Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 17, 2020
Psalm 66:8-20 Commentary
What is this COVID-19 season for us? A source of lament? A time of testing? Ten years from now, how will we look back on this time? As one of the worst seasons of our lives that we are so amazingly glad is well behind us, or as a time for which we manage to eke out some level of gratitude that not only did God bring us through this time, he strengthened us through the testing of our faith?
Two months ago had I read Psalm 66, framing this poem in these terms would likely never had occurred to me to do. Now . . . it’s the first thing I thought of.
For reasons unknown the RCL has us skip the first 7 verses of Psalm 66. Mostly they are lovely sentiments of praise and thanksgiving. But as we pick up the action in verse 8, we see a curious conjunction of things. On the one hand there is one of those global statements you often find in the psalms that makes it sound like God never, ever let anyone’s foot slip. It makes it sound as though bad things never happen to God’s people.
But wait. Next thing you know the psalmist is talking about some pretty dark times after all. Times when enemies triumphed, when people were thrown into prison, when they passed through trials of fire and water and had burdens laid on their backs (probably a reference to Egyptian slavery, especially since this psalm also includes references to the Red Sea crossing).
So which is it: our feet never slip because God heads off every bad thing or feet slip left and right sometimes and some really bad stuff befalls even God’s own people? Well and of course it’s BOTH. As I have pointed out repeatedly in my sermon commentary articles on the Psalms here on the CEP website, you always have to read any given psalm in the light of the other 149. If something like Psalm 121 makes it sound like it’s blue skies and sunshine every day for the people of God, Psalms of Lament like Psalms 10 and 13 testify that that ain’t necessarily so.
Sometimes you get both sides of this coin within the same psalm and that is what happens here. Yes, ultimately the psalmist can give praise to God for keeping him safe and leading him to better days and to places of abundance. But first came horrible days and places of deep and dire want and scarcity. In the retrospect proffered by Psalm 66, those past bad days are viewed as times of testing. God was not absent even then, but however and whichever way we parse God’s relative initiative in bringing about hardship in our lives, he nevertheless is able to remain present in those times so they become times of testing, of bringing about a stronger faith and a deeper relationship with God himself.
Of course, the other thing that the Psalms of Lament testify to is the fact that in the midst of those hard times of want and suffering, it never feels like something for which one could ever generate the least iota of gratitude. Not then. And in the midst of suffering you are sure you will NEVER find anything in this time for which to be grateful. Not ever. No, when you are in extremis, God feels absent, and the Lament Psalms shout that sense of abandonment loud and clear. When you are suffering at the hands of enemies, you ask God to crush those enemies and end this suffering. As in now. You remind God that it’s pretty hard to sing God’s praises when you are dead and so if God wants to keep you as a member of his choir, then step up your game, O God, and get me the heck out of here!
Sometimes that deliverance comes. And then God brings better days. And then people look back on those bad times and try to parse them. Now it’s true–and let’s be pastorally honest enough to admit this (because if we don’t, we risk blowing some of the members of our congregations clean out of the water)–there will always be people who suffered such enormous and heinous things that they will never make sense out of them in this life. Try though they may, they cannot see that as a time of testing that yielded something good. And they can never say “Thanks” to God for such an alleged good outcome. There can be in some people’s lives a brokenness neither time nor any soothing pastoral word can heal. If we need a reminder of how deeply fractured our fallen world is, these permanently wounded and scarred people provide it.
But thankfully that is not most people. Some can look back and give thanks not just for the obvious things—we got healed, we were spared, things turned out better than we thought—but for other things like spiritual growth, a deeper relationship with God and with other people, a more mature congregation, a more seasoned and sensitive pastor. And then those tough times might be seen as a season of testing after all. Not as punishment. Not as divine abandonment that luckily just turned out OK. But instead as a season of God’s having stayed patiently with us even when we could not see God and somehow, some way God brought about not just deliverance but insight, growth, maturity, deeper faith.
If we are blessed enough to be able to testify to that all one day, then we join the psalmist in bringing sacrifices of praise to God again and again.
But a needed pastoral caution to all of us preaching during this COVID-19 time: we never want to speak these words of future hope too quickly. It is OK for now if Lament is center stage (as it is in many Psalms) even as we hold out the hope that for some of us, by God’s grace alone, maybe, maybe, maybe we will arrive at a Psalm 66 stage of seeing God’s goodness to us through this crisis even so. Maybe we see glimmers of that now. Perhaps some do not or for now cannot see even such glimmers. That’s OK. The main thing is to preach the goodness and presence of God in times of crisis and then let the Holy Spirit lead us along to see what this might all look like in the future when, blessedly enough, we can look back and reflect on it all.
Preaching on Psalm 66 right now does not resolve or remove our present crisis. It does not even per se promise we will understand all this by and by. But it does provide the opportunity—with all due pastoral hedging for the deeply suffering among us—to do the one thing we preachers need always to do:
In this luminous sermon, the late Lewis B. Smedes proclaimed hope in ways honest, true, and deeply inspiring. But the honesty part stands out to me. Because Smedes admits the two-edged-sword nature of hope.
On the one hand, hope empowers and ennobles and provides the energy we need to go on. On the other hand, hope will break your heart, and in this tough world hope will do that with some frequency. This downside of hope always makes us tempted to give up on it. Hope just disappoints us too often.
But don’t abandon hope. As Smedes says in his wonderful preaching voice at the end of this sermon, “Keep on hoping, keep on hoping, keep on hoping.”
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