s favorite word in the whole world is “immediately.”
The Old Testament gives me a picture of God’s faithfulness to His people over time. It shows me His faithfulness to nations and to individuals. It shows our unfaithfulness in all it’s bloody detail, and allows us to ponder the terrible consequences. The Old Testament gives me courage to continue to walk the walk long after I think I should’ve reached the Promised Land. The Old Testament gives me a glimpse of God’s terrible wrath toward all that stands between Him and His children. The Old Testament inspires awe in the fearsome sense.
That is, it does until we edit out all the unpleasant parts.
We don’t get a lot of the really icky parts of the Old Testament on Sunday mornings. In the readings or in the Psalms. I can understand why, since most of us in the Episcopal church have no clue how to allow those things to bring us to repentance without also permitting ourselves to suffer condemnation. (Judgment that produces repentance and condemnation being two entirely different things…) Still, I have to get in my two cents worth here about the inadequacy of our lectionary choices. Fortunately, we are permitted to read more than is selected, just not less. Not that I do it often, but sometimes I do add back the pieces that are cut out or chopped off the beginning or the end of a selection.
And having heard the story of our wandering toward and then away from God again, we arrive at the Psalm.
The Psalm text is the moment where we are permitted to cry out to God as individuals. I understand some of the reasoning behind the use of “we” in the service elsewhere (though no one has yet convinced me of the wisdom of “we” in the confession), but here in the Psalm, I face God and cry out as an individual. I am convicted by my own similarity to the murderers and rogues of the Old Testament. I am convicted by the mercy of the One who saves me from all that. I am astounded at the faithfulness of my God as He restores me to Himself (with the Jews at the Seder Table, I am present in the story, not just a removed reader) over and over again.
And the Psalm is my response. I cry out. In desperation. In repentance. In utter joy. In grief.
I cry out.
Yes, we do it together, and in that moment there is a new, collective “I” that sings to God. (Something most modern liturgists don’t seem to value.) We all say “I” as one, and there is no more “we” because our separateness (the result of our sin) is dissolved in the oneness of our awareness of the One in whom we have hope.
This is not the place for a second, separate lesson on the value of the Psalms as personal tools for prayer, or the value of reading them aloud, even when you’re alone. (Though I wish it were!)
Here is the place where David’s most personal moments before God become our personal moments, together.
I am tired. I am a worm, and no man. I am overjoyed. I rejoice to enter into His temple.
I come to God as a real, dirty, hopeless (if not for His mercy) human being. And I marvel as an individual no different from any other at His faithful love.
And I say so in the Psalm.