Epiphany 5C – February 10, 2019

“When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me.” Psalm 138:3

            Over my 38, almost 39 years of being a preacher, I have seldom focused upon the psalms, 150 of which make up the hymn book for the people of Israel.  Psalms were sung in the temple, accompanied by string instruments and drums.  They are poetic prayers which have been sung by God’s people for thousands of years.  As poetry, they touch the deep center of our lives, dragging us into the depth of reality itself — not by reporting how life is, but by pushing and pulling us into the middle of it. Psalms make us feel with our hearts instead of analyzing with our brains.  As prayer the psalms required that we deal with God, not just talk about God, but to God.  They demand intimate relationship. They have been described as the “gut of the Bible” because through them we get honest with God as God is honest with us.[i] 

            Today’s Psalm 138 begins with whole-hearted thanksgiving – “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing your praise.” This is not the polite thank-you we were taught when as a child we went Trick or Treating at Halloween and someone gave us a piece of candy. “Now say, Thank You!” Instead, it’s the thank-you of receiving a heart-transplant.  Years ago, one of our members did receive a heart-transplant and from then on celebrated two birthdays – the first of her original birth and second of her new birth.  Each moment is a living miracle for her, as it is for every single one of us.  Whole-hearted thanksgiving opens us up to surprise, to life full and abundant, to God. 

            When I served as the Secretary of the Board of our Seminary in Philadelphia, I sat right next to Dr. Addie Butler, a brilliant African American woman who was Chairperson of the Board. When someone would give a report, she’d thank the person and then under her breathe, say, “Thank you God.”  Her thank you transformed what could be rather dull meetings into holy work.  What are you thankful for? 

            The second verse: “I will bow down toward your holy temple and praise your name, because of your steadfast love and faithfulness; for you have glorified your name and your word above all things.”  Now we get to why we give thanks, why we come to this place where there are so many other things we might be doing.  And perhaps why when we chose those others things, we wind up running on empty.  We’re here not because we are so wonderful and holy, but because of God who is steadfast in love and faithfulness.  The promises God makes can be trusted and the laws that God ordains are good.  The guidance and direction that God gives us are better for us in the long run that our own wills for our own lives.  The Psalmist experiences this and wants us to do so too.  So did my Grandmother Krommes.  When my sisters Amy, Beth and I slept over at her house on Saturday nights, she’d get us up early on Sunday morning, give us breakfast and then my Aunt Ruthie would pick us up for Church.  We were always at least 15 minutes early just so she could sit in God’s house and pray. She’d promise us a life-saver if we were good. There she experienced God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, even with three restless little girls sitting aside of her.  So, the question is, “What do we bow down for and whatever it is, does it give us steadfast love and faithfulness?”   

Verse 3 – When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me.  Apparently, there were issues – we don’t know what – maybe straying from the will of God, maybe being persecuted, or getting lost or becoming overwhelmed.  Yet the lack of specifics invites us to ponder our own issues and to share them with God.  Brené Brown puts it this way: “Owning our own story can be hard but not as difficult as spending our lives running from it.  Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on belonging and love and joy — the experiences that make us most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of light.”[ii]  Nothing separates from God, and so we can dare to trust that we will be given what we need. 

            On Friday, John and I went to see the movie Green Book. Both of the main characters struggled with issues and in a pilgrimage of sorts through the deep South in the early 1960’s discovered who they were in ways far beyond their expectations.  I highly recommend the movie.

So, what are your issues?  Where do you need strength and courage?  Know in the honest asking for help, your strength increases. 

Next the psalm goes global.  Verses 4 and 5:  All the rulers of the earth will praise you, O Lord, when they have heard the words of your mouth.  They will sing of the ways of the Lord, that great is the glory of the Lord.  How we hope for this glorious new world order where God is the ultimate sovereign and has complete authority. Tradition holds that David wrote this psalm and perhaps these verses comes out of his experience that when he put himself and his desires before those of God, he got into deep trouble as did his nation.  The repercussions of his sin were devastating.  The greatest temptation leaders face is to over-step their authority and power and to confuse themselves with God.  When they do so, disaster is not far behind.  So, the Psalmist keeps the us focused upon God and what God is doing. 

Then comes verse 6:  For though the Lord is high, he regards to lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.  God turns from the kings of the nations, to the lowly ones on earth.  We remember Mary, a peasant girl, and how God looked with favor on her lowliness. In her, the awesome God of heaven becomes rooted in earth, in flesh and blood, in Jesus.  In our Gospel today, Peter struggles with this – telling Jesus to get away from him for he’s a sinful man.  And dare I say, we so often do this too –fearing God’s expectations are too much so we excuse ourselves and fail to follow.  To Peter, to us and to the psalmist, God says, “Do not be afraid.”

Verses 4, 5 & 6 present another question for us – how to live, serve and love God in a global and national political environment that is so divided, us against them, them against us?  Last weekend at our Community Engagement Panels, I was struck by something.  When asked what they were most concerned about, each person said that as our town is being revitalized, they did not want any one to be left behind and so they were committed to working on affordable housing.  They spoke across political parties and boundaries.  Do not be afraid.

Which brings us to the last two verses: “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.  The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.  Do not forsake the work of your hands.”  Now the psalmist turns from the great kings of the earth and the glory of the Lord back to himself and to us.  It gets personal, as faith always does. The phrase, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble” triggers in my memory Psalm 23, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.”  There are enemies in that psalm, too, as there is in all of life.  Enemies that want to cut us down, throw us out and fill us with fear. And, sometimes we are our own worst enemy.  Yet, there is God who abounds with steadfast love – love that is trustworthy, love that forgives, love that believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  I love the boldness of the psalmist who then dares to tell God, “Don’t forget the work of your hands!” And that work is you and me.  Indeed, that work is the whole creation and everyone and everything in it.  By God’s grace, it’s a work in progress.  Amen. 

[i] Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire, New York: Waterbrook, 2017, 59-62.

[ii] Brené Brown, https://www.habitsforwellbeing.com/what-is-heartful-or-wholehearted-living/

St John’s Lutheran Church Phoenixville