Psalm 107 is a liturgy of thanksgiving, a psalm likely offered at festivals and holy days in Jerusalem. The psalm can be broken into 5 sections: an introduction and thanksgiving, and four groups of people who represent the redeemed of the Lord. These groups of people have been redeemed from the hands of oppression by God and gathered together “from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.” These four groups of people represent God’s action and redeeming presence in all places throughout the world. The first group are wanderers in the desert, who arrive at their destination because of God, the second are prisoners who are set free, the third are the sick who have been healed, and from the lection today a group of sailors caught in a storm.
Each piece about these groups follows this pattern:
A description of the pain or distress
How God has delivered them
Thanksgiving to God
A repetition of two refrains
The refrain “They cried to the LORD in their trouble; and he brought them out from their distress” is repeated for each situation. A description of how God has redeemed them is given and then the refrain “Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love; for his wonderful works to humankind” is given.
This Psalm is centered on the faithfulness of God in hearing the cries of God’s people and responding. Scripture is filled with examples of God hearing and responding to God’s people. The people cry out to God and God acts, speaks, delivers. God’s presence and faithfulness to hearing God’s people never fails. This Psalm, in many ways, mirrors the prayers of the people. We lift up parts of our world, lives, communities to God and expect that God hears our hopes, joys, and worries.
We are never at a loss of chaos, oppression, sickness to share with our communities and with God. Perhaps this week a sermon takes on the style of the Psalm and the prayers of the people. Give voice to the people, places, experiences that need attention. Pray over these things, and then share ways in which we, as the people of God, are able to do God’s work in the world. We pray for the people of Palestine, and then we educate others on Israeli Settlements that have made Palestinians homeless. We pray for the hungry, and then we work with organizations to find sustainable ways to end hunger in our town. We cry out to God in our troubles, and on behalf of those who are in trouble, and then we listen and act in ways that God would to bring others out of distress. We give thanks to God for God’s love and is apparent in our communities and gatherings.
I’m cheating a little because the part of the Good Friday story I’m going to focus on here doesn’t even appear in this Gospel—but it does appear in the Psalm.
The fourth of Jesus’s seven last words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, featured in Mark and Matthew’s accounts of the crucifixion, comes from the first line of Psalm 22, this year’s psalm for Good Friday.
I love this line because, for me, it encapsulates the mystery of not just the crucifixion but of the incarnation: Jesus is God, imbued with divine salvific power; yet he also knows the painfully human experience of feeling utterly powerless and forsaken by the Divine. Serving as a pediatric chaplain attending parents facing their worst nightmares and now serving my parishioners in some of their worst moments, I find it deeply moving to meditate on the fact that Jesus is paradoxically with us, even—perhaps especially—when we feel most abandoned by our Maker.
Psalm 22 also, of course, serves as inspiration for a few other parts of the crucifixion narrative: the prophecy fulfilled in John 19:24 comes from Psalm 22:18, while Luke 23:37 (“If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!”) echoes the taunt found in verse 8: “‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let God deliver—let God rescue the one in whom God delights!’”
The psalm features classic elements of a psalm of lament, seesawing back and forth between complaint (vv.1-2; 6-8, 12-18) and expressions of trust (vv.3-5, 9-10), onto petition (vv. 19-21) and finishing with anticipatory thanksgiving (vv.22-25) and a call to praise (vv. 26-31).
It also contains striking imagery, including the only time in the Hebrew Bible that a human is called a worm (v. 6), a stunning image of God as the midwife who places the newborn on its mother’s chest (vv.9-10-11), a common trope comparing the psalmist’s enemies to wild animals (vv.12-13, 16, 20-21), and a description of the psalmist’s suffering so vivid (a heart like melted wax, a tongue dried up like a potsherd, vv. 14-15) that it calls to mind Job, the gold standard for bodily suffering.
Read on Good Friday, the depiction of physical devastation in this psalm points us to the reality that Jesus came to be with us on earth in part to draw closer to us not just through our joys, but through our embodied pain. His human experience is one way we know how much God loves us: that God-made-flesh chose to share our finite and fragile lot.
And what a lot it was. As the Gospel reading reminds us, in his last days on earth Jesus was betrayed and humiliated; sustained grievous physical wounds; and suffered the immense spiritual pain of being abandoned by God, forsaken in his utmost hour of need.
How many of us have felt similarly abandoned in the moment of receiving a diagnosis; in the midst of chronic illness; in the war zone that is a bitter divorce; in the depths of depression or addiction; in the bleak midnight of broken dreams; in the long, loss-filled marathon of a global pandemic?
Yet in that mysterious paradox, through his suffering and death Jesus is with us, even in the barren wasteland of our forsakenness. Through Jesus, somehow God is with us even when we are abandoned by God: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide God’s face from me but heard me when I cried to God.” (v. 24)
What might at first seem a stunning admission of faithlessness—whether by the psalmist or by our Savior—actually goes straight to the heart of our faith. On the lips of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” becomes a beautiful, despairing cry—a witness to the Gospel’s power to penetrate into even the most despair-filled corners of our existence.
May we bear witness, too—to Jesus’s pain, to our own, to the world’s pain; not flinching away from it but boldly facing it, insisting along with the psalmist that God meet us there—and ultimately trusting, along with the psalmist, that it will be so.
“Just as we taste food with our mouths, we taste the psalms with our hearts”
-Bernard of Clairvaux.
Psalm 51 is a powerful cry. Lyrically it conjures a deep pit from which David and other sinners find themselves trapped and unable to rise. Theologically, Psalm 51 is an ocean which may be plumbed for an eternity as the reader jumps from questions of original sin, to personal sin, sacrifice, remorse, justice, purity, punishment, and grace. My Church and I are spending the entire year of 2021 praying and worshiping with the Psalms at center stage and the presence of Psalm 51 on this Ash Wednesday is an excellent example of why we should do so more often. I think that scripture outside of the Psalms often provides a kind of built-in shield for us intellectually and emotionally. We are able to read of Adam and Eve in the garden, Elijah burning the altar before the prophets of Baal, Paul preaching in Ephesus, Jesus on the Road to Emmaus and, no matter how convicting the preacher might be, convince ourselves that these are fundamentally stories about someone else. It could be that they are stories that inform our own lives or that we can imagine ourselves as characters in, but we are able to keep a certain distance from Peter, Mary and the rest of our scriptural characters.
The Psalms offer very little of that cover. While Psalm 51 provides a superscription attributing it to David after Nathan came to him, after David had come to Bathsheba, that’s it. When we read Psalm 51, as individuals or as a congregation, it is our lips that say: “I know my transgressions, my sins are ever before me” (v. 3, NRSV). Perhaps that is why, in worship, we assign the Psalms so often to a supporting role, as chant or responsive reading, to shift the weight of the burden, dull down the emotion with congregational monotone, or to polish it up with music. Brent Strawn writes, “Perhaps the intense honesty of these poems, which can run as close to blasphemy as one can imagine within the context of prayer, is what lead many Christians to distance themselves from the Psalms, respecting them only in a sterilized and sanitized sort of way.”
If any day in the Christian calendar is a day for intense honesty, it is Ash Wednesday. The words of the Psalmist rightfully belong on our lips; truly have we sinned and transgressed. We have sinned and God is justified in dropping a divine hammer upon us. Repent and believe in the gospel.
I would like to offer two main themes that, when coupled with the reality and emotional weight of [your, our, my] sin, could form the core of an Ash Wednesday sermon or homily.
You alone have I offended. Even in light of verse four of this psalm, there is no such thing as a victimless crime. If David did compose this psalm as a response to his rape of Bathsheba and murder of her husband Uriah, he most certainly sinned against someone other than God. Setting that reality aside, in the Old Testament there is no sin that is only against God. “Even Idolatry, which might be thought to concern only one’s relation to the LORD, was understood to damage one’s community severely. The Old Testament knows of hidden sins and unintended sins but not of private sins that neither concern nor affect others.”
You could point to Matthew 25 as a positive example of this principle. What we do to each other, to our neighbor, to the least of these, we do to Christ. So any sin against our neighbor, the stranger, our siblings in Christ, is a sin against God. David caused harm to Bathsheba and Uriah, and as such David raped and murdered Christ. So too are our dealings with each other. When we buy products made with slave labor or that were sorted/packaged/shipped by underpaid and over worked warehouse employees, we force our Savior into poverty and slavery. When we hate our political adversary, we hate and despise the image of Christ in them from their births.
In transgression I was conceived or as the NRSV says “I was born guilty.” Related to the point above, I don’t think we should take this point to be an opening to preach about Augustine’s understanding of the Doctrine of Original Sin. Last year, my family welcomed our second baby, and I was once again struck that although we joke about our babies being “little sinners,” they have a purity that comes from being untouched by sins of action or inaction.
The preacher could take this opportunity to talk about the universality of sin. Before we were born, sin was present in the world, we made our appearance into a world mired in sin. My sons were born into a family of immense privilege. They will want for nothing. Both of their parents have master’s degrees and professional jobs. Our family has retirement and health benefits. The color of their skin at the very least provides them with the benefit of the doubt as they move throughout the world. Their sex means the world will always see them as capable and never ask for them to justify their presence. None of this is their fault or inherently sinful for them; however, it is a part of our larger communal sin. All of these privileges are baked into a system that grants privileges to some and denies them to others. If you are called to preach on communal sin, allow this to be your invitation.
In the sermon outline above the opening and core of a sermon on Psalm 51 can revolve around the reality and ever-present power of sin. The preacher could name those individual sins and tie them into sins against God that grate the bonds of community or name those sins that are built into the very structure of our world, but please don’t stop there.
The Psalm begins where the sermon should end. Grant Me Grace, God, as befits Your kindness. The Psalmist begins their confession with the full knowledge of God’s goodness and grace. The church is a place that confesses and proclaims God’s healing and help, to those who earnestly repent of their sins. We confess our sin and acknowledge the severity of our sin not so that we might wallow in guilt, but so we might orient our lives to God’s grace. Lent is a time of repentance and preparation for the offering of Christ crucified; a gift which was made possible by the Grace and Love of God in the first place.
Sinners though we may be, all is not lost. In fact, the one who could render judgement and destroy it all has opened the door for us to declare our praise and live our lives in union with Christ’s offering to us.
 Brent Strawn, Psalms for Preaching and Worship (Grand Rapids, MIchigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 5.
 Bolded translations are taken from Robert Alter, “Psalm 51” in The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary (NY: Norton & Company, Inc.), 132-133.
 James L. Mayes, Psalms (Lousiville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press), 200.
In the introduction of Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, he writes this: “To live as a human being means that we use tools” (2). Prayer is a tool, however, “prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.” When I approach the Psalms, I am reminded of this — they offer a tool for becoming closer to God, for being fully human.
When I read the Psalms, I also find myself stepping back in time, while in the same moment, being fully present today. The emotions they felt then are emotions I feel today. The distress they experienced then are experienced here and now. The uncertainty, the celebration, the anger, the joy — it unites us across centuries. The Psalms remind me that my feelings and experiences are valid and welcome when I turn to God in prayer.
Each psalm offers me a reminder of my humanity and it turns out I need a lot of reminders!
I think we all need reminders, which is why the Christian calendar and worship liturgy are important parts of our faith. Yearly, monthly, weekly — we need reminders. We know what’s going to happen every Advent season; there’s no surprise or shock when we hear the story year after year. And yet, we keep showing up to hear that story, to relive the moments, to be reminded of what we already know.
Psalm 111 reminds me of what I already know — that God’s deeds are majestic, that the LORD is gracious and compassionate, that God’s actions are faithful and just.
Psalm 111 also reminds me of how I can respond to these things I already know about God — to praise God with all of my heart, to name the good deeds God has put forth in my life, to acknowledge this presence in the world.
Additionally, Psalm 111 reminds me how to pray — one of the many prayer outlines found in the book of Psalms. This one goes like this:
A Promise to Give Thanks
Praising God for God’s Deeds
Naming God’s Deeds
Beginning to Understand God’s Ways
More reminders on how to be in relationship with God. More tools to help me be and become.
“I will extol the LORD will all my heart…” I’m grateful for the reminder to commit to thanking God. My personality type is responsible, so if I’ve promised to do something or made a commitment, it’s highly likely that I’ll follow through. Being reminded to commit myself to thanking God regularly for my breath, the sunset, or a good plate of food is so helpful. Before going any further into the words of praise, the psalmist recommits to thanking God. A reminder we could all use, I suspect.
“God has caused God’s wonders to be remembered…” I’m grateful for the reminder to praise God for all that God does for us. And, not just us humans, but for all of creation. Before even naming what God has done, the psalmist praises God for who God is. What a great reminder to be aware of God’s nature before focusing on God’s actions. Because of God’s character, God is worthy to be praised.
“God provided redemption for God’s people; God ordained God’s covenant forever…” I’m grateful for the reminder of what God has done for us. Because of God’s characteristics like graciousness and compassion, we can see God’s deeds from the beginning of time until now. God has proven to be trustworthy and just. We recall not just God’s nature, but how we see God’s nature carried out in our lives.
“All who follow God’s precepts have good understanding…” The last few lines of this psalm remind me that much is up to interpretation! I suspect that one person’s understanding of God’s precepts might vary from the next. However, the psalm ends with one final phrase we can agree on: to God belongs eternal praise.
The Psalms are a tool we can use to help us remember. When we forget how to pray, use the Psalms. When we feel alone, turn to the Psalms. When we struggle to worship, open up the Psalms. When we are unclear about our relationship with God, let the Psalms speak for you.
I don’t know about you, but I need a lot of reminders. I’m grateful the Psalms offer me page after page of reminders about God’s compassion no matter what I’m going through in life.
After fourteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — 12 year old husky and 2 year old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. You can find more of Anne’s musings on running, quilting, infertility, and writing at www.annebrock.com or on Instagram.
Maybe it’s just me, but when I first saw the pairing of readings from Leviticus and the Psalms, my first thought was that the organizers of the lectionary were worn out by the time they got to Proper 25 and they just stuck a couple of random texts together and trusted preachers to figure it out. Or to ignore it all together, which is what most preachers do with Leviticus anyway. To be fair, the alternative first Old Testament reading follows the complementary historical tradition of thematically pairing the Old Testament with the Gospel, so it isn’t really about the parallels between Leviticus and the Psalm, but still – they are paired readings. What is going on here?
As I have already alluded, Leviticus is challenging to preach from, for as theologian Samuel Balentine put it, “How does one “explain” and “apply” a book that devotes seven chapters to the bewildering, if not seemingly bizarre, requirements of ancient Israel’s sacrificial system and five chapters to details of ritual impurity, including such indelicate matters as menstrual blood and semen?” It also can be described as dry in some parts. The Psalms are not always a cake walk to preach from either, especially for those who have a more a-theist theological perspective given its underlying assumption that life comes from the Creator, who also sets forth a moral order.
But as we look down from the metaphorical balcony at the arc of the biblical narrative, we can identify shared themes from the book of Leviticus and the Psalms, specifically the passages chosen as this Sunday’s lectionary suggestions.
Both center on what God expects of the righteous, what a faithful life looks like, and how to avoid the fate of the wicked. Psalm 1 offers a formula for a blessed life—a comforting thought for both ancient and modern communities. It also offers an explanation for why the wicked do not prosper, which serves as a warning useful to both ancient and modern communities who consider it Scripture. Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 also lays out what God expects of the righteous and what faithful living looks like, only using more “on the ground” specifics than the metaphor-rich Psalm.
The message of these texts might speak to a modern community that also considers it scripture in some of the same ways it spoke to the ancient community that passed it on. First, it offers an alternative framework for living, which is to focus on God and righteousness. It is timeless advice, but seems particularly important to modern readers, specifically American Christians, who relish independence and self-direction. Instead, Psalm 1, “bears witness to the belief that the road of our own choosing leads only to our own destruction.” The Leviticus text continually reminds the reader of their connectedness to others. Will the reader reject cultural norms of being “self-made” and instead root one’s life in study of the “law of the Lord” and flourishing of community? Like the ancient Israelites seeking identity apart from the surrounding culture, the texts provide a guide for those who live in a culture with values that might not align with those found in scripture.
This may be one of the most helpful ways to think about the lectionary texts this week – to help us consider and then enact an alternative framework for living as people who know that things are not as they should be, and who want to bring the world closer to God’s vision of justice and peace individually and communally. The history and context of ancient Israel played an important role in shaping the Book of Psalms into its current form and help to explain the role of Psalm 1. Postexilic Israel, working to find identity outside of a nation-state with a king of the Davidic line, “looked to their traditional and cultic literature for answers to the existential questions, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What are we to do?’ and then shaped the literature into a document that provided answers to the questions.” It has provided comfort and challenge for people of faith ever since. This holds true, too, for Leviticus. We can imagine that the instructions included in chapter 19 are, in part, a response to the status quo injustice of the day, that the poor were ignored while “the great” given deference, and vengeance was regularly enacted instead of loving neighbor as one would love one’s self.
Preachers and congregations might find it helpful to put the readings in the context of something familiar, but outside of the canon: The Road Not Taken, in which Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in the wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.” Ultimately, the lectionary passages present our living as an intentional choice, particular actions taken in opposition to other options that should reflect faithfully on God and God’s beloved community.
 Balentine, Samuel E. Leviticus: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 64.
Declaisse-Walford, Nancy, Rolf A. Jacobson, and Beth Laneel Tanner, eds. The Book of Psalms: The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014), p 28–29.
The Rev. Dr. Lori Walke, J.D., is the associate minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC, a graduate of Oklahoma City University School of Law, Phillips Theological Seminary, Oklahoma State University, and recently completed her Doctor of Ministry at Emory University. Raised by faithful Baptists, she found in a home in the United Church of Christ, where she is part of the Next Generation Leadership Initiative, a program focused on energizing and sustaining younger, emerging UCC local church pastors. She is married to Collin Walke, an attorney and State Representative for House District 87, and together the “Rev & the Rep” try to make as much trouble in the name of Jesus and justice as they can.
In the Old Testament readings for this week’s lectionary, we are reminded of God’s holiness. Psalm 99 ends in verse 9 with, “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain, for the Lord our God is holy” (NIV). This “holy mountain” recalls the image of Moses standing on the rock as the glory of God passes by from the Exodus reading. The glory of God passes by, but Moses is warned that if he sees God’s face he will not live. God’s presence is always with us, just as it is with Moses.
For those preaching the lectionary this week, it may be difficult for us to convince both our congregations and ourselves that God’s presence is with us due to the division and conflict we find ourselves encountering in the world today. In fact, in the Gospel text, Jesus himself may have found himself struggling to experience God’s presence and glory.
In the scripture reading from Matthew’s gospel, we are told that the Pharisees “went out and laid plans to trap [Jesus] in his words” (Matthew 22:15 NIV). While we must be careful not to allow the anti-Pharisaic rhetoric to become anti-Semitism, we each probably have been in similar situations in which those against us attempt or even succeed in trapping us in a conversation. It seems to be the way politics are being played in our country today.
But Jesus knows of the evil plan, and has an answer to the question about paying the imperial tax (a special tax levied on subject peoples, but not on Roman citizens). Jesus’ answer is to focus on the image of the coin. Verse 20 has Jesus asking, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” (NIV). When the crowd replies with “Caesar’s” Jesus shares the often-quoted passage: “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21 NIV).
The question Jesus poses is an interesting one the preacher for this week may wish to expand upon. “Whose image is this?” In the 1st letter to the Thessalonians, it is mentioned that the Thessalonians “became imitators of [Paul, Silas and Timothy] and of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The notion of imitating Christ is important to Paul’s theology. In many ways, the image the world should see when they look at the church and the Christian is Christ.
“Whose image is this?” If we are sincere in our desire to be disciples of Jesus Christ, the answer when we look in the mirror or when others look at us should be Jesus Christ. It may be interesting for the preacher to play with this notion about imitating the image of Christ. Of course, do not miss the fact that we are each made in the very image of God. This, of course connects us all to the glory of God as witnessed by Moses on the rock.
We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, meaning the coin on which Caesar’s image and inscription is carved. But we also give to God what is God’s: in this particular analogy, I would assume that to mean our very lives. God’s image and inscription is carved on our very souls and in our very breath since we are created with the very breath of God. Do not miss that Christ calls us to give up our very lives and follow his example of the cross (Matthew 16:24). Thus, our very lives belong to God and we are called to give them to God.
The Rev. David Clifford is the senior minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children. He enjoys riding his bicycle, reading, coaching a local archery team, and learning about the history of such a wonderful town.
At the date of this writing eleven weeks has passed since I have celebrated Holy Eucharist. Eleven weeks has passed since the congregation I serve have participated in any formal sacrament. Like the lamenting Magdalene who cried out twice, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” we call out to the authorities of the church as well as to God in our disorientation (Jn 20:2, 13). By now disorientation has slowly turned to disillusionment with the bishops of the church continuing to preach steadfastness while the resurrected Lord remains to reveal the world his wounds. St. Paul promises that our sufferings (disorientation & disillusionment?) grounded in a life of Christ “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 3b-4). The bishops are right in preaching steadfastness in the faith because it allows us the audacity to hope. But hope for what? Hope to regather and celebrate Communion? Yes. But that’s not all. If indeed, the resurrected Lord continues to reveal his wounds to the world, and our faith calls us to participate in Christ’s sufferings, then the sacramental life (right now) is revealed to us in our own brokenness. Like the Magdalene, we cry out, and God answers us by calling our name (Jn 20:16). Once Mary’s name was heard she “went and announced…“I have seen the Lord”” (Jn 20:18). Once we name our own laments, God calls us each by name to wake us up to the reality of resurrection still found in his wounds intimately joined to our own. This is the Body of Christ broken for you, and at once we are forgiven and free to proclaim hope within the sufferings of the world.
What does steadfastness tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like washing one’s hands (Ps 26:6a). Only when we (as the priesthood of all believers) wash our hands in innocence may we go in procession round the Lord’s altar (Ps 26:6). When we wash our hands we are at once acknowledging our past as well as preparing for the future. We do the hard work of self-examination (confession, forgiveness, discernment) in order to go around the altar of the world in a spirit of hope, praise, mercy, justice, and compassion.
What does a revealing of Christ’s wounds to the world tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like a house built upon a foundation of Love (Ps 26:8). In this house the “wonderful deeds” of God are the topics of conversation (Ps 26:7). We vulnerably admit that our hands have been dirty, and like Christ are invited to show the world their redeemed wounds. At once, the world sees its own past as well as a hopeful future where God, table, and house become the place “where [God’s] glory abides” (Ps 26:8).
Over the past several months, kitchen tables have replaced altars, and houses have become little churches. The sacraments have been administered, only this time in the form of kindness, patience, compassion, justice, and mercy. These are not easy times, but they are hopeful times. Like Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord,” in new and exciting ways. He is [still] Risen. He is Risen, indeed! Come, let us adore Him in our own brokenness alongside a broken and redeemed world.
The Rev. Brandon Duke serves St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, Georgia. Through the pandemic he has used technology to pray and teach Morning & Evening Prayer to his congregation. They have been praying together online twice every day since April. Brandon blogs at https://fatherbrandon.com/.
I’m glad I’m not the only one asking the question “How long, LORD?” It’s a daily question for me, one that remains unanswered.
How long, LORD, until I can hug my family and friends again?
How long, LORD, until income is secure for all people?
How long, LORD, until we can trust those making decisions on our behalf?
How long, LORD, until health care is available to all?
How long, LORD?
David laments as I lament:
How long, LORD? Will you forget me
How long will you hide your face
How long must I wrestle with my
and day after day have sorrow in
How long will my enemy triumph
I don’t need to write pages and pages in my own journal, I can just let David do the writing for me! Is it comforting to know that humanity has faced this kind of discomfort from the beginning of time or is it depressing to know this is how it will always be? Yes.
I think we’ve all had a moment of lament like this (or several) over the last few months: God, where are you? Have you forgotten us? Have you given up on humanity? We need you — where are you??
And if that weren’t enough, we’re home day after day wrestling with our never-ending thoughts: When is it safe to go to the grocery? Why do we have to wear masks? Yes, I’ll wear a mask, but I won’t like it. How many more meals must I cook myself? I miss my friends.
And still more is piled on as I scroll through social media and see hatred continue to spread: Why are they behaving like this? When will truth be a given? Who is my enemy right now? I’m so confused. Who is the right person to listen to?
There’s a reason this psalm, along with all the other laments, are included in the Bible. They are valid. They are real. They are us. I have permission to voice all of my feelings, not just the ones that make others feel good. God gives us space to cry and be angry and moan and groan. Our feelings are valid. We can bring our whole selves before God without worry of rejection.
I appreciate that David laments and that he doesn’t end there. He allows himself the space for despair and desolation, but he keeps going through it to a place of consolation. He doesn’t let the lament have the last word. However, just before he turns to praise, he states his complaints and his worries. He acknowledges his fear and anxiety around failure. He puts it all out there, and then…
David ends with praise. Will I end my litany of fears, anxieties, and lament with praise too?
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Every night as I lay my head on the pillow, I name at least three things from the day for which I give thanks. This daily practice has saved me for over three years now. There are some nights when I have to “stretch” to find something I’m grateful for (i.e. this pillow), but for the most part I can name way more than three. I’m glad to know David had a practice of gratitude as well.
Now, we don’t know how long it took David to write this psalm. We don’t know how long it was ruminating in his mind before he spoke it out loud. He may have been in that space of despair for quite some time before he moved into praise. Reading it in the Bible makes it look like everything happened at once… but we don’t know.
I know for myself that it might take days, weeks, months, even years, before I can find the heart space to praise God in the midst of a hard time. Praise doesn’t naturally come out of my mouth when I’m hurt and scared and uncertain. I have to be intentional about it, which is why I make myself practice gratitude every night, whether I feel like it or not.
If you’re not in the place of praise today, that’s okay. I’m not sure David was right away either. Whether you’re asking How long, LORD or singing God’s praise, it’s all held by God.
After thirteen years of youth ministry in the United Methodist Church, Anne Moman Brock is now in another form of ministry with Lake Institute on Faith & Giving, part of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. She is a graduate of Christian Theological Seminary. Anne lives with her husband and two dogs — an 11-year-old husky and a 1-year-old chocolate lab — in Indianapolis, Indiana. She writes about her experience with infertility at www.annebrock.com and on Instagram @livinginthemidst.
In his introduction to Genesis, Theodore Hiebert shares that the writer’s goal “was to make sense of the world [the Hebrews] knew by explaining how it came into being. They came to terms with who they were as a people by explaining their own origins in that world.” (The CEB Study Bible, 1 OT) Thus, Genesis 1:1-2:4a begins the Torah with a story detailing a very harmonious and beautifully-structured creation, not unlike the structure of Israel’s religious life, with a goal of articulating the climax of creation: the Sabbath (2:1-3). If a Hebrew child were to ask a question about the Sabbath, a teacher might have pointed to this very story and said, “It is at the foundation of who we are and who God is.”
Origin stories are important to us. Any K-12 education in the US comes with a history of how we became who we are with imagery of revolution, slavery, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. Popular culture is filled with origin stories. How many times has modern America witnessed Peter Parker bitten by a radioactive spider? (I honestly don’t think we can take another one!) Sometimes, when an adopted child grows older, they have questions about their parentage, leading to a search for answers.
In all of these things, one idea comes to the surface: knowing more about the beginning may shed light on the present. And in that manner, Genesis 1:1-2:4a sheds light on the very beginning of the Sabbath, the imago Dei, and the responsibility and stewardship of humanity over creation, ideas that have ever-present meaning for the modern reader.
The Psalmist demonstrates the concern with origins in the first praise psalm, which is a celebration of God the creator. The psalm carries with it the origin-centric understanding of the imago Dei when it declares, “You’ve made [human beings] only slightly less than divine, crowning them with glory and grandeur. You’ve let them rule over your handiwork, putting everything under their feet” (8:5-6, CEB). It seems that the very beginning of humanity and scripture still plays an important role in Israel’s present at the time of Psalm 8, and in the Christian lectionary today. From the start, humanity has been created in the image of God, to partner with God in bringing order to the chaos of the world and to care for creation and creature alike in harmony.
The origin of the Jewish people plays a role in 2 Corinthians when Paul writes to the community, “Put things in order, respond to my encouragement, be in harmony with each other, and live in peace.” (13:11, CEB) Why is this the call upon the life of the early Christian? It most certainly has some root in the creation story above. The harmony-bringing of God is still the call of humanity. The 2 Corinthians’ charge also has its beginnings in another origin story of sorts.
In Matthew 28:19-20, the resurrected Jesus gives a mandate to his disciples that is the origin of most church vision statements and the historical evangelism (good and bad) of the global church: “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you.” (CEB) This disciple-making — rooted in obeying Jesus’ commands — is rooted in his summary of the law: love God and love neighbor. But the origin of this understanding comes from the Torah, from Genesis, and from creation, when from the natural outpouring of God (who IS love) came creation, humanity made in God’s image, the structure of religious life, and the task to bring harmony and care to creation and to one another. And all of that has great implications for who we are today. Our origins matter. And this is our ultimate origin story. So how will the knowledge of our beginning influence how you live right now?
Andrew has been in ministry since 2008 and currently serves as the Associate Pastor of Northbrook United Methodist Church in Roswell, Georgia. Andrew has degrees in Religious Studies and Telecommunications from the University of Georgia, and an M.Div. from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Andrew loves listening to records, watching Seinfeld, and beignets from Roux on Canton.
A key theme throughout this week’s lectionary is the identification of Jesus as the Good Shepherd – the one who cares for his sheep. This image of the shepherd as a symbol of leadership has deep roots throughout the scriptures. God is depicted as Israel’s shepherd throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, as in our Psalm reading for this week. David is celebrated as the ideal shepherd king in 1 Samuel. Many of the greatest leaders of God’s people learn much from their role as shepherd. In fact, the notion of shepherd-leader is also a familiar metaphor in Greco-Roman literature.
Ted Waller reminds us of both the familiarity and importance of the shepherd for Ancient Middle Easterners:
The family often depended upon sheep for survival. A large part of their diet was milk and cheese. Occasionally, they ate the meat. Their clothing and tents were made of wool and skins. Their social position often depended upon the well-being of the flock, just as we depend upon jobs and businesses, cars and houses. Family honor might depend upon defending the flock.
As we are reminded in our Psalm reading, the shepherd protects the flock and is with the flock even as we walk through the darkest of valleys. We have nothing to fear, because we know that our shepherd is watching over us. We know that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is caring for us. At the core of the shepherd image is the relational bond the flock of sheep share with the shepherd. We see this relationship throughout the various scriptures for our week.
The text from Acts reminds us that as the early church is being taught by the apostles and cared for by the apostles – a relationship in and of itself in which the apostles become the shepherd – Jesus continues to be with them. We are told in Acts 2:47 that “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (NRSV) The beauty of the Easter season in that the Resurrected Christ continues to show up in our lives in unexpected ways. In Psalm 23, the Shepherd constantly watches over us.
I am reminded of a key moment in my own learning that the shepherd role is highly relational. A few years back, I read a spiritual leadership book by Dr. Lynn Anderson. The title of this book was a key learning for me, as a pastor, about what it truly meant to be a shepherd: They Smell Like Sheep. In this book, Dr. Anderson makes a very obvious statement that is sometimes missed when we read of ancient shepherds in the scriptures: “A shepherd smells like sheep.” By this Dr. Anderson means that the shepherd is deeply relational to the flock of sheep. “A shepherd is someone who lives with sheep. A shepherd knows each sheep by name; he nurtures the young, bandages the wounded, cares for the weak, and protects them all.”
In the 1 Peter scripture, we are reminded that the shepherd guards our souls. The protection of the flock moves us to a key learning from our Gospel reading. In verse 7 of the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is “the gate for the sheep.” This gate points to a key way that Jesus protects the flock. Dr. Anderson describes the protection of the sheep by the “gate” of the shepherd:
When the day’s grazing was done and night was approaching, the shepherd would gather the sheep together and lead them into a protective fold. Some were crude, makeshift circles of brush, stick, and rocks, forming barricades four or five fee high—safe little fortresses in the wilderness. Others were limestone caves in the hillsides. Even today, in Palestine, one can see roughly constructed, temporary sheepfolds dotting the pastoral landscape. But each circle is incomplete, broken at one place to form an opening into the fold. Beside this portal the shepherd would take his place as he gathered his flock into the fold for the night, at times physically becoming the “gate.”
This notion of Jesus as the Good Shepherd is a wonderful reminder for our lives and our communities right now. As I type these words, many churches and communities are attempting to figure out what the ever-extending social distancing in response to COVID-19 means for them. Many have lost jobs and many are isolated in their homes. This is nothing compared to the many who have lost jobs; and even still the man who are sick and have died; the various people we know that are losing loved ones and are worried about loved ones. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus knows us and knows our pain, anxiety, and fear personally. The resurrected Christ is here with us. In this image of the Good Shepherd we are reminded that Jesus is protecting us. He is the gate that keeps us safe from thieves and bandits – from plagues and death.
Finally, there is a beautiful connection to this notion of Good Shepherd in the Book of Revelation. Revelation 3:8 says, “I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut” (NRSV). In John Ortberg’s study, When Compassion Meets Action, he interprets Jesus as the open door. Ortberg notes that the Greek word for “door” in Revelation 3:8 (thyra) is the same word for “gate” in John 10:7. It is in this revelation (pardon the pun), that we find the beauty of Christ as Shepherd. Not only does the Good Shepherd relate to us and protect us; but the Good Shepherd leaves the gate open for each of us to walk through. In a time of chaos, fear, anxiety, and even death – Christ invites each of us to walk through the gate of His resurrection and protection. What a joy it truly is!
 Donald Senior, “Exegetical” commentary of John 10:1-10 found in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2 (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 443.
 Ted H. Waller, With the Sleep in the Wilderness: Shepherding God’s Flock in the Word (Nashville: Twentieth Century Publishers, 1991), 9-10.
 Dr. Lynn Anderson, They Smell Like Sheep (Howard Publishing Co., 1997), 4
 John Ortberg and Santiago “Jimmy” Mellado, When Compassion Meets Action Participants Guide: Stepping through God’s Open Door (Compassion International Inc. 2017), session 1
The Rev. David Clifford is the transitional minister of First Christian Church in Henderson, Kentucky. David will become the senior minister of FCC Henderson in May as Dr. Chuck Summers retires. A graduate of Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana, David is ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He lives in Henderson with his wife and three children, rides his bicycle, enjoys reading, coaches a local archery team, and enjoys learning about the history of such a wonderful town.