Praising in the midst: February 28, 2021

February 25, 2021

 Year B, Lent 2                                                 Psalm 22: 22-30                                                         

            I remember in the first few months of the pandemic reading the predictions of the number of deaths. They were saying 100,000 to 200,000 people would die.  At the time, that was unfathomable. Yet now such predictions seem almost quaint and optimistic.  This week, we reached 500,000.  500,000 people have died from COVID in one year.  That is four times the population of Hampton.  And this isn’t over. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”     

            I am sure you recognize those words. That is the first verse of Psalm 22, the psalm that Jesus quoted from the cross as he died.  I imagine those words, or words like them have been expressed far too frequently over the last year.  “Why have you forsaken us?” We always read Psalm 22 on Good Friday—not the whole psalm, the first 21 verses. 

Our psalm appointed for today, the 2nd Sunday of Lent, is Psalm 22, verses 22 through 30.  It’s almost like a different psalm entirely.  The first 21 verses of Psalm 22 contains memorable verses like: “But as for me, I am a worm and no man” or “I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax.” It is a lament psalm at its best and most dramatic. I mean, it had to be powerful for Jesus to quote it from the cross. 

This portion of the psalm that is appointed for today is far different.  It would be classified as psalm of praise and thanksgiving.  The author is encouraging, all the world to praise God, even those not yet born!   It’s not uncommon for the author of a psalm to go through dramatic shifts in perspective.  It makes my 4 year old’s mercurial moods seem tame.  It’s one of things I have always appreciated about the psalms.  They aren’t tame or predictable.  They don’t fit nicely into a genre. They are wild and erratic, which is true of life.  It is certainly true of the last year. 

2020 was a rollercoaster of experiences and emotions—but it was one of those wooden
rollercoasters that you think might just fall apart at any moment.  The thrill isn’t in the ride itself, it’s in coming out alive.  Let’s set aside for a moment the fires, the hurricanes, the locusts, the divisive politics and racial tension and violence.  Let’s focus on COVID (which I know we have talked enough about, but stay with me).  One moment things are fine.  Then you learn you have been exposed to someone with COVID, then you start trying to figure out all the people you have potentially exposed, then you are planning your funeral and theirs, then you are getting a Q tip up your nose and 3 days later you get your test result and learn you are negative.  So many emotions over 5 days. And that is the best case scenario.  Those are the lucky ones. In my lifetime, the psalms have never felt as realistic and appropriate as they have in this year. 

While many of the psalms have dramatic twists and turns—Psalm 22 stands out.  What’s striking to me about this psalm is how we have artificially divided it.  While I have read it many times and preached on it a few times, the end always surprises me.  Just this week I read the appointed portion and thought, wait, that’s not Psalm 22.  Where did that come from?  Despite my delight in the dramatic shifts of the psalms, I have always ignored the 2ndpart of this one.  Why?  Because it’s the Good Friday Psalm.  It’s the psalm Jesus quotes as he chokes on his own blood.  It can’t end with praise and hope.  That comes on Easter….not Good Friday.

Yet that is the beauty and poignancy of the Christian faith. The suffering and triumph—the pain and relief—the agony and the joy– all exist on the same exquisite plain. And while that is poetic and transcendent, it’s not easy.  It’s so so hard.  It’s why Peter (in our Gospel reading) could not accept that Jesus had to suffer.  He’s the Messiah.  He’s not supposed to suffer and die.  He’s not supposed to carry the cross that he will then die on.  For those of us raised in the church, or even near the church, we forget how truly crazy the idea of a crucified Messiah is.  We know the end.  The crucifixion is just what we have to get through to get to Easter.

However, what this psalm reminds us is that neither our lives nor our faith are linear.  The moment we think we have suffered enough, the moment we think we have been through the rough patch and reached the other side, is the same moment when a fresh horror appears.  It is tempting in such times to assume that God has abandoned us.  It’s ok to feel that.  What this psalm teaches us is what it is to praise God in the midst of the suffering.  “Praise the Lord, you that fear him; stand in awe of him…and those who seek the Lord shall praise him.” 

There have been many times when I have envisioned the grand and spectacular worship service we will have when this is all over. There will be lilies and poinsettias, there will be music.  There will be praise and thanksgiving.  And God willing, that will happen. But we can’t wait for that moment to rejoice.  We cannot put our praise and worship on hold.  You might be thinking, yeah, but we can’t be together inside the church.    I get it.  It’s hard to praise God without the people and the sacred space.  It’s hard sitting in front of a computer.  It’s not impossible. 

People have praised God under much more difficult circumstances.  People have praised God in underground churches under the threat of persecution.  Enslaved people praised God even when their identity as children of God was denied.  We can do it.  We don’t do it because things are going swimmingly, we do it because we have a God who continues to love us.  We have a God who understands what it is to suffer and feel abandoned.  We have a God who created us and longs to redeem us.

And I have seen you all do it.  I have seen you show up outside on a freezing day to pray and receive ashes in a baggy.  I have seen some of you log on to facebook in the evening, the morning, anytime you can to participate in worship. I have seen you continue with zoom Bible study. I have seen you drop off food for the hungry. I have seen you come and pick up communion to deliver to your friends and family. We can do it. We are doing it.

We will find a way to do it on Palm Sunday and Easter, even if the weather doesn’t cooperate, even if we are not allowed to worship inside, we will find a way.  Because that is what we do as Christians. We praise God.  We worship God. We do it even when we don’t necessarily feel the words we are saying.  We might find that in saying the words or just hearing the words, that they inspire us to praise more, to find more ways to pray and worship—with action as well as words. We have found ways to do it and with your help, we will find more.