More than any other part of the Bible, the Psalms capture the emotional paradoxes of life in God’s creation. One verse the psalmist is blissfully rhapsodizing about the beauty of singing birds and gurgling streams, yet in the next verse the same psalmist is raging about life’s injustices, then in the verse after that the psalmist is scraping the bottom of the pit of despair, and finally the psalmist rejoices in God’s mercy and kindness…all in the same Psalm. When we read the Psalms, we know that somebody, somewhere, thousands of years ago got it. Reading the Psalms… we feel understood.
We live in uncertain times. Just reading your news feed or watching the evening news can feel like riding an emotional roller coaster. I think I’m doing OK and then I find myself ugly crying as I watch a story about puppy adoption and wonder if I am losing my mind. Then I read the Psalms and realize…it’s Ok…I’m just being human…and God loves me just because I’m human. God has got this.
Psalm 116, the response Psalm assigned for today, is a part of a collection of Psalms known as The Hallal. The Hallal includes Psalms 115-118 – the common theme of all these Psalms is deliverance. The Hallal Psalms sing of God’s faithfulness to God’s people, not only as a collective people – the Jews – but also as individuals. God helps those who cannot help themselves. The Hallal is traditionally sung in worship on major Jewish feast days including Passover.
During the liturgical celebration of Passover, four cups are raised in thanksgiving to God – the fourth cup being ‘the cup of salvation’. The Hallal is the hymn of praise for this celebration. In both Matthew and Mark’s gospels, the stories that make up the last days Jesus’ human life – the stories of Holy Week – tell us that on the night before Jesus was handed over to the authorities, Jesus gathered his followers to celebrate Passover together. As the meal was ending, the gathered community sang ‘the hymn’ and left to go to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus sang the Hallal; he sang Psalm 116. Jesus was living with great uncertainty. I like to imagine that singing Psalm 116 brought Jesus a moment of calm and a reminder that God was with him every step of the way.
Psalm 116 begins, “I love the LORD because he hears my requests for mercy.” English translations of this verse fail to capture the expansiveness of this statement. The psalmist actually says, “I LOVE because God hears my requests for mercy.” The psalmist is saying that they love and are loved because God first loved them.
Speaking alternately to their listeners and to God, our Psalmist sings the story of coming to that fine and fragile line between life and death – that place where we can do nothing to save ourselves. The Psalmist tells us that they called upon God, “LORD, please save me!” And God delivered. “You, God!” says the Psalmist, “have delivered me from death, my eyes from tears, and my foot from stumbling.” The wise ones of centuries past understood God’s intention for humankind and what we only now seem to be rediscovering: wellbeing includes physical, emotional, and spiritual deliverance and health. God does not will suffering and death for us. The psalmist declares, “The death of the LORD’s faithful is a costly loss in [God’s] eyes.”
In plain language our Psalmist acknowledges that life really sucks sometimes. “I have remained faithful, even when I said, ‘I am suffering so badly!’ even when I said, out of fear, ‘Everyone is a liar!’ or as Eugene Petersen interprets this verse in The Message, “I stayed faithful, though bedeviled, and despite a ton of bad luck, Despite giving up on the human race, saying, ‘They’re all liars and cheats.’ How many times have you said that in the last 45 days??
Then with great gratitude, our Psalmist wonders aloud, “What can I give back to the LORD for all the good things [God] has done for me?” God wants what the Bible tells us God has always wanted – a relationship with us – for us to return the love which God has so mercifully and abundantly lavished upon us. As Christians we live most deeply into our relationship with God in corporate worship. Did you notice that the Psalmist’s response to the question “what can I give back to God?” was all about worshipping with God’s people? Twice the psalmist proclaims, “I will keep the promises I made to the Lord in the presence of all God’s people.
And so we gather in this virtual space to work on our relationship with God…to offer gratitude for the good stuff and to lament all the stuff that makes this life so hard. It is OK to be all over the emotional map with God and in this holy space we make together. Please don’t feel guilty if you are doing well and maybe even enjoying self-isolation. You are lucky! Share the love and offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving. If you are struggling – financially, emotionally, physically, or spiritually – follow the Psalmist’s lead and please ask for help.
No matter where we are coming from there is a place for us in the Psalms. Happy, sad, angry, blissful, despairing, rejoicing you will find yourself in the Psalms and be reminded over and over again that you love and are loved because God first loved you.
This was originally presented as the sermon for 3 Easter A, April 26, 2020, by Pastor Sarah D. Odderstol at St. John’s Broad Creek.