The David Story 3: Out of the Depths
A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2012. This is the third sermon in our summer series on the Book of Samuel and the biblical David.
Psalm 130 2 Samuel 1: 1, 17-27
“Out of the depths I cry to you O God. O God, hear my voice!” the Psalmist demands. Pay attention to me God! Because of your forgiveness I worship you and wait eagerly for your word of hope.
“For God’s sake don’t cry,” I once heard a finely dressed woman say. I turned to see the object of her instruction. A small boy about ten. “You are the man of the house now” she continued, giving him a little shake for emphasis. “You have to take care of your mother and the others.” With confused anguish, the navy suited fifth-grader stared at the coffin and then at the floor.
Writer Kyung-Lim Shin-Lee recounts, “Several days before my wedding, my mother sat down with me, her precious and only child, to reaffirm the usual teachings for a Korean woman: “Endure all sufferings silently. Don’t complain. If you have to die, you should die in your in-laws’ home.” These instructions were engraved in my heart, not only by her teaching, but also — probably more deeply — by her practice. She never complained about all kinds of physical violence and verbal abuse from my father and others. People, especially Christians, praised her very highly for taking all the sufferings just as Jesus Christ did — to death, unconditionally and silently. They said that she would be rewarded later in heaven. Some even said that she should be grateful for the suffering, because it would make her a better Christian. Believing that it was what God wanted me to do, I suffered silently.”
How often do we stifle our cries? How many times have we longed to scream out, “hear me God”, and instead choked back the sharp pain, bitterly nursing our private anguish, quietly biding time until we can have it out with God face to face on the other side of eternity.
It startles us that in the depths of despair the Psalmist had the audacity and courage to cry out, “O God hear my voice!” For so often, we silence those around us who are in pain perhaps because their pain makes us too uncomfortable, makes us feel helpless, useless, impotent. And so often we silence ourselves out of shame and fear, berating our interior selves to “get over it” or proudly wearing unnecessary stripes of our own self- martyrdom.
Perhaps the reason we find it hard to cry out and, in turn, to allow others to cry out, is that deep down we do not believe in a forgiving God. O, we believe in God the creator, the king of the universe, the fount of goodness and holiness, but do we believe in a merciful God? A God whose first word to us is forgiveness and acceptance? A God who hears and understands our pain? A God who wishes to do something about it and in so doing transform our life? Do we not, instead, keep silent in the pain saying, “If only I had…” and so pretend control over that which was greater than us. Or mentally turn back the clock and act differently in our thoughts, helpless outside our regrets, to change what’s happened. How different is the Psalmist.
The Psalmist cries out! The Psalmist tells the truth, the reality of suffering, expecting that God will hear, care, and somehow transform the situation.
In short, the Psalmist is able to cry out because he “hopes in God.” This hope, is known first in the forgiving love of God. A love which does not seek opportunity to point out our wrongdoing but is our assurance that in all situations, God hears us and abides with us, giving us strength for the journey ahead. Or as Psalm 130 puts it, “If you, O God, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered. I wait for God, my soul waits and in God’s word I hope.”
But before going on about what hope is, let’s pause and notice what hope is NOT. Hope is NOT optimism. Hope does not sing in the midst of death, “O the sun will come out tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there’ll be sun. Just thinkin’ about tomorrow, clears away the cobwebs and the sorrow till there’s none!” Yep, that’s denial; a kind of “put on a happy face and smile” optimism can never truly acknowledge how painful and desperate life can get. It doesn’t take despair seriously enough. Optimism is a bet that everything will work out OK. Optimism’s response to tragedy is, “Perk up. It’s all for the best.” Hoping in God is not about being optimistic.
Nor is hope a sadistic dwelling on the pain, as if pain itself is redemptive or holy. “No pain, no gain” goes the weight-lifting philosophy of life. After all, Jesus suffered and gained eternal life. “No pain, no gain.” Whenever you suffer you’re imitating Him. Or as the Korean woman’s community said, “be grateful for the suffering, it will make you a better Christian.” God is not the source of our suffering, or one who derives pleasure and satisfaction out of knowing it is all “for our own good.” This is not the God we know in Jesus Christ, who healed, taught, and comforted the poor, the mourning, the sick, who sought out the abandoned. Such careless acceptance and exaltation of any suffering, of any pain, fails to ask “what brought about this suffering?” It fails to put suffering in context. Hoping in God is not about adopting a “no pain, no gain” outlook.
Rather, hoping in God means to acknowledge the reality of pain and despair all around us and deep within us, and still to trust God is with us, bringing us through even this worst of times.
This past Friday there was an article in the New York Times (the religion section) about a colleague/friend of mine named Marcia who serves a church in South Carolina. Marcia and I met at the Big Tent gathering of Presbyterians last summer, and then spent a week together at the national multicultural gathering last fall. We became prayer partners, praying with and for one another and the congregations we serve. In other words, she has been praying for you.
The article on Friday, entitled “A Rape Survivor Now Ministers Body and Soul.” The article recounts Marcia’s experience of church after she was raped at the age of 15. What she heard were ritual prayers of confession and trust, sermons which spoke to the soul but not to the broken and hurting body, about a God more concerned with judging sin than showing compassion for those who suffer, and what she called magical and easy forgiveness. Nothing that acknowledged the depths out of which she was crying, out of which someone is always crying, out of which all of us sometimes cry, in worship.
“We always say, ‘We’re fine,’ ” she says. “That’s where mainline Protestants have become most comfortable. We’re fine, and our role is to help other people be fine like us. How did we get ourselves into this fix of being only the helper, but never the one who needs being healed?”
When we are stripped down by grief, we recognize our limitations: we cannot bring a person back to life, we cannot answer why it happened, we cannot say for sure what would have prevented it, we cannot even say that we might respond differently next time. Instead what we can say, in the depths, is that in many ways we are powerless. We must acknowledge, even if only to ourselves, the rawness of what we can and cannot do. And this is not a comforting thought. In fact it is a terrifying thought, to think that life, that our world, even our own security is not entirely within our control. Without God, it is indeed a terrifying thought that we, in some fundamental ways, are powerless.
BUT! But if we are able to embrace our powerlessness before our loving God, and can cry out in all our anguish, we have opened ourselves to the possibility of life. As any recovering alcoholic can tell you, such a stripping away, such vulnerability, such bottoming-out is the first step toward a transformed life. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” The hope in this prayer is akin to the hope in Psalm 130. For it confesses our powerlessness in the pain and confesses the faithfulness of God who will strengthen us. We, with the Psalmist, trust in the hesed, the faithfulness, the lovingkindness, the steadfastness of God.
And when one person has the courage to hope in God, the whole community is invited into transformation.
This is the third sermon in our summer series on David, the shepherd boy and king. I have spent the bulk of my time on the depths of our psalm rather than on the fascinating biblical and historical details that would carry us from last week, with David killing Goliath at the behest of Israel’s King Saul, to our text for today. This text, the song David composed to lament the death of Saul and Jonathan has depths of its own. To understand all that God would have us understand through this scripture, we would need to know more about David the minstrel, David the warrior, David the exile and outlaw, David the turn-coat and mercenary who served in the army of the Philistines; we would need to know more about David’s friendship with the king’s son Jonathan and his marriage to king’s daughter Michal; we would speak of David the husband not only of Michal, but of Abigail, Maacah, Haddith, Abital, Eglah, and Bathsheeba; David the bandit and strong-man, David the political climber, David – the only one standing after a decade of civil war. David the almost king of Israel.
But we will not do that today, because what comes through clearly, even without all this other context, is the depth of David as one who prays, and who bears his heart in song. It is this David, the composer of prayers and psalms, who appears more than any other in our weekly worship and liturgy. David’s songs emerge out of and express a depths of loss, grief, despair and hope that we need in worship.
David is not a perfect man. In fact he is deeply troubled, and troubling. But it is David the fallible human, David who can write eloquently about human fallibility and sin, David who can describe the souls deepest need for God, David who never stops hoping in God and trusting in God’s promises, David who weeps for his friends, even when they have been his enemies, it is this David we encounter today.
And it is this David, the poet of the soul much more than political figure, who has profoundly shaped the people of Israel. For, as Julie Hilton Steele has written in a Christian context, “in daring to reveal our pain to our community, we open up ourselves to God’s grace and overwhelming love. By trusting others with our sense of abandonment, loss and sorrow, we take ourselves out of isolation and despair. The community can neither change what has happened to us nor can it instantaneously remove our suffering. Regardless, our [Christian] brothers and sisters can bear our pain when we cannot, believe when we cannot, hope when we cannot. And stand by us until we do.”
My friends, we are in this together. We trust the community to be present with us. When one member cannot be present, others can. And when we fail to be there, to be present for each other, we quickly seek each other’s forgiveness, trusting always in our God who is forgiveness.
We are in this together. When we share our prayer requests. When we visit each other at home or in hospital. When we listen closely to each others’ cares. When we hold each other in our weakness. When you say, “I cannot do this alone” and this community says, “we are with you” we become a “healing community” a “redeemed community”. As Henri Nouwen said, “A Christian community is not a healing community because wounds are cured or pains alleviated, but because wounds and pains become openings or occasions for a new vision.”
Let us pray: O God who hears our cries, may this sanctuary be truly that – a sanctuary: a safe place where in honesty and hope we dare to open ourselves to your healing presence in our midst. May we truly become the body of your Christ when we encounter suffering, by extending our arms, sharing our sorrow, and offering our comfort in Christ’s name. And in so doing, may our grief become an opening for new vision. Amen.
[those who wish to learn more about the context of David’s lament would do well to read “Powerful Lament” by my colleague Julie Emery, a sermon on this same passage.]