By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord
It is an interesting time… to write a lectionary reflection. I don’t know how everyone else feels but I got excited last spring. COVID-19 seemed to be coming under control as infection rates dropped and vaccination campaigns really kicked into high gear. For the first time in a year, it felt like we could plan more than a week into the future, as individuals, families, and the church. I am writing this reflection at the beginning of August for the middle of September. None but the LORD know what September 2021 will look like. So yeah, it’s a little strange writing this reflection and I imagine when September 6th rolls around and I actually sit down to write my sermon the ground will have shifted yet again.
In 2021, I have preached exclusively from the Psalms. Little did I know when I put together my Psalter lectionary for 2021 how appropriate the series would be. The past 19 months have been like one long exposed nerve. We joked in March 2020 that we would collectively get a lot of reading, hobby work, and exercise done during lock down. For a few glorious months we all had fresh baked sourdough, before turning downcast eyes to the tasks of surviving, interpreting CDC and Government guidelines, agonizing over whether we were being safe enough or too cautious, and mourning lost opportunities and broken relationships as friends and family came to deeply different conclusions than we did, all under the weight of conspiracy theories and partisan posturing. When the spring rolled around and it looked like we had turned a real corner, collectively we breathed a sigh of relief and started to plan our lives again.
And now, there’s something hovering in the air. Not an unease, not a fear, but a real lingering fatigue, like second-day soreness after a hard workout that you just can’t shake. That’s because for the vast majority of people, the pandemic year+ was not rest. It was not quiet. For families, it did not provide opportunity for solitude or contemplation. It was unsatisfying sameness, so familiar we forgot to try and even name it. But it was isolated, extended, slow-motion trauma.
The Psalms offer a simultaneous balm to the hurts of the past year and an outlet for the anxieties, fears, and anger that COVID culture has revealed. I would encourage you to incorporate them into your preaching more often.
Psalm 116 is especially poignant for the moment that we find ourselves in. The psalmist speaks of being encircled by cords of death and being beset by death and Sheol (v 3). For those who might be inclined to find the context of this danger and anguish, you will be disappointed at how tightlipped our poet is. The psalm doesn’t dive into the context or give many concrete clues as to the setting of the Psalm. The NRSV gives the psalm the heading “Thanksgiving for Recovery from Illness,” which it could be, “but in Psalm 18:5, a similar formulation refers to danger in battle.” Whatever the context of the Psalm, the psalmist seemed unconcerned with relaying the accident of their anguish and instead focused on God’s actions and promise. Which is fortunate for us because it allows us to fully enter into the world of the Psalm. Kathryn Roberts says that “in the Psalm and the Prophets, “death” and “Sheol” are often metaphorical, describing a state of being, such as the trauma of unwarranted persecution, the slings and arrows of an enemy, or the distress of body and mind.” After the last 19 months, I imagine that for each of us and our congregations death and hell exist in a liminal space between metaphor and reality, ready to appear transformed in some new and terrifying way.
In a New York Times piece, Allison Gilbert writes that researchers think that for each person who has died of COVID, there are at least 9 people left behind to grieve, and that number could be higher because it only includes immediate family so we could be looking at a number 10+ times greater. Another recent study finds that at least 37,000 children lost at least one parent. Any sermon on Psalm 116 (or that acknowledges the reality of the moment) would do well to reflect on the “cords of death” that have surrounded the world over these past 19 months.
Reality also gives way to the Gospel, a God who hears, listens, and rescues. Psalm 116 gives us the space to wrestle with where and how God has watched over the world. Helping our congregations to see God’s presence in our midst especially in times of uncertainty, wrestling with a tense faith, and practicing Hope could all become the central theme of a sermon centered around Psalm 116. The lection ends halfway through the Psalm with, “I walk before the Lord in the Land of the Living,” though going a few verses farther opens up questions of keeping the faith in the midst of distress.
Psalm 116 gives us a powerful opportunity to preach on the reality of the moment and the presence of God. One of my Contextual Education supervisors while I was working in a hospital setting said that our role in the hospital room was to “point to the God who is already there.” The Psalms give us the opportunity to enter into distress and point to a God who is already there… or to cry out trusting, through faith, that God is present, hears our cry, and has the power to rescue and resurrect.
My friend and Candler classmate, Rev. Mashaun Simon, wrote an excellent reflection on this week’s Gospel text when it last came across the RCL. If you would like to engage with the text from Mark, I would encourage you to read his reflection.
 Anne Helen Petersen. 2021. You’re Still Exhausted. Culture Study. https://annehelen.substack.com/p/youre-still-exhausted, (accessed August 4, 2021).
 Alter, Robert. The Hebrew Bible: The Writings. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019) 273.
 Toberts, Kathryn L. “Psalm 116.” In Psalms for Preach and Worship, edited by Roger E. Van Harn and Brent A Strawn, 299-302. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2009.
 Gilbert, Allison. 2021. The Grief Crisis Is Coming The New York Times. April 12. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/12/opinion/covid-death-grief.html