Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
My college roommate Linda loved to sing. She also loved to read her Bible. The connection between the two is that as she read along, next to each biblical verse for which she knew a song, she’d draw a little musical note in the margin.
You might be a little surprised how many parts of the Bible have given rise to hymns and praise songs over the years. Did you know, for instance that the title of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” comes from the prophet Isaiah? Or that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end” comes from the book of Lamentations, which seems an unlikely spot for such a strong affirmation of faith.
What may not surprise you is that as Linda read through the book of Psalms, she drew those little musical notes all over the place. We don’t know what their original musical settings sounded like – it would be amazing if we did - but we know the psalms were sung regularly in worship by the ancient Israelites. They would have been sung in one form or another by Jesus and his disciples too, and by the early Church, and they’ve been sung by Jews and Christians ever since.
In some Christian traditions (in monastic communities, for instance) entire biblical psalms are still sung regularly. In my own experience, though, with the exception of the 23rd Psalm and settings by the band “Sons of Korah” whom I mentioned last week, it’s been far more common to find a verse or two highlighted rather than a whole psalm sung from beginning to end. So from today’s reading, for instance, Psalm 57, I know a song based on the refrain we see in verse 5 and verse 11: “Be exalted, O God, above the heavens. Let your glory be over all the earth.” But I don’t actually know any musical settings of the line about “destroying storms passing by” from verse 1, or any songs that incorporate verse 4 either: “I lie down among lions that greedily devour human prey; their teeth are spears and arrows, their tongues sharp swords.” I know a song that highlights verse 10: “your steadfast love extends to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.” I don’t know any tunes to accompany “put[ting] to shame those who trample on me,” from verse 3.
Admittedly I’ve been known to do the same thing when reading the Psalms on my own. Does anyone else find yourself doing a bit of editing as you work your way through them? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing so when we’re specifically seeking out words of encouragement. We’ve talked this summer about the Psalms offering a beautiful assortment of little snapshots, or short scenes, and if one of those mini scenes speaks to us in a compelling way, or offers comfort when comfort is what we need most, surely that’s a gift worth claiming. Maybe it’s ok if we don’t immediately resonate with voices crying out from the depths, or with those who in the heat of anger say things about enemies we don’t feel ought to be said. Some parts of the book of Psalms might make us eager to hit the fast forward button to get to the next beautiful, uplifting verse.
But what do we lose if we consistently skip over psalms with unsettling references to enemies or painfully blunt lines about lying on a bed of pain or being stuck in the Pit? I worry we inadvertently convey that the unpleasant bits are less worthy of being included in our prayers, less welcome in worship, or maybe even that they’re a little embarrassing. Think about it, though. Not including such talk at church doesn’t mean we’re magically free of enemies, free of pain, or free of experiences of bottoming out.
So if we exclude lament from worship, where do we leave the person who’s seriously depressed as they arrive on a Sunday morning? Or the person feeling worn down by a serious injury or chronic illness? Or the person who’s furious over an injustice they’ve experienced? Are they not welcome unless they can “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 100)? Is being upbeat a requirement for church participation? Are we implying God’s feelings will be hurt somehow if we don’t pretty up our feelings and our language in our prayers?
And even beyond asking individuals to check their feelings at the door when they come to church, what does it say to a society reeling in pain? What does it say to fellow children of God who are suffering, if we in the Church give the impression that lament is unwelcome in worship? How removed will we seem from the reality in which we live? Especially in a year like this one, or for that matter on a weekend like this one with all heck breaking loose right here in our own city! I’m convinced we need to return to what our brothers and sisters in Christ have known for hundreds of years and our Jewish friends longer still. That nothing is off limits in prayer. That every genuine human emotion is welcome and expected when we approach the Lord.
One of the things I love about today’s psalm is the back and forth dynamic throughout. The little notation Hal read before verse 1 connects this psalm to David’s life, before he was king, while he was in grave danger from King Saul. That connection with David gives us a clear example of an individual’s faith being put to the test, and we see that playing out as the psalm moves freely between lament and trust not just once but a number of times over its 11 verses.
But we don’t even need that connection with David specifically, do we, for this psalm to have meaning? How many of us have ever experienced a wavering between fear and faith, doubt and trust? As we’ve done with other psalms this summer, can you insert yourself into the scene here? Can you imagine giving voice to these words: “be merciful to me, O God, be merciful;” (verse 1) “put to shame those who trample on me” (verse 3) … but then pivoting to “be exalted, O God, above the heavens” (verse 5)? Or from “I cry out to God Most High… they set a net for my steps… they dug a pit in my path” (verses 2, 6) moving to “I will sing and make melody… I will give thanks to you, O Lord” (verses 7, 9)?
Sadly, infuriatingly, each of our lives has its ugly bits and heaven knows the world as a whole has plenty too. Reading through the book of Psalms reminds us there’s no need to excommunicate – that is, to exclude from Church - the less pretty and polished parts of reality. The book of Psalms models for us that we’re supposed to bring them right into worship with us and give them voice in prayer and song. How many more little music notes would that mean in the margins of our Bibles?
As an added benefit, trusting God to be able to handle everything we are feeling when we pray can lend weight and depth even to our most joyful expressions of praise. For the author of Psalm 57, for instance, how much more meaningful for him now to “sing and make melody” to God (verse 7) having been attacked by his enemies (verses 3 & 4) to the point where his soul was “bowed down?” (verse 6) Twice just in the opening verse he speaks of God as his refuge (verse 1); reading the whole psalm makes clear just how much he needed that refuge.
It helps me, too, to remember that when I lament, I’m not just complaining out into the void, shouting at the universe without expecting a response. I’m crying out to my heavenly mama bear, mother hen, mother eagle who longs to provide shelter when we need it most. Sometimes I can even look back and see where God’s fierce love has brought me through, redeeming the messiest bits of my story.
How about you? Have “destroying storms” ever driven you to seek refuge “in the shadow of [God’s] wings?” (Psalm 57:1)