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Confidence and Ambivalence: Faithful Living in Times of Trouble.

Epiphany +2, Common Lectionary Year A
Psalm 40:1-11 (12-17)

©2020 Rev. Dr. Elisabeth R. Jones

Introduction audio file
Scripture audio
Sermon audio file

What an unsatisfying ending! What happened?
After all that public declaration of the uncountable mercies of God,
our songwriter suddenly has us mouthing
this plaintive cry of a soul suffering
under a new deluge of trouble.

That’s where the lectionary portion of the Psalm stops,
but the psalm continues in similar vein
for another five verses,
creating an almost exact reversal of the first section we’ve just read.
Uncountable blessings are replaced
by insurmountable curses,
troubles, sins and persecutions.
Confidence and exuberance are replaced with
shame, disgrace, ignominy,
and crippling fear and despair,
until we arrive right back where she started,
waiting, and waiting, ……
and waiting intensely, anxiously,
for God the Deliverer to show up and save, again.

The Psalms scholars of course have a field day!
Some say,
“It can’t be right!
It’s two separate songs, probably from different songwriters, different eras.”
Others say,
“It can’t be right!
Someone dropped the music sheets and put them back in the wrong order!
Such psalms ALWAYS move in the other direction,from lament to thanksgiving.
It’s a mistake.”

I no longer think it’s a mistake,
but a deliberate and careful reversal,
and one which begins in the middle.
Some earlier trouble has occurred
to make the singer wait, and wait, and wait,
until finally God reaches down to pull her up from a miry pit
and set her feet on solid ground.
We hear her ecstatic, awe-struck proclamation
“Let me tell you what God has done!”
And we’re just about to sing with her this new song,
this hallelujah of recovery,
when boom; she’s right back in the bog!

And all I can say, is
“Thank God for this Psalm!”
Why? Because if we set aside our Sunday-best niceness,
and get really honest with ourselves, haven’t we,
most of us experienced life just like this?
Some spiritual or human high, some great success,
some sense of recovery,
from adolescent depression or off-the rails trouble,
to make a successful career?
You make it to seminary, to serve the Lord
in the great assembly,
and suddenly, boom!
Your wife, your child gets sick. You do.
You make a doozy of a mistake that costs your job,
your self-esteem, your family’s security.
Your surgery goes wrong,
your loved one gets hooked on prescription drugs, or alcohol, or video games.
Your marriage falls apart, or kid’s does.
The miry bog is steep, slimy, and stinky.
The shame is consuming…isolating.
And if we didn’t have this psalm,
if we only had a prosperity gospel,
if we only had a moralist,
or a don’t-ever-sin-again- or-you’re-toast theology,
we would believe we are not worthy of God’s rescue,
not worthy of our place of welcome within God’s community,
and I don’t want to think of how that story might end.

But here in the midst of our recurrent messes,
we hear this echo of our life as it’s really experienced
this refrain:
“Help….Hallelujah… Hell !….. Help. Again.”

This psalm declares with all the authority
God’s holy, lively Word,
“It’s okay. It’s the way it is.”
And God’s good with that.
We live, we mess up, we ask for God’s help, help is given.
Time, and time and time again.
I think Jesus said same thingwhen he taught us to pray daily,
to our Father in Heaven, to the Divine Mother who loves us…
“forgive us our trespasses,
lead us through the time of trial,
deliver us from evil.
Daily. Again, and again…..”

Thank God for this Psalm for showing us
this – something it’s taken me years to notice-;
when troubles come again, the singer doesn’t give up on God.
She doesn’t cast about here and there,
or get hoodwinked by the peddlers of sham security,
she’s not spending fortunes on self-help,
she’s not step-counting her way out of the miry bog
she’s not even blame-casting that much,
(other than to names persecutors, and the systems that oppress).
What she does say, is
“God help me!”
This singer has learned from the highs and lows that she can count on God
(whose timeliness or lack thereof is cause for consternation to be sure),
but that God’s deliverance will happen
is the one confident recurrent melody in her entire song.

Last Thursday, in our Faith Discussion Group studying together this book, *
after reading of Hagar’s horrific experiences as Sarah’s slave woman,
and her subsequent deliverance by God, and after sharing some of our own deliverance stories, we understood first-hand the healing, meaning making, and community-inspiring value of telling our own stories, in the great assembly, of God’s recurring help.
As author Evans says,
“Whenever we gather to “retell stories of God’s faithfulness in the past,… we are reminded that if God can make a way for Moses and the Hebrew slaves, for Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, for the grandma living on Social Security, for the alcoholic marking x years sober…. then maybe God can make a way for me too.”[1]

I was going to finish my sermon here with this encouragement
in our roller coaster lives,to be honest when the high becomes a low,
to tell it like it is:
“Help… Hallelujah.. Hell… Help! Now!”
So that the telling brings healing, inspiration and courage
to ourselves and to the ‘great assembly’, this community.

But…here’s my ambivalence, my struggling toward confidence… my dilemma.
Many of us in this room recognize ourselves in this psalmic roller-coaster,
but some of us live with, or work with, or love
someone who has no confident or ambivalent faith in God at all,
and whose life is a mess.
We see them floundering in their pit of tumult,
covered in the mud and mire of desperate situations,
and we want with all our hearts to say,
“God will help you, I know!”
And such words fall on deafened, even cynical ears.

What do we do? What in God’s name do we do?

I know what I’m trying right now, is this,
taken right out of this psalm’s gift:
we tell them our own stories of deliverance,
honestly and in ways they can hear.
And then, we wait,
with them.
Praying for them a thousand times with swear-word honesty,
“I wait intensely for you, O God, to pull my loved one through.”
We wait until their Hell becomes a Hallelujah
We wait until the day when even unbeknownst to them, they are lifted up by God,
and their feet step back on solid rock,
at least until the next time.

We keep our eyes on God,
when they won’t or can’t,
and we hang on for their sake, praying,
“Help… Hallelujah… Hell… Help. Amen.”

[1] Inspired: p. 29, 47

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