April 26, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Psalms Twenty-Two and Twenty-Three

Song for the Panic Room

Today we hear the twenty-third Psalm. It might be that this is the first time you have heard it, or it might be that you have known this scripture forever. If you have ever heard it before, I invite you to remember when. Maybe you were a child in Sunday School or a tween on a youth retreat. Maybe Psalm Twenty-Three was read at the funeral for your mother.

One of my earliest memories of this Psalm was when I was a child watching Little House on the Prairie. It seemed like whenever the Ingalls family experienced tragedy —Mary went blind, a baby died — Pa, played by Michael Landon, would begin reciting this Psalm as the family huddled together and wept. I was so impressed that he knew exactly what to say. Not only did he know all the words, but he knew to go to this Psalm and pick it up as his prayer. Now of course, this was a television show. So really the writers, not Pa, were making this choice.

All the same, we remember the Psalms hold meaning not just in their words printed in the Bible but in the occasion that makes them get said out loud. Psalm Twenty-Three sounds one way when you’re on a farm with teenagers. You go around the circle, each person reads a verse, and you hear actual sheep bleating in the background. That’s very different from hearing Psalm Twenty-Three read clearly in English in church. That’s very different from hearing Psalm Twenty-Three whispered by your friend in the hospital.

Today we continue our Easter sermon series, Creativity Rising. We remember the word of God is not only nestled in the scriptures, but God’s word is still sung through our songs, still spoken through our protest and our praise.

Alongside Psalm Twenty-Three, today we hear Psalm Twenty-Two. There are no still waters or green pastures dotted with cotton ball sheep. If Psalm Twenty-Two sounds familiar, you might remember it from Good Friday. It begins with words Jesus spoke while he was dying: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” This song was written hundreds of years before Jesus with no cross in mind. But now when we hear it, we can’t help but remember that Friday.

The first two thirds of this poem issue a desperate, personal cry for help: “O God, do not be far from me. I am in trouble, and there is no one to help.” It is not just that this person is poured out like water, all her bones are out of joint, she is laying in the dust of death. It is not just that this person is surrounded by dogs, by evil doers who torment and mock her. Underneath these vivid and broken verses of lament, you can hear the deeper pain. She is all alone inside the suffering. There is no one who cares.

Until. Suddenly in verse twenty-two, this song of sorrow has turned into a song of praise. She sings, “I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation, I will praise you.” What happened?! We know that death turns into life, mourning turns into dancing, Friday turns into Sunday… but how? Something significant is missing, leaving daunting room right in the middle of verse twenty-one.

Verse twenty-one a goes like this: “Save me from the mouth of the lion!” Verse twenty-one b goes like this: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” Now the verb tense is uncertain, it could mean you will rescue me, but even if that’s the case, there’s still a sea change of faith in this verse. Right between verse twenty-one a and twenty-one b, there is blank space, you can see it right in your Bible, and I want to know what happens in this space.

Because we’ve all been to this room. This is the place we go after our desperate cry for help but before things turn out all right. It’s like a panic room— you go into it in terror, and you come out alive. But what happens inside, in the weird quiet between the pleading and the praise?

The space in the middle of verse twenty-one is a high school classroom during a lock down while the police are pouring through the halls, and the teachers are holding their breath.

The space in the middle of verse twenty-one is the family waiting room outside the ICU where the doctor will come and talk to you any minute now.

The space in the middle of verse twenty-one is your own bedroom, the walls covered in your depression and grief, and you’re not sure you’ll come out of there alive. This space in between pleading and praise, a person could die in there!

Some people have. Some of us live in this panic room for years.

In this place, it could seem like the sensible thing to do is narrow your perspective. Don’t worry about the world, just focus on yourself and your situation. Gather up your own broken pieces, and see you can count all your bones. This makes sense.

In his book called Being Mortal, Dr. Atul Gawande describes a study which considers the emotional development of people who are especially attuned to their own mortality, young people who have survived an accident and older people who are approaching death. The study shows that these people are more focused on the here and now, more committed to their own friends and family. On the other hand, there are people who don’t think much about dying; they assume that will happen sometime far off in the future. These people are more willing to take bold risks, to make new friendships, or travel to far away places.[1] This makes sense.

It makes sense that a person in this panic room would narrow his horizons, that he would care more about his family and less about fair labor practices in China. It even makes sense that a person in this place would think about himself first. Pain has the screeching habit of demanding all our attention.

The only thing is, sometimes this is not what happens. Somehow, in that wild space in the middle of verse twenty-one, the Psalmist remembers that she is not alone. She had been singing to God, “You lay me in the dust of death!” Now she remembers her brothers and sisters with whom she will praise the LORD.

Sometimes, somehow, people in these places of panic room look up from their own fear and pain and see they are not alone. I don’t know how they do this, but I have seen it happen. I have gone to visit people dealing with crisis, and I’ve heard them deliberately turn the conversation toward remembering others, toward sharing with me an idea for change that needs to happen in the world.

I can believe it’s a human tendency for us to narrow our perspective in the panic room. I believe it’s a miracle that we don’t have to. How is it that people in pain, people in prison, people who have been kicked out of their homes, how is it that people who struggle from one day to the next decide that what they really want is to help people whom they don’t even know? How do we do that? And we do that. You can’t tell me that’s not a miracle.

First the Psalmist says, “O LORD, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!” And a few verses later we hear, “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek God shall praise the LORD.”

Now the good news is this: when we find ourselves on the other side, in the place of rescue and rejoicing, then we can go back. We can go to the people still in that room in-between. Please don’t leave them believing the lie that they are alone, that nobody cares.

On this day when we remember the LORD is our shepherd, I think of Harriet Tubman. Her life began as a slave in the early nineteenth century. In 1849 she escaped to Pennsylvania and became free. She looked at her hands and wondered if she was the same person, then she praised God. Then she went back! Thirteen times she risked her life going back to bring other people across the border into freedom.[2] Why would she choose to go back? Praise God.

I think of Sister Helen Prejean who has served as spiritual advisor to a number of men on death row. She goes to be with them in the hours leading up to their execution, and she stays with them until they die. She hears their mothers scream the moment the metal door slams shut, and she has nothing to give them except her prayer and sometimes a song. It is grueling, sickening work. Why would she choose to go back to this place? Thank God.

I think of the people in this church. It’s like there’s no place you won’t show up. You go into the schools, into the kitchens of our neighbor’s homes, to a prison in Wisconsin, to a hospital in Iowa City. We show up here on Sundays and gather under the beauty of this mural, and more than that. We might look at this shepherd and imagine being one of those sheep all hunted down and carried home by goodness and mercy, and it’s more that that.

We prove this painting true when we go to the people in the panic room and hear their cries for help. We can go to them because we already know the song they need, a song that leads us from being forsaken to being welcome, from death to life. We already know the words: The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters. Now even in this valley of the shadow of death, do not be afraid. You are not alone.

Come let us us sing. Amen.

[1] Gawande. Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Metropolitan Books Henry Holt: New York, 2014. Dr. Gawande describes the study by Laura Carstensen pages 97-99.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

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