Preacher: Jo J. Belser
Location: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, Alexandria, Virginia
Text: Psalm 34:15-22
13 Pentecost (Proper 16), Year B
“Crying out to God”
Is anyone crying for help?
God is listening, ready to rescue you.
If your heart is broken,
you’ll find God right there;
If you’re kicked in the gut,
he’ll help you catch your breath.
Disciples so often get into trouble;
still, God is there every time.
He’s your bodyguard, shielding every bone;
not even a finger gets broken.
The wicked commit slow suicide;
they waste their lives hating the good.
God pays for each slave’s freedom;
no one who runs to him loses out.
These are the words of our psalm today, as paraphrased by Eugene H. Peterson in “The Message.” Putting the psalm into contemporary language, especially by so able a biblical scholar, always breaks open the text for me in new ways.
Even with this paraphrase, though, we need one piece of information to fully understand what the psalmist is saying. We need to identify the audience. We need to know that the audience is the assembly of God’s people; there are no outsiders here, just those who worship God.
This isn’t a psalm about how God will protect his people from harm. These are all God’s people in our psalm today, and yet we still find among the congregation brokenhearted people, desolate people, people who have been “kicked in the gut.” Among the congregation, our psalm says, are even wicked people, who are committing “slow suicide” by “hating the good.”
We know about being “kicked in the gut,” don’t we? Maybe we feel “kicked in the gut” when we find out we can’t have children—or when the one we finally have doesn’t live very long. Maybe we feel “kicked in the gut” when our child grows up and is a drug addict, or just doesn’t call. Or maybe we feel “kicked in the gut” when we lose or job or when our health is failing, or when we get THAT diagnosis.
In fact, our psalm raises the question with which we are SO very familiar: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Why do calamities befall those who worship the Lord? Notice that our psalm doesn’t answer this question. Instead, what we hear is assurance that God is listening, that God cares, and that God is present, ready to help. God ensures those who turn to him do not lose out, as Peterson puts it.
How do we “not lose out?” Our bodies and souls are secured in safety, and our spirits are uplifted, our hope renewed when we cry out to the Lord. So often we cry out AGAINST God, rather than TO God. Our salvation, our hope, is found here, in this crucial difference: When we cry out TO God, God hears, God sees, and God responds with his presence and his compassion.
How does God respond? I’ll give you an example. Last weekend Bea Taylor visited, on our behalf, some of God’s people who are crying out to God. She called Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and asked what they needed, asked what WE could do to be the hands and feet and voice and heart of the Lord to those who had been “kicked in the gut” recently by hate and death. Do you know what she was told? Backpacks. Backpacks and school supplies—all of which we just “happened” to have in great supply. Backpacks for the eleven dependent children of the nine who had been gunned down while they studied scripture and prayed. Oh, and if you can swing a little money because the students need new shoes for school. Do you think this a coincidence that Resurrection just happened to have what was needed?
Do you know how Bea GOT to and from Charleston? An airline gave her a free ticket for this mission. Do you know where Bea stayed in Charleston? Some servants of the Lord who we know, some servants named Tom and Jacki, put her up. As the Lord said, he would see and hear the distress of his people, and be present to those who cry out to him. And sometimes God uses US to be that presence, to be that caring response.
Not everyone who worships God cries out to God, though. Our psalm today tells us that those who do not cry out to God are evil. I like the way Peterson paraphrases this. He says that some of those who worship God none-the-less “commit slow suicide, hating the good.” I’ve met a few like this, thankfully not here at Resurrection. Such Christians are often so convinced of their own good, so convinced that they are right, that they fail to even comprehend that someone else could be right, also. We humans are the ones who think in binary ways. We think that someone is either good or evil, either right or wrong. The reality, though, is that we each are all of these things.
There are many ways to not cry out to God. Maybe we know that there’s something in or lives we need to change, but don’t. We think, “This is just who I am,” or “this is just what I do.” Maybe we think, for example, “I drink,” or “I yell at the kids,” or “I critique people.” We can always cry out to God, turn to God, and ask God for a new identity, a new life. We can ask God to gift us with new grace, grace to not drink or not yell, or to compliment rather than critique. God abounds in grace, vectors grace our way, showers us with the riches of his grace, if we can just perceive this reality.
I read a story a few weeks ago about the 1996 Mount Everest disaster when eight climbers were killed. One of the people who died ran out of oxygen during his descent alone. He radioed his base camp, telling them of his predicament and that he had reached a cache of oxygen canisters left by other climbers. He told them that they were all empty. Those at the base camp had already passed the canisters on their return and knew that they were not empty. The problem was that the lack of what he needed—oxygen—so disoriented his mind that he died surrounded by full oxygen canisters, canisters that he thought were empty.
This can be how we are. In our distress, we greatly need God’s grace, yet fail to perceive the grace that is all around, freely available; seek and you will find. Our psalm today says this a different way: “God pays for each slave’s freedom, no one who runs to him loses out.” And our psalm also says, “If you’re kicked in the gut, he [whose breath creates all life] will help you catch your breath.”