April 19, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Psalm Nineteen

Broken Faith

Hear these words of promise from the prophet Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of…Egypt —a covenant that they broke…But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

This time. This time, we will try again. We will make a new covenant. Our faithfulness will be renewed. Our relationship will be restored. This time it’ll hold, our covenant…

There’s something about this scripture from Jeremiah that’s emblematic of the whole Hebrew Bible, the whole Old Testament. All through our faith, God and his people struggle to be in relationship together. The covenant is a living instrument that holds us together, like the bones in our body. And the thing about covenants, like the bones in our body, they can break.

We human people come apart from God, by our own sin and by the systems of sin we live inside. Our lives break the promises to care for those who are most vulnerable, to forgive, to love one another. Then sometimes we come apart from God when we go out to seek the LORD, and she is not there.

No wonder we lose our faith. For some of us, this happens all at once. There are people who can pinpoint the exact time and day when their faith in God slipped through their fingers and shattered on the floor. It might be they knew their faith through the love of their dad. When he died suddenly and unfairly, they could never look at God the same way.

For some of us, faith gets lost and broken over time. You can remember the days when your faith used to be vibrant and gleaming. Maybe you used to pray, or you could sense the Spirit at work in your life. But now it’s like God is there and we’re here, and our connection is breaking up. I know what it is to have my faith get broken; you probably do too. For all of us, having our faith get broken is a threatening possibility.

No wonder we try to hold on so tightly. You know we’re a people who value hard work and achievement. We harbor a Rosie the Riveter kind of gusto which proclaims: We’re not going to fail! Not with our faith or with anything. We can do it. We will whisper to each other, “Keep the faith” with our eyes closed tight and our fists clenched white. We will hold on for dear life, and we will keep the faith. This time it’ll hold!

Unless it doesn’t.

Today we are beginning a spring worship series called Creativity Rising. We’ll explore our human response to the creative power of God by sharing the songs that come to us from the book of Psalms. Now the great thing about the collection of psalms is they showcase an expansive variety of ways to pray. There are personal psalms and congregational psalms, psalms of sorrow and protest, psalms of unembarrassed praise. Each psalm holds the question, why would anybody say this? Where does this prayer come from?

Today we hear Psalm Nineteen. And what I’m wondering is whether this song might be rising up from a faith all broken… And if I’m right, there is good news for us all.

If you ask me, the glory of Psalm Nineteen is its swooping, sweeping scope. It is made of three sections, like three verses of a hymn. You can feel resplendent energy moving us from one section to the next.

Part one: the singer proclaims that the sky proclaims the glory of God. If you didn’t already know this, it wouldn’t convince you. Nobody’s like, “Really, the heavens are proclaiming the glory of God? Are you sure?” We already know this, and yet, it is important to say it all the same. Because the glory of God insists on being noticed out loud. The glory of God is for us to remember, even when we forget how to call upon the LORD. The first stanza makes us say out loud: God is great.

Part two features the relationship between God and people, but it’s more than that. Instead of just describing this, it actually invokes this relationship, making it happen: The law of the LORD, the covenant is at work reviving the soul, making wise the simple, rejoicing the heart, enlightening the eyes, enduring forever. Try to sing this verse and not feel a twinge of connection with the Holy One. The second stanza proclaims our call to live in right relationship with God whose law of love is sweeter than honey.

Part three: now it’s personal. The speaker pleads with God, “Clear me from hidden faults. Keep me back from the insolent, then I shall be blameless, innocent of great transgression.” While these words sound drenched in desperation and piety, I’m thinking they might actually be words of confession. I’m thinking these are words of coming back to God, spoken by someone who is not so clear and not so innocent. Please let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you O God, because sometimes they’re not.

The first stanza proclaims God is great. The second stanza proclaims our call to live in right relationship. The third stanza goes, I love you, God. I miss you and I love you.

Notice what is missing in Psalm Nineteen. We do not hear the clinging promise that goes, “God, I will never leave you, and you better never leave me!” That refrain does pop up in some of the other psalms, but not this one.

Instead, what this song gives us is a way to come back to God when things fall apart, because of course, things fall apart. Now when it’s your faith that goes missing, look at the sky. Even the heavens are telling the glory of God. You’ll find your way back one day.

When I was thirteen, I played the violin, and I struggled ferociously with performance anxiety. I could play a song beautifully by myself at home, but when it was time to play it for a recital or a competition, forget it. I would get so nervous that my hands would get sweaty, which made my fingers all slippery on the strings, which would make me all the more nervous, all fiercely determined to land on the right notes. But you can’t play the fiddle with a clenched fist.

Thankfully, I had a music teacher who encouraged me to read a marvelous book by the late Eloise Ristad called A Soprano On Her Head.[1] It tells funny stories and teaches breathing exercises. It’s full of tips and tricks for making your music less nervous and more fearless and free. My favorite chapter is one I re-read all through high school and college. It’s called “So You Were A Flop.” No sugarcoating. No rationalizing. Just here’s what happens when your performance is an epic fail.

See even after hours of practice, even when you know a piece backwards and forwards, it is entirely possible to stand up to play then have it fall apart right under your fingers. It is possible to screw up a performance spectacularly. I know because I have. Afterwards, people come up to you looking crushed and saying, “Oh I’m so sorry.” And it’s the worst. But Ristad’s chapter, “So You Were A Flop”  makes a pathway. Now when the song slips through my fingers and shatters on the floor, here is a way to come back. Now I don’t need to be so afraid next time.

I think this might be exactly what Psalm Nineteen gives us when it comes to our faith. Look here is a path. Even if your faith falls apart, here’s one way to come back to God. You don’t even know the words to pray? No problem! See the heavens are telling the glory of God. Now we don’t need to be so afraid next time.

Because God knows there are reasons for us to be afraid. We might be waiting on test results from the doctor or news about whether we’ll have a job next year. There is crime in our world, right in our neighborhood, and we don’t know how God is calling Church of Peace. The future is uncertain. It always is. No wonder we feel nervous. No wonder we try to hold on tight and whisper “Keep the Faith…” Or we could do this:

We could unclench our fingers and let go. We could trade in our worry for this song of praise and let it lead us back home to the reckless extravagance of the Holy Spirit, music so fearless and free. Things fall apart. We find our faith gets blessed and broken, again and again. This time we will try again. This time.

As sure as the sun moves across the sky, there are possibilities we haven’t even considered. And God is about to do a new thing.

May it be so. Amen.

[1] Risatd, Eloise. A Soprano on Her Head: right-side-up reflections on life and other performances. Real People Press: Moab, Utah, 1982.

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