Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Sermon: "Psalm Pshoes & Good News", Psalm 30 (July 2, 2017)



I have to be honest: I wasn’t thrilled when I found out that I’d be preaching on a psalm this week. Don’t get me wrong; the psalms are great, and there are several that hold a very dear place in my heart. But preaching on the psalms can be a bit of a challenge—for me, at least. Why, you ask? Because so many of them are so thematically similar. I mean, how many ways can you say, “God is awesome,” or “Everything is terrible, God,” or “Save me, God”? They’re definitely important texts, but psalm sermons can get bland if you’re not careful.

So I’m reading through Psalm 30 this week, and I’m finding a lot of the same old stuff that I expected. As I normally do during sermon prep, I wrote out a brief summary of the reading in the margins, summarizing scripture into word snapshots: verse 1 becomes, “You protect me, God;” verse 2 is, “You heal me, God,” and verse 3, “You rescue me, God.” Verse 4, of course, is simply, “HOORAY!” (I suppose I could have gone with a more liturgical, “ALLELUIA!” but where’s the fun in that?) So far, so bland. Verse 5 is a little more complex, but it’s so well-known that I feel like I don’t have anything new or particularly insightful to say about it. And besides, with the state of our world these days, I don’t feel like “hunkering down and waiting out the things that bring us sorrow” is the message that God intended me to share today.

So anyway, I’m not having any luck trying to think of a new spin to put on this psalm. But then I get to verse 6, and I realize that this part is different. This isn’t just a poem; this is a STORY. Here’s my snapshot summary of verses 6 through 10:

“Once upon a time, things were going great! I said to myself, ‘There’s NO WAY I’ll ever go back to things not being awesome!’ But I didn’t realize that it was God who had helped me become so great. When God stopped the awesomeness, I became very upset. I cried and whined and begged God, saying, ‘Listen, God; if I die, I can’t talk about how awesome YOU are anymore. So help me!’ And God did.” The end.

Not as poetic as the original psalm, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

Now, the reason this part stuck out to me so much was because it reminded me of some preaching advice I had gotten back in seminary. At a time when I was awash in scholarly writing and fixated on proving my point with good, solid facts, my mentor gave me some feedback about one of my sermons: “You had some good ideas, but the only part that I really connected with was when you told your own story. You might have the best message in the world, but if people can’t connect with what you’re saying, it’ll get lost. Always put a little bit of ‘you’ in your sermons so that people have something human to ground themselves in.”

I’ve always remembered that advice. Sometimes I’ve followed it, and sometimes I haven’t; sometimes it’s worked, and sometimes it hasn’t. Either way, it’s stuck with me. And this week, as I read through Psalm 30, I realized that the reason that I had been struggling to figure out what to write was that I had been having trouble finding the thing that connected me to this passage personally. But I found it in this story. This story was the thing that made the psalm become real for me.

Even though the Psalms are rich with emotional imagery, it can sometimes be difficult to really “put ourselves into the shoes” of the author. We might be able to relate and sympathize with the experiences described on an abstract and intellectual level, but it can be more difficult to get INSIDE of the experiences emotionally—especially when you read psalm after psalm and they all start to blur together… This story, then was the thing that helped me place myself into the narrative.

I remembered times when I, too, had experienced debilitating hubris. I remembered the feeling of invincibility that crumbled to pieces the second I realized that I had taken a stupid risk or that I wasn’t really in control—or both. I remembered the feeling of desperation as I turned to God and begged for forgiveness, for absolution, for a way to make it right, for rescue in whatever form God was willing to give it. And I remembered the feeling of relief and joy when I realized (or remembered) that God’s mercy is unbounded and unending, and that God has no greater pleasure than to hear my repentance and draw me back into God’s loving arms. Although I had had trouble relating to this passage at first, I found that walking a mile in the psalmist’s shoes is actually pretty easy when the shoes fit so well.

So, I had my sermon message, right? Something along the lines of, “Even when your arrogance separates you from God, God will not abandon you, and ‘Joy will come with the morning’.” What a great message for God’s beloved, God’s chosen, God’s favored, to hear!

But then I thought…wait a minute, this isn’t like Cinderella where a shoe can only fit one foot in the whole world. I can definitely relate to this situation, but that doesn’t mean that I’m the only one who can, the “sole” recipient of God’s grace. Who else might be reading this passage and seeing themselves in the psalmist’s shoes just as much as I do? Who else might be thinking, “YES! Yes, I know what that’s like! Yes, I am SO grateful that God is with me!” Certainly, some of the others seeing themselves in this passage are those that we might expect and welcome to share these comfortable shoes: our friends, our families, those who think and act and believe like us. But what about those who are different from us? What about those who disagree with us? What about those who actively work against that which we hold to be most important and most precious? What’s to keep them from trying on these same psalm pshoes and arriving at the same conclusion? That God—heaven forbid—is with them, too?

See, here’s the thing. As much as we might say that we believe in the reformed theological idea of total depravity and all that, I think there’s still a part of us that likes to believe that we somehow deserve God’s grace more than others. That God loves ALL people, but that, truth be told, God loves us just a little bit extra. Yes, of course we sin, of course we make mistakes, but our sins are less grievous (and our repentance more earnest) than the bad guys. It’s just the way things are, so it’s a good thing that we’re on the right side.

But there’s two problems with this thinking: it assumes that we’re better than some people by our own nature, and it assumes that these other people are irredeemably wicked. These are both problematic ways of thinking, because they’re both false.

Remember that we do terrible things too. As Presbyterians, we supposedly confess these things every week, but I know from personal experience that it can be all too easy to brush the really bad things under the rug and confess in broad strokes: “I didn’t love my neighbor…I didn’t honor God…I didn’t care for the earth…” If we’re not willing to confront the truly sinful things that we have each done, then we run a significant risk of putting ourselves on a pedestal. And that, my friends, is a form of idolatry, and the exact problem that the psalmist had.

Take a moment to think about the most truly awful, terrible, EVIL things that you’ve done or thought or said. The things that you have never told a soul. Maybe things you haven’t even admitted to yourself. Be honest. Sit in that discomfort.

Now hear this: God protects you. God heals you. God rescues you. This is a promise that God has made again and again, even knowing about that terrible, sinful thing that you did.

Now, take a moment to think about the most truly awful, terrible, EVIL thing that your enemy has done. This is usually a little easier to do. Maybe the enemy for you is a particular politician, a coworker, an estranged family member…

Now hear this: God protects this person. God heals this person. God rescues this person. This is a promise that God has made again and again, even knowing about that terrible, sinful thing that he or she did. He or she has a place in this promise, in this story, just as much as you or I do.

This might be strange to think about, but this is why we call it “the Good News” and not “the Okay News, Depending on Who You Are”. God’s love and forgiveness is so unfathomably huge that it can encompass everyone in all of creation, even if (especially if) they haven’t earned it. There is room for each and every one of us to see ourselves in the story. There are psalm pshoes—and Good News—for each person.

Not only should all people be able to see themselves in the Good News, but we should have enough faith in God to be able to see others that we don’t expect in there, too. Remember my scripture snapshots? God protects, God heals, God rescues…and one that I left out, verse 11: God transforms. This is one of God’s most incredible characteristics: God uses whatever and whoever God wants and completely transforms them for God’s own purposes. Children transform into heroes. Death transforms to life. The wicked are transformed to repentance. Sorrow is transformed to joy. So for us to believe that some people are irredeemably sinful is doubting God’s very nature and sovereignty. And hopefully, we’ve read enough scripture to know that that is a big mistake.

Anyone can put on their psalm pshoes and see themselves in the Good News. That’s the beauty of it: it’s not just for a select few, but for any and all who hear it. Our job isn’t to tell others that the shoes don’t fit or that the message isn’t for them; that’s between them and God. Our job is to love them and see them for who they really are—a beloved child of God—no matter how difficult that might be. Our job is to recognize that we can’t see what God sees, and that where we might see a hopeless cause, God might see a heart waiting to be transformed for God’s glory. Our job is to sing God’s praises and welcome all who would join us to lift their voices too, even if we think they’re doing it wrong. Our job is to welcome them into the story so that they might hear and be transformed by the Good News, just as we hope to be.

If the shoe fits, share it. Amen.

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