Year B, Proper 21 September 27, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Our help is in the name of the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.”
On occasion, I hear real trepidation about the psalter. So many of the psalms are combative, conflicted, there is warfare and strife, conditions that are very remote to most of us living in the bosom of an empire. Years ago I lived and worked at a monastery. I so remember the first time Windy joined us at Morning Prayer. She was open to all of this, the monastery, coming back to the church after a long hiatus, but she was stepping gingerly, dipping a toe in a cool pond and the psalm of the day was the one with the bit about dashing the children’s heads against the rocks… again, I sometimes hear trepidation about the psalter. Those images, life and death, looming disaster at every turn, enemies out for out blood; that is just not the story that most of us have about our world. For most of us here, in South Eugene, in this parish, our story, the story we tell the world and the story that most of us tell ourselves is that things are ok. Most of us don’t walk around dreading some existential peril, not in our daily lives. Well, there is the looming threat of the “Big One.” (And the fires, oh, and the weird rain patterns and climate change, and I guess the ongoing recession, but other then that)… Most of us, though, from what I hear people talk about, what you tell me, is that we believe that we live largely blessed lives. And we largely do. Sure there are the dry spells and the bumpy patches, stress, disappointment, sickness unto death and grief all happen, but for most of us here, our story of ourselves is of having rather blessed lives, with, often, a dab of liberal guilt at having it as good as most of us think we do in a world where so many so blatantly have so much less.
When we believe that we have blessed lives, when we live in a culture where abundance and security are normative, are the standard, when, as it is for many of us here this morning that it is not about having our needs met it is about what we want, the psalter can fall kind of flat.
“If the Lord had not been on our side…
If the Lord had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;
Then would they have swallowed us up alive…
Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;
Then would the raging waters
Have gone right over us…”
Have the waters ever overwhelmed you?
I don’t know that I have ever had enemies. I’d surely find one on the streets of Falluja, or a thousand other cities in the Middle East after 14 years of imperial warfare, and that is a stark reality, but enemies in my day to day existence? There was the Billy what’s his name back in sixth grade, and that ex-girlfriend that I still feel kind of bad about, but enemies?
In so much of the world right now and throughout human history, enemies, being “the prey for someone’s teeth,” clear and present threats to you and your people’s existence, have been extremely real. And we don’t need to go to Nablus in the West Bank or Bara in Boko Haram controlled Nigeria to find enemies, to find situations that would “swallow us up alive in their fierce anger toward us.” How many of our African-Americans brothers and sisters experience the world this way? Or people without immigration documents, be you in Hungary or in Houston? Or Jewish folks. LGBTQ folks. At risk women and children. Poor people. If you are too poor to have a place to live, you have enemies, the rising waters have already overtaken you. Your existence is so criminalized that the police are little protection, the police themselves can become the enemies, or are at least can be perceived that way. And the psalms were written by and for a people living on the edge. Enemies were very real in the time of David. Existence was not to be taken for granted. Suffering was part of daily life, sometimes suffering of Biblical proportions.
The thing is, though, we all suffer. If you are in the depths of depression, or addiction and you are losing control of the world around you, or your daughter is, or your husband, it doesn’t matter if you are under the Ferry Street Bridge or in a darkened bedroom in the South Hills that you haven’ left in a week, you are suffering, the waters have risen and you need help.
How has the torrent overcome you?
Because it has, for all of us, overcome us. Something has. Some brokenness, some loss, something that we did not/do not have control over. And the insidious thing is, the insidious thing for those of us who lived blessed lives, privileged lives, is the shame of that brokenness. Endemic shame. Shame over our alcoholism. Shame over your partner’s abusiveness. Shame over that assault, your child’s failure… Shame that you don’t have more say in how things go in your life. Everything in our society says that you are responsible for all of the success you have. It is up to you! Tenure? Excellent job, reaping the fruits of diligence. Beautiful home, wheh… you must have worked hard for this. Your son is a National Merit Scholar got into Brown? Good parenting. The back-side of that calculus being that when it doesn’t work out, you can’t kick that habit, you lose that job, lose that house, another broken relationship, children struggle… it is all on you.
Have you ever been swallowed alive?
The deep moral hazard, the deeply ingrained sin of privilege, of living a blessed life is that we think, we can think, often do think that it is all on us. All that is done or fails to be done is because of what we do or fail to do and that is not true; AND everything in our culture tells us that it is. The virtues of Emersonian “Self-Reliance” and Horatio Alger, pull-yourself-up-by-the-boot-straps work ethics are our national, our cultures sin. Because they are not true, not how we have acculturated them at least. You didn’t earn what you have, you don’t deserve what you get, good, bad or ugly. You don’t have as much control as you think you do, as we’ve been told we do. What you have done, what you have achieved or failed at has so much less to do with who you individually are and what you individually do then it has to do with where, when and to whom you were born. Truly. That is the story of privilege. Racial, gender, class privilege… it is not abut us, it is about our parents, and theirs, and generations before. It is pure chance, luck of the draw or another way to say that, a Christian way to say that is: “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.” And the more control that you think you have over your life, or maybe even more pernicious, the more control you think you should have over your life, the harder it is to believe in God, the harder it is to have full on, “snare is broken, and we have escaped” faith in God. Because the more we think it is up to us, the less room there is for grace, the less room there is for God.
When Pope Francis was greeted by President Obama at the White House, the President welcomed his as the Pope, but in particular, welcomed him, Francis, and credited him, the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio with the unique spirit and energy that is making for a most remarkable and inspiring Papacy. And maybe that is the case. Maybe it is all on him and his overwhelming merit and goodness. But maybe, maybe Pope Francis really, really believes, really, really holds close to his heart the essence of Psalm 124. Maybe he really knows and embraces the fact that “Our help is in the Name of the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.” Maybe he gets himself out of the way and allows the light of God to shine through the vicarage of Christ as it is supposed to. Maybe this highly accomplished man’s greatest accomplishment is the humility to know that it is in fact not about what he has done or failed to do, it is not about him, it is about Him, Jesus Christ, it is about the Holy Spirit, it is about God, Maker of heaven and earth.
When I shoved off from the alleged security and supposed comfort of the corporate world, I was terrified. Terrified that I wouldn’t have the freedom (read wealth) to do what I wanted to do; terrified that I would lose control of my life; that I would disappoint my mother. Losing control… I was terrified. But it didn’t happen. I didn’t “lose control,” what I lost (what I continually try to remind my self of) is that that sense of control was an illusion to begin with.
Let the experience of this life sink in. Drop your shields, just try, a little bit. Try admitting to yourself alone, even, “That didn’t go how I wanted it to go and there is nothing I can do about it.” Maybe try admitting it to a friend or a spouse. Or try being a little less together then you think your station in life demands, that you do all sorts of gymnastics to conceal. The hubrus so many of us carry with us, the lessons we have internalized about how much control we have of our world, the image of the blessed life so many of us desperately cling to, these are the most dangerous hands, and feet, and eyes that cause us to stumble. Be done with it. Cut it out of your life. This is the path away from the unquenchable fire. This is a glimmer of the salting with that same fire Jesus commends through St. Mark’s gospel. For it is in abandoning a sense of control over much of anything in heaven and earth that we make a first step towards the Maker of the same. AMEN