This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Reversal.


Psalm 116:1-9

I.
            The essence of biblical faith is the truth of reversal.  God comes into the world, into our lives, for the purpose of changing us.  By God’s power we grow and emerge into new people, the opposite of the people we were.
            This reversal is expressed on every level of life, from the cosmic restoration and fulfillment of all creation, to the geopolitical liberation of the oppressed, right down to the personal.  And that’s what this Psalm addresses.  It celebrates the movement of a person from despair to hope, from disease to healing, from brokenness to wholeness, indeed, even from death to life.
            Sometimes I hear it cynically stated that “people don’t change.”  Almost never does anyone say this like it’s a good thing.  Usually it is a commentary on how people are mired in sinfulness, violence, anger, fear, and shame.  When we claim that people don’t change we are giving up hope.  We are justifying our own hiding or violence against others.  It is the sentiment that people don’t change that has conveniently rationalized much murder and incarceration over the millennia of human civilizations.  It is an expression of despair, nihilism, hopelessness, and surrender.
            In the first place, it is often aimed at someone else.  That person can’t change, therefore we have to take whatever measures we can to protect ourselves from them.  We control, restrict, medicate, prohibit, watch, or finally even kill those whom we decide can’t change.  And by changing we often mean changing to suit us.  This can be as serious as when science tells us that pedophiles are unable to change, leaving society few options to deal with them and protect children.  Or it can even be about children, to whom we are so ready to administer drugs if they don’t act like we think they should act.  If people can’t change, then we will have to change them.    
            But far worse, I think, is this statement when we say it about ourselves.  Because to admit that we can’t change is to finally consign ourselves to the despair and extinction of hell.              I don’t know about you, but the possibility that I can and will change is what keeps me going every day!  If I ever finally conclude that the way I am is the way I will always be, at least in terms of my own sinfulness and brokenness, then there would be little point to living. 
            People do change.  I have witnessed too many people changing to deny this.  How many of the saints of the church started out as miserable, violent, shallow, corrupted souls?  Somehow they were changed into agents of blessing and liberation, examples of God’s power in the world to overturn who we are.  I have immense respect and admiration for people who have been through twelve-step programs; they never get over their disease, but in their behavior and relationships and thinking they are changed people.

II.
            The truth that people do change, that humans are brought from death to life, and from evil to goodness, is the finest proof that God is real.  This is the movement of all of life: God is drawing out of the inanimate material of the universe the miracle of life and growth.  We see that all over nature, and also in our own souls and bodies.  The gravitational pull of fear, hatred, shame, and anger is very strong; it wants to crush us and reduce us to mere chemical/material beings.  But it is not as strong as God’s power to lift up, save, renew, and redeem. 
            This Psalm recounts the process of change in a person’s heart.  “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish.”  The picture I get is of ropes or tentacles sprouting out of the ground to grab and person and pull them down, like in some horror movie.  And if you have any experience of depression or despair at all, this is kind of what it feels like.  Your thoughts and feelings are overwhelmed by a dense and inescapable negativity.  Your personal narrative in your mind falls into a dark rut of “Nobody loves me,” “this will never work,” “I never get what I want,” and “I will never change.”
            I am sure this narrative is different for each one of us.  But once you get into it, it is very hard to pull out of it.  For some perverse reason, we have learned to find a sour comfort, wallowing in our own psychological excrement like this.  We justify and rationalize our sin.  We defend our addictions.  We use violence heartlessly.  Maybe we hide, maybe we use hurtful words on others.  Maybe we take it out on the dog, or we blame some of our neighbors.  It has to be someone’s fault that my life isn’t perfect!
            My mother, society, the poor, the rich, my boss, those other people (insert name of scapegoat)… maybe it’s God’s fault!  Maybe God isn’t doing his job of keeping me happy and satisfied.
            The buck always stops with God.  All our frustrations and dissatisfactions with the world, even our pain, grief, and weakness… it is easy to conclude – even for those of us who have been conditioned to fear such a conclusion – that this is all God’s fault.  I know people who have harbored grudges against God their whole life.
            These are at least the honest ones.  The rest of us just don’t admit it.  But our bitter complaining is often just an expression of a lack of trust in God.  I say this not to place the blame for the horrors we face on ourselves.  But I am just suggesting that faithfulness and trust in God would change us, and better equip us to face these things.

III.
            The turning point in this Psalm is when the person calls on the name of the Lord, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!”  Now, that is not a magic incantation by which, when you mouth the words, God immediately appears like a genie and gives you three wishes.  It’s not like that insurance company commercial where merely reciting their jingle instantly transports you out of danger into the relative safety of their office.
            The words, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” are not merely spoken.  They have to become a description of your whole life.  “I will call on [God] as long as I live,” says the Psalm.  Calling on God is a lifetime-long project. 
            The story is that Martin Luther felt himself to be continually attacked by the devil, and he made a mantra out of the words, from Psalm 119, “Lord, I am yours; save me!”  He didn’t pray those words once and consider himself done, with the ball now in God’s court.  He repeated them.  Over and over.  Day after day.  Until those words came to color his whole approach to life. 
            And the thing about words like that, is that only after you pray them so much that they become second nature to you do you realize that they are true.  God does save you.  God has been saving you all along.  God will continue to save you.  Saving is what God does.  It is who God is.  It is in fact the meaning and trajectory of the whole universe.  It is all about change, reversal, redemption, and salvation.
            When we say, “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” or, “Lord, I am yours, save me!” or “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me!” or such words, we are first of all admitting that our problems are beyond our fixing.  In fact, this encompasses the first three of the 12 steps: we are powerless over whatever is possessing us, and our life has become unmanageable.  There is a God who can help us.  And we turn our lives over to that God.  That’s what “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” means.
            And it drives us to the rest of the steps of healing and transformation: the fearless moral inventory, the making amends, and the spreading of the word.  My point in making this connection is to say that healing does have to do with words, but not words alone.  The words have to bear fruit in actions, in the quality of our relationships, in how we live in the world. 
            This is why the last part of our reading talks about “I walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”  Healing is not just in your head, it’s not just mind over matter, it’s not about your opinions alone.  It’s not even just about your words.  It is reflected and expressed in how you “walk.”  Walk in the Bible is a metaphor for life.  It’s about how you live.

IV.
            Later in this Psalm it is stated twice that this healing and the thanksgiving for it is something that happens “in the presence of all [God’s] people.”  In other words, it does not happen to us in private or as isolated individuals.  Healing and transformation have to do with the community.  They happen when we gather with others, others who are also broken and bound by various forms of sin and disease, others who may even be ahead of us on the journey. 
            The whole context of the Psalter itself underscores this.  This is not a collection of personal prayers to be said to yourself at home.  Only the extremely wealthy could afford their own copy of a Psalter.  No.  The Psalter is the hymnal of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.  It contains songs that the people of God would sing when they assembled together for worship. 
            When John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,” he did it to reflect and express his own personal transformation from the captain of a slave ship to a disciple of Jesus.  Now when we sing that hymn together we are sharing in his experience and relating it to our own.  For if God can save such a spectacular and monumental sinner as John Newton, God can certainly save those of us whose sins are comparatively trivial, we have to say.  We can only sing that song with the consciousness that we are a gathering of wretches; we once were lost but now we’re found, were blind but now we see.
            Through the support, encouragement, challenge, and even criticism of the community, our words – “O Lord, I pray, save my life!” – become effective and real.  It is the community that holds and keeps and shares the stories of God’s saving love.  That is how we even know there is a God and that this God is about salvation.  That is how we even know that there is a regime of life and that we may participate in it. 
            When we sing this Psalm together we realize that there are other people who have gone through the same struggles we have, who have failed in the same ways we have, who have found deliverance in the same God we are looking to, and who are there to share with us the way of salvation, reversal, change, and redemption.  When we sing this Psalm we realize we can change, because we are surrounded by people, and stories of people, who have changed... people who have been changed by the power of the God of life… people who have been delivered from death and despair and defeat… people who gather together to give thanks that God has brought them on this journey.               

V.
            That’s why we gather here every Sunday.  To bear witness to, and express our hope in the truth that, people can change.  People do change.  We can change. 
            In the gospel reading for today we hear Jesus say that we have to take up our cross, follow him, and even lose our life.  Make no mistake, this is what change means.  We’re not talking about some modifications, some tweaking around the edges of our personality, some minor adjustments in our behavior.  The kind of change that God brings into our life is nothing less than dying.  And believe me, that’s just about what it feels like.
            If change were easy everyone would line up to do it!  If it were easy no one would imagine it to be impossible.  Our situation is so dire that change necessarily involves a passage through the valley of the shadow of death.  To face your own diseases, your own shortcomings, your own violence, selfishness, and corruption honestly, and to share that deepest, darkest dungeon of your soul with others, is like dying.  It is like running into a fire without the certainty that you will emerge on the other side… or that you even want to be the person who emerges on the other side, with your sins burned away.  Will I even recognize myself? we may ask.
            The gathering of disciples of Jesus Christ has to be a place where we know we will be accepted, no matter what we have to get rid of, no matter what the power of death and Sheol is using to bind us in darkness, no matter how deep our shame and guilt.
            We are not a gathering of perfect people.  We are not a bunch of people who have made it.  We are not successful, and if we claim to be, we are probably in the wrong place.
            We are like an assembly of disintegrated caterpillars all at different stages in the process of becoming what we truly are: beautiful, soaring butterflies.  We are like a bunch of broken acorns, in the process of sprouting into tall, strong oak trees.  We are broken people helping other broken people find wholeness.
            And we find that wholeness, of course, in Jesus Christ.  He who was crucified and suffered the depths of our human pain does not remove us from the cauldron of life, but gently carries us through.  His cross means we only find true life on the other side of death.  Our old existence must die, so that his new life may be born in us.
            And it is born in us!  Our redemption has always been a part of us!  It is encoded and embedded in our very nature! 
It is who we are originally!  So when God brings us through, God is really bringing us home.
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