Today’s (19 Oct 2014) Gospel reading at the Liturgy was Luke 7:11-16, Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain. As I reflected on this miracle story, what came to mind was Psalm 42. I imagined this widow praying this psalm at her son’s death and what she might have continued praying after her son’s burial, if Jesus had not intercepted the funeral procession and raised her son from the dead. It’s one of the most beautiful psalms in the Bible. You can read the whole Psalm here in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).
This is a prayer by someone in torment, who is being attacked and mocked by people, who taunt him or her with the question, “Where is your God?” He or she – and let’s just say she, since I’m imagining this psalm as the prayer of the widow in today’s Gospel story – prays to God and longs for God. She remembers how she would go with the people to the house of God, to the Temple, to worship, to bring offerings, singing songs of praise and thanksgiving. And that memory, that connection with worship and being with the people of God in fellowship of praise, is what is sustaining her right now. And I might as well say it here at the beginning: that’s what’s missing for many people today who place other priorities in the way of fellowship with God and the people of God. Coming to church is not going to solve all your problems. But I lament the disconnect that many of our people have with the words that have sustained generations upon generations: words of the Bible, words of the Liturgy. These words – this living memory of fellowship – can make all the difference for someone who is in despair, who is ready to give up on herself and on the world. She begins with these words:
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
The human soul cries out for God, like a deer cries out with thirst. I don’t know what the cry of the deer sounds like, but I read somewhere that it’s quite something to hear. The human soul is thirsty for God, and Jesus says: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.” (John 7:37) Jesus is the answer to the thirst of the human soul that longs for God. “When shall I come and behold the face of God?” Jesus is the face of God!
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”
“Where is your God?” That is the question that men and women of faith often hear when things are not well in their lives. It’s a mockery: “Look at all the terrible things in your life: sickness, shame, financial ruin, marital problems, children in trouble. Look at all that’s going on in your life. Where is your God, the one you put your trust in? Why isn’t God helping you?” That’s the voice; and if it doesn’t come from people around us, it comes from a voice inside us. Because there is another voice inside us, a voice that challenges us and seeks to separate us from God. Call that voice Satan if you wish – I don’t – call it whatever you wish. It’s like the wife of Job, what she said to him after all the disasters that came upon him: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” (Job 2:9) It’s the same voice – the voice that tells you to give up: give up on God, on life, on your family, on the world, on yourself.
Those of us who see the face of God in Jesus Christ, in whom we also quench our thirst for God, point to Jesus and we say, “Well, my life is a mess, but I do believe in someone who is the life and resurrection, who met a woman at the gate of the city and exchanged his life for the life of her son. He raised her son from the dead while he himself marched on to his own death on the Cross.” So when that voice questions “Where is your God?” I can point to Jesus. There is my God, “Emmanuel, God with us” – not one who waves a magic wand from heaven and solves all my problems and takes away all my suffering, but who meets me at the gate and walks with me in everything I endure. And that too is the message of this Psalm.
The woman and the psalm do not give up. “These things I remember,” she says.
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
In her torment she can still speak of festival and joyful shouts and songs. These memories sustain her. What is going to sustain people who do not know what it is to sing praises to God? Who don’t know what it is to pray with others? You want to pray by yourself? Wonderful. You want to go out into the forest or on a mountain and find God? Beautiful. And perhaps by doing so you will also learn to defend the wilderness and animal life. Be an environmentalist, care for the natural world; God is there. Love of nature sustains a lot of people. But is it enough?
Sports have become the all-consuming activity for families. Sports are important for the health and well-being of children. But is it enough to raise a family with sports at the top of the family’s weekly agenda? Can sports ever take the place of a child’s memory of being in church and taking part in the procession of praise and communion? Sports teach a child to be a team player. But is that all a child needs to learn? Conformity to the demands of the coach? Does this teach a child to be a team player and an obedient servant of the corporate state? What about individuality? The ability to think for oneself? How are we enabling children to be individuals and not just team players? By allowing them to live in fear of the coach? It is up to individual families to say, “No, I will only go this far and no further. Because God is important in the life of our family. I will not follow the crowd. I will follow the crowd like this woman does, in the Psalm and in the Gospel story, to that place of communion with God. I will make the right choices for my family, and they might not always be the choices that will please the neighbors and the coaches.”
This Psalm illumines our way through the rough patches of life. And it comes to the end with another question:
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.
Do you ever talk to your soul? Talk to your soul, it’s very healing. Our souls are thirsty, they do thirst for God, for the living God. Let your soul find the face of God in communion with our Lord, Jesus Christ.