Sunday, October 10, 2021

Sermon: “Half Glass Theology”, Psalm 22:1-2, 6-8, 11-18/Psalm 22: 3-5, 9-10, 19-24 (October 10, 2021)


Before I begin, I’d like to acknowledge the irony of the fact that the week after I announce that I don’t like preaching from the Psalms, I preach from the Psalms again. Don’t let anyone tell you that the Holy Spirit doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Having said that, let’s hear what the Psalms have to teach us today.

Would you consider yourself a “glass half-empty” or a “glass half-full” type of person? I probably don’t need to explain what I mean; this proverbial phrase is pretty universally understood as shorthand to describe one’s outlook on life—a generally pessimistic person will describe a glass partially filled with liquid as “half empty”, while a more optimistic person will describe that same glass as “half full”. The idea, of course, is that our attitude colors the way we see our circumstances. A “glass half-empty” person will perceive everything around them with a tinge of gloom while a “glass half-full” person will see everything through rose-tinted glasses.

Today’s readings present each of these perspectives in stark contrast. For the first reading, “half-empty” is an understatement. It seems to describe every one of humanity’s bleakest experiences: isolation, abandonment, hopelessness, desperation, self-hate, mockery, even physical anguish. We can only guess at the source of the psalmist’s suffering—loss? Failure? Clinical depression?—but whatever it is, it is utterly devastating. The psalmist’s entire world is consumed by despair.

On the other hand, the second reading seems to embody all the best parts of the human experience. It’s overflowing with hope and thanksgiving, joy and trust. Not everything is perfect in the psalmist’s world (he still needs to pray for strength and deliverance) but he seems to feel safe and secure in whatever the situation is that he’s facing. He’s fully confident that God WILL save him, and he offers praise accordingly. Regardless of what’s going on around him, the psalmist stubbornly persists in seeing his glass as half full.

But of course, these aren’t two different psalmists offering two opposing perspectives. Although they’re broken apart into two separate readings, they both come from the same psalm. And if you take note of the verses included in each reading, you can see that the psalm doesn’t move from pessimism to optimism in a straight line as we might expect. The message from the psalm taken as a whole isn’t, “Life is hard, but God is good, so everything’s fine; Amen.” Psalm 22 is more like a dialogue between despair and hope than a narrative of transformation from one to the other.

This psalm is composed in such a way that these two different attitudes are intimately woven together, each one making room for the other in a delicate dance of optimism and pessimism. The “glass half-empty” and “glass half-full” perspectives are presented in an almost perfect balance. You might think that it’d be difficult for such dramatically different viewpoints to coexist within the same person, let alone the same moment in time, and yet the psalmist holds them both in tension as he works through whatever difficulty he’s facing.

While we might find a straight line from grief to joy more reassuring to read about, Psalm 22’s version is, of course, a much more accurate portrayal of human life. The truth is, we rarely experience these emotions one at a time. Our metaphor of seeing the glass as half empty or half full is an imperfect one because it presents a false choice. A partially-filled glass is always, by definition, half empty AND half full *at the same time*. Every life is a sacred mixture of suffering and salvation, of despair and delight, of grief and gratitude—often, as the psalmist illustrates, at the exact same time. The goal isn’t to choose one or the other, but to make room within yourself for both, welcoming both experiences as a part of being human.

It certainly isn’t always easy. There are times when the loss is so great, the heartache so pronounced, that it seems impossible to ever experience joy again. There are times when difficulties seem to pursue us relentlessly, to the point that we feel like we can’t even catch our breath between crises. This, too, is a part of being human, a part of living in a fallen world consumed by sin.

But because God’s love for us is so great, so much greater than we can even fathom, we are heirs to a wonderful promise through Jesus Christ. Not a promise that we’ll never experience pain or heartache, but that these things will never have the final word. Our faith reminds us that even when the glass is half empty, God offers us a fullness that can’t be taken away by any amount of emptiness. The rainbow tells us that even though it will rain, the earth will never flood again. The Communion table tells us that even though we will hunger, we will not starve. The Baptismal font tells us that even though we will sin, we will not be forsaken. The cross tells us that even though we will die, it will not be the end.

Now, it may always be there, but the fullness offered by God isn’t always readily apparent to us. Even as Psalm 22 holds human joy and anguish in tension, there are plenty of psalms of pure lament. But in these moments of despair and hopelessness, we must cling even tighter to God’s promise. That’s not to say that we should ignore our anguish, but we must resist the lie that our pain is too great for God to carry. That there is any glass so empty that God can’t make it full again.

There may be times when you can’t believe in this promise alone. That’s okay. In those moments, there are others you can lean on to help you remember: A friend to hold your hand as you cry. A therapist to help you see with deeper clarity. A pastor to remind you that it’s impossible to be separated from God’s love. A stranger to offer a random act of kindness. These things won’t make the pain go away, but they can help you to remember, if only for a minute, that emptiness isn’t all that there is. And that’s no small thing.

On the other hand, we likewise mustn’t allow ourselves to believe that there is *only* joy in following Christ. If we only experience delight and comfort, we aren’t paying enough attention to what’s going on around us. Even when we’re experiencing the “half-full” parts of life, the glass is indisputably still half-empty somewhere. There IS hunger in our world. There IS death. There IS injustice, and addiction, and violence, and hatred, and greed. Our joy in Christ isn’t supposed to allow us to ignore these realities in blissful ignorance, but to give us the strength and motivation to stand up to them. To share God’s vision of the kindom to come that we can’t yet see. To be part of the reason that sin DOESN’T have the final word. If all things on earth aren’t yet reflecting God’s will—regardless of our own personal circumstances—our faith requires us to recognize and confront the emptiness still around us.

But no matter how empty or full you see the glass at any given time, one thing remains constant: the glass itself. In every moment, God surrounds us and holds us—in our grief, in our joy, and in everything in between. God understands better than anyone the complex nature of human life. Jesus experienced the deepest evils that humanity is capable of, the darkest griefs that can seize the human heart. But Jesus also embodied the greatest love possible, and he shared with us the most transcendent joys that we can experience. Christ didn’t come to remove our sorrow, but to bear everything—the good and the bad, the sacred and the profane, the “half-empty” and the “half-full”—so that we might be able to bear it all, too.

As different as these two (artificially separated) readings are, notice the one thing that they share in common: both perspectives entreat God to be near. Whether expressed through the lens of fear (“Please don’t be far from me, because trouble is near and there’s no one to help,”) or trust (“Don’t be far away! You’re my strength! Come quick!”), whether the glass is half empty or half full, the psalmist’s deepest desire is to be in God’s presence. In our moments of despair and our moments of hope alike, this is our most profound need. And so, it’s exactly what God offers us.

THIS is what makes a life of faith so worth living. Not the fact that our cups will be filled to overflowing in every moment, but the knowledge that because God is with us, the emptiness will never be allowed to prevail. That the cup will always surround us, helping us carry the emptiness and not allowing the moments of fullness to slip through our fingers. This Good News is good, indeed. May we sing of God’s goodness and grace in the heights of our joy and in the depths of our despair. May we cling tightly to the love that will not let us go, no matter what we may endure. May we live life—even the empty parts—to the fullest, as the gift from God that it is. Amen.

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