“Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Ps 126:2).
“Joy.” The psalmist repeats this word three times in this great poem of restoration. God’s people shout for joy, sing songs of joy, return from the fields in joy. God restores the fortunes of Zion—and their sadness is transformed into joy. Joy is their response, their witness to God’s working in the world.
In the calendar of the Church we remember today the third-century martyr Laurence of Rome. As archdeacon, he was given care of the church’s treasury for distribution to the needy. The story goes that after he was arrested during a periodic persecution of Christians, Laurence negotiated for a few days’ respite to gather the church’s wealth. During that time, though, he instead rapidly distributed it to the poor. When asked to hand over the church’s treasure, Laurence pointed not to gold or gems but to the poor.
The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 62, includes the phrase: “For God alone my soul in silence waits”; however another translation of this text is: “Before God, I am silence.” Not, “I am silent”; but rather, “Before God, I am silence.” And therefore, when God speaks, I am silence: I am an empty, open vessel to receive. Our life’s invitation is to learn to “be silence” so we have space to receive the work and words of God. It is a good thing to cultivate stillness and silence within ourselves.
But for many people, life seems to lose its cultivation because of suffering. We witness, and we may personally experience, tremendous suffering, loss, fear, grief, despair that may simply leave us or others speechless and empty, feeling very much alone and abjectly vulnerable. This is the silence that visits the elderly who have lost their health, lost their companions, lost their meaning in life; the silence of those who are very sick with no help at hand and the silence of those who are very sick with help at hand; the silence of those who are imprisoned because of prejudice and racism, and those imprisoned behind bars; the silence of those who live with inexpressible shame. So many people experience a silence that is unbidden and which may seem to them so vapid, despairing, orphaning.
Our psalm appointed for today, Psalm 103, speaks of “our youth being renewed like an eagle’s.” The scriptures make reference to the eagle more than 30 times as an image of strength, deliverance, and protection. An eagle became the emblematic symbol for the Gospel according to John because of the eagles’ soaring into the skies pointing us to the heavens, from where “in the beginning” God abides and creates. And soar they do, with a wingspan upwards to 8 feet and extremely keen eyesight, eagles fly into the heavens from which they look upon earth, observing, then hunting with great speed and power. They also typically nest – they abide – high up in rocky ledges or in trees. In the scriptures, eagles appear as one face of the four mighty cherubim who attend the throne of God.[i]
Many centuries after the psalmist, the Prophet Isaiah would proclaim: “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”[ii] The image of the eagle’s renewal of strength (and therefore our renewal of strength) is twofold: for one, eagles live to a relatively old age for birds, upwards to 30 years: the renewal of our strength in older age. And then, that eagles molt their feathers, so that they are freshly clothed, as it were, with a new garment of plumage, a seeming youthfulness and exuberance regardless of their age.
“…I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.
Choose life….” (Deuteronomy 30:19b)
God tries to make it easy for us. Here are two ways, God says:
One way is to love God, obeying God’s commandments and walking in God’s ways. This way leads to life and prosperity.
A second way is to turn away from God, to refuse to listen or obey, to give your heart to other things, idols of your own making. This path leads to adversity and death.
Not a difficult choice, really, and yet not an easy one for most of us either.
These two paths are set before us again and again in Scripture. Take Psalm 1, the psalm appointed for today. There are two kinds of people, the psalmist suggests: the “righteous,” who have chosen the first path, and the “wicked,” who have chosen the second. (Make no mistake: you are not misreading the psalm if you take from it a fairly black-and-white picture of reality. You will also not be incorrect if you see this same pattern popping up over and over again in the rest of the Psalter.) The psalmist is making a very clear distinction between these two types of people, with not much in between by way of spiritual categories. Here’s what he says:
In the scriptures, we are consistently called “children of God,” not “adults of God,” but “children of God.” The psalm appointed for today, Psalm 40, is spoken to you, a child of God:
I waited patiently upon the Lord;
he stooped to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay;
he set my feet upon a high cliff and made my footing sure. (Psalm 40:1-2)
The psalmist begins, “I waited patiently upon the Lord.” You will know something about this, when you are having to wait in life. This kind of waiting is not an eager waiting, where you are pirouetting around with great expectation about something wonderful you just can’t wait to happen. It’s not a waiting where you are jumping up and down, because you can hardly wait. This kind of waiting implies suffering, when you are dreading something, or when you are stuck in a seemingly-intractable situation which is imprisoning. You are waiting patiently because you are powerless in-and-of yourself to rise above your insufferable circumstances. The English word “patience” comes from Latin patientia which means, literally, a “quality of suffering.” And suffering you are as you wait patiently, hopefully, desperately.
During the month of August, while the Chapel is closed, we are reposting sermons that we hope will inspire you to embrace play, rest, joy, and recreation.
The first week of November a dozen people walked to Emery House, our retreat center in West Newbury. They walked from downtown Boston, walked over 50 miles in three days. They were from Ecclesia Ministries which offers spiritual companionship to homeless men and women in Boston. Both homeless and housed, they walked in community on a spiritual pilgrimage, staying with host churches along the way. We at Emery House had the honor of being their destination: together we celebrated and feasted, shared silence and reflected aloud, rested and prayed.
This morning I want to reflect on how today’s Gradual Psalm relates to the Gospel, and what it can mean to us. Psalm 138 does not really fit the usual theme of Lent. It is a Psalm of thanksgiving and of Praise. “I will give thanks to you, O Lord…I will sing your praise.” (v. 1) As with other Psalms it can be understood on more than one level.
Want to read more about the psalms? Check out these titles the Brothers recommend.
Read more about how to pray with the psalms:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible
Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms: Engaging Scripture and the Life of the Spirit
C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms
Thomas Merton, Praying the Psalms
James Sire, Learning to Pray Through the Psalms and Praying the Psalms of Jesus
Try praying with a different version of the psalms:
The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, Robert Alter (W.W. Norton, 2007)
The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation, Translated by Pamela Greenberg (Bloomsbury, 2010)
Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill (Continuum, 2000)
Psalter for the Christian People: An Inclusive-Language Revision of the Psalter of The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Edited by Gordon Lathrop and Gail Ramshaw (Liturgical Press, 1993)
Go deeper into the psalms:
If you’ve never read much of the book of Psalms and don’t know where to begin, you might want to start with these psalms, which one of the Brothers selected as among his favorites: Psalms 19, 24, 27, 42, 46, 62, 67, 71, 84, 85, 98, 100 (“the first psalm I ever memorized at age nine”), 148, and 150.
When I was a seminarian at Sewanee, my liturgics professor, Marion J. Hatchett, was the chair of the text committee for The Hymnal 1982, and since I didn’t know that this was the sort of committee to which one was appointed – in all my experiences of committees to that point volunteers were welcome – I approached him and said, “I hear that you’re on the text committee; I’d like to work on that.” Fortunately, he did not tell me that I was an upstart (he likely assumed that, as a PhD in English, I would at the very least know how to punctuate). Instead he said to me, “Well, actually, we’re having a meeting in Nashville in a few weeks. Why don’t you come along and see what you think.” Of course, what was really happening was that they were seeing what they thought of me. Apparently, I was not completely useless, since they invited me to keep coming. Bit by bit, I’d help out with the revision of a few lines, then a stanza here, a paraphrase there. The first time I wrote a hymn on my own was because we had the tune Bridegroom by Peter Cutts, but found that the old words were just not salvageable. So I was asked to write a hymn text to fit that tune. The resulting hymn was “Like the Murmur of the Dove’s Song” – my first hymn. That’s how it transpired that I worked my way up from revisions to paraphrases to hymns of my own.