Introduction to the Scripture
This summer we’re sharing a worship series on Caring and Service. You might have noticed that nearly every Sunday we’ve been hearing a short snippet from this famous parable. Hear these words from Matthew, Chapter Twenty-Five, verses thirty-four through thirty-six:
“Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”
Today our church service is considering the work of caring for those who are sick.
When it comes to being human, there’s a tension that is built right into our existence. On the one hand, we are designed to be in relationship with others. In the deep place of our soul, we’re all interconnected, we’re all bound up together. On the other hand, only you, in all the world, know what it is to live your life in your body.
Both are true. We are meant for relationship, and we’re our own selves.
One problem with any kind of illness is that it comes with an unspoken threat that cuts right to the heart of our most human fear. What if I get lost inside this disease? What if the pain swallows me whole so no one else can reach me…
If you’ve ever survived depression, you know this is the lie it tries to sell. It taunts us saying, “Maybe no one will ever find you or be able to help…” As though our pain could disappear us from this earth! As though our suffering could traffic us to some unreachable hole in the universe! This is the particular terrorism of illness —that somehow who we are as a person could get subsumed by our disease.
Thankfully, human beings have been learning to disarm this fear with a simple, salient claim that we don’t always say in words but if we did, it would go something like this: “Hey! I need you to understand what I’m feeling.”
Issuing this statement is the work of translating our own pain to each other. It’s what babies are trying to do when they’re crying to get their parents’ attention. Hey! I need you to understand what I’m feeling! It’s what poets are attempting when they employ metaphors to name precisely how the body hurts. It’s even the whole point of that pain scale they have on the poster at the doctor’s office, as though if we can announce “Uhh… Seven?” that will tell them everything they need to know to find us inside the pain and pull us back away from the void.
When someone who’s sick tries to find a way to say, “Hey! I need you to understand what I’m feeling” we would all do well to realize what they’re doing: They’re working to come back to life. They’re answering the taunting threats of illness by insisting that they will not be seized away and snuffed out. If somebody else can hear them, they cannot be lost in the void.
And when it’s you who says this, when you’re the one saying, I need you to understand what I’m feeling!, you are speaking right to the heart of God. You are saying the prayer that cannot go unheard.
In just a few minutes, we’ll be reading Psalm One-O-Two. I invite you to notice how this is the prayer the Psalmist sings to the Spirit. Make no mistake, these are the words of life.
Sharing the Scripture Together
In this video, we’ll take some time to sit with the scripture. This might feel more like a Bible study than how we typically share scripture in church. I invite you to pause the video and go get a Bible, or you could open a tab for Bible Gateway dot com.
I invite you to join your hearts with mine in prayer:
O Holy Spirit, Breathe your life into our reading of these ancient words.
Help us imagine what the Psalmist was experiencing.
Help us imagine how you hear this cry for help.
Come, still our souls.
Help us notice the signs of your love.
We are reaching out to you, and you are reaching out to us.
Pour out your blessing on our sharing of your word. Amen.
Let us begin by reading verses one through eleven followed by a moment of silent prayer.
If you look back at these verses, you’ll see the whole song begins, “Hear my prayer, O LORD, let my cry come to you.” Another way to say that might be: “Hey there God! I need you to understand what I’m feeling.”
In verses three through eleven, the Psalmist uses imagery to translate his pain so that we understand and God understands. Verse nine: “I eat ashes like bread and mingle tears with my drink.”
Now it could be, the most important part of this Psalm happened during our silent prayer. I read through verse eleven. If your Bible is like mine, there’s an extra space between verses eleven and twelve. Something happens between eleven and twelve that is not recorded. Somehow, there’s a spectacular turning between the first half of the song that we just read and the second half that we’re about to read.
There’s got to be a whole story in between these two halves that we don’t get to hear in the Psalm. There’s a whole story of coming back to life…
Our reading continues with verse twelve:
Now if we hadn’t read verses one through eleven, and if verse twelve did not begin with the word “But…” If the whole shebang started: “You, O LORD, are enthroned forever,” this second section would sound like a standard Psalm of praise. It highlights the power and the foreverness of God! It proclaims the political victory of Zion. It seems like two entirely different songs pasted together.
But then we come to verse seventeen. If we hadn’t read verses one through eleven, I don’t think verse seventeen would be convincing. This is when the Psalmist says, “God will regard the prayer of the destitute and will not despise their prayer.” Remember the Psalmist was eating ash like bread and drinking tears! When he says, “God will not despise the prayers of the destitute,” you’ve got to believe he knows what he’s talking about.
The second half of this Psalm makes this promise. When we come before God with the prayer that goes, Hey! I need you to understand what I’m feeling!, our God is one who will look down from heaven to hear the groans of the prisoners, to set free those who were condemned to death. The LORD our God will find us before we can be disappeared by any illness. God hears our pain and wipes away the tears from all the faces. This is the power of God.
In this promise of God’s unfailing compassion, the Psalmist is teaching us that there is a second half to our human prayer. The first part goes, “I need you to understand what I’m feeling!” But that’s just the first part, stay with us…
Response to the Scripture
In this promise of God’s unfailing compassion, the Psalmist is teaching us that there is a second half to our human prayer. The first part goes: “I need you to understand what I’m feeling!” The second part goes: “Look. I want to understand what you’re feeling. Help me.” This is our primal human empathy. We get it from God.
In Psalm One-O-Two, we hear the Psalmist expose how the Spirit is almighty and everlasting, from before the earth until after the end. God is above all, and beyond all, and more powerful than we’ll ever know. And. The LORD our God cares about us. In all the immensity of holiness, God’s own heart breaks when she looks at the world. Her own hands catch the tears that run down our faces. This is the power of God.
Just as the Holy Spirit will not let us get devoured inside of our distress, God plants this same conviction in our hearts. We hear ourselves echoing the same words we hear God saying to us: I want to understand what you’re feeling. Help me.
One time I met a mother whose six-year-old son was in the children’s hospital recovering from burns all over his body. Now when I met him, he was doing quite well and in a surprisingly good mood for being in the hospital. What struck me was that his mom kept coming back to the same concern: I just don’t know what it feels like…
She asked me if I had ever been burned, and I had not. Here we had information from the doctors on the treatment plan, information on how the burns were impacting his body. The question nobody could answer for her was, What does it feel like to be the one going through this? Only her son knew, and he could only tell her as well as he could tell her. But her need to find out, her need to meet up with him in the middle of the pain, that’s everything.
I know it doesn’t take away the pain. If only we could cure the disease or fix the suffering, and all too often we can’t. But in caring for someone who’s sick, what we can do is listen to them and believe them. By doing this, we’re vanquishing that intrinsic human fear that disease could somehow erase us from existence. Not today. We won’t let it.
These days, we’ve seen people take extraordinary measures to be with those who are sick and dying. I heard of a family who was keeping vigil in the parking lot of a hospice, so even though they couldn’t be in the room with their Dad, they were right outside the building, around the clock.
We’ve seen doctors and nurses finding cell phones for their patients in isolation. Even across all the barriers that we’ve had to construct to stop the virus, nothing is stopping our yearning to connect, as though being alive is being in relationship, as though empathy is not just a virtue. Empathy is the very essence of resurrection.
In our Christian faith, we tell the story of God coming into the world to go with us. Now we don’t have to convince God that our pain is real or that our sorrow is threatening to eat us alive. God knows this for himself. His body has been tortured. The LORD our God has wept, real tears running down his face.
When the people looked at Jesus and said When, O LORD. When were you suicidal, or hurting, or ravaged by chemo? And the Lord said, you know. When you took care of the least of these, you took care of me. Your reaching out reached me.
So please don’t miss what this is. This is the work of coming back to life.
We learn this from God. Amen.