First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo

The Blessing of Tears to Shed -- Psalm 22 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

March 22, 2021 Rev. Scott Clark
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo
The Blessing of Tears to Shed -- Psalm 22 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
Chapters
First Presbyterian Church of San Anselmo
The Blessing of Tears to Shed -- Psalm 22 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)
Mar 22, 2021
Rev. Scott Clark

As we listen to the lament of Psalm 22, of Jesus from the cross, of the prayers of Celtic spirituality, and of our own world, we find our way to this blessing: God blesses us with tears to shed with each other, the presence of God in the midst of our suffering.

Show Notes Transcript

As we listen to the lament of Psalm 22, of Jesus from the cross, of the prayers of Celtic spirituality, and of our own world, we find our way to this blessing: God blesses us with tears to shed with each other, the presence of God in the midst of our suffering.

During this season of Lent, we are thinking of Lent as a journey of blessing.  We’re thinking, specifically, of blessing as the way that God – and we – “infuse the world with good.”  


I don’t know if I’ve said this explicitly, but this understanding of “blessing” flows out of my understanding of Celtic spirituality – a lived-out spirituality that comes to us from the traditions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales. One of the gifts that Celtic spirituality gives is this abiding sense that God is present with us in all things – in every bit of creation – in every moment of life.  Esther de Waal – who has collected prayers from across the Celtic world – describes it as a “down-to-earth spirituality” in which “any moment, any object, any job of work can become a time or a place for an encounter with God.”[1]

         

If you’ve experienced Celtic spirituality, you’ve probably experienced prayers that express God’s presence in and with all creation.  St Patrick’s prayer invokes the blessing of “light of sun, radiance of moon, depth of sea, stability of earth.” Or maybe you’ve heard me offer the Iona benediction: “Deep peace of the soaring mountain to you.”

         

Celtic spirituality also looks for and expects God’s presence in the ordinary moments of life.  And so we find prayers that seek to bless those ordinary moments of ordinary folks:


· “Bless to me the path I take, and each step whereon I tread.”

· Or think of a woman weaving at her loom, “Bless to me this loom, and every shuttle passing under thread.”

· And then there’s my favorite:  “Bless to me my little cow, and the milking of my hands.”[2]


Now, there’s a way of presenting Celtic spirituality that can tend to romanticize it – as if nature was always peaceful and beautiful, as if life’s moments were always happy and tranquil.  But this down-to-earth spirituality looks for God in the whole of life.  It arises out of a people who knew what it was to have storms sweep in from the sea, or to experience a famine in the land, people – like us – who know what it is in human life to experience illness, loneliness, death, and loss.  


And so we also find Celtic prayers that are full of tears – a “deep well of tears” or “a fierce flood of tears.”[3]  We find prayers that cry out from the frailty, and vulnerability, and pain of life – prayers for protection from “those who wish me ill, afar and anear.” Prayer drenched in tears. As de Waal writes, “it’s not a Christianity to lull its followers into facile promises of an easy way, but rather a promise that life is full of challenge and struggle,”[4]and that God is present there, too.  These prayers see and seek God in the full range of human experience.


In their own way, the Psalms do that too.  If you’ve ever spent some time with the Psalms, I bet you’ve been surprised.  They’re just going along – with assurance and trust – “God you’ve searched me and you know me” – and then all of a sudden – wham – there are loud cries of lament, sometimes there are shouts of anger and violence. It can be shocking – but honestly, I think that’s one of the reasons why the Psalms have been the spiritual backbone of our faith for so many people over so many centuries.  The Psalms speak out of and into real life – and they tell it true.


Psalm 22 plunges us into the depths... into the depths of despair.[5]  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Something terrible has happened to the psalmist, a gut-blow.  And it seems as if God is nowhere to be found.  And so the Psalmist cries out – accuses – laments – “God, my God, why are you so far from helping me, so far from my groans.  I cry day by day, but you do not answer; I cry night by night, but I find no rest.” 


And the Psalmist wrestles back and forth – remembering when God seemed near – “our ancestors trusted you, and they were saved” – 


and then returning to the Psalmist’s real present pain – 

“But I am a worm, scorned, despised, mocked.”


But I remember, you brought me from my mother’s womb, you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.


But here I am. 

Bulls encircle, and ravenous lions descend.

I am poured out like water.

My bones are out of joint.

You have laid me out in the dust.

And there is this plaintive plea:

“Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.”


This lament arises out of the Psalmist’s real and particular pain – and over the centuries so many have claimed it as our own – because the Psalm tells it true.  

We hear this lament in our world. We know it in our bones.


There are far too many Sundays when we gather in this country in the aftermath of yet another shooting.  We’ve heard this lament. Too often, it’s a shooting that embodies our entrenched racism. We hear this lament today rising up out of the murder of 8 people in Atlanta – most of them Asian-American women – and white America has before us the facts that our Asian-American siblings have known for far too long – the particular way that American Racism harms Asian lives and Asian bodies, in a twisted mix of racism and misogyny.  And we are called to hear the lament, and to see, and to change.

We know what this keening lament sounds like in our world.


And we know what it feels like in our lives.  We know this lament as we mourn the death of those we love.  We know this lament in our experience of illness and disease and hurt.  We know this lament – “trouble is near and there is no one to help” – in the loneliness of this year of isolation.


This Psalm arises out of the Psalmist’s particular pain, and over the centuries so many have claimed it as our own. 


It’s the Psalm Jesus cries out from the cross.  In the Gospel of Mark, there are two sounds that Jesus makes from the cross.  He speaks this Psalm, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and then Jesus cries out, as he breathes his last. There is Jesus: on the cross – fully human, fully God – so fully human – that he enters into the fullness of human experience to the extent that he experiences the absence of God.  Jesus enters into the whole of human experience – the whole of life – even unto death, suffering with us, as he brings us out into life.  From the cross on into Resurrection.

Walter Brueggemann and others have wondered if, when Jesus speaks the opening verses of the Psalm – if it’s just those first two verses, or if Jesus is bringing into the experience the whole of the Psalm.  (You know, how we can say the words, “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound,” and the whole song is there present with us.) 


As the Psalm goes on, in their lament, the Psalmist begins to hear the voices of others – a lament that, in the company of others, begins to somehow turn to remembering and hope.  The Psalmist finds themselves no longer abandoned, but now companioned – first by all the families of the earth, and then all the nations of the earth, then the living and the dead, and then in the midst of that, the poor fed are and sheltered, made whole, and all this becoming a promise to a people yet unborn. In the cry of lament, companioned by others, every barrier is brought down; they remember; and they find their way to life.


The Psalmist affirms: “God does not despise the affliction of the afflicted.”  We see that embodied in Jesus:  God does not despise the affliction of the afflicted, God enters into it, even unto death, reaching a hand out to us, and bringing us on out into life.


In lament, in the tears we shed together, 

we find that we are not alone.


In the experience of the absence of God,

we find our way to presence.

         

As we journey toward the cross, we journey toward Resurrection.

         

As we journey toward death, we journey,

in Jesus Christ, always toward life.


In the Transitions Support Group, we are reading a book called, “Wintering.”[6]  It’s by a British writer who takes us along with her into her winter moments.  In the chapter we read this past week, she talks about being a mother – about a time where her young son started acting out in school.  She discovered that he was being bullied, and that the stress from school was about to break him.  She says that she hadn’t noticed until then “the joy seeping out of him” – as he was living “daily with a threat to his bodily integrity and his mental well-being.”  She was at a place in life where she could do this, and so she started to home-school him – she entered into daily life with him, into his despair. 


They “wintered” together.  Katherine May describes “wintering” like this – “Wintering is the acceptance of our sadness.  It is the practice of allowing ourselves to feel it as a need.  It is the courage to stare down the worst parts of our experience and to commit to healing them the best we can.”[7]  And she says they did this together – they travelled through the dark moments together.


At one point in his home-schooling, they were reading Harry Potter – and she, a writer, was describing how stories work.  She drew a narrative arc, which she says looked like a “wonky smile.” She explained, “this is the beginning and this is the end, and in the middle, the lowest point is the nadir – the moment where things are so bad that you can’t imagine a way out.”  Listening, her son took his pencil, and traced her curve, with a couple of additional dips, even further down, and then back up, and he said, “So, this is how stories work.”  To which she replied, “Yes, but in real life, it keeps on going.  The adventure never ends on the last page.”[8]


There’s a movie I love.  It’s called Little Miss Sunshine, and it’s about this awkward 12-year-old girl Olive, who wears these bright red cowboy boots for most of the movie, and who wants nothing more than to win the Little Miss Sunshine pageant.  Her family of oddballs think it unlikely, but even so – they all bundle into their broken-down VW van and set out for Redondo Beach and the pageant.  It’s a road-trip movie.  


Now Olive’s teenage brother, Dwayne, he has dreams of his own.  He wants to be a fighter pilot.  And on this road trip – Olive is helping him do practice exams for pilot training, and when they get to the vision test – the part that tests how he sees color – Dwayne can’t answer the questions.  He realizes he’s colorblind, and in a moment, he sees his dreams shatter.


And he lets out this ungodly wail. There they are, crowded in this VW van, and he lets out this wail – pounds the side of the van – until they pull over – he gets out, and runs sobbing down into the ditch at the side of the road.  And there they all sit.


The adults are befuddled and bewildered.  They have somewhere to be – Redondo Beach – and so they decide that they will send Olive down into the ditch to convince (or manipulate) her brother into getting back in the van.  


So Olive staggers down into the ditch – awkwardly – in her red cowboy boots.  And she sits down next to her brother.  And then, she...sits.  As he sits there, in the ditch, in his despair, Olive sits with him.  She is the one who has the most to lose, and she is in no hurry.  She sits there with him, in the ditch, and you know that she will sit with him for as long as it takes, no matter the cost.  And they sit there together for a while, and then he turns to her, takes her hand, helps her up, and says, “OK, let’s go.”


God is like that little girl in the red cowboy boots, who stumbles down into the ditch with us, and sits there with us, as long as it takes, no matter the cost.


God is like that mother, who sees her son breaking, and enters into his despair with him – wintering – down into the nadir – until his story turns.


God is Jesus, crying out on the cross, “My God, My God” – God entering the fullness of our humanity – into the fullness of human experience – even if it means experiencing the absence of God – entering even into death with us – reaching God’s hand out to us as we journey together into the bright life of Resurrection.


May God bless us with tears to shed –

with those who mourn –

with each other –

so that we might reach out our hand –

as we journey together from mourning into joy –

so that we might reach out our hand – 

as we journey together into life.


© 2021 Scott Clark


[1] Esther de Waal, Every Earthly Blessing: Rediscovering the Celtic World (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1990, 1999 ed.), p.xv.
[2] de Waal, pp. 1-15.
[3] Id. pp. 97-99.
[4] Id. pp. 109-10.
[5] This sermon follows the narrative structure of lament mapped out in Walter Brueggemann, From Whom No Secrets Are Hid: Introducing the Psalms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), and is informed by J. Clinton McCann Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. v (Nashville, TN, Abingdon Press).
[6] Katherine May, Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times (New York, NY: Riverside Books, 2020).
[7] Id. p.119.
[8] Id. p.123