Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 5, 2020
Psalm 31:9-16 Commentary
Psalm 31:11 says “I am an object of dread to my neighbors; those who see me on the street flee from me.” Talk about your social distancing . . . But seriously, as I read Psalm 31—all of it and of course also the RCL selection of verses 9-16—it became clear that this is a psalm for our COVID-19 moment. It is also the Liturgy of the Passion Psalm text for “Palm Sunday” and so in some ways this may connect many dots for us just now.
In some ways this Hebrew poem is one of those psalms that can feel foreign to us. There is here—like in a number of psalms—so much talk about unspecified “enemies” and of people who have laid a trap for the psalmist. It can all sound vaguely paranoid and almost militant and in this way may feel like a far cry from our everyday experience.
Oh sure, we all have people who don’t much care for us. And although we are called to love all people, we often return the favor of not caring much for the people who don’t like us. And yes, in any given organization there are self-important people who might step all over you if that’s what it takes to make themselves look better in the boss’s eyes. These are the things we gnash our teeth over after work when sharing a glass of wine with a spouse. “She’s driving me clean up a wall” we might say. “If I have to sit through one more meeting with that blowbag I’m gonna lose it” we might say in the privacy of our home.
Still, we’d be hard pressed to call these people our mortal enemies, people who are plotting our very destruction the way the psalmists often seem to depict matters. These folks might make our lives a bit miserable now and then but we’d never go so far as to say they are plotting to take our very life the way Psalm 31 claims.
Were we to apply this to Jesus—and as an RCL text for Palm Sunday I imagine we are to do so—then the talk of real enemies plotting to take one’s life makes sense. But even short of that and even shorn of the most literal application of death threats and traps and such, there is much about what we could call the “acoustics” of Psalm 31 that relate to us after all. And again, maybe especially as this Lenten Season winds down during a time of social isolation—of shuttered church buildings, of the probable prospect of having to celebrate Easter soon without anything remotely akin to the usual liturgical and musical and homiletical flourishes we are accustomed to—maybe especially now we can relate to this psalm’s sense of doom and gloominess.
This is a moment to recognize how desperate, lonely, confused we all are even as it may, therefore, be a moment in which to bask in some other parts of this reading: the lyric line about how our times are in God’s hands. The soulful call for God to shine on us with the warmth of God’s chesed, of his never-failing and everlasting love and grace for us.
Yes, the times of our lives are in God’s hands. They always have been. It’s just that at this present moment we sense that a bit more keenly than even just a few short weeks ago. We are accustomed to having our calendars all laid out for us—our Google calendars on our computers and smartphones, our kitchen wall calendars—and though we may at times lament how much we have to do and how busy the next few weeks are going to be, well, at least we know what’s coming.
So it’s sobering to do what many of us have done just recently: cross stuff out, delete dates, classes, appointments, Spring Break trips until the Google calendar is a vast expanse of empty boxes and the kitchen wall calendar looks like it’s been scribbled on all over from everything we crossed out with an ink pen. Turns out our times were never really in our own fragile hands to begin with. Our times are in God’s hands. But that’s a good thing to remember at an otherwise disorienting moment in our lives.
And what we need most are not all the ways by which we ordinarily assess our value or worthwhileness: success at work, good grades, or just flat out being busy (as though busyness were itself a mark of sanctification). No what we need most is what on our busiest days we sometimes reflect on—much less give thanks for—the least: God’s face shining on us with his grace and love. That divine favor is what we really need. It’s all that will really last.
If we reflect on all this at the head of Holy Week as we follow Jesus’ lonely trek to that cross, then we can know for sure that the God who holds the times of our lives and the God whose face we need to shine on us with grace can be wholly relied on. Because he has taken all the loneliness, isolation, fear, anxiety, and dread we ever experience—much less what we are specifically experiencing globally right now—and God has dealt with it once and for all. On the other side of all this is resurrection. There were no shortcuts to that resurrection, and we ought not de facto take any shortcuts in our commemoration of Jesus’ saving work either by hurrying past the dark stuff so as to arrive at Easter’s bright dawn.
No, we need to see how God has taken all the anxieties that are written all over Psalm 31 and put them away. There had all along been just the one big Enemy we all face: Death itself. All the other enemies of Psalm 31 or any other parts of life are just forerunners to the final Enemy. But God has now defeated that Enemy. And because of that we can jump down to the final verse of Psalm 31: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”
Additional Resources for Lent and Holy Week now available.
The very young among us know nothing of danger. Point a gun at an infant or little child and he will as likely grab for the barrel and try to play with it same as if you held out a teething ring or a rattle. Of course, there can be other reasons to not sense danger, like overly optimistic naivete. I think of the comic movie Crocodile Dundee. A savvy New York reporter has taken Mick Dundee from his sheltered life in Australia’s Outback to New York City. One night they are out for a walk in the big city when they are approached by some leather-clad men. In this scene, notice how the New Yorker’s face instantly freezes into fear and panic. She knows danger when she sees it. But Mick isn’t even ruffled and even after it becomes clear those young men really had been there for a mugging, he still laughs it off as just kids having fun.
Well, we might all wish we would be that naïve or that we could live in a world where circumstances would never have to cause our faces to sink in terror. But as we grow up, we leave behind the innocence of children and the naivete of the sheltered. We’ve got some real enemies out there after all. But that’s why we need the hope of Psalm 31: we know what’s up. We’re not stupid or ignorant. But we also know in whose hands the times of our lives are resting.
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