Sunday, June 10, 2018

Out of the Depths: Sermon for Proper 5B

Many of us have had quite a rough time the last few months. We hear every day a constant barrage of bad news. School shootings-- which hits me particularly hard, every time, as a former public school teacher. Cruelties, both great and casual, that are visited upon the most vulnerable among us. Beloved friends getting devastating diagnoses. And then, this week, two celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. And the deaths of these two creative, passionate people have brought to the forefront a conversation and hopefully some action about mental health treatment and mental illness, about suicide prevention.

The sad fact is that these two people, whose work brought so much joy to so many in very different ways, are just two of the nearly 45,000 Americans who will complete suicide this year, and perhaps four times as many will attempt it. Sometimes it feels like the waters of hopelessness and despair have risen up to our necks, too.

This is why I myself am grateful for the vision of mercy and honesty which is at the heart of our psalm reading this week, Psalm 130. Its beginning is immediately relatable: “Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord….” The word for “depths” is the one used to speak of ocean deeps, a place at the very center of our being, yet dark and remote. For the people who first prayed this psalm, especially, the sea was a place of mystery and danger. Thus, the psalmist, in trying to express the extent of his feeling of desolation and alienation, creates an image of waters rising over his head and pulling him under. And haven’t we all felt that way, at one time or another?

Yet even in the cry from the foundation of his heart and soul, the psalmist voices his first statement of trust, for he knows that God can hear his voice no matter where the psalmist is. Just as in our reading from Genesis, the psalmist is certain that God is already seeking him out and listening for his voice even if his cry is not one of joy or surprise but of anxiety. God hears the psalmist’s voice from the depths—because God is always with us in the depths of our fear, anxiety, and despair. When we feel separated from God, it is not God who has done the moving away—it is us, sometimes, like the man and the woman in Eden, because we think we can run things just fine on our own.

In this particular case of this psalm, just as in our reading from Genesis, what has separated the writer from being fully in communion with God are his own actions. God has not abandoned and will not abandon the psalmist-- or us. The psalmist confesses and acknowledges his very great fault and sins, which if counted would lead to utter condemnation. The psalmist lives in hope of forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation with God. And that’s the same message Jesus gives us in our gospel, as well: Despite all our human calculations and barriers, God’s love, mercy and reconciliation cannot be contained. Rather, God’s love will go where it will, making families of people who once were not only strangers but often outcasts.

Even though this is a psalm of lament, nonetheless hope shines through it throughout. This is possible because of the three great qualities attributed to God in this brief psalm: forgiveness, steadfast love—which is the term used in the Old Testament for “grace”-- and the power to redeem. These are the three essential qualities of God mentioned in this psalm which are vitally important to those who feel they have done something which has disrupted their relationship with God or with others.

The same God who has known us from our very first breath, loves us enough to allow us to choose to wander from obedience. The great Episcopal theologian, laywoman, and teacher Verna Dozier remarked, “Creation is an act of love. To love is to be vulnerable. The story of creation bears that fact out. The lover seeks the beloved. The lover is not complete without the beloved.”(1)  Our reading from Genesis begins with God seeking God’s beloved creatures—and finding that they are hiding, not out of fear, it seems, but because they feel shame already before they have confessed what they have done to rupture the trust that God had laid upon them. And so too it is with us, sometimes.

Out of the depths within myself I cry to you, my God.

After the Name of “Lord,” the word that appears the most in this short psalm is “wait.” “Waiting for the Lord” is repeated, although varied slightly, three times in succession, and the phrase then follows two repetitions of “more than watchmen for the morning” in verse 5. At the end of the psalm, the psalmist addresses the people of Israel, repeating once again to “wait for the Lord,” and reminding the people that God is merciful, seeking to redeem rather than to destroy. The verb used at the very end, though, which here translated as “wait,” however, also can be translated as “hope.”

And I think that’s key, because unlike “waiting,” hope is not passive. Hope is an act of faith and will—sometimes a rebellious act of faith and will, even.

This waiting upon God that we do is filled with hope for forgiveness, for reconciliation with ourselves and with each other, as well as with our God. When times are the darkest, we place our hope in God, whose love never fails. But we also ourselves are called to embody that hopefulness for each other—caring for each other, being present with each other, looking out for each other, extending mercy and grace to each other and to ourselves because our actions are grounded in belovedness. That’s what being children of God made in God’s image and likeness means.

As a society, we are not people who easily confess to hope—we are all too prone to wrap ourselves in cynicism and a studied air of indifference when opportunities to create new relationships come before us. I confess to being in a state of tension myself for the last many months. This tension most often manifests itself in sleeplessness in the middle of the night: sometimes I jolt awake, heart racing, and the anxieties of the previous day or week crash in upon me like a wave on the ocean. And I am sure I am not alone in this.

Out of the depths within myself I cry to you, my God.

And yet, even when things are the darkest, there is hope, and mercy, and forgiveness, and reconciliation. On the heels of this cry from the deepest troughs in our heart, Psalm 131 follows, and I think it actually continues the thought found in Psalm 130. Psalm 131 continues:

O LORD, I am not proud;
     I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
     or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet, 
like a child upon its mother's breast;
     my soul is quieted within me.
O Israel, wait upon the LORD,
     from this time forth for evermore.

Psalm 131 reinforces the sense of hopefulness and trust in Psalm 130, but expands it further, grounding itself in humility and simplicity. The beautiful maternal image of laying upon the breast of God like a child who has awakened from sleep in the night with tears and terror continues to remind us of God’s promise never to abandon us, no matter what. Whether you have been the sobbing child or the weary parent in that scenario, you know how eagerly you await the dawn on nights like that. 

Both Psalm 130 and Psalm 131 end with a reminder for the community to remember the forgiveness, steadfast love, and redemption of God as our foundation—and go and do likewise. In a world where too many of us feel isolated and alone, we are reminded that we are made for God, but also, significantly for each other.

That’s also what Jesus is reminding us in our gospel today. Jesus invites everyone into the circle of love, and calls us to continue to carry on that work. That’s the Jesus that Presiding Bishop Curry is calling us to reclaim—to remember how radically inclusive Jesus’s vision is, the same dream that God had for us from creation onward. The heart of Jesus’s message, contrary to what we see represented on TV, is not self-centeredness, but community—community rooted in abundant grace, abundant mercy, abundant hope and faith in each other.

Loving-kindness encircles us so that we may then embody it out into this aching, hurting world. Grace upon grace raises us and heals us, if only we will let it—but not for own sakes only—no, so we can go out, renewed, restored and reconciled so that we can renew, restore, and reconcile, in the name of our brother Jesus, who has claimed us as his kindred through his determination that no one be left to sink in the depths.

Back in April of 2017, I wrote this prayer in response to Psalms 130 and 131 when they came up in the daily office readings, and I would like to pray it with you now, if you will indulge me.

Most Merciful God,
who has watched over us through the depths of night,
lead us now into the light of your love.
By your tender mercy,
may we be drawn closer to you, Lord Jesus,
and inspired by your truth.
O Holy One, You have gathered us within your embrace:
may we worship You in humility and loving-kindness.
Keep us from all scorn or arrogance, O God,
and make us gentle and true in all our ways,
our spirits a haven for healing.
Lord Christ, abide within us today,
and fill the hearts of the weary with hope as we pray.


Preached at 8 and 10 am at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, St. Louis, MO, on June 10, 2018.

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

(1) Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return, 2006, chapter 2.

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