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Seeing the Goodness of God in the Land of the Living.

Lent 2 Common Lectionary Year C

Psalm 27

©2013 Rev Elisabeth R. Jones

Audio file

At our Ash Wednesday Service 10 days ago,
I began our Lenten Season calling it “the Awkward Season.”
Awkward because as liberal-type Christian Protestants,
we’re not sure just what to do with it, and the options that seem to
be part and parcel of Lent,
like giving up chocolate, or indulging in some practice of sanctified guilt,
or obsessing about the cross that overshadows the season?
There have been attempts in our quarter of Christendom to
make Lent a ‘happier’ season, which to my mind is as equally misdirected.
Because Lent is not happy, nor is it a guilt-trip. It’s awkward.
It’s like one of those neighbourhood playing field floodlights
that suddenly goes on at 4 in the morning,
waking you out of a dead sleep, and you’re not quite sure why.
It messes with the ordinary,
sheds light on dark places we don’t normally attend to.
It unsettles and illumines.
And that’s its awkward gift to us.

Unsettling and illuminating are words I’ve used elsewhere
to describe this psalm.
It starts out like a floodlight, glaringly bright in the Lenten landscape.
It’s like a New Year, all bright and shiny,
like a first day of school, like the father of a newborn baby,
full of resolutions and hopes, and trusts, and possibilities.
“God is my light, my saving health, salvation, I shall not be afraid!”

We’d love the world to be like this!
All sunshine, security, a strong faith in a loving, strong God,
safety, health, loving relationships,
peace, prosperity, plenty, a benevolent society .
But God bless this awkward Psalm for an awkward Lent,
Look what it does next:
“When the wicked close in to devour me”
“when armies camp about me,
when wars arise against me…..”
When…not if, when trouble comes….
Even if, living in Canada, we do not know first hand the fear of war
camped on our doorstep,
we know enough enemies, disguised as
sickness, divorce, job loss, conflict at work or home.
to recognize this psalm’s terrain of terror as familiar ground.

We know enough to realize that this psalmist is not singing of
“Light and salvation” as some pleasant abstraction
in a blissful world,
but that she is singing the Blues.

Dark blues.
Cracked voice, dissonant blues.
He is a bard, a singer, a poet of hard truth.
It’s awkward speech, garish and unsettling
because it  dares to defy our contemporary culture’s
silencing of the language of loss,
and the articulate expression of darkness and evil.

But like the Blues, it’s not all darkness, this psalm
it’s light in the darkness.
In the midst of this mess, a dream, a shaft of light,
a 12 chord riff to pierce the gloom, bending the minor third to a major lift..
(sing: Nobody knows the trouble I see, glory…)
and back again, demanding, questioning,
lamenting, proclaiming…
Here she goes….
“One thing I asked….
just one….I long for….
to dwell in the house of God…
to gaze on beauty….to bathe in it…”

Don’t we all do that?
Facing into the darkness with a memory, or a hope of future light?
– The laughter at funeral, remembering life in its fullness,
while staring at the urn or casket’s finality?
– The soothing music, the candle we light,
to ease us into endurance of pain that will eventually heal.
– The ritual of prayer,
the calling to mind of the memories
of the past fidelity, of God, and of God’s people,
– the recitation of thankfulness and blessing
that somehow strengthens us for the need to ask for help
from God when it’s not coming from anywhere else.

“For in the time of trouble, you give me shelter,
hide me in your tent, set me high…”
You gather me up, like a hen gathers her chick,
scoop me like a father reaching for the toddler about to trip,
enfold me like the nurse’s warmed blanket.
You hold me when my memory is gone,
and call me Mom, when I feel like a motherless child…..

So sings the blues psalmist, the Lenten traveller,
on the real road of life with the lights turned on
to illumine the darkness, so dark it almost defies:
the unpayable debts,
the thankless job,
the conflict that is in its 8th decade,
or its twentieth century,
the refugee backlog, the lack of health care,
the death of children from curable disease.
The minor chord of doubt creeps in…
“Don’t give me up to the will of my enemies!”
It’s your face I seek, O God,
don’t hide it… don’t forsake… don’t not show up….
In the midst of all this misery, I wouldn’t be surprised
if you wouldn’t want to get close…
you’re God after all.

But wait for it, there it is again!
The note that won’t stay minor, keeps rising to the major!

“ I believe… I believe…. I have to believe….
that I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living.”
On a day when the sun shines, in the midst of beauty and splendour,
in summer and Easter, and wedding day, graduation day,
this isn’t blues, it’s rock and roll!

But that’s not this psalm!
This is the psalm that sings the blues,
defiantly proclaiming that in this Lenten world,
ready to flip on the floodlight to unsettle the darkness,
growling up from your boots to your lips,
on “the day when liars and false witnesses arise against me…”
then I shall see the goodness of God in the land of the living!

In good blues fashion, let me riff the ending for a few more bars:
imagine Jesus singing this psalm.
“God, my light, my salvation!”  he sings at his baptism…
The day they wanted to throw him off the cliff,  he sings
“when they close in to devour me, even then I will not be alarmed.”
Scanning the mountainside filled with people eating bread and fishes,
he throws his head back and sings
“to gaze on your beauty O God, an offering with great gladness!”
Coming down from that transfiguration high, to the road leading
to Jerusalem, he puts head down to watch his feet,
humming “ Lead me on a level path, order my steps.”
And,  imagine it, the day of his betrayal,
when ‘liars and false witnesses conspire against him’,
you can hear it one more time, even then:
“I believe, I believe, I shall see the Goodness of God in the Land of the Living.”

[1]  ““Light and Salvation,” the transfiguration of terror in Psalm 27; a post 9-11 Reflection.” Paper delivered at VST Colloquium, January 2002.

[2] Walter Brueggemann speaks of this ‘daring speech’ in many places, notably First and Second Samuel,(JKP, 1990)  p.217, and The Word that redescribes the World, (Fortress, 2006).

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