Psalms 42 & 43
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Blaise Pascal in the 17th c. wrote, “There was once in [us] a true happiness of which there now remains…only the mark and empty trace, which [we] in vain [try] to fill from all [our] surroundings…but these are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable object, that is to say, only by God Himself" [Pascal, Pensees, VII, 425, in The Great Books, vol. 33, p. 244].
How often have we, each of us, gone through a period in life feeling that something essential is missing and that there has to be something more to life. How often have we searched for that something more, only to try and fill up that God-shaped hole with something that is inadequate and not life-giving? The Psalmist was able to see what was really at stake here, saying that our hearts yearn for relationship with God in the same way that a thirsty deer longs for the cool, clear water of a rushing stream.
In one of his most recent books, UCC minister and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann describes the countercultural nature of the Psalms. In fact, he goes beyond culture to describe what he calls the “Counter-World of the Psalms.” Brueggemann writes, “The psalms voice and mediate to us a counter-world that is at least in tension with our other, closely held world and in fact is often at direct odds with that closely held world. As a result, we yearn for a counter-world that is characterized by trust and assurance, because we know very often that our closely held world is not the best of all possible worlds. We are eager for a new, improved world that is occupied by the Good Shepherd, that yields help from the hills, and that attests a reliable refuge and strength. That is why we continually line out these particular cadences again and again. That is why we want to hear them at the hospital and at the graveside and in the many venues where our closely held world is known to be thin and inadequate. We want something more and something other than our closely held world can possibly yield" [Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid, (Louisville: WJK, 2014) p. 9].
As we envision this counter-world, we hear the echoes of one who knew the psalms well, and we hear of his proclamation of a new realm, a new way of being, a new paradigm for how human life is organized and lived. We hear the strains of Jesus proclaiming the kingdom of God, which is what the world would be like if we lived in accordance with God’s intention.
Brueggemann sets up seven characteristics of “Our Closely Held World,” and I would ask you to remember that it is our closely held world. And I would ask you to consider these seven characteristics when you recall the political rhetoric you read in the news every day:
1) Anxiety rooted in scarcity: “We worry that if the goodies and power are shared more widely, there will not be as much for us" [Brueggemann, p. 10]. Anxiety leads people to want to build walls instead of bridges.
2) Greed: which “requires fatiguing overwork, endless 24/7 connection, and insatiable multitasking, all in an effort to get ahead or in an effort to stay even and not to fall hopelessly behind" [Brueggemann, p. 11].
3) Self-sufficiency: When Ezekiel quotes Pharaoh’s claim that “My Nile is my own: I made it for myself,” (Ezek. 29.3) or when we describe ourselves as “self-made men and women” we engage in the hubris of self-sufficiency.
4) Denial: We believe the promises of Madison Avenue, even though “our closely held world cannot keep its promises of safety, prosperity, and happiness" [Brueggemann, p. 12]. We are willing to say that the emperor has wonderful new clothes, even though we know better.
5) Despair: “Because we cannot fully master and sustain such denial and from time to time gasp before the truth that our world is not working, we end in despair.” Have you given in to despair in recent years?
6) Amnesia: We think, “It is all too much. And so, as a result, we are all too happy to press the delete button labeled amnesia” [Brueggemann, p. 13]. Whether we need to forget the images of Auschwitz or Hiroshima or Columbine or children in detention centers on our border…we hit the delete key.
7) A Normless World: “The outcome of our narcissistic amnesia is a normless world, because without God and without tradition and without common good, everything is possible” [Brueggemann, p. 14]. The dystopian world projected in George Orwell’s 1984 and in so many recent films is possible.
I know that Brueggemann paints a horrific picture: Our “closely held world” is a frightening reality that we see on the news every day. But it doesn’t have to stay that way. A world beyond the death-dealing dystopian future is possible, and it is echoed by the psalmist. We long for a different realm, one that affirms the goodness of life and of God’s creation. We long for the promised kingdom of God, what Brueggemann calls the Counter World of the Psalms:
1) Instead of anxiety, we can rely on God’s Trustful Fidelity: The psalmist cries out: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” God’s fidelity, God’s covenant faithfulness, can “grant us courage for the facing of this hour.”
2) Instead of a greed, the psalmist proclaims a World of Abundance. “The ground for such an abundance that refuses greed is the glad doxological affirmation that God is the creator who has blessed and funded the earth so that it is a gift that keeps on giving. The doxological assumption is that when God’s creatures practice justice, God’s earth responds with new gifts" [Brueggemann, p. 17].
3) Instead of the delusion of being self-sufficient, we can acknowledge our Ultimate Dependence on God. We can see the miraculous nature of creation and life and know that we did nothing to create it, but that we are stewards responsible for preserving it.
4) Instead of denial, the psalmist embraces Abrasive Truth Telling. Whether “speaking the truth in love” or announcing an inconvenient truth, the psalmist calls out injustice and falsehood. “The entire genre of lament, complaint, and protest constitutes a refusal of denial” [Brueggemann, p. 20]. And truth-telling requires courage.
5) Despair – the hallmark of our times – can be overcome by A World of Hope. This is the world the poet portrays by repeating this refrain in Psalm 42 and Psalm 43: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” (42.11 and 43.5) “Hope in God! Hope in God! Which is to say: ‘Do not hope in self. Do not hope in progress Do not hope for luck.’” [Brueggemann, p. 23]. Hope is the great refusal to accept the shadowy culture of despair.
6) Lively Remembering sets aside cultural amnesia about the goodness and presence of God. The refrain of Psalm 136 echoes back the history of all that God has done: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” If we don’t take time for awe, that is to reflect and remember what God has done in the glory of creation, we lapse into amnesia.
7) The psalmist’s antidote to a Normless World is Normed Fidelity – our faithfulness to God through Torah, not meaning simply “the Law,” but as Brueggemann claims, the entire legacy of norming that is elastic, dynamic, fluid, and summoning….It is the Torah that yields identity and perfect freedom. It is indeed a gift to come down where we ought to be" [Brueggemann, p. 25-26].
Some would have us feel as though we are powerless to change the world, to change the course of our nation’s history, and to change ourselves. This is not so. We don’t have to slip into war with Iran, to launch global trade wars, to round up productive members of society as if they were animals, to accept gun violence as normative. And it isn’t because we are brighter or wealthier or have more followers on Facebook. We aren’t that self-sufficient!
Another world is possible. The Counter-World of the Psalmist, the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, the world of hope. Remember the words of Paul, dear friends of God, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We can learn to fill the God-shaped hole not just in ourselves, but in the culture and fabric of this nation. Amen.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Happy Father’s Day to all fathers and father figures, both male and female here today! I am remembering my dad who as many of you know was a storytelling preacher, a professor of Philosophy or religion and a seminary president. He often preached on Romans and memorized many passages from it for his preaching. This passage brings me memories of him. I can hear Dad reading it in my mind. I can hear the rhythm of the cadence and inflection of his voice. And I remember him reading it with such passion. Not being a tall man he would rise up on his toes in excitement as he preached or read scripture, as if he was going to make a basketball goal just as he did in high school when he was captain of the team and they won state. Holding his soft-covered, leather pulpit Bible up in his left hand, he might paraphrase a bit to reiterate his points saying...”Because we are justified by our faith, set right with God, through Jesus and so have access to God’s peace and grace...” As the meaning of the text became more intense he rose higher on his toes reaching the highest point at “and hope does not disappoint us!” Then he would come down and lean in with the punch line, “because God's love has been poured [big pouring motion with his right hand] into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This text was not about false, feel good sentiment for Dad. It was not a happy-clappy message. God will make everything fine for us if we just believe in the right way. For Dad, Paul’s message was life-changing news in the midst of the very real lives of the people he was addressing, in the midst of their sorrows and tragedies along with their joys. This message brought ultimate meaning and purpose to his life so he was passionate to share it. I do not remember all of his exegesis. The legacy he left is the memory that my Dad was/is a friend of God. He once told me, shortly after my mom’s death, and after at least 60 years of preaching God’s good news, that when he died his hope was that he would learn to love as God loves.
That’s an aspiration, isn’t it? To learn to love as God loves. I know Dad had glimpsed that in many ways while he was here with us in this life. I trust he is learning it more fully now. And I have to ask myself, do I have this aspiration? What about us here in this faith community? Do we want to learn to love as God loves here in the midst of our lives? Do we want to at least catch glimpses of this selfless loving? And in doing so be friends of God?
In this passage from the letter to the Romans, Paul acknowledges that he and the early Christians lived in very trying times. At times he wrote his letters from prison. They knew the danger of persecution. Yet Paul’s conviction is that God is utterly faithful just as God was to his ancestor, Abraham, and in God’s action in the world through Jesus, as well as the sending of the Holy Spirit. To be justified, to be set right with God through our trust in God, is to know God as Friend.
Paul tells us that even in the midst of suffering we stand in God’s grace and share in God’s peace because God is our faithful friend. Take a moment and ponder this. In the midst of your personal lives, here at Plymouth in our communal life we stand in God’s grace and peace. Because we have been justified, set right with God through our trust. We can rejoice with Paul trusting that God befriends us before we even befriend or trust God back.
We can rejoice with Paul because like him we know the heritage of the Hebrew Scriptures tells of God the Creator and God the Spirit moving across the waters of creation. Because, like Paul, we experience the faithfulness of God in Jesus, the one who lived among us, who was crucified by the sin of the world and yet through whom God conquered death in the resurrection.
The articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity came generations after Paul’s writing. Yet implicit in his testimony here in Romans is the Holy One-in-Three, the Holy Three-in-One, the mystery we name the Trinity. One unified God who has three faces or three windows of revelation into the hugeness, the unfathomable nature of the Divine. Knowing that God is faithful friend simplifies this mysterious and often confusing human-made doctrine of Trinity for me. I think of one of my closest earthly friends and the many different roles she plays in my life, comforter, challenger, care-giver, confronter and I understand the different faces of God as friend.
Paul tells us that to be justified by faith is to be friends with the flow of Love that we know as God, that we envision as the community of the Holy ONE – Earth-maker, the Source and Creator of All, Jesus, the Pain-bearer, who came to share our common lot, who bears with us the weight of this world, and Spirit, who continues the Life-giving movement of hope and deepest joy even in the midst of suffering. In deep friendship with the Holy One-in-Three, we can say confidently and without shallow sentiment that our sufferings can produce endurance and endurance character and character hope, no matter what situations life brings. Then we know in the midst of sorrow or joy the glory of God and we can in the best sense of the word boast of, share joyfully, without arrogance, but with the strength of humility, God’s peace and grace because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.
Sometimes mysteries are best understood through looking at them through the corner of our eyes in story.
On the very real mountain and peninsula named Mt. Athos in northeastern Greece, a place of 20 monastic communities comprising one large Easter Orthodox monastery, there is one monastery that was the smallest of all, the Lesser Monastery of the Holy Trinity. It holds only three monks and one lay porter. It is difficult to get to being high up on a cliff. The path to its door is steep and winding and windy. The small door to the monastery is always open and leads you into a sunny courtyard with plants blooming throughout the year. When a pilgrim enters, the person finds a small bench to sit on. Old Gregorio, the porter, lets the pilgrim sit in silence for a time as he peers through a small window to get a sense of the person. Eventually he emerges to sweep the courtyard and shyly ask the pilgrim questions such as “Where are you from?” Or “How was your journey?” Then he silently slips away and returns with one of the monks.
If he returns with Father Demetrios, the eldest monk, an old man with a long white beard, the monk sits right next to the pilgrim and begins to talk immediately. His voice is rich and deep. His words flow like honey from a comb, words of welcome and wisdom. He always seems to know just how long to talk for when he stops the pilgrim will spill forth their own words of confession, contemplation, of doubt and faith, words coming from the heart and sometimes with tears.
If Old Gregorio brings back Father Iohannes the interaction is very different. Father Iohannes is a rather round middle-aged monk with curling brown hair and warm eyes. He sits on a chair in the sun, just across from the pilgrim on the bench and looks deep into their eyes before closing his own eyes to sit in the sun in silence. From time to time he might look at them again. The silence is companionable, but it can last all morning...even into the afternoon. The pilgrim is always the one to break it, finally pouring forth their story. In the end Father Iohannes who has listened intently, gazes at the pilgrim with the deep, silent love of a brother and then simply gives a blessing.
When Old Gregorio bring forth the third monk, the pilgrim encounters a beardless, young man, Father Alexis. He looks lovingly into the face of the pilgrim with the clear, guileless eyes. His own face becomes a mirror for what he sees in the pilgrim’s face – sorrow and grief, frustration or anger, confusion, the joy of learning and asking questions. When he speaks, it is from the deepest yearnings of the pilgrim’s own soul and holds the wisdom of God that is within.
Most pilgrims stay the night and when they leave in the morning they pass by the Icon of the Trinity that is the little monastery’s greatest treasure. In it sit three figures in a loving circle, breaking bread with one another – a white headed, white bearded old man, a curly, brown-haired, smiling man of middle age and a young man with a clear face who seemed to gaze beyond his companions and into the eyes of the beholder. This is the same icon that Old Gregorio says his prayers in front of early each morning, crossing himself three times, praying for the wisdom to direct each pilgrim who might visit that day to the monk the pilgrim’s soul most needs.
For those who seek this smallest of monasteries on Mt. Athos, they would do well to remember it is more a place of heart than of the map. And that the monks and old porter are waiting patiently within a space of prayer and image. And that the Lesser Monastery of the Trinity could just as easily hold an elderly, but energetic housekeeper named Georgiana, an abbess named Mother Demeter who writes beautiful poetry and songs, an earthy, ginger-haired middle aged woman, a healer, named Joanna and a young, lithe woman with blond hair and keen green eyes, a weaver of tapestries who is named Alexis, meaning helper, like her make counterpart.
God comes to us as friend, creating us anew, bearing our pain with us, empowering and emboldening us to act on our deepest loves. This is the mystery of the Trinity. And this is the message of the apostle Paul who believed he was set right by God’s friendship, given God’s peace and grace and love poured into his heart. This is the friendship that empowers all we do in acts of social justice, acts of caring for one another, acts of welcoming the stranger, of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless, acts of worship and fellowship and study and prayer. This friendship empowers ALL we do. Do you accept it? The friendship of this larger than life, abundantly overflowing Holy One-in-Three, Three-in-One God? It is freely given.
Amen and Amen.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
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