A sermon delivered at Hamline Church on 9/13. The text was Psalm 19.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you—my rock, and my redeemer.
The final lines of this psalm are a long standing traditional prayer in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. For centuries—millennia, maybe, preachers have uttered these words to ask God to help them say something true to their faith.
And so I, too, pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable to you—O Lord, my rock, and my redeemer.
And I pray that, because these days, I feel like I need both a rock, and a redeemer.
We all need the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, to point towards a rock and a redeemer. There is a sense of chaos that prowls around my normal, day to day routine. The news of the outside world is disturbing. And it lurks out there, peering into my mundane errands, breaking out, moment to moment.
There are those terrible photos. Those terrible, horrifying photos—and then there are numbers that accompany them.
There is the persistent cry of Black Lives Matter, the persistent reality of a justice system that needs deep discernment—the persistent reality of the privilege that we live in, the constant reports of those who are shot and killed on our city streets.
Last Wednesday marked the deadliest day in Chicago in a decade, with nine killed and twelve injured in shootings—and Labor Day weekend saw another eight killed and forty six wounded.
And, while I stare into that abyss that is facebook—into those photos at those little shoes, into these articles and infographics, and photos of the fifteen year olds caught in crossfire—into stories about climate change and one wake up call after the next—in that place, my island home of relative safety seems cheap, not so real, and not so secure.
After all those wake up calls, our culture now is a culture of insomniacs—we might not be doing anything, but we are definitely not sleeping anymore.
I think the author of Psalm 19 knows this feeling, and in response, he offers us a beautiful and strong portrait of faith in a chaotic world.
CS Lewis, author of the Narnia Chronicles, but also a prolific and well-respected theologian, once called Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the Psalter, and one of the greatest lyrics in the world” (Reflections on the Psalms, 63)
The psalmist tells us that the heavens and the firmament are tellers of God’s story, and are always speaking about God.
The sun races across the sky in joy and excitement, and in the marvelous, wonderous, beautiful glory of it all, God speaks to us.
But, in the ancient word, the heavens and the created world were also powerful, frightening things.
The firmament was one of the first things that God created in Genesis, and it separated the waters above from the waters below, and made a space in that primordial watery nothingness for creation to be made. Yet, the firmament was porous, thin—beautiful with its adornment of lights, but capable of breaking and sending pieces of that ocean above down onto the earth.
The ancient Israelites believed, quite literally, that there was an ocean above their heads. It was how they explained that the sky was blue, and how they explained the torrential desert rains.
Now that we can run inside during a thunderstorm, now that we can get food shipped to us from all over the world, the natural world seems to have less power over us and our food supply. But, perhaps tap into that sinking feeling of dread and anxiety that comes with contemplating climate change, and how insignificant one individual feels in the face of it—and then perhaps we can tap into the mindset of an ancient understanding of nature.
The beauty and chaos of the heavens surrounded the psalmist, was honored by him, yet frightened him—and in the insecure, island home he had on the land between the oceans below, and the oceans above, he knew he could hear God’s word, even there.
And so when the psalmist sings: the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork, he means that we stand on the edge of great chaos and tumult and that God is standing in it, speaking to us through it, asking us to meet God beside it.
The psalm asks us to listen for God in places of great power, great beauty, and great terror, and there we can find the law of God and rest in it. Because, the will of God fulfills God’s hopes for human life: wisdom, joy of the heart, enlightenment, endurance, and righteousness, that is: right-relationship with all things.
But, in case the psalmist confused us with words like ordinances, commandments, law, decrees—he reminds us that these things are not a static body of rules that we are to follow for punishment or reward. The reward is an inner peace, an inner calm. These are hopes and dreams for humans, personal instructions, personal relationships. Faith in Chaos, for this singer, is about seeking to grow, wondering of hidden faults, asking for forgiveness.
The psalmist takes on a posture of seeking, a posture of humility, a posture of hope—knowing that it will be impossible to do everything right, but that God will always be there, even still.
To be faithful is to seek God’s will, God’s hopes, God’s call, in every place.
To be faithful is to listen for every wordless voice that pours forth from the heavens, in the hope that our relationship with God may be made deeper, stronger, more honest, more present in the words of our mouth and the meditations in our hearts.
To be faithful is to hear what God is telling us in moments of great joy and moments of great tragedy, and to wonder what God wants of us in response to great joy and great tragedy.
God’s voice is always speaking—the instruction, the law, the torah, is always pouring forth day to day, and to be a community of believers is to be a community that stands in the great mess of it all and says, “I am listening. What would you have me do?”
Tragedy surrounds us as a culture now: those little shoes, gun violence, black lives matter, climate change—I can go on and you could too. Tragedy is easily woven into the fabric of our lives: deaths in the family, the sicknesses of friends, or the painful dysfunction of our relationships. And, it can feel like there is an ocean above our heads, barely held back, or it can feel like we stand at the edge of a great mess of chaotic, uncontrollable hurt.
But, God’s hope for us is not that we hold back the chaos and continue to live ordered, simple lives. God’s hope for us is not that we will keep it all at bay:
God’s hope for us is that we will listen—that when we feel the pain of tragedy in the world, we will hear and feel and know the pain that God feels when such tragedy strikes.
All the world is telling the story of God, and to be faithful in chaos is to hear it, to hear God’s call everywhere.
Rather than being simple rule followers hoping for eventual reward, to be faithful in chaos means that we become those who hear God’s voice pouring out of the chaos, and calling us into service.
And we don’t need to be experts. It takes no special knowledge, it takes no education to feel pain in the midst of tragedy. It takes no special knowledge to wonder, “How does God want us to respond to this?” All it takes is the time to stop, and wonder, together, about who we are called to be.
Faith in a chaotic world is not necessarily about producing order in disorder, but ordering the inner self, and pointing one’s purpose toward God. Faith in a chaotic world is not about fixing the world, but about the will power to stop and ask,
Now that I have seen this, “What does God want from me, right now, in this moment?”
Now that I have heard this, What is the greater purpose, in God’s mind, for how my day to day tasks unfold?
Now that we know this, What ministry is there in this work that we are doing right now?
To draw every moment back to God, to draw every action back to God, to honor every aspect of the world as if it is telling the glory of God: this is a radical act, that deeply re-orients our lives. The psalmist tells us that returning always to this question is to take on a posture of prayer that can offer us security in an insecure world.
The psalmist tells us that faith is about seeking and following the call of God. It may not lead us into places of total safety: it may cause trouble and hurt and fear, but we know how to listen to our God, and our God is our rock and our redeemer.
And, though it may be frightening to discover what we are to do, where we are to go, who we are to be—when we invite God in, God goes with us.