Year B, Pentecost 25
I often direct people to the Psalms when they are struggling with prayer. Many times people need direction in prayer and get insecure about what they are saying or they are simply overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. I understand because I sometimes feel the same way. The great thing about the psalms is that they encompass virtually every human emotion: anger, envy, frustration, joy, fear and utter desolation. While there are 150 psalms to cover all the emotions, often times you will encounter several contrasting emotions in one psalm. I like it because it is true to life. One moment you are on top of the world, the next moment you are asking God to vanquish your enemies. Some days are like that.
Earlier in the week, I had planned to preach on the Gospel. It’s a familiar text and an important message. However, then I read about another mass shooting. The Gospel wasn’t going to work and I prayed the psalm appointed for this day might lead me. I thought, surely this will be a Psalm of Lament, or one of those good fist shaking “why is this happening” kind of psalms. Nope. “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul!” It goes on like that. The whole thing is a psalm of praise. It is very inconvenient. Yet the more I read the psalm, and the more I read about it, the more appropriate it seemed.
In general there isn’t a lot of certainty about the psalms. Tradition tells us that King David wrote the psalms, but this is unlikely. We are also unsure when the psalms were written. They were most likely written after the Babylonian exile. Some of the psalms allude to a specific event or enemy or a generalized event (like war or betrayal). Most of the Psalms of Lament end on a note of praise and there will be an explanation as to what the praise is about. Yet Psalm 146 does not reference a miraculous event or a saving act. It praises God for being God.
One of the slight detours this psalm takes is a warning not to put trust in earthly rulers. It doesn’t give a specific reason why nor does the author refer to a specific ruler. We are not to put our trust in any human ruler. Now we are days after the election. In the months preceding the election, we had all kinds of people and groups telling us who to trust and who not to trust– providing copious reasons not to trust a specific candidate, or even an entire political party. Yet none of these smear campaigns tried the reasoning that the author of this psalm provided. Don’t trust human rulers because they eventually die. They are mortal. Even if they are a great ruler worthy of our trust, their thoughts and leadership die with them. It would have been an interesting angle for a political campaign to take.
But then again this psalm isn’t about a specific leader. It’s not about a specific event. It’s about what it means to praise God and believe in a God worthy of our praise. You might hear this psalm and think, well clearly the author of this psalm wasn’t living in a time like ours, when things are complicated and someone is getting shot every other day for no apparent reason. Because if he was, he wouldn’t have thought it was that easy to praise God. While we do not know exactly what was happening when each psalm was written, we know that some pretty bad stuff went down. If you were to read through all the psalms, you would see many examples of these bad things and the emotions people were experiencing as a result.
Let me give you some highlights: (Psalm 73) “For all day long I have been plagued, and am punished every morning.” (Psalm 44) “All day long my disgrace is before me,and shame has covered my face.” Or the one that Jesus quoted as he was dying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (22). I could go on and on with these kinds of cheery verses. Bad stuff happened to the people of God in the Bible, just as it is happening today.
In reading about the psalms, I read a comment that really got my attention, “Praise of God is sometimes an act of discipline.” It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be something that we only do when things are going our way and we are grateful to God for all the blessings in our life. We can’t just believe in a good God when things are going our way and when all is right in the world.
So what are we to do about the realities of the world we are living in? Are we supposed to just grin and bear it when our Jewish brothers and sisters are shot down while praising God, or when college student are killed taking line dancing classes like they were last week? Of course not. We don’t praise God because of what is happening. We praise God in spite of it. We praise God as a form of protest to what is going on around us. Praising God reminds us that we have a loving and caring God, a God who gives justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, sets the prisoners free, opens the eyes of the blind and cares for the stranger, the orphan and the widow. When our human leaders let us down (and they will, because they are humans—and some of them are very flawed humans), we cannot lose hope. Our hope is not based in the might of our nation nor the state of our economy. Our hope is not even based on how safe we can keep our citizens.
“Praise the Lord, O my soul!” What does that kind of praise mean? It means to praise the Lord from the depth of our being…to praise the Lord with the same breath that gives us life. Every time someone is killed, they are robbed of their breath, that breath that allows them to praise the Lord. We still have breath. We still have life. Praise the Lord, not because we are pleased with what is happening in our nation and our world, but in spite of it. Let your praise be your protest.
And I know how hard that is. Praising God is part of my job description and I still find it difficult in the midst of violence and hatred. There will be moments when we can’t praise God and instead we pray Psalm 13, “How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?” There have been many moments over the last several years when I have asked, “How long?” Yet let us not forget how Psalm 13 ends. “But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
Now is not the time to give up on God or Christian hope. Now is the time to declare to all who will listen who our God is. Our God is a God of love and compassion. Our God gives hope to the hopeless. Let our praise be our protest to the hate and agony that surrounds us. We may lament. We may cry and yell. But let praise be the final word.